Category Archives: Reviews

Marvin’s Room

This wistful drama with comedy from 1990 gets its first Broadway run, powered by a name-brand cast. The technical means afforded by the American Airlines Theatre make for smooth scene changes (and there are a lot of them); the revolve makes sense here. The cast is gently amplified. Nevertheless, this is a play that wants to be in a smaller house.

Celia Weston is a good sport in playing Ruth, a character who largely serves to provide comedy in the form of euphemisms for constipation and an improbable remote control device.

It soon becomes clear that the important, interesting story arc is the relationship between Bessie (never flashy, always on task Lili Taylor) and Hank (Jack DiFalco). Their quiet one-on-one scenes, well directed by Anne Kauffman, take the time that they need. (But at times, we wish that Hank’s volume to be pumped up a bit.)

  • Marvin’s Room, by Scott McPherson, directed by Anne Kauffman, produced by Roundabout Theatre Company, American Airlines Theatre, New York
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The Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon is an entertaining mix of potty-mouthed irreverence (it takes balls to trash a faith shared by fifteen million people) and old-school, conventional stagecraft. Set pieces roll in on wagons; curtains fly and travel in and out; a brief side diversion to Orlando, Florida is accomplished by nothing more than a vividly painted drop. The proscenium frame, suggesting a temple, with its clumsily animated Moroni, is the right mix of splendor and cheese. Musically, there’s nothing challenging here.

Even more subversive is the white boys’ chorus (set against a second ensemble of actors of color and both genders): as young missionaries ready to go out and convert the world, they are squeaky clean, with just a hint of possible man-to-man attraction. That tension is completely blown up by the number “Turn It Off,” led by Elder McKinley (the very able Stephen Ashfield) and sexily choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. A transformation enabled by a reference to The Clapper is too good to spoil (and how did they manage the shoes)? Some of the boys appear in drag in re-enactments of Joseph Smith’s days on the frontier, and the drag works here.

If the running gag with Elder Cunningham’s inability to pronounce Nabulunhgi’s name wears out its welcome immediately, the confrontation between Elder Price (Nic Rouleau gives good teeth) and the General (working that eyepatch is Derrick Williams) that caps “I Believe” is quite tasty.

My takeaway is that, no matter what our belief system, the stories we tell ourselves are “so fucking weird.”

  • The Book of Mormon; book, music, and lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone; directed by Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker; Eugene O’Neill Theatre; New York
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Contemporary American Theater Festival 2017: 4

Chelsea Marcantel’s examination of group dynamics within an Amish community, when it is subjected to both the external shock of an outsider committing a careless deadly act as well as the eruption of casual, intimate violence between two of its members, is called Everything Is Wonderful, a title with irony as solid as a horse. Telling one of its stories through fragments of the past and present, it follows Jessica Savage’s Miri, a young young Amish girl who leaves the community under a cloud and seeks a way to return. Savage masters the younger Miri’s innocence, her older self’s sarcasm, and her constant headstrong feistiness. Paul DeBoy is the stolid Jacob, Miri’s father. Director Ed Herendeen, festival helm, puts the expansive Frank Center performance space to excellent use, composing effective stage pictures while managing a couple of the script’s messier technical challenges.

The spine of this piece is a remark by Jacob (helpfully reprinted in the program book: “Forgiveness is a choice. It happens in an instant. Reconciliation is a journey.”

We Will Not Be Silent, by David Meyers, picks up the case of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose resistance movement in 1943’s Germany. An imagining of the interrogation of Sophie (the delicate Lexi Lapp) during the shockingly short period of time between her arrest and her trial and execution (five days), the play zeroes in on the question of conscience vs. self-preservation. Like Arthur Miller’s John Proctor, Meyers’ Sophie vacillates between signing a confession, a mere tissue of words, and maintaining her integrity. Her interrogator is the urbane Kurt Grunwald (Paul DeBoy, again), who can play good cop against his own bad cop. He lets a simple line like “I see” hang in the air like a dagger.

Lest readers infer that playwright Meyers approaches this material from the same point on the political spectrum as Miller, be advised that he is a former intern in the George W. Bush White House.

The title town of Evan Linder’s Byhalia, Mississippi lies just southeast of Memphis, and it earned a page in this history of American civil rights with the shooting of Butler Young, Jr. in 1974, the exoneration of his killer, and an ensuing backlash. Linder’s play, set in the present day, looks at the dysfunctional marriage of Laurel and Jim, a young white couple trying to get by, while the town’s history echoes all around.

  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
  • Everything Is Wonderful, by Chelsea Marcantel, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • We Will Not Be Silent, by David Meyers, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • Byhalia, Mississippi, by Evan Linder, directed by Marc Masterson
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    Contemporary American Theater Festival 2017: 3

    The Niceties, by Eleanor Burgess, is this year’s festival production most likely to spark discussion in the car on the way home. Zoe (the centered Margaret Ivey), an African-American junior at an elite university somewhere in Connecticut, is in conference with her Polish-American history professor Janine (the buoyant Robin Walsh, who brings a little Christopher Durang to the part), reviewing a draft term paper. What begins as guidance about Zoe’s research methods (Janine urges fewer online links, more primary sources) spirals into an extended argument between the two women, who are separated by generation, race, and perhaps other qualities. Granted, Janine is sometimes culpable of some measure of whitesplaining. Zoe’s need to call out Janine for certain insensitive remarks (a gleeful anecdote about wordplay and British imperialism on the subcontinent, for instance) spirals into a full-on shouting match. The piece compensates for its lack of theatricality by being smart and balanced. We eventually learn that Zoe has enjoyed many advantages unavailable to those she considers her peers, while Janine has suffered some long-simmering prejudice.

    There is a power reversal reminiscent of David Mamet’s Oleanna, and a somewhat unclear denouement. Will Zoe work incrementally within the system, as Janine advises, to shape curricula and faculty that better reflect the experience of marginalized people? Will she rage against the machine from without, refusing compromise? Or will she escape the fight altogether, becoming a 21st century Josephine Baker?

    Easily overlooked in the play’s back and forth about class and race is the conflict over what constitutes historical scholarship in this century. What weight are we to give crowdsourced emotional responses, for instance, against a documentary record dominated by a particular socioeconomic group? How do we match the unwritten experiences of 18th-century enslaved people with the Federalist of Hamilton, Jay, and Madison? The rage of a Trump rally with a peer-reviewed research paper?

    The provocative exchange between these two intelligent women, alas, outstays its welcome. The text needs some trimming.

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    Contemporary American Theater Festival 2017: 2

    Along with economic dislocation, the 1970s are surfacing as a minor theme of the festival. That’s the setting for Allison Gregory’s very strong Wild Horses, a one-woman play in flashbacks to the Me Decade and its music of rebellion. Kate Udall portrays seven-plus characters in the life of a fractious 13-year-old girl. Udall’s young girl finds a couple of sketchy friends, raids her parents’ liquor supply, begins to understand the fraught system of human physical relations, and hatches a futile plot to rescue abused horses from a nearby ranch. The coming of age story has shades of Equus set in the Southern California foothills. Udall’s vocal choices are at times difficult to distinguish when three characters are speaking quickly, but she gives each a distinguishing gesture to keep things sorted out. Physically, she is even more accomplished—for instance, a darkly comic scene on a water bed—and especially when she conjures leading a horse with nothing but a looped belt. She gamely climbs on the roof of a vintage van to re-enact her girl’s escape from a bedroom window, even though the set piece could use some serious reinforcement. And she’s quick with an ad lib, whether it’s a bit of costume gone wrong or she’s gotten ahead of her story.

    The Festival experiments with an immersive experience in Studio 112, seating audience members around picnic tables in the playing area (on backless benches, please note) and selling concessions from a side window let into the aforementioned van.

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    Contemporary American Theater Festival 2017: 1

    Welcome to Fear City, set in the Bronx of 1977, tells a straightforward, earnest story of economic uncertainty, racial profiling, random violence, and misguided choices. It’s much in the vein of Lorraine Hansberry. The 1970s dance break is entertaining, but perhaps that’s not playwright Kara Lee Corthron’s artistic objective. She frames the story with some fourth wall-breaking devices that are less than successful. At points, the characters speak their subtext in an exaggerated shuck an’ jive that is gratuitous. And the coda, a polyrhythmic chant, leaves us feeling a tad manipulated.

    There’s a subplot that develops towards the end of the first act—is this a flirtation, or an incitement to arson?—that, unfortunately, goes nowhere.

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    HIR

    Emily Townley brings considerable skill to the role of Paige, the long-suffering mother of a dysfunctional family in this preachy satire with themes of gender fluidity and the fight between chaos and control. She delivers a rainbow of colors in her line readings; of particular note is Paige’s signature phrase, “It’s fantastic,” when reality is anything but. Alas, the events that unfold constitute little more than a revenge fantasy.

    Misha Kachman’s first act set is a treat, dressed in glitter, googly eyes, feather boas, and TP sculptures, and a smiley-face throw pillow. It’s as if a tornado blew through a Michael’s.

    • HIR, by Taylor Mac, directed by Shana Cooper, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington
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    .d0t:: a RotoPlastic Ballet

    Pointless Theatre’s latest offering is an interesting blend of low- and high-tech stick puppetry and video projections. In a strange futurescape populated only by robots — yet powered by the life forces of Navi, the one remaining human — a small glitch in the system becomes transformative. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough plot or distinct characterization to carry the story. All of it is falls on the shoulders of Navi (ably performed by the nimble-tongued Navid Azeez).

    • .d0t:: a RotoPlastic Ballet, Pointless Theatre, Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, Washington
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    Fun Home

    Alison Bechdel’s unflinching memoir, translated into musical theater, has effectively managed the transition from chamber musical to a more conventional proscenium, big-theater setting. Nevertheless, it is the quieter song moments that are most effective: Abby Corrigan captures the joy of Medium Alison’s “Changing My Major” with her voice and without overselling the number physically; Alessandra Baldacchino’s reading of Small Alison’s “Ring of Keys” is confident and still fresh. The cast is well supported by the sound team, allowing characters to turn upstage when it’s natural to do do without losing audibility.

    • Fun Home, music by Jeanne Tesori, book & lyrics by Lisa Kron, based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, directed by Sam Gold, National Theatre, Washington
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      Baby Screams Miracle

      Woolly continues its admirable run of productions in which people of faith—specifically, Christian faith—are front and center, with their questions and fears driving the story. (I think of 2011’s A Bright New Boise as another fine example.)

      In Baby Screams Miracle, Carol and Gabe, parents of young Kayden (an odd, withdrawn little girl) are beset by a mounting series of calamities. A storm sends a tree crashing into their house, the storm growing to tempestuous levels. The technical demands of the script are masterfully met by James Kronzer’s set and Jared Mezzocchi’s video projections.

      As the punishments visited on the family rise to Old Testament proportions, we wonder what part Kayden plays in this narrative. Is she a malevolent instigator? Are these calamities all in her imagination?

      • Baby Screams Miracle, by Clare Barron, directed by Howard Shalwitz, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington
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      Caroline, Or Change

      Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s ambitious, admirable musical, with a story drawn from Kushner’s life, concerns an African-American maid (Nova Y. Payton, in the title role) and her relationships with the Jewish family that she works for in 1963 Louisiana.

      The first act doesn’t give us much information about what’s going on in Caroline’s head, since much of the time she’s not singing to another person, but rather to the various appliances in her basement workspace—and, in a nice touch, they sing back: the Washing Machine (Theresa Cunningham), the Dryer (V. Savoy McIlwain), and girl-group trio Radio. Alas, sound mixing in some of the multi-voiced passages makes it difficult to follow the various lines.

      Tesori’s spiky score of many influences unfortunately saddles the eight-year-old Noah Gellman, son of Caroline’s employers, with a clichéd, squeaky, pitchy vocal line for most of the show. And the musical passages for the Moon don’t get into orbit.

      In the second half, a scene centered on a Chanukah party is energized by the arrival of father-in-law Mr. Stopnick (the sufficiently nimble Scott Sedar)—one of Kushner’s antediluvian radical stand-ins—and the flow of contentious dialogue. The klezmer-splashed music also gives this section a boost.

      Payton’s late-act aria (“Lot’s Wife”) is quite powerful.

      • Caroline, Or Change, music by Jeanine Tesori, book and lyrics by Tony Kushner, directed by Matthew Gardiner, Round House Theatre, Bethesda, Md.
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      Kiss

      Guillermo Calderón’s Kiss is an ambitious, but unsuccessful attempt to bring the horrors of violence in today’s Syria into the American living room. A supposedly found text, a fluffy four-handed love triangle, is first interpreted as melodramatic soap opera, and then with cartoonish, expressionist violence.

      Good theater takes real, specific events and reimagines them so that universals can be revealed. In this work, Calderón’s imagination fails him.

      The play is presented not in Woolly’s auditorium but in its Smith/Melton Rehearsal Hall, with seats wedged in on risers. Viewers nostalgic for Woolly’s funky former space on Church Street will feel at home here.

      • Kiss, by Guillermo Calderón, directed by Yury Urnov, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington
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      Come from Away

      Come from Away is a celebration of the profound act of kindness performed by the citizens of Gander, Newfoundland, when 38 aircraft were diverted to its airport on 11 September 2001. For nearly a week, this community of fewer than 10,000 souls opened its homes and shelters to the stranded passengers from those flights.

      The ensemble-driven musical tells, by composites, some of the many tales that these travelers have to tell; it doesn’t shy away from stories of loss (the penultimate number “Something’s Missing”) or of irrational fears (an Egyptian sojourner is eyed nervously), but it is fundamentally a play about sharing and hope. Generally fast-paced (the transition into a brief scene set in the maelstrom of an air traffic control tower on that horrid day is electric), there are brief moments when everything comes to dead stop for comedy—as you would, for instance, when a moose ambles in front of your bus. A revolve is used to good effect, giving the characters of Nick and Diane a way to stroll along the cliffs of the Dover Fault (“Stop the World”) while the cast scurries about placing chairs for them to step to. Most importantly, it’s a show that calls for an ensemble of mostly character actors, notably Astrid Van Wieren’s welcoming schoolmaster Beulah, Joel Hatch’s suite of local mayors, and Geno Carr’s slightly befuddled local constable.

      The music is traditional Maritimes folk music with a strong rock and roll bottom—if not particularly challenging, it’s certainly rousing. It stirs the emotions.

      • Come from Away, book, music, and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, directed by Christopher Ashley, Ford’s Theatre, Washington
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      Angels in America

      A short post to call out just a couple of the exceptionally strong elements of the Round House/Olney Theatre Center joint production:

      Jon Hudson Odom is delightful as Belize; Dawn Ursula’s keening as the Angel is other-worldly. The production relies much on fun projections by Clint Allen and lights by York Kennedy: the arrival of the Angel, the alien streetscape of San Francisco, the talking dummies at the Mormon visitor center.

      • Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, by Tony Kushner, directed by Jason Loewith and Ryan Rilette, Round House Theatre and Olney Theatre Center, Bethesda, Maryland
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      Contemporary American Theater Festival 2016: 3

      This year’s festival delivered some solid and memorable shows and some disappointments. Such was Chisa Hutchinson’s The Wedding Gift, a play that doesn’t surpass the promise of its premise.

      In this fairly transparent parable, Jason Babinsky’s Doug finds himself transported into an alien culture where he is the only fair-skinned humanoid. He is a shimseh, “like a pet, only more useful,” presented to the wife (Margaret Ivey’s Nahlis) of a newly married royal couple. Doug discovers the ways of this new world only gradually, because only two others (including the enjoyable Edward O’Blenis as Translating Attendant) speak any English; great swathes of dialogue are delivered in a language of Hutchinson’s invention. The conlang has the intended effect of disorientation, but it also means that small plot points are confused, and any subtlety of psychology is lost. How exactly is Doug to perform, in the eyes of Nahlis’s new husband Beshrum (Damian Thompson, with an impressive high leg kick)? We’ll never know.

      Nevertheless, the play offers the tech teams the opportunity to go a little crazy, from Peggy McKowen’s costumes to Nathan A. Roberts’ and Charles Coes’ soundscapes. Director May Adrales establishes a movement and gestural vocabulary for this strange new planet, and then encourages each actor/character to invent within that framework: a gesture of mourning, expressed at the top of act 2, is both easily understood and unique to each player.

      And if the denouement owes something to a certain series of dystopian films from the 1960s and 70s, at least we learn how the post-apocalyptic inhabitants of this world say, “I guarantee you there’s no problem.”

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