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09/10/14 4:05am
09/10/2014 4:05 AM |

Sari Caine’s play The Chess Lesson got positive notices last year, and her highly anticipated new work, Mr. Landing Takes a Fall, which starts at the Flea Theater on September 12, has been a long time in the making. “I wasn’t even intending to write a play,” Caine says, “but I read Harold Pinter’s The Room, and I was enthralled, and terrified, and then…the end came, and I was absolutely livid, actually. How could he do that? I kept thinking, it makes no sense. I really thought it was going to a certain place, and not only did it never get there, it went somewhere else that was totally unforeseeable.” Caine spent the next seven years wrestling with her response to this Pinter play, but people kept telling her that Mr. Landing Takes a Fall read like a deconstruction of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? When she read that play again, she could see what they were saying.

Caine, who is an actress, playwright, and chess teacher, grew up in Manhattan. “I went to Saint Ann’s School when it was still a little renegade, a delightfully crazy place for smart, creative, dysfunctional hippies,” she says. She began acting as a kid. “I’ve acted in every medium, but I really love the theater,” she says. “When things are live, there’s a collective experience, a charge in the air, that you can’t get anywhere else.” Her passion for chess remains constant. “I teach every day at Gillen Brewer, which is a wonderful school for autistic children I just started working at,” she says. “I tell the kids that chess is like a conversation, and to suddenly make a random move that doesn’t reply to your opponent is like someone asking you how the weather is today and you saying, ‘spaghetti.’ Wonderful chess games are really like little plays in that you should not have a problem memorizing them, because they make sense.”

When asked about the relation of Albee’s work to her new play, Caine says, “Albee’s plays are all about trying to figure out how to live in the moment, with all that that encompasses. Albee also looks at roles, and role playing, which is something very important to me, especially as a woman and an actress.” Caine likes to mix verbal comedy with more physical work, which is part of where her title comes from. “I’m a big klutz,” she says. “I’ve broken my nose about four times, three of which were with the chess team growing up, and there is always physical comedy in my plays. You’ve seen people fall, it’s pretty funny, right? Their arms waving around, and the expressions that they make? Especially with grown men. You lose control when you fall, it’s a moment totally different from the rest of life when you are just going on your animal instincts. You can’t be in your head, you are forced into action, which is key to living in the moment.”

08/27/14 4:00am
08/27/2014 4:00 AM |

Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar
Agnarsson Furniture Painter

Minetta Lane Theatre, 18-22 Minetta Lane

That wordy title might be warning enough to skeptical playgoers, but this new musical is so ghastly, so muddle-headed, and so disconnected from sense that it inspires awe and wonder, which are immediately cleared up, to some degree, by looking at the program. The writer of the book, music, and lyrics for the show is a fellow named Ivar Pall Jonsson, who hails from Iceland. It would appear he has no theater credits at all because he does not list any. Instead, he writes that he “made theater and music his life at the rather tender age of 37” and “perfected his craft by writing thousands of songs and doing a lot of creative writing.” The story is credited to Jonsson’s brother Gunnlaugur, who “has a background in business as well as writing.” Gunnlauger also has no theater credits.

And so the plot thickens. Who produced this high school-level affair, and why? How do two unknown writers from Iceland get a big professional production like this at the Minetta Lane Theatre? Well, someone named Karl Petur Jonsson produced the play. So this is an all-out Jonsson family affair! Karl Petur is a real cut-up in his bio, where he writes that his “apparent lack of any artistic talent has led him to producing entertainment.” That’s a funnier line than anything in this stupefyingly aimless musical.

The play is set in a small country that exists in the elbow of the titular furniture painter. The land falls under the sway of the money-making schemes of Peter (Marrick Smith), who has invented a machine that prints currency. Peter is in cahoots with Manuela (Cady Huffman), a shady lady who stalks around in 1940s-inspired costumes. Because hey, why not? Character relationships are nonexistent. There is no clear connection from one scene to the next or one song to the next. The only constant is that the Jonsson brothers seem to have a thing for Robert Redford, who they name- drop constantly for lame jokes. Their brotherly ineptitude might be harmlessly comic if they didn’t also display a nasty streak of misogyny when it comes to the character of the bossy Manuela, who has had her uterus bronzed and mounted on a wall for everyone to admire. That’s supposed to be as funny as the scene where Peter and his two brothers talk in Robert Redford titles to each other, but the only people who will find this funny are the brothers Jonsson, who presumably were knocking back a lot of brews when they wrote this. All the young actors and dancers try their best, which is why it’s hard to laugh at this thing even if you can’t laugh with it. By the end, there’s a hilariously simplistic denunciation of capitalism, which the brothers probably thought of as their “point,” but the only capitalistic lesson here is that it would seem that anyone who has enough money can rent a theater and put on anything they like.

08/13/14 4:00am
08/13/2014 4:00 AM |

Donkey Punch
Soho Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street

Can a woman have sex without strings? Men do it all the time. But can women? This is the thorny question posed by Micheline Auger’s Donkey Punch, which was done earlier this year under the title The Feminism of a Soft Merlot (Or, How The Donkey Got Punched). That earlier, wordy, almost Lina Wertmuller-ish title is a clue to the issues of the play, which is basically a comedy with dark undertones. Kareena (Cleo Gray) is a swaggering party girl who looks great and makes great money and has a devoted boyfriend, Teddy (Micheal Drew), at her beck and call. Her close friend Sam (Lauren Dortch-Crozier) is a self-described prude who is still getting over the death of her own devoted boyfriend when Kareena sets her up with Kyle (Jon McCormick), a guy who makes softcore horror porn. An ardent feminist, Sam is offended at first by Kyle’s choice of profession and the film he is working on, which is called Donkey Punch, a term for a particularly degrading sexual act perpetrated against a woman. But Kyle manages to charm Sam, which is handled in a point-by-point, believable fashion. And then Sam starts to make drastic changes to herself, dyeing her hair bleach blond, getting breast implants, and making herself over into a sexpot for Kyle. Kareena watches all of this very uneasily, and when Sam and Kyle come over for a dinner party, all hell breaks loose between the two couples.

It’s to the credit of the actors that the events in the play attain just the right modicum of plausibility. It’s easy to wonder, at first, just why Dortch-Crozier is wearing such an absurdly unflattering frizzy wig, but once she comes out with what looks like her own hair dyed blond, everything falls into place. Even at its most outlandish, this is a play that rests on the foundation of a very convincingly written friendship between Kareena and Sam. It’s clear that Kareena likes the difference she feels between herself and Sam, and so when Sam starts to make her metamorphosis, it makes sense that Kareena would be rocked back on her heels and start to question her own persona.

Gray gives an extremely dynamic, carefully layered performance as this seemingly alpha girl who is actually hiding self-loathing under her sexy veneer of authority. In the scene where Kyle seduces Kareena, there’s an unresolvable push and pull between her own need for power and her sense of radical powerlessness underneath. What this play is dramatizing is the unequal playing field in the battle of the sexes, and it does so in a way that leaves no easy answers. The production isn’t perfect. The scene changes with music last for far too long, and perhaps Sam’s transformation might have been written in a more subtle way. No matter. Donkey Punch is absorbing and very well acted, and it leaves you with just the right sense of doubt and measured hope.

07/30/14 4:00am
07/30/2014 4:00 AM |

Access Theater
380 Broadway

Picture Ourselves in Latvia is free, with a suggested donation of around ten dollars, and this would be a bargain even if Access Theater didn’t throw in a glass of free wine as an extra incentive. It is a world premiere by a British playwright, Ross Howard, and those still scarred by the chatty silliness of The Village Bike with Greta Gerwig should not be scared off by another new British import, for this play is the real deal: both light and heavy, romantic and cynical, and always bracingly unpredictable. There is barely any set to speak of and the space itself is redolent of an acting school studio, but the play is so unusual and the performers dig into it so greedily that all kinds of moods and atmospheres emerge. It’s an exciting thing to be reminded that all theater needs is words and people to speak them.

Picture Ourselves in Latvia takes place in a sanitarium where the patients, though emotionally volatile, seem much more decent and sensible than the odd and damaged staff. Oliver (Gregory James Cohan) is an orderly with a crush on Margaret Thatcher who still talks longingly of his time fighting for her in the Falklands War. Nurse Whitehall (Amy Lee Pearsall) is secretly in love with Dr. Rupert (Christian Ryan), who is secretly in love with her; after the comically macho but sinister Oliver gives them love advice, they try their best to carry out his sexist strategies. Oliver cruelly tells the hapless Duncan (Andy Nogasky) that the Latvian Anna (Dana Benningfield) is in love with him, but Anna is in love with the even more hapless Martin (Christopher Daftsios).

In trying to describe this play, I realize I’m making it sound much more conventional than it actually is. It seems like a romantic comedy sometimes, but then this recedes and some kind of dangerous political point emerges like the fin of a shark in the water. It’s the kind of play that can transform itself into something else entirely on a dime, as in a wondrous single scene where all of the characters become different versions of themselves on a ship overrun by pirates. All six of the actors are giving fresh, involved, detailed performances, and I fell in love with all their work. Benningfield in particular has an angular physicality and a soulful quality that really fills the space, while Cohan takes the stage, often very humorously, by force. Daftsios and Nogasky ring all kinds of expert comic and poignant changes on their sad sack characters while Pearsall, in perhaps the most complex role, never puts a step wrong. Ryan has the juiciest part, and he’s already doing a lot with it, but I think even more could be made of Dr. Rupert’s confessional blundering. This is a lovely, delicate play given a fine and imaginative production on less than a shoestring, a little miracle that is being generously given away.

07/16/14 4:00am
07/16/2014 4:00 AM |

Clown Bar
The Box

Over the years there have been colorful, slightly vague, and very salacious reports about what goes on at The Box, a nightclub on the Lower East Side. People who tell these tales tend to blush and laugh guiltily, and the stories usually involve some bold burlesque performer doing something outrageous with a hard-boiled egg or a live chicken or what have you, and who was there to see it all: “And Parker Posey had her mouth agape, and even Debbie Harry looked shocked!” These things tend to happen at 4am. But right now, at 7:30pm when the doors open, what’s happening at The Box is a thing called Clown Bar, a kind of floor show written by Adam Szymkowicz with music and lyrics by Adam Overett, direction by Andrew Neisler, and many people helping out with wigs and costumes and fight choreography and props, which include clown noses for everyone. The show itself starts around 8:30, so there’s plenty of time to throw back a few drinks if your taste runs to frosty libations with fifteen-dollar price tags.

While you wait, two clowns are in charge of the entertainment, Dusty (Salty Brine) and Petunia (Jessica Frey). Dusty is a rabble- rouser who seems to have studied at the Paul Lynde school of comic timing, while Petunia is a sex-crazed nymph. The jokes start out as deliberately corny old vaudeville groaners, but there’s some genuine wit and invention in the songs they sing, and some very funny throwaway lines from Dusty such as, “Nipples! Without them, tits would be pointless!” Clown Bar has a traditional burlesque tone, just dirty enough but never moving into outright sexual nastiness.

When the show starts, it’s immediately clear that the plot of Clown Bar is strictly nominal and not to be considered very seriously. Happy (Shane Zeigler), a studly former clown who has turned to police work, comes back to the clown bar to investigate the murder of his little brother Timmy (Dan Tracy), a drug addict who never could get his spit takes to be funny enough to fit in with the other clowns. While he looks for clues, Happy encounters old flame Blinky (Claire Rothrock), a hard-bitten sexual dynamo who knows just how to rotate a pair of pasties and take off an arm-length glove. Clown Bar is staged so that the audience is right in the thick of the action, which means that the very game performers are often talking and interacting with audience members. Inevitably, you begin to look at certain audience members just as much as you look at the players, and that’s part of the fun. Certainly there is no more cheerfully committed crew of actors in town right now than the cast of Clown Bar, and though Szymkowicz might have given them just a little bit more to work with, it would be churlish to deny the simple pleasures of their vigorous and often sexy hard work.

07/02/14 4:00am
07/02/2014 4:00 AM |

Donogoo
The Mint Theater

The name Jules Romains may have fallen into obscurity today, particularly in America, but he was a dominant cultural figure in France in the first half of the twentieth century. A poet and novelist (notably of a 27-volume work called Men of Good Will), Romains also introduced a new philosophy, Unanimism, which posited the interconnectedness of all people—this philosophy was an influence on the paintings of Cubists like Pablo Picasso. But it was his career as a playwright that brought him his most lasting and popular success. His most famous play is still Dr. Knock, a dark comedy about a crazed crank doctor that starred the great French actor Louis Jouvet, who played in productions of it for close to twenty years and starred in two film versions of it, one in 1933 and another in 1951.

The Mint Theater produced a revival of Dr. Knock in 2010, directed and translated by Gus Kaikkonen, and now Kaikkonen has taken on another Romains play, Donogoo, a sprawling satire on crooked big business. Lamendin (James Riordan) is introduced half-heartedly considering suicide by jumping off a footbridge until he is stopped by his cynical friend Benin (Mitch Greenberg). At first, the cadences of Riordan and Greenberg seem more suited to a prairie drama than a worldly French farce, but they start to get a fast comic rhythm going. This rhythm accelerates when Lamendin meets a colorful and blustery psychoanalyst named Miguel Rufisque (George Morfogen), who sends him out on a goose chase that leads him to crooked geographer Le Trouhadec (also played by Morfogen). Between the two of them, Lamendin and Le Trouhadec put together a real estate scheme to grab money for a non-existent area in South America named Donogoo-Tonka. The suckers are called “dono-goofs.” And yes, most of the humor is on this level.

You have to hand it to the Mint Theater: they do most everything with style and skill. This is a beautifully designed and inventively staged production of Romains’s play, acted by a large cast who take on double, triple and sometimes quadruple roles just to keep the whole thing moving (a standout is Scott Thomas, who makes a vivid impression in each of his roles). Sometimes you can sense traces of what it must have been like to see this play in Paris in 1930, and you can even hear the laughs it might have gotten. It is possible, too, to imagine a sleek 1930s film version with Jouvet and Harry Baur in the leads. There are laughs here, but they’re awfully dusty old laughs, so that even while you’re enjoying parts of the production, it seems clear that the play itself is only “of interest.” If nothing else, it can certainly be said without qualification that this is the best production of Jules Romains’s Donogoo that New York is ever likely to see. Whether that makes it worth your time is something you alone can judge.

06/18/14 4:00am
06/18/2014 4:00 AM |

The Village Bike
MCC Theater

Becky (Greta Gerwig) is pregnant and horny. Her husband John (Jason Butler Harner) is not keen to have sex with her while she is expecting. So Becky makes do with John’s old porno DVDs and confusedly reaches out sexually for two men, a doddery plumber named Mike (Max Baker) and a rough and confident guy named Oliver (Scott Shepherd), who sells her the bike of the title so that she can, ahem, ride it. So far this is the stuff of old TV sitcoms, but then we are asked to take things far more seriously in the second act when Becky starts to lose what little control she once had.

The main problem with The Village Bike, which was written by Penelope Skinner and was a success in London, is length. It runs for two and a half hours on a very slender narrative, and the hoary symbolism of the bike itself, which is ridden by Gerwig in dreamy visuals projected on the back of the stage, is so bald a device that it isn’t even embarrassing—it’s just silly. The first act, in particular, could use some massive cutting, particularly the establishing scene between Becky and John, which is filled with aimless, inconsequential chatter. The character of Jenny (Cara Seymour), a village friend, seems wholly expendable, even if Seymour brings some welcome gravitas to her big scene with Becky where she shows all her neediness and storms out after being made to feel as inconsequential as she fears herself to be. But since Jenny’s also inconsequential to the play, this scene plays with unwelcome irony.

Setting aside its frankness about sex, The Village Bike is clearly one of those old-fashioned plays where a leading lady had to choose between Responsibility and Desire, and in 2014, it would seem that Responsibility still has its weight. As an exploration of the destructive force of sex and the limitations placed on women by motherhood, it lacks the requisite complexity, never staying for very long on anything that might prove enlightening or uncomfortable. Gerwig and Harner struggle with their British accents, and seem like they have barely met. While Gerwig has some chemistry with Shepherd, the main problem with her performance is her natural affability and charm. She has trouble seeming like a highly-strung woman who is almost dying to get laid because her whole persona has always been built on easygoing and often witty acceptance of life and its problems. The male characters are written as stereotypes that Harner and Shepherd can do nothing to complicate, and Harner is particularly hamstrung by a lame late scene where he explodes with anger because Gerwig’s Becky has been shopping at Tesco supermarket. As written, Harner’s husband is just a stooge and Shepherd’s lover is just a plot device, while Gerwig’s Becky is a woman defined solely by her sexual needs. For all its length, The Village Bike has all the depth of a ten-minute blackout sketch.

06/04/14 4:00am
06/04/2014 4:00 AM |

The Killer
Theatre for a New Audience

Those who are only familiar with Eugene Ionesco through The Bald Soprano and Rhinoceros may be unprepared for the full-on existentialist onslaught of this three-hour play. The work that made his name in this country was absurdist in nature and basically comedic, the laughs underscoring the angst underneath and making it palatable. Aside from the welcome entrance of comic pro Kristine Nielsen at the top of the second act, The Killer is very short on comedy and long on fearfully distended and downright fearful teasing out of the various philosophical maladies of its main character Berenger (Michael Shannon), who appears in several of Ionesco’s other plays.

In the lengthy first act, Berenger is shown around an ideal housing community by an officious architect (Robert Stanton). There are blue skies at all times and many other amenities but also one large problem: a killer keeps pushing residents into a body of water after he gets them to look at “a photo of the colonel.” Berenger goes off on an elaborately self-involved monologue about a time in his life when he felt total happiness, but the architect refuses to pay attention even when Berenger does somersaults to attract his interest. Berenger falls in love at first sight with Dennie (Stephanie Bunch) in a way that underscores the absurdity of all love, then he goes back to talking with the architect. This first scene between these two goes on for probably 45 minutes on a nearly bare stage. Even though Shannon is fully engaged and involved, it starts to feel interminably long before it ends.

Things perk up when Nielsen enters, but only momentarily. Nielsen is a great clown, and she has so many weapons in her comic arsenal that the play starts to take flight, but it gets dragged down again when Shannon plays out another very prolonged scene in his room with a man who may or may not be the title character. Nielsen reappears as Ma Piper, a demagogue who promises to “de-alienate humanity by alienating every individual.” The material veers briefly into leftist territory here, and then it swerves into outright Dostoyevskian debate when Berenger confronts The Killer himself.

We do not see the front of The Killer. We only hear his deliberately irritating and hollow laughter from behind as Berenger tries out anything he can think of to win over this man and defeat his evil. But evil like this cannot be reasoned with. (The play is sometimes translated as The Killer Without Reason or The Killer Without Cause.) Ionesco is wrestling with a Big Topic here without any decoration or embellishment. It’s bald, it’s relentless, and the foregone conclusion in the final scene is exhausting and depressing. Shannon struggles energetically with his hugely demanding role, but this is the kind of heavy-duty theatrical experience that winds up being more punishing than anything else.

05/21/14 4:00am
05/21/2014 4:00 AM |

Here Lies Love
The Public Theater

This David Byrne-Fatboy Slim musical about Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos was first a concept album/song cycle; on it, guest singers like Cyndi Lauper, Tori Amos and Florence Welch took turns playing Imelda. Adapting this elliptical record for the stage must have been tricky, but director Alex Timbers and choreographer Annie-B Parson have molded it into a piece of vital and unusual theater. When young Imelda (Ruthie Ann Miles) sings the catchy title song, she belts it like a Broadway hopeful ready for stardom. Timbers and company use all of the tropes of musical theater to play with your head here, riling you up and putting you right into Imelda’s headspace. You share in her bullshit and become a part of it because of how the production is staged.

Here Lies Love (in a return engagement at the Public Theater through June 21) plays out in a discotheque where the audience stands throughout and gets herded around by stagehands in pink jumpsuits. When Imelda and Ferdinand (Jose Llana) are first coming to power, their cheerful showbiz smiles blare down at you as if you’re the commoners they hope to hoodwink into obedience. The cleverness of this concept is that the audience is naturally confused at first, looking around, uncertain where to go and where to move, and so we begin to stand in for and feel like the people of the Philippines. As the show goes on, the audience acclimates to the situation; they can even do some simple choreography for the DJ in the rafters. By the time the country has turned on Imelda and Ferdinand and driven them away, the audience is finally orderly, facing front.

If it were staged in the usual proscenium style, Here Lies Love might feel a little flimsy, but the production is so ingeniously conceived and styled that it can’t be divorced from the content; in fact, the style very much is the content. As Imelda, Miles fills out the sketch of her character with a three-dimensional and fully committed performance, going from modest beauty contestant to steely iron lady in bouffant hair and armor-like couture. In the scene in which she confronts her former boyfriend Aquino (Conrad Ricamora), who has been jailed for years by her husband for fomenting revolution, Miles is truly scary because she makes you feel that Imelda is by this point a little crazy, but you can’t tell just how crazy or even in what way. The show seems to end with the Marcoses being booted from the Philippines, and this is followed by a plaintive song of revolution, but Imelda comes back one more time, with her hair down, to sing the title song. This feels appropriate: Imelda is still making waves in the Philippines at age 84, her husband long dead but her devotion to the cult of herself intact.

05/07/14 4:00am
05/07/2014 4:00 AM |

Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Belasco Theatre

Some actors just want to give you pleasure, and they’ll do anything it takes. Part of the fun of watching them is seeing just how hard they’ll work. Neil Patrick Harris is one such performer, particularly when he hosts awards shows, and his hosting skills are definitely called upon in this Broadway revival of John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s downtown cult hit of the late 1990s (through at least August 17). As Hedwig, a transgender singer with a broken heart and a bitter edge, Harris works the audience from the moment he’s lowered onto the stage, tossing his Farrah Fawcett hair and grimacing at his own threadbare double entendres.

Mitchell has spruced up the book with some sharp topical references, and Harris gets his laughs, but he also does much more. As the show builds in intensity and the full scale of Hedwig’s tragic outsiderdom is made clear, Harris has to access emotions he’s not usually asked to play: shame, doubt, rage. And he takes the audience with him into these uncomfortable feelings as surely as he landed his earlier jokes. Strikingly, it doesn’t feel like Harris is stretching himself. Rather, it’s as if finding these darker places frees something powerful and touching in him that he’s always kept out of his work.

Harris delights in getting down and dirty, jumping on top of men in the audience and hurling himself precariously up and around the sides of the stage so that sometimes you worry he might fall and hurt himself. (There aren’t too many other people on stage aside from Hedwig’s mostly silent band and Hedwig’s partner Yitzhak, played by Lena Hall.) At one point, Harris kissed a guy in the front row, and it was clear to me that this guy was very heterosexual and had probably been taken to the show by his girlfriend. But he just nodded his head as if to say, “All right, I’m going with this, sure. Do your stuff.” I watched this guy throughout the rest of the performance, and he looked impressed and involved.

Hedwig drew a devoted cult audience in the late 90s, and now here it is on Broadway with an out gay star without having been dumbed down or modified in any way to make it palatable to a mass audience. In 2014, what was only for downtown has moved into the mainstream without losing any of its edge or its point, and I’m just old enough to consider that a minor miracle. Hedwig is based on the style and hurt of all those downtown icons like Kiki and Herb and the whole drag-punk Squeezebox milieu, and Harris has made a career-changing triumph out of it by fearlessly bringing it right out into the open for
everyone to see.