Reviews Off Broadway / Whats On Off Broadway

Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Trying to Understand the Opposite Sex in Don’t You F**king Say a Word

When you walk into 59E59 Theater B, for Don’t You F**king Say a Word, it’s obvious we are entering a stage of battle. Sure, it’s a tennis court, but it is also a pit – more like an ancient Roman Arena that the city park. So it is a little disconcerting that the first entrants aren’t the tennis players, but the women in their lives, dressed in distinctly non-athletic ware. And thus Don’t You F**king Say a Word starts off with the audience a little off balance.

The amazingly talented actresses Jennifer Lim and Jeanine Serralles are a marvel as the female life partners of the tennis players. They start by  laying out the organization of the play for us. These two women are reminiscing, with each other and the audience, about an incident that occurred between their tennis-obsessed men. They are trying to understand what happened that humid day that set off a chain of events that ended a friendship. In doing this, they are trying to “understand men”, what drives them –particularly what drives the impulses that make them crazy. Of course (and a little too obviously), their “investigation” tells us more about their interactions and insecurities than their spouses. But that is a pretty minor problem overall.
L-R: Jennifer Lim, Jeanine Serralles, Bhavesh Patel, and Michael Braun in DON’T YOU F**KING SAY A WORD at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Hunter Canning
L-R: Jennifer Lim, Jeanine Serralles, Bhavesh Patel, and Michael Braun in DON’T YOU F**KING SAY A WORD at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Hunter Canning

They women are coyly polite and gracious, but underneath there is a competitive edge they can’t quite shake. They try to openly discuss “the incident”, but they also are protective of their partners, viewing the history through the lens of love and life choices.

The tennis players are Bhavesh Patel and Michael Braun; men who are approaching their forties having accomplished almost none of their goals. Both are highly competent actors, but don’t get a chance to move beyond caricature until very late in the show. They are a type most men know. Growing up, they were probably  intimidated in school and so they have overcompensated via sports after high school.

And just when the show gets to be too much, too pat and too expository – the action moves towards a more traditional setting, a dinner party. With this change, Don’t You F**king Say A Word shines anew. It is a very enjoyable evening of theater.

Writer Andy Bragen and Director Lee Sunday Evans have done a great job wringing out the most from their characters and situations before moving on and changing up the pace of the piece. Because of their excellent work, it really does play like a tennis match, a long give and take capped by a quick and eventful tie-breaker.
Don’t You F**king Say a WordPlaywright: Andy BragenDirector:  Lee Sunday Evans Cast: Michael Braun, Jennifer Lim, Bhavesh Patel, Jeanine Serralles

The Front Page Delivers Headline Performances

Let’s start off with the biggest question, how were all those stars in The Front Page? The answer is they were great. John Goodman had some laryngitis when I saw it, but otherwise he and the rest of the cast were fantastic. John Slattery is charming, stylish and comedic. Nathan Lane is wonderful, despite not appearing until well into the play. Holland Taylor, John Goodman, Jefferson Mays and Robert Morse are as funny and as good as you expect them to be. Sheri Rene Scott gives a wonderful turn as Mollie Malloy.
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John Goodman, John Slattery and Nathan Lane in The Front Page
So then, why does The Front Page never feel like a great show? First, it is entirely too long. The news hounds are made up of a stable of excellent actors that would headline most other shows, but giving nearly the whole first act to them is not the best use of time. Second, The Front Page is dated, very dated. I suppose you could update it, but that wouldn’t work well in today’s vernacular since the newspaper business isn’t much of a business at all anymore. So be prepared for tasteless jokes about women, effeminate men and colored people.

And yet, on some level, both of these problems feel like choices, since the definitive The Front Page movie (titled His Girl Friday), with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell resolved these issues with judicious pruning of the story.

Nathan Lane handles Holland Taylor's Objections
Other than that, how was the theater, Mrs. Lincoln? Pretty good actually. The set (by Douglas W. Schmidt) is fantastic, giving a large stage a slightly claustrophobic attitude.

Filling it in Act One are an impressive array of newsmen acting bored and annoyed as they await news on the imminent hanging of Earl Williams – who’s being railroaded into execution to help reelect the crooked Mayor and Sheriff (Dann Florek and John Goodman). Jefferson Mays is the mincing, neurotic germaphobe (and general gay butt of jokes) who has his own desk, phone and is perpetually put out. He does a fine job with a thankless role. Late entering into the Act are John Slattery as Hildy Johnson, a newsman who is retiring to marry the girl of his dreams and move to New York, Holland Taylor as the annoying mother-in-law to be and Sheri Rene Scott as the Irish hooker with a heart of gold, who berates the news hounds for their lewd comments on her friendship.
Nathan Lane handles Holland Taylor's Objections
In Act Two, Earl Williams escapes, Hildy catches him and hides him in the desk as the other newsmen look for Earl. Plus there is a lot of yelling and running around business.

In Act Three Nathan Lane shows up as Hildy’s boss, Walter Burns, to help Hildy sneak Earl out of the newsroom. The show finally  comes to life when Nathan Lane and John Slattery are on stage together. Theirs is a reluctant, but enduring bro-mance, which neither dames nor mother-in-laws nor better jobs will break up. But two full acts makes for a long time to wait for the show to hit its stride.

Jack O’Brian does a fine job of directing The Front Page. He gets excellent performances out of all the players, but at nearly 3 hours, it is a bit of a slog. He might have been kinder to the audience to take a judicious knife to the show.
The Front Page | Playwrights: Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur | Director: Jack O’Brian | Cast: Nathan Lane, John Slattery, John Goodman, Jefferson Mays, Holland Taylor, Sheri Rene Scott, Robert Morse
Top Photo credit: Vanity Fair

Imagining Orwell In America Is Cause for Celebration

The New York premiere of Joe Sutton’s Orwell In America is a fascinating exercise and a wonderful show. The play is a what-would-happen piece set between the success of Animal Farm and before the publication of 1984. In the show, an older George Orwell is on a book tour of the United States to promote Animal Farm, with an attractive young publicist, Carlotta. The question is how would Orwell’s well-documented socialism be received in 1950s America.
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L-R: Jeanna De Waal and Jamie Horton in ORWELL IN AMERICA at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Carol Rosegg
Jamie Horton brings a cantankerous, funny and stubborn Orwell to life. He has agreed to promote Animal Farm, completely understanding that his book has been used to argue against some of his most prized beliefs – chief among them Socialism. He insists on speaking of his background, his travels, his wife and the Spanish Civil War before getting to the point of the evening, selling books.

Jeanna de Waal plays Carlotta expertly. Carlotta is a proto-feminist, demanding to be accepted as a professional as well as a woman in a man’s world. Carlotta is determined to share her love of George Orwell’s books with as many people as possible, and that means trying to inhibit his fanciful musings and active support for Socialism.

The show might have easily fallen into a pattern of George’ soliloquies, interrupted by Carlotta’s questions only to break them up - because George’s soliloquies are fascinating to a modern audience. George gives amazing examples of Europe’s suffering in a post-war environment and relates that to his believe in the common good and therefore Socialism. Carlotta, for her part, tries – in vain – to get George to understand that in the Cold War environment in the States, Socialism is tantamount to Communism. This frustrates George Orwell to the point of distraction. He believes Communism, particularly as practiced by Russia and Stalin, is horrible and something to be fought against. The fact that Americans equate the two systems infuriates him.

All of this information and expository makes Orwell In America interesting, but what makes this show wonderful is the dynamic between the much older George Orwell and the much younger and beautiful Carlotta. It is in this personal dynamic that Ms. de Waal and Mr. Horton make the characters sing. Their banter is heartfelt and their growing friendship (and Orwell’s desire for more) blooms organically.

Masterful lighting design by Stuart Duke is coupled with great direction by Peter Hackett to effortless segue from personal interaction to public book signings. I was a bit apprehensive at the running time of 1¾ hours, but the show neve3r feels forced or leaden. I loved it.
Orwell In America | Playwright: Joe Sutton | Director: Peter Hackett | Cast: Jeanna de Waal, Jamie Horton, Casey Predovic | website

Sweetly Navigating The Roads To Home

It is a clich̩ to say that home is a memory, but in Primary Stages revival of The Roads To Home by Horton Foote, it is the guiding principal. Beautifully brought to life by three outstanding women Рthe men are very good, but given much less to do Рthe play speaks of a longing of the memory of home, regardless of the reality.
Perhaps this show touched me because I am from Los Angeles, and the memory of home always makes me smile – more that actually moving back ever would. The Roads To Home takes that wistful feeling and enlarges it to a universal experience. The theme brings a smile and wonder to this melodramatic show.
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Harriet Harris, Hallie Foote, Rebecca Brooksher - in The Roads To Home
Hallie Foote, the playwright’s daughter, plays Mabel a mainly contented housewife in 1920s era Houston. The play opens with Mabel’s neighbor Vonnie dropping in and describing telling her vacation to her own family in Louisiana. Harriet Harris inhabits the character of Vonnie spectacularly. To watch these two older ladies visit and gossip is as comforting as watching your grandmother and her friends. It is a pleasant pace of gossip, neighbor chitchat and reminisces of hometowns. Mabel does explain that one neighbor from her old hometown, Annie, has begun to ride the streetcar and visit her daily. Too often for her husband, who is annoyed to find Annie occupying his home nearly every night. Mabel fills in the backstory of Annie which includes the tragic witnessing of her father being shot on main street.

Annie does eventually arrive and she is a bit eccentric. Rebecca Brookshire plays Annie with just enough edge to make her occasionally unnerving and with just enough sweetness to make us care about her. Annie is a gentle soul, lost in Houston and her own memory.

All three women later have issues with their husbands and their own marriages – their personal homes. The time didn’t allow for a lot of options for women in difficult marriages, and watching these three women try to navigate their personal life is both engaging and a bit heartbreaking.

The Roads To Home is a short piece, and played out leisurely, given full time to take root in the audience. I enjoyed it, even though I was a bit annoyed at the end while I watched it. In retrospect, I appreciate it much more. The scenic design by Jeff Cowie and the costume design by David Woolard really brought the era to life. Michael Wilson did an excellent job with the direction and pace of the piece. This is part of the Horton Foote Centennial (he was born in 1916) and is a great addition to his cannon.
The Roads to Home | Playwright: Horton Foote | Director: Michael Wilson | Cast: Devon Abner, Dan Bittner, Rebecca Brooksher, Harriet Harris, Hallie Foote, Mall Sullivan

Friday, June 17, 2016

Himself and Nora: A Musical Look at James Joyce

James Joyce, the author’s love for Nora and his journey to get published provides the structure of Himself and Nora.  Some beautiful singing provides the breath and soul of the play.  Wonderful performances by Matt Bogart (as Joyce) and Whitney Bashor (as Nora) bring these two characters to life.  So the question becomes, why is the whole not better.

Himself and Nora isn’t a bad musical by any stretch.  It is an involving story that sheds new light on the personality and struggles of the famous author, making him more human and accessible.  For most of the two plus hours, it is almost a great show.

It starts with the irascible but charming James Joyce in Ireland, where he fights with his dad, buries his mom, rejects the Catholic Church and meets a charming young woman, Nora.  Joyce and Nora share a remarkable emotional and sexual chemistry at the outset, but Joyce won’t marry.  He won’t subject himself to the Catholic rite that approves of his choice.  Nora, understanding the man she loves and willing to be a partner, not a wife, agrees to the arraignment.

Matt Bogart and Whitney Bashor in ‘Himself and Nora’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)
And just like that, the Joyces are off.  First to Trieste, where they struggle and live happily as James writes, teaches, and drinks.  A visit back to Ireland to get published convinces him that Ireland will never accept him.  Luckily, he finds a sponsor and publisher in Paris, where he and Nora settle down.

The second act is less heartwarming, as many biographical pieces tend to be.  IN fact, it is a slog. Success has come, but James Joyce wants more: the next county that will publish Ulysses, the next book and most of all, the American market.  Nora, fed up with being the mother of bastards, wants to get married.  The children are problems, with the Joyce daughter being sent to a mental institution.  World War II rears its head. And then Joyce dies.  And, in the worst of biographical musical traditions, he dies for a long time.  Three songs at least, and we haven’t been able to make that investment in the character.

The music and the singing are wonderful, and the acting is excellent; Himself and Nora just needed someone to edit it ruthlessly.  The supporting cast, Lianne Marie Dobbs, Zachary Prince and Michael McCormick, all shine in multiple roles.  Director Michael Bush does a very good job with the spare stage and trappings, focusing the attention onto the cast.  It is frustrating, because there is a great musical there in Himself and Nora could unburden itself of the extraneous.


Book, Music & Lyrics: Jonathan Brielle | Director: Michael Bush | Cast: Matt Bogart. Whitney Bashor, Lianne Marie Dobbs, Zachary Prince, Michael McCormick | website

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Indian Summer Works It’s Magic Lightly

With Indian Summer, playwright Gregory S. Moss sets out to capture that fleeting moment of youth on the cusp of adulthood.  The moment that feels impossibly real while it is happening and impossibly dreamlike in retrospect. It often succeeds.  Indian Summer plays with time and memory like the sand dunes where the play is set - both real and permanent, but constantly shifting.

Owen Campbell portrays Daniel, a young man of 16 or so, left at his grandfather’s house on the Rhode Island beach in the summer for an indeterminate length of time by a flaky mother.  Daniel, friendless and annoyed, takes to the beach to sulk, escape his grandfather and feel sorry for himself in that desperate way only the young can.  But the beach throws up the detritus of life: his grandfather, marking time after the passage of his wife, a townie stuck in the rules of masculine preening and Izzy, the local girl that challenges and entrances him.


Elise Kibler and Owen Campbell in Indian Summer
Elise Kibler gives life to Izzy. A native Rhode Islander with an Italian working class heritage that is perplexed by the skinny pale “summer people” with an attitude that is Daniel. Together they talk gently and long about life and their future and their dreams.  Theirs is that first great summer infatuation filled with possibility, not only of the person you meet, but also of being bigger and more than you are right now.  These two actors grow into that moment organically and honestly. One of the most touching moments is as they sit, back to back, role playing a distance future in which they meet with their respective partners.

Joe Tippett brings a sense of playfulness and sweetness to Izzy’s lug headed boyfriend Jeremy.  He is the perfect counterpoint to Daniel and Izzy’s relationship and a rebuke to the easy path many writer’s take where the current boyfriend is, for some reason, horrible.  Jeremy knows how good he has it, and the role he has to play here.  The audience gets the sense Jeremy (the character) has played this scene before and knows the ending.  Jeremy is trying to save his own future.

The final role is George, Daniel’s (step) grandfather. Jonathan Hadary does a good job with a tough role.  As the wandering narrator, he is wonderful.  As the self-absorbed widower, well that is a difficult role to pull off honestly.

Indian Summer does some things so fantastically, that it is regrettable that other things just don’t work.  George and Izzy’s sudden role-playing seems whipped up to offer a bookend to the show, not because it is organically driven.  Izzy is best and most enthralling when she is the tough local teenager that slowly opens up to Daniel because he is so alien.  He is non-threatening and her guard lowers a bit at a time in a believable and touching way.

Director Carolyn Cantor handles these moments of quiet brilliantly. Daniel and Izzy are like too different species to each other, fascinating, beautiful and fragile.  Watching Indian Summer is like watching tide pool, everything in that moment is so perfect, but will be washed away at high tide and redone countless times.
Indian Summer | Playwright: Gregory S. Moss | Director: Carloyn Cantor | Cast: Owen Campbell, Elise Kibler, Jonathan Hadary, Joe Tippett | website

Monday, October 20, 2014

Billy & Ray Sheds Light and Laughs on Double Indemnity, but Preserves the Mystique


Larry Pine as Raymond Chandler and Vincent Kartheiser as Billy Wilder
Billy & Ray, now at the Vineyard Theater, tells of the unlikely paring of famous director, Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler.  Together these two produced one of the first and best of the film noir vehicles, Double Indemnity.
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The play opens with Austrian transplant, Director Billy Wilder, played with amazing energy by Vincent Kartheiser, breaking up with his writing partner.  He is determined to bring Double Indemnity to the screen.  The story, from the novel by James Cain, is considered unfilmable due to the surfeit of content that raises flags with the production code.  Billy convinces the studio producer to bring in hard-boiled detective writer Raymond Chandler to help with the script, this was Chandler’s first film work.
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But it turns out that Raymond Chandler, in the flesh, is nothing like his characters.  Chandler is a broke, retired schoolteacher, churning out short stories for rent.  Chandler is brought to boring, straight-laced life by Larry Pine.  Chandler has no use for Cain’s over sexed novel, Billy’s vulgarities or the studio high life.  But he does need the money and he writes amazing dialog. Billy and Ray shows how this odd couple never become friends, but forge a working relationship to get Double Indemnity pass the censors by making an intelligent, adult film.
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Double Indemnity is one of the great American films, and this story would be fascinating even without back and forth between this two brilliant and difficult men.  But their interaction drives the story humorously and ingeniously to life.  Mr. Kartheiser, as Billy Wilder, the play forward with his frenetic energy and restless nature.   His energy and verve make up for a horrible accent in the first few scenes, where he seems to be channeling Austrian German accent via Dublin.  Once he gets into the rhythm of the piece, his voice migrates across the channel to Vienna and settles down.  Perhaps as the show progresses this minor complaint will prove obsolete.
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Vincent Kartheiser, Sophie von Haselberg and Larry Pine

Sophie Von Haselberg plays Billy’s secretary, Helen.  The daughter of Bette Midler and Martin Von Hasleberg, she is perfect, channeling the sass of Eve Arden with the mildly maternal instinct of every great secretary.  Her resemblance to her mother is uncanny. Drew Gehling plays the producer Joe Sistrom, balancing his desire to bring this story to life against the day-to-day B pictures the studio shoves at him (“The Hitler Gang”).
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Billy and Ray looks beautiful, the offices at Paramount brought to life by Charlie Corcoan.  Watching Vincent Kartheiser lean out of his window to heckle Bing Crosby is one of the small moments that make this piece so perfect.  Legend Garry Marshall directs the piece with a familiarity of the Hollywood system, albeit with a little too much sit-com familiarity.
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Billy and Ray is a love letter to Hollywood in general and Double Indemnity in particular.  If you have never seen the movie, you will want to after seeing Billy and Ray, and that is high praise indeed.
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Billy and Ray
Playwright: Mike Bencivenga
Director: Garry Marshall
Cast: Drew Gehling, Vincent Kartheiser, Larry Pine, Sophie von Haselberg