Reviews Off Broadway / Whats On Off Broadway

Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The LaBute New Theater Festival Struggles With Inconsistency

The LaBute New Theater Festival at 59E59 opens with a funny piece by Neil LaBute called What Happens in Vegas. It is a quirky little black comedy about a man spending time (and money) with a prostitute during a Las Vegas business trip. Michael Hogan plays him with innocent enthusiasm – well at least as innocent as a man cheated on his girlfriend can be. Clea Alsip shines as the prostitute who treats the entire business transaction as friendly possible. She is the consummate upseller, not only getting him to spend more but making him happy about doing it. What Happens in Vegas is a through away piece of fluff, but it is humorous and cleaver. Unfortunately, the three other pieces are not nearly as successful in keeping the audience’s attention.
Michael Hogan and Clea Alsip in What Happens in Vegas
American Outlaws, by Adam Seidel, starts as an interesting piece with a unique perspective. Mitch (Eric Dean White) is hiring a hit man to murder his wife. The hit man, Martin, is played with gusto by Justin Ivan Brown. The hook here is that the hit man is actually sleeping with the wife, and Mitch is secretly planning on killing him. A darkly comedic verbal sparring takes place in an abandoned restaurant where secrets are revealed and a deal is made. It is funny and quirky, but it then turns into a nonsensical ending (why not just kill him to start with?).

The evening continues on a downward streak with Homebody, by Gabe McKinley. Homebody is a short play about a truly horrible mother and son combination that live together in a permanent state of vitriol. The son, Michael Hogan, is a failed writer and his mother, Donna Weinsting, is the woman that never lets him forget it. It is a co-dependent relationship of ugliness that is played for pitch-black laughs.  For a brief moment, it appears that the son might publish a book, and a spark of happiness shines – but is soon doused. The stated motivation for the mother’s final act is so different from everything that has come before it seems like cheating (John Kennedy Toole is the give away here).
Michael Hogan and Donna Weinsting in Homebody

The final piece is Mark My Worms, by Cary Pepper, and it made me wonder if they ran out of plays. Fine acting and reasonably funny writing seems wasted on a piece of theater that is closer to a knock knock joke than a one-act. The character of the director is written or performed as a throw back to the hilariously flaming homosexual. The characters of the 'actors' don't come off much better, they are done with the self-importance and faux seriousness of Jon Lovitz’ SNL character. And, like one of those old SNL sketches, they didn't know when to stop – it just wound down long after it had worn out its welcome.

All in all, it was an evening of promising talent, but one that needed a lot more mentoring to achieve the desired results.

What Happens in Vegas  | Playwright: Neil Labute | Director: Kel Haney | Cast: Clea Alsip, Michael Hogan

American Outlaws | Playwright: Adam Seidel, Director: John Pierson | Cast: Justin Ivan Brown, Eric Dean White

Homebody | Playwright: Gabe McKinley | Director: John Pierson | Cast Michael Hogan, Donna Weinsting

Mark My Worms | Playwright: Cary Pepper | Director: Michael Hogan | Cast: Clea Alsip, Justin Ivan Brown, Eric Dean White

Sunday, January 8, 2017

A Woman, a Man and a Country on the Verge

The Present is a new adaptation of an untitled Chekhov play (perhaps Platonov), completion date unknown. Adapted by Sydney’s Andrew Upton, it has been transformed and reset in the Russia of the 1990s during the rise of the oligarchs. A Chekhov play comes with a lot of baggage. We expect long ruminations on life, love and Mother Russia. We expect lots of drinking, anger and betrayal. 
Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh as Anna and Mikhail
What Mr. Upton has added is a bit of humor and lightness, without removing the darkness at the heart of the story. And a kangaroo joke; after all, he is Australian.

The story is complicated, but introduced in understandable bite sized pieces. Anna (Cate Blanchett) is celebrating her 40th birthday at the home of her stepson. Her husband was an older general – now deceased, and she is nearly the same age as her stepson and their group of friends. They are all getting together for her birthday celebration.  Also showing up for the celebration are Yegor and Alexi, two older men vying for Anna’s attention and perhaps hand in marriage (and a cut of her property).

Showing up late and nearly taking over the celebration is Mikhail (Richard Roxburgh), the one time tutor of Anna’s stepson Sergei and his friend Nikolai. Mikhail is a charismatic character, married to Nikolai’s sister. He and Anna had a long since ended affair, but the chemistry is palpable. In point of fact Mikhail’s chemistry with most of the females at the party is strong. It is mirrored by Anna’s effect on most of the men at the party.

And so, The Present explores the aging and changing of both Mikhail and Anna, particularly their response to it. By setting the scene in post-perestroika Russia, we are also witness the partygoers react to the changing of Russia from a Communist regime to something new and scary.  Anna and Mikhail seem competing centers of attention, with the rest of the revelers bewitched by them. The first 3 acts occur at various points the night of the party. We watch as the partygoers deconstruct their own lives until they find the core of their being, or at least what a vodka soaked version of themselves believes is their core. Secrets are revealed, affairs occur.
Toby Schmitz (as Nikolai) is consoled by Anna

In the final act, the next morning, repercussions are played out. The ability of women to rebound compared to men is fascinating, even if the conclusions are expected.

The acting, by all members of the cast, is crisp and perfect. It takes a moment to adjust your brain to a play set in Russia where everyone has an Australian accent, but you soon move past that and are swept up in the action. The Present is directed wonderfully by John Crowley, who makes the three hours move by quickly.

The Present
Playwright: Andrew Upton, based on a play by Anton Chekhov
Director: John Crowley
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh, Anna Bamford, Andrew Buchanan, David Donner, Eamon Farren, Maretin Jacobs, Brandon McClelland, Jacqueline McKenzie, Marshall Napier, Susan Prior, Chris Ryan, Toby Schmitz

Friday, January 6, 2017

Life According to Saki to Travel to New York.

LIFE ACCORDING TO SAKI, winner of the Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award, makes its US premiere at Fourth Street Theatre

New York, New York January 5, 2017The Carol Tambor Theatrical Foundation is thrilled to announce the US premiere of the critically-acclaimed LIFE ACCORDING TO SAKI, written by Katherine Rundell, based on Hector Hugh Munro (Saki), and directed by Jessica Lazar. Produced by Bridie Bischoff and Tom Grayson for Atticist Productions, LIFE ACCORDING TO SAKI comes to NYC as the 2016 winner of the Best of Edinburgh Award given annually by the Foundation. Performances begin on Wednesday, February 8 for a limited engagement through Sunday, March 5.  Press Opening is Monday, February 13 at 7:30 PM. The performance schedule is Tuesday - Saturday at 7:30 PM; Sunday at 3:00 PM. Please note the following schedule adjustments: there is an added performance on Monday, February 13 for opening; there is no performance on Tuesday, February 14. Performances are at the Fourth Street Theatre (83 East 4th Street, between Bowery & Second Avenue). The ticket price ranges from $22.50 - $45. To purchase tickets, call OvationTix on 866-811-4111 or visit

1916. In the trenches of the Battle of the Somme, a soldier tells stories. That soldier is Saki. Beginning with early misrule and school-age rebellion, his stories move on to the complexities of adulthood - obsessions and games, charm and chaos, friendship and jealousy, and, finally, death. Munro was just over the age of conscription when the First World War broke out. But he joined up as an ordinary soldier in 1914, refusing a commission. He was killed by a sniper two years later.

(c) Aex Brenner
This debut play by award-winning author Katherine Rundell is inspired by the short stories of “Saki” - the pen name of the early 20th Century British satirist Hector Hugh Munro, described by The Guardian as “a master of the short story.” Like a cross between Oscar Wilde and Roald Dahl, Saki’s creations are witty, absurd, and peculiarly optimistic. Rundell and Atticist Productions bring them to the stage in a production called “a show to savour” by British Theatre Guide.

A Few Quick Notes Before We Dive Into the New Year

A few quick notes before we dive into the New Year.  The end of 2016 was hectic and, for me, a bit difficult. Therefore I missed posting about some shows that deserved a great deal of praise.  Two are still playing on Broadway and I want to give you the heads up that you should see them – although the praise of both has been pretty thorough.

First is Dear Evan Hansen 

Ben Platt and the cast of Dear Evan Hansen

It is easy, before seeing it, to strike Dear Evan Hansen as simply a teen angst musical. That observation is both true and woefully inadequate.  Dear Evan Hansen is a brilliant teen angst musical. And it is one that explores how we all react to tragedy and opportunity. It showcases our darkest fears and how we live with our actions. It features a breathtaking performance by lead actor Ben Platt and marvelous staging by David Korins and Peter Nigrini.  See it, it lives up to the hype.

The Second is Natasha and Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812

Josh Groban and Denee Benton as Pierre and Natasha
 If you are a fan of Off-Broadway, you may have seen this at one of the Ars Nova productions. I saw it in the tent in mid-town. The Great Comet is set in a Music Hall / Bar and so I wondered about the transition to Broadway. I am thrilled to say the transition has been done fabulously. The Imperial Theater has undergone a transformation reminiscent of Studio 54’swith Cabaret, and though the bones are obvious, the theatre feels fresh and alive.

The cast, mainly the same from Off-Broadway has been rejuvenated by the move to the Imperial and the addition of Denee Benton and Josh Groban.  Mr. Groban, aided by a fat suit, plays the depressed Pierre very well, making the most of his chances to shine, but not overwhelming the cast. Denee Benton is astonishing and captivating as Natasha. Her voice is excellent, but her presence is luminous and draws us into the show.  The supporting cast is never anything less than thrilling. It is a wonderful production.

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.
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.
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