Reviews Off Broadway / Whats On Off Broadway

Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A Too Personal Love Letter to Peter Pan


For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday is obviously a personal and heart-felt play that is an homage to the playwright’s mother. As a personal valentine to her parents, For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday is sweet and touching. For anyone not related to that family, or intimately acquainted with this type of family, the play is emotionally remote.
The amazing Kathleen Chalfant plays lead character Ann so well that she often brings the audience with her on the journey. When For Peter Pan works, it does so because of the actors, particular Ms. Chalfant.
The story follows five siblings at the time of their father’s death. In the first third of the play, a group of siblings arrive at a mid-west hospital. There are three boys and two girls – David Chandler, David Jenkins, Keith Reddin, Lisa Emery and Ms Chalfant - to share their family vigil at father’s hospital bedside. This is an extended mid-west family of Catholics, a few now lapsed. Two of the sons are now doctors, but all five feel the weight of helplessness as they watch their father waste away. For a very long time he wastes away. It is a scene of worry and tedium, occasionally spiked with moments of panic.
 Ron Crawford, Keith Reddin, David Chandler, Lisa Emory, Kathleen Chalfant, Daniel Jenkins

The second third of the show moves to a small wake around a dinner table. The five siblings discuss religion, the afterlife, growing up and their place in the family. During this discussion, the ghost of their father and the family dog meander about illustrating either that memories are what matters or that the afterlife is truly banal.
With no conclusion to the wake, except time to go to bed, the play transitions to the final third. Here Ann dons the Peter Pan outfit she wore in 1955 and replays part of the story with her siblings. It doesn’t take long to understand that Ann is dying, and this is her way of saying goodbye.
For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday is inconsistent in both tone and pacing, which tries the patience of the audience. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but here it doesn’t seem to serve a purpose. The five actors are excellent, but the script calls out for something more. Why is the sprawling, extended family of spouses and children entirely missing from the action when the dead dog makes a few entrances?
Playwright Sarah Ruhl has written a work that will touch a few people deeply, but misses a larger target. Director Les Waters pulls a lot from the actors, but the entire thing didn’t amount to  
For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday | Playwright: Sarah Ruhl | Director: Les Waters | Cast: Kathleen Chalfant, David Chandler, Ron Crawford, Lisa Emery, Daniel Jenkins, Keith Reddin

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Evolution of a Family Scorches Us in The Wide World


Simon Stephen’s new play, On the Shore of the Wide World, at the Atlantic Theater, rumbles up behind you slowly, over a series of short scenes. The play investigates three generations of the Holmes family, from a small town near Manchester England, by charting the relationship of the youngest generations’ Alex and his girlfriend Sarah.
Alex and Sarah seem an odd pair at first; he is a bit socially awkward around girls and she is a dynamo. Ben Rosenfield plays Alex, charting the characters growth over the course of the show from teenager to young man emotionally. Tedra Millan is wonderful as Sarah, barely changing her character in any obvious way over the course of the play, yet deepening Sarah at every step. Wesley Zurick is quite brilliant as the younger brother Christopher.  Alex introduces Sarah to the family, his father Peter (C.J. Wilson) and mother Alice (Mary McCann) in addition to brother Christopher.    
C. J. Wilson, Tedra Millan, Ben Rosenfield and May McCann (photo from Atlantic Theater Group)
The parents have fallen into a rut and the excitement of their son’s new love is both scary and frustrating. Their emotional drifting deepens as Alex’s relationship’s growth and they watch a repeat of their love, but now detached. Both long for that first rush of love, but can’t fully put it into words. Medical issues in the family make inevitable conflicts more urgent.
Bonnie Blair and Peter Maloney, two excellent actors, play the grandparents. If Peter and Alice recognize themselves at a different age in their son’s life, the grandparents are beyond even that. Their relationship has atrophied into habit and entropy.
Alex and Sarah set out for the wild world (London) and trigger introspection by the rest of the family, who have all settled into a pre-ordained life. Peter ends up having discussions, the ones he should have with his wife, with a young client. Alice finds emotional comfort from a man she hardly knows. A medical issue forces the grandfather to confront his own life and shortcomings.
On the Shore of the Wide World makes an interesting argument very subtly. That is, relationships follow a path, and we have to remember to not let that path become a rut. Peter and Alice struggle to change their family for the better, even when quite frustrated. Their inability to communicate is, at times, infuriating, but recognizable. Director Neil Pepe does a deft job of handling the multiple scenes without confusion or noise, letting the actors dominate a busy play.
On the Shore of the Wide World | Playwright: Simon Stephens | Director: Neil Pepe | Cast: Blair Brown, Odiseas Georgiadis, Peter Maloney, Mary McCann, LeRoy McClain, Tedra Millan, Ben Rosenfield, C. J. Wilson, Amelia Workman, Wesley Zurick | website

Monday, September 11, 2017

Hatred and Judgment Never Go Out Of Style

In the updated Suzan-Lori Parks’ play, Fucking A, the themes and character names from Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter make a return engagement in a bitter and dystopian future. Christine Lahti, embattled and angry, does a remarkable turn bring Hester Smith to life in Fucking A.
Brandon Victor Dixon and Christine Lahti (photo by Joan Marcus)
Hester and her son once worked for a rich family, before Hester was branded with an A - for Abortionist. Hester’s son illegally ate some of the family’s food, and was turned in to the authorities by the rich family's young daughter. Hester's son went to prison, a common story in this time and place, and Hester was given the option of forgetting about him or becoming an abortionist to try to work and pay off his debt. 
Hester works hard, saves her money and, with help from Canary Mary (a terrific Joaquina Kulukango) raises the funds to try and see her son. The fees to visit him, much less get him released from jail, keep increasing as he commits more infractions behind bars.
Meanwhile Canary Mary is carrying on an affair with the Mayor, whose wife cannot bear a child. Marc Kudisch and Elizabeth Stanley play the Mayor and his wife. And while the Mayor’s wife cannot conceive, the rest of the town’s people conceive too often, providing Hester with an endless stream of clients. Those clients, like Mary and Hester, speak a female centric “talk” language when keeping comments from prying male ears; or even when saying things out loud that are too wrenching to say in English.
Hester’s son, now called only Monster, escapes prison and comes back to the town; trying to make some connection, but falling back into crime. Brandon Victor Dixon is magnetic and haunting as Monster, a young man twisted into a caricature of himself by the world around him. The “talk”, the cast system, the reduction of minor criminals to monsters, and the public use of AND shaming of an Abortionist bring a tone of political familiarity and dread. Echoes of our current moral situation are impossible to miss. And the system makes everyone a loser.
Fucking A is an updated The Scarlet Letter, so things do not end well, but the twisted result honors Nathanial Hawthorne’s work. Director Jo Bonney gets great performances from the cast, and the pacing of this piece works beautifully.
Fucking A | Playwright: Suzan-Lori Parks | Director: Jo Bonney | Cast: J. Cameron Barnett, Brandon Victor Dixon, Ben Horner, Joaquina Kalukango, Marc Kudish, Christine Lahti, Ruibo Qian, Elizabeth Stanley, Raphael Nash Thompson | website

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Baroness is a Verbal Symphony, a True Story of Passion and Art


Dee Pelletier is pulling off a brilliant turn as Karen Blixen in The Baroness, Isak Dinesen’s Final Affair at the Clurman Theater. Karen Blixen (English pen name Isak Dinesen) was the author / protagonist in the book and movie Out of Africa. In The Baroness she is a force of nature, barely held in check by the surroundings of her home in Denmark.
The Baroness begins with the introduction of a renowned young author / poet, Thorkild Bjornvig – the Doctor she calls him, to living legend Karen Blixen. Thorkild (Conrad Ardelius) is, at first, honored by the meeting. But the business meeting soon transforms into something more. Exactly what that more is both obvious and dangerous. Thorkild and Karen begin an affair of the mind and soul. A sensual dance that isn’t consummated in the physical sense, but is overpowering emotionally. The Baroness becomes his mentor, guide and scold; pushing Thorkild through his writer’s block by forcing him to live her ideal of an artist’s life.
Conrad Ardelius and Dee Pelletier (photo by Ellinor Dei Lorenzo)
Throkild grows and flourishes under her direction. He begins to write more and morphs into a more emotionally aware individual. He also pulls out the best of Karen and sees past her fa├žade of the Baroness. Their relationship vacillates between mentor, teacher and lover moment by moment. It is a captivating story and Dee Pelletier brings Karen Blixen alive in performance that is thoughtful, touching, compassionate and bitter in various turns.
The relationship ultimately begins to flounder on the inconsistency of Karen’s desires and Thorkild’s inability to meet her evolving demands. Benedicte (Vanessa Johansson) appears occasionally as Karen’s friend and the wife of Thorkild’s benefactor. Benedicte sees through Karen’s manipulation of this young artist, but is powerless to change the story’s trajectory.
Conrad Ardelius’ performance is difficult to judge at first. Thorkild is, in the beginning, stiff and tentative in his interactions with this famous whirlwind of a persona, which translates to a stiff performance. It isn’t until the final few scenes that Mr. Ardelius is allowed to fully break free from the constraints of Thorkild’s early life and we see flashes of brilliance in the Doctor, the man the Baroness has shaped.
The Baroness, Isak Dinesen’s Final Affair was written by Thor Bjorn Krebs, based on the detritus of the two characters' life together: the letters, stories and books about their friendship. It has been translated by Kim Dambaek, so I cannot give the full credit to either, but the combined writing flows beautifully. Henning Hegland directs this tale with a light touch, never making either character a paragon of virtue or caricature of temptation.
The Baroness, Isak Dinesen’s Final Affair | Playwright: Thor Bjorn Krebs, Translation: Kim Dambaek | Director: Henning Hegland | Cast: Dee Pelletier, Conrad Ardelius, Vanessa Johansson | website

Friday, September 1, 2017

Heady Humor Files in Charolais


Charolais is a rare thing, a whip-smart play masquerading a simple story. Sweetly written and performed by Noni Stapleton, Charolais is the tale of a love triangle – or maybe more than one triangle.
Noni Stapleton plays Siobhan, a big hearted Irish lass who is employed to help with the administrative side of a family farm. The farm is run by a strapping son and his embittered mother. Siobhan falls for the son, Jimmy, after watching him wrangle a cow out of a muddy field. And, oh, how she would like to be that cow... wrapped in Jimmy’s strong arms being gently rocked back and forth until free.
Noni Stapleton in CHAROLAIS at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Hunter Canning
 Jimmy and Siobhan, thrown together in work, are soon enough together in the biblical sense as well. And, good Irish folk that they are, not long after Siobhan is with child, albeit without husband. Yet. Siobhan imagines a future of happy farm family, but two things stand in her way. The most formidable is Jimmy’s mother. Jimmy’s mum is not generally receptive to Siobhan in the best of times, and Jimmy is worried how she will react to Siobhan’s news.
Less obviously formidable, but with a greater hold on Jimmy’s heart is the beautiful Charolais cow. Jimmy has a devotion to that cow that frustrates and later infuriates Siobhan. It is a nearly unbreakable bond, so what is Siobhan supposed to do?
Telling more might ruin the story of Charolais, and the story is pitch perfect with a few surprises left. How much of this terrific play and pacing is director / developer Bairbre Ni Chaoimh’s work and how much is Noni Stapleton’s is hard to judge. But it is easy to judge that the final project is impressive in humor, scope and heart .
Charolais | Playwright: Noni Stapleton | Director: Baribre Ni Chaoimh | Cast: Noni Stapleton |website

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Would You Want to Know Your Future?


Bruce Norris’ A Parallelogram is a tightly written, fascinating exploration of one of life’s “big questions”. What difference would it make to you if you knew your own future. In particular to know that your future was pretty much set. Would it frustrate you, gnaw at you and effect your next actions? Would you bother still going through the motions? Could you change what has been precast? Can you be a better person if you tried?

Director Michael Grief takes this idea and runs with it, and aided by a terrific cast. Celia Keenan-Bolger is Bee, the woman who learns what her future holds. She struggles against what is to come, alternating between passivity and annoyance that she can’t change it in any major way. Stephen Kunken is Jay, her boyfriend and the unfortunate recipient of most of Bee’s frustration. Julian Castano is JJ, the Latino young man who loves Bee with all her quirks. And Anita Gillette is the older Bee, back to watch and talk with her younger self.
Stephen Kunken, Juan Castano, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Anita Gillette (phto: Joan Marcus)

In the first act, older Bee can only be seen by younger Bee. Other characters can neither see nor hear her. Jay gets a whiff of her cigarette smoke and keeps accusing younger Bee of smoking, causing one of those minor tiffs that blow up into a major argument. When Bee finally tells Jay what is happening he is, obviously, dubious.

The scene then shifts forward a few months. Bee is in the hospital, being tested for delusions. She has sunk into a depression. Jay is trying to help, in his own self-involved and clumsy way. JJ has gotten more entwined with their lives and Bee shows up, this time as a Doctor. Younger Bee recognizes her, and the two women (or one woman from two different times) verbally spar some more. Less about the present situation than the future they share.  To younger Bee’s frustration, the Doctor version of her adds asides and jokes that only the younger version can hear. She says things about Jay to his face, but only younger Bee hears them. Which raises the question is this real or an actual delusion?

I loved A Parallelogram right up until the last 60 seconds. If it had ended 1 minute earlier I could honestly say it was a great show. But the coda took out the key fulcrum of the play, was this real or a delusion. And it ripped the question of personal responsibility away. I am frustrated here. I want you to see this excellent show, but I passionately want them to remove the last 60 seconds. It makes a great show a bit of a time-wasting muddle.

A Parallelogram | Playwright: Bruce Norris | Director: Michael Grief | Cast: Juan Castano, Anita Gillette, Celia Keenan-Bloger, Stephen Kuken | website

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Paintings and Songs Enliven Dear Jane


The author of Dear Jane is Joan Beber, who has made a name for herself with her paintings and performance art. Here she is expanding into the territory of playwright and is not as successful. The best parts of Dear Jane are the imagery and paintings. These visual pieces tend to keep the continuity of the show together, working against a confusing non-linear and non-traditional structure.
Dear Jane is seemingly the story of the author, Joan Beber, here called Julie (Jenny Piersol). Juie is writing the story of her life in vignettes. Julie is a twin of Jane (Amada Rose), and many of the vignettes are framed as letters or discussion between the two women. We move in time between 1940s and the present as Julie grows up, gets married, gets divorced, gets degrees and creates art. The story is a reflection back onher own life.
This life story is told in a non-linear format, with jumps and starts in the order which the fictional Julie is ready to tackle her demons. Julie gives us clues as to what is important, what is still painful and what she has come to terms with. 
Jane (Amanda Rose) looks on as Julie (Jenny Peirsol) and her boyfriend Michael Romeo Ruocco  chat. Photo by Russ Rowland
This technique is further complicated by the manner in which the play is presented. Dear Jane is presented as a rehearsal by a community theater group. This gives the playwright the ability to not only reorder things in the play, but to change that reorder on the fly in this “rehearsal” and for everyone to step out of character. Either format, the non-linear storytelling or the rehearsal path, would be challenging, but together they force the audience to really work in order to follow the show. It is often not successful.
There are some touching moments, some beautiful singing and some very trite moments. Throughout the show, the specter of Jane haunts the stage. Sometimes Julie and Jane interact, sometimes they eye each other wistfully and sometimes Jane watches the proceedings with a detached bemusement. It is unclear if Dear Jane is an explanation, an apology or proclamation, and the wandering ghost of Jane doesn’t help clear it up.
Outside of Jane and Julie, the other five actors play various roles, major and minor. The acting is exceptionally good, but the characters are rather one dimensional – which makes sense since these are Julie’s remembrances of the characters. I found Dear Jane more rapid-fire musings than a fully realized play. I think the author’s background in performance art may not be serving her well in this medium.
Dear Jane | Playwright: Joan Beber | Director: Katrin Hilbe | Cast: Holly Cinnamon, Jon Kovach, Jenny Piersol, Amada Rose, Machael Romeo Ruocco, Brandon Timmons, Santina Umbach | Website