The Wolves (Lincoln Center)

Apparently I have accidentally stumbled on my theater week with young women as the central topic.  First I saw WP Theater’s What We’re Up Against, a play focused on discrimination in the 1992 workplace.  Then I took in The Mad Ones, a musical about a teenage girl in her senior year of high school.    And last, but certainly not least, is The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe.  This is her first play, moved uptown to Lincoln Center after a hugely successful run last year off-Broadway and a finalist for the Pulitzer (won by Lynn Nottage’s Sweat).  A girl’s indoor soccer team is the focus here.  They are the wolves of the title.

We begin the play on the field with the ladies stretching and talking as in real life.  Multiple conversations happening at the same time.  Where to focus?  It doesn’t matter as this confident playwright introduces nine young ladies with distinct personalities.  The topics?  Suffice it to say that the opening dialogue travels from tampons vs. pads to the Khmer Rouge effortlessly, if you can believe that.  Over the last five to ten years, those of us who love theater have been fortunate to experience another golden age of playwriting.  The Wolves confidently joins the list with its exceptional dialogue and storytelling.

This play is so good because it makes you feel like you are eavesdropping on the team.  Their insecurities.  Their petty battles.  Their gossip.  And then there is a mystery of sorts thrown into the mix which keeps you guessing.  Directed by Lila Neugebauer, The Wolves is an ensemble piece where every character is important just as it would be on a winning team.  The girls are represented by the numbers they wear.  #46 is the young lady from out of town and new to the team.  The actress portraying her is Tedra Millan, having a breakout 2017 both on Broadway in Present Laughter and this summer in the Atlantic Theater’s On the Shore of the Wide World.  She is only one of the memorable performances here.  Great theater, superbly staged and acted; highly recommended.




The Mad Ones (Prospect Theater, 59E59)

An original musical, The Mad Ones is oddly titled.  There is a song with that name but that does not really capture what this show is attempting to do.  Sam (Krystina Alabado) is a senior in high school.  A smart girl with a best friend (Emma Hunton, excellent) who is a little wilder then she.  Think Bonnie Raitt in high school – a rock ‘n roller who is ultimately a sweetheart.  Her mother (Leah Hocking) is a practical, yet wisecracking statistician who has Ivy League dreams for her daughter.  The boyfriend (Jay Armstrong Johnson, perfect) is your simple, average, lovable guy who lives above his parent’s garage and will join the father’s tire business after graduation.

This four character piece is firmly rooted in teenage angst.  A major trauma occurs early on and is the catalyst for what follows.  All of the standard bases are covered:  sex, college, driving tests, freedom to choose one’s future and tacos.  The result is a well-intended story that gets trapped in its repetitiveness.  Perhaps there are too few people which inhabit their world.  More likely, the central character is a bit too bland with three outstanding performers circling her and stealing the songs and scenes.

The music was enjoyable and it was a treat to hear a small off-Broadway orchestra extensively playing a harp.  The lyrics, on the other hand, were fairly generic.  This musical is a small and intimate tale which too frequently relies on big belting vocals from its talented cast.  Two outstanding songs in the show, “Freedom” and “Run Away With Me” are largely sung by Sam’s best friend and the boyfriend.  Leah Hocking gets the best song in the show, “Miles to Go,” a feminist anthem about women and progress.  The song should be recorded given the current news cycle.  Women do still have “miles to go.”  It’s the peak moment in The Mad Ones.  As our lead character anguishes over which road to take in life, the other characters prove the more interesting parts of the journey.

What We’re Up Against (WP Theater)

WP (Women’s Project) Theater is the nation’s oldest and largest theater company dedicated to developing and producing work of female identified artists, especially early in their careers.  What We’re Up Against is a dark comedy by Theresa Rebeck.   Two of her plays, Seminar and Mauritius, have appeared on Broadway.  This one takes place in an architecture firm in 1992.  Krysta Rodriguez (First Date, The Addams Family)  plays Eliza, the newest member of the team.  She wants more work to do and, after five months on the job, is more than frustrated by the discrimination against her.

What We’re Up Against, therefore, is about women, the glass ceiling, the workplace and the good old boy’s club.  Characters in this play include the young, inexperienced, talentless male mouthpiece (Skylar Astin)  who gets the bigger projects.  Throw in an older woman (Marg Helgenberger) who has dutifully played “the game.”  Add in the whiskey swilling boss (Damian Young) who, when confiding with coworkers, is not afraid to use the word bitch.  The play is a combustible mix of workplace anger and overwrought clichés.

I enjoyed the play perhaps more than the production.  Because the direction is so broad and some line readings so exaggerated, the whole thing comes across as dated, cartoonish and unrealistic.  Every curse word is loudly emphasized.  Can Eliza, the most talented of the bunch, figure out a way to rise up in this male dominated world?  How and at what price?

The structure of the play, its office scenes and monologues are very good.   Jim Parrack (Of Mice and Men) as Ben was my favorite performance of the play.  We sense Eliza’s real abilities through his character.  Ben is a real person, believable amongst the chaos.  Perhaps the hyped up direction was intentional?  My view is that this rolling boil of a production would have benefitted from reducing the heat to simmer.  Then we may have squirmed more which likely was Ms. Rebeck’s intention.

Wood Calls Out to Wood (The Tank)

The Tank is a non-profit arts presenter that serves emerging artists pursuing new ideas and expressions.  Across many disciplines, including theater, comedy, dance, film, music, public affairs, and storytelling, annually they serve over 1,000 artists in more than 400 performances.  Their stated goal is to foster an environment of inclusiveness and remove the burden of cost from the creation of new work for those launching their careers and experimenting within their art form.

Wood Calls Out to Wood is an adaptation of one of my favorite paintings, Hieronymus Bosch’s 15th century triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”  A art piece with religious symbolism, the left and right panels represent Eden and hell.  The larger center panel is the garden of the title, as humanity acts with apparent free will where naked men and women engage in various pleasure seeking activities.  The painting is awesome in its details and mind-blowing in its imagery.

This theatrical piece focuses on the garden.  Then, when taking a closer look, Boschian beings begin to emerge.  Two horses in a neigh-scent relationship.  A vacant treehouse in need of a tenant.  A human with a grape for a head.  Through dialogue and sound, the audience experiences these images and characters selected from the painting.  I particularly enjoyed Connor James Sheridan as Grapehead and Will Dagger as the Horse.  However, the show is very meta, a little too much so for my taste.  An interesting experiment, Wood Calls Out to Wood is a fine diversion.

Harry Clarke (Vineyard Theater)

As a work-in-progress, downtown’s Dixon Place showcased Harry Clarke, written by and starring David Cale.  This one man play is now having its world premiere starring Billy Crudup (Arcadia, The Coast of Utopia, The Pillowman) in a major off-Broadway venue.  Harry is a shy Midwestern boy who, during his formative years in South Bend, Indiana (Go Irish!), adopts a British accent to the dismay of his father.  An inherently shy person, he eventually moves to New York and becomes the cocky Londoner, Harry Clarke.  What follows is outrageous cunning as Harry infiltrates himself into a wealthy family.

Never dull, often funny and paced like a thriller, Harry Clarke is interesting but somehow not more than that.  Billy Crudup plays everyone, going in and out of accents and characterizations, in many conversations.  The dialogue moves quite swiftly which keeps the kettle boiling but can confuse transitions slightly.

When leaving the theater, I remembered seeing Lily Tomlin’s one woman Broadway play, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe.  Hers was a tour de force performance but the play also had a moment at the end that brought a welcome, satisfying conclusion.  For me, Harry Clarke just ended.  A memory play that effectively revealed its story, gave an actor a lot of material to work with but ultimately did not have enough to say.

The Band’s Visit

Based on a 2007 film of the same name, The Band’s Visit was first produced by the Atlantic Theater Company last season.  Although I had already seen (and loved) this musical, I decided to revisit its uptown transfer to Broadway.  A band from Eqypt has been invited to play a concert in Israel but manages to get lost.  As a result, they wind up in Bet Hatikva instead of Petah Tikvah.  What’s the difference?  Upon arrival, they hear the song, “Welcome to Nowhere.”

From this point, the band and its members interact with the locals.  Rather than being an overtly political musical, The Band’s Visit is more interested in life and relationships from multiple perspectives.  The young and the not so young.  The practical and the hopelessly romantic.  And, especially, those who can hear and savor the music of life.  Like its not so distant cousin, the Tony Award winning musical Once, music is the connective tissue to drive the plot and develop characterizations in very intimate scenes.  This is a slow, quiet, funny, sad, realistic, magical, musical tour of a very ordinary town awakened by visitors.   They bring something new to cherish, if only for a moment.

Director David Cromer (The Treasurer, Tribes, Our Town, Adding Machine) sets a melancholy but beautiful mood and tempo to deliver the welcome Middle Eastern influenced music and lyrics of David Yazbek (The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels).  As the band’s leader, Tony Shalhoub (Act One) is near perfect, as usual, with the right combination of dignified and human.  Golden voiced Ari’el Stachel has one of the peak moments, singing the melodious song “Haled’s Song About Love” with Papi, one of the locals, played by Etai Benson.  However, The Band’s Visit belongs first and foremost to Katrina Lenk (Indecent) as Dina, the proprietor of the café who first greets the band.  Effortlessly sexy and seductive, bored and world-weary yet still dreaming, Ms. Lenk’s performance is equally luminous and grounded.

An excerpt from the Playbill bio from George Abud (Camal, a band member):  “I hope young Arabic kids … know there there is starting to be a place for their expression, their stories and their faces.  The Arab voice, rich in history and beautiful music, is vital in American theater.”  Indeed.

Hamilton (Chicago)

My first visit to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton was on Broadway during the first month of the run.  The hype was enormous.  The show was even better than its blaze of publicity.  I remember leaving the theater commenting that I would pay to see it again just for the lighting.  Hamilton is the rare theatrical experience where every creative element is spectacular, from the direction to the choreography to the performances.  The storytelling through the book and lyrics is perhaps even at a higher standard.  Characters are written with music and words which match their personality and stature.  Hamliton is a riveting, dense history lesson told in a wildly entertaining fashion.

After experiencing the original company and enjoying the fantastic cast album, how does Hamilton hold up?  I decided to take in a performance from the Chicago company.  Here I define “decided” as “lucky enough to score a great orchestra seat.”  The show remains brilliant.  A second viewing (and greater familiarity with the score) allows the opportunity to really take in different elements.  At one point in the second Act, I just looked at the audience.  Staring at the stage.  Focused.  There is a lot going on and much story to be told.  Hamilton demands your attention.

Another highlight for me was the chance to see different performers tackle this now iconic show.  As an example, in the performance I caught George Washington was played by Colby Lewis, a standby for the role.  A tall man, physically he loomed large over the cast around him.  Mr. Lewis’ presence and vocal abilities made George seem a bigger character than when I first saw the show (where Christopher  Jackson was a Tony nominee).  “One Last Time,” the moment our first president decides to retire and not run for reelection, was an emotionally intense highlight.  Powerful themes about democracy, immigrants, politics, war, family and sacrifice are scattered throughout this musical.

Hamilton is this generation’s West Side Story.  Similarly, the cast album has permeated our culture far beyond the Broadway diehards.  Another tale of immigrants and an analysis of their American experience and our country’s founding.  Given our painful current political maelstrom, Hamilton is essential viewing.  As the cast sings early on, “history is happening…”  Do not miss this historic piece of theatrical bliss anywhere you can.

Bewildered (Hell in a Handbag Productions, Chicago)

Halloween night.  Visiting Chicago.  What to do?  How about Bewildered? The  show is described as “a bewitching new musical?”  Some readers may (fondly) remember the television sitcom Bewitched.  Essential plot data:  Samatha Stevens is a witch married to Darren, a mortal, who works in advertising and does not want his wife to use her magical skills in suburbia.  Toss in a slew of memorable, oddball characters and let the nose twitching begin.

One of the great mothers-in-law of all time was Endora.  Here she is (naturally) played in drag by Hell in a Handbag’s Artistic Director David Cerda.  The premise of Bewildered is to consider the Bewitched experience through the eyes of the Stevens’ noisy neighbor Gladys Kravitz (Caitlin Jackson, excellent).  As musical spoofs and high camp require, there is plenty of material to work with:  Paul Lynde as Uncle Arthur, the two different actors who played Darren, daughter Tabitha and her not often seen younger brother Adam.  Each of these were funny bits but overused.

Conceptually the show is a great idea but the jokes (and characters) wear thin.  So much more material could have and should have been skewered here.  Samantha was nicely played by Elizabeth Morgan but she was not given enough to do.  The evil twin sister Serena perhaps?  Two actresses won supporting Emmy Awards for Bewitched, one was Alice Pearce, as Gladys Kravitz.  The other was Marion Lorne, unforgettable as Aunt Clara, mistakenly not included here.  (Interesting fact:  both of these actresses won their Emmy posthumously.  A camp moment?)  Darren’s boss, Mr. Tate, was represented and his wife Louise (Robert Williams) was hilariously portrayed as an alcoholic, vodka chugging Louise Jefferson.

And on Halloween, shouldn’t we have had a little Alice Ghostley?  Esmerelda was a bumbling incompetent witch who may have added needed goofiness.  Overall I’d describe Bewildered as an underdeveloped sketch with so-so music.  (The bar for drag entertainment is significantly higher these days.)  Kudos to Roger Wykes for the effective scenic design on a budget.  The office, the house, the backyard, and the kitchen all were cleverly executed by the ensemble, simply called “Magic Stage Hands.”

In 2005, Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell attempted a movie remake which the New York Times called “an unmitigated disaster.”  With Bewitched, there is so much ripe material.   With Bewildered, there is so much opportunity missed.

Torch Song (Second Stage Theater)

In 1982, Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy opened on Broadway.  After off and off-off Broadway runs, three plays were combined into a trilogy:  “International Stud” (the name of a real bar at that time), “Fugue in a Nursery” and “Widows and Children First!”  All center around Arnold, a Jewish homosexual drag queen living in New York during various phases of his life.  For his work, Mr. Fierstein won Tony Awards for both Best Play and Best Actor.  His career took off from there to include writing the books for La Cage Aux Folles, Kinky Boots and Newsies, authoring the play Casa Valentina and starring in Hairspray.

From the original New York Times’ review:  “I cannot – and do not want to – imagine anyone else playing Arnold.  Mr. Fierstein’s self-incarnation is an act of compelling virtuosity.”  Clearly after seeing this revival of Torch Song, it is easy to imagine the author’s voice and physicality throughout this play.  Happily, Michael Urie (Buyer & Cellar, Angels in America, The Government Inspector) is up for the challenge.  Although the oft-used physical description of “big” does not fit, he effectively conveys this man’s self-deprecating humor while searching for love and family.

The original four hour play was shortened for this production but the connective tissue of the plot seemed intact.  Parts of this play are very funny. Other parts are emotionally draining, even scarring.  In the third segment, Mercedes Ruhl (Lost in Yonkers, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?) plays his monstrous mother and the scene between the two of them is raw.  Also notable in this production is Ward Horton as Ed, the confused bisexual, and Jack DiFalco (Marvin’s Room) as young David.

The creative team has mounted a fine, fluid version of this play.  As a result, Torch Song seems to stand the test of time for a piece very firmly rooted in its post-Stonewall era.  This past month we have seen news reports about the President of the United States joking that the Vice President wants to hang all gay people.  If we were all lucky enough to meet Arnold thirty five years later, I expect his torch song would, sadly, still be sung.



People, Places & Things

Duncan Macmillan wowed me a few months ago as co-adapter and co-director of 1984 which travelled to Broadway from London.  Now his play People, Places & Things is being performed at St. Ann’s Warehouse.  Once again, we are rewarded with stylized and intense theatricality with a riveting central performance.  The play is about addiction and rehabilitation.  The actress is Denise Gough, who won an Olivier Award for this role and is making a big time New York stage debut.  While she will be on Broadway this spring with another London production (Angels in America), this performance should not be missed.

Ms. Gough’s character is an actress who opens the play in a tailspin while performing The Seagull.  Within minutes we are at a rehab center watching the train wreck and cannot look away.  The performance is real and complex, like the character.  As you might imagine, we are in the land of emotions, sharing, setbacks and healing.  Writing her as an actress is one of the great devices here.  We are forced to examine identity; how we present ourselves, how others see us and ultimately who we want to be.

This might sound like every other addiction story ever told.  Under the direction of Jeremy Herrin, however, this production is far from ordinary.  This play connects rehab with the theatrical process.  In that regard, we have a staging that is dynamic in the big moments while quiet in the soft moments.  Add in a few jolting flourishes of light and sound and we are forced to experience this character’s journey head on.  Icing on the cake:  it’s a great play from beginning to the unforgettable end.