Oh My Sweet Land (The Play Company)

Written and directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi, Oh My Sweet Land is being staged in kitchens throughout New York City.  The play was inspired by the stories Mr. Zuabi heard when he travelled to Syrian refugee camps in Amman, Jordan.  For this piece, Nadine Malouf performs this solo show while preparing kibbeh, a popular Middle Eastern dish of bulgur, onions, ground meat and spices.  While cooking, she tells us stories.  One is about Ashraf, her Brooklyn lover and a Syrian exile, who she pursues abroad when he returns home to rescue his family.  What will she find when she gets there?

Quite a few stories are told in this deceptively simple play.  Because the dialogue is so efficient and the setting so intimate, the experience is akin to inviting someone into your home not only to share their life but also to deliver news from around the world.  And since this is such a small space, there is no disappearing into the dark theater with a large audience.  This actress intensely meets your gaze.  This is serious stuff.

Ms. Malouf is exceptional here.  The structure of the play allows her to display many emotions and inner thoughts.  From eight feet away, I could see the tears well up in her eyes, full of liquid, sadness, concern, hope and despair.  Unlike the television, newspaper or internet, it’s not really possible to look/click away.  You are confronted with the thought of fellow human beings in distress.  She seems to be making the kibbeh almost as therapy.

We hosted two performances of Oh My Sweet Land for fifteen people each night.  The Play Company brings this all to life with chairs, lighting, sound effects which, from my seat, made our kitchen disappear.  In replacement, empathy.  For the Syrian people, for our immigrants and for humanity’s continual struggle to allow others the pursuit of happiness.  At a little more than an hour long, that’s quite a piece of theater.


On the Shore of the Wide World (Atlantic Theater Company)

Winner of the 2006 Olivier Award for Best Play, On the Shore of the Wide World was written by Simon Stephens, a 2015 Tony winner for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  The title of this play is taken from  the John Keats’ poem “When I have Fears That I May Cease to Be.”  Here is an excerpt:  Never have relish in the faery power / Of unreflecting love—then on the shore / Of the wide world I stand alone, and think / Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

That quote informs the mood of this play quite effectively.  The setting is Stockport and London in 2004 and centers around the Holmes clan, a working class British family.  This is domestic drama with tensions between brothers, parents and children, parents and their parents, and grandchildren and their grandparents, not to mention between the grandparents as well.  In a way, everyone stands alone and they go forth through life trying to figure it all out for themselves while attempting to see (or not see) other points of view.  It’s a quietly devastating play filled with a pile of interesting, flawed, rich characters.

I cannot imagine that this is an easy play to stage as there are so many scenes and locations, with some of very short duration.  Nicely directed by the Atlantic Theater’s Artistic Director Neil Pepe, we clearly follow the numerous story arcs.  There is tons of movement here:  from homes, city buses and taxis to abandoned hotels with lighting effects illuminating the way.  The staging mirrors the characters’ need for emotional movement as they each consider their lives and their choices, both in the past and towards the future.  All of this adds up to great stuff performed by a stellar cast of actors.  In a beautifully restrained way, the entire ensemble adds layers and layers of meaning and depth.

On the Shore of the Wide World has a lot to say… and not say.  “Of the wide world I stand alone, and think.”  Indeed.


KPOP (Ars Nova)

K-pop refers to South Korean popular music notable for its wide range of musical and visual elements.  Songs typically can touch on one or a mixture of pop, R&B, hip hop, rock and electronic musical genres incorporated from the West.  K-pop is a fusion of synthesized music, sharp dance routines and fashionable, colorful outfits.  This is big business entertainment, with young trainees living in regulated environments spending many hours a day learning music, dance, foreign languages and other skills.  Popular?  Psy’s “Gangnam Style” was the first music video to reach over one billion views on You Tube.  A viewing today shows 2.95 billion views.

KPOP is the latest full production at Ars Nova, the theater company committed to developing and producing works by artists in the early stages of their careers.  Perfect example:  before Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail’s Freestyle Love Supreme.  KPOP is performed at the new A.R.T/New York theater space which can house this larger scale, multi-floor piece.  The results are decidedly mixed.

Upon entering a black box space, we meet the owners of JTM, the company that develops talent and wants to make K-pop popular in America.  From that point, the audience splits up and travels through an immersive theater experience, exploring the “factory” where training occurs.  While some of the segments were brief, all of them seemed a bit of a slog, as was the entire evening.  (I’m ignoring the technical delays since this was a preview performance.)  The book was written by Jason Kim, who co-conceived this piece with Woodshed Collective, an immersive theater company.  The story touches on racism, age, appearance and nationalism as we consider, for one, whether the artists may be selling out to reach the American market.  A lot of themes here, both rushed and underdeveloped, in combination with scenes which felt overlong and slow.  The tone varied uncomfortably between satire and documentary, with awkward moments of audience participation.

By far the best segment is the one with MwE backstage.  She’s the current top star who unfortunately is now 26 years old.  The big finale was fun and I loved the song “KPopsicle.”  KPOP is not the best immersive theater experience in New York but it is an ambitious attempt.



Puffs, Or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic

Are you eagerly anticipating next season’s soon-to-be impossible ticket, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two?  (Registration for tickets starts October 1st.)  Have you read all the books and seen all the movies?  Is Moaning Myrtle your favorite ghost of all time?  Does the idea of sticking a Land O’Lakes label on a brown beer bottle make you laugh?  If you answered yes to some of these questions, perhaps Puffs is the diversion you need.

I have read all the books and loved the series.  My favorite was The Prisoner of Azkaban.  I’ve seen some of the movies.  The Pensieve, a magical memory bowl, was a remarkable plot device.  So I have enough knowledge to comment on Puffs, Or:  Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic.  This play is a take on the series from the point of view of the House of Hufflepuff, the most underrated of the four houses in Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.  If you care not, stop reading now.  This show is not for you.

If you are fully aware that the Puffs were perennial losers in competitions and you’d like to see them try again to be great wizards, then this madcap sendup of the series is a silly, funny, entertaining comedy.  The audience roared when a joke was made about the book, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  Only after looking it up afterward did I learn that it was “written” by a Puff.  Yes, it will help to be a total Potter nerd to get every joke.  Those who did – and there were many – seemed to be beside themselves with joy.  For the rest of us, this was ninety minutes of well-directed fun with a high energy cast and some very impressive staging.  One more thing to consider before you go.  The Puffs are a little over Harry Potter, his hero attitude and those two friends of his.  They did not heed the “he who will not be ridiculed” motto.



The Suitcase Under the Bed (Mint Theater Company)

Jonathan Bank, the Artistic Director of The Mint Theater, specializes in finding and producing neglected or forgotten plays.  Teresa Deevy was “discovered” while researching female Irish playwrights.  Her plays were produced in the 1930s and then forgotten.  Since she had been previously published, the search eventually took him to the two-century old family home in Waterford, Ireland.  Stuffed under a bed were two suitcases filled with a treasure trove of typescripts.  Working with Teresa’s grand-niece, the Deevy project was born.

From 2010 through 2013, the Mint produced three of her plays:  Wife to James Whelan, Temporal Powers and Katie Roche (currently running in Dublin’s Abbey Theater).  All three plays were excellent.  What is remarkable about her work is the feminist point of view at the time they were written.  The Suitcase Under the Bed is a collection of four of her short plays, two of which have never been produced or published.  One of those, Holiday House, was so good I wanted a whole play with these characters.  Two brothers going to the family vacation home for the month of August with their wives, one of which had been previously engaged to the other brother.  Tossed into the mix is a nervous, judgmental sister and their Mater.

Two of the other three shorts were impressive as well, notably the final piece, “The King of Spain’s Daughter.”  Aidan Redmond plays Peter Kinsella, a labourer and the father of Annie (Sarah Nicole Deaver), a “wild” child with boys on her mind.  Mr. Redmond appeared in all four plays and inhabited a completely different character in each one.  Surrounded by a very talented cast, he was a standout.  (A side benefit from attending this production is being able to watch actors change roles.)  One of the plays, “In the Cellar of my Friend” did not capture me as much as the others did.

In addition to selecting the shorts to be played, Jonathan Bank directed The Suitcase Under the Bed.  As is often the case with the Mint Theater, the acting was exceptionally good.  The production values at the Mint are usually very high for an off-Broadway company.  Here, the costumes by Andrea Varga were right on target.  If you haven’t had the opportunity to encounter any of Teresa Deevy’s work, this is a nice introduction.


Napoli, Brooklyn (Roundabout Theater Company)

Meghan Kennedy’s Napoli, Brooklyn is set in 1960 in the tenement house of an Italian family, the Muscolino’s.  The mother is an excellent cook, while the father is a rough, abusive, difficult man.  There are three daughters who share a bed:  Tina, the strong, silent type; Vita, the sharp-tongued smart one; and Francesca, the spirited, energetic one who has recently chopped her hair to look boyish.  The play begins after one of the sisters has been sent off to live with nuns after she had a major altercation with her father.

The first act ambles through as we try to grasp the not-quite-right family life and some of their outside relationships such as the neighborhood butcher, a best friend and a coworker.  Everyone in the family is unhappy in some way and you can sense the tension bubbling under the surface.  Then a major event happens in their neighborhood which changes everything.  Act II propels us forward to a Christmas Eve dinner where the anticipated fireworks finally appear.

The play is stuffed with contrivances which pull the proceedings so far from believability that the ending ultimately crushes under the weight of so much junk to wrap up.  The butcher and mother relationship in particular is overwrought and overwritten.  I will say, however, that this play was ambitious and character rich.  The mother’s monologue near the end was beautiful and touchingly performed by Alyssa Bresnahan.  The director, Gordon Edelstein (Artistic Director of the Long Wharf Theater) did a fine job pacing the cast through this slow burn of a play through its explosions.  The simple, effective set by Eugene Lee (Wicked, Bright Star) effortlessly supported the transitions from place to place and scene to scene without overwhelming the staging (unlike Marvin’s Room).

My favorite moments of the play involved the eldest sister Tina (Lilli Kay) and her own slow burn of a life as an uneducated factory worker.  Ms. Kay and Shirine Babb as her co-worker, created a fully realized story arc with portrayals that grew organically from beginning to end.  Everyone in the cast was at least fine and there were quite a few scenes that were excellent.  On the whole, Napoli, Brooklyn reminded me of Naples, Italy – a bit rough around the edges but not without its pleasures.



Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

What’s better then grabbing a Kir Royale (or two) and a Croque Monsieur in Greenwich Village prior to a matinee performance of Sweeney Todd?  Nothing.  Probably my favorite musical, I’ve seen the original (on video), the 1989 and 2005 Broadway revivals and now this off-Broadway incarnation three times.  This visit was expressly to see a friend, Liz Pearce, understudy the role of Mrs. Lovett.

My favorite version of this show still belongs to John Doyle’s 2005 revival starring Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone with Lauren Molina’s super fragile Johanna.  I went back a second time with my daughter because it was not to be missed.  A stripped down staging and orchestration with the actors playing the instruments, we were treated to an intimacy to Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics that added even more dimensions (and levels of appreciation) to an already classic musical.  In the current version, the Barrow Street Theater is reconfigured into an actual pie shop, where you can actually have a pie before the show.  It’s intimate, a little claustrophobic, in your face and abundantly entertaining.

The cast is changing again this month but I’ve seen both the British pair who brought this version from London as Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett (Jeremy Secomb, Siobhan McCarthy) and also Norm Lewis and Carolee Carmello.  In supporting roles, I loved Alex Finke as Johanna and Matt Doyle’s Anthony and Jamie Jackson’s Judge Turpin were the best I’ve ever seen.  And another Mrs. Lovett!  Ms. Pearce gave a terrific performance, nailing the humor.  Norm Lewis’ Sweeney was even darker than I remembered.  Riveting stuff.

If you can, go seen this.  If you’ve never seen it, even better.  As Sweeney Todd continues to be restaged, reimagined and recast, this macabre masterpiece defines great theater.  More hot pies !


Curvy Widow

Curvy Widow has taken an express train to off-Broadway, first performed in Asheville, North Carolina ten months ago then moved to New Jersey’s  George Street Playhouse before quickly getting booked here at the Westside Theater.  The autobiographical book is by Bobby Goldman, the widow of Broadway playwright and Academy award winning screenwriter James Goldman (The Lion in Winter and Follies).  By the end of the first song, the husband is dead and Bobby is no longer “Under Control.”

Curvy Widow is the match.com name used by Bobby when she finally decided to move on with her life and “The Rules for Whittling Down” was a very funny, well-staged song on how to take her 172 “matches” down to a more actionable quantity of suitors.  Think Rue McClanahan in Golden Girls but without the constraints of television language restrictions.  A little racy and funny.  Unfortunately, the entire show is stuck in bad sitcom land and many jokes and musical numbers are flat.

Broadway veteran Nancy Opel (Urinetown, Honeymoon in Vegas) plays Bobby and is accompanied by three men (Ken Land, Alan Muraoka and Christopher Shyer) who play assorted male characters such as her “shrink,” doctor and assortment of dates.  This part of the show works best and all of them are very good and fun to watch, even when the material is cliché or ridiculous.  Bobby’s three women friends also have various roles, primarily as her best friends, but have nothing significant to do or say, which is a missed opportunity.  There is definitely an audience here for this type of musical comedy.  Even the inane “Gynecologist Tango” number generated a few guffaws.  But the laughs are not frequent enough and the thoughtful ending, while effective, comes without the benefit of enough depth along the journey to get us to the same place as Bobby.  This production of Curvy Widow is probably as good as it can be.




Ghost Light (Third Rail Projects)

In 2012, I was introduced to Third Rail Projects, self-described “creators of site-specific, immersive and experiential performance.”  Then She Fell was an awesome combination of hospital ward, the writings of Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland and only fifteen audience members per show.  Two of us attended that show, were separated right at the start and did not see each other again until the end.  The show was magical, thought provoking and is still running in Brooklyn.  In 2016, I ventured into The Grand Paradise, set in a late 1970s resort purported to contain the fountain of youth.  The second show was a bit larger in scale but I would guess no more than forty people.  The connecting thread of these works is clever scenery, dance, storytelling and audience members who remain silent passengers and voyeurs throughout.

After those two experiences, I was definitely planning to see Ghost Light, a big time move up in exposure for this company to the Claire Tow theater in Lincoln Center.  An appropriate upgrade as this piece is all about theater and performance from a behind-the-scenes, almost dreamlike perspective.  We travel backstage, into hallways, look down from the balcony and take it all in.  Like their other shows, Ghost Light is a combination of great mood setting, overlapping scenes viewed from different perspectives and dance.  The sheer mechanics of moving an audience of more than one hundred in ever changing group sizes and formations was impressive.  As far as the content is concerned, some moments were great, some were odd yet fun, while others were a tad boring, especially the visually stunning but ultimately overlong ending.  I can’t wait to see what’s next for this troupe.

Interactive, immersive theater has been successfully settling in here in New York with shows like the long-running Sleep No More.  Try one.  And if you can be comfortable in a very small group while in the presence of the White Queen, definitely go see Then She Fell.  I may need to go back again this fall.


Derren Brown: Secret (Atlantic Theater)

At the top of the show, we are asked not to divulge the secrets of Derren Brown:  Secret.  Not to worry as I would be hard pressed to explain all of what occurred on the stage.  Mr. Brown is an accomplished mentalist in the U.K. and he has co-written this very entertaining piece.  Over the course of two and a half hours, people are chosen and he plays mind reading games with them.  I think I could guess how a couple of the tricks were executed.  But since there were so many of them culminating in a mind-blowingly outstanding finale, I’ll leave my comments as just go see him whenever you can.  A fun evening.