Hindle Wakes (Mint Theater Company)

A young woman from the mill-town Hindle returns home to her parents after a weekend getaway.  Wakes Weeks began as religious festivals but then became secular (bank) holidays where factories would close down up to ten days.  Those who could afford it might spend their time at Blackpool, a local English seaside resort akin to New York’s Coney Island.  Written by Stanley Houghton, Hindle Wakes essentially is the aftermath of “spring break” circa 1912.

One hundred years ago, this play was an enormous hit in England, subsequently made into four films, two in the silent era.  A Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University banned its students from all theaters performing the play.  The Guardian wrote that Hindle Wakes “not only scandalized playgoers, but persons who had never been inside a theater and who were never likely to visit one joined in the general outcry.”  When the play landed on Broadway that same year, it failed largely due to a negative New York Times review.  During a 1922 revival, the paper changed its mind and said “it is now, as it was then … a shrewd, and nourishing and artful comedy.”  Ninety five years later, the Mint Theater has mounted Hindle Wakes for the first time in New York since then.

What was going on in the minds of young men and women, and also their parents, back in the day?  Our playwright, Stanley Houghton, wrote over a dozen plays, many of which called for women’s sexual and economic freedom.  One hundred years later, this play remains topical.  Directed by Gus Kaikkonen, a frequent Mint collaborator, the production values (set, costumes) are top notch and the cast is excellent.  Even the maid, in a bit part, is perfect.  This play takes place over two days following a spring break dalliance in 1912.  What was on the playwright’s mind back then?  What do these characters think and why?  Simple and straight forward, a serious comedy with big ideas, Hindle Wakes is a rediscovered classic.  My advice: run to see this one.

www.minttheater.org

The Homecoming Queen (Atlantic Theater Company)

Set in the Imo State of present day Nigeria, Ngozi Anyanwu’s play The Homecoming Queen has been given its world premiere in the smaller, more  intimate Stage 2 space of the Atlantic Theater Company.  The result is equally a feeling of community and of eavesdropping on one house whose daughter, the bestselling author Kelechi, has returned home from New York after fifteen years away.  Her father is still alive, proud but obviously much older.  There is a lot to talk about and also not talk about, as in many families.  Kelechi anxieties are front and center; she’s taking pills to help herself cope.

The play itself is excellent with a structure that goes back and forth in time as the story unfolds.  We see these characters peel back their histories.  The best friend from childhood.  The new house girl.  The “chorus” represented by four women who are the townsfolk, neighbors, gossips, historians and singers, namely, the community.  Directed by Awoye Timpo (Associate Director of last year’s great Broadway revival of Jitney), the effect of surrounding the audience with these ladies ingeniously centers the listener to a place.  You never completely lose sight of them which nicely conveys the density of this area’s population (thanks, Google).

No plot spoilers here.  Kelechi, our Homecoming Queen is played by Mfoniso Udofia, a playwright (last season’s Sojourners and Her Portmanteau) who confidently returns to acting in this emotionally fulfilling role.  Excellent work throughout this cast, notably by Segun Akande as Obina, the childhood friend who has found success in his homeland.  In a week where the President of the United States was quoted as having referred to African nations as “shitholes,” the need for theater to continue to shine spotlights on all peoples and their stories remains vitally important.  A beautifully realized piece, The Homecoming Queen is most welcome in my worldview.

www.atlantictheater.org

Ballyturk (St. Ann’s Warehouse)

I rarely hate something so completely as to want to run out of the theater to save my mortal soul.  In this 90 minute exercise of pretentious drivel, I had to (had to!) peek at my phone to see how much more boredom there was left to endure.  I was about 65 minutes into Ballyturk.  65 minutes more than needed and a full 25 minutes to escape.  Do I leave now?  That was the tension created by this play.  If you are a fan of Beckett and Waiting for Godot, perhaps you may find some sort of diverting forgettable thrill.  For everyone else, save your cash.

Promised as “gut-wrenchingly funny,” this Irish import was written and directed by Enda Walsh, the Tony winning book writer for the exquisite musical Once and the co-creator (with David Bowie) of the stylized mess called Lazarus.  Third time for me is not a charm.  For those readers still on the fence:  two men in a Ballyturk flat go about their lives seemingly playacting.  Dancing around to records, flouring themselves, getting dressed, being silly, having conversations which may or may not be real, imagined or past events.  None of it is funny, really.  Antic, yes.  Gut-wrenchingly hilarious, no, without any question whatsoever.

Unfortunately for Ballyturk, a visitor of sorts arrives who has one of the longest and singularly most boring monologues in the history of theater.  While that is an exaggeration for sure, the comment is much funnier than anything in Ballyturk.  The surprise last minute ending was at least interesting; inviting an opportunity to consider what this crap was all about – even if by this point, you could care less.

www.stannswarehouse.org

The Dead, 1904 (Irish Repertory Theater)

Heaps of praise have been lavished on this short story by James Joyce written as the final piece in his 1914 collection, Dubliners.  Last year, Irish Rep adapted The Dead into an immersive theater piece.  The play is performed at the American Irish Historical Society in their sumptuous Fifth Avenue digs across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Audience members arrive at once was a private mansion to join the partygoers for a bit of music, conversation and then dinner in the dining room.  Seemed like a fun idea to join an Irish clan in the early 1900s for a home holiday reception the week before Christmas.

First, the dinner option.  Regular tickets were $150 with some wine, whiskey and port served along the way.  About a dozen of us were in this category.  While you sit a little away from the action (when you are not standing, which is a lot of the time), there was no problem seeing the play.  For $300, dinner is included and you sit around the center table facing the action.  At the $1,000 level, you are at the center table amongst the actors.  The meal looked perfectly adequate, if rushed.  Not much else happens.

A few characters are late, one may or may not be drunk when he gets there. Thankfully he arrives a little tipsy.  Many sing, some dance.  Minor flirtations.  A hint of political differences.  After dinner, the audience is escorted to one of the visiting couples bed chambers to hear about Gretta’s lost love (Melissa Gilbert, Little House on the Prairie).  What follows is a brooding meditation from Gabriel (Rufus Collins) after she falls asleep.  Interior monologues may work on the page but not here.  The scene drags an already slow evening into immersive boredom.  While there are certainly worse holiday offerings in New York right now, this is a fairly expensive and  skippable option.

www.irishrep.org

Hundred Days (New York Theater Workshop)

Perhaps Hundred Days is best described as an ethereal, fragile, therapeutic, ultimately joyous musical autobiography.  Staged as a concert with intermittent dialogue, this show was created by and stars the Bengson’s with Sarah Gancher who also contributed to the book.  Shaun Bengson is a soft-spoken musician probably best described as an introvert.  Abagail Bengson is also a musician who had some major unexplained family implosion when she was a teenager.  While a much bigger personality than her husband, she is also the more fragile; a worrisome type.  The two meet in their early twenties and get married in three weeks.  Ten years later, they tell us their very intimate and quite moving story in song.

The title refers to a philosophical question: what would you do if you knew the love of your life only had one hundred days left to live?   That’s the kind of tension in Abagail’s mind.  How could she go on?  The music is sort of indie-rock meets folk pop and is performed by six talented people, including the Bengson’s.  All of them sing, play instruments and are used effectively without getting in the way of our central couple.  The staging by Anne Kauffman is beautifully austere, complementary to the story and has almost dreamlike imagery.  Movement is credited to Sonya Tayeh.

Mrs. Bengson’s singing voice is a combination of so many things that it is hard to describe – rocker, banshee, yodeler, folk singer and siren.  Given the character she plays is herself, the whole effect is somewhat unforgettable.  Very intimate reenacted conversations where the Bengson’s discuss life, dreams and fears rounds this concert to a fully satisfying piece of storytelling.  At the end, we are told that the last song of this memorable show is actually the first song they wrote together.  Based on what came before, we completely understand why it was written.

www.nytw.org

Twelfth Night, or What You Will (Classic Stage Company and Fiasco Theater)

The combination of a previously can’t-miss-whatever-they-do Fiasco Theater troupe with the 50th Anniversary year of the Classic Stage Company was a key reason for my purchasing a subscription this year.  Two Shakespeare classics were on stage this fall, As You Like It and now Twelfth Night.  Neither was good.

Twelfth Night is a gender bending comedy believed to have been written for a twelfth night’s entertainment to close the Christmas season.  A comedy, the play also supports musical interludes which would have been expected at that time.  I have seen other versions of this play, on Broadway with Mark Rylance in 2014 and in a two part off-off Broadway mash up by Bedlam.  Familiarity with the play helped me understand what was going here but it did not relieve me from my boredom.  A guy two seats down leaned forward towards the end of Act II, elbows on knees, face in hands, seemingly exasperated.  An elderly lady left early and looked so fragile that a cast member helped walk her to the exit.  It wasn’t just me.

The balance between comedy and drama here was off.  The comedic scenes were, while better, a little too improv for my tastes.  You could see and hear the cast sitting in the background laughing harder than the audience.  There are some nice singing voices in the mix but the songs had the effect of slowing the play down.  Clowning, musicality and cleverness got in the way of storytelling, not normally something I’d expect from this group. Their outstanding take on Cymbeline put Fiasco on the map in 2011.  This one’s not the choice to introduce yourself to this company.

www.classicstage.org

www.fiascotheater.com

theaterreviewsfrommyseat/asyoulikeit

Desperate Measures (York Theater Company)

A “bed trick” borrowed from Shakespeare’s Measure to Measure.  A western setting.  In jail, a murderer with less than a full deck is introduced in “The Ballad of Johnny Blood.”  It’s the 1800s, “somewhere out west.”  Some ladies see themselves best suited for the convent.  Others feel the draw of the saloon and the oldest profession.  Add in a drunken priest losing his religion.  The Sheriff is handsome and a great guy, we reckon.  Governor von Richterhenkenpflichgetruber (Nick Wyman, terrific) is in charge and possibly corrupt.  So far so good !

A pile of fun songs nicely sung by talented cast.  A book, however, which can’t quite nail the Shakesperean rhyming thing.  Though you will hear Nietzsche rhymed with peachy.  A missed opportunity for greatness but plenty to enjoy.  I’ll pretend not to notice the elderly ladies who find a darkened theater the most natural place to go purse diving slowly and thoroughly, only to crinkle their wrappers and smackingly enjoy their treats more wetly and louder than you’d supposed was even remotely decorous.  Seriously, it was annoying.

Back to our western, the “let’s put on a show” Desperate Measures.  This new musical is almost unbelievably old school.  Circa 1945, perhaps.  She’s a nun-to-be, he’s a kind hearted Sheriff.   Unfortunately we fall a touch short on chemistry (or possibly direction).  If these roles had been played by Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster,  there might be musical comedy heaven created with this material.

Conor Ryan is dimwitted Johnny Blood and also a gifted comedic actor and outstanding singer, notably in “Good to be Alive.”  Lauren Molina (Sweeney Todd, Rock of Ages) strips to “It’s Getting Hot in Here” and generally plays it big and Shirley Temple-flavored Mae West brassy.  These two knock the show’s best number “Just for You” out of the park.  At that moment Desperate Measures, the timeless (old?) musical, shines.

www.yorktheater.org

The Last Match (Roundabout Theater Company)

Upon entering the theater, the US Open stadium tennis court is in full view.  A blue hardcourt playing surface.  The huge lighting fixture at the top.  Scoreboards on both sides.  And somehow, both the inner stadium wall and a large open sky.  Not a literal translation but theatrical and perfectly rendered for the play which follows.  I open the Playbill and see that the set designer is Tim Mackabee, who I just praised this past week for his outstanding work on Describe the Night.  I look forward to what he does next, he’s that good.

The Last Match takes place over the course of a semi-final men’s tennis game at the US Open.  Tim is the reigning American golden boy of tennis but having a slump year at age 30.  Sergei is the up and coming new Russian player.  A whole match ensues over ninety minutes.  The players mime the points and communicate their thoughts.  In between (and there is a lot of in between), there are flashbacks and asides involving both of their love interests.  Tim is married to ex-tennis pro, Mallory.  Sergei’s girlfriend, who eschews French fries for her figure, is Galinda.  Both ladies spend time in the player’s boxes during the match.

As fair disclosure, I am a tennis fan who attended the Australian Open last January.  So I probably have a natural affinity for this material.  Frankly, as described above, it is hard to imagine an exciting game of make believe tennis.  Improbably, that is exactly what happens.  Foot fault.  Line drive to one’s players head.  Aces and double faults.  Passing shots and emotions.  The zeal to devote one’s existence to a sport.  The support structure that is needed.  The hunger to get to the top ten.  The panic of aging and falling from the pinnacle.  The need to go to the diner for a grilled cheese and bacon sandwich while in NYC.  It’s all there.

An entertaining play that zips along with plenty to say, The Last Match is performed by a company of four actors who seem to naturally inhabit their characters.  At the performance I saw, Tim was played by understudy JD Taylor (Sundown, Yellow Moon).  He was excellent.  His nemesis, Sergei, embodied by Alex Mickiewicz (Long Days Journey Into Night), is the flashier role.  He’s the new bad boy with plenty of quips to go along with the thick accent.  He was also excellent and very funny.  This play was written by Anna Ziegler, best known for the West End’s Photograph 51 starring Nicole Kidman.  The Last Match is a nice example of a really good evening at the theater.

www.roundabouttheatre.org

theaterreviewsfrommyseat/describethenight

Who’s Holiday

Titus McCall submitted his review for Who’s Holiday on the New York Theater Guide website.  He concluded:

Why was this written? Why was that done?
It doesn’t seem fittin’, ‘Cause this show’s no fun.
Boo-WHO.

I laughed out loud.  Then the New York Times weighed in with a more positive view:  “the show belongs to the evergreen subgenre of holiday offerings that proffer to dirty up Christmas while ultimately reveling in its spirit.”  Wow.  Despite being impressed by the word evergreen as an adjective for subgenre, I had to know.  Which review was right?

I attended Who’s Holiday to hear them play their pantookas.

I hoped it would make me laugh something Bazookas.

(Get It?   Bazooka Joe?)

If you thought that joke was lame, so is this show.

Cindy Lou Who, impregnated, now a trailer trash ho.

Despite the extraordinary presence of Lesli Margherita (Matilda, Dames At Sea, NYMF’s Matthew McConaughey vs. the Devil) as the older, cocktail swilling, cigarette smoking, drug taking Cindy … you get the picture.  On the plus side, the set was nearly perfect.  That’s not enough to recommend this underbaked comedy with its ill-advised, dreadfully dull poignancy at the end.  Boo Who indeed.  As far from evergreen as the metal trees in A Charlie Brown Christmas.

www.whosholiday.com

www.newyorktheatreguide.com

theaterreviewsfromyseat/NYMFmatthewmcconaughey

Spamilton

In 1982, Forbidden Broadway started skewering musicals; their songs, their plots and, most famously, their stars.  Lord knows we still laugh when Carol Channing is Channeled.  The current incarnation has a very specific target, the immense Hamilton.  And its superstar creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda.  The show is big enough and good enough to poke a little fun at.  Yes, some of the targets are obvious, like Daveed Diggs’ big hair.  Others are more clever, and slightly insider.  If, when those two big egos, Sondheim and Miranda, get together to talk about rapping and word count, our actress starts singing, “and another hundred words just came out of my mouth.”  If that is funny to you, this short, entertaining little Off-Broadway show is sure to please.

Spamilton covers a large portion of the musical and its most famous numbers.  Early on we learn that Mr. Miranda is not going to throw away his shot … to fix the Broadway musical forever.  The variation here:  “I’m not going to let Broadway rot.”    For those who enjoy word play and very, very gentle and respectful roasting, there is a lot to like.  Even Barbra Streisand pops by because she “wants to be in the film when it happens.”  And when Eliza sings about the orphanage she is opening, well, I’m sure you can figure out our next guest appearance.

The entire show is fun, if a bit uneven.  (The mash ups of current shows were more hilarious in concept.)  The talented and hard working cast impresses, notably for strong singing and inspired clowning.  Dan Rosales as Lin/Hamilton was excellent.  The staging and the choreography was clever and quick moving.   This show moves fast and is a solid addition to the Forbidden Broadway franchise.  Spamilton is still running in New York and Los Angeles.

www.spamilton.com

theaterreviewsfrommyseat/hamilton