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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When audience members trickle out of a performance, it is usually not a good sign. When you yourself want to leave really badly and fairly early on during the proceedings, it is definitely not a good sign. When you hang on and make it to the end, you lament the two hours of life lost. Well at least we celebrated October 17th as the 50th Anniversary of the Public Theater, which opened its doors for the first time with Hair.
Elevator Repair Service is a talented company I have seen twice. The improbably phenomenal Gatz in which every word of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was read and staged over a multi-part eight hour marathon. Then there was Arguendo, a dramatization of a Supreme Court hearing. The company has a way with words. Shakespeare has a way with words. Why the epic fail here?
Measure for Measure is a five act play. Here it is reduced to about 2:10 over one act. How is this accomplished? By speed performing nearly all of the text. What flows out of the actors mouths are mostly unintelligible words with not really enough time to convey any meaning or story. If you do not read the synopsis or know the play, I cannot imagine there would be any way to follow the action. Maybe they were going for farce? Slapstick? If that’s the case, buffoonery needed to happen way more frequently. And actually be funny. And also not crammed briefly at the end when our relentless boredom overtook any connection to the stage.
An unwatchable mess. A huge disappointment.
A quote from the character of The Son: “I pay for her life, my brothers and I. All of it, for years. And I want to stop paying for it.” He is referring to his mother, widowed at the beginning of the play. The Son is frankly not a big fan, to the say the least. She left the family when he was a boy. And now mother receives help from her children as she starts slipping into old age, incapable of realistically being independent anymore. The Son takes on the role of Treasurer for his mother’s financial affairs. The usual topics are touched on including housing, money, health, forgetfulness and decline.
What separates this play from the usual, however, is how much this young author packs into 95 minutes. We start with The Son (Peter Friedman, excellent) speaking directly to the audience in a confessional tone lamenting that he is going to hell. We overhear phone conversations with the children (middle aged and older) debating their mother’s options. We watch the mother and various interactions inside and outside the family. We see ordinary lives complicated with family baggage while facing the inevitable passage of time. We consider responsibilities and how they are examined. There are so many quiet thoughtful moments that you cannot help but fill in the story from your own perspectives and personal histories.
The Treasurer felt a bit overstuffed to me and part of the ending seemed oddly fantastical and symbolically heavy handed. That said, the play is interesting and complex. The mother is played by Deanna Dunagan, the Tony Award winner from August: Osage County. Ida is selfish and not likable. The performance is so good that you both dislike and sympathize with her. Marinda Anderson and Pun Bandhu take on a bunch of roles and are also terrific. All of this is tenderly staged by the inventive David Cromer (Man From Nebraska, Tribes, The Band’s Visit, Adding Machine). The Treasurer was written by Max Posner, a young playwright worth watching. A worthwhile and uncomfortable memory play, especially recommended if this situation feels relevant to your life today.
A highly regarded 1962 book by Anthony Burgess and an even more famous 1971 Stanley Kubrick film, A Clockwork Orange has been interpreted for the stage. I have never seen the film which was a Best Picture nominee. Ten years ago I listened to the audiobook with unforgettable narration by Tom Hollander. The book is often noted on lists of best 100 books. So I was looking forward to what disturbing piece of theater this production was going to offer given the source material.
Set in a near-future English society, A Clockwork Orange begins with episodes of extreme teenage violence. The book is narrated by the protagonist, Alex, who gleefully describes his exploits with his “droogies” and then his experience with the state authorities who try to reform him. In this conceptualized stage version, the plot is given a back seat to stylized movement, lighting, and imagery. If you do not know the storyline, the play is likely to come across as murky.
This production originated in London and Jonno Davies reprises his role here as Alex deLarge, the alpha dog of the gang. The marketing (and reviews) for this production focus significantly on the cast’s sculpted torsos. Mr. Davies is not only ultra-fit, his performance is intense throughout with riveting physicality and movement. If what surrounded him was on the same level, this might have been a dystopian companion piece to this season’s excellent 1984. Instead, we are reminded that we are overdue to see the movie.
I walked into Tiny Beautiful Things with a little knowledge. I knew the play was adapted by and starred Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding). I knew it was based on a book by Cheryl Strayed. (Years ago I read her bestselling memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail.) I knew it was directed by Thomas Kail (Hamilton). And I knew that this play was sold out last year and this production was a return to a larger house; again a tough ticket.
The book Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar is based on selections from an anonymous online column Ms. Strayed wrote before Wild was published and became an Oscar nominated film. Essentially the play’s structure utilizes the advice column communications and Sugar’s responses which are often from a very personal, introspective place. This piece is delicate, sad, funny, thought-provoking, sincere, honest, devastating, life-affirming and, yes, a tiny, beautiful thing. I loved it.
Ms. Vardalos plays Sugar, a down-to-earth yet Oracle-type, working from home on her laptop. She is superb. The performance is restrained, dramatic and generous to her fellow performers, which can sometimes be hard to find in star driven vehicles. Watch her listen and you’ll see what I mean. Three actors (Teddy Cañez, Hubert Point-Du Jour and Natalie Woolams-Torres, all excellent) play the assorted letter writers seeking advice.
Filled with quotable lines and memorable monologues throughout, the result is a modulated torrent of grief, anger, confusion and neediness from subjects serious to mundane to silly. Ms. Strayed’s very personal and intimate writing style shines through beautifully. The simplicity and clarity of the staging and acting allow the emotional core to be the centerpiece. A celebration of life’s imperfect journeys, Tiny Beautiful Things is not to be missed by anyone unafraid to shed a tear. Or anyone with a beating heart.