It’s not hard to see the motivation for turning Big Fish, the 2003 film by Tim Burton (based on the 1998 novel by Daniel Wallace) into a Broadway musical. Its story, of a grown son who learns to appreciate the fantastic and adventurous tales with which his dying father peppered his childhood, offers the intimacy of an American family story with the spectacle of a Disney mega-musical. The fluid combination of the two is therefore the measure of the show’s success, and bookwriter John August, who wrote the film’s screenplay, has difficulty managing them deftly. It’s a credit to the original story that the musical still manages to be emotionally stirring, even though the production now playing at the Neil Simon Theatre looks and feels a bit like an elephant with a parakeet’s head.
Norbert Leo Butz plays Ed Bloom, the titular “big fish” in his small Alabama town who grew up to travel the world and have a series of adventures before marrying a girl named Sandra and raising a boy named Will. Whether those “adventures” featured giants, mermaids, and witches or quotidian compromises, failed fidelities, and the unexceptional death of a salesman (Ed’s adult profession) is precisely what Will is trying to figure out before his father dies of cancer. The show moves back and forth between the present-day world of the family and Ed’s romantic stories as remembered by Will.
Butz is given the Olympian task of playing Ed at all ages. When his character is a young, overconfident charmer, the actor is in his element, delivering an innocent-faced quarterback with a heart of bronze. But Butz’s energy bursts through the seams of Ed as an old man, so that the actor can only gesture at the sedimented bitterness that comes with such experience. It doesn’t help that Andrew Lippa’s music is often slightly below Butz’s range, leaving him literally straining for his part.
Bobby Steggert plays Will as tightly wired and mildly desperate, a pragmatist working overtime to repress his faith in magic. He and Krystal Joy Brown, who plays his young wife, must navigate the mundane, forced dialogue of the present-day plotline, in which Will’s anxiety and sense of betrayal are represented through clunking exposition: “When am I going to know who my real father is?!” Compared to the splashy fairy tale sequences, Will’s storyline can feel like an excuse to change scenes. Thankfully, Steggert is given one of the loveliest ballads, “Stranger,” and his delivery shows he’s ready for a leading role.
As Sandra, Will’s mother and the last of the play’s central foursome, Kate Baldwin has it the easiest. Essentially reprising the noble but tender matron she played in last year’s Giant at the Public (in which Steggert also starred), Baldwin effortlessly occupies the musical’s steady heart. As though in gratitude, Lippa gives her one of the more complexly moving ballads, a paean to Sandra’s marriage called “I Don’t Need a Roof.”
From the show’s opening moments, though, when a mermaid appears with a giant splash, it’s clear that director-choreographer Susan Stroman sees Ed’s elaborate stories as Big Fish’s main commercial draw. Thanks in part to William Ivey Long’s wide-ranging costumes and to Julian Crouch’s expansive sets, which multiply almost beyond belief yet never draw undue attention to themselves, these scenes are reluctantly infectious. Spotlighted by performances at once delightful (Brad Oscar, one of our great underappreciated clowns) and disarming (Ryan Andes as the giant and Kirsten Scott as Ed’s high school flame), they’re often overeager, but never completely disappointing. Lippa’s music is unsurprising but effective, and he does better at transitioning between the musical’s two modes than August’s book.
Much like the character of Edward Bloom, Big Fish tries too hard to convince us that it’s special. And yet, like Bloom, it gets us in the end. Perhaps because we’ve been living with a company of live actors for two and half hours, the final sequence in which the fantastic and the domestic worlds collide is even more affecting than in the film. A story that seems about heroism and egoism becomes, finally, a story about measuring a life, inevitably more charming for its imperfections.
Big Fish opened October 6th for an open-ended run at the Neil Simon Theatre.
Under the Radar 2020: The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, Not I, & More
Experiencing the Under the Radar Festival replaces the usual sense of familiarity with a sense of wonder.
Most of the plays I see in New York City are created by able-bodied, Anglophone playwrights. (More often than not they’re men, and more often than not they’re white.) For most New York theater critics, most of the time, “international” means “imported from London.” If it doesn’t, it probably means “directed by Ivo van Hove.” But at the Under the Radar Festival, the Public Theater’s 16-year-old annual international theatrical extravaganza, the thoughtfully curated program of new works blasts apart the predictable comfort of knowing what you’re getting yourself into.
Despite the relentless pace, marathoning in a festival setting like Under the Radar works against the critical impulse to get in and get out. Lingering in playing spaces beyond the curtain call to soak in the experience and seeking threads of connections between plays before cementing my verdict on any are rarer opportunities than I’d realized.
Experiencing the Under the Radar Festival—especially taking in shows at high quantity in quick succession—replaces the usual sense of familiarity with a sense of wonder. I haven’t adored every offering at this year’s festival, but, in each theater space, I’ve been keenly, refreshingly alert to my presence and my perspective as an audience member, to the ways in which I hear and watch and engage. I’ve looked sideways as well as dead ahead, and over the weekend, I saw two performances that required lengthy, committed conversations with the strangers sitting next to me. (And that’s especially valuable for critics, who sometimes need the reminder that other people’s opinions coexist alongside ours.)
This year’s lineup of plays has been particularly successful in making audiences acutely aware of themselves as a whole, as people who lug assumptions and anxieties and uncertainties into their seats. Take The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, the first play I saw this season and the festival’s most rewarding in its complexity. Throughout its hour-long run time, I had occasionally taken note of a long strip of yellow tape at the front of the playing space. During the play, the four actors, all of whom are neurodivergent and play characters who are neurodivergent, frequently step up to that line to speak to the audience. I imagined the line as a necessary, neon beacon for the performers to find their way forward.
Yet, in the final moments of the play, actor Simon Laherty (who also co-wrote the script with his castmates and other members of the Back to Back Theatre, an Australian company), tears the tape off the floor and exits. The gesture reads as a direct rebuke to the very ideas I’d been holding for the play’s duration: It seems to ask, ”Who are you to assume that the world of this play was built for its performers instead of for the characters they play? How can you, sitting there, decide what we, putting on a show for you up here, need in order to perform?” And I wondered, not for the first time: How did they read my mind?
Directed by Back to Back’s artistic director, Bruce Gladwin, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes stars four performers with disabilities playing characters (with their own first names) who host a sort of town hall meeting to educate the people in attendance about what it’s like to have a disability. The shared names between characters and actors are a red herring. These actors have disabilities, yes, but that doesn’t mean the characters with disabilities they play are them, any more than neurotypical roles match the neurotypical actors playing them. Again and again, through moves so subtle I’m not sure I didn’t imagine them, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes sets graceful, invisible traps for the audience’s assumptions about the capabilities of the performers and the distance between performer and character. And while I’m not entirely sure of the title’s meaning, it might have something to do with the play’s constant shadowy evasion of comforting resolutions: Never once is an audience member allowed to feel like they have mastered the art of empathy.
An early sequence seems deliberate in putting an audience on edge, as the long stretches of silence as actor Sarah Mainwaring prepares to speak made me wonder whether it was the actor or the character who had forgotten her lines. Was this discomforting silence performed or real? It’s part of the play, of course, just like most of neurotypical theater’s long pauses. But I feel sure that The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes anticipated my discomfort and my doubt. That dark cocktail of emotions following the clarifying moments—relieved admiration for the performers, guilt for the assumptions I had made, embarrassment that I had been caught feeling uneasy—stayed with me for the rest of the play’s rich hour.
In that regard, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes is very much about the audience, and there’s nimble, layered playfulness as the characters obsess around whether the imagined audience at the town hall meeting are understanding their message. And while some of the sections of the text work better than others (I’m not sure about the suggestion that everyone will be deemed disabled when artificial intelligence overtakes human thought), the actors also engage brilliantly with the supertitles, which are supposedly transcribed live at the meeting by Siri. Supertitles seem at first like a tool for us, the audience, to understand the performers’ speech. As Scott Price laments, “I have autism, and, unfortunately for me, I also have a thick Australian accent.” But the projected text also doubles as a symbol for the dehumanization of people on the spectrum. “You can tell we have disabilities as everything we say comes upon a screen,” Sarah notes with disdain. “The subtitling is offensive.”
This point of view leads to a heated argument about language and representation, with Scott claiming the label of disability: “I’m a disabled person here and I’m proud and I don’t want to weave my way around language.” But there’s no unified front in how these four characters perceive themselves and seek to be perceived.
Perhaps the play’s sharpest touch is that Michael and Scott talk down to Simon, describing him as “very childlike” and insinuating that he can’t understand what’s going on or fully participate in the meeting. Sarah calls them out on this (“You’re talking like Simon’s not even in the room”), and it’s not just an indictment of how individuals with disabilities can be dehumanized to their faces but also an illuminating glance into how internalized measures of normalcy have permeated the disability community. This quartet of characters doesn’t include heroes or victims or saints and the play relishes in catching the audience in the act of attaching such labels to the performers. It’s a play I want to see again in order to try again, to use what I’ve learned from my first encounter with Back to Back to do better the next time.
If The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes invites us to project imagined limitations on to the performers and then to watch those assumptions crumble, the creator of Samuel Beckett’s Not I at BRIC (the Brooklyn venue hosting this show) wants us to know exactly what to expect from the beginning. Yes, this is a performance—and an exhilarating one—of Beckett’s 15-minute, stream-of-consciousness monologue, first performed in 1972, but this production positions the piece at the center of a conversation with the performer, Jess Thom.
Thom, who’s best known in the U.K. for Touretteshero, an alter ego aimed at educating and spreading awareness of Tourette’s syndrome, has a number of repeating verbal tics that spark from her speech: Among the most frequent are “biscuit,” “sausage,” and “I love cats,” plus a few words and phrases that aren’t quite so “cute,” as Thom describes them. Unlike The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, the sense of unpredictability here is shared by the performers. A few times throughout the day, Thom explains, she will lose control over her body and speech, and this possibility creates a space of “genuine jeopardy.”
Such pre-show disclaimers are neither warnings nor apologies but a crucial aspect of Thom’s central work here: envisioning a truly inclusive performance space and then co-creating that space with her audience. There are no surprises in Not I. Thom explains, in detail, that her wheelchair will be lifted eight feet into the air atop a hydraulic lift; that only her mouth will be lit (as in all productions of Beckett’s monologue); that an ASL interpreter (the warmly expressive Lindsey D. Snyder) will sign every word of Beckett’s explosively high-velocity text, plus each unexpected tic along the way; that the post-performance experiences will include watching a video, discussing the monologue with a stranger, and participating in a Q&A.
The audience sits on padded benches and pillows on the floor, and Thom invites people to move and make noise during the piece as needed. An online guide to the performance even includes a sound map, alerting audience members to patches of loud noise, like applause and a section of the monologue featuring terrifying screams. With its shrieks and terrorizing, relentless intensity, Not I certainly defies expectations for the sorts of theater pieces that tend to offer relaxed, inclusive performances. But by reclaiming the character of Mouth through the lens of disability, Thom has made the jumbled thoughts of the character suddenly specific and, if not quite understandable, accessible through empathy.
Though Beckett meant for Not I to unnerve its auditors with its impenetrableness, Thom uses the text to grant entry into her own experiences of losing control over her own speech and movement. Thom’s tics remain present throughout the monologue, absorbed into the labyrinthine, spontaneous stitches of Mouth’s words. In fact, as Thom explained in the Q&A section, the tics actually multiply to fill the spaces between breakneck sections of monologue; the speed with which she articulates the text temporarily displaces her tics, “like a stone in water,” but they flow back in during Beckett’s indicated silences. “My version of silence,” Thom clarified, often sounds like eight or 10 “biscuits” in a row. If we can embrace and understand the charismatic, wisecracking Thom, we should be able to extend that compassion toward embracing and understanding her version of Mouth too.
After the performance of Beckett’s monologue, Thom sits on the floor as a short video about the making of this piece plays. In the video, Thom attributes her emergence as a performer to the exclusion and isolation she experiences as an audience member: on-stage seemed to be “the only seat in the house I wouldn’t be asked to leave.” And even as we hear her words, their truth immediately confirms itself: It’s only during this section of the performance—a few minutes in which Thom herself is not visible as she sits in the dark—that I reverted to experiencing Thom’s tics as disruption or interruption. At the exact moment I was nodding along with the video’s celebration of inclusive theatrical spaces, I was simultaneously sensing my own flashes of concern or maybe frustration or maybe fear that someone sitting beside me in the darkness was breaking the sacred rules of stillness and silence. With love and warmth and unvarying good humor, Thom manages to shine a glaring, pointed spotlight on our own limitations as compassionate stewards of the spaces we strive to co-inhabit. Then she asks us to look around the room and gives us the chance, right then and there, to change.
The limitations of the human intellect—and the human spirit—are put to the test in Grey Rock, an English-language commission by Palestinian playwright-director Amir Nizar Zuabi which premiered at La MaMa a year ago. Zuabi’s play, besides being performed in English, boasts an instantly recognizable form: It’s a family comedy, actually one of the funniest I’ve seen in a while, with a bittersweetness that calls to mind, in a very different geopolitical context, Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound.
Lila (Fidaa Zaidan) is perplexed that her father, the widower Yusuf (Khalifa Natour), has suddenly started working out vigorously. Why the sudden focus on getting in shape? At first she thinks he’s seeing someone new—it’s been three years since her mother died—but that doesn’t explain why he’s also spending hours assembling mechanical parts in his shed with a brilliant young engineer, Fadel (Ivan Kevork Azazian). Yusuf’s plan, it turns out, is to build a rocket to the moon, a feat that will put Palestinian fortitude and ingenuity on the map.
It’s in Yusuf’s very insistence that his rocket-building is about humanity rather than political conflict that Zuabi’s play becomes, in fact, forcefully political. Much like The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes foretells the audience’s expectations of the performers’ failures, Grey Rock anticipates the need for viewers to see conflict and war in every image and line of dialogue with Palestine attached to it.
Israel is a reality in the world of Grey Rock, of course, and one which diminishes what some of these characters think they can become: Fadel describes the Israeli forces as “stop signs for the imagination” and Yusuf later tells Lila’s ill-matched fiancé Jawad (Alaa Shehada), “You have the occupation [as] your excuse for your lack of creativity.” But Zuabi seems less interested in using the play to protest the Israeli presence in Palestine than in advocating for a Palestinian uprising of imagination and creativity in the face of dehumanization. There’s an aspect of 21st-century fairy tale to Grey Rock’s structure and plot twists, but the play remains grounded enough to suggest real-world pathways forward for oppressed peoples to dream big. (The fact that these performers, who all identify as Palestinian, have overcome complex visa hurdles to perform in New York twice in the span of a year, is a dream realized already.) Except for the final scene (a tonal shift that doesn’t entirely pay off), Grey Rock keeps the darkness at bay. The Israeli occupying forces are a constant off-stage presence, an invisible menace that the characters must sometimes ignore in order to live and shape their own stories.
Most of the story careens through amusingly familiar tropes, but it’s a familiarity that seems to be there by design. I think I would have found Grey Rock just as absorbing in supertitled Arabic, but there’s something appealing in the transparency with which it draws us in. The play was written for English speakers, with the intention of exposing the ordinary vibrancy of quotidian Palestinian existence. Knowing some of the well-trodden arcs of the plot in advance narrows the space between Anglophone audiences and the world they encounter.
Zuabi is a far nimbler writer than director; the play’s magnetic energy only diminishes in its awkwardly staged moments of physical comedy and occasionally rudderless transitions between scenes. But his dialogue briskly fleshes out his five characters, who also include the village’s anxious imam (Motaz Malhees). There’s a particularly delightful rapport between Natour’s gruff stargazer and Azazian’s overeager yet tentative assistant.
Beyond the crisp comedy, the relationship between Yusuf and his beloved, aspiring daughter Lila feels almost operatic in its balance of tenderness and tumult: Lila harbors years of resentment that her father allowed himself to be jailed for anti-occupation propaganda, leaving her mother to raise Lila independently for five years. When Yusuf leaps to his feet jubilantly upon hearing that Lila’s broken off her engagement, and then tries to backtrack his demonstrativeness, it’s both hilarious and sweetly moving.
I’m not sure if Zuabi deliberately snuck in one particular idiom for this festival run: “I order things in small quantities so I go under the radar,” Yusuf says, explaining his rocket-in-progress to an ever-expanding community of supporters. But to go Under the Radar, the Public has ordered up a series of shows which are anything but small in their expansive commitment to transforming audiences, preparing them to be more perceptive, empathetic people, perhaps even in time for the next performance.
Under the Radar runs from January 8—19.
The Best Theater of 2019
This was the year of playwrights saying what they mean.
This was the year of playwrights saying what they mean. Of writers like Heidi Schreck (What the Constitution Means to Me) putting their own stories, or some version of themselves, right up there on the stage. Of writers like Stephen Adly Guirgis (Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven) and Donja R. Love (one in two) demanding that audiences take note, listen, and do something. Of writers like Jeremy O. Harris (Slave Play) and Jackie Sibblies Drury (Fairview) putting it all out there, all of it, and leaving everyone else to pick up the pieces and make sense of what they’ve seen.
Even if that brutal honesty made it all the way to Broadway, it didn’t permeate musicals with the same lucidity yet. The deadly parade of jukebox musicals continues, and most new scores, especially on Broadway, have also been dismayingly shallow. Much of the best—and most honest—theater in New York this season came from playwrights and directors of color, with texts both present and past (with powerful revivals of Ntozake Shange, Anna Deavere Smith, Lynn Nottage). Yet, despite the more diverse programming of the city’s leading nonprofits, there are the same number of new plays premiering in the 2019-2020 Broadway season by Tracy Letts, one individual person, as by playwrights of color (it’s just Jeremy O. Harris and Matthew Lopez). (The same goes for female playwrights as only Bess Wohl and Rona Munro have new plays premiering.)
If Slave Play’s appearance on super-safe, hit-me-baby-with-one-more-jukebox Broadway, in all that play’s harrowing, shocking glory, is the transformative, theatrical event of the year, the persistently white forecast for 2020’s biggest stages is a painful twist worthy of Harris. What’s most promising about New York theater is also what’s most frightening: As Harris himself told Playbill this year, “we’re also not doing the work of social justice if we pretend that there wasn’t a history of immediately erasing the hard work of putting women and people of color on stages—there’s always a renaissance and then it disappears.”
As this list of the best New York theatrical productions of 2019 suggests, it’s up to nonprofits like the Public Theater, the Signature Theatre, the Atlantic Theater Company, and Theatre for a New Audience to ensure that this renaissance leads to an extended enlightenment.
The American Tradition (New Light Theater Project)
The other anachronistic “slave play” this year, The American Tradition largely slipped under the radar at the 13th Street Repertory Company, where it ran briefly in February. But Ray Yamanouchi’s biting play, staged with breathless momentum by Axel Avin Jr., was just as caustic and challenging, even if it lacked some of Slave Play’s haunting ambiguity. Surrounded by language dripping with satire, light-skinned Eleanor (Sydney Cole Alexander) disguises as a white man to get herself and her husband (Martin K. Lewis) to freedom. Without abandoning its Antebellum setting, The American Tradition makes some of the same deep cuts at 21st-century white wokeness that Slave Play does, with its send-up of an abolitionist who insists he doesn’t see color. Danie Steel’s seething performance as an enslaved woman forced to memorize a speech of praise for her master has especially stuck with me throughout this year. There’s room for more than one play in New York City about the relentless legacies of slavery, and The American Tradition continues that conversation with chaotic clarity.
Buried (New York Musical Festival)
Sometimes extraordinary things come in small packages. Buried, written a few years ago by undergraduates at the University of Sheffield, boasts a darkly gorgeous folk score and a charmingly creepy romance between two serial killers who give up their mutual habit of offing their blind dates once they find each other. It’s a bonkers Bonnie and Clyde-like premise, but Cordelia O’Driscoll’s haunting melodies (bolstered by Olivia Doust’s lovely orchestrations) transform psychopathy into sweet, wry romance. And it’s a nice surprise to encounter smart lyric writing, a collaboration here between O’Driscoll and Tom Williams. Let’s hope Buried, which had a five-performance run at the New York Musical Festival, doesn’t stay underground for long.
Choir Boy (Samuel J. Friedman Theatre)
For Tarell Alvin McCraney, Broadway has been a long time coming. An Oscar winner for Moonlight and the author of the acclaimed Brother/Sister Plays, he’s also the chair of playwriting at Yale School of Drama (from which Slave Play’s Jeremy O. Harris just graduated). But Choir Boy, in its at-last Broadway iteration, was an unsettling and playful examination of queerness at a historically black boarding school. Animated by wrenching and exuberant singing (arrangements from Jason Michael Webb) and exhilarating step routines (choreography from Camille A. Brown), Choir Boy may well have had the most effective musical moments of any play or musical this year, including a heartbreaking locker room chorale of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” But the story itself—anchored by Jeremy Pope’s defiantly beautiful central performance and Trip Cullman’s intense direction—paints a deeply compelling picture of what it takes to survive.
Coriolanus (Shakespeare in the Park, Public Theater)
After reading it a couple times and seeing one burdensome production outside New York last year, I’d all but written Coriolanus off as a Shakespeare play too philosophically knotty to be staged coherently or compellingly. I was proven wrong by Daniel Sullivan’s breathless, crystalline production. Jonathan Cake’s performance in the title role of a would-be consul of Rome who can’t hide his disdain for the common people made psychologically legible each of Coriolanus’s politically incomprehensible choices. Kate Burton made Coriolanus’s mother a ferocious powerhouse of a match for her firebrand son. And as the cunning tribunes, Jonathan Hadary and Enid Graham laid bare a hypocrisy that’s all too familiar: Even the politicians who claim to value the voices of the citizens are still manipulating the people they claim to serve every step of the way. One of four Public Theater productions on this list, Coriolanus’s insightful, incisive reifying is a perfect example of the Public’s grippingly relevant output.
Fairview (Theatre for a New Audience)
Perhaps Fairview, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, shouldn’t count for a 2019 roundup, since it premiered at the Soho Rep in summer 2018 before transferring to Theatre for a New Audience with the same cast and creative team a year later. But every performance of Fairview—a play as much about the audience as the characters—is a different experience. What seems at first like an undemanding comedy about an African-American family morphs violently, first when we watch the opening scene again from the perspective of four white viewers and then when those white bodies invade the stage, enacting their fantasies of black existence. For the play’s final monologue, the white members of the audience are asked to switch places with the actors of color on stage, to feel themselves being watched and surveyed. In the months since Fairview, I’ve wondered whether participating in that physical act lets white audience members off the hook too easily, especially given how few people of color were left in the seats the night I saw the show: Have the tables really turned or only the angle of observation? But in its provoking structure and its thoughtful transgression of the norms of performing and being an audience member, few shows this year struck as deeply as Fairview.
Fires in the Mirror (Signature Theatre)
Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman recounting of the 1991 Crown Heights riot, the apex of a conflict between the black and Jewish communities, received its first major New York City revival at the Signature Theatre, 27 years after its debut. In this incarnation of Smith’s verbatim drama, with text taken from dozens of interviews, it wasn’t a one-woman but a one-man play, with Michael Benjamin Washington shape-shifting between the many characters, ranging from a Hasidic mother to Reverend Al Sharpton. Vocally and physically, Washington breathed new and humanizing life into two worlds of strangers staring at each other over a great divide. Smith’s masterful dramaturgy (and extraordinary story-gathering) still stuns, and the sense of these testimonies passing from voice to voice—from their original speakers to Smith and now to Washington—provided the production with an added layer of poignancy.
Gary (Booth Theatre)
From the moment blood started spurting from her neck in the prologue, Julie White stole the show in Taylor Mac’s shocking, delicious Gary, a madcap sequel to Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedy. Even though Nathan Lane was an amply amusing headliner, White and co-star Kristine Nielsen elevated Mac’s farting-corpse comedy to dizzying slapstick heights. And, somehow, amid the blank verse and zippy zaniness, Mac also unfurled a pointed pacifist message about the meaningless messiness of war. Perhaps Mac, a celebrated performance artist and playwright who uses the pronoun “judy,” asked a lot from absurdism-wary Broadway audiences in judy’s most mainstream outing to date, especially with the deep-cut Shakespearean in-jokes. But Gary, despite its naysayers, achieved its goal of giving gas its own grotesque gravity.
Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven (Atlantic Theater Company)
One of the year’s saddest plays, and also quite possibly its funniest, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven is a brutal, big-hearted landscape study of a New York City halfway house from Stephen Adly Guirgis (The Motherfucker with the Hat, among other attention-getting titles). What’s most impressive about Guirgis’s sprawling play, which also features a cameo by a live goat, is how he gives full life and rich, specific language to each of eighteen characters. His gift for using large-scale ensemble scenes to instantly, meticulously develop characters and shade in relationship histories is unrivaled. And what a cast, with particularly shimmering performances from Elizabeth Rodriguez as the dauntless director of the residence, Liza Colón-Zayas as a hurting, harassing veteran, and Patrice Johnson Chevannes (also excellent in New York Theater Workshop’s runboyrun and In Old Age earlier this fall) as a long-forgotten film star. With unafraid humor, Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven serves a generous helping of humanity.
King Lear (Cort Theatre)
This was a production more sinned against than sinning. Though I may be in the critical minority for adoring Sam Gold’s abstract, perhaps overly academic King Lear, I found it to be an eye-opening vision for Shakespeare’s most engulfing tragedy. Hard to follow for newcomers to the play itself? For sure (I don’t begrudge the King Lear neophytes sitting near me who left at intermission), but what a collection of performances: Ruth Wilson’s heartbreaking dual portraits of Cordelia and the Fool (a mainstay original casting theory from King Lear scholarship working wonders in action); the sometimes-justified charismatic cruelty of Elizabeth Marvel and Aisling O’Sullivan as Goneril and Regan; John Douglas Thompson as a cantankerous, devoted Kent; and the deaf actor Russell Harvard as the Duke of Cornwall, accompanied by an interpreter (Michael Arden). Gold’s casting choices tightened the dramaturgy: When Cornwall killed that servant, he lost his “ears” in the same scene that Gloucester (Jayne Houdyshell) literally lost her eyes. And, most centrally, having seen Glenda Jackson play Lear in an utterly incoherent production (not directed by Gold) at London’s Old Vic in 2016, I was astonished by the newfound wit, anger, and ferociousness in Jackson’s second look at the role.
Little Shop of Horrors (Westside Theater)
Unlike the revisions and reinventions of other musical revivals this year (Kiss Me, Kate, Oklahoma!, Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish), Michael Mayer’s giddy production of Little Shop of Horrors is just a really, really good staging of the show that heightens everything you’ve always loved about it. Jonathan Groff gave a delightfully nerdy performance as Seymour Krelborn (he’s soon to be replaced by Gideon Glick) with Tammy Blanchard a tender and tenacious Audrey. Mayer’s direction reveals, much like Seymour’s own transformation, a diamond in the rough: Little Shop of Horrors is a magnificent mixture of ridiculous dark comedy and, somehow beneath the carnivorous leaves and thirst for blood, sweetness. The cast’s superb rendering of Alan Menken’s score (and Howard Ashman’s witty lyrics) has also been captured on a recently released recording, and if you can’t make it to the tiny Westside Theater before the show closes in March, it’s worth the listen.
The Michaels (Public Theater)
The eighth play in Richard Nelson’s Rhinebeck Panorama detailing episodes in family’s lives in the Hudson Valley, The Michaels is as gorgeous, subtle, and quietly perfect (or perfectly quiet) as any production staged in New York this year. Calmly riveting, the play takes place basically in real time as the glued-together fragments of a family (plus a visiting friends) cook and eat dinner. On the one hand, it’s a glistening portrait into the world of modern dance: Lucy (Charlotte Bydwell) has come home to recreate the legendary choreography of her mother, the ailing Rose Michaels (Brende Wehle), for a tribute performance. Nelson beautifully weaves patches of dining-room dancing into the play. But the play’s tensest conflicts lie between the present and the past, as Rose battles her once-buoyant body, and her girlfriend Kate (an astonishing Maryann Plunkett) contends with the ever-present memories of Rose’s longtime partner. Nelson masterfully delivers the richness of whole lives wrestling with the passage of time, distilled into the duration of a single dinner.
Mojada (Public Theater)
Luis Alfaro’s Mojada migrates the Medea myth to present-day Queens in a terrifying, literarily inevitable unspooling of an undocumented woman’s battle to preserve her family and her dignity. In the Public Theater’s production, Chay Yew’s fluid staging intermingled Mikhail Fiksel’s vital sound design with Alfaro’s poetic text, brought to life especially by Sabina Zúñiga Varela in the title role and Socorro Santiago as a wry Greek chorus of a domestic worker. A flashback sequence to the family’s frightening escape across the border was probably among this year’s most horrifying, tense stretches of drama (along, perhaps, with the final scenes of Slave Play and Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma!). In Alfaro’s assured hands, the mythical and the modern meld powerfully, yet another win for the Public’s superb track record of marrying the classic and the contemporary.
Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare in the Park, Public Theater)
Shakespeare’s seldom made this much sense. In Kenny Leon’s glorious production of Much Ado About Nothing, Messina is transformed into 2020 Georgia at the height of Stacey Abrams’s (fictitious) presidential campaign. Leon’s resetting felt so special not just because of its all-black cast or potent use of music throughout, but because each line of Shakespeare’s text blossomed as if dug out and replanted in a brand-new garden. I’ve rarely seen a Shakespeare production that felt as freshly explored, and I’ve also never seen an audience allowed to receive a Shakespeare play with such total comfort and confidence in the language’s accessibility. Leading the phenomenal cast in conversational clarity was Orange Is the New Black’s Danielle Brooks, a sweet, salty, stunning Beatrice. And the best news for fans of Shakespeare (or strangers to Shakespeare) who missed the show: It was filmed for PBS’s Great Performances and is available to watch here.
Native Son (The Duke on 42nd Street)
The Acting Company moved into the Duke on 42nd Street this summer, running Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and Nambi E. Kelley’s adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son in repertory. While Measure for Measure was uninspired, and the repertorial combination didn’t add much to either play, Native Son triumphed. A tense, taut terror ride, directed with careening force by Seret Scott and centered around two major performances—Galen Ryan Kane, seething and sorrowful as Bigger Thomas, and Jason Bowen as the violent spirit of the Black Rat that Bigger feels society pressuring him toward—this production never let up in momentum. Despite the 1940s setting, this adaptation distills the distancing near-century of racial oppression into a shocking 90-minute thriller that felt, in this fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat staging, bracingly immediate.
one in two (The New Group, Signature Theatre)
Written during the height of Donja R. Love’s struggle with depression as he approached his 10th anniversary of living with HIV, one in two is a work which rends its author’s identity apart into three figures, all queer black men tasked with telling the tragic—but does it have to be?—story of an HIV-positive man. At each performance, audience applause selects which actor will take on which role, bringing to life the lottery of being a queer black man in America, the unimaginable statistic that one in two gay or bisexual black men will contract HIV in their lifetimes. That’s the only chance for applause the audience gets: In an arresting dramaturgical move, there’s no curtain call, just a silent exodus from the theater as the actors stare up at the ever-increasing tally of diagnoses. It’s a riveting, riotous play that pierces with its sense of vital urgency and its unwillingness to follow the rules.
The Rose Tattoo (American Airlines Theater)
For audiences familiar with Tennessee Williams’s best-known classics, Serafina Delle Rose’s happy ending seems hardly likely to happen. But Marisa Tomei’s take on the young widow Serafina refuses to succumb to her loneliness like Tom Wingfield or Brick or Stanley Kowalski, the tragic heroes of other Williams works. If The Rose Tattoo is a tonal rollercoaster, it relies on its central actress to prevent the play from riding off the rails: Tomei delivered, offering a shape-shifting performance oscillating from joy to grief and back to passionate hope. Partnered brilliantly with the Scottish actor Emun Elliott, Tomei transformed The Rose Tattoo into a spirited, deeply funny tour de force. Director Trip Cullman (Choir Boy) decorated this production with healthy dollops of physical comedy and a warm mist of candle-lighting and Italian song.
Slave Play (Golden Theatre)
I haven’t stopped thinking or talking about Slave Play since I saw it nearly three months ago. And that’s very definitely the point. More than any play I’ve seen this year—maybe ever—it’s come up in conversation again and again, not just because I want to recommend it (which I do), but because I’m still wrestling with it. Jeremy O. Harris’s unanswered questions have also burrowed deep, unsettling the norms of theatergoing: A viral video of a white audience member screaming at Harris as he calmly hears her out in a post-show talkback pretty much sums up the revelatory detonation this play has become. But what’s most admirable about Slave Play remains that, stripped of all the noise outside and around the play, it’s still a thoughtful, honest story about four interracial couples learning how to listen to their partners and taking terrible risks to be heard.
The Sound Inside (Studio 54)
Though The Sound Inside is a play that doesn’t demand a Broadway-sized house, it certainly deserves one; a mesmerizing miniature, it’s perhaps the best new play on Broadway in 2019. Starring Mary-Louise Parker (in her first of two Broadway lead roles this season), this small-scale gem tells the story of Bella Lee Baird, a Yale professor who asks for a shocking favor from a student. Both teacher and students are novelists and their fiction works blend blurrily into their lives. This is as much a play about writing as a play about people, and I was wholly won over by the sense that Bella is shifting and shaping the story the audience receives. Parker is devastating as an unreliable narrator wrestling with the power she alone has to reveal or conceal the truth.
What the Constitution Means to Me (Helen Hayes Theater)
When the national tour of What the Constitution Means to Me takes off in January, it will be the first time playwright Heidi Schreck hasn’t also performed the central role. It’s hard to imagine the piece without her. After all, this play is her, as Schreck recounts her experience as a teenager entering constitutional debate competitions for college tuition cash and then describes, through scintillating monologue and conversations with onstage companions, how her understanding of the constitution’s impact on women and American identity has evolved. The play peaks with a face-off between Schreck and a real-live NYC high school debater (I saw the brilliant Thursday Williams) before asking each other questions provided by the audience. A moving model of what it looks like to listen deeply to other people’s stories, in a season filled with painful questions, What the Constitution Means to Me was the rare play that softly started to offer answers.
Review: The Inheritance Is a Radical, If Short-Sighted, Take on Howards End
The Inheritance’s attempt to speak for everyone muddies its ability to speak clearly to anyone.
“Helen’s one aim is to translate tunes into the language of painting, and pictures into the language of music,” Margaret Schlegel complains of her sister in E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howards End. “If Monet’s really Debussy, and Debussy’s really Monet, neither gentleman is worth his salt—that’s my opinion.” And—to take Margaret’s argument a step farther—if Forster is really Lopez, and Lopez is really Forster, are either of those gentlemen worth their salt? The Lopez in question is Matthew Lopez, an American playwright whose nearly seven-hour adaptation of Howards End, The Inheritance, took London by storm last season, capturing the Olivier Award for best play.
Lopez told Vulture last month that he considers his radical adaptation to be “the ultimate in fan-fiction, basically.” And, considered purely as a work of fan fiction, The Inheritance is a daring feat: Honoring Forster’s queerness (expressed explicitly only in Maurice, a novel published posthumously), Lopez has transformed pretty much every single one of Howards End’s characters into gay men living in New York City before and after the 2016 election.
And, after spending many hours sitting in what feels very much like a theater, we find out at the end of The Inheritance—I saw the play’s two parts back to back in a single day—that we’ve apparently been inside a novel the whole time. A novelist character presents his finished debut draft, and, wouldn’t you know, it’s called The Inheritance. “And this is the book I wrote” may be a familiar conclusion to the coming-of-age story of a would-be writer. However, the mixed-media revelation of the play-within-a-novel structure helps to draw back the curtain on why The Inheritance struggles with its theatricality throughout its overripe running time.
The large all-male ensemble often jovially takes on the roles of narrators, delivering exposition (often with text lifted directly from Howards End) as if they were opening chapters of their own novels. Even after E.M. Forster (Paul Hilton), who self-referentially helps a gathering of young gay men to tell their story in the first half of the play, departs, encouraging the men to tell their own stories, they keep clinging to Forster’s language and style. And while director Stephen Daldry’s staging is simple but consistently attention-holding, with some scattered poetic images, it’s also usually doubling the words of that whirling narration: Daldry wants to show us, but Lopez has already told us, usually more than once.
Howards End is a substantial book, but it’s not an epic, and nothing about this story demands seven hours of storytelling. The size and subject matter of The Inheritance set it up inevitably in conversation, and almost in contest with, Angels in America, even though the two plays have very little else in common. And while I preferred the plottier, less manipulative second part of The Inheritance to its stringier first, I often had the sense that I was seeing the same play twice in one day: Each part has its own over-involved dinner-table political debate where it doesn’t seem to matter which character makes which point; its own 15-minute monologue about the AIDS era, though both are delivered potently and written compellingly; and even its own winking aside about audiences sitting through very, very long plays. Reading Howards End, there’s seldom the same sensation of Forster padding out his pages.
Lopez’s revisionism of Howards End itself is convincingly provocative: If Forster had felt free to write people like him (or, to be more accurate to that time in the author’s life, if he’d felt free to live as someone like himself), what might their stories have been? But part of the novel’s magic is the omniscient narrator’s rigorous empathy: The women in Howards End pulsate with realness more brilliantly than do any of the men, and the novel’s protagonist, Margaret Schlegel, finds her voice and strength wholly unaided by the gentlemen who seek to guide and control her. Reading the book feels less like Forster has gifted his heroine these commanding qualities and more like he’s gotten out of her way so she can display them.
The Inheritance, however, in making up for lost time on behalf of the gay men whose stories Forster failed to tell, doesn’t open the gate any wider. It’s a totally unnecessary shame—and a shock, to be honest—that all five of the principal characters are white. The ensemble of friends who pitch in to tell the story and take on cameo roles is more diverse, but they spend most of the play sitting around the edge of the platform upon which most of the action plays out, handing props to the principals and offering one-line exclamations in response to the scene above them. At one point, the entire stage at the left edge of that platform is populated by actors of color, their perspectives literally sidelined.
In a play that prides itself on letting its characters speak for themselves, it registers as an egregious oversight that the characters of color are required to speak in statistics and taglines for their entire communities. (Even Angels in America, nearly 30 years ago, seems to do better in this regard.) HIV/AIDS matters a lot here in the past tense when its victims are white but not so much in the present when, as one character points out in what feels like a footnote, African-American men who’re gay or bisexual have a one in two chance of contracting the virus. Several characters promise each other to do better and focus on fighting for trans people and people of color, but the play makes no such promises itself.
The absence of women from the stage here, at least, registers as far more deliberate, if not entirely convincing. When the lone female actor, 89-year-old Lois Smith, who made her Broadway debut in 1952, appears in the final half hour of part two to offer her moving (if, by that point, superfluous) monologue, there’s a poignant surprise in seeing the real world reflected again on stage. As a result of these exclusions, The Inheritance’s central exploration is the legacies left between generations of white, cisgender gay men, and the labyrinths through which these men can hurt each other and help each other and love each other.
The Inheritance also focuses entirely on men who feel free to express their queerness openly and unapologetically. Their sexuality isn’t confronted by the outside world, both because the outside world doesn’t seem to exist (except as represented by the unnamed specter of Trump) and because these men are fortunate enough to have constructed lives where the outside world can’t get in. (Dashed-off references to contemporary tragedies—like “Tell that to the kids at Pulse” —resonate more bitterly than silence.) For most of the characters, with one compelling exception, the most serious challenges they face are ones of their own making.
The Inheritance keeps insisting over and over again that the Margaret stand-in, Eric Glass (Kyle Soller), a well-to-do social justice activist, is “remarkable.” Forster himself says so. So does Henry Wilcox (John Benjamin Hickey), the middle-aged billionaire (and—shock!—gay Trump donor), whose transposition from the novel works most smoothly, as he falls for Eric. But Soller’s amiable performance fades into the background here; Eric’s remarkable only so far as the other characters insist he is. Why this activist seems to have less agency or power over his own life than the turn-of-the-century woman he’s based on is never explained.
Eric’s also dwarfed by the more extreme men around him. There’s Eric’s monstrously self-absorbed boyfriend, Toby Darling (Andrew Burnap), on his own ill-fated journey of adapting his novel into a play. Toby, a sort of gay Gatsby, is everything Forster couldn’t be, an author who tells stories proudly grounded in his sexual identity (at one point he even calls out the spirit of Forster for his cowardice in staying closeted and keeping his early 20th-century queerness off the shelves). But, Toby discovers, his writing is also superficial and false, and he struggles to drink and drug himself toward honesty. Burnap’s boisterous careening and biting cycles of spiraling are among the play’s more engaging trips, but Toby doesn’t stand still long enough for the end of his storyline to come across quite as tragically as Lopez intends.
Shining brighter than either Eric or Toby, though, is the diptych of Adam and Leo, the filthy rich college student and the homeless sex worker, each played rivetingly by Samuel H. Levine. The introduction of Leo, the one character whose story haunts and never feels excessive, also introduces a real difference in life experience—and, therefore, real dramatic tension—that heats up the play’s second half. In one fleeting scene, Levine’s two characters meet, and the actor grippingly pulls off a conversation between them: Levine’s posture, voice, and affect transform so completely that his one-man dialogue is completely seamless.
That moment also sheds The Inheritance’s novel-like stretchiness, as it’s the rare patch that demands a stage to support it. The other truly theatrical moment arrives at the end of part one, the culmination of the play’s study of how the loss of a generation of gay men deprived gay millennials of mentors and father figures. As Eric steps for the first time into a house that represents that gaping hole in history, something mesmerizing and heartbreaking occurs. Since it’s the main reason to see the play, I won’t spoil it here and just say that its emotional impact would have hit just as hard after 90 tightly wound minutes, rather than three-plus hours. Nor does that impact expand as the play continues for three-plus hours more.
The Inheritance left me with a greater appreciation for a smaller, shorter play that ran earlier this fall, Rattlestick Playwright Theater’s Novenas for a Lost Hospital, which began with an opportunity for audience members to write their memories of the AIDS era on blue butterflies hanging above the stage and ended with a pilgrimage to the New York City AIDS Memorial, where audiences and actors could share stories together. The acknowledgement that one author couldn’t tell every story alone made Novenas a moving, human experience.
Conversely, The Inheritance’s attempt to speak for everyone muddies its ability to speak clearly to anyone. As Margaret tells her sister at the end of Howards End, “Because a thing is going strong now, it need not go strong forever.” Unlike his most voluminous fan-fiction writer, Forster knew when it was time to scrawl “The End” and move on to the next project.
The Inheritance is now playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
Review: Slave Play Is a Searing, Satirical Takedown of White Supremacy
In the wake of Slave Play, immediate answers might sound neither comforting nor honest.
Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play simmers in sound: the penetration of anachronistic contemporary music into its early, disturbing pantomimic scenes, the repetitive thrusts of a violin, the climaxing crescendo and acceleration of vibrating, overwhelming electronic noises. It’s a play that demands you never look away—from its floor-to-ceiling mirrors to its graphic depictions of sex acts—exists maybe most profoundly in its aural landscape. (Lindsay Jones is the impactful sound designer.) And if nothing else, it’s one about listening.
That’s not to say that audiences can watch Slave Play with their eyes closed. Coming to terms with what we see when we look at one another—and the impossibility of colorblind connection, even with your most intimate partner—is one of its themes. It’s also a show where you may be drawn to look at those around you. To the extent that that giant full-stage mirror inserts itself into Harris’s play, it’s a useful tool for checking in with the audience: Are they laughing? Are they squirming? And who exactly is doing the laughing or squirming? The mirror doesn’t feel like a metaphor as much as an acknowledgment that Slave Play has become an event—its been slandered, protested, lauded, slammed, idolized—and the experience of attending it feels like being part of a watchable drama in its own right.
But what’s most surprising about Slave Play, given all the hype around it, is what an effective gut-punch of art it is all on its own. In Harris’s debut Broadway outing, the 30-year-old playwright has constructed a searing piece of political theater from the flesh of eight fascinating, fully realized characters. Slave Play teems with the author’s ideas—about race, about relationships, and most centrally about how race shapes relationships—but Harris rolls his thoughts across and off the tongues of his octet so that we seem to see complex, frustrated, oft-insufferable people wrestling with these grand concepts through their own unique despairs. Each unhappy couple in the play is unhappy in its own way.
What each of the three central couples do share, though, is that they are interracial. And Slave Play begins, shockingly, with a trio of scenes which seem to depict enslaved people in the antebellum South engaging in seemingly mutually pleasurable foreplay—and eventually beyond—with their owners or overseers. (Claire Warden is the indispensable intimacy and fight director.) Slave Play dares us to listen—with growing squeamishness—to the vilest of passionate duets, grunts and sighs mixing with horrific epithets.
But—major spoiler ahead—it’s not what it sounds like. When overseer Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan) cracks his whip toward Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango), he recoils from the snap himself as if terrified. Characters seem to respond to Rihanna songs playing in the distance. And one couple suddenly starts laughing, as if breaking character. That’s because they are. These aren’t antebellum figures at all, but three contemporary interracial couples, acting out their most warped desires and anxieties in an experimental therapy role-playing session: This is “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy,” designed to restore a sex drive to black partners who no longer respond to the touch of their white significant others. And when one unsettled husband in the role of the master gives the safe word, these unsettling scenes grind to a halt so that Teá (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio) can lead a debrief.
Once again, Slave Play offers a listening challenge, and his time it’s for audience members to keep one ear open, even in the midst of a bracing satire of an overly sensitive group therapy session, to the frightening truths the characters struggle to express. The almost saccharine PC-ness of the debrief clashes impossibly and often hilariously with the violent anarchy of the experimental role play that’s come before. “You are heard, you are affirmed, and I see you,” Jim, who’s really a posh Englishman, is reassured, pro forma, when he expresses his upset about the whole premise of being asked to treat his wife like a slave.
That harrowing antebellum role play permeates the debriefing session in sometimes startling ways. As an indentured servant, Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer) mocked Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood), as the overseeing slave, for acting white. Once they’re back in the real world, Dustin, who’s white but insists that he’s not (yet refuses to identify himself racially), adds a more crisply heated tone to his taunting of Gary, attacking his black boyfriend for playing white, “constantly bathing in…gentrification.” Blankson-Wood’s Gary demonstrates a supreme calm while quivering on the edge as he measures his response.
And it’s unsettling to trace overeager Alana (Annie McNamara), who’s been taking copious notes and can’t stop raising her hand to call out the two white men for talking too much, to her clumsily aggressive performance as the horny wife of a slavemaster dead-set on bedding Phillip (Sullivan Jones), apparently a self-impressed airhead in real life.
Robert O’Hara, a formidably jaw-dropping playwright himself, stages Slave Play with bold clarity. Those early scenes provide memorable, intimate, frightening stage pictures, but the later ones also stick, too, for the haunted way that Kaneisha looks at Jim as if seeing him for the first time or the vacuous lack of self-awareness with which Alana leaps forward to participate. Each of the performances tingle with specificity—we’ve met people like these before (though maybe not Dustin, who’s a tad over the top)—but these individuals, working hard to define themselves on their own terms and not just as part of a duo, transcend the types they seem at first to represent. Each actor possesses a profound, particular loneliness.
For the white audience member, the second section of Slave Play may bring an uncanny initial feeling of respite. Just like the characters try to absolve themselves of the unsettling emotions that surfaced during the role play, most audience members will probably sigh with relief at the discovery that what’s most discomfiting hasn’t been real as they step away from the experience of watching—nauseously? analytically? voyeuristically?—the opening scenes. It almost seems possible that Harris’s sharpest-edged satire will be directed at the jargonistic psychobabble of Teá and Patricia, played as a brilliantly bantering couple by La Tour and Lucio.
Thank goodness that this performance therapy is as nutty as it sounds, right? There’s surely nothing to this outrageous method but big words and Kleenex (on hand just in case some excess emotions should bubble up). But then, in one of Slave Play’s subtlest turn of events, ever-so-slightly the therapy does take. Kaneisha, Gary, and Phillip gradually find themselves better able to verbalize how they have existed, and continue to exist in the world, and, in seeing themselves more clearly, they see their relationships and partners in a starker light too.
That sense of possible relief slips away as the debriefing session loses its ironic tinge. While we’ve probably been hearing our thoughts in Jim’s incredulous reactions (“This is insane,” he insists, angrily), is he still the voice of reason, a voice that’s increasingly talking over others, still the “sane” one with whom we identify once wrenching truths start to surface? Are we meant to condone the role play itself, to revise our responses to those opening scenes and find some sense of reconciliation with our immense discomfort? And do white audience members deserve to flee their discomfort any more than Jim or Alana or Dustin do? It’s increasingly significant that this therapy has been designed, as Teá and Patricia remind the patients repeatedly, for the black partners to restore their own sexual fulfillment while their white lovers support them in the process. While Slave Play deals with the trauma of interracial relationships with precision, how can we extrapolate its methodology to a more general dissection of race and white supremacy? I’m not sure and I don’t think I’m supposed to be. There’s no bite-size moral here because Harris doesn’t try to break down slavery—its historical legacy and the way it still pulsates today—into bite-size lessons or takeaways.
And when, finally, Slave Play’s characters stop talking over each other for Kalukango’s fiery cadenza of a closing monologue, it’s immediately evident how carefully Harris has woven his strands together. The last 20 minutes of the play justify and necessitate everything that’s come before, and some of those minutes are almost unwatchable as Kalukango and Nolan give themselves over fearlessly to their roles. Harris has crafted a collection of characters from whom it’s impossible to turn away, but those final moments suggest that to listen, really listen, requires uncharted vulnerability and unexplored risk. That initially powerless refrain, “You are heard, you are affirmed, and I see you,” takes on a new tsunami of meaning as Jim responds to Kaneisha’s voice for the first time. The final, raw moments of Slave Play seem to ask audiences—especially white audiences—to consider what they would do if they really heard black voices. In the wake of Slave Play, immediate answers might sound neither comforting nor honest. But listening to its story is one risk that feels entirely necessary.
Slave Play is now playing at the Golden Theatre.
Review: Broadbend, Arkansas and Soft Power Are a Mixed Bag of One-Acts
Two twists on the typical range of possibilities for the musical theater writing process are playing out in two recent musicals.
“Which comes first, the music or the lyrics?” is a question that musical theater collaborators have been asked since time immemorial, from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Pasek and Paul. The answers have varied, of course, from partnership to partnership: Rodgers penned his melodies first with his earlier collaborator Lorenz Hart but waited for Hammerstein’s words before setting out to compose. Pasek and Paul, of Dear Evan Hansen fame, have said they trade off musical and textual phrases.
Two twists on the typical range of possibilities for the musical theater writing process are playing out in two recent musicals: the pair of one-acts that comprise Broadbend, Arkansas at the Duke (a Public Theater co-production) and the Public’s own Soft Power. But only one of the two—well, one of the three, given the former’s atypical structure—is fully successful.
Inspired by Paulette Haupt’s annual (hit-or-miss) Inner Voices program, for which librettists write monologues which are then handed off with well wishes to composers, Ted Shen asked two playwrights, Ellen Fitzhugh and Harrison David Rivers, to create a diptych of connected monologues for Broadbend, Arkansas. Shen then decided which parts of each libretto lent themselves to song and occasionally added his own more music-friendly but sometimes clunkier words while composing his score. What’s emerged is an uneven but ultimately satisfying show, staged on a bare platform by Jack Cummings III, that illustrates the impact of good (and bad) libretti on a single composer charged with setting them.
Rivers’s Ruby, the show’s second act, is a gripping meditation on identity and parenthood, gloriously performed by Danyel Fulton as the eponymous mother, whose son has just been viciously beaten by the police. She’s fled from his hospital bed to seek sanctuary by the grave of the white woman who raised her, and Carol’s hopelessness and fear for the future intermingle with her bittersweet, tainted childhood memories.
Rivers’s poetic text explodes intermittently into Shen’s surging music. As rendered monumentally by Fulton, each time the monologue flowers into melody, that heightening seems necessary. For Ruby, the movement from speech to song becomes a kind of coping mechanism, the only possible way to express the inarticulable sorrow of her son’s suffering as it merges with the visions she’s imagined of her father’s death. Shen’s vocal lines are varied and organic, as if they emerge spontaneously from the character.
Not so with Just One Q, the first act, in which Ruby’s father, Benny (Justin Cunningham), an orderly at a nursing home, mediates a fight between two white women who happen to be the first and second wives of the same man. Here, while Shen’s compositional craft is apparent, he’s uninspired by Fitzhugh’s distracted libretto. Instead of sounding like a specific character, the music adopts the distinctive, imitable quality of Stephen Sondheim’s later scores.
Bizarrely, instead of speaking in his own voice, Benny mostly acts out the argument between the women, the substance of which is pretty dull until it turns out that one of them neutered her husband with a hot iron. Perhaps that unwillingness to engage fully with Benny stems from Fitzhugh’s discomfort with writing the words of an African-American man, which is odd considering that she makes him so comfortable speaking for, and as, these two women.
Just One Q ends up at odds with its narrator, whose late-in-the-game suggestion that “Since I helped those women change/With truth that they fin’ly shared/Now I can seek out/Who I’m supposed to be,” as he drives to Memphis to join the Freedom Riders, rings rather hollow. But that’s no fault of Cunningham, who animates Benny appealingly and crisply transforms himself vocally and physically to play the two sparring women.
It’s hard to believe the two halves share a composer, so voluminously do Shen’s gifts unspool in the second act. The other constant collaborator is legendary orchestrator Michael Starobin, whose six-piece arrangements shimmer throughout as conducted by Deborah Abramson.
Further downtown at the Public, another bizarre collaborative enterprise is on full display. David Henry Hwang began writing Soft Power as a non-musical play before two shocking events—his random stabbing on an NYC street in 2015 and Donald Trump’s election—set him on a different course. In Soft Power, a stand-in for Hwang, DHH (Francis Jue), slipping out of consciousness following his stabbing, imagines a Chinese musical about Hillary Clinton’s election loss from the perspective of a Chinese immigrant who’s come to America to make a musical. The real Hwang ultimately enlisted Jeanine Tesori (a Tony winner for Fun Home) to write the largely pastiche tunes for the musical inside the play.
While Hwang has a lot to say about a slew of important topics that rarely get examined on stage, there’s also the sense that the show has gone off full steam ahead in several directions and never reached fruition in any of them. The show-within-a-show is set up as a fever dream—yes, one that hazily combines DHH’s anxieties about each portion of his Chinese-American identity, his discomfort about The King and I (and how it still makes him cry despite its Western prejudices), and his awareness of the Chinese mission of soft power (the government’s attempts to assert the Republic’s dominance through cultural exports). But while all of those strands show up, none of them cohere, not even enough for a fever dream. The satire of American politics is particularly uninspired, as in a number featuring a post-election Hillary (Alyse Alan Louis) consoling herself with pizza dipped in ice cream.
Soft Power’s endless musical production numbers (including one where Hillary dances in different styles to woo varied constituencies and one Trumpian paean to “a good guy with a gun”) work against Hwang’s strengths: needle-pricks of irony that last no longer than a line but which expose uncomfortable truths. Hwang’s biting humor makes the early scenes—the ones about some version of himself—engrossingly promising, and Jue, in a 180º from his all-business recurring role on Madam Secretary, is a delightful avatar for the playwright. But Hwang’s lyrics aren’t sharp enough to have the same effect as his prose, and Tesori’s score, best in a few intimate moments, is seldom specific enough to suggest Chinese composers mimicking Golden Age musicals (and also Hamilton) as it’s meant to. There’s one lovely song, though, in which Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora) tries to teach Hillary how to differentiate Chinese tones; it’s a gentle fusion of “Do Re Mi” and “Shall We Dance?” Though the 23-piece orchestra is a nice touch, the music seldom merits that extravagance.
Soft Power, however, matters most in its casting. The final number is a moving, metatheatrical celebration of the opportunity to assemble a cast that is almost entirely Asian American. And the ensemble is excellent, gamely executing Leigh Silverman’s lively staging and Sam Pinkleton’s madcap choreography. Early on, the significance of how the show tells its stories is hammered home when DHH muses, thinking about that frustrating Rodgers and Hammerstein title, “Why does the white character always have to be the I?” A Chinese would-be-producer responds, “Because this is America.” From a cemetery in Broadbend, Arkansas to an emergency room in Fort Greene, Americans are seizing their chance to tell their stories with their own voices. But only some of them will require musical accompaniment.
Review: The Speed Is the Rub at Classic Stage Company’s Macbeth
On an almost bare stage, the scenes bleed into each other with little sense that the setting or situation has changed.
William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a play that can be quite powerful when done at a fast pace. There’s a breathlessness, an off-the-rails feeling, to Macbeth’s descent into hell that’s well suited to brisk direction. Still, in a new production at the Classic Stage Company in Manhattan, director John Doyle may have pushed the pace too far.
On an almost bare stage, the scenes bleed into each other with little sense that the setting or situation has changed. The bodies of characters murdered in one scene remain on stage for the next, lying around while a new scenario develops. This can be effective, even elegant, but it’s often incoherent, particularly if you haven’t looked at the play in a while—and you may want to, as there’s no paper program for the show and the digital one doesn’t include a synopsis.
If the high speed of this production, while frustrating, is at least apt, it’s harder to get on board with what Doyle has done with the weird sisters. Instead of three witches, we get a whole squad of them, often speaking in off-putting unison, and always in solemn tones. Neither mischievous nor sinister, as may be expected, they’re like a troop of dreary druids.
We also don’t get to hear enough of the weird sisters’ language, and we don’t get to experience the creepy sound of their short lines (“He shall live a man forbid”) against Shakespeare’s pentameters, because the extraordinary opening of the third scene from act one—the tale of one weird sister’s revenge against a sailor’s insolent wife—has been cut. Indeed, if you look forward to the witchy opening scenes of Macbeth, to discovering how the director has chosen to represent these legendary literary figures, you’ll likely be disappointed.
Macbeth (Corey Stoll) isn’t only a great warrior, but also a man with a wild imagination. He conveys, for instance, the idea that everyone is going to find out about it when he murders King Duncan (Mary Beth Peil) by evoking a bizarre image of a tattling baby, riding the wind. It’s in these moments that Stoll’s performance comes alive: In the dagger speech, he gives the impression of someone who really cannot tell, so vexed is his mind, what is real and what is fantasy, not just someone deciding whether to go through with an evil deed.
In the “sleep no more” exchange with Lady Macbeth (Nadia Bowers), there’s an urgency to Macbeth’s words that goes beyond existential dread, as though he got a supernatural warning about an emergency and wants desperately to tell his wife about it, except she won’t listen. But while Stoll possesses the stature necessary to get across Macbeth’s warrior dimension, the actor’s take on the character is more invested in the excesses of his mind. In the final soliloquy, with its “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” Stoll slows down his delivery and lowers his voice to an incredible degree. What should be an incredible moment is, instead, rather awkward, as you may wonder if something went wrong with the sound.
Among the highlights of the show are the costumes by Ann Hould-Ward: Every actor sports a green or tartan cloth, like a blanket, that they wear in different ways in different scenes. Sometimes they look like togas, sometimes chic scarves—like druids’ cloaks, or those of thieves. That small changes to the folds or draping of a cloth can convey such drastic alterations compounds the play’s eerie impression that people aren’t who they seem and that character, in every sense, can change in an instant. It’s perhaps a little ridiculous how Macduff (Barzin Akhavan) wears his clothes in a sad, un-thane-like pretzel, and that, for a stretch in act four, we get to watch Malcolm (Raffi Barsoumian) folding laundry, but for the most part the costumes are effectively employed throughout. (It is, incidentally, a small piece of white cloth that gives the show a moment of real horror when Macbeth dashes it on the floor.)
Two of Doyle’s tableaus are liable to stay with you long after the curtain has come down on the show: The first is the unnamed wounded soldier (also played by Akhavan), that “bloody man,” lying prostrate before the king, straining through his pain to report on the battle and Macbeth’s valiant deeds. His blanket over him like a shroud or a covering for a fallen fighter, Akhavan delivers this production’s finest speech, allowing us to vividly grasp the feeling of the weary, desperate armies, like “two spent swimmers,” each unable to take the upper hand.
And the second sees Macbeth on a huge wooden throne, flanked by the murderers he hires to kill Banquo (Erik Lochtefeld), his friend and brother-in-arms. Here, in a production that rushes through nearly everything, the actors linger in a terrible stillness, with Solomon Weisbard’s lighting shifting until the image takes on the quality of a disturbing old painting. There may not be enough memorable moments in this Macbeth, but the few we get do stick deep.
Macbeth is now playing at the Classic Stage Company.
Review: Scotland, PA Finds Its Purpose When It Sticks to the Bard
It’s telling that the show gets its biggest laughs only after it’s turned deadly serious.
William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is undone, famously, by his ambition. The vision of kingship prophesied by the witches spurs him to go too far on his murderous quest for power, and his “vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself” ultimately destroys him. Musicals, too, it turns out, can be undone by their own ambition.
For much of Scotland, PA, this new Macbeth-inspired musical at the Roundabout’s off-Broadway Laura Pels Theatre seems to be heading for the same fate. Based on the 2001 film of the name, it charts a fry cook’s rise to the top of the food chain after he encounters three stoners who foresee his taking over the burger joint from salty Duncan (Jeb Brown).
Scotland, PA’s first act feels flagrantly overcooked, as if director Lonny Price and the show’s creators, composer-lyricist Adam Gwon (best known for the teensy-tiny one-act play Ordinary Days) and book-writer Michael Mitnick, have totally ignored the recipe. One song starts out as a fun tune for Mac (Ryan McCartan) and his unsatisfied wife, Pat (Taylor Iman Jones), about the potential to be found in fast-food drive-thrus. It starts as a gentle hoot, with the couple accompanied by the stoners (Alysha Umphress, Wonu Ogunfowora, and Kaleb Wells) on spatula and salt-shaker percussion, but somehow it stretches into an endless, full-company gospel number that fizzles a cute moment into something utterly ordinary.
That sense of strained razzmatazz extends to the production as a whole. Anna Louizos’s sliding forest and revolving kitchen seem too big and bombastic for a show about a little guy who strikes it rich by sort-of-intentionally deep-frying his boss to death. Price and his design team may be overcompensating a bit for Scotland, PA’s score. While Gwon’s writing here is far more attractive than his music for Ordinary Days, the lyrics, which should be slinging zingers at Macbeth and McDonald’s and rural Pennsylvania all at once, are often bland to the point of inertness: What can be done with a love song sentiment like “Together you and I can touch the stars/We can race through time/We can reach the sky”? Only Jones, thoughtfully and intensely animating the Lady Macbeth figure, totally transcends the material when she sings.
In its interest in traversing the snakes and ladders of an accidental serial killer and in finding the laughs in grisly on-stage deaths, Scotland, PA has a lot in common with Little Shop of Horrors, an off-Broadway cousin enjoying a splendid New York revival this fall. But unlike the late Howard Ashman, who wrote the lyrics to that show, Mitnick never makes it clear what it is he’s parodying. The phenomenon of worldwide fast-food franchises? Most of the jokes seem to be at the expense of rural poverty. And since the stoners confess from the get-go that they’re just figments of Mac’s imagination, the whole central question of Macbeth—whether it’s fate or power-hungry folly that drives our antihero’s bloody ascent—goes out the window.
Yet, somehow, Scotland, PA emerges in the second act from its stupor to pull off a suspenseful, engaging finale as the plot adheres more and more closely to that of Macbeth. Providing a few jolts of energy is peppy Megan Lawrence as F.B.I. detective Peg McDuff, on the scene to investigate Duncan’s icky death. (She’s playing a role originated by Christopher Walken on film.) There’s also some deft one-liners from Lacretta as a fast-food colleague, plus a surprisingly sweet song from Will Meyers as Duncan’s unwilling heir apparent Malcolm, who’d rather gaze longingly at the football team than flip patties. And in the tense final scenes—Pat’s eerie sleepwalking segment and a fiery confrontation between Mac and McDuff—Gwon rises to the occasion as McCartan’s Mac explodes in song with disturbing anger.
It’s telling that Scotland, PA gets its biggest laughs only after it’s turned deadly serious. It’s that uneasy mix of inevitable tragedy and joyous comedy, like loving each bite even as you know what it’s doing to your blood pressure, that really makes things sizzle. And whatever’s next on the menu for Scotland, PA, all the sound and fury whizbang in the world won’t rival the show’s fleeting moments that give into the Macbeths’ warped frustration and quiet rage.
Scotland, PA is now playing at the Laura Pels Theatre.
Review: Tracy Letts’s Linda Vista Doesn’t Make Enough Space for its Women
Letts trips over the line between objectifying women and satirizing the objectification of women.
Where’s the line between objectifying women and satirizing the objectification of women? Wherever it is, it’s one that Tracy Letts stumbles over in Linda Vista, his first play on Broadway since Superior Donuts. The graphic sex between crummy, middle-aged deadbeat Wheeler (Ian Barford) and bubbly life coach Jules (Cora Vander Broek) takes the play into the land of Too Far, where it doesn’t have the emotional intelligence to return from. You’re supposed to laugh at Jules’s lingo-laced explanation of why she won’t be able to reach climax with Wheeler tonight, and, then, at Jules’s flip-flop from walking out on Wheeler to deciding to stay the night. But a better play, one that showed real interest in its female characters, could make space to build up Jules, even after dressing her down like this.
Linda Vista only really cares about Wheeler. He’s a former photographer turned camera repairman who’s finally moved out of his almost-ex-wife’s garage, leaving behind his teenage son and his dignity. As he rebuilds his life, he turns out to be mainly interested in pursuing women: cheery Jules, down-on-her-luck neighbor Minnie (Chantal Thuy), and camera-store colleague Anita (Caroline Neff). Each of them had bad experiences with men lately, and Wheeler, though also openly self-hating and miserable, casts himself in the role of savior every time. (Jules describes him, aptly, actually, as a “turtle who doesn’t know he’s lost his shell.”)
Barford lithely animates Wheeler’s monotonous grossness, almost eliciting some real compassion when he gives up his grouchy jokester act and begs weepily for redemption, but Linda Vista also short-changes the star. Since Wheeler just doesn’t know how to listen, the guy is rarely fully present in any scene, even as he inevitably upstages everyone around him. Broek, Thuy, and Neff each join Barford in pushing their performances a little bit beyond the material, sculpting far greater specificity than Letts’s material invites.
Why is anyone laughing when Wheeler describes kids today as “a bunch of allergic, autistic mole-rats”? Often, the play races to punchlines it hasn’t earned, like when Jules, celebrating the couple’s time together, announces that “one month is auspicious” and Wheeler nonsensically butts in with, “I hate auspice.” Only very occasionally does Wheeler’s icky sense of humor land a little, as when he declares, “I think a woman should be able to terminate until the child is old enough to make a cogent argument in its own defense.”
Linda Vista’s self-awareness never quite comes into focus—is it Wheeler who makes really bad jokes or is it Letts?—and that’s precisely why those sex scenes feel so discomfiting or gratuitous. Even if we’re meant to focus on Wheeler’s vulnerability or pathetic lack of empathy, the fact that we’re still seeing these scenes from Wheeler’s slightly lecherous, probably porn-addled point of view feels like a violation of the partners who haven’t been—and won’t be—fully fleshed out after their flesh is out fully. (That sense only strengthens with the later suggestion that one of those encounters wasn’t entirely consensual.)
The play lives most potently in Wheeler’s relationship with Margaret (Sally Murphy), a college ex who’s now long-married to Wheeler’s friend Paul (Jim True-Frost). Margaret’s the only woman in Linda Vista who Wheeler doesn’t ogle or bed, at least on stage, and there’s therefore something far less hazy, lazy, and distracted about this partnership than any other. When Margaret finally chews Wheeler out for his crude callousness and self-pitying treachery, it feels like case closed. Her clarity is far more compelling than his rehabilitation.
Sure, Letts intends to write all of his female characters as empowered women who ultimately take control of their destinies and dress down Wheeler for dehumanizing them: One partner’s triumphal exit line is “I am a person,” and the other’s is “I respect myself.” But that’s as far as his intentions go, as these women are props in Wheeler’s odyssey toward wokeness—and apparent evidence that Letts has completed his. Even in the play’s final moments, the feeling that Wheeler’s tragedies matter most never dissipates.
Todd Rosenthal’s revolving (and revealing) San Diego set keeps the action spinning quickly, but director Dexter Bullard (who also staged the show in an earlier incarnation at the Steppenwolf Theatre) can’t awake the momentum that Linda Vista lacks. After Wheeler subjects Jules and Minnie to the three-hour Barry Lyndon as part of a Stanley Kubrick film marathon, Minnie grumbles, “You know your movie’s too long when you have to take an intermission.” Not always so with theater, but, in this case, I knew what she meant.
Linda Vista is now playing at the Helen Hayes Theater.
Review: The Lightning Thief Struggles to Summon Epic-Scale Spectacle
As the stakes grow increasingly life or death, the production’s campy structure becomes less capable of supporting it.
“Knockoffs don’t come more transparent and slapdash than Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief,” wrote our own Nick Schager back in 2010, before proceeding to outline the countless ways in which Chris Columbus’s wannabe-franchise jumpstarter aped J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga “every step of the way to Mount Olympus.” Both series focus on a trio of heroes, most of whom are just discovering their magical gifts, who attend a magical institution where they’re soon embroiled in a banished evil lord’s plans. And maybe because the comparisons between them are so obvious, one gets the sense that the makers of The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical have gone to considerable lengths to distinguish their production from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
To begin with, The Lightning Thief is played almost entirely as a comedy. There are a few emotional nods to what Percy Jackson (Chris McCarrell) and his single mother, Sally (Jalynn Steele), have been going through ever since his deadbeat father abandoned them, but for the most part, it’s all talking squirrels, disco-ball sequined ferrywomen, and floods of “water” (toilet paper) spraying out into the audience. It’s also a rock musical, one that shoves malapropisms (“Tartarus? Like the fish sauce?”) into every offbeat it can.
Above all, however, The Lightning Thief is a scrappy production. There are fancy Greek columns all the way into the background of Lee Savage’s minimalist stage design, but your eye is drawn more to the graffiti and scaffolding on and surrounding them. The winged furies and the minotaur are courtesy of AchesonWalsh Studios, a Brooklyn-based creation studio, and everything else is a practical effect, most notably the centaur, Chrion (Ryan Knowles), whose hindquarters are simply left to the imagination, or the leggy costume that Sydney Maresca designed to show off the true satyr form of Grover (Jorrel Javier), Percy’s best friend.
If The Lightning Thief’s low-budget displays soared when the show had its fleet-footed off-Broadway premiere in 2017 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, they feel smaller than they should on the stage of the Longacre Theatre. A high-stakes game of capture the flag now seems, well, childish, and leaves the menacing Hades (Knowles) as nothing more than a small man in a gold-spangled jacket. There’s only so much that David Lander’s smart lighting choices can do to disguise the fact that the characters are being dwarfed by their surroundings, either by using spotlights to focus on slivers of the stage or by adding pulsating effects to the background to make things look more active than they actually are.
The seven-person ensemble also works overtime to fill the largely empty stage, making you focus more on the way in which they’re chewing the scenery in the hopes that you don’t notice that the scenery itself is missing. Under these circumstances, only Percy and his “dream girl” campmate, Annabeth (Kristen Stokes), are given an opportunity for character growth, as they’re the only two characters whose actors aren’t feverishly changing into additional roles. They’ve got the whole show to leave an impact, but the rest of the cast often has to cram everything into a single scene, which results in them taking up broader and broader characterizations to differentiate between each new part. And the over-the-top acting also clashes with Rod Kinter’s fight choreography. Because the cast moves a mile a minute, both lyrically and physically, the action scenes are comparatively slower, making them feel like the least epic part of The Lightning Thief. As the stakes grow increasingly life or death, the production’s campy structure becomes less capable of supporting it.
All of these conflicting artistic choices really come down to a question of what story the show wants to tell. At its best, The Lightning Thief earnestly and endearingly homes in on its characters as they confront their problems, as when Percy sings through all of his insecurities and misdiagnosed ADHD in “Good Kid,” Annabeth faces down her mother Athena’s legacy in “My Grand Plan,” and all the demigod rejects of Camp Half-Blood discuss their irresponsible godly parents in “The Campfire Song.” Less effective, particularly given the stakes of its plot, is how the show keeps splitting off into superficial, comic tangents, as when Dionysus (Javier) jazzily rattles off the things he hates about his demigod charges in “Another Terrible Day” or Charon (Steele) summarizes the Underworld in “D.O.A.” as she takes the kids to meet Hades.
All this jokiness is so intrusive that it becomes difficult to take Percy’s angst seriously. There are moments of sincerity and hilarity throughout the show, but the handling of the tonal shifts is so whiplash-inducing that the conclusion, perhaps inevitably, falls flat. Percy’s reconciliation with his long-absent father, Poseidon (Knowles), ought to be a dramatic conclusion to everything Percy’s been singing about. But because Poseidon is so cartoonishly depicted as a way-cool surfer dude, one who casually resurrects Percy’s instantly horny mother for good measure, this meeting is about as emotionally satisfying as it could have been.
The Lightning Thief is also hampered by the creators adapting an existing, well-known novel into a stage production, as opposed to building something new from scratch, as was done for Harry Potter. Rob Rokicki’s music and lyrics do their best to save time, compressing the whole cross-country road trip from Long Island to Los Angeles almost entirely into a single song, “Drive,” but that just forces Joe Tracz’s script to do a lot of expositional lifting between songs, leaving little time to develop characters like Luke (Rodriguez), Hermes’s apparently bitter son. Things that may have worked on the page or on the silver screen like the Oracle, feel shoehorned into an overstuffed production already teeming with monsters and motorcycles.
The wittily quipped premise of The Lightning Thief is that “normal is a myth,” but the truth is that this little-production-that-could makes the book’s myths seem normal. No matter how hard the cast tries to spice things up—or perhaps because of all that visible effort—it’s just a glass of watered-down ambrosia, slightly amusing, but never fully entertaining.
The Lightning Thief is now playing at the Longacre Theatre.
Review: The Wrong Man Suggests a Concept Album Propped Up on Two Legs
Ultimately, it’s the wrong man who animates the stage.
There’s nothing so unusual about the conversion of a concept album into a fully staged musical. Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Chess all began as studio recordings before making the leap to the theater. Ross Golan’s The Wrong Man, however, is a somewhat different story. Though he’s been performing the songs live for nearly 15 years, Golan’s story of an innocent man on death row wasn’t available for purchase or streaming until this year: It’s now been released by Interscope Records, along with an animated movie version that debuted at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, just as the stage adaptation opens.
Golan has penned some appealing acoustic jams, which he performs on the album with disarming ease as he navigates his knotty, often rapped lyrics. But transformations are tricky, and unlike its eminently theatrical vinyl-to-stage ancestors, the show, playing at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, just feels like a concept album propped up on two legs.
Down on his luck, Duran (Joshua Henry) picks up Mariana (Ciara Renée) in a Reno bar. Duran envisions a future with Mariana, but she has a psycho ex who’s been busted by the cops for his stash of child pornography. Fresh out of jail, this wicked Man in Black (Ryan Vasquez) goes on a murderous, jealous rampage, then calls the cops after leaving Duran in possession of the literal smoking gun. Unsurprisingly, things go downhill quickly for Duran from there.
Only Golan, best known as a songwriter for the likes of Selena Gomez and Ariana Grande, appears on the album, performing what is essentially a musical monologue. The stage show features nine performers, and even the hyper-capable director Thomas Kail doesn’t seem quite sure what to do with all those extra people up there. The ensemble mainly looks on, moves benches around the otherwise bare set, and executes Travis Wall’s convulsive choreography, which is sometimes sexy but usually superfluous. There’s also some nice backup singing: The show’s arrangements and orchestrations are by Alex Lacamoire (In the Heights, Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen), who works his usual crafty magic for a small rock band, animating Golan’s sometimes static harmonies with piano-centric hip-hop licks and Latin percussion grooves.
Not much of substance has changed from album lyrics to sung-through script, but there’s now a sweet but could-be-anyone pillow-talk duet for Duran and Mariana (and did I detect a theater nerd’s reference to Company’s post-coital “Barcelona,” when Duran croons that he’d like to travel to “Paris, New York, Barcelon’”?). Mainly, though, the show is still all Duran, as he sinks into greater and great despondency at his plight from arrest to trial to sentencing.
Golan, who’s white, envisioned himself as the sole performer; original lyrics on the concept album even explicitly reference the narrator as Caucasian. Transposing this story of a corrupt justice system and the execution of an innocent man for Henry, who’s African American, isn’t as simple as altering a few words here and there. Because Golan gives only the faintest outline of who Duran is, or has been, prior to this nightmare scenario, it seems like the character is meant to represent the legions of men, most of them brown and black, who’ve been the victims of the legal system’s injustice. But how many of them have been framed for a double murder (with two weapons in two locations!) by a conniving psychopath (with a clichéd nickname) who planned the setup in meticulous detail? This is no wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time tragedy. And, in a musical otherwise devoid of specifics, this particular eyebrow-raising plot point prevents The Wrong Man from being recognizable as a far-too-familiar story. It’s hard to feel too much empathy when Duran’s experience is both thinly sketched and ludicrous.
Henry does all he possibly can to fill out that sketch. It’s a passionate, powerfully sung, and heart-broken performance that leaves him drenched with sweat and twitching, as if he has patches of electricity coursing through his body, as Duran prepares for his execution. If only he had a more complex character to work with, as he did for his riveting star turn in Carousel last year. Even with the material in its current shape, Henry would probably be better served performing an un-reimagined version of The Wrong Man as a solo show, free from distractions—even including the splendid, sizzling singing of Reneé as doomed Mariana.
Ultimately, though, it’s the wrong man who animates the stage. A pair of raucous numbers for the maniacal Man in Black as he parties in prison and details his villainy arrive as a welcome relief from Duran’s deluge of angsty ballads. When Vasquez jubilantly crows, “I’m a cold, cold man with little to no pity/I killed my pregnant ex-wife and left for Mexico City” and “I stabbed her in the front cause she stabbed me in the back,” it’s a totally inappropriate betrayal of the show’s serious subject matter and tone. Much worse, it’s completely delightful.
The only other really riveting scene also comes in a rare moment without Duran on stage. As Mariana and the Man in Black survey each other from opposite sides of the stage, two dancers, Tilly Evans-Krueger and Kyle Robinson, fiercely and balletically enact the couple’s last terrifying, violent moments together in a wordless, writhing pas de deux. Fleetingly, The Wrong Man finally feels like it belongs in the theater.
The Wrong Man is now playing at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space.
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