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Anti-Capitalist Tragedy: Matt Charman’s The Machine

The Machine, in short, is an anti-capitalist tragedy that spends half its time looking like a sci-fi melodrama and the other half like a biopic.

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Photo: Stephanie Berger

“Man versus Machine. That’s how we’re billing it!” The tortuous contradictions that motivate British playwright Matt Charman’s high-intensity The Machine are summed up by this confession. In 1997, when Manhattan chess wunderkind Garry Kasparov played a match against IBM supercomputer “Deep Blue,” the game was indeed pitched to its global audience as a test of mankind’s dignity before its increasingly sophisticated widgets. In Charman’s dramatic retelling of the event, directed by Donmar Warehouse artistic director Josie Rourke, we’re meant to take a more wizened view. The frustrated young publicist who blurts out these lines is attempting to clue Kasparov into the bigger reality: The real game being played isn’t over the chessboard, but between the online media stream and the global network of potential customers for IBM hardware and software. Mankind’s dignity isn’t on the line; stock prices are.

The play follows both Kasparov (Hadley Fraser) and Feng-Hsiung Hsu (Kenneth Lee), the engineer who designed Deep Blue and manipulates the chess pieces on its behalf. Both, we learn, lived their entire lives for this moment, Kasparov as a boy wonder who became the youngest chess champion in history, and Hsu as an ambitious computer geek who let no light into his life except to serve his ambitions. The social conditions of their hunger to be “the best”—Kasparov in a financially insecure Soviet Russia, Hsu an American immigrant—make clear that that other machine, the capitalist one, made pawns out of them long before their fateful game. Though Kasparov is the more colorful figure, the single-minded Hsu is meant to be the tragic hero who fails to see until the last moments that his triumph never belonged to him.

The producers of the outsized performance space at Park Avenue Armory have been staging the “man vs. machine” debate for some time, setting up nonhuman theatrical spectacles (Heiner Goebbels’s Stifters Dinge and Ryoji Ikeda’s the transfinite) in between their people spectacles (the RSC’s simulacrum of the Globe Theatre), so the choice of Charman’s play fits this sensibility. Unlike these other events, though, The Machine’s mainstream theatrical ambitions could easily have fit a Broadway proscenium. But whether the Armory is improved by the play, the play is most certainly improved by the Armory.

Designer Lucy Osborne gives the drama’s central irony its spatial equivalent. The chessboard at the center of the stage is surrounded by four Jumbotrons projecting (thanks to video designer Andrzej Goulding) to audiences on all four sides of the playing space. A long table stands behind the chessboard for the TV announcers who cover the proceedings. Rourke whirls the action around the playing area, taking every opportunity to draw a circle. Literally and figuratively, what looks like the center of gravity is actually the excuse for the spectacle.

The cast of The Machine, as though heroically committed to the play’s concept, are effective but never virtuosic. You can always take your eyes off them. Fraser is manic, athletic, and insistently likeable even in his portrayal of Kasparov’s narcissism, while Lee brings the right amount of tightly wired pathos to poor Hsu. Francesca Annis plays Kasparov’s imposing matriarch, overcommitted perhaps to her character’s posture, but alternately tart or wounded when she has to be. Lucille Sharp, as the publicist whose patience wears thin, thankfully manages to draw a recognizable and complex woman from a figure whose main role is to be more knowing than anyone else onstage. Still, the one actor who managed to pull my attention even when the lights were especially bleeping and whirring was Brian Sills, who plays another chessmaster hired by IBM to teach the computer strategy. Perhaps because his part internalizes the conflicting motivations split among the rest of the players (love of the game plus desire for revenge plus a mediocrity’s gravitation to security), Sills gets to throw a Method actor’s meat behind the play’s one genuinely round character.

The Machine, in short, is an anti-capitalist tragedy that spends half its time looking like a sci-fi melodrama and the other half like a biopic. Charman and Rourke milk all three genres—the moralizing of the first, the nail-biting energy of the second, and the sentimentality of the third—to the tipping point of excess, but the combination keeps stagnation at bay. It’s a testament to the play’s many machines, from Charman’s plot to the design team’s set to Rourke’s direction, that I was on the edge of my seat—even though neither the humans onstage nor in the story ever stood a chance.

The Machine runs from September 6—18 at Park Avenue Armory.

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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.

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The Inheritance

“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.

The I

The boys of The Inheritance prepare for the 2016 election. © Matthew Murphy

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.

The Inheritance

Lois Smith and Samuel H. Levine in The Inheritance. © Matthew Murphy

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.

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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.

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Slave Play
Photo: Joan Marcus

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.

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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.

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Soft Power
Photo: Joan Marcus

“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.

Broadbend, Arkansas is playing at the Duke, and Soft Power is playing at the Public Theater.

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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.

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Macbeth
Photo: Joan Marcus

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.

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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.

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Scotland, PA
Photo: Joan Marcus

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.

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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.

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Linda Vista
Photo: Joan Marcus

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.

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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.

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The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical
Photo: Jeremy Daniel

“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.

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Review: The Wrong Man Suggests a Concept Album Propped Up on Two Legs

Ultimately, it’s the wrong man who animates the stage.

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The Wrong Man
Photo: Matthew Murphy

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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Review: As Anatomy of a Presidency, The Great Society Is No Revelation

The play is too overstuffed and too easily distracted to say anything profound or potent about its subject matter.

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The Great Society
Photo: Evan Zimmerman

“The real hero of this struggle is the American Negro,” President Lyndon B. Johnson declared before Congress in March 1965. And it’s a crucial line in Robert Schenkkan’s The Great Society, especially as delivered by Brian Cox at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. So, if Johnson himself knew that to be true, why doesn’t the playwright? Schenkkan’s second drama about LBJ—following All the Way—devotes most of its nearly three-hour running time to the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s but barely any of its attention to the impact of national events on the lives of the people fighting for their freedom.

All the Way, which starred Brian Cranston, kept its focus tight, covering only the first year of Johnson’s presidency. That play zeroed in on the politically expedient and morally pressing tightrope that LBJ walked in pushing the Civil Rights Act through Congress while securing his own presidential future in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The sprawling sequel, meanwhile, with its 19 actors playing nearly 40 characters, hurtles through the next four years (1965 to 1968) at an exhausting speed that never lets up. The Great Society is about pre-Nixonian politics and Johnson’s jumbled judgment in Vietnam and the Voting Rights Act and the core years of the civil rights movement, but it’s ultimately too overstuffed and too easily distracted to say anything profound or potent about any of those topics.

Schenkkan recognizes that the civil rights movement and the formation of the Black Power movement were—along with Bloody Sunday, the Watts riots in Los Angeles, and the March Without Fear—among the formative events of the mid-‘60s. Director Bill Rauch dutifully reenacts each of them on stage, complete with projected historical footage. But the players in each of these scenes, especially the inciting incident in Watts which ends the play’s first act, are usually anonymous, except for the few Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) leaders whose personhoods are gestured at but never developed. Luckily, there are particularly strong performances from Grantham Coleman as Martin Luther King Jr. and Marchánt Davis as Stokely Carmichael (as well as John Lewis). It’s not their fault that The Great Society contributes little that’s new or different in its dutifully dignified depictions of these political figureheads.

Not that Johnson and his circle of allies, foes, and frenemies are well fleshed out either. In the central role, Cox, while compellingly vigorous and foul-mouthed throughout the play, never quite transcends Schenkkan’s assemblage of free-floating traits associated with LBJ. In trying to illustrate the ultimate incompatibility between Johnson’s behind-the-scenes legislative work and King’s massively public demonstrations, The Great Society leaves the president doing an awful lot of reacting, a commentator on the real action.

All the Way managed to capture Johnson before he became crippled by compromise, and The Great Society blanches at coming down too hard on the president, even when he turns against King and then the American anti-war efforts, raging, “You need to kill more Vietcong!” David Korins’s courtroom-like set slowly crumbles across the course of the play to symbolize, well, what exactly? Is it Johnson’s presidency? The trust between Johnson and the era’s civil rights leaders? The nation’s war economy? Neither Schenkkan nor Cox illustrate clearly enough Johnson’s descent from committed candidate to surprise abdicator.

And at the slightest hint of the president approaching something like intimacy with the audience, a moment of soliloquized earnestness or a smidgeon of soul-bearing with the faintly present Lady Bird (Barbara Garrick), we’re off to the next rest stop on the history highway. There’s a sense that if the president can’t be fully formed here, then no one can. VP Hubert Humphrey (Richard Thomas) comes across as ideologically pure early on but barely registers as the play chugs forward. David Garrison plays Richard Nixon with a refreshingly charismatic sleaziness (the Married with Children actor also turns up as Governor George Wallace, Sheriff Jim Clark, and the Quaker minister Norman Morrison), but Tricky Dick is mainly there for exposition, as it’s through Nixon that we learn of the deaths of MLK and Robert F. Kennedy.

The red-hot hostility between RFK (Bryce Pinkham) and his brother’s successor provides some comic relief early on, as the pair masks their disgust on a sort of split-screen phone call, but, except for some blaring headlines, Kennedy also fades into the background. There’s lots more, including Marc Kudisch as Chicago’s Mayor Daley, but to list them all would be to substitute quantity for dramatic clarity in the same way The Great Society Does does.

Despite how much is crammed in, and despite the daunting cast of characters listed in the program with biographical identifiers, the play’s events are seldom hard to follow, which is, in itself, an achievement. There’s some crackling momentum in a few Oval Office scenes in which LBJ juggles a revolving door of senators, advisors, and lobbyists jockeying for his attention. And Rauch’s ample use of the courtroom pews that surround three sides of the stage allows simultaneous action to play out in occasionally clever ways (like the perpetually postponed appointment forever waiting outside the Oval Office) that keep things moving along.

Elsewhere, The Great Society’s breakneck pace comes with loaded consequences. A dramaturgical drive-by of the 1966 March Against Fear, during which Stokely Carmichael delivered his divisive “Black Power” speech, doesn’t get enough time or background context. Since only the perspectives of Dr. King and President Johnson receive real consideration, and both of those men, for different reasons, opposed what Carmichael stood for, Schenkkan’s play appears tacitly to denigrate the Black Power movement from all directions.

The Great Society perks up when it enters factoid territory, bite-sized encounters or vignettes that may have you rushing to Wikipedia to see how true to life they are. Did Carmichael really storm the stage at an MLK rally at the March Against Fear, dividing the crowd against civil disobedience? (Sort of, but MLK himself wasn’t present that day.) Did LBJ really dismiss his African-American assistant (Nikkole Salter) after her son lost his life in Vietnam, a pivotal-seeming plot point? (Uh, no. The real “Sally Childress,” Gerri Whittington, was actually the first black presidential secretary, and she was neither fired nor bereaved.) And did LBJ really spring a surprise press conference on the head of the American Medical Association (AMA), forcing him to endorse Medicare? (That one’s pretty much accurate, and it’s also the scene where Cox is at his best, showing off the president’s ebullient cunning.)

But so what if I learned something when I felt nothing at all? The Great Society premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2014, as All the Way was going all the way to Broadway, so any resonances with 2019—the Nixonian ones come to mind—are just coincidence. But the origins of the pair of plays as a would-be Shakespearean duology throw into relief the hollow crown at The Great Society’s center. If this is Lyndon the First: Part II, there’s never enough sense of the paralyzing, overwhelming weight of the White House to elevate the play from robust synopsis to fresh take, let alone revelatory anatomization of a presidency.

The Great Society is now playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.

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Theater

Review: Freestyle Love Supreme Pumps You Up with Rhyme and Rhythm

The production gets out of the way and lets its stars do what they do best.

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Freestyle Love Supreme
Photo: Joan Marcus

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s majestic shadow lingers over the proceedings at Freestyle Love Supreme, the improv comedy freestyle rap show that’s currently taking Broadway by storm. Miranda co-created the show’s earliest iteration way back in 2003 alongside two Wesleyan classmates, Hamilton director Thomas Kail and improvisor-educator Anthony Veneziale. Miranda’s a lead producer here, and he’s also one of a cadre of guest artists who are liable to show up unannounced at any given performance. That list includes Hamilton alumni Daveed Diggs, Christopher Jackson, James Monroe Iglehart, and Wayne Brady.

Miranda turned up in the final minutes of Monday’s 10 p.m. performance, but it wasn’t the Miranda we were expecting. The real Miranda had, according to Twitter, already appeared as a guest in the 7 p.m. show, and, as the end of the evening neared, it became increasingly clear that he’d gone home long ago. But you never know what you’re going to get at Freestyle Love Supreme. So, when a volunteer audience member told a story about meeting Miranda outside the Booth Theatre earlier in the day, the tale inspired host Andrew Bancroft, a.k.a. Jelly Donut, to trot out a spot-on impression of the Hamilton creator. As he freestyled a la Miranda, the rest of the show’s cast backed him up with a spontaneous parody of Hamilton’s “My Shot.”

If it’s the promise of one of these big names—and let’s face it, Miranda is the main attraction—that helps sell out a Broadway house at 10 p.m. on a Monday night, it’s the new faces running Freestyle Love Supreme who will leave audience members eager to return. The performance I attended was decidedly celebrity-free (the special guest was actress Ashley Pérez Flanagan, a.k.a. Reina Fire, funniest in imitating Christine Daaé’s high notes in a fleeting Phantom of the Opera send-up). But, with no superstar stealing the spotlight, the four lead performers had ample opportunity to stake their claims to a Broadway debut.

Holding down the beat at this performance was two-time World Beatbox Champion Kaila Mulladay, a.k.a. Kaiser Rözé, a one-woman percussion section and sound-effects catalog. A request for a verb from the audience (the cast went with “vomit”) yielded a gurglingly explosive soundstorm from Mulladay. Aneesa Folds, a.k.a. Young Nees, who got her start as a rapper in Freestyle Love Supreme’s academy program, delivered some sizzling R&B vocals and an amusing rant about the disastrous impact of humidity on her hair. Bancroft’s quick-thinking banter with the audience made him a winning MC, and he showed a nifty knack for inserting references to earlier sketches and discarded audience suggestions into each scene.

But the star-is-born moment—or a whole lot of moments, really—belonged to Utkarsh Ambudkar, a.k.a. UTK the INC, an actor whose dexterous control over rhyme and rhythm is dazzling. After that Mulladay vomit impression, Ambudkar spat out some deliciously site-specific commentary: “Kaiser Rözé, it’s just not fair/I think she just ate somewhere in Times Square.” Ambudkar registers, not unlike Miranda, as simultaneously goofy and brilliant: He’s equally at home caricaturing imagined characters and rocking out in his own skin.

Some audience ideas yield more fabulous fruit than others. Freestyle Love Supreme’s “Second Chance” routine, in which a lucky volunteer gets to see their worst mistake in life acted out and then rewound and repaired, proved particularly meaty fodder: A young woman named Meg recounted how, in her Minnesotan adolescence, she lost control of her vehicle while driving over black ice, careened into a barn, and crushed a very unlucky pig. That’s just the sort of ridiculous premise that Freestyle Love Supreme’s cast members can sink their teeth into. Ambudkar was delightful as designated-driver Meg, while Bancroft gleefully portrayed the shocked farmer, and Mulladay the ill-fated squealer.

A sketch featuring an audience’s member’s tutoring session with a young man with autism and an overlong tribute to the Muppets benefitted less from the utter unpredictability of the format. Luckily, Ambudkar again rescued the latter section, this time by coincidental virtue of his own real-life experience as a performer on The Muppet Show, which he shared movingly. And whether routines go south or catch fire, they’re gone for good in the instant that they’re over. (To make sure of that, the ushers seal all cellphones in magnetic Yondr pouches as the audience enters. Don’t worry: Your phone still never leaves your hands.)

“I can’t believe these dummies let us on Broadway,” Folds rapped at one point early on, but bringing these rap-scallions all the way doesn’t seem like a dumb idea at all. (How many other outstanding acts might make the leap if only for an omnipotent benefactor and collaborator like Miranda?) Freestyle Love Supreme, staged by Kail and lit snappily by Jeff Croiter, does its performers an extraordinary service: The production gets out of the way and lets its stars (from the freestylers to the beatboxers to co-music supervisor Arthur Lewis, leading the small band on keys) do what they do best. They may be young, scrappy, and hungry, but there’s no way, whatever performance you attend, that they’re throwing away their shot.

Freestyle Love Supreme is now playing at the Booth Theatre.

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