5. Thereâs also that musical about Oklahoma that seems to never go away. Hillbillies do have a proclivity for singing and dancing.
Even though there are plenty of DVDs to watch around here, people in Oklahoma still enjoy going out to theaters to watch live entertainment. And for those of us lucky enough to attend an evening at the Lighthouse Theater in Edmond, Oklahoma, the live entertainment provided by this unique endeavor will live long past its unfortunate closure.
“Lighthouse” was so named not because of its proximity to seawater, but because the theater director sought to focus on “light” entertainment in a “house” environment rather than dramatic pieces in a traditional theater. The last Lighthouse production, Greater Tuna, featured the amazing talents of two well-regarded local actors who made the play a showcase for their own fun and amusement, as is the purpose of the piece. Written by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard, Greater Tuna is an uncanny portrait of small town Americana, and for those of us who live here it is an unsettlingly accurate image of our neighbors and relatives.
Just as the residents of Tuna, Texas think the world outside their town is “just plain weird,” many Oklahomans find big-city life complex and confusing. But as it is with so many relationships, opposites often attract, and we inevitably find ourselves drawn to that which we find so beguiling. The enchanting spell of New York City shall likely draw Oklahomans, in all number of ways, for years to come.
Shelby Button resides in rural Oklahoma and occasionally watches movies. He posts over at Liverputty.
Confessions of a Drag Legend: Charles Busch on The Confession of Lily Dare
Busch discusses his latest comic tearjerker, an homage to a rather unknown spate of movies from the early 1930s.
When we last caught up with Charles Busch almost a decade ago, the playwright, actor, and drag artist was starring in The Divine Sister, a vehicle he created for himself to emulate a Rosalind Russell-like star of Hollywoodâs âgoldenâ era playing a mother superior. âThereâs actually this marvelous fantasy element to my career, and Iâve been very lucky the way things have worked out,â says the 65-year-old as we chatted once again in his West Village apartment, which is decorated, as he once famously put it, âlike an elegant 19th-century whorehouse.â Over the past 35 years, Busch has sustained a unique and idiosyncratic career, every so often creating over-the-top roles for himself and gathering a bunch of his actor friends to put on shows just for the fun of it. On this occasion, the topic of conversation is The Confession of Lily Dare, which began life in 2018 and is now being presented at the Cherry Lane Theatre by Primary Stages.
How would you describe The Confession of Lily Dare in a nutshell?
Itâs a comic tearjerker, an homage to a rather unknown spate of movies from the early 1930s. There was this brief period where things were kinda loose and creativeâthe so-called Pre-Code cinemaâbefore the severe Production Code made many restrictions on morality in American film. There was a bunch of moviesâall variations of the same plotâabout a young girl led astray, who has an illegitimate baby who she gives up, and then, many years later, the child comes back into her life. And, because she has led this very sexual renegade life, she has to hold on to her great secret, that she never wants the child to know.
Whoâs Lily Dare?
A survivor. Iâve always wanted play a role where I went from a young girl to an old crone. In a certain sense, I play four different characters, because she makes some wild transformations from innocent young girl to Marlene Dietrich-type cabaret entertainer to bordello madam to worn-out waterfront saloon singer. I morph using different character voices as she changes personae. I think in some ways itâs a metaphor for what we all go through in real life, as we change and our personalities adapt to our circumstances. I have noticed, as my contemporaries have gotten older, sometimes we become almost parodies of ourselves; we get so much more exaggerated in our idiosyncrasies and eccentricities. What Iâm doing as Lily Dare is on a much more stylized level, but I think it has a basic truth to the way we do adapt as we get older.
This show was originally meant for a limited run off-off-Broadway. What changed?
Iâve had this very long relationship, going back to 1981, with Theater for the New City, which is a kind of funky downtown multiplex of a theater on the Lower East Side. Every other year weâthatâs me and Carl Andress, the director Iâve worked with for 25 yearsâmake a call to Crystal Field, who runs that theater, and say, âCan you give us a space?â Itâs a fun thing to do for a couple of weeks and usually I get it out of my system. We did Lily Dare there a year and a half ago and the audience response to it was so lovely. But, really, more importantly, I wanted to do more. I loved the variety of emotion that it stirred in the audience. With comedy, I like when thereâs a roller coaster of tone; it can be very outrageous and bawdy, but then there are genuine moments of tenderness or suspense. I really wanted to test this and, you know, go for big laughs but also see whether a rather jaded, cynical contemporary audience could lose themselves in the tearjerker elements of the story and be genuinely moved. So, when Primary Stagesâa theater Iâve had a relationship with, going back to 1994âsaid it wanted me to be part of their 35th anniversary season, I suggested Lily Dare.
Mother-and-child relationships are central to Die Mommie Die! and The Third Story. Does that have something to do with your losing your mother at an early age?
Iâve always been a sucker for anything about mother love, and itâs a wonderful experience to play my obsessions night after night. I think I can speak for anyone whoâs lost a parent. Itâs something that marks you and influences probably every aspect of your life, whether itâs personal relationships or, if youâre a creative artist, your work. I write them into the play so I can tap into those emotions endlessly. Thank God for self-pity, because it can be very rewarding! This play, particularly, is all about the search for a mother, the search for a child.
Youâve said before that your plays come about because thereâs a role youâd like to play.
Yes, Iâd get an idea like âOh, wouldnât it be fun to be Rosalind Russell in a 1960s nun comedy,â or âwouldnât it fun to be Norma Shearer in an anti-Nazi war melodrama.â In this case, it was âWouldnât it be fun to be Barbara Stanwyck in her early-1930s tearjerkers?â Iâve just been very fortunate that Iâm in a position that I can get these fantasies to come true.
The other thing I do, usually after I get my idea for a play and a character that Iâd like to do, is write a list of actor friends of mine that I just like to hang out with, and then I try to figure out roles for them within the context of the story. Sometimes I feel like I have my own old-time movie studio and my contract players and I have to figure out new ways of presenting them. Iâm so fortunate that Iâve been working with the wonderful Jennifer Van Dyck for quite a few years now. She was a classical actress without a camp bone in her body when I got hold of her. Her range is so marvelous. I can use her in so many different ways; as an elegant lady, sometimes I write old-fashioned trouser roles for her because she has kind of a Katherine Hepburn quality. In my Cleopatra, I think sheâs the only actress whoâs ever played Octavian and his sister, Octavia. And in Lily Dare, she ranges from playing my bordello madam to my opera singing daughter, a doctorâs wife and a mysterious baroness.
Whatâs it like writing roles for yourself?
It took me to the age of 19 to figure out I could write roles for myself. It becomes harder as you get older, although, for the most part, Iâve aged into my roles. In the late â80s I was playing Norma Shearer in The Lady in Question, who was a great star at the peak of her beauty, letâs say in 1940, and then years later I was playing a mother superior, which would have the part that an actress would have played as sheâs approaching her late 50s. Itâs always important to me that when I look in the mirror, I look like the character Iâm playing. Perhaps what Iâm seeing in the mirror isnât what the audience is seeing. I hope thatâs not true! I may be deluding myself, but Iâve never thought that the source of the comedy of my performances was the differential between what my intention is and what the audienceâs conception is. I think a big part of camp is that space. There are so many different kinds of drag performers that come from so many different points for view. For me, it was important that I physically looked as close an approximation that I possibly can to an actress from Hollywoodâs golden age. In this play, Iâm taking a little bit of a detour. I end up there, but I just start off with as a young convent girl of 16. With the help of my wig stylist and costume designers and lighting designer I hope I give some kind of an illusion. I’m telling you this might be the last time that I play somebody quite that young. Iâm getting kinda tired being all trussed up in corsets!
Do you rely on your memories of the old movies for your parodies? Did you have to do research for Lily Dare?
I just absorbed it watching all those movies on television. Iâve been doing it since I was eight years old and I think the bulk of my research was done by the age of 12! When I do a new play like Lily Dare, I try to see some of these movies that I havenât seen, that I know are in the same genre. But Iâve always loved Madame X, which is really the prototype for that kind of movie. Itâs not for me to do the spoof of film noir; thatâs really for the ordinary folk, you know. I choose obscure movies that nobody could care less about! And, in a way, thatâs kind of good because I donât really approve of something where an audienceâs enjoyment is based on their knowledge of the movie. With something like Lily Dare, the assumption is that 99 percent of the audience has never seen Frisco Jenny or The Sin of Madelon Claudet orâthey all have similar titlesâThe Secret of Madame Blanche. It doesnât matter, you can just enjoy it as a good yarn. And thank God for Googleâto be able to look for restaurants in San Francisco that were open before 1906. Because if Iâm going to use an anachronism it is very deliberate.
What about the plays that didnât feature a role for yourself, notably The Tale of the Allergistâs Wife?
Iâve written a number of them and, honestly, itâs frustrated me that my only Broadway play was that. And itâs not for lack of trying. A play of mine that we did at Primary Stages a few years ago, Olive and the Bitter Herbs, got some of the biggest laughs in my career, but critics didnât really care for it. I donât know, I sometimes spend useless time in rumination of âDid I make the wrong choice, did I take the wrong path there?â And where is it gonna get you? The thing about my career is that Iâve earned a nice living just by doing exactly what I wanted to do and had fun doing it. And I guess it is too late to start bitching about what might have been.
Is the movie version of Allergistâs Wife still happening?
Oh, that movie project has dragged on. I canât say it is not going to happen, but thereâs certainly no activity at the moment. I have several plays that Iâd like to write in different stylesâalways a million notions for film parodies. Thereâs an Irish parody that Iâve been intermittently working on, and another autobiographical play that that Iâve done research on. What I do get excited about is being in movies. Some of the most creative experiences in my whole life have been making movies like Die Mommy Die! So, Carl and I have a new idea for a movie that we hope to do next year. Itâs a zany contemporary caper movie starring Julie Halston and me, and that we hope to shoot in my apartment!
Is it true youâre writing your memoirs?
Oh, I have been working on it for so many years! The idea was that it will be more memoir than celebrity autobiography, because Iâm not that well known. But I think I have a very interesting story. My aunt who raised me was a fascinating figure; I think sheâs very much in the tradition of aunt literature from Tom Sawyerâs Aunt Polly to David Copperfieldâs Aunt Betsey Trotwood to Travels with my Aunt and Auntie Mame. And, of course, there are the different worlds that Iâve been a part ofâthe East Village of the â80sâand thereâs this story of a young person wanting so desperately to be in the theater and realizing that thereâs no was no place for him in a traditional career and having to just invent one. I think Iâm rather fearless as a dramatistâI just keep going and nothing seems to stop meâbut Iâm much more vulnerable as a prose writer. So, itâs dragged out a lot, but finally I think I see the end is near.
Do you think that your work has influenced artists of succeeding generations just as Charles Ludlumâs Ridiculous Theatre inspired you?
I guess so. Seeing Charles Ludlum when I was at such an impressionable age, it was cataclysmic the way it changed my perspective of the possibilities of who I could be. And I meet young people who say that I have that effect on them. With this playâCarl was just saying the other nightâit was great to see young gay people in our audience who just seem overwhelmed. I think it is a lovely thingâit doesnât happen too often it seemsâthat we have a new generation of young gay kids being exposed to the kind of humor and see generations of gay men sitting together and sharing a laugh.
Is there a confession of Charles Busch?
Really, it took me a while to understand that everything you write is personal and that even though it would seem like just a spoof of an old movie genre it is actually very autobiographical, and Iâm often the last person to realize it. I think this play is a confession of Charles Busch, maybe you have to look a little deeper.
Review: Timon of Athens Takes Arms Against the Ravages of Wealth
The singular nature of this play, brought to life by Kathryn Hunterâs exceptional lead performance, is reason enough to see this production.
As Timon, re-gendered as female for Simon Godwinâs Timon of Athens, the diminutive Kathryn Hunter is all sharp elbows and shoulders. Throughout, she enriches her expert handling of Shakespeareâs language with extraordinary physical expressiveness. When she dances on a banquet table, beaming in a golden gown, youâll be rapt. And you may never forget the moment where, scowling and given over to hatred, her Timon drags a dining chair as big as her onto the stage, her snow-white garment doused in blood.
Timon, a rich Athenian, lavishes gifts on her friends until she goes into terrible debt. No one helps her, so she turns her back on humanity, taking to the woods to live as a misanthrope. In an unsubtle reversal, her golden world of opulence and excess gives way to a barren anti-Arden where she will die alone in a cave, cursing mankind. In Timon’s prime, Hunter throws her long, slender arms wide in absolute welcome and seems always on the verge of an embrace; later, in the forest scenes, those same arms seem wretched: They have to dig, scratch, and fight, turning all her elegant gestures into disturbing movements worthy of Andy Serkisâs Gollum.
Another highlight of the show, now playing at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center, is the production design (the sets and costumes are both by Soutra Gilmour). The early scenes take place in a great banquet hall, chandeliered and blazing golden light. Before the performance begins, the audience is treated to a lively mini-concert while Timonâs household staff brings around trays of hors dâoeuvres, fun little perks that charm us, drawing us into her largesse. Timon and her guests dress all in black and gold, in outfits ranging from the glamorous to the absurdly gaudy. The rad, ridiculous feathered shrugs worn by Sempronius (Daniel Pearce), for example, perfectly capture the decadence of the group that hangs around Timonâs house.
The playâs forest scenes, where a column of black stage curtain makes up the trunk of a great, dark tree, leave that golden world behind. From the rafters, an immense, menacing bough hangs on chains, its bare branches extending toward the audience like a terrible, misshapen hand. And in the front of the stage is a pit, like a grave, for Timon, now dressed in filthy rags, to dig, fight, and rail against the world in. Rarely has it felt so exciting to first enter a theater space, and rarely so foreboding to return after intermission.
Timon of Athens can be a slog, so Godwin is to be commended for a streamlined production thatâs consistently engaging. Repetitive scenes that are separate in the text of the play are braided together, yet kept distinct by clever lighting effects and the way the actors simulate slow motion and being frozen. But thereâs a tradeoff here, as these effects, while clever, can also be corny. More importantly, the production cuts an early scene where Alcibiades (Elia Monte-Brown) pleads unsuccessfully for the life of a comrade whoâs been sentenced to death. For her persistence in the matter, sheâs banished from Athens. While itâs admirable that the production casts female actors as both Timon and Alcibiades, particularly since this is the play with the fewest lines spoken by female roles in all of Shakespeare, the streamlined nature of the production has the unfortunate effect of flattening out Alcibiadesâs character and underutilizing Monte-Brown, who brings a fresh and angry fervor to the role.
Timon of Athens has been called Shakespeareâs strangest play. Believed to have been written in collaboration with Thomas Middleton, a contemporary with a darker, more cynical sensibility, it has a nastier tone than you might expect, and, while in many ways a tragedy, it withholds, in the end, the relief of tragic catharsis. Certain Shakespearean hallmarks, such as an emphasis on family relationships, are absent as well. The playâs design is conspicuously schematic, and the rough state of the text has led some scholars to believe that itâs unfinished.
The paradox of Timon of Athens, however, is that the strangest Shakespeare play, which seems so unlike him, somehow also seems like the ultimate form of his literary expressionâuncut Shakespeare, so to speak. In his classic 1949 study The Wheel of Fire, G. Wilson Knight set this ostensible outlier at the center of the canon, and, more recently, Kiernan Ryanâs Shakespeareâs Universality found in Timonâs misanthropic detachment the key to what he considers Shakespeareâs defining literary quality: his radical, as opposed to reactionary, universality. Absent the usual trappingsâthe complications of romantic love, cross dressing and mistaken identity, multiple plot strands to untangleâthereâs nothing here to distract us from Timonâs brutal speeches late in the play, and some of the darkest lines in all of Shakespeare. Take, for example, the twisted epitaph Timon writes for himself: âMy long sickness, of health and living now begins to mend, and nothing brings me all things.â
The singular nature of this play, brought to life by Hunterâs exceptional lead performance, is reason enough to see this production. Another is the wonderful music: For much of the show, from the back of the stage, a live trio (Chris Biesterfeldt, Philip Coiro, and Joshua Johnson) performs a generous number of slinky Greek tunes arranged for drums, clarinet, guitar, and bouzouki. As the Greek Singer, Kristen Misthopoulos joins them on several numbers and also delivers a memorable rendition of the mysterious, metaphysical Sonnet 53, set to music by Michael Bruce: âWhat is your substance,â it begins, âwhereof are you made, that millions of strange shadows on you tend?â In a nice touch, a copy of the poem is provided as a program insert so that, after the show, you can replay the musical performance in your mind and ponder the intertext between the sonnet and the strangest Shakespeare play.
Timon of Athens runs from January 11âFebruary 9 at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center.
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 theyâre men, and more often than not theyâre white.) For most New York theater critics, most of the time, âinternationalâ means âimported from London.â If it doesnât, it probably means âdirected by Ivo van Hove.â But at the Under the Radar Festival, the Public Theaterâs 16-year-old annual international theatrical extravaganza, the thoughtfully curated program of new works blasts apart the predictable comfort of knowing what youâre 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 Iâd realized.
Experiencing the Under the Radar Festivalâespecially taking in shows at high quantity in quick successionâreplaces the usual sense of familiarity with a sense of wonder. I havenât adored every offering at this yearâs festival, but, in each theater space, Iâve 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. Iâve 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 thatâs especially valuable for critics, who sometimes need the reminder that other peopleâs opinions coexist alongside ours.)
This yearâs 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 festivalâs 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 Iâd been holding for the playâs duration: It seems to ask, âWho 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?â And I wondered, not for the first time: How did they read my mind?
Directed by Back to Backâs 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 itâs like to have a disability. The shared names between characters and actors are a red herring. These actors have disabilities, yes, but that doesnât 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 Iâm not sure I didnât imagine them, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes sets graceful, invisible traps for the audienceâs assumptions about the capabilities of the performers and the distance between performer and character. And while Iâm not entirely sure of the titleâs meaning, it might have something to do with the playâs 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? Itâs part of the play, of course, just like most of neurotypical theaterâs 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 momentsârelieved admiration for the performers, guilt for the assumptions I had made, embarrassment that I had been caught feeling uneasyâstayed with me for the rest of the playâs rich hour.
In that regard, The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes is very much about the audience, and thereâs 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 (Iâm 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 performersâ speech. As Scott Price laments, âI have autism, and, unfortunately for me, I also have a thick Australian accent.â But the projected text also doubles as a symbol for the dehumanization of people on the spectrum. âYou can tell we have disabilities as everything we say comes upon a screen,â Sarah notes with disdain. âThe subtitling is offensive.â
This point of view leads to a heated argument about language and representation, with Scott claiming the label of disability: âIâm a disabled person here and Iâm proud and I donât want to weave my way around language.â But thereâs no unified front in how these four characters perceive themselves and seek to be perceived.
Perhaps the playâs sharpest touch is that Michael and Scott talk down to Simon, describing him as âvery childlikeâ and insinuating that he canât understand whatâs going on or fully participate in the meeting. Sarah calls them out on this (âYouâre talking like Simonâs not even in the roomâ), and itâs 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 doesnât include heroes or victims or saints and the play relishes in catching the audience in the act of attaching such labels to the performers. Itâs a play I want to see again in order to try again, to use what Iâve 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 Beckettâs 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 performanceâand an exhilarating oneâof Beckettâs 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 Touretteâs syndrome, has a number of repeating verbal tics that spark from her speech: Among the most frequent are âbiscuit,â âsausage,â and âI love cats,â plus a few words and phrases that arenât quite so âcute,â 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 âgenuine jeopardy.â
Such pre-show disclaimers are neither warnings nor apologies but a crucial aspect of Thomâs 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 Beckettâs monologue); that an ASL interpreter (the warmly expressive Lindsey D. Snyder) will sign every word of Beckettâs 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. Thomâs tics remain present throughout the monologue, absorbed into the labyrinthine, spontaneous stitches of Mouthâs 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, âlike a stone in water,â but they flow back in during Beckettâs indicated silences. âMy version of silence,â Thom clarified, often sounds like eight or 10 âbiscuitsâ 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 Beckettâs 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 âthe only seat in the house I wouldnât be asked to leave.â And even as we hear her words, their truth immediately confirms itself: Itâs only during this section of the performanceâa few minutes in which Thom herself is not visible as she sits in the darkâthat I reverted to experiencing Thomâs tics as disruption or interruption. At the exact moment I was nodding along with the videoâs 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 intellectâand the human spiritâare 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. Zuabiâs play, besides being performed in English, boasts an instantly recognizable form: Itâs a family comedy, actually one of the funniest Iâve seen in a while, with a bittersweetness that calls to mind, in a very different geopolitical context, Neil Simonâs 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 heâs seeing someone newâitâs been three years since her mother diedâbut that doesnât explain why heâs also spending hours assembling mechanical parts in his shed with a brilliant young engineer, Fadel (Ivan Kevork Azazian). Yusufâs plan, it turns out, is to build a rocket to the moon, a feat that will put Palestinian fortitude and ingenuity on the map.
Itâs in Yusufâs very insistence that his rocket-building is about humanity rather than political conflict that Zuabiâs play becomes, in fact, forcefully political. Much like The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes foretells the audienceâs expectations of the performersâ 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 âstop signs for the imaginationâ and Yusuf later tells Lilaâs ill-matched fiancĂ© Jawad (Alaa Shehada), âYou have the occupation [as] your excuse for your lack of creativity.â 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. Thereâs an aspect of 21st-century fairy tale to Grey Rockâs 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 doesnât 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 itâs a familiarity that seems to be there by design. I think I would have found Grey Rock just as absorbing in supertitled Arabic, but thereâs 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 playâs 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 villageâs anxious imam (Motaz Malhees). Thereâs a particularly delightful rapport between Natourâs gruff stargazer and Azazianâs 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 Lilaâs broken off her engagement, and then tries to backtrack his demonstrativeness, itâs both hilarious and sweetly moving.
Iâm not sure if Zuabi deliberately snuck in one particular idiom for this festival run: âI order things in small quantities so I go under the radar,â 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 8â19.
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 theyâve seen.
Even if that brutal honesty made it all the way to Broadway, it didnât 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 bestâand most honestâtheater 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 cityâs 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 (itâs 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 Playâs appearance on super-safe, hit-me-baby-with-one-more-jukebox Broadway, in all that playâs harrowing, shocking glory, is the transformative, theatrical event of the year, the persistently white forecast for 2020âs biggest stages is a painful twist worthy of Harris. Whatâs most promising about New York theater is also whatâs most frightening: As Harris himself told Playbill this year, âweâre also not doing the work of social justice if we pretend that there wasnât a history of immediately erasing the hard work of putting women and people of color on stagesâthereâs always a renaissance and then it disappears.â
As this list of the best New York theatrical productions of 2019 suggests, itâs 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 âslave playâ this year, The American Tradition largely slipped under the radar at the 13th Street Repertory Company, where it ran briefly in February. But Ray Yamanouchiâs biting play, staged with breathless momentum by Axel Avin Jr., was just as caustic and challenging, even if it lacked some of Slave Playâs 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 doesnât see color. Danie Steelâs seething performance as an enslaved woman forced to memorize a speech of praise for her master has especially stuck with me throughout this year. Thereâs 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. Itâs a bonkers Bonnie and Clyde-like premise, but Cordelia OâDriscollâs haunting melodies (bolstered by Olivia Doustâs lovely orchestrations) transform psychopathy into sweet, wry romance. And itâs a nice surprise to encounter smart lyric writing, a collaboration here between OâDriscoll and Tom Williams. Letâs hope Buried, which had a five-performance run at the New York Musical Festival, doesnât 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, heâs also the chair of playwriting at Yale School of Drama (from which Slave Playâs 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 âSometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.â But the story itselfâanchored by Jeremy Popeâs defiantly beautiful central performance and Trip Cullmanâs intense directionâpaints 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, Iâd all but written Coriolanus off as a Shakespeare play too philosophically knotty to be staged coherently or compellingly. I was proven wrong by Daniel Sullivanâs breathless, crystalline production. Jonathan Cakeâs performance in the title role of a would-be consul of Rome who canât hide his disdain for the common people made psychologically legible each of Coriolanusâs politically incomprehensible choices. Kate Burton made Coriolanusâs 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 thatâs 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, Coriolanusâs insightful, incisive reifying is a perfect example of the Publicâs grippingly relevant output.
Fairview (Theatre for a New Audience)
Perhaps Fairview, Jackie Sibblies Druryâs Pulitzer Prize-winning play, shouldnât 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 Fairviewâa play as much about the audience as the charactersâis 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 playâs 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, Iâve 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 Smithâs 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 Smithâs verbatim drama, with text taken from dozens of interviews, it wasnât 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. Smithâs masterful dramaturgy (and extraordinary story-gathering) still stuns, and the sense of these testimonies passing from voice to voiceâfrom their original speakers to Smith and now to Washingtonâprovided 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 Macâs shocking, delicious Gary, a madcap sequel to Shakespeareâs bloodiest tragedy. Even though Nathan Lane was an amply amusing headliner, White and co-star Kristine Nielsen elevated Macâs 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 âjudy,â asked a lot from absurdism-wary Broadway audiences in judyâs 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 yearâs 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). Whatâs most impressive about Guirgisâs 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 ColĂłn-Zayas as a hurting, harassing veteran, and Patrice Johnson Chevannes (also excellent in New York Theater Workshopâs 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 Goldâs abstract, perhaps overly academic King Lear, I found it to be an eye-opening vision for Shakespeareâs most engulfing tragedy. Hard to follow for newcomers to the play itself? For sure (I donât begrudge the King Lear neophytes sitting near me who left at intermission), but what a collection of performances: Ruth Wilsonâs 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 OâSullivan 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). Goldâs casting choices tightened the dramaturgy: When Cornwall killed that servant, he lost his âearsâ 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 Londonâs Old Vic in 2016, I was astonished by the newfound wit, anger, and ferociousness in Jacksonâs 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 Mayerâs giddy production of Little Shop of Horrors is just a really, really good staging of the show that heightens everything youâve always loved about it. Jonathan Groff gave a delightfully nerdy performance as Seymour Krelborn (heâs soon to be replaced by Gideon Glick) with Tammy Blanchard a tender and tenacious Audrey. Mayerâs direction reveals, much like Seymourâs 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 castâs superb rendering of Alan Menkenâs score (and Howard Ashmanâs witty lyrics) has also been captured on a recently released recording, and if you canât make it to the tiny Westside Theater before the show closes in March, itâs worth the listen.
The Michaels (Public Theater)
The eighth play in Richard Nelsonâs Rhinebeck Panorama detailing episodes in familyâs 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, itâs 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 playâs 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 Roseâs 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 Alfaroâs Mojada migrates the Medea myth to present-day Queens in a terrifying, literarily inevitable unspooling of an undocumented womanâs battle to preserve her family and her dignity. In the Public Theaterâs production, Chay Yewâs fluid staging intermingled Mikhail Fikselâs vital sound design with Alfaroâs poetic text, brought to life especially by Sabina ZĂșĂ±iga Varela in the title role and Socorro Santiago as a wry Greek chorus of a domestic worker. A flashback sequence to the familyâs frightening escape across the border was probably among this yearâs most horrifying, tense stretches of drama (along, perhaps, with the final scenes of Slave Play and Daniel Fishâs Oklahoma!). In Alfaroâs assured hands, the mythical and the modern meld powerfully, yet another win for the Publicâs superb track record of marrying the classic and the contemporary.
Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare in the Park, Public Theater)
Shakespeareâs seldom made this much sense. In Kenny Leonâs glorious production of Much Ado About Nothing, Messina is transformed into 2020 Georgia at the height of Stacey Abramsâs (fictitious) presidential campaign. Leonâs resetting felt so special not just because of its all-black cast or potent use of music throughout, but because each line of Shakespeareâs text blossomed as if dug out and replanted in a brand-new garden. Iâve rarely seen a Shakespeare production that felt as freshly explored, and Iâve also never seen an audience allowed to receive a Shakespeare play with such total comfort and confidence in the languageâs accessibility. Leading the phenomenal cast in conversational clarity was Orange Is the New Blackâs 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 PBSâs 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 Shakespeareâs Measure for Measure and Nambi E. Kelleyâs adaptation of Richard Wrightâs Native Son in repertory. While Measure for Measure was uninspired, and the repertorial combination didnât 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 performancesâGalen 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 towardâthis 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. Loveâs struggle with depression as he approached his 10th anniversary of living with HIV, one in two is a work which rends its authorâs identity apart into three figures, all queer black men tasked with telling the tragicâbut does it have to be?âstory 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. Thatâs the only chance for applause the audience gets: In an arresting dramaturgical move, thereâs no curtain call, just a silent exodus from the theater as the actors stare up at the ever-increasing tally of diagnoses. Itâs 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 Williamsâs best-known classics, Serafina Delle Roseâs happy ending seems hardly likely to happen. But Marisa Tomeiâs 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 havenât stopped thinking or talking about Slave Play since I saw it nearly three months ago. And thatâs very definitely the point. More than any play Iâve seen this yearâmaybe everâitâs come up in conversation again and again, not just because I want to recommend it (which I do), but because Iâm still wrestling with it. Jeremy O. Harrisâs 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 whatâs most admirable about Slave Play remains that, stripped of all the noise outside and around the play, itâs 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 doesnât demand a Broadway-sized house, it certainly deserves one; a mesmerizing miniature, itâs 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 hasnât also performed the central role. Itâs 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 constitutionâs 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 peopleâs 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 Inheritanceâs attempt to speak for everyone muddies its ability to speak clearly to anyone.
“Helenâs one aim is to translate tunes into the language of painting, and pictures into the language of music,â Margaret Schlegel complains of her sister in E.M. Forsterâs 1910 novel Howards End. âIf Monetâs really Debussy, and Debussyâs really Monet, neither gentleman is worth his saltâthatâs my opinion.â Andâto take Margaretâs argument a step fartherâif 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 âthe ultimate in fan-fiction, basically.â And, considered purely as a work of fan fiction, The Inheritance is a daring feat: Honoring Forsterâs queerness (expressed explicitly only in Maurice, a novel published posthumously), Lopez has transformed pretty much every single one of Howards Endâs 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 InheritanceâI saw the playâs two parts back to back in a single dayâthat weâve apparently been inside a novel the whole time. A novelist character presents his finished debut draft, and, wouldnât you know, itâs called The Inheritance. âAnd this is the book I wroteâ 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 Forsterâs language and style. And while director Stephen Daldryâs staging is simple but consistently attention-holding, with some scattered poetic images, itâs 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 itâs 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 doesnât 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, thereâs seldom the same sensation of Forster padding out his pages.
Lopezâs 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 authorâs life, if heâd felt free to live as someone like himself), what might their stories have been? But part of the novelâs magic is the omniscient narratorâs rigorous empathy: The women in Howards End pulsate with realness more brilliantly than do any of the men, and the novelâs 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 heâs 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, doesnât open the gate any wider. Itâs a totally unnecessary shameâand a shock, to be honestâthat 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 whoâre 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, thereâs a poignant surprise in seeing the real world reflected again on stage. As a result of these exclusions, The Inheritanceâs 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 isnât confronted by the outside world, both because the outside world doesnât 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 canât get in. (Dashed-off references to contemporary tragediesâlike âTell that to the kids at Pulseâ âresonate 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 âremarkable.â Forster himself says so. So does Henry Wilcox (John Benjamin Hickey), the middle-aged billionaire (andâshock!âgay Trump donor), whose transposition from the novel works most smoothly, as he falls for Eric. But Sollerâs amiable performance fades into the background here; Ericâs 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 heâs based on is never explained.
Ericâs also dwarfed by the more extreme men around him. Thereâs Ericâs 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 couldnât 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. Burnapâs boisterous careening and biting cycles of spiraling are among the playâs more engaging trips, but Toby doesnât 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 experienceâand, therefore, real dramatic tensionâthat heats up the playâs second half. In one fleeting scene, Levineâs two characters meet, and the actor grippingly pulls off a conversation between them: Levineâs posture, voice, and affect transform so completely that his one-man dialogue is completely seamless.
That moment also sheds The Inheritanceâs novel-like stretchiness, as itâs 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 playâs 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 itâs the main reason to see the play, I wonât 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 Theaterâs 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 couldnât tell every story alone made Novenas a moving, human experience.
Conversely, The Inheritanceâs attempt to speak for everyone muddies its ability to speak clearly to anyone. As Margaret tells her sister at the end of Howards End, âBecause a thing is going strong now, it need not go strong forever.â Unlike his most voluminous fan-fiction writer, Forster knew when it was time to scrawl âThe Endâ 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. Harrisâs 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. Itâs a play that demands you never look awayâfrom its floor-to-ceiling mirrors to its graphic depictions of sex actsâexists maybe most profoundly in its aural landscape. (Lindsay Jones is the impactful sound designer.) And if nothing else, itâs one about listening.
Thatâs 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 anotherâand the impossibility of colorblind connection, even with your most intimate partnerâis one of its themes. Itâs 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 Harrisâs play, itâs 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 doesnât feel like a metaphor as much as an acknowledgment that Slave Play has become an eventâits been slandered, protested, lauded, slammed, idolizedâand the experience of attending it feels like being part of a watchable drama in its own right.
But whatâs 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 Harrisâs 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 authorâs ideasâabout race, about relationships, and most centrally about how race shapes relationshipsâbut 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 foreplayâand eventually beyondâwith their owners or overseers. (Claire Warden is the indispensable intimacy and fight director.) Slave Play dares us to listenâwith growing squeamishnessâto the vilest of passionate duets, grunts and sighs mixing with horrific epithets.
Butâmajor spoiler aheadâitâs 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. Thatâs because they are. These arenât 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 âAntebellum Sexual Performance Therapy,â 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 TeĂĄ (Chalia La Tour) and Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio) can lead a debrief.
Once again, Slave Play offers a listening challenge, and his time itâs 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 thatâs come before. âYou are heard, you are affirmed, and I see you,â Jim, whoâs 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 theyâre back in the real world, Dustin, whoâs white but insists that heâs 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, âconstantly bathing in…gentrification.â Blankson-Woodâs Gary demonstrates a supreme calm while quivering on the edge as he measures his response.
And itâs unsettling to trace overeager Alana (Annie McNamara), whoâs been taking copious notes and canât 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 OâHara, 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 specificityâweâve met people like these before (though maybe not Dustin, whoâs a tad over the top)âbut 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 whatâs most discomfiting hasnât been real as they step away from the experience of watchingânauseously? analytically? voyeuristically?âthe opening scenes. It almost seems possible that Harrisâs sharpest-edged satire will be directed at the jargonistic psychobabble of TeĂĄ 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? Thereâs 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 Playâs 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 weâve probably been hearing our thoughts in Jimâs incredulous reactions (âThis is insane,â he insists, angrily), is he still the voice of reason, a voice thatâs increasingly talking over others, still the âsaneâ 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? Itâs increasingly significant that this therapy has been designed, as TeĂĄ 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? Iâm not sure and I donât think Iâm supposed to be. Thereâs no bite-size moral here because Harris doesnât try to break down slaveryâits historical legacy and the way it still pulsates todayâinto bite-size lessons or takeaways.
And when, finally, Slave Playâs characters stop talking over each other for Kalukangoâs fiery cadenza of a closing monologue, itâs immediately evident how carefully Harris has woven his strands together. The last 20 minutes of the play justify and necessitate everything thatâs 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 itâs impossible to turn away, but those final moments suggest that to listen, really listen, requires uncharted vulnerability and unexplored risk. That initially powerless refrain, âYou are heard, you are affirmed, and I see you,â takes on a new tsunami of meaning as Jim responds to Kaneishaâs voice for the first time. The final, raw moments of Slave Play seem to ask audiencesâespecially white audiencesâto 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?â 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 Hammersteinâs 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 Publicâs own Soft Power. But only one of the twoâwell, one of the three, given the formerâs atypical structureâis fully successful.
Inspired by Paulette Hauptâs 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. Whatâs 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.
Riversâs Ruby, the showâs 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. Sheâs fled from his hospital bed to seek sanctuary by the grave of the white woman who raised her, and Carolâs hopelessness and fear for the future intermingle with her bittersweet, tainted childhood memories.
Riversâs poetic text explodes intermittently into Shenâs 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 sonâs suffering as it merges with the visions sheâs imagined of her fatherâs death. Shenâs 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 Rubyâs 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 Shenâs compositional craft is apparent, heâs uninspired by Fitzhughâs distracted libretto. Instead of sounding like a specific character, the music adopts the distinctive, imitable quality of Stephen Sondheimâs 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 Fitzhughâs 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 âSince I helped those women change/With truth that they finâly shared/Now I can seek out/Who Iâm supposed to be,â as he drives to Memphis to join the Freedom Riders, rings rather hollow. But thatâs no fault of Cunningham, who animates Benny appealingly and crisply transforms himself vocally and physically to play the two sparring women.
Itâs hard to believe the two halves share a composer, so voluminously do Shenâs 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 eventsâhis random stabbing on an NYC street in 2015 and Donald Trumpâs electionâset 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 Clintonâs election loss from the perspective of a Chinese immigrant whoâs 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, thereâs 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 dreamâyes, one that hazily combines DHHâs 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 governmentâs attempts to assert the Republicâs 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 Powerâs endless musical production numbers (including one where Hillary dances in different styles to woo varied constituencies and one Trumpian paean to âa good guy with a gunâ) work against Hwangâs strengths: needle-pricks of irony that last no longer than a line but which expose uncomfortable truths. Hwangâs biting humor makes the early scenesâthe ones about some version of himselfâengrossingly promising, and Jue, in a 180Âș from his all-business recurring role on Madam Secretary, is a delightful avatar for the playwright. But Hwangâs lyrics arenât sharp enough to have the same effect as his prose, and Tesoriâs score, best in a few intimate moments, is seldom specific enough to suggest Chinese composers mimicking Golden Age musicals (and also Hamilton) as itâs meant to. Thereâs one lovely song, though, in which Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora) tries to teach Hillary how to differentiate Chinese tones; itâs a gentle fusion of âDo Re Miâ and âShall We Dance?â 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 Silvermanâs lively staging and Sam Pinkletonâs 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, âWhy does the white character always have to be the I?â A Chinese would-be-producer responds, âBecause this is America.â 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 Companyâs Macbeth
On an almost bare stage, the scenes bleed into each other with little sense that the setting or situation has changed.
William Shakespeareâs Macbeth is a play that can be quite powerful when done at a fast pace. Thereâs a breathlessness, an off-the-rails feeling, to Macbethâs descent into hell thatâs 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 itâs often incoherent, particularly if you havenât looked at the play in a whileâand you may want to, as thereâs no paper program for the show and the digital one doesnât include a synopsis.
If the high speed of this production, while frustrating, is at least apt, itâs 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, theyâre like a troop of dreary druids.
We also donât get to hear enough of the weird sistersâ language, and we donât get to experience the creepy sound of their short lines (âHe shall live a man forbidâ) against Shakespeareâs pentameters, because the extraordinary opening of the third scene from act oneâthe tale of one weird sisterâs revenge against a sailorâs insolent wifeâhas 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, youâll likely be disappointed.
Macbeth (Corey Stoll) isnât 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. Itâs in these moments that Stollâs 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 âsleep no moreâ exchange with Lady Macbeth (Nadia Bowers), thereâs an urgency to Macbethâs 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 wonât listen. But while Stoll possesses the stature necessary to get across Macbethâs warrior dimension, the actorâs take on the character is more invested in the excesses of his mind. In the final soliloquy, with its âtomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,â 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 scarvesâlike druidsâ cloaks, or those of thieves. That small changes to the folds or draping of a cloth can convey such drastic alterations compounds the playâs eerie impression that people arenât who they seem and that character, in every sense, can change in an instant. Itâs 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 Doyleâs 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 âbloody man,â lying prostrate before the king, straining through his pain to report on the battle and Macbethâs valiant deeds. His blanket over him like a shroud or a covering for a fallen fighter, Akhavan delivers this productionâs finest speech, allowing us to vividly grasp the feeling of the weary, desperate armies, like âtwo spent swimmers,â 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 Weisbardâs 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
Itâs telling that the show gets its biggest laughs only after itâs turned deadly serious.
William Shakespeareâs 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 âvaulting ambition, which oâerleaps itselfâ 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 Roundaboutâs 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 cookâs 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, PAâs first act feels flagrantly overcooked, as if director Lonny Price and the showâs 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 Louizosâs 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, PAâs score. While Gwonâs writing here is far more attractive than his music for Ordinary Days, the lyrics, which should be slinging zingers at Macbeth and McDonaldâs and rural Pennsylvania all at once, are often bland to the point of inertness: What can be done with a love song sentiment like âTogether you and I can touch the stars/We can race through time/We can reach the skyâ? 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 heâs 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 theyâre just figments of Macâs imagination, the whole central question of Macbethâwhether itâs fate or power-hungry folly that drives our antiheroâs bloody ascentâgoes 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 Duncanâs icky death. (Sheâs playing a role originated by Christopher Walken on film.) Thereâs also some deft one-liners from Lacretta as a fast-food colleague, plus a surprisingly sweet song from Will Meyers as Duncanâs unwilling heir apparent Malcolm, whoâd rather gaze longingly at the football team than flip patties. And in the tense final scenesâPatâs eerie sleepwalking segment and a fiery confrontation between Mac and McDuffâGwon rises to the occasion as McCartanâs Mac explodes in song with disturbing anger.
Itâs telling that Scotland, PA gets its biggest laughs only after itâs turned deadly serious. Itâs that uneasy mix of inevitable tragedy and joyous comedy, like loving each bite even as you know what itâs doing to your blood pressure, that really makes things sizzle. And whateverâs next on the menu for Scotland, PA, all the sound and fury whizbang in the world wonât rival the showâs fleeting moments that give into the Macbethsâ warped frustration and quiet rage.
Scotland, PA is now playing at the Laura Pels Theatre.
Review: Tracy Lettsâs Linda Vista Doesnât Make Enough Space for its Women
Letts trips over the line between objectifying women and satirizing the objectification of women.
Whereâs the line between objectifying women and satirizing the objectification of women? Wherever it is, itâs 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 doesnât have the emotional intelligence to return from. You’re supposed to laugh at Julesâs lingo-laced explanation of why she wonât be able to reach climax with Wheeler tonight, and, then, at Julesâs 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. Heâs a former photographer turned camera repairman whoâs finally moved out of his almost-ex-wifeâs 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 âturtle who doesnât know heâs lost his shell.â)
Barford lithely animates Wheelerâs 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 doesnât 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 Lettsâs material invites.
Why is anyone laughing when Wheeler describes kids today as âa bunch of allergic, autistic mole-ratsâ? Often, the play races to punchlines it hasnât earned, like when Jules, celebrating the coupleâs time together, announces that âone month is auspiciousâ and Wheeler nonsensically butts in with, âI hate auspice.â Only very occasionally does Wheelerâs icky sense of humor land a little, as when he declares, âI think a woman should be able to terminate until the child is old enough to make a cogent argument in its own defense.â
Linda Vistaâs self-awareness never quite comes into focusâis it Wheeler who makes really bad jokes or is it Letts?âand thatâs precisely why those sex scenes feel so discomfiting or gratuitous. Even if weâre meant to focus on Wheelerâs vulnerability or pathetic lack of empathy, the fact that weâre still seeing these scenes from Wheelerâs slightly lecherous, probably porn-addled point of view feels like a violation of the partners who havenât beenâand wonât beâfully fleshed out after their flesh is out fully. (That sense only strengthens with the later suggestion that one of those encounters wasnât entirely consensual.)
The play lives most potently in Wheelerâs relationship with Margaret (Sally Murphy), a college ex whoâs now long-married to Wheelerâs friend Paul (Jim True-Frost). Margaretâs the only woman in Linda Vista who Wheeler doesnât ogle or bed, at least on stage, and thereâs 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 partnerâs triumphal exit line is âI am a person,â and the otherâs is âI respect myself.â But thatâs as far as his intentions go, as these women are props in Wheelerâs odyssey toward wokenessâand apparent evidence that Letts has completed his. Even in the playâs final moments, the feeling that Wheelerâs tragedies matter most never dissipates.
Todd Rosenthalâs 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) canât 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, âYou know your movieâs too long when you have to take an intermission.â 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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