By William Wolf

FERN HILL  Send This Review to a Friend

Michael Tucker’s play “Fern Hill,” directed by Nadia Tass, features a superb group of six actors who are more enjoyable than the characters they portray. One can be entertained watching this group, and yet not wind up emotionally moved by what the characters created by Tucker go through in the course of the dramatic fireworks that occur when revelations surface as they are gathered at the Fern Hill farmhouse for an unusual purpose.

The six have been friends for many years and now the suggestion has arisen that they move in together in a co-op arrangement that will be convenient as they grow older. Jessica Parks has designed a spacious living area, including an open kitchen.

There is plenty of light banter at the outset. Mark Blum plays Jer, a writer. Jill Eikenberry is his wife, Sunny, who is an artist, and they own the farmhouse where the six have gathered during the years of friendship.

John Glover, is Vincent, the oldest, also an artist, and who at the outset of the play is facing hip replacement surgery. His photographer wife, Darla, is played by Ellen Parker, and she is torn over whether to go to Europe for a breakthrough exhibit of her work or stay to tend her husband. Mark Linn-Baker plays Billy, a rock musician frequently on the road, who loves to cook and provides endless amusing chatter. He is married to the attractive Michiko, played by Jodi Long.

As you see, that is quite an aggregation, and during the course of the drama all hell breaks loose when the focus is on Jer for his cheating on Sunny, who becomes deeply upset. What emerges is a kind of group therapy session in which other secrets are spilled as the friends try to help Jer and Sunny come to terms with each other and also find that they must sort out their own lives.

The play succeeds in stripping the characters bare, and the quality of the acting makes watching them lively. But are these people you feel like getting close to and really caring about what happens to them? Viewers will probably have differing responses to this question, and that will color overall reactions to the play. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. Phone: 646-892-7999. Reviewed September 20, 2019.

DERREN BROWN: SECRET  Send This Review to a Friend

Having impressed audiences off-Broadway, the mentalist Derren Brown is now on Broadway and is immensely entertaining with his stunts that toy with people’s brains, or shall we say, their thought processes. The amazing man from Britain provides an experience that leaves audiences shaking heads and wondering how he does some of his striking feats. At two and one-half hours, the show feels a bit long at one stretch, but the finale is a knockout that sends audiences out on a high.

I am always amazed at how theatergoers are eager to get into the swing of audience participation. In this case at the start of “Secret” nearly everyone in the crowded theater quickly stood up at Brown’s instruction and went through the various hand movements he directed. I got the feeling that audience members were ready for anything, as they illustrated when those catching discs he hurled swiftly into the crowd eagerly grasped the opportunity to go on stage to help out or be his foils.

Brown asks everyone to pledge not to reveal anything about what he performs. So who am I to spoil the fun? Of course, this hampers providing adequate descriptions of what unfolds during his two-act razzle-dazzle.

But it is fair and square to say that before the show begins ushers pass out small envelopes enabling audience members to write responses that will fuel things to come. On stage is a container into which the envelopes are dropped.

Brown is a master at connecting with his audience. His speech is rapid-fire as he delivers amusing lines and quips in the process of getting a grip on attendees, the better to prepare everyone for the surprises he springs. He doesn’t claim to be a psychiatrist or soothsayer. But his bag of tricks involves demonstrations of how he can know what people may be thinking. The writing is by Andy Nyman, Brown and Andrew O’Connor, with O’Connor and Nyman directing.

Brown insists he doesn’t use shills. In fact, on the night I attended he rejected one person who went up on stage when the individual said in response to a question about what he did that he was a magician. The individual later told me that Brown recognized him as someone he knew.

For his 2017 debut show in the United States, Brown was given a Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience. Now comes a fresh opportunity to see what the fuss is about and enter into Brown’s world of mental manipulation. Maybe you can figure out some of what he accomplishes to audience gasps and applause. Sorry, I don’t want to be a spoiler by telling you more. At the Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed September 16, 2019.

WIVES  Send This Review to a Friend

Playwright Jaclyn Backhaus is striving to be witty and intellectual, as well as make feminist points about the need to uplift women, but unfortunately the result that spans centuries veers between clever and messy. There are moments that are funny but overall the production begins to drag even though it is only 80 minutes without an intermission. The world premiere of the work is being presented by Playwrights Horizons, with direction by Margot Bordelon.

Two sections are best. The first is set in the Chateau de Chenonceaux, Loire Valley, France, during the 1500s. We look into the rivalry between King Henry II’s wife and his mistress, and the combat that they wage, including after the king has died of battle wounds until they figure out that they have more in common than they thought. The spirited acting is a boon.

The second section is set in 1961 in Ketchum, Idaho, after writer Ernest Hemingway has committed suicide, and involves argumentative, bitchy discussions between key women in his life—Martha Gellhorn, Hadley Richardson and Mary Welsh. Some of the writing is entertainingly sharp.

But things go downhill from there in the third part set in India in the early 1920s, with stabs at dealing with villainous British rule interlaced with relations between the Maharajah and his women. The most muddled is the final excursion, set in the present in Oxbridge University, in which the author packs an effort to portray changes in the outlook of women, past and present, undercut by a silly ploy involving witchcraft.

Best about the production is the cast, consisting of four versatile actors who shift into various roles with elan- Purva Bedi, Adina Verson, Aadya Bedi and Sathya Shridharan. At the Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street. Reviewed September 17, 2019.

ONLY YESTERDAY  Send This Review to a Friend

Jump back in time to 1964. It is a hurricane night in Key West, Florida. The scene is a small motel room. Who walk in? John Lennon at the age of 23 and Paul McCartney at 22. The play “Only Yesterday” by Bob Stevens provides imaginary details of what happens during the day and night when the two Beatles try to escape clamoring fans, get drunk, struggle to compose a song and wind up tearful over the loss of their mothers. Ringo and George are staying elsewhere.

Christopher Sears plays John as an acerbic, short-tempered guy who flashes considerable anger and stands firmly on principle when he hears that the Jacksonville concert, one stop on a national tour, will have a segregated audience. He notes having grown up admiring music by black artists and asserts on the phone that the Beatles will not perform unless the audience is desegregated. We learn that he prevails--the audience will not be segregated.

Tommy Crawford plays Paul McCartney as the quieter one who spends time pruning before a mirror even though he immediately isn’t going anywhere. He and Sears play their guitars and sing, although it is Sears as John who stands out especially, as in a moment when he hilariously imitates Elvis Presley. Both Beatles are thrilled at the news that they will be meeting Elvis on this national tour, as they have idolized him.

The other character we meet is Christopher Flockton as their road manager, who is kept busy arranging things and trying to control them while also catering to their demands. They don’t want to have to deal with crazed fans hungry just to see them. They don’t want to do interviews. Every time the motel door opens, we hear the noise of cheering fans, and John and Paul want a respite from all of that.

Suddenly they hear a voice inside the room. One fan, teenage Shirley (voiced by Olivia Swayze), has crawled into the air vent. John and Paul, amazed at her ingenuity, humor her in friendly fashion, even playing and singing a song for her. Her day is made even more memorable when John writes a note confirming the encounter and promises to send it to her.

Our attention is held by watching John and Paul interact, sometimes with hostility, but basically with affection. They reminisce about their start, and we get a portrait of two young guys who find it hard to fathom their tremendous success. Their very human side is emphasized when, loosened by booze, they confess to one another how awful it was for them to lose their mothers and the hurt they suffered as each tried to get over the death in his way.

Although the play, convincingly directed by Carol Dunne, is only 75 minutes without an intermission, there is a section—the efforts to write a song—which is a bit overlong. But mostly the work comes across as a fascinating opportunity to enjoy the illusion of being with John and Paul in extremely private moments. Sears and Crawford are very much up to the task with excellent acting that helps us to accept this make-believe as reality. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. Phone: 646-892-7999. Reviewed September 13, 2019.

BETRAYAL (2019)  Send This Review to a Friend

Having seen the stunning new revival of Harold Pinter’s 1978 play “Betrayal,” I wondered how many in the audience may have squirmed with guilt feelings about secret betrayals of their own. The play, when convincingly performed, is lacerating in its witty exploration of duplicity, and even the frequent humor stings with revelations of hypocrisy.

The staging and the acting blend impressively in interpreting Pinter, including emphasis on his much-heralded pauses that add intensity. Jamie Lloyd’s direction provides an icy atmosphere as the plot enfolds backwards in time, starting from the point at which an illicit romance is past history and moving back to the time in which it began.

The set designed by Soutra Gilmour is a vast bare-bones stage, with very few props, suggesting a cold environment that runs counter to the passions that are implied but only rarely physically indicated. Most of the time the three entwined characters are simultaneously on stage, with one hovering in the background as the other two converse front and center.

In addition to the superior production style, it is that acting that ultimately carries the day. Zawe Ashton is a knockout as Emma, the center of attraction. She is tall, lithe and appealing, with great diction and the ability to emphasize most important words and attitudes with body language that serves as exclamation points. Ashton, who is barefoot most of the time, consistently rivets our attention, almost as a force of nature.

Tom Hiddleston superbly plays Robert, her husband, and Charlie Cox is very convincing as Jerry, who has been having an affair with Emma over the years even though he and Robert, both in the world of publishing, have been best friends. As the play reveals, the involvement between Jerry and Emma is not the only infidelity.

How secret has the dalliance been? The revelations come intriguingly to the audience step by step, time period by time period, and Pinter is best when providing the spare dialogue that spans the emotions and histories of the threesome. At its root, the play is really very funny, but the relationships emerge as deadly serious with insights into human behavior of characters who struggle to face truths about their lives while burying conflicting feelings.

A short stretch of comedy is provided by Eddie Arnold as an Italian waiter, a nifty touch that the play can use, given its overall tautness.

There have been many productions of “Betrayal,” including a film version, and the quality has varied from excellent to so-so. However, in my memory, this staging is the most effective and enjoyable, and the one that best brings out the genius in Pinter’s writing and incisive observations. At the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed September 6, 2019.

BAT OUT OF HELL--THE MUSICAL  Send This Review to a Friend

Packed with songs made famous by Meat Loaf, “Bat Out of Hell” explodes loudly at the audience from the outset and hardly ever lets up. Arriving from previous runs in London and Toronto, it is both a visual extravaganza of light, sound, projections, splashy scenery, frantic choreography and bizarre costumes. Best of all are the rousing vocal performances by a talented cast that compensates for having to follow the cockamamie plot that serves what is essentially a juke box musical.

Jim Steinman is credited with book, music and lyrics, and Joy Schelb has directed the onslaught, with choreography adapted by Xena Gusthart. Credits include musical supervision and additional arrangements by Michael Reed, music direction by Ryan Cantwell and orchestrations by Steve Sidwell. Behind-the-scenes forces also include set and costume designer Jon Bausor, original costume designer Meentje Nielsen, video designer Finn Ross, lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe and sound designer Gareth Owen. Citing so many of these extensive credits--and there are deserving others--is a way of saying that the total production of “Bat Out of Hell” is what dominates, along with the outstanding singing.

We are introduced to a futuristic setting with focus on a group known as The Lost, consisting of 18-year-olds frozen in time by a chemical mishap. The odd group, which constitutes a tunnel community, is led by the charismatic Strat, played by Andrew Polec.

The villain in the plot is Falco, a powerful tycoon played by Bradley Dean. He is married to Sloane, portrayed by Lena Hall, who drinks too much and has fallen into a desolate state, rendered comically by her lackadaisical body language. They battle nastily, except in a flashback that shows their earlier passion, with hot, simulated sex in a convertible. They have a daughter, Raven, played by Christina Bennington, who has fallen in love with Strat. Falco is furious and wants to break up the romance, but Raven stubbornly resists such control. How will it work out? Does it matter?

Apart from the basic set-up, there are side situations dramatized in dialogue and song by other members of the musical’s talented contingent, which includes Avionce Hoyles in the important role of Tink, Tyrick Wiltez Jones, Paulina Jurzec, Danielle Steers, Will Branner, Lincoln Clauss, Kayla Cyphers, Jessica Jaunich, Adam Kemmerer, Nick Martinez, Harper Miles, Erin Mosher, Aramie Payton, Andres Quintero, Tiernan Tunnicliffe snd Kaleb Wells. It is the singing, whether solo or choral, that bursts through as a strong attraction geared especially to those who know and like the numbers sung by Meat Loaf on his phenomenally-selling recordings.

For example, one highlight consists of Dean and Hall singing “What Part of My Body Hurts the Most?” Polec as Strat gets to show his vocal zest with “Heaven Can Wait.” Bennington as Raven gets her chances to stand out vocally, and so do others in the supporting cast in the parade of songs included in the show.

Among the numbers are ”Bat Out of Hell,” of course, and “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That),” “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” “All Revved Up with No Place to Go,” “Love and Death and the American Guitar,” “Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are,” and many more.

How one reacts to all of the above will depend on such variables as taste for the chosen songs, endurance for the super-loud effects, ability to follow or care about the plot and whether one is impressed by the overall production. I appreciated the aggressively creative staging that went into the show, but mainly came away with admiration for the cast members, leading and supporting, and the dynamism of their singing, into which they poured heart, soul and talent. At New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street. Phone: 212-581-1212. Reviewed August 15, 2019.


I spent a sublime time with the music of Duke Ellington last night (August 13), thanks to the salute to The Duke opening this year’s “Songbook Summer” program by Peter and Will Anderson, the superb twin brother musicians who are masters at playing variations of clarinet and sax instruments. They are also engaging showmen.

Their program this summer at the Peter Norton Symphony Space’s Leonard Nimoy Thalia Theatre, Broadway at 95th Street, includes Ellington (Aug. 13-15), followed by Louis Armstrong (August 21-23). There are two shows a night, 5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.

As in the format used in the past, not only do the Andersons perform, but a witty running commentary by Will surveys the lives and music of those honored, all illustrated on a screen at one side of the stage with drawings, quotes and film clips. With Ellington, for example, one gets The Duke being interviewed and commenting perceptively on his approach to music.

The clips also include clever use of Ellington’s appearance on the popular old “What’s My Line?” TV show, with Duke as the mystery guest as blindfolded Arlene Francis probes with her questions.

All of that was entertaining and illuminating, but the ultimate pleasure came down to being immersed in music Ellington composed, often in collaboration, as in the case of his long-time association with the brilliant Billy Strayhorn. Their first meeting at which Strayhorn dazzled Ellington and his musicians with his own interpretation of Ellington’s songs was amusingly described.

Listening to the Andersons playing in tandem or soloing with dazzling riffs is pure joy. They are joined by three excellent musicians—Jeb Patton on piano, who gets a chance to show his skill with some special soloing, as do Neal Miner on bass and Chuck Redd on drums and vibraphone. Molly Ryan provides the vocals with an excellent voice and charm as she smoothly interprets assorted lyrics, as for example, with “I Got It Bad (And that Ain’t Good).”

Some of the Ellington numbers offered are well known. What would such a program be without the opener, “Take the ‘A’ Train”? There were also, for example, “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,”and “Drop Me Off in Harlem.” But lesser known numbers illustrated Ellington’s range.

I was fascinated listening to “Ad Lib on Nippon,” which incorporated Japanese-style melodies with American jazz-swing style, an example of how Ellington, even early in his career, was beginning to expand. I also enjoyed Ellington’s lesser known “The Mouche.”

Of course, one program, no matter how much Ellington is revealed and lauded, can’t begin to do justice to his musical legacy, but the Andersons and their colleagues on stage can sure get you to think more about him, and at the same time provide pure performing pleasure. I’m certain you can also count on added enjoyment with the upcoming Louis Armstrong program. At the Peter Norton Symphony Space Leonard Nimoy Theatre, Broadway and 95th Street. Phone: 212-864-5400. Reviewed August 14, 2019.

SEA WALL/A LIFE  Send This Review to a Friend

Previously staged at the Public Theater, “Sea Wall/A Life” has reached Broadway, which means that more theatergoers are able to savor the separate but thematically connected monologues by impressive actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge.

“Sea Wall,” constituting the first act, has been written by Simon Stephens, and “A Life” has been written by Nick Payne. Both are directed by Carrie Cracknell. They are presented on an almost empty stage, save for a movable ladder, an elevated walkway, a desk and chair, and a light switch, all against the background of a brick wall. (The set design is by Laura Jellinek.) At the end there is a clever dramatic projection design by Luke Halls of an apartment building with a pullback effect that progressively shows more and more floors and windows, suggesting that what we have just witnessed in the monologues might be applied to the world at large.

There is indeed universality in the perspectives offered about life, loss and dealing with both joy and unexpected tragedy. In “Sea Wall,” Sturridge as Alex tells us about his life and experiences with utter charm. He is a master at pausing to reflect and indicate mulling over what he wants to say. He has a natural, easygoing style, increasing the volume as occasionally he moves about the stage, indicating tension as his story builds.

Alex arrives at time when, he, his wife and eight-year-old daughter have been visiting with his father-in-law in the south of France. Having gone out for a swim, Alex tells how he looked back to see the unbelievable sight of his daughter taking a sudden fall. The account that he gives, harrowingly written and performed with eerie emotion, is chilling and poignant. I happened to see the play soon after the El Paso and Dayton massacres in which lives were suddenly ended and families upended. Although Alex’s situation is entirely different, the element of chance that can change things forever is similar.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Abe in “A Life” shows a more outgoing and jaunty personality. However, his monologue also deals with loss but in the context of a new beginning of life. Abe deeply loves his father, who is dying, and his emotions are raw as he wants to show love for his dad and expresses deep pain at what will be lost.

But on the bright side, his wife is about to give birth and there is much humor in the description of his frantically trying to do what is expected of him in his role of helping his wife through the experience. Background about their romance and marriage is worked into the narrative, and Gyllenhaal demonstrates his acting expertise in the way he meshes the death of his father and the birth of a baby in Abe’s description of his life at that crucial time. The point is made: One life ends, another begins.

The author and the masterly interpretations by Sturridge and Gyllenhaal have managed to put a philosophical emphasis on the meaning of it all in the larger context. The effect is cemented by that projection finale. When Gyllenhaal and Sturridge appear together for their richly deserved curtain call, one is made freshly aware of the implicit connection of the different individual experiences revealed in each play. Above all, “Sea Wall/A Life” offers the opportunity to see two fine actors giving memorable performances. At the Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th Street. Phone: 855-801-5876. Reviewed August 9, 2019.

CORIOLANUS (2019)  Send This Review to a Friend

British actor Jonathan Cake provides a powerful center to the Public Theater’s dynamic production of “Coriolanus,” part of the Public’s free Shakespeare offerings in Central Park. Shakespeare’s violent, often bloody play is a challenging drama to stage. It involves heroism, betrayal, stubbornness, and familial relationships against a background of military, political and class conflict. Under Daniel Sullivan’s excitingly incisive direction and with wizardry by the technical staff as well as all-around excellent acting, this “Coriolanus” stands out as a major success.

Cake cut his teeth on Shakespeare in England before gaining international prominence. It shows. He is a dominant force in the title role, which is difficult because of the complexities the Bard has given the character. Caius Martius Coriolanus is no Mr. Nice Guy. He fights heroically as a military leader against enemies who would conquer Rome and is most at home on the battlefield. But when he returns bloodied from the warfare, and is rewarded with the position of Consul, he shows his contempt for the common man and won’t knuckle under to what is expected of him by politicians in power. This stirs resentment, which ultimately leads to his banishment.

What does he do? Coriolanus decides to join the forces against whom he caused so much death and destruction in his earlier triumph. Not surprisingly, he is soon turned upon, with the result that he meets a tragic end. Given his conflicted persona and condescending attitude, it is hard to feel sorry for him. Thus Cake is presented with the challenge of being a fallen hero as well as someone who is at least partly responsible for his fate.

Kate Burton works up passion as Coriolanus’ tough-minded mother Volumina, who pleads with him to relent and not risk his life. Angry and desperate, she does her best to be persuasive and take advantage of his closeness with her. Volumina finds an ally in Coriolanus’ wife, Virgilia, stoically played by Nneka Okafor, but Coriolanus is not one to heed advice.

Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt has provided a set dominated by ramshackle buildings that look as if stitched together with castaway metallic junk. Most of the costumes (designed by Kaye Voyce) are what might be called rabble-modern, not traditionally Shakespearean, which provides an update that gives the conflicts a contemporary edge without belaboring the point. The lighting for the production is spectacular as designed by Japhy Weideman, in tandem with the effective sound design by Jessica Paz. Steve Rankin is fight director, contributing importantly in capturing the aura of battlefield bloodshed.

A large cast infuses the production and the overall effect is one of a well-coordinated drama that pulsates with tension throughout. The many contributions notwithstanding, it is hard to take one’s attention from Cake, such is the command that he asserts with his strong stage presence, impressive voice and delivery of the Bard’s pungent lines with untmost clarity. At the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, entrances at Central Park West at 81st Street or Fifth Avenue at 79th Street. Reviewed August 6, 2019.

NATIVE SON  Send This Review to a Friend

The 1939 novel “Native Son” by Richard Wright (1908-1960) became a controversial literary and financial success after being a Book of the Month Club selection in 1940. It became a Broadway play written by Wright and Paul Green, directed by Orson Welles and starring Canada Lee in 1941.There have been three film versions. Nambi E. Kelly has written a play first staged in Chicago in 2014, and it is her play that The Acting Company is now staging in repertory with Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure.”

The result is a harrowing, well-acted version of Wright’s vision of a young black man raised in the racist environment of 1930s Chicago and stumbling into an initial crime he did not mean to commit and as a result becoming as symbol of an African-American caught up in the evils of society. Liberties have been taken with the novel, most notably in the trial and outcome, here played out in the protagonist’s mind as to what might be coming and ending in a leap to death instead of awaiting execution as in the novel.

In Kelley’s play, Galen Ryan Kane, giving a searing, poignantly desperate performance as Bigger Thomas, who has been living with his mother, sister and brother in a rat-infested apartment in Chicago’s South Side, is accompanied by Jason Bowen playing Black Rat, actually Thomas’s mind in a raspy voice communicating his thoughts.

The writing and staging within a bare-bones set under the direction of Seret Scott is free form, jumping back and forth in time and meshing scenes that blend into one another, thus covering extensive territory in the 90-minute running time without an intermission. It is a tribute to the production that there is consistent plot clarity as the tragic events relentlessly unfold.

Thomas is no angel. His upbringing in the context of the oppression he has faced has led him to plan an intended robbery with a buddy. He has already been in juvenile detention. But what mainly goes wrong stems from his being hired by the wealthy white Dalton family as helper and chauffeur. Mrs. Dalton (Laura Gragtmans) is blind. One night Thomas is assigned to drive her daughter Mary (Rebekah Brockman). She has secretly planned getting together with her communist boyfriend, Jan (Anthony Bowden).

Mary has been flirting provocatively with Thomas, forbidden fruit for a black man, and making him uncomfortable. She and Jan lavish attention on Thomas, drinking together, filling him with communist ideology and trying to convert him. Mary gets drunker and drunker, and by the time Thomas drives her home, he has to carry her inside and up to her bedroom. In her drunken state Mary has become increasingly cozy, and after he places her on the bed he can’t resist kissing her. When he hears her mother coming, he places a pillow over Mary’s face to keep her silent, unintentionally smothering her to death. In the play’s freewheeling structure we get this scene early on, and Thomas’s desperate journey commences.

The play creates tension all the way, fueled by Kane’s excellent acting and a series of events, including disposing of Mary‘s body, Thomas also killing his girlfriend, investigation by a detective, Thomas trying to lay the blame for Mary’s death on the communist Jan, the anguish of Thomas’ mother and Mary’s mother and the ensuing manhunt. The staging has the power to keep one riveted. There is success in capturing Wright’s attempt to show a man whose actions stem from the plight of African-Americans, one of whom is driven into tragic behavior that can be largely blamed on society. At The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street. Phone: 646-223-3010. Reviewed August 6, 2019.


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