By William Wolf

THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI  Send This Review to a Friend

Bertolt Brecht’s play “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui" is difficult to perform. The last time I remember seeing it was on Broadway with Christopher Plummer in the title role, and that was on a proscenium stage. In addition to it being a cautionary tale, it was often quite funny. Now, using George Tabori’s translation, John Doyle has staged it at the Classic Stage Company in a three-sided audience arrangement. On the fourth side is a caged portion in which the cast members reside until stepping forth when required.

The play’s prologue is spoken by the actors from inside the cage, which I think is a directorial mistake that immediately sets the dialogue apart from the audience instead of meeting us head-on. The play is set in Chicago, Brecht’s device for satirizing Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany by having the evil gangster Arturo Ui running the Chicago mob, with parallels in action and character assortment.

Along with the attempt to take over the cauliflower industry, the burning down of a warehouse via arson suggests the infamous Reichstag fire in Berlin. Various other parallels are reflected in the underworld intrigue, with Ui an obvious stand-in for Der Fuhrer. Other key figures in the Nazi rise to power are also fodder for Brecht’s satirical Chicago parallels.

The staging is awkward, with cast members having to open and set up tables, as well as closing them, and there is a lack of overall smoothness. The strongest element is the casting of Raúl Esparza as the villainous Ui, and when he dramatically gives it his all in his huge second act speech, the play rises to the occasion.

Another thing the play has going for it at this particular moment is our own sensitivity to the evil of the current Trump administration. He is not Hitler—not yet anyway—but the authoritarian warnings are in plain sight and there is reason to fear destruction of or democratic ways in his demonic attacks on the press and his encouraging right wing nationalism and violent impulses toward immigrants and others.

Brecht’s work, no matter how staged, sends a warning across the years against tyrants, and the fact that he chose to set it in an American city in which mob activity was running rampant should not be lost on us. Others in the cast include George Abud, Eddie Cooper, Elizabeth A. Davis, Christopher Gurr, Omozé Idehenre, Mahira Kakkar and Thom Sesma. At the Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street. Phone: 866-811-4111. Reviewed November 15, 2018.

KING KONG  Send This Review to a Friend

Viewers enticed to see “King Kong” for its special effects will find their desire rewarded by the extraordinary scenic and puppet design. There is also an appealing performance by Christiani Pitts acting and singing her way as the damsel in distress who wants to save Kong in the face of the mercenary attempt to display the captured jungle colossus. As for any thought that this is a worthy musical for its songs, lyrics and dance, forget it.

The spectacle is the attraction and what spectacle it is. A retinue of visible puppeteers operates the humongous King Kong, with Sonny Tilders as creature designer and Gavin Robins as Kong/aerial and movement director. The creature, given a few expressions such as sadness and curiosity, largely through effective eyes and head tilts, is impressive, especially at one point when he approaches the edge of the stage. (I think a possibility was missed here. How jolting it would be if an actor-shill was seated in the front row and Kong reached down and plucked him from the audience.)

Scenic and Production designer Peter England, lighting designer Peter Mumford, sound designer Peter Hylenski and video and projection imaging content contributed by Artists in Motion are among those who deserve special praise for the staging, as, of course, does director Drew McOnie.

The basic story is well known from the original movie, with this stage version written by Jack Thorne. The problem is that the conception of “King Kong” as a musical doesn’t jibe well with the tale of the trip to an island to find the unknown. There is flimsy excuse for singing and dancing along the way, even though Pitts gives her all with the lyrics she has been handed. Singing to the ape looks absurd no matter how sincere she is. The choreography (by director McOnie) seems silly and out of place whenever it crops up. The score composed and produced by Marius de Vries and songs by Eddie Perfect not only lack distinction but seem intrusive, although Pitts wins applause by her skill and enthusiasm. Eric William Morris as Carl Denham, the exploiter, does well enough in his role of using the ambitious Ann, who lands in New York looking for show business opportunity.

The spectacle of Kong stands as its own force for those who will find that enough reason to go. It is likely that youngsters will be enthralled by what they see. It is quite ridiculous to judge “King Kong” by the standard of what might be expected of a normal Broadway musical. The production dazzle is the name of the game when you brush away all the lesser ingredients and the misguided attempt to turn the saga into a musical aside. At the Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway at 53rd Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed November 14, 2018.

GLORIA--A LIFE  Send This Review to a Friend

Emily Mann’s play “Gloria—A Life,” as impressively staged by director Diane Paulus, is part biography and part pep rally for the women’s movement. That makes the experience of seeing it informative and motivational, as well as entertaining. Christine Lahti is delightful and inspiring as Gloria Steinem, the subject of the well-earned salute, and an excellent ensemble sketches in various characters related to Steinem’s rise as a feminist icon and the issues on which she battles.

The play, staged in a large arena setting, has Steinem (Lahti) as the host. She talks about her life, her experiences, what she has had to endure as a women rising in a writing career, the founding of Ms. Magazine and her participation in important women’s rights battles. Projections (designed by Elaine J. McCarthy) are hugely displayed on two walls to show marches and leading figures of the era. This prompts frequent applause by supportive audience members.

Of course, Steinem speaks about her early episode of going undercover to do a feature article about the Playboy Club bunnies. She gets laughs out of describing her bunny training, including the proper sexy dip when serving customers, and donning the bunny outfit complete with ears and fluffy tail. The resulting article launched Steinem’s career, but she expresses regret that no matter what she has done in life, she’ll always be remembered for that episode.

There is poignancy in the segment about Steinem’s ailing mother and devotion in caring for her, and the revelation that her mother had started as a writer but gave it up for domesticity provides an extra jolt.

Among the portrayals I enjoyed was an exaggerated impression of Bella Abzug, lawyer, congresswoman, and women’s movement activist. Joanna Glushak gets the caricature down pat. (Glushak is touching also playing Steinem’s mother.) Other ensemble members deftly shifting in and out of supporting character roles are Fedna Jacquet, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Patrena Murray, DeLanna Studi and Liz Wisan.

Steinem brings the play’s impassioned views up to date, including opposition to Trump and the ongoing threats to a woman’s right to abortion. In the course of the play Steinem discusses how she fought on the abortion issue without mentioning her own abortion, but finally realized that she should also speak about her experience. The entire play is fueled by the charm of Lahti’s candid performance, and the production adds up to a huge activist rally.

On the night I attended this was reinforced in the post-play discussion that is regularly scheduled with a guest. Out walked the real Gloria Steinem to lead it, and a litany of militant comments came from those in the crowd given mikes to amplify what they had to say. The chat session, at moments like a revival meeting, was frequently interrupted by applause. At the Daryl Roth Theatre, 101 East 15th Street. For tickets by phone: 1-800-982-2787. Reviewed November 9, 2018.

THE WAVERLY GALLERY  Send This Review to a Friend

The mere sight of Elaine May on stage, although she is now 86, inevitably recalls her earlier days for those of us who saw and enjoyed May and Mike Nichols honing their sophisticated comedy routines. The excellent timing she exhibited then is still in place in her line delivery, but now she is putting her talent to use in delineating the tragedy of the woman whom she plays plunging deeper and deeper into dementia in the revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s play “The Waverly Gallery.” May is triumphant in her dramatic venture, displaying remarkable acting talent at a new level in her long, distinguished career that has included writing and directing. It is one of the season’s performances not to be missed.

The play, impeccably directed by Lila Neugebauer with mounting tension to match the increasing desperation, offers a sad example of what many families go through when a member is plagued with dementia that makes it nearly impossible to cope in an effort to be loyal and not take the option of depositing a loved one in a care facility.

Elaine May is remarkable as Gladys Green, a former lawyer who operates an undistinguished art gallery in Greenwich Village. She is not only losing her memory but rattles on with repetitive questions, frustration, anger and increasingly not being able to function. May gives us a step by step descent into her mental hell, and yet as sad as the situation is, there is morbid humor in some of her remarks, all the more telling because of May’s in-depth interpretation of a victim innocently expressing her bewilderment.

Lucas Hedges as Gladys’s grandson, Daniel, assumes the role of narrator as he steps forward toward the audience and periodically fills us in on what’s been happening. Appearing early in the play, Michael Cera becomes increasingly effective as an aspiring but not very talented artist, Dan Bowman, who tries to fulfill his dream of having a gallery show, and Gladys agrees to display his paintings as well as permit him to live in the gallery. Things get complicated as the landlord delivers a closing notice in his plan to convert the gallery space into a café-restaurant. Gladys, of course, has no way of coping with the situation let alone understanding what’s going on.

Joan Allen gives a poignant performance as Ellen, Gladys’s daughter, who tries her best to look after her mother as the illness worsens, and David Cromer is excellent as Ellen’s supportive husband, Howard, who tries to help as much as he can. There are particularly frustrating scenes, as Gladys, with no sense of time, wanders out of her apartment to awaken Daniel in the middle of the night in his neighboring apartment.

There are, of course, varying forms of dementia. An acquaintance of mine has been a cipher for many years and is getting around-the-clock home care. But Gladys is a person who keeps talking incessantly and drives everyone crazy. The behavior can also grate on the audience at some points, but the bursts of humor are alleviating, and the pathos is always sharply delineated to produce maximum sympathy, not only for Gladys, but for those caring for her. Lonergan has written a play that may be especially tough to take for those who have had to deal with family members with dementia. But he has succeeded in dramatizing the problem with admirable effectiveness, enhanced by the sharp character portrayals, especially that rendered by the amazing Elaine May. At the Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street. Reviewed October 28, 2018.

THE FERRYMAN  Send This Review to a Friend

The genius of Jez Butterworth’s riveting play “The Ferryman,” an import from London, lies in its exuberant portrayal of a family named Carney effectively linked to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The political situation is lethal, but revealed primarily through the colorful character portraits and attitudes vividly expressed. The threads eventually mesh dramatically in a shattering climax after the buildup in the fast-paced three hours and fifteen minutes overall dynamic depiction provided by an unusually large cast under the taut and crisp direction by expert Sam Mendes.

The action takes place in the Carney farmhouse as the family is about to celebrate the harvest with a dinner at which a goose is to be served. The locale is the rural County Armagh in Northern Ireland in the summer of 1981. The gathering is against the background of Republican prisoners conducting a hunger strike in the Maze Prison to gain recognition as political prisoners. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has refused, and nine prisoners, including the noted Bobby Sands, have died.

We get some basic information in a prologue in which Stuart Graham as the tough, menacing local IRA leader Muldoon confronts Charles Dale as the devious Father Horrigan with the demand that he provide help and support after the body of long-missing Seamus Carney has been found in a bog.

As the play subsequently unfolds in set designer Rob Howell’s impressive farmhouse main room, we learn that Seamus, missing for ten years, is the brother of Quinn Carney, sternly played by the excellent Paddy Considine, and the husband of Caitlin Carney, poignantly portrayed by Laura Donnelly. She has a son, Oison, a teenager bereft at the loss of his father and tensely played by Rob Malone.

Quinn, once a member of the IRA, acts as the head of the household. A nagging issue is his belief that IRA targeted Seamus as someone wrongly accused of being an informer, and tortured and killed him, then disposed of him in a bog. Quinn seethes with anger and resists Muldoon’s demand that he pledge to abandon such an accusation, which Muldoon asserts is false, for the need to support the reputation of the IRA. Caitlin is emotionally shattered when she learns of her husband’s body being found, but she stalwartly and bravely wants to delay telling everybody until after the harvest dinner.

What lifts the stature of the play and our enjoyment is the mélange of character portraits. There is Mary (Genevieve O’Reilly), Quinn’s wife, who is sickly and withdrawn and struggling as the mother of their seven children, including a baby. The youngsters of varying ages are an amusing lot, sometimes reveling in being naughty with outbursts of profanity.

Dearbhla Molloy is a hoot as Aunt Patricia Carney, a sharp-tongued and profane Republican supporter who calls Margaret Thatcher a bitch and would like to murder her. Mark Lambert is full of bluster as Uncle Patrick. In contrast Fionnula Flanagan as Aunt Maggie sits silently in a wheelchair mostly out of it, but sometimes emerges from her stupor to sing or engage the children with a story from her past, making for a memorable performance.

Tom Kettle, played by Justin Edwards, is a handyman who was born in England, and while friendly, is dim-witted and reminds me of the simple-minded Lennie in John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” Various other characters flesh out the aggregation in “The Ferryman,” and there is often a rollicking atmosphere in the household, including singing and dancing, which makes the contrasting serious and menacing developments all the more powerful.

To say more about revelations and plot would be spoilers. What you can count on is an experience of unusual dimension, fascinating characters made so life-like, snappy dialogue and staging that keeps one’s attention glued to all that’s happening. “The Ferryman” is certainly a multi-awards candidate this theater season. At the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed October 25, 2018.

INNER VOICES  Send This Review to a Friend

Impressive talent illuminates the latest in the “Inner Voices” series, with three one-act musicals exploring individual feelings, each with a different creator, star and director. The musicals are excellent showcases, although with the first two, “Window Treatment” and “The Costume,” the writers and director should realize that less can be more, as the works are overlong.

Farah Alvin, whom I have previously admired, is an acting and vocal sensation in “Window Treatment” as she takes the stage alone in her apartment in the role of a doctor who lets her imagination run wild with fantasies about having a relationship with a guy in a building across the way. There are emotional ups and downs as she tears into the material with gusto or sadly expresses a downside, depending on her mood.

Alvin’s role is a challenge and she shows her considerable skills developing the part to the fullest. The piece has music by Daniel Green and words by Deborah Zoe Laufer, with musical direction by Paul Masse and overall direction by Portia Krieger. Brandon Wong is on vibraphone.

The problem is that for all its entertaining qualities, the musical drama runs on and on. Just when it appears that there’ll be an ending, off it goes on a new emotional blast. However, Alvin is sensational all the way.

Finn Douglas is an 11-year-old lad who has already achieved considerable success. In “The Costume” he takes the stage and dominates it solo for the length of the musical drama with utter sureness in his singing and acting. He is amazing, and if he can do a one-boy show this long (overly long, as I have said) he promises to have a solid future ahead as an adult. The kid is fantastic.

In this piece with words and music by Daniel Zaitchik, the setting is Halloween Eve in 1954, and the boy has a chore assigned. He must look after an injured pigeon all on his own, and he ruminates about the situation in a variety of ways, mostly talking and singing directly to the audience.

Finn handles himself with utter confidence, with the right expressions and gestures, and one sits there deeply impressed with his talent and ability to hold an audience. The composer and director could have shortened the piece, but as far as Finn is concerned, he looks as if he could have held the stage even longer.

Musical direction for “The Costume” is by Deborah Abramson, with direction by Noah Himmelstein. Patti Kilroy and Ludovica Burtone are violinists.

As for “Scaffolding,” the third in the collection, the star is the renowned Rebecca Luker, who has performed in a raft of major shows, including “The Sound of Music,” “The Music Man” and “Mary Poppins.” Here she sings as a compulsive mother of a son with Asperger Syndrome and works with him, encourages him and primes him for admission to the demanding M.I.T. Preparation is intense for the mandatory interview.

Luker superbly builds her character as a mother who invests her total being into her son and his future, while holding back the nature of his condition with the intention of telling him later. The son is her life, and with such an emotional investment, the scene is set for ultimate disappointment.

“Scaffolding,” with words and music by Jeff Blumenkrantz, has been smartly directed by Victoria Clark and is at about the right length for encompassing the story being told. Musical direction is by Benji Goldsmith, with Yari Bond on cello. Reid Thompson has designed the scenery for all three musicals. At the TBG Mainstage Theatre, 312 West 36th Street. Reviewed November 5, 2018.

INDIA PALE ALE  Send This Review to a Friend

Jaclyn Backhaus’s perceptive play “India Pale Ale,” a Manhattan Theatre Club presentation effectively directed by Will Davis, introduces us to a Punjabi family in Wisconsin, with members, contrary to what some might think, who have been born there. It is at once educational about Punjabi-Americans, including their culture and heritage, and also a plea for understanding and peaceful relations between people. The plot also includes a harrowing event of the all too frequent kind plaguing our country.

Luminous Shazi Raja gives an impassioned performance as Basminder “Boz” Batra, known as Boz. Approaching 30, she has ideas of breaking loose from the family environment and heading for Madison, Wisconsin, where she wants to use savings to open a bar. It is hardly an idea to win traditional family approval, and she has to defy her father, Sunny (Alok Tewari) and her mother Deepa (Purva Bedi), as well as her hot-tempered younger brother Iggy (Sathya Sridharan).

But off Boz goes, causing a family crisis, with the side effect of the breaking off wedding plans between her brother and his intended. She does open the bar, and makes friends with Tim (Nate Miller), a good-natured guy whom she educates about her background and American-born status. There is a long conversation—overly long, I believe—but nonetheless interesting in establishing their friendship. When her brother arrives with grave news that requires her sudden return home, Boz thrusts keys upon Tim, who agrees to lock up the bar. (We later meet him interacting with the family.)

The emergency has been created by a gunman doing a mass shooting that has claimed the life of Boz’s father and family acquaintances—a racist attack that has decimated the community and altered life for everybody involved.

While the play is best when showing intimately the Batra family members and their lives, the playwright also goes in for fantasy numbers attempting to show the heritage linking to pirate ancestors, notably a pirate known as Brown Beard. The lavishly staged and costumed interludes aboard a pirate ship in the 19th century come across as rather absurd, and while making a point, only hinder structure and realism of the play. At moments the ploy becomes downright silly.

But back to the real, contemporary world, the interplay between visiting Tim and the Batra family as it tries to recover from grieving is amusing and hopeful. There is a noble peace-pleading ending as members of the cast circulate among the audience and pass out gifts of samosas in an inter-cultural gesture symbolizing the play’s message for understanding and against hate and ignorance. At City Center Stage I, 131 West 55th Street. Reviewed October 26, 2018.

ORDINARY DAYS   Send This Review to a Friend

With music and lyrics by Adam Gwon, “Ordinary Days,” presented by Keen Company, is a sweet little show about people trying to connect and find their places in the Big Apple, and it is graced with likable performers. It doesn’t have great emotional impact, but it is likable in a low-key way.

Its four performers, Whitney Bashor, Marc delaCruz, Sarah Lynn Marion and Kyle Sherman, are talented and endow the characters they play with distinct personalities. The excellent singing of a wide array of musical numbers is on target, and director Jonathan Silverstein and musical director John Bell keep the show at a leisurely pace rather than trying to wallop the audience.

As the characters depicted attempt to make vital connections and cope with the every-day problems, we get such Gwon numbers as “One By One By One,” “The Space Between,” “I’m Trying,” “Sunday at the Met,” “Big Picture,” “Calm,” “Gotta Get Out,” “Beautiful” and others expressing the musical’s theme of people needing people.

The three-piece orchestra doing a good job consists of musical director Bell at the piano, Jeremy Clayton, reed and John Convertino, bass. At the Clurman Theater, Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed October 30, 2018.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, WANDA JUNE  Send This Review to a Friend

When you see a play by Kurt Vonnegut you can expect the unusual, and that is surely what you will find in his revived “Happy Birthday, Wanda June,” a Wheelhouse Theater Company production. It is thoroughly zany in style and performance under the direction of Jeff Wise, but it all makes sense thematically in its inherent attack on war, man’s proclivity for killing, inflated heroics and human behavior in general.

Harold Ryan, broadly played by Jason O’Connell with a satirical Hemingway bent, has been a big game hunter, evidenced by the animal heads decorating the wall of his home, where his wife still lives. He has been missing for eight years and presumed dead. His wife, Penelope, delightfully played by Kate MacCluggage with a sassy, saucy and skeptical edge, has two suitors who assume she is a widow. Paul, the young son of Harold and Peneope, has idealized his father and longs for his return.

Eureka! Ryan, full of heroism as a war veteran, suddenly returns. His grunting speech manner makes him seem like primitive man, accenting his physical, take-no-prisoners prowess. Of course, he claims his wife and expects her to be a bedroom slave to his desire, but the rebellious Penelope is wary and not ready to conform.

The animalistic tone is stressed by the doorbell. Instead of a ring, there is a lion-like roar every time somebody comes to the abode. Ryan aggressively dispatches his wife’s suitors, one a doctor, and claims his home territory. However, Vonnegut has more up his sleeve.

As the play develops we see the process of Harold breaking down, his son becoming disillusioned, his wife having to stand her ground, and the threat of violence looming and accentuated the moment we see a rifle. All of this is presented in an atmosphere of mayhem, most of it very funny even when harrowing.

Wanda June, a youngster, pops in occasionally, although having little to do with the plot. A birthday cake is bought and it happens to have been an already prepared cake with a birthday greeting to Wanda June.

The author’s lines add up to a steady beat of stripping away pretension, undermining phony wartime heroism, and mocking machismo. The crazy situations Vonnegut constructs constitute his mechanism for saying what he wants to get across. It would be shortsighted to expect a totally logical plot.

The acting fits into the concept and mad tone, with excellent cast members including Craig Wesley Divino, Matt Harrington, Finn Faulconer, Kareem Lucas, Charlotte Wise and Brie Zimmer. At the Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street. Reviewed October 24, 2018.

APOLOGIA  Send This Review to a Friend

Family and personal issues are at the root of Alexi Kaye Campbell’s perceptive play “Apologia,” a Roundabout Theatre Company presentation that was first produced by The Bush Theatre in London in 2009, the year in which the drama is set in a cottage somewhere in the English countryside. The problems encountered are expertly spotlighted by the fine cast, with Stockard Channing in the leading role. The direction by Daniel Aukin builds tension with cumulative effect.

Those who have followed Channing’s career know her profound capabilities, and here she is in top notch form playing Kristin Miller, an American art historian and writer living abroad. She can make cutting remarks, such as saying she was an American by birth, not by choice. There are references to the earlier days of political protest, including opposition to the Vietnam War and when she was a communist. There is a portrait of Karl Marx in her bathroom.

Kristin has two sons, Peter and Simon, and the play begins as Peter (Hugh Dancy) arrives with his girlfriend Trudi (Talene Monahon) for a dinner celebrating his mother’s birthday. Kristin is rather shocked to find that Trudi is an American, and a religious one at that, and that the two met at a religious event. Looking down at Trudi, Kristin doesn’t think much of her intelligence, but the play at that point is still young.

There is an upsetting family back story. When the sons were young, Kristin’s husband, since deceased, ran off with them, and Kristin, although distraught, concentrated on pursuing her career, ultimately penning a successful memoir that failed to mention her boys. The issue of motherhood runs beneath the surface, specifically whether all women are best equipped to be moms, and whether motherhood and skills at that role are necessary to become a complete woman without pangs of guilt about failure.

Present at the dinner are John Tillinger as acerbic Hugh, Kristin’s long-time friend and Megalyn Echikunwoke as Claire, son Simon’s actress girlfriend. Simon, who has been estranged from his mother and is suffering from depression, is absent. As the evening progresses, all hell breaks loose with a mess of recriminations surfacing. The successful Claire, very fashion conscious, is wearing a designer dress that cost 2000 pounds. Trudi accidentally spills red wine on it and tensions explode.

There is also phone call for Claire that Kristin unintentionally intercepts, thinking the cell phone is her own. It is a man with an obscene suggestion. Revealing.

By the end of the first act, with all offstage at that point, in walks Kristin’s son Simon, also portrayed by Hugh Dancy. In the second act we learn that he has come to have a pointed conversation with his mother about something that has long been bothering him. Kristin, chatting away, is busy extracting bits of glass from his hand following an accident, but Simon works up the courage to get to the point. Kristin is shocked at his upset, and tries to comfort him, but by that point it is Kristin who also needs comforting about her life.

Channing is increasingly superb as she straddles keeping up a front and dealing with deep emotional feelings. By the time Peter and Trudi announce their engagement, Kristin is gaining new respect for Trudi, who shows considerable wisdom in recognizing the anxieties in Kristin and speaking a truth to Kristin about her life and her current angst.

“Apologia,” for all of the humor it contains along with the outbursts, is a sad play marked by the impressive acting of a well-chosen cast, but it is Channing’s skillfully modulated performance that is especially affecting. At the Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street. Phone: 212-719-1300. Reviewed October 19, 2018.

  

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