By William Wolf

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.

MOTHER OF THE MAID  Send This Review to a Friend

It is easy to see why Glenn Close has chosen to play Joan of Arc’s mother in Jane Anderson’s play “Mother of the Maid,” which deserves to be a big hit at The Public Theater. Close makes Isabelle Arc a searing, poignant character with emotionally dynamic scenes expressing the horror of what happens to her daughter.

The play, directed by Matthew Penn with tight precision and intensified emphasis on key situations, goes where other dramas about Joan have not—emphasis on her family in relation to all that took place. At heart this is a mother-daughter story.

It is also a different take on Joan with emphasis on confrontations that one can see as typical of mother-daughter relationships despite the very untypical situation. We also see Joan, remarkably portrayed by Grace Van Patten, ultimately as a a mistreated victim waiting in terror for the impending burning, but still holding to her faith in St. Catherine. The playwright assumes we know the trial history, so finds no need to go over that territory. It climactically jumps to awaiting the execution.

But in the buildup we get a portrait of the Arc family, including her father and brothers. We also see Joan early on when she has become a soldier and is guest at the stately home of a lady of the court. Close as Isabelle, a peasant woman, arrives at the home to see her daughter, and although she is struck by the luxurious surroundings, she is true to herself and stalwart in her attitude of protectiveness toward Joan. Isabelle may doubt’s Joan’s devotion to and belief in her beloved St. Catherine, but that in no way diminishes her love for her daughter.

While the cast members give other characters their due, it is Close who makes this her play with a performance that surely ranks high among her many accomplishments. The scene in which she peers through a window to watch her daughter burned at the stake enables her to show a mother’s total anguish in all its horror.

John Lee Beatty’s scenic design makes the most of the stage space to project the grim tone of the play, and lighting designer Lap Chi Chu and costume designer Jane Greenwod add to capturing that tone.

The total effect is to make watching “Mother of the Maid” a unique experience and prompt one to think about a new dimension to the Joan of Arc saga that has been approached differently in previous theater and film versions. One walks away with deep feelings both for Joan, so effectively played by Van Patten, and for her hitherto overlooked mother, brought so amazingly to life and into our minds by the brilliance of Close’s acting and the perceptive writing by Anderson. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Phone: 212-967-7555. Reviewed October 18, 2018.

ON BECKETT  Send This Review to a Friend

Bill Irwin is not only a great clown but he has an inquiring mind as well and he puts both to excellent use in his “On Beckett,” in which he explores works of the renowned playwright Samuel Beckett. Irwin has conceived the show, which he performs with his amazing ingenuity and flair.

Just listening to his introduction is a treat, even before he gets to Beckett substance. He sets the stage for what we are about to experience, and it doesn’t take long for us to get a sampling of his flexible body and clown-like moves that are a delight. To see Irwin in action is to appreciate his wonderfully entertaining ability to morph into a variety of hilarious positions.

Irwin makes a point of explaining that performing in the clown department is both an association with his views on Beckett, but also as a means of escaping from the complicated works of the playwright.

Those knowledgeable about Beckett realize that his enigmatic writings invite endless interpretation. Irwin starts his exploration by plunging into excerpts from Beckett’s “Texts for Nothing.” But the weightiest portion of the show is what he ultimately does with Beckett’s masterwork, “Waiting for Godot.”

This includes an amusing discussion of how “Godot” is pronounced here and abroad. It is amazing how much fun Irwin can mine from taking off on the differences.

You have to see Irwin. Trying to describe what he does adequately is all but impossible. When he recites lines from “Waiting for Godot,” there is a mix of eloquence, as if he were an actor playing a role, and applying his clown talents to illuminate the text.

At one point Irwin has a helper, young and talented Finn O’Sullivan, who is an eighth grade student and plays the never-arriving Godot’s messenger. Irwin makes certain that the lad gets a proper share of applause when introduced.

“On Beckett” lasts one hour and 30 minutes, which may prove to be among the most delightful time periods you have spent. Irwin is dazzlingly at the height of his skills. His physical clowning, wit, and agile use of props such as hats and costumes are a joy to behold. In one bit he provides the impression of an automated lectern going up and down. The lectern doesn’t move. His body does the work.

Seeing Irwin may make you want to explore Beckett further. It may also make you want to long for more of Bill Irwin. At the Irish Repertory Theater, 132 West 22nd Street. Reviewed October 15, 2018.

THE EVOLUTION OF MANN  Send This Review to a Friend

The problem of finding the right life mate in the dating scene continues today, just as it has in the era before cell phones and social media took hold. The musical, “The Evolution of Mann,” with catchy music and lyrics by Douglas J. Cohen, book and lyrics by Dan Elish and direction by Joe Barros, explores the frustrations of the lead character, Henry Mann, in his quest for Ms. Right.

The audience is very close to his angst in the intimate theater The Cell. Henry, played and sung earnestly by Max Crumm, shares living quarters with his lesbian pal Gwen, pleasingly portrayed by Leslie Hiatt. Gwen gives Henry stern prodding to overcome his hesitancies and go after potential relationships. But Henry has his problems, and so has Gwen, who gets phone calls from a friend who keeps leaving the message “I want to do you on the dining room table.” Gwen also needs to solve her romantic problems.

The third member of the cast is the very versatile Allie Trimm, who handles a variety of roles with panache, including different type dating targets Sheila, Tamar, Christine and even Henry’s prodding mother. The cast members go a long way toward making the central quest enjoyable, especially since we are practically on stage with them.

The songs that tell the cumulative story are the best part of the show, making more of an impression than the requisite dialogue. Behind a curtain a three piece band does well by Cohen’s score—Tomoya Aomori on cello, Darren Lucas on guitar and Vadim Feichtner on piano.

Henry partakes in most of the numbers, whether soloing with “She’s My Wife” and “Keeping My Eye on the Ball,” or teaming with the two women in “The Year of the Weddings” and “Settling Down,” and also “The Tale of the Other” and the erotic “Hard” (with Christine). Trimm takes the spotlight soloing as Christine with “It’s Only a First Date” and Hiatt as Gwen makes the most of her solo number, “The Unromantic Things.”

“The Evolution of Man” could use a bit of tightening. It is only 90 minutes without an intermission but Henry’s plight and searching begins to feel over-extended. However, the geniality of the cast is steadily pleasing and there is a tidy ending that you may or may not see coming. At The Cell, 338 West 23rd Street. Reviewed October 17, 2018.

BROADWAY UNPLUGGED 2018  Send This Review to a Friend

One of the contributions to the theater that writer-director-host Scott Siegel makes is the annual “Broadway Unplugged” show that he has created. It honors outstanding voices and the old tradition of singing on Broadway without microphones, as was the case before amplification took over in the 1960s. Last night (October 13, 2018) Siegel presented at Merkin Concert Hall his 17th annual unplugged event. Once again an impressive group of singers showed us dazzling vocal purity in no need of mikes.

There couldn’t have been a more auspicious start than Farah Alvin giving a supercharged rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from “Funny Girl.” No amplification needed here. Alvin in manner and vocal power lit up the stage. Before the audience could recover from her pleasing assault, Klea Blackhurst followed with her dynamic rendition of “Anything Goes” in her Merman-like voice.

The other female stars of the evening were Kelli Barrett, Lisa Howard and Jillian Louis. Barrett illuminated “Not a Day Goes By” from “Merrily We Roll Along” and “I Dreamed a Dream from “Les Miserables.” Lisa Howard, another with an exceptionally strong voice,” entertained with “Children of the Wind” from “Rags” and “I Have Found” from “Infinite Joy.”

Jillian Louis is thoroughly an original. First, appearing in a black and white mini dress, she adopted a Lolita-like manner and come-on voice to cutely sing “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” from “Crazy for You”—different from any way I’ve heard it sung before. In a second appearance she demonstrated versatility by switching into an entirely different mode dramatically performing “Maybe This Time” from “Cabaret.”

As for the male performers, they included Brian Charles Rooney, John Easterlin, Chuck Cooper, Michael Winther and Aaron Ramey, all with powerhouse voices. Cooper provided the night’s comic coup, hilariously singing in laid-back style the condemning verses of “Your Feet’s Too Big” from “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”

Rooney scored with “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” from “One Touch of Venus” and the poignant “Bring Him Hone” from “Les Miserables.” Ramey impressively contributed “Soliloquy” from “Carousel,” providing much feeling to musing about the joys of having a son born into the world and watching him grow up, and then wondering what if the offspring turns out to be a girl. Winther applied his impressive voice singing “You’re Just in Love’ from “Call Me Madam” in a duet with Blackhurst.

Easterlin has a voice that is dramatically operatic, and he thrilled the crowd by singing “And This is My Beloved” from “Kismet” and “Without a Song” from “Great Day.” In an evening of loud audience applause response, his greeting was among the loudest.

Siegel gave his usual erudite introductions, just as he does in his “Broadway by the Year” series. The production ended with "Lullaby of Broadway” sung by the Broadway by the Year Chorus, consisting of young talent nurtured by Siegel. He introduced each one of them—Stephanie Bacastow, Annette Berning, Emma Camp, Pedro Coppeti, Elisa Galindez, Emily Janes, Dongwoo DW Kang, Philippa Lynas, Jacob Pressley, Ashley Ryan and Joseph Valle-Hoag. After the chorus did its thing, the entire company came on stage to join in continuing to sing “Lullaby of Broadway.”

The band consisted of Siegel’s long-time musical director, Ross Patterson, also performing his customary wizardry at the piano, Randy Landau on bass and Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf on cello. Other credits: Holly Cruz, musical staging, Rick Hinkson, assistant director and stage manager, and Joe Burke, assistant stage manager. At Merkin Concert Hall, 129 West 67th Street. Reviewed October 14, 2018.

MY PARSIFAL CONDUCTOR--A WAGNERIAN COMEDY  Send This Review to a Friend

Playwright Allan Leicht has gone to the history books for inspiration to concoct to a broad comedy based on the true story of how anti-Semitic Richard Wagner rebelled against having to accept Jewish Hermann Levi to conduct the premiere of his opera “Parsifal.” The production of "My Parsifal Conductor--A Wagnerian Comedy" is being presented by The Directors Company by special arrangement with Ted Snowdon.

The author juggles time frames with settings in 1930 Germany when Wagner’s delusional widow, Cosima, worries about getting into heaven, and flashbacks between 1880 and 1886, when younger days and the “Parsifal” issue played out. Scenic designer Harry Feiner has provided a lovely bedroom setting in which the action takes place. Director Robert Kalfin works admirably to juggle all of the intricacies that the author has piled on. (I had never been to the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater at the West Side YMCA, and was delighted to find how comfortable and suitable it is.)

Eddie Korbich is having a ball cavorting as the highly temperamental and Jew-hating composer Wagner. Claire Brownell also looks as if she’s having the acting time of her life in the large, demanding role of Cosima as Wagner’s wife and widow. Other characters include Logan James Hall as Friedrich Nietszche, who pops in and out from under Cosima’s bed to add spice and show his adoration of Cosima.

There is Carlo Bosticco as King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who repeatedly steps out of a picture frame and insists that Wagner agree to Levi as his conductor. And, of course, there is Geoffrey Cantor as Levi, who is repelled by Wagner’s wanting to convert him and at first refuses to conduct, but later bows under pressure from the king.

The comic turbulence is over-extended, dealing with the different time frames becomes cumbersome, and the writing could use more wit. But there are very funny sequences, as when frustrated Wagner decides to convert Levi by pouring water over his head. Hall as Nietszche provides laughs ,and Brownell can amusingly summon expressions and rantings that define her character as well as illuminate the ridiculous situations. Within all of this is a serious view of the role anti-Semitism played, and there are references to Zionism and Theodor Herzl.

Alison Cimmet plays Dora, Cosima’s stern maid who has to cope with Cosima’s moods and demands. Jazmin Gorsline appears both as Dora’s assistant and also as soprano Carrie Pringle.

If all of the above seems a bit much for one play, it is and could use some trimming, but delving into the true situation and giving it a broad comic interpretation is imaginative and mostly entertaining. There is an abundance of acting, writing and directing skills in this colorful production. At the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater at The West Side YMCA, 10 West 64th Street. Reviewed October 12. 2018.

MIDNIGHT AT THE NEVER GET  Send This Review to a Friend

The new musical “Midnight at the Never Get” at the York Theater, with book, music and lyrics by Mark Sonnenblick and co-conceived by Sam Bolen, is a gay-oriented tale of a performing partnership that eventually explodes in anguish. The acting is excellent, and the story is romantic and tough, but also in the realm of the show biz cliché of performers eventually going separate ways.

Best of all is Sam Bolen’s performance in both the acting and singing departments. Bolen broadly plays gay Trevor Copeland, with Jeremy Cohen as The Pianist, who is smitten with Trevor, who in turn falls for him and love blossoms. But how deep is it?

The story takes place from the mid to late 1960’s in a Greenwich Village bar titled The Never Get. Bolen has a dominating stage presence, and in addition to being the narrator of his story, sings a variety of songs with much appeal. There are ballads of romance and anguish, and a very funny number called “My Boy in Blue,” a clever satire involving being busted by a cop in a raid on the club. The musical achieves added poignancy by being concerned with the blatant police prejudice against gays that led to the Stonewall revolt.

Ultimately, The Pianist heads for his own career in California, and love-sick Trevor goes west to seek him out. But by this time, The Pianist is embarrassed by a gay past and is extremely cruel by accusing Trevor of stalking him and rejecting Trevor, not only for his sexuality but for a lack of enough talent.

The show unfolds in different time frames, and some of it is confusing, suggesting, for example, that Trevor is seriously ill and abandoned except for his parents. But a final twist (no detailed spoiler here) involves an unusual survivor bit.

Director Max Friedman keeps the plot moving, but the story, for all its sincerity, becomes maudlin and drawn out at times. There are always the convincing performances, and Bolen has a knockout voice and appealing demeanor. There is also an excellent band consisting of Josh Bailey on drums; Nick Grinder, trombone; Brian Krock, alto sax, clarinet, flute; David Neves, trumpet, and Robert Pawlings, bass. At the York Theatre at St. Peter’s, East 54th Street at Lexington Avenue. Phone: 212-935-5820. Reviewed October 12, 2018.

MOTHER NIGHT  Send This Review to a Friend

Adapting Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 novel “Mother Night” for the stage, as Brian Katz has done in addition to directing, presents a strong challenge. There are switches in time frames, explanations delayed and complexities that are harder to address in a play than in a novel. There is also the power of Vonnegut’s colorful writing.

Credit Katz and cast with succeeding in presenting a fascinating work in this adaptation offered by The Custom Made Theatre Company. The drama is not only involving, but may make you want to read the novel if you have not already done so.

Gabriel Grilli does an effective job in playing the lead character, Howard Campbell, who narrates the story, starting from his imprisonment in an Israel jail cell. Why is he there and what road led him to that point in his life?

Campbell’s existence has been intricate. In Germany he became involved in the Nazi propaganda machine and did broadcasts to support the Third Reich. However, he was also supposed to be spying on behalf of the allies. Was he?

We see his personal life displayed via his marriage to Helga, played intriguingly by Trish Lindstrom. He is subsequently led to believe that she is dead. Later, a woman claiming to be Helga has returned, and after their intimacy and he thinks their love has been rekindled, the woman confesses that she is really Helga’s sister (Also Lindstrom, of course.)

An array of other characters are portrayed variously by Matthew Van Oss, Dared Wright, Dave Sikula, Andrea Gallo and Eric Rice. The staging is simple, with Campbell often seated at a desk behind a typewriter. Adolph Eichmann (Van Oss) appears in a strange scene between him and Campbell.

Vonnegut doesn’t just examine a life. He positions his characters to give meaning to what he devises dramatically. Here question are addressed as to who we really are and whether what we seem is the whole story. The author also poses his questions in the larger context of war and its aftermath.

The staging is an intimate work, well-performed and directed and reminding us anew of what a creative force Vonnegut was. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. Reviewed October 11, 2018.

POPCORN FALLS  Send This Review to a Friend

At first “Popcorn Falls,” written by James Hindman, promises to be a comic romp with a duo, veteran Broadway actors Adam Heller and Tom Souhrada, as gents cutting up in the tradition of vaudevillians. They rush in and out of the doors of the stage set, assume assorted town folk identities and create comic mayhem. Talented Christian Borle as director sets up a swift, madcap rhythm.

Ah, but how long can this creativity last? Soon all goes awry with a cockamamie plot that becomes serious, and eventually it gets to be looking-at-one’s-watch time to see how close we are to the end.

The setting is the small town of Popcorn Falls. Heller is the new mayor, Mr. Trundle. There is a financial crisis, and the only way Trundle can collect a check to solve the problem is by putting on a play, a task that must be accomplished in one week. The trouble is that there is no theater. Does that plot excite you?

The actors attempt to mine laughs out of the machinations they go through in order to save Popcorn Falls, but the screwy plot is a burden, with no reason for an audience to care about what happens. The rowdy humor at the start that was so promising has been eclipsed. At the Davenport Theater, 354 West 45th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed October 12, 2018.

THE WINNING SIDE  Send This Review to a Friend

When it comes to a play about rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, nothing can capture the essence of his story better than the immortal satirical lyrics of Tom Lehrer. In the staging of "The Winning Side,” a play by James Wallert presented by Epic Theatre Ensemble, there is the good sense to project the lyrics accompanied by what is presumed to be Lehrer singing.

Among the lines of the song: “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down. That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun.

The play with color blind casting takes a survey of the scientist’s life, with his going from working for the Nazis developing the V-2 rocket to being taken to the United States to be co-opted into the American space program. Apart from this drama, when one looks at history one can see von Braun as a major symbol of how the United States overlooked Nazi pasts and imported those who contributed to Hitler’s war to work in America. “The Winning Side” indeed.

The first act is devoted to the development of von Braun’s career with the Nazi regime. He is played by Sullivan Jones, who projects a mix of charm and business-like manner that serves to make him seem an ordinary guy at heart. The other two male cast members are Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr. as Major Taggert, and Devin E. Haqq in a wide variety of roles that show his admirable versatility.

There is also a strong romantic component in von Braun’s love affair in Europe with Margot Moreau, intriguingly portrayed by Melissa Friedman, and at first unaware of his Nazi past.

The second act explores the trajectory of his career. What are we to make of the play’s take on the protagonist? On the one hand, as telegraphed by the Lerher lyrics, there is a critical eye toward the duplicity inherent in his going from lending his scientific genius to the Third Reich, and then to the U.S.

But by means of the acting and the writing, von Braun is given a demeanor that undercuts the level of condemnation that his critics have felt. There he is, switching sides with ease and seeking to minimize his enemy past and relegate it to the background.

Ron Russell, the director, handles the different time elements smoothly, and stresses salient parts of the story. Chika Shimizu’s set consists mainly of step-up platforms on either side of the stage. Director Russell, also responsible for the sound design, uses a central projection of a whirring propeller coupled with rocket-launch noise to provide the space program aura. At the Acorn Theater, Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Reviewed October 9, 2018.

  

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