Tuesday, December 29, 2015

OFF THE GREAT BROAD WAY: 2015’s Best of Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway

Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway productions often present some of the most creative, risk-taking, and compelling work in any theatrical season. Of the 120 shows I saw in the world of Off and Off Off since the start of 2015, I’ve identified a baker’s dozen that stood out among the pack. 

Do note that the list is in alphabetical rather than preferential order.  (For my discussion of the best of the Broadway productions, click on this link – http://tinyurl.com/ngudrtr).

Barbecue. Robert O’Hara’s riotous comedy about two versions of the same dysfunctional family (one white, one black) is chock full of surprises, yet no matter how off-the-wall wacky it gets, there is a logical explanation for everything that happens. Act II moves into a less effective realm of easy satire, but that’s OK, because this is still the most genuinely funny play I have seen in a very long time.  Kudos to the playwright, to the cast, and to director Kent Gash. What a hoot!

Boy Gets Girl. This revival of Rebecca Gilman’s play about a blind date that devolves into a living nightmare for a smart and successful businesswoman marks a great turning point for The Seeing Place, one of those small and enterprising theater troops that struggle to take root in New York.  In what is only its sixth season, the company has coalesced into a solidly reliable enterprise, offering up consistently strong acting, directing, and – increasingly – production values. 

Couriers and Contrabands.  Another pleasurable surprise, Victor Lesniewski’s Civil War drama about spies and counterspies, is a riveting theatrical experience, smartly directed by Kareem Fahmy and boasting a terrific ensemble of actors.  This absolutely deserves greater exposure – a rare historic drama that teaches without being pedantic or preachy. 

Death of the Persian Prince. This is a play of substance and heart that brings to light Iran’s heinous practice of coercing homosexual men into having sexual reassignment surgery – thus justifying that country’s public position that it has no homosexuals living there. The play popped up as an entry in the summertime Midtown International Theatre Festival then later had some additional dates here and there.  Its writer and director Dewey Moss continues to work mightily to keep it before the public, and I stand firmly as one of its cheerleaders. 

Dutchman.  Amiri Baraka’s 1964 play about an encounter aboard a subway between a black man and white woman had been dismissed in many quarters as a historic footnote, an angry diatribe and a relic of the ‘60’s “Black Power” movement. Director Woodie King, Jr. and the New Federal Theatre’s imaginative production provided ample evidence that the play remains sadly relevant.

Incident At Vichy. In playwright Arthur Miller’s centennial year, and in competition with the highly touted (though, to me, overblown) Broadway production of A View From The Bridge, this was the eye opener, capturing that moment in history when the Holocaust was just about to reach its horrific nadir after years of what was a slowly closing trap under the sleeping eyes of the world. It seems to say that, depending on circumstances, we are all potential Jews and we are all potential Nazis, before revealing a third alternative that is delivered unexpectedly from someone who opts to go in another direction altogether. Richard Thomas is a standout in a solid production, directed by Michael Wilson. 

John. Playwright Annie Baker just keeps getting better and better. Her play about a young couple in a floundering relationship, taking place in what seems to be a haunted bed and breakfast near the haunted battlegrounds of Gettysburg, is nothing short of mesmerizing – despite a running length of over three hours. We have long known that one of its stars, actress Lois Smith, is a national treasure, but she needs to move over to make room on the sofa for Georgia Engel, who absolutely shines here. Lots of credit, too, to Baker’s creative partner, director Sam Gold. Their collaboration on The Flick also resulted in a highly engaging production, though John is a more cohesive effort. Years from now, John will be studied in college classes; only its running time will keep it from enjoying its share of major revivals.  

Kentucky Cantata.  Paul David Young’s devastating play about a family tragedy, a blend of naturalism and a fourth-wall-breaching expressionistic design, was given a stellar production at HERE Arts Center under the direction of Kathy Gail MacGowan. Its stars, Dan Patrick Brady and Marta Reiman, were particularly effective as a married couple whose lives are stretched to the breaking point.  

My Perfect Mind. Edward Petherbridge and Paul Hunter gave perfectly delightful, charming, and loopy performances in this absurdist play they created together, with an assist from its director, the equally brilliant actress Kathryn Hunter. Talk about turning lemons into lemonade – the play was based on Petherbridge’s unfortunate experience of suffering a stroke just as he was preparing to star in a production of King Lear. 

Night Is A Room. Naomi Wallace’s play, the third and best of her offbeat yet lyrical works produced at the Signature Theatre (the others were And I And Silence and The Liquid Plain) is a jaw-dropping, audacious piece of writing, with unexpected twists and turns throughout. Bill Rauch directed, and the cast – Dagmara Dominczyk, Ann Dowd, and Bill Heck – blazingly delivered the goods.  

Scenes from an Execution.  Speaking of audacious writing, Howard Barker’s over-the-top play about a highly unconventional 16th century Venetian artist (superbly portrayed by five-time Tony nominee Jan Maxwell in her self-declared swan song) was given an amazing production by PTP/NYC at Atlantic Stage 2 under Richard Romagnoli’s fearless direction. 

The Humans. With this play, Stephen Karam rises to the ranks of Annie Baker in capturing the angst of everyday lives. This is a great leap forward for the writer of the well-received but thin Sons of the Prophet, a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Here he encapsulates with bittersweet humor the pain of a middle class family caught up in the great economic downturn and struggling with various personal crises as they gather for Thanksgiving dinner. Among the excellent cast and under Joe Mantello’s taut direction, Jayne Houdyshell gave a pitch perfect performance of a middle-aged woman trying desperately to hold things together. 

Two Gentlemen of Verona. Fiasco Theater’s giddy and joyful production of Shakespeare’s early comedy that presages A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night was a sheer delight.  Please let us see more from this versatile group.

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the new website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  

Saturday, December 26, 2015


Theatrical Top-Ten lists are de rigueur this time of year, but I don’t want to be locked in at 10.  So ignoring the tradition, here are a baker’s dozen of my favorites drawn from the list of 38 Broadway plays and musicals I have seen since January 1, 2015. 

I thought each of these stood out for a variety of reasons, which I’ll explain as I go along. Do note that the list is in alphabetical rather than preferential order. I discuss Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway in a separate post.  If you are interested, here's a link -- tinyurl.com/z9799kt.

Constellations.  Hard to explain, and, yes, at times hard to follow, Nick Payne’s play was a gimmicky work, no doubt.  In non-linear scenes coming in short bursts, Constellations toyed with the ebb and flow of time and space. Yet thanks to the chemistry between its stars (Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson) and to Michael Longhurst’s razor sharp direction, the play sticks in the mind as a sweet and tender romance and an original and thought-provoking entry to the year on Broadway.   

Fool for Love. This was a terrific revival of Sam Shepard’s 1983 play about a pair of doomed lovers, brought searingly to life by a perfectly matched Sam Rockwell and Nina Arianda, under Daniel Auken’s direction.  You felt you had fallen into a myth about lost souls bound together for all of eternity.

Fun Home. Super translation to the stage of Alison Bechdel’s coming-of-age graphic memoir dealing with her journey of self-discovery as a lesbian, juxtaposed to the story of her father’s tormented life as a closeted gay man.  With a solid book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, a great score by Jeanine Tesori, outstanding performances all around, and excellent direction by Sam Gold, Fun Home was truly worthy of its multiple Tony awards. 

Hamilton.  It may be the most hyped show of the century, but Lin-Manuel Miranda and the entire creative team and cast deserve a humongous amount of credit for the way they have captured a piece of U. S. history and made it informative, innovative, totally theatrical, and audience grabbing.  The musical’s greatest strength may lie in its depiction of the youthful vitality of so many of the players in the early days of the nation, and in reminding us what it truly means when we say that the United States is a nation of immigrants. 

King Charles III.  Its many references to specific Shakespeare plays make Mike Bartlett’s work feel overly contrived at times, but Tim Pigott-Smith’s enthralling central performance and the political intrigue depicted here make for a far more interesting work than the depiction of British monarchy in either The Audience (Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II) or Wolf Hall (Nathaniel Parker as Henry VIII). 

On The Town.  Wonderful revival, boasting outstanding performances and production values throughout.  This was far more inspired than the Tony-winning revival of The King and I.  And how lovely it was to have On The Town playing on 42nd street alongside On The Twentieth Century – both glorious musicals filled with the sparkling lyrics of Betty Comden and Adolph Green coupled with the first-rate scores by Leonard Bernstein (the former) and Cy Coleman (the latter).   

On The Twentieth Century.  A joyful revival, perfectly tailored to the singing and physical comic chops of Kristin Chenoweth.  This was a delight from start to finish.  Chenoweth shoulda won the Tony for this.  

Skylight.  Bill Nighy’s (presumably deliberate) twitchy performance was sometimes hard to watch, but Carey Mulligan provided the perfect counterpoint in the revival of David Hare’s so-well-written play about two ships that long ago passed in the night.   

Spring Awakening.  A little soon for a revival, perhaps, but the staging and the integration of signing performers, along with one in a wheelchair, captured the urgency and frustration of youth within a repressive society far better than the original. 

The Color Purple.  Like Spring Awakening, this was a fast turn-around for a revival to appear, and good luck following the chopped-up book if you are unfamiliar with Alice Walker’s novel or the Steven Spielberg movie.  But it just goes to show how a great cast, led by Cynthia Erivo’s show-stopping performance, and the clear-eyed vision of a director (John Doyle) can bring even choppy story-telling to glorious life.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  Unlike The Color Purple, the translation from novel (by Mark Haddon) to play (Simon Stephens) was crystal clear, and the directing and acting, sublime. Alex Sharp, making his Broadway debut in the lead role, was a fount of boundless energy and gave a true “star is born” performance that no one else could touch come Tony time.  

The Gin Game.  James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson.  What else is there to say?  Joy to the world!

The Last Ship.  I’ll leave it to others to analyze its failure to be a huge, award-garnering hit. This was my favorite musical of 2015 – emotionally true and splendidly performed by a rock solid cast, borne to towering heights with a great score by Sting.

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the new website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.