Thursday, June 29, 2017

THE CRUSADE OF CONNOR STEPHENS: What God Has Joined Together...

Fathers and sons are often at loggerheads in real life, and almost always in the theater. Thus it is with Big Jim, a fire-and-brimstone-preaching rural Texas Southern Baptist minister (bearing at least a passing resemblance to "God Hates Fags" preacher Fred Phelps), and his son Jim Jr., who is gay, married to another man, and mourning the death of a young daughter, the victim of a shooting at her school.   

That's the setup for Dewey Moss's The Crusade of Connor Stephens, a play that comes roaring out the gate like a bull let loose from its corral, tearing up the stage at the Jerry Orbach Theater for two fiery hours before sending us off to think (a lot) about what we have borne witness to. 

Before the evening is up, we will be faced with so much dirty family linen that we sometimes will want to close our eyes on the proceedings. More sadly, it is the sort of dirt that seems to be showing up with greater frequency these days as xenophobia in its many guises has become increasingly in-your-face visible on a regular, often violent basis. So, even though Mr. Moss proffers some hope for humane redemption, such redemption is couched realistically in small amounts, with no phony reconciliation to wrap things up on a cheery note.  

The play unfolds at the home of Jim Jr. (Ben Curtis) and his husband Kris (Alec Shaw), as they are preparing for the funeral of their daughter.  Jim Jr. is clearly in a state of shock, hardly able to speak as his sister-in-law Kimmy (Julie Campbell) bustles around in preparation for any visitors who might come prior to the service. Kris is in the bedroom, lying down and recovering not only from his own horrific emotional trauma, but from actual physical trauma. He, too, was shot in the incident, perpetrated by the title character, a family acquaintance who acted on the deep-seated conviction that the shooting was a "crusade" against sin. (And guess where he got that idea.).  

Although the play doesn't say, it's likely that Jim Jr. and Kris would have at least a small circle of friends or decent-minded neighbors who would show up to offer their condolences. But everyone is staying away, because the house is surrounded by reporters waiting for some sort of statement regarding the shooting.  The only ones who come, apart from Kimmy and her husband Bobby (Jacques Mitchell), are Jim Jr's folks -- his Grandma Vivi'n (Kathleen Huber), his mother Marianne (Katherine Leask), and, of course, Big Jim himself (James Kiberd), the personification of that snorting bull and self-proclaimed man of God. 

Big Jim dominates the room, as Mr. Kiberd dominates the stage, every moment he is present. He is a father for whom love is always conditional, requiring absolute obeisance to his narcissism in exchange for even a begrudging bit of affection. At best, he attempts to keep a relatively civil tongue in his head, although that effort falls by the wayside more than once. What love and support Jim Jr. receives comes from Kimmy and Bobby and Grandma.  No conditions on their love.   

There is much to despise about Big Jim, and as the play progresses, he lives down to your lowest expectations of him. And Mr. Kiberd absolutely mines the role for all it's worth, turning him into a truly despicable villain. 

But you might want to spend more of your time studying Grandma Vivi'n and, especially, Marianne. Because they are the most fully developed characters, both so well portrayed by Ms. Huber and Ms. Leask, respectively.

Grandma, who is in a wheelchair and walks haltingly with a cane, clearly is dependent on her son and daughter-in-law, and feels quite frustrated as a result. We cheer, as we ought, when she dismisses their holier-than-thou attitudes in order to show her support and love to Jim Jr.  

What is more interesting, it seems to me, is the formality of the way she addresses Kris, and even Kimmy, of whom she quickly takes a liking. In her manner, you can see the layers of old Southern politesse with which she was raised, adding a richness of credibility to her character as being someone more than the prototypical feisty old lady.  

Even more compelling, however, is the character of Marianne. As portrayed by Ms. Leask, Jim Jr's mother is by far the most complex character.  It would be easy to dismiss her as merely an appendage of her overbearing husband, but she reveals depths to her personality, both ugly and potentially salvageable, that are hers alone. Watch her watching Big Jim as his behavior grows increasingly outrageous.  Then listen to her own diatribe aimed against her son and Kris's relationship. And, finally, pay attention as she prepares to go home with Big Jim, a woman who is starting to charge and someone with much to mull over. One of the most touching moments of the play involves a brief but authentic embrace of her son and a hand reached out for just a moment to Kris.  

So, yes, The Crusade of Connor Stephens, is a bit of a sledgehammer as a play, but it is equally a cri-de-coeur by the playwright, Dewey Moss, who also directs the fine company. He is a man on a mission to shine a light on LGBT issues. 

[Moss's previous work, Death of the Persian Prince (reviewed HERE) dealt with an even more difficult issue, the forced sex reassignment surgery imposed on a gay Iranian man, because, by policy and religious absolutism, "there are no homosexuals in Iran"].  


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 website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  

Monday, June 26, 2017

AFTERGLOW: An Open Marriage Is Put To The Test

Alex and Josh – two men together for five years, married, expecting a child through surrogacy – are so secure in their relationship that they are certain they are perfect candidates for an open marriage. They’re young and horny, so no reason to give up their vibrant and varied sex lives as long as they are completely honest with each other and with their extramarital partners. As Alex explains, “we have one rule. No sleepovers.” 

That's the premise of S. Asher Gelman's new play, Afterglow, now at The Loft at Off Broadway's Davenport Theatre.  

What could possibly go wrong?  

AFTERGLOW - Production photos by Mati Gelman

Much, as it turns out. Neither the best laid plans nor the best planned lays of men works out exactly as they imagine they will.  

Truly, if you were to do a little gender switching, you'd see that things unfold as they often do with heterosexual couples who dabble in affairs, open or on the sly.  Because, you know  gay, straight, bi, monogamous, polyamorous – there is always another body organ that comes into play, one that lies outside the groin area. As Josh is so fond of quoting Emily Dickinson: "The heart wants what it wants."  With two, that heart thing is tough enough; add a third party, and complications are bound to arise.  

As the play opens, Alex (Robbie Simpson) and Josh (Brandon Haagenson) are lying in bed, entwined with each other and with Darius (Patrick Reilly), who has joined them for a threesome. 

Much of Act I deals with the trio's no-strings-attached sexual fun and games. (Just to get the point out of the way, there is lots of nudity and sexual situations throughout the production).  But in Act II, things grow more serious as Josh and Darius start spending more and more time together, until they gradually cross the unspoken-but-always-present line of demarcation that starts with anonymous sex and evolves into friendship, genuine affection, and love.  

Will Alex and Josh's marriage survive? And what of Darius, who is younger by a few years (he's about 25, unattached, and rather insecure and vulnerable; the other two are edging close to 30, and, of course, have been a couple for some time). 

You could argue that all three know what they are getting into, thanks to the frankness of the "open marriage" arrangement. But knowing in your head is not the same as knowing in your heart. Life is messy, and love and affection are not the only emotions involved; there are also jealousy, mistrust, and feelings of betrayal that need to be factored into the mix.  

Afterglow hearkens back to a long string of works about extramarital relationships and the third party (usually, "the other woman"). There is a certain amount of narcissism and self-deception that floats about, and all three of the characters are most definitely playing with fire when they use the guise of openness to justify their behavior.

Still, the playwright, who also directs, has painted no obvious villains here, just, perhaps, a portrait of immaturity and poor judgment. If we feel for anyone, it is the unborn baby who is soon to need Alex and Josh's undivided attention. What kind of parents will these two self-absorbed individuals be? 

The production benefits from Ann Beyersdorfer's cleverly constructed set, which includes in its design a working onstage shower. And if you care about such things, the frequent nude scenes are intensified by the intimacy of the small theater space. But the play, a first for Mr. Gelman, does not necessarily add to our growing understanding about gay relationships, except to point out how they are not necessarily any different from heterosexual ones.  

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 website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  

Thursday, June 22, 2017


For a fun evening of silly entertainment, you might want to head on out to the Theater Breaking Through Barriers' revival of Charles Ludlam's film noir parody, The Artificial Jungle, at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row. Just make sure to keep an eye on the piranhas; they steal the show!

Production photos by Carol Rosegg

The play takes place in a family-owned pet store in New York's Lower East Side, run by Chester Nurdiger (David Harrell) and his wife Roxanne (Alyssa H. Chase). Chester's mother (Anita Hollander), who fusses constantly over her nerdy son, lives with them in their apartment in the back of the store.

Roxanne is fed up with her dull-as-dishwater life in which feeding and cleaning up after the animals, her chirpy and generally oblivious husband, and her irritating mother-in-law make up her tedious routine. Her opportunity for escape comes when Chester hires hunky Zach (Anthony Michael Lopez) to help out. It isn't long before Roxanne seduces Zach into killing Chester (right after she has taken out a hefty life insurance policy on her husband, of course).

That, in a nutshell, is the plot, clearly borrowed from Billy Wilder's film noir classic Double Indemnity, which starred Barbara Stanwyck as the discontented housewife and Fred MacMurray as the insurance salesman she targets to be her husband's killer. Of course, Double Indemnity was played for its melodramatic noir cynicism, whereas The Artificial Jungle is played for laughs.    

For this revival, director Everett Quinton, who played Zach in the original production back in 1986 and later took over as artistic director of Charles Ludlam's Ridiculous Theatrical Company, gives us more smiles and appreciative chuckles than guffaws and belly laughs. 

The story focuses on the multiple efforts by Roxanne and her half-hearted co-conspirator to successfully bump off Chester. For one thing, they are always under the suspicious gaze of Mother Nurdiger. They also have to work around the many unannounced visits by the local cop and family friend Frankie (Rob Minutoli). But eventually, they manage to pull it off and then make it appear that Chester got chomped to death when he slipped and fell part way into the store's piranha tank (just the sort of "ridiculous" the production could use more of).   

The play also picks up a bit from another sourceÉmile Zola's novel Thérèse Raquin, which comes into play when Mother Nurdiger suffers a stroke and has to sit in silence, knowing that her daughter-in-law and her lover have killed her beloved Chester. Anita Hollander handles the grimaces and eye movements with just enough spoofy exaggeration to bring the silliness to its peak, especially if you recall Judith Light's Outer Critics Circle Award-winning performance of the mother in similar circumstances in last year's otherwise painfully gothic Broadway adaptation of Thérèse Raquin.

The cast as a whole does well with their roles, but because the plot itself is predictable, there are only a few surprises.  The best of these involve the participation of the marvelous piranhas (Vandy Wood is the puppet designer and Satoshi Haga is the puppet master). Keep your eye on them as they move around in their tank and follow the action with their eyes. They are full of personality, and enrich the production ten-fold.


Watching the cavorting carnivorous fish makes me think that The Artificial Jungle might make for a fun and quirky musical, along the lines of Little Shop of Horrors. Now that could well be something to sink your teeth into!

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 website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  



Thursday, June 15, 2017


With the airing of the Tony Awards, the 2016-2017 Broadway theater season officially came to an end. So, let's take a look at some of the shows that are scheduled to open in the coming months.


I've seen this one already, and I will have more to say about it after it officially opens on June 22.  For now, here are two things to think about:  (1) It pays to be very familiar with George Orwell's remarkably prescient book on which this production is based, and (2) The production is raw, rough, and edgy.  Look at Point 1 and think hard about the significance of "Room 101."  Not for the faint of heart.

Marvin's Room

Now in previews and opening on June 29, this is a revival by the Roundabout Theatre Company of Scott McPherson's 1990 play about estranged sisters who come together at the home of their elderly and bedridden father. One of this sisters, Bessie, has served as his primary caregiver, while the other one, Lee, has stayed far away. Bessie has been diagnosed with leukemia, so the ball is now in Lee's court. A well-received 1997 film version starred Diane Keaton as Bessie and Meryl Streep as Lee.  In this production, Lili Taylor (known primarily for her work in films at television) appears as Bessie, and Janeane Garofalo (a standup comic who has also done films and television) is the wisecracking and unstable Lee.  

The Terms of My Surrender

Provocative political filmmaker Michael Moore's one-man show begins previews on July 28.  It is scripted (by Mr. Moore) and has a well-established director in Michael Mayer (Tony winner for the 2007 production of Spring Awakening). Few will wander into the theater unaware that Mr. Moore is no fan of the current President of the United States, who is likely to be mentioned with some frequency and in less than glowing terms over the course of the evening.  

Prince of Broadway

Begins previews on August 3. This is the long-awaited production highlighting the career of producer/director Hal Prince, the winner of 21 Tony Awards. It is a revue of songs by Stephen Sondheim, Kander & Ebb, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and many others with whom the impresario has been associated over the years.  If they don't stint on talent, including (please) a decent-sized orchestra, it could be quite entertaining. The cast includes well-known Broadway stalwarts Chuck Cooper, Emily Skinner, Tony Yazbeck, Karen Ziemba, and others of that ilk. Mr. Prince co-directs with Susan Stroman, herself a five-time Tony winner.  

Time and the Conways

Don't expect a Downton Abbey look-alike with this revival of J. B. Priestley's pre-World War II play that follows an upper class British family from 1919  to 1937.  The most exciting thing about the production is that it will be directed by Rebecca Taichman, who did a marvelously creative job helming Indecent this past season, earning a well-deserved Tony for her efforts.  Previews begin September 14. 


Playwright Ayad Akhtar, who gave us the excellent high-tension drama Disgraced and (to my mind) the even better The Invisible Hand, is back with this play about the financial mess brought about by the banking/investment industry in the 1980s. Not the first play to tackle this topic (Caryl Churchill's Serious Money from 1987, and Lucy Prebble's Enron from 2010 are two that come to mind), but Akhtar is a master at writing thrillingly about serious conflicts.  I do expect this one to be a strong entry, under Doug Hughes's direction. Previews begin September 14. 

M. Butterfly

This revival of David Henry Hwang's best known play, a Tony winner from 1988, marks a first return to Broadway for director Julie Taymor since the debacle that was Spiderman. Date for first preview is not yet set, but will probably be late September.  

The Band's Visit

As long as Katrina Lenk arrives with this Off Broadway-to-Broadway transfer, the musical (book by Itamar Moses and a terrific score by Yazbek) that won much acclaim with its debut at the Atlantic Theater Company ought to be a winner.  David Cromer once again directs. Previews begin October 7. 

Spongbob Squarepants

Ya never know -- not with music by the likes of Steven Tyler, Cyndi Lauper, Sara Bareilles, John Legend, David Bowie and others of that caliber. Could be a real hoot.  Previews begin November 6. 

Once On This Island

Revival of Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty musical fantasy from 1990 begins previews on November 9. Directed by Michael Arden, who did the honors for the recent and highly touted revival of Spring Awakening.

The Children

British playwright Lucy Kirkwood's well-received, if disturbing drama about a post-apolocyptic world is coming to New York, with a first preview on November 28.  

Farinelli and the King

Mark Rylance stars.  Need I say more?  OK.  Here's more. Written by Claire van Kampen (who is married to Mr. Rylance), the play is about the power of music to heal the mind of Spain's depressed King Philip V. The celebrated castrato singer, Farinelli, provides the cure. Rylance plays Philip, in case you were wondering. Previews begin December 5. 

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 website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics. 

Sunday, June 11, 2017

2017 TONYS : Who Won (and how did I do with my predictions)?

The musicals


My pick:  Come From Away 

The winner:  Dear Evan Hansen


My pick:  David Hein and Irene Sankoff, Come From Away

The winner: Steven Levenson,  Dear Evan Hansen


I picked:  Hello, Dolly!

***The winner: Hello, Dolly!


I picked:  The Great Comet of 1812

The winner:  Dear Evan Hansen


I picked:  Bette Midler, Hello, Dolly! 

***The winner:  Bette Midler


I picked:  Ben Platt, Dear Evan Hansen

***The winner:  Ben Platt


I picked:  Jenn Colella, Come From Away

The winner:  Rachel Bay Jones, Dear Evan Hansen


I picked:  Lucas Steele, The Great Comet of 1812

The winner:  Gavin Creel, Hello, Dolly!


I picked: Rachel Chavkin, The Great Comet of 1812

The winner: Christopher Ashley, Come From Away


I picked:  Andy Blankenbuehler, Bandstand

***The winner: Andy Blankenbuehler


I picked: Bill Elliott and Greg Anthony Rassen, Bandstand

The winner:  Alex Lacamoire, Dear Evan Hansen


The plays


I picked: Oslo

***The winner:  Oslo


I picked:  The Little Foxes

The winner:  Jitney


I picked: Laura Linney, The Little Foxes

The winner:  Laurie Metcalf


I picked:  Kevin Kline, Present Laughter

***The winner:  Kevin Kline


I picked:  Cynthia Nixon, The Little Foxes

***The winner:  Cynthia Nixon


I picked:  Danny DeVito, The Price

The winner:  Michael Aronov, Oslo


I picked:  Daniel Sullivan, The Little Foxes

The winner:  Rebecca Taichman, Indecent


Design elements


I picked:  Nigel Hook - The Play That Goes Wrong 

***The Winner:  Nigel Hook


I picked:  Mimi Lien, The Great Comet of 1812

***Winner:  Mimi Lien


I picked:  Jane Greenwood, The Little Foxes

***The Winner:  Jane Greenwood


I picked:  Catherine Zuber, War Paint  

The Winner:  Santo Loquasto, Hello, Dolly!


I picked:  Christopher Akerlind, Indecent.

***The Winner:  Christopher Akerlind


I picked: Bradley King, The Great Comet of 1812

***The Winner:  Bradley King


So, how did I do? 


Of the 11 categories, I correctly predicted the winners of 4


Of the 7 categories, I correctly predicted the winners of 3


Of the 6 categories, I correctly predicted the winners of 5


Of the 24 categories, I correctly predicted the winners of 12 or 50%

Happiest Surprise:  So pleased that Rebecca Taichman won for best director of a play for Indecent. This was a wonderful work and a great collaboration among playwright Paula Vogel, Ms. Taichman, the design team, and the splendid cast.  

Biggest Disappointment:  Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 was shut out for all but its lighting and scenic design.  

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 website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.