Thursday, October 29, 2009

Embraceable Me (Theater Row)

Embraceable Me
Theater Row
October 26, 2009
Victor L. Cahn (writer)
Eric Parness (director)

It's a truism that goes all the way back to the Greeks: drama requires conflict. And yes, Embraceable Me has an overt conflict, a version of the When Harry Met Sally struggle to shift from friendship into romance. But the problem with this show is, the opposites-attract characters of Allison and Edward (the chemistry-free duo of Scott Barrow and Keira Naughton) are too amiable to strike sparks. They remark on (but don't wrestle with) job frustration and romantic disappointment. Does she drink too much? He may think so … or he may just be teasing. Did loveless parents screw him up? Perhaps, but it's vague. The script shies away from thorny emotions and discomfiting actions (though to be fair, so do the actors). When one finally does muster up enough bitterness to insult the other, she uses the limp epithet “icicle.” A scene of vicious rancor would've gone a long way, building momentum and enlivening the characters.

That, in turn, would've given the illusion of something at stake. As it is, I can't tell what drew the company to the script, or why Cahn felt compelled to write it. Certainly, no one seems inspired. Parness's direction consists of fussy blocking around Sarah Brown's cluttered set (I wish she'd jettisoned the bookcases to show off her cool chalk-drawn backdrop). The script, pointlessly structured mostly as direct address, undermines Barrow and Naughton's aimless performances by making them speak to the audience more than each other. Even at a intermissionless 70 minutes, Embraceable Me is gormless and dull.


Embraceable Me plays at Theater Row (410 W. 42nd Street, betw. Ninth & Tenth Ave.), closing on October 31. Tickets?

Photo credit: Jon Kandel

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Pumpkin Pie Show: Commencement

The Pumpkin Pie Show: Commencement
Under St. Marks
October 16, 2009
Clay McLeod Chapman (writer)

You'd expect a play about graduation to be vernal and forward-looking, but Commencement is a better fit for autumn. The reason is, it involves a school shooting. It's a subject I don't find that compelling, so I credit Clay McLeod Chapman's triptych of monologues with offering something more than the typical Manichean morality of violent perversity in the white suburbs. In fact, Commencement is a cool, brisk ghost story edged with melancholy.

In the middle monologue, Chapman pictures a high school haunted by a “bogeyman mascot”: the late, yet still vital, valedictorian played (as the other two characters are) by Hanna Cheek. This, the best of the three stories, suggests a primal rupture in the community, which will be healed in a private ceremony: the victim's mother has the shooter's mother recite the late valedictorian's unfinished, unrecited speech. It's a mournful moment, a paean that captures what's tragic about violent, too-early death.

Commencement is strong stuff, and moving. But Chapman can be too writerly. His best conceit involves a pen-pal friendship between the future shooter and the class valedictorian in the margins of library books. His strength lies in his prose style, which paints evocative metaphors and pictorial observations. But he comes up short when he tries to create characters. The first and third monologues take the POVs of the mothers of the pen-pal students. But Chapman doesn't quite show us how the attitudes of two mothers must've given birth to their children's personalities.

Fortunately, he's partnered with Hanna Cheek. This very fine local actress bridges the gaps that Chapman's monologues contain. She uses her tone and manner to peel away her characters' wounded psyches and subtextual impulses (which is usually the writer's job in character monologues). Cheek's skill at transformation and her range of emotion would make Commencement worth seeing even if the monologues were duds. This autumn ghost tale is a treat.


The Pumpkin Pie Show: Commencement plays at Under St. Marks (21 St. Marks Place, betw. First Ave. & Avenue A), closing on October 31. Tickets?

Photo credit: Cedar

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Circle Mirror Transformation (Playwrights Horizons)

Circle Mirror
October 10, 2009
Annie Baker
Sam Gold (director)

Who knows what to expect, with a mystical title like Circle Mirror Transformation? But on the other hand, there's the realistic set—a generic rehearsal room, a mirror along one wall—doesn't inspire flights of imagination. Somewhere between the title's fancy and the set's mundanity is the show itself: an quirky bit of meta-theater.

Circle tidily takes place within a six-week community center acting class. The set-up offers room for the gentle mockery of acting exercises, especially when performed by a set of four over-earnest adults (the lone teen sulks, “Are we gonna do any 'real' acting?”). It also doubles as a clever device to open up the five characters. Though it initially sketches in broad strokes, the silly exercises slowly fill in the characters' vulnerabilities and aspirations. What's more, the script manages to suggest that there's a larger story to these befuddled adults and their sardonic voyeur, but that we're only getting the in-room snippets of it.

Annie Baker's script benefits from several extremely talented Off-B'way mainstays like Reed Birney (who plays a vulnerable middle-aged divorcé with gusto). But the standout is newcomer Tracee Chimo as that solo teen. Though Chimo initially plays the clown, goggling at the ludicrous behavior of the adults, she slowly emerges from her shell to display her new confidence and self-understanding.

With its simple scenario, there are short stretches of Circle that frankly are a little dull, a fact that Sam Gold's direction can't overcome. And non-theater types may resent the knowing chuckles that the in-crowd delivers every few minutes. Circle doesn't bowl you over with pyrotechnics or boggle you with plot turns. It's a cameo, yet with its small but satisfying catharsis, it's quite lovely.


Circle Mirror Transformation plays at Playwrights Horizons (416 42nd Street, betw. Ninth & Tenth Ave.), closing on November 1. Tickets?

Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Night Watcher (Primary Stages)

The Night Watcher
Primary Stages at 59E59
October 3, 2009
Charlayne Woodard (writer)
Daniel Sullivan (director)

If you enjoy watching a charming performer confide in an audience like you're his or her oldest friend, you can stop reading now: head over to The Night Watcher for a pleasantly diverting evening. And if you like sentimental stories about children, you'll get your fill. But if you get impatient listening to self-serving monologues, or if you cringe when an adult imitates children by adopting wide eyes and a lisp, then skip Charlayne Woodard's one-woman show.

In between her acting gigs, she explains, she's an active godmother to several friends' children. But at every moment, Woodard is a consummate actress. That's great when she stretches onstage like a cat in sunlight, offering warm stories of surrogate parenting with expertly-timed quips and snatches of Sly and the Family Stone; not so much when she's casting herself as the heroine in harrowing melodramas that resemble after-school specials.

The evening's climactic anecdote is particularly telling. In it, Woodard doesn't comfort a child, she confronts a bullish subway rider who condemns her lack of children. She shreds this straw man with a sermon of self-justification. The final beat of self-deprecation—her monologue has caused her to miss her stop—disguises the fact that her catharsis belongs only to her.

Still, courtesy of Geoff Korf's subtle lighting and Obadiah Eaves' warm blanket of music, The Night Watcher looks and sounds lovely. The total effect, thanks to Daniel Sullivan, is that of a bedtime story. But I'm suspicious of any work that's as anodyne as Watcher: in this case, Woodard and her team uses their talent to mask her narcissism.


The Night Watcher plays at 59E59 (59 East 59th St., betw. Park and Madison Ave.), closing on October 31. Tickets?

Photo credit: James Leynse

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Killers & Other Family (Rattlestick)

Killers & Other Family
Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
September 21, 2009
Lucy Thurber (writer)
Caitriona McLaughlin (director)

I'm thrilled to hear that Killers & Other Family, Lucy Thurber's fever-dream of a drama, has extended its run. It may not be perfect, but it's such an intense 80 minutes that my critical faculties are overwhelmed by its ambition. If you love modern American theater, you must see Killers. Got it?

The show's depiction of savagery invites comparisons with Sam Shepard or Adam Rapp, but the dark sociopathy at the play's heart reminds me most of Jim Thompson, the '50s crime novelist nicknamed the Dimestore Dostoyevsky. Partly, it's the set-up, pulp-simple yet stagy enough to power a one-set/two-scene drama: Lizzie's past catches up when her on-the-lam brother hides out at her NYC apartment with her murderous ex-boyfriend Danny. But Thurber invests her scenario with metaphoric weight, showing how the repression of childhood trauma rips apart the illusion of adult safety.

Much of the credit for the Rattlestick's stupendous production goes to Samantha Soule's fearless performance as Lizzie. Soule throws herself into whatever the script (and her nightmarish ex) demand, but ties everything together with conviction—it's all in her reading of the line “I never did change, I just moved the pieces around.” She's partnered expertly by Shane McRae as Danny: you can see the neural misfires in that sicko's brain.

After my friend and I saw Killers, we wondered if the tonal instability (seesawing from fine-grained naturalism to lyric surreality and absurdist violence) was a problem. But I think Killers has the dream-logic of a fairy tale, one aimed at 21st-century urbanites. If McLaughlin can't quite sustain a sense of imminent danger, or if Aya Cash, as Lizzie's wholesome roommate, breaks the tension a little too jarringly, it's all outweighed by the way Thurber depicts violence as a real threat and not as a plot crutch. Killers is raw, wild theater for our time, a drama that's bracingly alive.


Killers & Other Family plays at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (224 Waverly Place), closing on October 17. Tickets?

Photo: Sandra Coudert