Monday, January 30, 2012

Theater: New Shows (January 30-February 6)

More than a dozen shows debut this week, over half of which make my to-see list. That includes my favorite play by Brecht; a rarely-seen Jacobean drama; three Euro classics from the dark, early half of the last century; a camp musical revival; new plays, musicals & anthologies by modern writers… and my Pick of the Week, The Ugly One, a German import, because I'm always fascinated to see what's big on Europe's stages.

where: Signature Center

first night: Tuesday, Jan. 31

Check out the inaugural show at a new Off-Broadway space: the Pershing Square Signature Center (nowhere near Pershing Square itself, confusingly). Signature mounts a seminal work of African theater, the 1961 biracial drama of South African Athol Fugard, starring Wooster Groupie Scott Shepherd.

where: MCC at the Lucille Lortel Theater

first night: Tuesday, Jan. 31

A cult classic of musical theater, Carrie became the epitome of Broadway flops after an eviscerating review from Frank Rich. Yes, you read that right: a musical, adapted from the Stephen King novel and subsequent movie about a misfit teen whose latent telekinesis comes out after one humiliation too many.

where: Marvell Rep at the TBG Complex

first night: Tuesday, Jan. 31

A young woman has septic poisoning after an illegal abortion; a Jewish surgeon gets pilloried first for her treatment and then for her death. This century-old Viennese work provoked protests and bans for obvious reasons. These Ibsenite dramas can be dusty, but feel so modern if they're done right.

where: Classic Stage Company

first night: Wednesday, Feb. 1

One of my favorite plays! Bertolt Brecht takes apart the legend of the scientist's confrontation with the Catholic Church, taking stock of the historical forces involved but also the human motives behind both heroism and capitulation. F. Murray Abraham, in the lead, will likely bring out Galileo's gusto.

where: Soho Rep

first night: Wednesday, Feb. 1

The best company Off-Broadway, year in/year out, introduces New York to one of Germany's hottest playwrights, Marius von Mayenburg. This provocateur satirizes image and identity in his pocket-drama, which has an engineer learn that his promising career has stalled because he's incredibly bad-looking.

where: Ars Nova

first night: Wednesday, Feb. 1

Every year, Ars Nova puts together an anthology of punchy shorts on a quirky pop-culture subject by next-big-thing playwrights, some of whom will surely be lost to TV by the calendar's end. This season, the youngsters' inspiration is the Urban Dictionary, that crowd-sourced reference tool/time-suck.

where: Playwrights Horizons

first night: Friday, Feb. 3

Leslye Headland surprised everyone (except literary managers, maybe) by debuting a gleefully dark comedy in Bachelorette a few summers ago. Let's hope her follow-up—a satire that covers an office of personal assistants to a capitalist magnate—has the same bold ability to revel in youthful misbehavior.

where: Abingdon Theater

first night: Friday, Feb. 3

This two-actor play hits upon a scene fraught with potential: in swampland Mississippi, an injured auctioneer is found on an old Indian trail by a runaway slave. The tricky goal of this type of historical drama is to be neither too melodramatic nor too discursive, and to avoid soothing resolutions.

where: 59E59

first night: Friday, Feb. 3

Aiming to be your Valentine's date, 59E59 programs this collection of love stories and love songs. It looks like Lovesick takes a romcom approach to romance, with pretty young people getting steamed up or steamy about sex. Hopefully, the creators will also delve into the more kinky and cynical aspects of amour.

where: Mint Theater Company

first night: Saturday, Feb. 4

That rare treasure: a true lost classic by a female playwright (and a favorite of Emma Goldman!). The broad strokes sound like an English family melodrama—a northern industrialist disagrees with his son about how to save the firm—but it's remarkably attuned to class, sex, mortal, and even regional conflicts.

where: Theater for a New Audience at the Duke on 42nd Street

first night: Saturday, Feb. 4

An aristo undermines his sister's romance; an ingenue cuckolds her angry old husband. This may be Sparta, but it looks a lot more like the decadent Jacobean theater. Post-Shakespeare playwright John Ford wrote Tis Pity She's a Whore; his rarely-produced Heart sounds a bit less bloody but just as cynical.

where: Atlantic Stage 2

first night: Sunday, Feb. 5

The heroine's name is Isabel Archer, the period is the Gilded Age, but if Tokio Confidential adapts Portrait of a Lady, it's hard to see the resemblance from a summary. In this modernist musical, American abroad Archer visits Japan, where she falls into the floating world of Tokyo's pleasure quarter.

where: Fourth Street Theater

first night: Monday, Feb. 6

Not the only work of horror to debut this week (see Carrie), but this play sounds authentically creepy and not campy. It's that old standby: a group of friends stranded in the woods at midnight, unable to agree on what they saw. Compellingly, it's billed as a “symmetrical story”—what could that mean?

where: Marvell Rep at the TBG Complex

first night: Monday, Feb. 6

Two Brecht revivals in one week!? Mac the Knife's opinion must seem pointed and current to Marvell Rep: “Which crime is worse, robbing a bank or founding one?” Threepenny epitomizes the master playwright for most people, with its Weimar aesthetics, socialist politics, and alienated theatrical style.

Last chance!

The Canterbury Tales Remixed

where: Soho Playhouse

Close Up Space

where: City Center Stage I

The Fall to Earth

where: 59E59

Gob's Squad's Kitchen (You've Never Had It So Good)

where: The Public Theater


where: Theater Row


where: Theater Row

Mission Drift

where: The Connelly Theater

Outside People

where: Vineyard Theater

Untitled Feminist Show

where: Baryshnikov Arts Center

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Shakespeare Notebook: Richard III

The Bridge Project at BAM
written by William Shakespeare

directed by Sam Mendes

January 20, 2012

From his opening monologue, when he thwacks the brace on his leg as if disgusted at his own frailty, Kevin Spacey plays Shakespeare's twisted duke as a man crippled by self-loathing. He snarls defensively at his mother, who holds a Freudian power over him by neither loving him nor disowning him. He stumbles at his own coronation then smacks the hand that lends assistance. And in the character's final, nightmare soliloquy, when he claims, “Richard loves Richard”, he weeps at his lack of conviction. In Spacey's rich psychological interpretation, Richard's malignance, as well as his superhuman energy, is a displacement of self-hatred upon the world. He's quick to get offended—you've rarely seen such a sensitive Richard. It's as if, despite all those soliloquies, Richard can't let himself reflect or he'll realize he's both the source and ultimate object of his fury.

Kevin Spacey kills as Richard III
photo credit: Joan Marcus
Maybe to set off the ferocity of Spacey's performance, the rest of this Richard III is restrained and balanced. Sam Mendes takes his direction from the play's first word: “Now”, populating the English court with modern politicians who preen for photo ops in double-vented suits. The Republican presidential campaign will see its reflection in the vicious in-fighting of the House of York. Richard's ally Buckingham (Chuk Iwuji, smooth) is recast as a campaign manager, building support by smearing rivals and staging rallies filled with sanctimony. But like most of Mendes' stagework, the show's execution lacks physicality. It doesn't help that the stage design, like so many in modern theater, could serve for any of Shakespeare's dramas. A dozen actors enter from as many doors; thumped drums designate martial moments and synthesizers eerie ones. Fortunately, Mendes' cool approach and conventional design make Spacey's fierce performance look even stronger.


Spacey's singular take on Richard Crookback reminds me of one pleasure of Shakespeare: each play's unending yield of new themes and approaches. Till this production, I never saw how Shakespeare uses the Christian concept of doomsday in
Richard. The Endtime is on everyone's mind, from the murderers who worry about Judgment Day to Richard himself, who swears by “the time to come” (IE the afterlife). The accumulation of apocalyptic references contribute to the play's tone and filter deep into the structure. It turns the climactic battle into Armageddon, recasting Richard as Satan and Richmond (AKA Henry Tudor) as Christ. Richmond uses the rhetoric of holy war, he wages battle on behalf of peace, and he ushers into the kingdom an era of harmony. Just as Armageddon would be the end of history, Richard III ends Shakespeare's first tetrology of history plays. So its eschatological structure is probably deliberate.

Shakespeare wrote
Richard early in his career, which seems obvious when you notice how clumsy and self-conscious he can be about applying poetic devices. The opening speech breaks easily into stanzas, each beginning with “Now” and then with “I, who…”; Richard and Lady Anne fall into a stichomythic pattern, underscoring the success of his seduction; Margaret's curse grows more and more formal, to suggest a ritual's ornate power; and all these examples come from act one! Even Richard's great post-nightmare soliloquy has a mannered quality that shows the playwright is still rough in approximating spoken thoughts.

Richard III
plays at the BAM Harvey Theater (651 Fulton Street), closing on March 4. Tickets?

Monday, January 23, 2012

New Shows (January 24-30)

How I Learned to Drive may be touching,
but it's what they call a 'bad touch'
(photo: Tim Klein)
Two of the worst shows in Broadway's fall season—On a Clear Day… and Relatively Speaking—finally give up the ghost. And after a thirteen year run, so does the bachelorette and gay fave, Naked Boys Singing. Meanwhile, young playwrights make a strong showing Off-B'way with the similarly titled Rx and CQ/CX. My Pick of the Week, unexpectedly, is a musical: Myths and Hymns, a piece of Holy Theater from a rising company.

where: Atlantic Theater at the Signature
first night: Wednesday, Jan. 25
A reporter at the New York Times gets busted for plagiarism. CQ/CX is based closely on the Jayson Blair scandal. Current events can provide great material for drama, but it's also easy to flatten them into a chronicle or morality. So it's good to hear that this show addresses race as well as media culture.

where: Second Stage Theater
first night: Tuesday, Jan. 24
Despite being an unconventionally poignant drama about incest, Paula Vogel's drama seemed to get programmed by every regional theater once it won the Pulitzer in '98. Drive crowned a great decade for Vogel, but will it hold up now that her offbeat, intimate style has been rendered conventional?

where: Canal Street Playhouse
first night: Wednesday, Jan. 25
The process behind college admissions is a fat target for satire, not just because the tuition bubble continues to inflate but because the committees' operations are so opaque and probably conspiratorial. This three-actor comedy promises that an element of tragedy will add dramatic substance to the comedy.

where: Prospect Theater Company at the West End Theater
first night: Saturday, Jan. 28
Adam Guettel (A Light in the Piazza) has been revising this revue for over a decade, since it debuted as Saturn Returns at the Public in '98. Based on Greco-Roman myth and a Christian hymnal, the piece is staged by the Prospect Theater, who are building a strong rep Off-B'way with their challenging musicals.

where: Primary Stages at 59E59
first night: Tuesday, Jan. 24
A chemical romance, just in time for Valentine's Day. An office drone joins the clinical trial for a new anti-depressant, while her doctor has begun a regimen that targets heartbreak. Hopefully, Rx digs into our culture's zeal for mood-altering pills rather than simply moralizing against it, as too many plays do.

Last chance!
Advance Man
where: The Secret Theater

The Canterbury Tales Remixed
where: Soho Playhouse

where: Here Arts Center

where: Longacre Theater

Dancing at Lughnasa
where: Irish Repertory Theater

A Hole in His Heart
where: Atlantic Stage 2

How the World Began
where: Women's Project at Playwrights Horizons

It's Always Right Now, Until It's Later
where: St. Ann's Warehouse

Naked Boys Singing
where: New World Stages

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever
where: St. James Theater

One Thousand Blinks
where: 59E59

Relatively Speaking
where: Atkinson Theater

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sci-Fi Theater: Advance Man

Here come the Martian Martians!
credit: Deborah Alexander

The Secret Theater
written by Mac Rogers
directed by Jordana Williams
January 13, 2012

When you trek out to Long Island City for a play about the first manned mission to Mars, you don't expect to see a beige living-room onstage. Instead of interplanetary action, Advance Man lifts its plot from a 1950s B-movie about pod people infiltrating suburbia. A housewife suspects her husband, the all-American captain of that Mars-shot, of an extramarital affair. But the truth is scarier: he and his crew have invited an insectoid race to save civilization from itself. Are they helping to found a planetary utopia or delivering humanity into slavery? Will all individuality be lost to a hive mind—and is that a bad thing? Part of the appeal of Advance Man's ambiguities is the knowledge that it's just the first play of The Honeycomb Trilogy; the plot will thicken with Blast Radius in April, and all questions will (hopefully) be answered by Sovereign in June.

As the first act of a longer drama, Advance Man suffers from the necessity of delivering backstory. The solution should be to establish a strong tone. And Mac Rogers' script tries to balance domestic melodrama—a troubled marriage, a hellion daughter—with sci-fi thriller. But director Jordana Williams doesn't exploit the seepage of weirdness into a suburban living room. And like even the most classic of '50s B-movie SF, the quality of performance is uneven. Fortunately, the pivotal roles go to the most consistently strong actors: Sean Williams (that gee-whiz captain), Becky Byers (his rebellious daughter), Abraham Makany (a surly astronaut). And Jason Howard steals the show as the victim of a mysterious accident on Mars. As his character's secrets come out, Advance Man picks up the pace. With the Martian invasion underway, part two is more likely to be fun theater, for sci-fi fans at least. Hopefully, it'll leave the living room behind.


Advance Man plays at the Secret Theater (44-02 23rd Street), closing on January 29. Tickets?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Sci-Fi Theater: World of Wires

They're not real, they're actors
World of Wires
The Kitchen
adapted & directed by Jay Scheib
January 12, 2012

More sci-fi theater! But unlike last week's accessible apocalypse, World of Wires is theatrically challenging and philosophically abstruse. Jay Scheib, the It Boy of experimental theater, has adapted and directed a 1970s German TV film by Fassbinder, which itself was based on a '60s SF paperback. Every version of the work worries over the conceit that, if a computer were powerful enough and a program sophisticated enough, a simulated environment would be indistinguishable from reality itself. It follows a computer scientist who begins to suspect that his life is as artificial as any he's programmed. Scheib may be scratching his head over the existential implications, but fortunately he doesn't let his confusion show onstage. The source material keeps him grounded, because despite its futuristic trappings, the plot of this piece is patterned on film noir, with a missing person, a dead body, a mysterious blonde, and a political conspiracy.
With a solid story for his foundation, Scheib is free to apply the disorienting devices of modern experimental theater. He literally digitizes his actors by shadowing them with a camera and feeding the video to flatscreens onstage. He directs the cast to deliver their dialogue flatly but otherwise to perform with breakneck activity and sensual vivacity. He skews the sense of place and perspective with a set (designed by Sara Brown) that deliberately obscures which level of simulated reality a scene plays out on. Maybe Scheib's only significant error is that he paces his show at a constant level of hyperactivity, which becomes exhausting. The source material, meanwhile, finally fails him by wrapping up a little too optimistically, given its noir echoes and the adaptation's ironic posturing. But otherwise, World of Wires couches its forward-looking philosophy perfectly in an idiom of theatrical futurism.


World of Wires plays at the Kitchen (512 West 19th Street), closing on January 21. Tickets?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Theater: New Shows (January 17-23)

The Gob Squad make like Anna Karina
at the Public in Kitchen

Despite the day off, it's a working week for the theater. I enjoyed the Gob Squad a few weeks ago in Super Night Shot, so I'm curious to see more from them. But I'm more excited about the audacious five-hour epic These Seven Sicknesses. The Flea Theater stages all seven masterpieces by the great Sophocles, inventor of the three-actor drama!

Russian Transport
where: Theater Row
first night: Tuesday, Jan. 17
'90s comic star Janeane Garofalo makes her legit stage debut in this family drama. A family of hard-working Russian immigrants, settled in Sheepshead Bay, reckons with a charismatic uncle from the old country. It's a rare appearance by the under-represented side of the modern Brooklyn experience.

where: Rattlestick Theater
first night: Wednesday, Jan. 18
It's hard to capture the grandeur of the American West inside a theater, but this show might have the right angle. It sounds like a crime thriller as well as a family drama: three brothers head into the snowy mountain night to bury a secret. Oddly, though titled Yosemite, it's set in the Sierra Nevadas...

Gob Squad's Kitchen
where: The Public Theater
first night: Thursday, Jan. 19
The Gob Squad, a puckish troupe of German and British performance artists, revives their 2011 look at Andy Warhol. With the provocative subtitle You've Never Had It So Good, this whimsical show reconstructs the raw films that the white-haired guru of pop made when his Factory was the hottest spot in New York's art scene.

A Hole in His Heart
where: Atlantic Stage 2
first night: Thursday, Jan. 19
Written by a young actor, Hole tackles the drive for fame and those who get left behind as success beckons. A charged reunion leads a young couple to re-examine the choices they've made and desires that drive them. Theatergoers interested in small, independent plays might be interested in this drama.

where: The Gym at Judson Memorial Church
first night: Thursday, Jan. 19
The two sides of a wall―protection vs. incarceration―is the theme of this futuristic-sounding drama. Two young men are “menders”, repairing the wall that keeps their city safe. They also enjoy the strange tales of the world beyond, until one is inspired to hop the fence.

Psycho Therapy
where: Cherry Lane Theater
first night: Thursday, Jan. 19
Lily's fiancé blows off couples therapy, so she brings an ex instead. Naturally, all three end up on the couch, in one permutation or another. Hopefully, the show's approach is more in the screwball style than squeaky clean like a modern romcom.

These Seven Sicknesses
where: The Flea Theater
first night: Thursday, Jan. 19
All seven of Sophocles' tragedies in one long, fun night. See Oedipus gouge his eyes out, hold your breath as Antigone get buried alive, and squirm as Odysseus refuses to bandage the suppurating wound of Philoctetes. Dinner is provided for this 5+ hour event―if you've still got your appetite!

Culturemart 2012
where: Here Arts Center
first night: Monday, Jan. 23
Here annually curates this festival of multidisciplinary performance. The selection, by its very design, is impossible to pigeonhole, so check out the full list and bravely select a piece that strikes a chord with you. I'm putting time aside for City Council Meeting, Keep Your Electric Eye on Me, and The Strangest.

Last chance!
where: Marquis Theater

where: Here Arts Center

Samuel and Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot Wars
where: The New Ohio Theater
where: Jacobs Theater

World of Wires
where: The Kitchen

photo credit: David Baltzer

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Sci-Fi Theater: Samuel & Alasdair

Samuel and Alasdair: A History of the Robot Wars
January 6, 2012

I'm a sucker for science-fiction onstage, and this month, I'm seeing several plays with sci-fi elements. The first, Samuel and Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot Wars, may wear its genre in its subtitle but it rejects genre clichés almost entirely. Instead, this show is a tidy piece of naturalism. The action takes place over a 75-minute broadcast of an old-style American variety show made at a Siberian AM radio station. A corny tale of teen brothers competing for the same girl gets interrupted by call-in trivia contests, classic country tunes, and house ads, but also by unsettling power outages and strange sonic feedback. Hints about the recent past coalesce into a version of robot apocalypse. In the alternate history of Samuel and Alasdair, atomic-era robots with death-ray eyes and telescoping limbs destroyed North America sometime in the 1950s.

The trope of a robot uprising is at least as old as the word “robot” itself. But the company, the Mad Ones, offers a fresh take on the modern myth, recounting the fate of humanity through the prism of a few hopeless souls. Conceived by writer/actors Marc Bovino and Joe Curnutte and director Lila Neugebauer, the show rations exposition carefully, describing just enough of the catastrophe outside the station to evoke a sense of global despair. Neugebauer stages the action with quiet minimalism, so that an unobtrusive gesture can tip an unspoken romantic triangle on its end. Her approach encourages the audience to listen carefully and watch actively―so that we notice, for instance, that the most sophisticated piece of technology onstage is a rotary phone. But despite the quiet melancholy, Samuel and Alasdair is holds us rapt. This is a superb, moving drama, and incidentally, poignant science-fiction.


Samuel and Alasdair: A Personal History of the Robot Wars plays at the New Ohio Theater (154 Christopher Street), closing on January 21. Tickets?