A Delicate Ship Review: Lyrical Triangle of Love, Sadness, Memory and Cheez Doodles

ADelicateShipDellapina,Silverman,WestrateOn Christmas Eve, Sarah and her new boyfriend Sam are enjoying each other’s company, engaging in a philosophical debate about the nature of suffering, when there is a knock on the door; Sarah’s childhood friend Nate is paying her an unexpected visit.

“What if we just hadn’t opened the door?” Sarah says to the audience. “I sometimes get trapped in the loop of that question. To this day, it can take hours to get out of that loop.”

In this way, playwright Anna Ziegler lets us know from the get-go that this one night will change the lives of all three characters.

DelicateShip3aBut the unfurling of that night in real time is just one layer in the Playwrights Realm lovely production of “A Delicate Ship,” featuring a terrific three-member cast. Another layer is made of the characters’ memories of that regretted night – and their memories during that night, and their hopes and predictions that night for the future…and memories of those hopes.  “A Delicate Ship” is a lyrical play with some of the rich intricacy and circumlocution of a poem. That’s a description, not a warning, although to appreciate Ziegler’s play, theatergoers should be open to spending time with the kind of characters who philosophize about suffering over glasses of wine on Christmas Eve, and ask one another “Are you happy?”

The quick and honest answer is no, they are not, but for different reasons and in different ways. On this particular night, Sarah (Miriam Silverman) is still mourning the death of her father earlier in the year. Sam (Matt Dellapina) , who has been weaned on depressing Russian writers, isn’t yet certain about anything – his talent, his career as a musician, his future with Sarah. Nate (Nick Westlake), one gathers, is doomed to unhappiness; his parents have told him he won’t grow up “because growing up means acknowledging that life isn’t perfect.”

Nate seems outright cheerful, however, when he barges in on this night, bearing gifts –a bottle of champagne, a joint, and “the biggest bag of Cheez Doodles I could find.” Sarah makes clear she doesn’t like Cheez Doodles. Nate suggests it’s more complicated than that: “In sixth grade, you ate Cheez Doodles every Tuesday and Thursday on your way home from ballet in the car service with your mom. Then you got sick of them and we made up a No-More-Cheez-Doodles dance that we performed for my babysitter and her sister who was visiting from Barbados and you haven’t had them since.”

“How do you remember that?” Sarah says.

One of the marvels of the interaction between Nate and Sarah is watching the reaction on Sam’s face. Dellapina is wonderful at reminding us of the awkward, irritating, familiar and funny experience of feeling left out in the company of two long-time friends reminiscing and reveling in each other’s company.

“Did you go out or something?” Sam finally asks.

“No,” Nate replies, “it’s much more serious than that.”

As we sensed all along, we eventually see that Nate’s visit is not just by happenstance. Not knowing but suspecting that he is up to something has been part of what keeps us engaged.

Director Margot Bordelon treats us to a lively pace for such a contemplative piece, and the actors are so good I never once had the urge to yell out “Oh, get over yourselves and go bowling.” (Well, maybe once.) But action and plot are not this play’s strong suit. This is a play about sorrow and memory, memory and sorrow, as striking and ceaseless and circular as those long, youthful late-night conversations you had with someone you thought you might love, and who might love you.

The key to unlocking “A Delicate Ship,” and its title, comes near the end when Sarah reads from W.H. Auden’s poem, “Musee Des Beaux Arts,” which is about the painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by Pieter Bruegel.

art-pieter-bruegel-the-elder-landscape-with-the-fall-of-icarus

Everybody in the painting is going about their business, oblivious to the boy in the right-hand corner who is drowning in the sea, having fallen from the sky. Even the “delicate ship” near the boy, Auden writes, “had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.” Suffering, Auden observes in the poem, takes place “while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.”
“It’s about what happens when no one is watching,” Sarah says.
“And how the world moves on,” Sam adds. They both are explaining the poem, and the painting, and the play they’re in.

A Delicate Ship
Playwrights Realm at Peter Sharp Theater (416 West 42nd Street)
By Anna Ziegler
Directed by Margot Bordelon

Reid Thompson (Scenic Design), Sydney Maresca (Costume Design), Nicole Pearce (Lighting Design) and Palmer Hefferan (Sound Design). Alyssa K. Howard, Production Stage Manager

Cast: Matt Dellapina as Sam, Miriam Silverman as Sarah and NickWestrate as Nate.

Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission.
Tickets: $25-$35. (Rush tickets for $10)

The Delicate Ship is scheduled to play through September 12, 2015

Whorl Inside a Loop Review: Lessons from Prison Inmates for a Broadway Star

 Ryan Quinn Sherie Rene Scott Nicholas Christopher


Ryan Quinn
Sherie Rene Scott
Nicholas Christopher

Sherie Rene Scott’s new play at Second Stage Theater, about an actress teaching a class of murderers at a men’s prison, recalls in at least one unfortunate way her Second Stage show of half a dozen years ago, “Everyday Rapture,” which had a brief Broadway run. “Rapture,” which Scott co-wrote with Dick Scanlan and Michael Mayer directed, was a musical starring Scott inspired by Scott’s real-life journey from her Mennonite childhood in Kansas to her career as “one of Broadway’s biggest, brightest semi-stars.”  “Whorl Inside a Loop,” also co-written by Dick Scanlan and directed by Michael Mayer, is a straight play inspired by Scott’s work with male inmates at Woodbourne Correctional Facility in upstate New York, via an organization called Rehabilitation Through the Arts. “Whorl Inside a Loop” showcases the impressive talents of a half-dozen other actors, who portray not just the inmates in orange jumpsuits but at least two (and as many as four) other characters apiece, white and black, male and female. Yet to a surprising and disconcerting degree, “Whorl,” like “Rapture,” revolves around Sherie Rene Scott.

Now, there is much that is admirable and even heart-warming about the play and the story behind the play. Five of the participants in Scott’s Woodbourne workshop are getting credit in “Whorl” for “additional material,” and their participation reportedly helped get most of them paroled.

Yet, the creative team more or less manages to turn the inmates into supporting players in what should be their story.

Scott portrays a character who is called only “The Volunteer.” She is not literally Scott herself, but she is a Broadway actress who shares much of her persona. The bulk of the 100-minute running time is taken up with this character – her interaction with prison personnel, her initial fear of her students (which is presented humorously), her conversations with her friends and co-workers in the theater and with her husband about her experience in the class, and one odd scene talking about prisons with a comically cautious Hillary Clinton, whom she meets through her hairdresser. (Chris Myers portrays Clinton, just one of his five stand-out portrayals, which include one of the inmates, the volunteer’s young son, and a nun.)

The volunteer is not presented as a saint; there is a revelation, hinted at early on, that she has a crime in her own past, for which she is teaching as part of her sentence of community service. But she is made the center, the character with the funny bits, the one with whom the audience is expected to identify. Even after we get down to business – the monologues the inmates create about their lives — the play’s focus soon shifts to the volunteer’s decision to write a play for an outside audience that incorporates the inmates’ stories, with some characters debating the ethics of doing this. One could most charitably call this meta noodling a fresh take on a prison drama; one of Scott and Scanlan’s aims, Scott explained in a recent interview, was to explore “prisons of all kinds that were happening around us—prisons of race, of sex, of sexuality, of marriages, of work, people’s own emotional prisons.”  Even if that aim were more effectively realized in the finished play, turning other people’s difficult lives into a metaphorical lesson for your personal growth can, to put it uncharitably, smack of slick self-indulgence.

The approach strikes me as less than ideal, because the stories the inmates tell on the stripped-down stage deserve to be heard. They are moving precisely to the extent that they are unpolished. Rick (Nicholas Christopher) tells the story of seeing his friend attack a prison official because the official wouldn’t let him attend his mother’s funeral – and how this awful moment persuaded Rick to stop getting high. Jeffrey (Chris Myers) offers his monologue about his mother’s discovery that she was HIV positive. Bey (Donald Webber Jr., who also does an effective turn as the female warden) recalls how as a four-year-old in the South, a local sheriff handcuffed him, apparently as a joke. “Years later, this memory hits me. In my cell, trying to make sense of it. I’ve been in prison for 20 years. I shot a cop. Was it fate?” Many of the stories that the characters have shaped into monologues, as their assignment for the volunteer’s class, “Theatricalizing the Personal Narrative,” are not explicitly about criminal life or prison life, and that is a large part of their appeal, and the most memorable point of the play. That point is underscored by the play’s title. While taking her prints, a prison guard (Derrick Baskin), who seems to be something of a palm reader, notices that the volunteer has six whorls on her hands, which is unusual, and that one is almost inside a loop; if it were inside the loop, he says, that would have been a Peacock’s Eye. People who have a Peacock Eye, he says, are characterized as “loyal, loving, trustworthy, capable of extreme acts of kindness” – AND “also manipulative, amoral, narcissistic, sociopathic with criminal tendencies.” The volunteer insists she has a Peacock’s Eye, and that you can’t have both good and bad characteristics at the same time; “it’s either/or.” By the end of the play, she learns that you can.

What’s good about “Whorl Inside a Loop,” especially the acting, would make its self-indulgent aspects matter less, if the show weren’t entering a theatrical landscape already dotted with well-done prison dramas, most notable among them plays created and performed by ex-inmates. “The Bullpen”, a solo show by former inmate Joseph Assadourian portraying 18 characters, will complete a year-long Off-Broadway run Saturday at the Playroom Theater. Another play, “The Castle,” features four members of the Fortune Society, a service and advocacy organization for the formerly incarcerated, who tell their own life stories. That play ran Off-Broadway at New World Stages for about a year, and has been performed continuously in schools, prisons, and courthouses ever since. Even “Orange Is The New Black,” the Netflix series which began three seasons ago as an adaptation of the memoir by ex inmate Piper Kerman, has moved beyond the safe, supposedly crowd-pleasing choice to center its drama around a good-looking, upper middle class blonde.

Whorl Inside A Loop

At Second Stage Theater

Written by Dick Scanlan and Sherie Rene Scott

With additional material by Milton Jones, Andre Kelley, Marvin Lewis, Felix Macado, Richard Norat, and Jeffrey Rivera.

Directed by Michael Mayer and Dick Scanlan

Cast: Derrick Baskin (Sunnyside), Nicholas Christopher (Rick), Chris Myers (Jeffrey), Ryan Quinn (Source), Sherie Rene Scott, Daniel J. Watts (Flex), Donald Webber, Jr. (Bey)

Runtime: 100 minutes with no intermission

Tickets: $64 to $125

Broadway Poll: Which Fall 2015 Show Most Excites You?

Below are a list of 18 shows scheduled to open on Broadway from September 2015 to January, 2016, organized chronologically by opening date.  Pick the one that most excites you. For information on the shows, see my Broadway Fall 2015 preview guide

Love and Money Review: A.R. Gurney’s New Play About A Feisty Rich WASP

 Maureen Anderman Gabriel Brown


Maureen Anderman
Gabriel Brown

“Love and Money,” A.R. Gurney’s latest comedy about WASPs, is as deep as dust, and no more solid, but as dust goes, it’s a fine light powder, ground by a craftsman who’s been at it for some four decades, and it’s more likely to tickle than to irritate.

In a brownstone on the Upper East Side, Cornelia Cunningham (Maureen Anderman) is packing up for a move to a fancy retirement community that she insists on calling a nursing home. At the same time, she is writing checks with a lot of zeroes; she has decided to give away all her considerable wealth to charity.

This does not sit well with her longtime law firm, which sends over Harvey (Joe Paulik), a young lawyer who might have better luck than her usual attorney in making her see reason. He introduces himself.

Cornelia: And your specialty is difficult old ladies?
Harvey: My specialty is Trusts and Estates.
Cornelia: I once knew a lawyer whose specialty was Murders and Impositions.
Harvey: I think you mean Mergers and Acquisitions, Mrs. Cunningham.

 Eventually, Harvey gets to the point: She might have trouble giving away all her money to charity, because her two grandchildren could contest it (her two children are dead.) And, Harvey says, his firm just received a registered letter from somebody claiming to be her third grandchild. Shortly after Harvey’s announcement, the young man suddenly appears at the brownstone, having traveled all the way from his and Cornelia’s (and Gurney’s) hometown of Buffalo. Walker Williams (Gabriel Brown) turns out to be African-American; he claims his father had a secret affair with Cornelia’s daughter.

Harvey is convinced that Walker is a con man, and frankly, any sensible theatergoer would share Harvey’s skepticism, even those who haven’t seen John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation.” Gurney does little to eliminate our suspicions. Walker’s evidence is flimsy, his explanations are full of holes, he is well spoken to the point of slickness, and he is upfront about his interest in money – he says he’s normally called Scott, a nickname his high school teacher gave him because of his love for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”

Scott: Fitzgerald was a great writer.
Cornelia: I’ll tell you this, my friend. He loved to write about money.
Scott: That’s exactly why I went for the guy. That’s why my teacher called me Scott.
Cornelia: Because you like money too?
Scott: I do. I go for it big time.

Without our willingness to believe Scott’s claim of familial connection, the plot of “Love and Money” is something of a bust. More fruitful is the theme – that money is a curse — one , Cornelia says, “that specifically affects my particular tribe,” by which she means White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (At one point, she agrees with Harvey’s suggestion that she’s a “self-hating WASP.”) It’s because of their wealth, Cornelia maintains, that both her children died young, and that both her grandchildren are spoiled. The stories she tells to back up her assertion (with the aid of her blunt-speaking long-time maid, Agnes) sometimes persuasively buttress her argument; sometimes they feel like a stretch. In either case, they offer little new nor especially insightful.

Gurney could also easily be accused of handling the issue of race too glibly:

Scott: Are you mad she had a major love affair with a black man?
Cornelia: Mad? I’m thrilled! And jealous! The closest I’ve ever come to an affair with a black man is to vote for Obama.

Yet if “Love and Money” is trivial, it is also convivial. The clue to how we’re supposed to take this play is in the couple of suave, bubbly Cole Porter songs Gurney somewhat oddly works into the show (Cornelia is giving away her piano to Juilliard, and a student, Jessica, comes by to try it out.) Anderman is delightful as what used to be called a character, somebody easily mistaken for dotty, but who has actually become wiser and more open-minded with the years, and more willing to speak her mind.

At one point, Cornelia holds up a waste paper basket that looks like an elephant’s foot. “This was originally owned and operated by a majestic African elephant. It was shot by my late husband on his last hunting trip.” She uses the waste basket as a reminder of mankind’s cruelty to animals. Michael Yeargan’s meticulous set design is matched by Gurney’s precision with the English language. Both make the play fun to take in from moment to moment, even though those moments don’t ultimately add up to one of the playwright’s best works.

As I wrote in a profile of A.R. Gurney last year, “Love and Money” is the final, and only new, play in Gurney’s year of residency at the Signature Center, which coincided with a Broadway revival of his “Love Letters,” after the playwright’s 25-year absence from The Great White Way.  Quick to follow is the revival of his “Sylvia,” which when it opens on October 15th will be only the fifth production on Broadway by this author of some 50 plays. At age 84, Gurney has lived to see his work, and his reputation, dusted off and presented anew.


Love and Money

The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues)
by A.R. Gurney
Directed by Mark Lamos
Michael Yeargan (Scenic Design), Jess Goldstein (Costume Design), Stephen Strawbridge (Lighting Design), John Gromada (Sound Design).
Cast: Maureen Anderman as Cornelia Cunningham, Gabriel Brown as Walker “Scott” Williams, Pamela Dunlap as Agnes Munger, Kahyun Kim as Jessica Worth and Joe Paulik as Harvey Abel.
Running time: 75 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $25 until September 27; $55 after
Love and Money is scheduled to run until October 4, 2015

#Ham4Ham Expands. Hedwig Halts. #Desnudas Daunt. New Season Stings. Week in New York Theater

SpringAwakeningHam4Ham#Ham4Ham, the name for the five-minute performances during the lottery drawings for the Broadway musical Hamilton, began last month with Lin-Manuel Miranda rapping, and roping in other cast members. Now, cast members from other Broadway shows are guest starring – Les Miz, Spring Awakening, Fun Home. Is this the birth of a new theatrical…genre?

In the Heights Reunion

Les Miserables

Spring Awakening

Fun Home

(#Ham4Ham is hip shorthand for the lottery because the winners pay only ten dollars — Hamilton is the face on the ten dollar bill — to see the musical Hamilton.)

BroadwayWeek2015

Broadway Week

Week in New York Theater Reviews

"Informed Consent" at Primary Stages
My review of Informed Consent

At a time when it seems that every other new TV series (Extant, Humans, Mr. Robot, Fear the Walking Dead) can be read as a cautionary tale about the dangers of science and technology, “Informed Consent” offers a more sophisticated look at a whole host of issues raised by its specific scientific focus. The play makes an impressive attempt to present each side of the dispute with respect. It also gives us a glimpse into the implications of the extraordinary advances in genome research — what our DNA can tell us about our history and, increasingly, our future….But for all the fascination inherent in the subject, playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer and director Liesl Tommy’s approach undermines the story in two major ways.

Full review of Informed Consent

MercuryFur1

My review of Mercury Fur

The horrific future conjured in “Mercury Fur” – a world piled high with atrocities ranging from the killing of zoo animals to random decapitations to child torture – is clearly meant to shock. But what is unexpected in the New Group’s revival of Philip Ridley’s 2005 dystopian fantasy is how tedious it is.

Full review of Mercury Fur

Week in New York Theater News

‪Hedwig and the Angry Inch is‪ closing September 13, after 22 previews,506 regular performances, and six Hedwigs ‬

The Painted Ladies of Times Square

desnudas

Although there is more nudity on Broadway stages than on Broadway, the mayor and the police commissioner, goaded by several days of front-page headlines in the Daily News, are determined to do something about the dozen or so women who call themselves #Desnudas and parade around in the Times Square plazas wearing little more than body paint.
“I’d prefer to dig the whole damn thing up and put it back the way it was”-NYPD Commissioner Bratton on Times Square pedestrian plazas

New York Theatre Workshop will offer tickets for $25  for the first two performances of every show, starting September 11 with Elevator Repair Service’s Fondly Collette Richland.

paramourlogo

 

It’s conquered Vegas and the world, now Cirque de Soleil plans to take over Broadway’s Lyric (where On The Town is running until September 6), with a new show called “Paramour,” which opens in June. Cirque’s description of its show, in true carnival barker tradition:

Paramourtext

 

Hold On To Me Darling, a new Kenneth Lonergan play about a country-western star who tries to give up his fame, will be at the Atlantic Theater in February.

Desire

Six playwrights, including John Guare and Beth Henley,  dramatize Tennessee Williams short stories in Desire, the first play of ‪the 59E59 season. It opens September 10.

RussellTovey

Joining the cast of A View from the Bridge on Broadway: ‪Looking’s ‪Russell Tovey as Rodolpho. It opens Nov 12.

MTCseason
New MTC Season Provokes Protest

Fool For Love by Sam Shepard, October 8 to December 6
Sam Rockwell and Nina Arianda
Two lovers holed up in a seedy motel on the edge of the Mojave Desert (

Ripcord by David Lindsay-Abaire, opens October 20
Holland Taylor, Marylouise Burke, and Rachel Dratch. David Hyde Pierce directs
Two rivals vie for a choice room in an assisted living facility

Important Hats of the 20th Century by Nick Jones, opens November 25
Directed by Moritz Von Stuelpnagel (Hand to God)
a cutthroat rivalry between milliners in 1930s New York.

Our Mother’s Brief Affair by Richard Greenberg, opens January 20
Linda Lavin. Directed by MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow
A woman makes a startling confession on her deathbed.

Prodigal Son by John Patrick Shanley, opens February 9
Robert Sean Leonard. Shanley directs
A brilliant, troubled young man from the Bronx at a New Hampshire private school.

The Father by Florian Zeller, opens Apr. 12
Frank Langella. Directed by Doug Hughes
A trip through the mind of a man who may be a retired dancer or an engineer, and who may be visited by family or by strangers

Incognito by Nick Payne, Opens May 24
The stories of a pathologist, a seizure patient, and a neuropsychologist intertwine mysteriously.

When this season was announced, there was much criticism on social media about its lack of diversity

 

 

– which was picked up by the New York Times.

“These are really respected artists,”Zakiyyah Alexander, a member of the Kilroys, was quoted as saying. “It’s not their fault that they have been put in the position to only be surrounded by white male playwrights.”

 

MTC added an eighth show to their season:
The Ruins of Civilization by Penelope Skinner, with Lila Neugebauer slated to direct.

 

I’d like to end on a personal note

 

Mercury Fur review: A Vile, Violent Future In An Atrocious Play

Jack DiFalco and Zane Pais in Mercury Fur

Jack DiFalco and Zane Pais in Mercury Fur

The horrific future conjured in “Mercury Fur” – a world piled high with atrocities ranging from the killing of zoo animals to random decapitations to child torture – is clearly meant to shock. But what is unexpected in the New Group’s revival of Philip Ridley’s 2005 dystopian fantasy is how tedious it is.

Critics were fiercely divided over the original production in England, where it became a hit and went on to be produced around the world, including three times Off-Off Broadway. The New Group has chosen the play as the first production of its new season.

On the surface, “Mercury Fur” tells the story of two teenage brothers, Elliot (Zane Pais) and the younger Darren (Jack DiFalco), who break into an abandoned apartment, in order to put together the latest “party” organized by their gang leader Spinx (Sea McHale.) It quickly becomes clear that these are not normal parties – they are meant to make real the sickest, most violent fantasies of their rich clients.

But their activity hardly stands out in a New York City (transposed from the original London setting) that has gone completely to hell, with nobody apparently in charge, gangs rioting and killing, institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Bronx Zoo destroyed, history and individual memory obliterated. There are snippets of explanation for how this apocalypse came about: There was some kind of invasion, and perhaps a natural calamity that brought both sand and hallucinogenic butterflies, which, when ingested, provide temporary escape and permanent brain damage.

Over the course of the two hours (without intermission) of “Mercury Fur,” we piece together the relationships among the half-dozen characters who enter the apartment, realize that they are intimately connected, and that we are meant to understand that the horrible things they do are out of love and loyalty to one another, to help each other survive. Most charitably, then, we can interpret the play as a look at what happens to love during a holocaust.

We might also see the monologues full of graphic violence, and dialogue replete with in-your-face vulgarity and ethnic slurs, as the playwright’s effort to show us the breakdown of language in the absence of civil society.

But “Mercury Fur” demands a visceral reaction far more than it allows an intellectual one. The violence throughout most of the play is talked about, rather than staged, but what the characters say does violence to the English language in deeply off-putting ways. To pick a mild example: Darren, Elliot says, is hanging around Elliot’s “fucking ankles like a million miles of machine-gunned afterbirth.” That phrase, “machine-gunned afterbirth,” is repeated a couple of times. Are we meant to understand this as an example of the character’s poverty of expression, or is it the playwright’s? Does it much matter which it is, when you have to sit through so many of such bankrupt phrases?

Even more alienating is the use of an actual child actor as “the Party Piece” – the person whom the “Party Guest” has paid to torture and kill – who looks no older than 10. (The actor, says his Who’s Who, “will attend the Hammarskjold Middle School in the fall.”)

With that single exception, director Scott Elliott has chosen his cast wisely. They are talented and sexy. The always reliable Derek McLane has created a set that seems to envelope the audience at the Signature theater; with graffiti on the walls behind us, and stuffed armchairs for seats in the front rows inches away from two sides of the small stage, we are made to feel as if we are in the apartment with the characters.

The high production values, however, do little to offset the numbing effect of what could arguably be labeled soft-core gore porn. By the time the relentless violent talk finally turned to violent action – lots of blood and gunshots – I had long before turned off and tuned out.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged

Mercury Fur
The New Group at the Signature Center’s Romulus Linney Courtyard Theater
by Philip Ridley
directed by Scott Elliott
Cast: Jack DiFalco, Bradley Fong, Paul Iacono, Peter Mark Kendall, Emily Cass McDonnell, Sea McHale, Zane Pais, Tony Revolori

Scenic Design Derek McLane Costume Design Susan Hilferty Lighting Design Jeff Croiter Sound Design M.L. Dogg
Special Effects Design Jeremy Chernick Fight Direction UnkleDave’s Fight-House
Running time: Two hours, no intermission
Ticket prices: $27.00 – $97.00
“Mercury Fur” is scheduled to run through September 27, 2015

Informed Consent Review: Science As Threat or Salvation

 DeLanna Studi as Arella and Tina Benko as Jillian in Informed Consent

DeLanna Studi as Arella and Tina Benko as Jillian in Informed Consent

When she was a child, says Arella, a Native American character in the play “Informed Consent,” “I’d hear about, ‘the white man did this and the white man did that.’ I thought there was one white man and he did all these terrible things. Like, if they had just locked up that awful white man everything would have been great.”

By the end of “Informed Consent,” Arella and the rest of her tribe believe that one awful (albeit well-meaning) white woman has done a terrible thing.

Arella is one of the surviving members of a tribe that lives at the floor of the Grand Canyon in the play by Deborah Zoe Laufer that is inspired by a true event, the conflict between the Havasupai Tribe and scientific researchers at Arizona State University. It is a dramatization in equal parts admirable and troubling.

Arella’s nemesis is Jillian, a genetic anthropologist at a local college, who is asked to test the tribe to see if there is a genetic link that explains their unusually high incidence of diabetes. She persuades them to give samples of their blood, something they have never done before, because they view their blood as sacred. When they discover that Jillian has used the samples to conduct studies outside of one strictly for diabetes, the tribe reacts in anger, saying they did not consent to any other studies, and that such studies conflict with their ancient traditions and beliefs. They file a lawsuit to get their blood back.

InformedConsentTinaBenkoAt a time when it seems that every other new TV series (Extant, Humans, Mr. Robot, Fear the Walking Dead) can be read as a cautionary tale about the dangers of science and technology, “Informed Consent” offers a more sophisticated look at a whole host of issues raised by its specific scientific focus. The play makes an impressive attempt to present each side of the dispute with respect. It also gives us a glimpse into the implications of the extraordinary advances in genome research — what our DNA can tell us about our history and, increasingly, our future. Against a set design that includes simulated cells and genetic codes, the performers drop into the play some fascinating food for thought:

“There is a single mutation in the genes of every one of us that we can trace back to one woman in Africa, only 150,000 years ago. “

“All humans are 99.9 percent the same genetically….Only .1 percent different.”

“Race isn’t biological. There are no genes that indicate race…..All of the things we see as race are about migratory patterns.”

But for all the fascination inherent in the subject, Laufer and director Liesl Tommy’s approach undermines the story in two major ways.

Laufer has said she did extensive research for her play, visiting the tribe in the Grand Canyon, and working in a genetics lab. But “Informed Consent” avoids the real names (even of the college), and for good reason; there are deliberate fabrications. The playwright, for example, adds an extra layer to Jillian’s biography: Jillian’s mother died from early-onset Alzheimer’s, Jillian herself has the genetic marker that indicates the likelihood of the disease, and she fears her four-year-old daughter Natalie might have it too. This creates a conflict between Jillian and her husband Graham, who doesn’t want Natalie to be tested, or, if tested, not told the test results – a lengthy subplot that both underscores one of the central themes of the play (Can knowledge be a bad thing?) and gives Jillian a motivation for her ambition and impatience: She wants to make her mark in science before she loses her capacity to do so.

There is no early-onset Alzheimer’s in the biography of the actual researcher at the center of the controversy, Therese Ann Markow, who now holds the Amlyn Chair in Life Sciences at the University of California, San Diego. Such fiddling around makes “Informed Consent” factually untrustworthy. If the playwright wanted a story that served up more drama than the actual one in Arizona, or that provided a better vehicle to explore multiple themes, why not create a wholly new story, shorn of the recognizable details of this specific case? As it is, Laufer’s fabrications are somewhat ironic, given Jillian’s oft-stated search for the unadorned truth, and especially troublesome in light of accusations that the news accounts that turned Laufer on to the controversy in the first place were themselves overblown (“Is the Havasupai Indian Case a Fairy Tale?”)

“Informed Consent” is cast with the familiar New York actors Pun Bandhu (Wit) as Jillian’s husband Graham and Tina Benko in the role of Jillian, as well as New York newcomer DeLanna Studi as Arella. (Studi also portrays Jillian’s four-year-old daughter Natalie.) Benko has performed in such adventurous fare as Ivo Van Hove’s production of “Scenes from a Marriage,” and Julie Taymor’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and one senses that the “Informed Consent” team wants to be seen as theatrically bold as well.  In the cast of five, three (all except Bandhu and Benko) portray as many as four different characters apiece, with an obvious effort at non-traditional casting – a reflection of the geneticist’s view of race as a social construct. Way too often this multiple casting is outright confusing. It doesn’t help that the individual actors occasionally perform as a kind of chaotic chorus; now and then one interrupts a main character to tell them they’re digressing with an irrelevant (and longwinded) story. This seems tied up with another one of the main themes the playwright is presenting – how each of us is a storyteller who wants to tell our story our own way. Who gets to tell their story is a complex issue wrapped up in power and politics.

The bombardment of multiple themes and theatrical noodling is surely meant to keep the audience engaged, but ultimately has the opposite effect. This is too bad, since so much that the creative team attempts in “Informed Consent,”a joint production of Primary Stages and the Ensemble Studio Theater, is something new and important, from the straightforward depiction of contemporary Native Americans to a serious exploration of science that involves not a single android malfunction nor zombie apocalypse.

Informed Consent

At the Duke at 42nd Street

Written by Deborah Zoe Laufer

Directed by Liesl Tommy

Scenic Design by Wilson Chin, Costume Design by Jacob A. Climer, Lighting Design by Matthew Richards, Original Music and Sound Design by Broken Chord, Projection Design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, Casting by Stephanie Klapper Casting.

Cast: Pun Bandhu, Tina Benko, Jesse J. Perez , DeLanna Studi, Myra Lucretia Taylor

Running time: 95 minutes

Tickets: $70

Informed Consent is set to run through September 13, 2015

Fringe Rules. Spring Awakening Sneak Peek. Disney Snags Lin-Manuel Miranda. Week in New York Theater

Fringe2015logos

After 19 years of the New York International Fringe Festival, which runs this year until August 30, certain Rules for Fringing have emerged (or are they just habits?)
1. First, see shows your friends are in (or wrote.)
No matter how bad the show, it isn’t a waste: You’ve shown support and created goodwill.
2. Avoid anything longer than an hour
I’ve seen worthwhile theater at the Fringe that was longer, but not often. This may be in part because theater artists who go longer are misreading the tone of the festival; if they can misread that, what else are they clueless about?
3. Rely on the kindness of strangers. Ask people on line with you for one Fringe show to recommend at least one other they’ve seen and liked.
4. Go to one of the free Fringe previews, brief scenes from some half dozen shows
5. Angie Fiedler Sutton says: Pick something out of your comfort zone: you may end up surprised.
6. Be on time. There is no late seating. They really mean this.

Watch video previews of seven of this year’s shows.

The Week in New York Theater Reviews

Georgia Engel as Mertis Katherine Graven, Christopher Abbott as Elias Schreiber-Hoffman & Lois Smith as Genevieve Marduk

Georgia Engel as Mertis Katherine Graven, Christopher Abbott as Elias Schreiber-Hoffman & Lois Smith as Genevieve Marduk

My review of John

Christopher Abbott and Hong Chau in a darkened bed and breakfast in Gettysburg

Christopher Abbott as Elias Schreiber-Hoffman Hong Chau as Jenny Chung in “John”

A couple visits a dark, possibly haunted bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pa. in “John,” an exquisitely acted puzzle of a play that features some familiar TV faces — Georgia Engel (Georgette in The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and Christopher Abbott (Charlie, Allison Williams’ boyfriend, in HBO’s Girls.) But “John” also marks the sixth collaboration between playwright Annie Baker and director Sam Gold, and that’s the source of its star power for serious theatergoers. Their new play, which serves as opener for the Signature’s 25th season, shares some of the characteristics of Baker and Gold’s previous work together, beginning with “Circle Mirror Transformation” in 2009 and including last year’s Pulitzer-winning “The Flick.” An accumulation of seemingly random scenes — deceptively casual, slyly amusing, leisurely paced — yields precisely observed moments of clarity and insight. In an Annie Baker/Sam Gold production, texture trumps text, and vivid, fully credible characters slowly emerge before our eyes.
Unlike her previous work, however, “John” seems to be aiming to be some kind of ghost story, but winds up falling short of any kind of fully realized drama. It comes off instead like an exercise in theatrical pointillism – like George Seurat focusing on the small dots that make up such paintings as his “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” – without as much concern that the dots add up to a clear and satisfying overall picture.
Full review

The Week in New York Theater News

Jessie Mueller in Waitress

Jessie Mueller in Waitress

Waitress, a musical currently at A.R.T. in Cambridge, will open at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theater in April 2016‬. Starring Jessie Mueller (Beautiful), directed by Diane Paulus (Hair, Pippen), with music and lyrics by Sara Bareilles, Waitress is based upon the motion picture written by Adrienne Shelly: Jenna, a waitress and expert pie maker, is stuck in a small town and a loveless marriage. When a baking contest in a nearby county offers her a chance at escape, Jenna must choose between her commitments and her dreams

DearEvanHansen

Dear Evan Hansen, a hit in D.C., will open at Second Stage Theater in the Spring.
The original musical tells the story of a lonely teenager who, through a misunderstanding, is embraced as the only friend of a classmate who has committed suicide. With music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (A Christmas Story, Dogfight), Dear Evan Hansen has a book by Steven Levenson, (“Master of Sex,” “The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin” and “The Language of Trees”)
and direction by Michael Greif (“Rent,” “Grey Gardens,” “Next to Normal”) Specific dates or casting have not been announced.
,

‪Radiohead‪’s Thom Yorke will compose original music for Roundabout’s Broadway production of Harold Pinter’s play Old Times, which opens October 6‬

Robert Sean Leonard (House) will return to the New York stage in ‪John Patrick Stanley’s Prodigal Son, with Timothee Chalamet as the gifted bad boy. It opens February 9

Billy Porter will depart ‪Kinky Boots on November 20, to be replaced by Wayne Brady, an actor, comedian and game show host who was previously on Broadway for two months in 2004 as Billy Flynn in Chicago.

Disney hired Broadwayites for two animated films
Gigantic (Jack & the beanstalk plot) –  the husband-wife “Frozen” team Bobby Lopez ‪and Kris Anderson-Lopez.
Moana (“a spirited teenager who sails out on a daring mission to fulfill her ancestors’ unfinished quest. She meets the once-mighty demi-god Maui (voice of Dwayne Johnson) – ‪Lin-Manuel Miranda

the-wiz-live-common-ne-yo

Joining ‪The Wiz on ‪NBC Dec 3: Common (as the Bouncer, the gatekeeper of the entrance to Emerald City) ‪Ne-Yo (as the Tin Man), and Elijah Kelly (as the Scarecrow)

The Week in Sneak Peek Videos

SpringAwakeningBryantPark

Spring Awakening

DAMES AT SEA - three ladies

Dames at Sea

JackieHoffmanatBryantPark

Once Upon a Mattress – Jackie Hoffman singing “Shy”

DaddyLongLegsstars

Daddy Long Legs

The Week in Miscellaneous

Uggie at the Academy Awards

Uggie at the Academy Awards

Coy obituary for Uggie the actor/dog

Yet another article about the curse of the cell phone – this time backstage as well

 

KingandIBryantPark

Watch three videos from The King And I

 

Daddy Long Legs: Watch “The Secret of Happiness”

DaddyLongLegs

Megan McGinnis (Les Miz, Beauty and the Beast, etc.) sings “The Secret of Happiness,” and she and Paul Alexander Nolan (Once, the best thing about Dr. Zhivago) sing “Color of Your Eyes” from the two-character musical Daddy Long Legs, which has taken six years to travel the world before it arrives in New York, where it will open September 27 at the Davenport Theater.

Here is a description of the musical, based on the 1912 epistolary novel by Jean Webster, adapted by John Caird (book) and Paul Gordon (music): “Jerusha Abbott, a talented orphan is sent to a prestigious college by an anonymous benefactor who insists on two conditions. That she writes to him once a month and that she never knows his name – she knows him only as Daddy Long Legs.”

DaddyLongLegsstars

The King and I: Watch New King Jose Llana, Betsy Morgan, Ruthie Ann Miles Sing

KingandIBryantPark

The fifth Broadway production of The King and I, has a new king — Jose LLana, who returned last month to the musical where he made his Broadway debut 19 years ago, at age 19, as the doomed lover Lun Tha. Now, in his seventh Broadway show, he is starring opposite Kelli O’Hara as King Mongkut of Siam in the early 1860s. Watch him below singing “A Puzzlement.”

Ruthie Ann Miles, who made her Broadway debut this year in The King And I as Lun Tha’s lover Lady Thiang, won a Tony Award for her role, one of four Tonys for the production, including Best Musical Revival. Here she sings “Something Wonderful.”

Betsy Morgan, who is Kelli O’Hara’s standby as Anna Leonowens, the British tutor to the King’s children, here sings “Hello, Young Lovers.”

They were all performing at the last Broadway in Bryant Park concert of 2015, on August 13th.

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