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Favorite New York Stage Performances of 2014

“As an actor, you’re often the most visible part of a project while having the least amount of say over its final form,” James Franco said recently.  Although at the time he was making both his Broadway acting debut and his Off-Broadway directorial debut, he was talking about movie actors.  Stage actors have it better, artistically that is — not in monetary compensation or recognition.

So here are some of the New York stage performances in 2014 that deserve more recognition.

The individual performers are listed alphabetically, but let’s begin with some noteworthy ensembles.

Jose Joaquin Perez, Jason Bowen, Brian Quijada and Reza Salazar as busboys in "My Manana Comes"

Jose Joaquin Perez, Jason Bowen, Brian Quijada and Reza Salazar as busboys in “My Manana Comes”

The four actors who portrayed busboys at an Upper East Side restaurant in Elizabeth Irwin’s My Mañana Comes – Jason Bowen, Jose Joaquin Perez, Brian Quijada, Reza Salazar – achieved a level of synchronicity that was a pleasure to watch, while at the same time each performer communicated both his character’s particular struggles and the tensions among the group.

Liza Fernandez, Annie Henk and Lisa Ramirez working in the poultry plant

Liza Fernandez, Annie Henk and Lisa Ramirez working in the poultry plant

Similarly, the performers in Lisa Ramirez’s To The Bone, play characters who have attained a machine-line efficiency both in their jobs in an upstate chicken factory and in the house they share unhappily together, but they never let us lose sight of their individual humanity. As one character observes, there is an order “that is much like a heart- an artificial heart – borne out of necessity- but functioning nonetheless.” So kudos to Dan Domingues, Liza Fernandez, Annie Henk, Paola Lazaro-Munoz, Lisa Ramirez, Gerardo Rodriguez, Xochitl Romero, Haynes Thigpen

Zach Braff and Nick Cordero perform from Bullets Over Broadway in Bryant Park shortly before the show closes on Broadway

Zach Braff and Nick Cordero perform from Bullets Over Broadway in Bryant Park shortly before the show closes on Broadway

Nick Cordero, the best thing by far in Bullets Over Broadway, played Cheech, a 1920s thug who turns out to be a brilliant playwright. Cordero turned out to be a terrific song-and-dance man

Brian Dennehy and Mia Farrow photo2 by Carol Rosegg

Appearing on a Broadway stage after an absence of 35 years, Mia Farrow felt ideally cast as Brian Dennehy’s half-century love interest in Love Letters. With her translucent beauty and educated diction, she seemed believably rooted in the upper crust enclave in which the character is raised, but which never serves her well. Farrow ranges from flighty to flirty to fragile, with a suggestion of great feeling – much of it all the more communicated, paradoxically, because it is not expressed on the surface.

James Iglehart in Aladdin

Whatever the billing, the star of “Aladdin” is its genie, James Monroe Iglehart, a worthy heir to a role originated on film by Robin Williams. A winner of a 2014 Tony Award for his performance, Iglehart morphs from showbiz master of ceremonies to carnival barker to infomercial huckster to game show host to Cab Calloway-like zoot-suiter to disco dj to hip-hopper in a Hawaiian shirt, to yes, a sparkling-suited magical genie who emerges amid smoke from a little lamp.

When he appeared in “Memphis,” he had a relatively small part as an oversized janitor who becomes a sexy singing sensation (nods to Chubby Checkers.) Shaking and rocking it to the roof in a song called “Big Love,” he delivered a showstopper. It is too much to say he is the show in “Aladdin,” but he certainly gives – and deserves – some big love.

Red Velvet4AdrianLesterbyTristram_KentonIn honoring Adrian Lester‘s mesmerizing turn in “Red Velvet,” a play written by his wife Lolita Chakrabarti, we also pay homage to the real-life character he is portraying, Ira Aldridge, a native New Yorker who left the United States as a teenager in order to pursue a career on stage, becoming a successful actor throughout Europe, specializing in Shakespearean roles. To put this in perspective: When Aldridge played Othello in London, they were still debating whether it was a good thing to end slavery in the British colonies.
LadyDay4

Praising a stage performance by Audra McDonald – who won a record-breaking sixth competitive Tony Award for portraying Billie Holliday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill – is a bit like praising bread, or Meryl Streep. Still, she transformed what could have been another tiresome play about a self-destructive star into a precise study of character, and sang in a style totally unlike her own.Year of the Rooster 6  Delphi Harrington, Bobby Moreno, Thomas Lyons Credit Russ Kuhner

Bobby Moreno began the year 2014 portraying a touching love scene between poultry in The Year of the Rooster.  He was Odysseus Rex, a young rooster permanently crouched, an angry punk with a knife, who is charmed by genetically over-engineered top-heavy hen. At the end of the year, Moreno stood tall in Grand Concourse as Oscar, the maintenance man and security guard in a soup kitchen in the Bronx, who is an adorable lug. Streetwise, charming, good-hearted, well-meaning, he is also slightly awkward, especially in scenes with Emma, who teases, taunts and seduces him.

Over the past few years, Moreno has stood out in charismatic roles from the dog-like military veteran in Ethan Lipton’s “Luther” to an evil teenager in Robert Askins’s “Hand to God.” Will 2015 be the Year of the Bobby Moreno?

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, TheEthel Barrymore Theatre
As Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Alexander Sharp, a recent graduate of Juilliard, literally climbs a wall, and plays with a rat, and is thrown in the air and carried about by the other cast members.
His is a physically demanding role – all that getting lifted through the air. But it requires balancing of a different sort as well, offering a convincing portrait without condescension. Sharp nails the gestures, the lack of eye contact, the matter-of-fact tone.

It’s impossible to cap an appreciation of stage performances at only ten. So nods to Annaleigh Ashford in You Can’t Take It With You, Kieran Culkin in This Is Our Youth, Patricia Clark in The Elephant Man, the ensemble cast of Dinner With FriendsHeather Burns , Marin Hinkle, Darren Pettie and Jeremy Shamos; the ensemble cast of Casa ValentinaReed Birney, John Cullum, Gabriel Ebert, Lisa Emery, Tom McGowan, Patrick Page, Larry Pine, Nick Westrate, Mare Winningham. Ok, I’ll stop.

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Sex With Strangers Review: Love Is Breaking Bad

Sex With StrangersSecond StageSex With Strangers,” a comedy about a coupling with complications, stars two performers – Anna Gunn, Bryan Cranston’s wife Skyler in “Breaking Bad,” and Billy Magnussen, the boy-toy Spike in Christopher Durang’s Tony-winning “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” – whose previous roles left such a strong impression that there was a question in my mind whether audiences could accept their portraying different characters.
Apparently so: The two-character play written by Linda Eason and directed by David Schwimmer (still best-known as the actor in Friends) is artfully constructed and well-acted, a hit with critics and with theatergoers as well; it has been extended through August 31st.
But are the characters they are portraying that different from their breakthrough roles? All four characters have something in common, and it has to do with love – or, more precisely, it has nothing to do with love.
Ethan and Olivia meet during a blizzard at a bed and breakfast in Northern Michigan. Slowly, it’s revealed that the encounter is no accident. Olivia, approaching 40 years old, makes a living as a teacher but she wrote and published a novel years ago that got mixed reviews and vanished; she became so discouraged that, although she has finally written a second novel, she now considers her writing a hobby. Ethan, in his twenties, is a successful writer, with two best-selling books, based on his blog, all of which have the same title as the play – and are about his sexual conquests. It began as a dare from some of his friends to pick up a different woman every week for a year, and grew into a franchise.
But Ethan has serious literary ambitions. He took a class with an award-winning writer named Ahmit, who, a friend and former classmate of Olivia’s, gave him Olivia’s first book to read as one of his favorite novels; the book became one of Ethan’s favorite as well. It was (the unseen) Ahmit who also suggested this bed and breakfast. Ethan called up and found out that Olivia was staying there. In other words, he sought her out.
She initially finds him annoying. In part, this seems to be a generational difference, as indicated by their contrasting reaction to the Internet connection being down because of the storm: Olivia is delighted (“No distractions.”); Ethan is devastated (“People will think I’m dead. And what if you have to look something up?”)
It takes only until the end of the first scene, however, before Olivia is seduced. Ethan shows himself to be generous and sexy – and his quoting a line from her novel to her nails it. Besides, the Internet connection is down; there is nothing else to do.
Given that this is a play with only two characters, and the seduction occurs in the first of nine scenes, it’s clear that this will not just be a one-night stand. Is this realistic between these two characters? Ethan, although the author of the Sex with Strangers franchise, insists it is; the Ethan who is drawn to Olivia, he says, is the “real” Ethan, a different Ethan than the sex-crazed, callous dude persona of his blog and books. Besides, he says, he’s changed.
Does the continuing connection make sense from Olivia’s point of view as well? Why not? He’s an attractive young man, and besides, he seems determined to help her literary career. He helps her get exposure for her writing, introducing her to his agent, among other things.
But he also wants to feature her writing in the app he’s developing in order to prove he’s a literary heavyweight.
And here is where the playwright subtly demonstrates her insight into modern life. Eason is unlike the writers of many romantic comedies  – a genre that “Sex With Strangers” resembles, but ultimately (and to its credit) doesn’t entirely fit: The playwright supplies motives for the characters’ continuing connection that aren’t just an undefined “love.” One can take love out of the equation, and the trajectory of their relationship would still make sense, based only on animal attraction and self-interest.
Now, consider their earlier roles. Spike’s interest in the movie star Sasha seems transparent; he hopes she’ll help his career. Magnussen’s new character Ethan is smarter but arguably no less calculating. I’ll admit here that Spike casts a strong enough shadow that I had trouble picturing Ethan as having serious literary ambitions, but if I can suspend my disbelief about his ambitions, his character makes sense without my having to suspend my disbelief about his devotion to true love.
Look again at “Breaking Bad.” From the very first episode, it’s a question whether any real love binds Walter and Skyler White. Their sex is comically perfunctory; their other interactions long ago have become a matter of unconsidered routine. Yes, Walter calls Skyler “the love of my life,” but it becomes clear over the arc of the show that he is using his self-declared “love” of his family to justify his descent into vicious gangster – and any love that Skyler had for him has evolved into a matter of survival, fear and disgust. Interestingly, in the first episode of “Breaking Bad,” we learn that Skyler has a concrete connection to Gunn’s new character Olivia: Skyler aspires to be a writer.
One can be taken with “Sex With Strangers” – the wit of the dialogue, the charm of the characters, and the chemistry of the two performers – without ever considering what the playwright might be saying about the ways ambition and self-interest have come to replace love, or are at least indistinguishable from it.

Sex With Strangers
At Second Stage Theater, 305 West 43rd Street
By Laura Eason
Directed by David Schwimmer; sets by Andromache Chalfant; costumes by ESosa; lighting by Japhy Weideman; sound by Fitz Patton.
Cast: Anna Gunn (Olivia) and Billy Magnussen (Ethan).
Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including one intermission.
Tickets: $89 – $125
Sex With Strangers is set to run through August 31.

Sex With StrangersSecond Stage

Sex With Strangers Reviews and Photographs

In “Sex With Strangers,”  Anna Gunn, who played Bryan Cranston’s wife in “Breaking Bad,” couples with Billy Magnussen, who portrayed sexy, half-naked Spike in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.  Heralded for their previous performances, do they shine together in this new play by Laura Eason directed by David Schwimmer, which tells the story of a sex blogger who seeks out a novelist he idolizes?

Read the reviews.

Jonathan Mandell, New York Theater: One can be taken with “Sex With Strangers” – the wit of the dialogue, the charm of the characters, and the chemistry of the two performers – without ever considering what the playwright might be saying about the ways ambition and self-interest have come to replace love

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged

 

Elizabeth Vincentelli, New York Post: …polished and stylish. It also boasts superior casting…These two are so fun to watch, you don’t even mind that the writing doesn’t hit all that hard — Laura Eason’s play punches above its weight class….Smoothly directed by David Schwimmer, “Sex With Strangers” is a sometimes cutting, sometimes titillating tale with things to say about art and commerce

Charles Isherwood, New York Times:  The simmering rapport these two talented actors develop quickly lights a fire under Ms. Eason’s drama of good sex and bad faith,

Matthew Murray, Talkin’ Broadway: …when it comes to explosive chemistry, these two actors have it in blessed abundance…across a series of scenes that chronicle a relationship full of ins and outs, ups and downs, comings and goings, and betrayals and forgiveness, Magnussen and Gunn have together crafted a single entity of such intoxicating, preternatural heat that you’ll scarcely be able to rip your eyes away…If only the play itself were compelling enough to justify any of it. Underlying the throbbing passions of the stars is a story choked with dust and indifference

Jesse Green, New York Magazine: You may detect a certain amount of sitcom in the setup — and in the direction, by David Schwimmer of Friends fame…But television savvy — Eason writes for House of Cards — can no longer be hurled as an insult onstage. Indeed, Sex With Strangers has a lot more on its mind than many a downtown gut-wrencher….it’s hot — or should I say cool? In any case, it’s only a slight criticism of Sex With Strangers to say that it’s great summer entertainment.

Frank Scheck, The Hollywood Reporter: Terrific performances and snappy dialogue boost this entertaining and thoughtful dramedy.

Thom Geier, Entertainment Weekly:  B+ There is no reason that playwright Laura Eason’s frankly sitcommy premise should work. And yet it does, thanks to fluid direction by David Schwimmer (yes, that David Schwimmer) and charmingly forthright performances by the two-member cast….a muffed ending doesn’t dilute the overall success of Sex With Strangers, which boasts two lively, lusty, and fully lived-in characters.

David Finkle, Huffington Post: Gunn and Magnussen are so good at what they’re doing and have the sort of chemistry together that would shatter a rack of test tubes that ticket buyers may not object too loudly the predictability. Indeed, lithe and limber Gunn…and Magnussen…so assiduously keep on keeping on that spectators will likely continue overlooking the numerous soft spots in Eason’s plot.

Adam Feldman, Time Out New York: The actors strike sexy sparks: Gunn is warily intelligent and believably vulnerable, while Magnussen pops with dynamic energy (and raises shirtlessness to an art form)….you may get the most out of Sex with Strangers by leaving midway through and calling it a satisfying one-act stand.

Zachary Stewart, Theatermania: Under the deft direction of David Schwimmer, Sex With Strangers is a probing and painfully realistic look at first impressions, modern relationships, and the trust needed to bridge the gap between point A and point B…Gunn is sophisticated, vulnerable, and skittish. Magnussen is bold, childlike, and utterly charming. Both accomplish, in just over two hours, the difficult task of creating an archetypal character and then smashing our preconceived notions of that character.