Hundred Days Review: The Bengsons’ Concert About Their Love and Anxiety

In “Hundred Days,” a musically engaging autobiographical concert by The Bengsons, Abigail and Shaun Bengson tell us they met one another at “the first rehearsal of a massive anti-folk folk-punk old-timey neo soul band,” and they were married three weeks later. Their relationship terrified both of them – shy Shaun because he feared Abigail would leave him; anxious Abigail because when she was 15 years old she had had a dream that she would meet the love of her life, but that he would only have 100 days left to live.
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The Object Lesson Review: If Proust Were A Packrat


Geoff Sobelle, self-declared “maker of absurdist performance art,” is credited as the creator and performer of “The Object Lesson,” but it at least co-stars thousands of boxes. These are boxes that fill up the floor of the New York Theatre Workshop, and are stacked up to the ceiling. Some of the boxes are empty, with scrawled instructions: A fellow playgoer handed me one such box, which said: “Give this box to someone who looks nice.”

Many of the boxes are filled with all sorts of items: On one table, I picked through boxes containing:

An old cassette recorder and old cassettes, but mostly those Styrofoam packing peanuts
Votive candles
A pile of old trophies, with plaques such as “Mayfair Shamrock Tournament Champion” and “Holy Terror 1999 Hoiday Classic Under-10 1st Place”object-lesson-2-by-me
A sculpture of a horse either laughing or screaming
Day-glo wigs fit for drag queens
several diaries, which seemed too extensive to have been filled out just for this show. One began: January 22, ‘97. So two weeks and a broken tibia later, I start this journal.”

There were also boxes that indicated they were suitable for seats, and that’s what most of the playgoers eventually did, when a man (which we learned only after the show was Sobelle) started taking objects out of boxes – a lamp, a chair, and end table, a beautiful Persian rug, an old-fashioned record player – to create a cozy little room for himself amid the sea of literal box seats.

Thus began the performance part of this performance art installation. This can be divided into about a dozen scenes (more like unrelated sketches) and involved lots of audience participation, and imaginative weirdness, some of it clearly improvised.

At one point, a barefoot Sobelle scaled a mountainous pile of boxes in almost complete darkness, using only a flashlight, then found a box with a lamp, and a box with a working microphone, and then, atop this lamp-lit mountain of cardboard, began to tell a story about his experiences as a teenager on a trip to France. He told us about a goat herd, and then found a box with some goat cheese, which he passed down to the audience, complete with a baguette. He said on his last night in a little village called Carbused, he saw a strange red light in the darkness, and then a green one, and then a yellow one. He eventually realized, he told us, that it was a traffic light, which got a laugh, and then he rummaged through a box, and took out a huge, working traffic light, which bathed us first in red, then green, then yellow.

At another point, Sobelle invited a woman to dine with him, presumably just a random member of the audience. He sat her at a table from which he had cleared off the boxes, and put a plate before her; then he rummaged through various boxes to take out a head of lettuce, sticks of carrots, etc. He climbed atop the table, and, having donned a pair of ice skates, did a fairly accomplished tap dance, serving as a human Veg-o-matic, delivering the chopped ingredients expertly on her plate. He asks another audience member to hold up a chandelier so that they can dine in style.

An extraordinary effort went into creating “The Object Lesson,” most of it, I imagine by Steven Dufala, who is credited with the scenic installation design. There are moments, jerry-rigged with makeshift lighting and some surprise stagecraft, that are both funny and, quite improbably, beautiful. It feels like the kind of show designed to give bragging rights to aficionados of way-out theater such as myself. But it also inspires a contemplation of the meaning of objects in our lives, how an evocative old box of memorabilia – even if not your own – can provoke a swift stream of memories.

If Proust were a packrat, if Felix the Cat were a dramatist, they might have created something like “The Object Lesson.”

The Object Lesson
New York Theatre Workshop
Created and performed by Geoff Sobelle
Directed by David Neumann
Scenic Installation Design by Steven Dufala
Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission (but get there early to go through the boxes)
Tickets: $69
“The Object Lesson” is scheduled to run through March 5, 2017.

Hadestown Review: A Hell Of a Musical

Has Hell ever sounded so thrilling? Hadestown, a sung-through musical derived from the myth of Orpheus and expanded from a concept album by Anais Mitchell, mixes sweet and sexy folk, rocking New Orleans jazz, get-down blues and sinful soul. The eight cast members who perform the 35 songs are uniformly terrific; it’s hard to imagine anybody better. If the plot strays little from the bare-bones story of Orpheus descending into Hades to rescue his wife Eurydice, the songs and the staging are enough to enchant for the two hour running time.

Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged

Rachel Chavkin is credited with both developing and directing Hadestown. She knows something about inspired staging of innovative musicals: She also directed Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, which is coming next season to Broadway. To put on Hadestown, they completely reconfigured New York Theatre Workshop into a kind of stadium seating in the round. It works well; the performers come up close to the audience on many occasions; it also evoked for me (perhaps intentionally) the rings of Hell.
This is the fitting setting for the plot: Orpheus (Damon Daunno) falls in love with Eurydice (Nabiyah Be.) In an early song, Come Home With Me, Eurydice resists:

Eurydice: A singer? Is that what you are?
Orpheus: Well, I also play the lyre
Eurydice: A liar, and a player too!
I’ve met too many men like you

Soon she is won over. In “All I’ve ever known,” she sings a catchy phrase:

All I’ve ever known is how to hold my own

But now I wanna hold you too

Damon Daunno, who is a full-out heartthrob in Hadestown, made his Broadway debut five years ago in Brief Encounter, where he charmed the audience playing ukelele and bass. Here, he wears a rebel-without-a-cause t-shirt and tight jeans with a hip rip at the knee, and sports an even hipper tattoo on his neck.

Sexy Nabiyah Be (who was in Queen of the Night) seems his ideal mate; the chemistry is explosive.

After they marry, Eurydice descends into Hadestown. In the myth, she dies. In this retelling, she makes a deal with the devil in order to fill her hungry stomach.

Orpheus goes down to rescue her. Hades (Patrick Page) makes a deal with him; he can lead them both back up to the light, if he never looks back to see if she’s following him.

There are a smattering of allusions to Depression era-like working conditions, and Hades is given some song lyrics to paint him as a heartless industrialist, such as in “Hey, Little Songbird”

I’ve got clients to call
I’ve got orders to fill
I’ve got walls to build
I’ve got riots to quell and they’re giving me hell back in Hades.

The most obvious nod to current events is the rousing song “Why We Build The Wall,” in a kind of call-and-response with the three actresses who make up The Fates:

“Why do we build the wall? My children, my children why do we build the wall?” Hades sings.

…We build the wall to keep us free.

How does the wall keep us free?….

…The wall keeps out the enemy

Patrick Page, a 12-time Broadway veteran who as the Green Goblin was the best thing about Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark, is an ideal modern Hades, with his sexy gunslinger stance, his (hip) all-black attire, and especially his seductively deep, deep voice.

Chris Sullivan, who portrays Hermes like an old-time blues rocker complete with porkpie hat, functions more or less like the narrator. Amber Gray portrays Persephone, Hades’ wife, allowed to live on earth for half the year. She plays her like a 1930’s torch song singer, complete with slinky dress and flower in her hair. They are both also magnificent, as are the three Fates — Lulu Fall, Jessie Shelton, and Shaina Taub — a Greek chorus as a trio of back-up singers.

Hadestown is not a traditional musical. Think of it as a concert with benefits, but don’t resist the temptation to go.

Hear 20 of Mitchell’s songs from Hadestown (sung by other singers) in a playlist of videos of her album

By Anaïs Mitchell
Developed with and directed by Rachel Chavkin
Cast: Nabiyah Be as Eurydice, Damon Daunno as Orpheus, Lulu Fall as a Fate, Amber Gray as Persephone, Patrick Page as Hades, Jessie Shelton as a Fate, Chris Sullivan as Hermes, Shaina Taub as a Fate

Scenery by Rachel Hauck
Costumes by Michael Krass
Lighting by Bradley King
Sound by Robert Kaplowitz
Properties by Noah Mease
Arrangements & Orchestrations by Michael Chorney
Music Supervision, Co-arrangements & Orchestrations by Todd Sickafoose
Music Direction by Liam Robinson
Choreography by David Neumann
Dramaturgy by Ken Cerniglia
Co-conceived by Ben t. Matchstick
Stage Manager Lindsey Turteltaub

Running time: Two hours and 10 minutes, including an intermission.

Hadestown has extended its run through July 31.

Off Broadway Spring 2016 Guide

As Hamilton director Thomas Kail makes clear this season, Broadway may beckon, but Off-Broadway is the room where it happens.

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Thomas Kail

Kail is directing two plays Off-Broadway – “Dry Powder” at the Public, starring The Office’s John Krasinski making his New York stage debut, and “Daphne’s Dive” at the Signature, written by Pulitzer-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, who shares Broadway credentials with both Kail and Lin-Manuel Miranda. (She is the book writer for Miranda’s “In The Heights.”)

Danai Gurira, who until last year was best known for her role as Michonne on The Walking Dead TV series, will see her play “Eclipsed” transfer from Off-Broadway to Broadway this season. But one day after “Eclipsed” is scheduled to open, a second play of hers, ‘Familiar,” is opening at Off Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons.

Even Harold Prince — as in the Prince of Broadway — is directing a new musical Off-Broadway this season, his first new work for a New York stage in nine years.

HaroldPrinceOther Broadway stalwarts with new shows Off-Broadway include Pasek and Paul (best-known for A Christmas Story), Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy, Parade), Stew and Heidi Rodewald (Passing Strange), Lydia Diamond (Stick Fly), John Patrick Shanley (Doubt), and Enda Walsh (Once)

If the line between Broadway and Off-Broadway seems increasingly porous, there are still significant differences, which require separate approaches.  Broadway is more or less a collection of random individual potential hits or misses. (See my Broadway Spring 2016 Preview Guide.)  Off-Broadway is not as easy to get your hands around — there are many more shows and most have limited runs; the theaters are more spread out geographically and far more numerous — some 200 theaters/theater companies, or five times the number of Broadway houses.  But it also features a solid number of producing theaters, who reliably present a rich, adventurous and diverse season of shows, at lower prices than Broadway.

Danai Gurira, author of a play on Broadway and Off Broadway

Danai Gurira, author of a play on Broadway and Off Broadway

It thus makes sense to organize an Off-Broadway preview by focusing on these individual seasons, presented in the order of my preference for the particular theaters   (determined by such factors as their recent track record, the promise of the new season, and by the overall experience I’ve had with the theater, both as theatergoer and as critic.)

I’ve put a red check mark —  — besides ten about which I’m especially excited, or intrigued, or at least notably hopeful. This can’t count as a recommendation, because I haven’t seen them yet. I plan to see almost everything below, and expect to be surprised.

PLAYWRIGHTS HORIZONS playwrights horizons logo

416 W. 42nd St. Twitter: @PHNYC

Annie Baker’s “The Flick” is one of six plays that originated at Playwrights Horizons that have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It offers new plays and musicals that are consistently satisfying, or at least intriguing.


Familiar by Danai Gurira

February 12 – March 27, 2016

“It’s winter in Minnesota, and a Zimbabwean family is preparing for the wedding of their eldest daughter, a first-generation American. But when the bride insists on observing a traditional African custom, it opens a deep rift in the household.”

Antlia Pneumatica by Anne Washburn

March 11 – April 24, 2016

Washburn (who forever has my attention, thanks to her Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play) writes about a once tight-knit group of friends who reunite to bury one of their own.

Indian Summer by Gregory S. Moss

May 13 – June 26, 2016

Spending an unpleasant summer with his grandfather, in an unfriendly Rhode Island beach town, Daniel soon meets Izzy, who is tough-acting, beguiling, and taken.


publictheaterlogo425 Lafayette Street. Twitter: @PublicTheaterNY

The original home of the Broadway hits Hamilton and Fun Home, as well as Eclipsed, opening on Broadway this season.

The Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street

The Public Theater at 425 Lafayette Street

Under the Radar Festival, 12th edition

January 6-17, 2016

Cutting-edge theater from around the U.S. and the world.

The first performance of each of the Public’s main shows below is offered for free by lottery. 

Southern Comfort

February 23 – March 27, 2016

A bluegrass-tinged musical based on a documentary that tells the true story of a group of transgender friends living life on their own terms in the back hills of rural Georgia

The Gabriels, Election Year in the Life of One Family

Play One: Hungry

February 27 – March 20

As a kind of follow-up to Richard Nelson’s impressive series, The Apple Family Plays, the playwright is writing a three-play cycle about a different family in the same upstate city of Rhinebeck, using the same approach — the discussion of krasinskipolitics happening on the same day as the play itself is unfolding.

Dry Powder

The wheeling-dealing of the executives (including John Krasinski) in a private equity firm.

March 1 – April 10

Head of Passesphylicia rashad in head of passes

March 15 – April 17

Inspired by the Book of Job, this play by Tarell Alvin McCraney (The Brother/Sister Plays) and directed by Tina Landau presents the story of Shelah (Phylicia Rashad) who must fight to survive during a reunion held on her birthday.

The Total Bent

May 10 – June 12

A British record producer courts a Southern black composer in this musical written by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, the team behind Passing Strange.

The Mobile Shakespeare Unit: Romeo & Juliet 

April 11 – May 1

Directed by Lear deBessonet




480 West 42nd Street. Twitter: @signaturetheatr

As the first New York theater to win the Regional Tony Award, the Signature now has some solid proof of what has been clear to its patrons for years.  What has distinguished this theater is not only its track record, but its commitment to keep the price of all tickets for initial runs to $25.

This season is special for two reasons — it’s the 25th anniversary season, and it’s the last one under founding artistic director James Houghton.

Old Hats

January 26 – March 2016

A return of Bill Irwin and David Shiner signature clowning.

Angel Reapers

 Angel Reapers

February 2 to March 13. Opens February 22.

Playwright Alfred Uhry and choreographer/director Martha Clarke team up on this “theatrical collage” about the Shakers, the early American religious sect best-remembered now for their furniture, whose members were committed to celibacy. Actual traditional Shaker songs and movement are incorporated.


Daphne’s Dive

April 26 – June 5, 2016

Directed by Thomas Kail, this play is the first of several at the Signature to be written by Quiara Alegría Hudes. “Daphne’s Dive is a cheap corner bar in North Philly where Daphne and her vibrant, eclectic regulars drink to art, politics, and life.”



Edward Albee’s The Sandbox
María Irene Fornés’ Drowning 
Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro

May 3 – June 12, 2016

 This trio of famous one-act plays is directed by Lila Neugebauer

SecondStagelogoSECOND STAGE *

The cast of Smart People: Mahershala Ali, Joshua Jackson, Ann Son, Tessa Thompson

The cast of Smart People: Mahershala Ali, Joshua Jackson, Ann Son, Tessa Thompson

Smart People

January 26 – March 6. Opens February 11.

Written by Lydia Diamond and directed by Kenny Leon — the same team that brought us Stick Fly – the comedy focuses on four Harvard intellectuals who find themselves entangled in a complex web of social and sexual politics on the eve of Obama’s first election.

Dear Evan Hansen, from the Arena Stage production

Dear Evan Hansen, from the Arena Stage production

√ Dear Evan Hansen

March 26 – May 22. Opens May 1

A hit when it played at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage, this original musical tells the story of a high school student who is mistakenly thought to be best friends with a classmate who had committed suicide.   Michael Greif (RentNext to Normal and Grey Gardens) directs, with music and lyrics by  Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (A Christmas Story, Dogfight) and a book by Steven Levenson (Showtime’s “Masters of Sex”).



108 East 15th Street Twitter: @VineyardTheatre


February 4 – March 13, 2016

Written by Colman Domingo and directed by Susan Stroman, “Dot” examine’s Dotty’s struggles to navigate life with dementia, while her children fight to balance care for their mother and care for themselves.


√ Indecent

“May – June 2016”

In the same season that the much-anticipated Shuffle Along presents the backstage story to a famous Broadway musical from the 1920’s, Paula Vogel’s new play looks at the events surrounding the 1923 Broadway debut of Yiddish-theater playwright Sholem Asch’s controversial drama God of Vengeance, which dealt with prostitution and lesbianism and whose cast was successfully prosecuted for obscenity.



79 East 4th Street. Twitter: @NYTW79

Red Speedo

February 17, 2016—March 27, 2016

Lucas Hnath (The Christians) writes about an Olympic swimmer who “confronts the lure of endorsements, the perils of mixing the personal and professional, and the unforgiving weight of success.”


Inspired by Orpheus’ mythical quest to overcome Hades and regain the favor of his one true love, this musical developed and directed by Rachel Chavkin  (a name you’ll keep on hearing), with folk and jazz music by Anaïs Mitchell, takes place in an “industrialized world of mindless labor and full stomachs.”



The shows at Lincoln Center’s Off-Broadway venues are relatively inexpensive (especially at the Claire Tow theater, where initial-run tickets cost $20) and often rewarding.

The RoyaleThe Royale

February 11 – May 1.  Opens March 7.

Written by Marco Ramirez and directed by Rachel Chavkin, the play is “loosely based on the real-life experiences of Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight world champion.”

Her Requiem

February 6 – March 20. Opens February 22.

Written by Greg Pierce and directed by Kate Whoriskey: “Caitlin takes her senior year off from high school to compose a full-scale requiem. Inspired by her dedication, her father, Dean, becomes obsessed with requiems and the people who love them, while her mother, Allison, becomes concerned about Caitlin’s isolation from everyone aside from her music teacher.”


May 21 –

Written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Appropriate, An Octoroon and Gloria.) “Tensions escalate between Tate and Joanne after their mother has a stroke. As they attack each other in their mother’s hospital room, they are ambushed by two strangers who make a shocking claim about their grandfather during WWII.”


Address: The Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street. Twitter: @mcctheater


February 4 – March 13, 2016

“Magical realism collides with manic vaudeville in a family drama” written by Noah Haidle and directed by Anne Kauffman. The cast includes Zachary Quinto.

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Gynecologic Oncology Unit At Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center Of New York City

May 19-Jun 25, 2016

Written by Hailey Feiffer and directed by Trip Cullman:   “A foul-mouthed twenty-something comedienne and a middle-aged man embroiled in a nasty divorce are brought together unexpectedly when their cancer-stricken mothers become roommates in the hospital.


roundabout_01This is their 50th anniversary. Off-Broadway’s Roundabout show, The Humans, is transferring to Broadway this season.

Steven Pasquale

The Robber Bridegroom

February 18 – May 29

Steven Pasquale stars in this revival of the musical with book by Alfred Uhry about  “a Southern-fried Robin Hood” who falls in love




Mother Courage and her Children

December 9 – ?

Tonya Pinkins left this production citing creative differences, so it’s up int he air when it will open and when the run will end.  Bertolt Brecht’s most popular play about a Mother Courage who follows one luckless army after another across a war-torn world, has been transposed to the present-day Congo. Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening) has written a new score for the play.


√ Nathan the Wise

March 18 –

F. Murray Abraham stars an adaptation of this 18th century play by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. “Jerusalem, 1192. Muslims, Christians and Jews live side by side thanks to a fragile truce that could collapse at any moment. As the tension mounts a question arises from the ruling Sultan: “which religion is the one most beloved by God?” Nathan, a pious Jewish merchant, is charged with answering this question to help secure the continued safety of his people.”

Peer Gynt

May 11 –

Director John Doyle (Passion, Allegro)adapted Ibsen’s tale of the misadventures of young Peer from childhood renegade to outcast, adventurer, industrialist…


√ Skeleton Crew

January 6 — February 14, 2016. Opens January 19.

“In Dominique Morisseau’s third play in her Detroit trilogy, a makeshift family of workers at the last exporting auto plant in the city navigate the possibility of foreclosure”  Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.

Hold Onto Me Darling

February 24 – April 3

The new play by Kenneth Lonergan focuses on a world-famous country singer who questions his celebrity after his mother’s death, and moves back to his hometown; “it doesn’t go well.”

Feb 24 — April 3, 2016

The Band’s Visit 

May 19 – July 10

A musical by composer David Yazbek and playwright Itamar Moses, based on the funny 2007 Israeli film about an Egyptian military police band who get the wrong directions and wind up in a small forgotten town in the Isareli desert.

This is the new musical directed by Harold Prince.

Update: Harold Prince dropped out, and The Band’s Visit will now be directed by David Cromer — in the Fall.


131 West 55th Street Twitter: @MTC_NYC

This theater was publicly criticized for the lack of diversity in its season.


 Prodigal Son

January 19 – March 20. Opens February 9
John Patrick Shanley’s new play, which he directs, stars Robert Sean Leonard, and Timothée Chalamet as a brilliant, troubled young man from the Bronx at a New Hampshire private school.

The Ruins of Civilization

May 4 – . Opens May 18.

A couple open their home to a stranger in need sometime in the future, with unexpected results. Written by Penelope Skinner (The Village Bike)


May 3 to June 26, 2016. Opens May 24.

Written by Nick Payne (Constellations) and directed by Doug Hughes (Doubt.) “A pathologist steals the brain of Albert Einstein; a neuropsychologist embarks on her first romance with another woman; a seizure patient forgets everything but how much he loves his girlfriend.”




The Glory of the World at Brooklyn Academy of Music – Jan 16 – Feb 6, by Charles Mee, about Catholic monk Thomas Merton.


Sojourners at Playwrights Realm, January 21 – February 13 – written by Mfoniso Udofia, directed Ed Sylvanus Iskandar. A Nigerian immigrant wants to return home after she gets her degree; her arranged-marriage husband wants to stay.

Buried Child at The New Group,  February 2 – March 13. revival of Sam Shepard play with a stellar cast including Ed Harris and Amy Madigan.

 Pericles at Theater for a New Audience February 14 – March 27.The Shakespearean play will be directed by Trevor Nunn with music composed by Shaun Davey and performed by PigPen Theatre Co.


Nice Fish at St. Ann’s Warehouse February 14 – March 13. Mark Rylance stars in a play he co-wrote with his favorite poet, Louis Jenkins, about two men ice-fishing.

Other companies worth checking out:


Ars Nova

Irish Repertory Theater

Ma-Yi Theater Company

Mint Theater Company

Primary Stages

Rattlestick Playwrights Theater


There are also commercial Off-Broadway shows, put together by independent producers that appear in theaters for rent, such as:

Cherry Lane Theatre
Daryl Roth Theatre
Gym at Judson
Lucille Lortel Theatre
New World Stages
Orpheum Theater
The Players Theatre
Snapple Theater Center
Theatre Row
Union Square Theater
Westside Theatre

*THE ASTERISK: Off-Broadway AND Broadway

*Just to complicate matters, several of the resident theaters also present shows on Broadway –  Lincoln Center, Manhattan Theater Company (MTC), the Roundabout Theater Company, and starting this season, Second Stage Theatre, which has bought the Helen Hayes. Their Broadway offerings are listed in my Broadway Spring 2016 Preview Guide

What Is Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Off Broadway?

Off-Broadway theaters, by definition, have anywhere from 100 to 499 seats. If a theater has more seats than that, it’s a Broadway house. If it has fewer, it’s Off-Off Broadway.

There are some terrific Off-Off Broadway theaters, sometimes confused for Off-Broadway. These include (but are not limited to) The FleaLabyrinth Theater, and LaMaMa ETC.

Monthly Calendar of Openings

Because there are so many shows Off-Off Broadway, and their runs are so limited, I include them in my monthly theater preview (along with Broadway and Off Broadway openings) posted near the beginning of each month.

My latest monthly calendar guide


For more information about Off-Broadway, go to  The League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers (aka The Off-Broadway League).  This should not be confused with the Off-Broadway Alliance, which is a separate organization (though they should probably merge, no?)

Fondly, Collette Richland Review: Dreaming with Elevator Repair Service

During the intermission for the Elevator Repair Service’s “Fondly, Collette Richland,” at the same time that a noticeable number of theatergoers fervidly exited New York Theatre Workshop for good, an avant-garde director I know came up to me and said “I’m loving this. But it should be at 3 in the morning.”

I agreed with the director… and also with the exiting theatergoers.

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged.

This is the first time that the Elevator Repair Service has created a work in collaboration with a living writer, playwright Sibyl Kempson. It is surely safe to say that “Fondly, Collette Richland” — an absurdist tease of a play directed by ERS artistic director John Collins that mixes comic non-sequiturs with dream-like incoherence and ancient mystical mayhem — will not be greeted with the same widespread enthusiastic acclaim as the avant-garde theater company’s best-known previous work. ERS used the verbatim texts of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for “Gatz,” Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises for “The Select”, and a chapter from Faulkner’s novel for “The Sound and the Fury.”

Kempson has said that her text for “Fondly, Collette Richland” is inspired by another work of twentieth century literature, “Two Serious Ladies” by Jane Bowles. But diving into this famously obtuse and hallucinatory modernist novel, I suspect, is not going to help much in unlocking the play.

Kempson has also said that the work is connected to her female awakening and female power, and is an attempt to “consciously foreground the feminine forces that are already sort of running things more than we’d care to admit.”

If this is useful as a preview or analysis, more power to you.

More accessible is this comment she made in American Theatre Magazine: “I do think my plays are for everyone. But if you’re coming to them with the need for a familiar structure, you might feel confused. If you come with the regular yardstick you use to measure plays, you’ll be disappointed. But with no yardstick there’s more openness. There’s a lot there to dig into. It’s a landscape.”

For me, the key to appreciating “Fondly, Collette Richland” is not to try to understand it, but to let it wash over you – or to witness it the way one might a parade or a circus, just taking in the many funny moments, the vivid characters in colorful costumes and the barrage of wild, loud, goofy and frightening sounds. Sound design has always been something of an ERS specialty, although in the past it augmented a coherent plot. Now – and without intending to disparage the dozen members of the cast, who are game and hardworking — Ben Williams’s sound design is the star of “Fondly, Collette Richland,” on equal billing with its co-star, Jacob Climer’s costumes.

There’s justification within the play itself for this approach. Collette Richland (April Matthis) enters the stage, wearing dark glasses and a colorful pantsuit and carrying a placard with the title of the play, and says (among other things) the following:

“I was just thinking, reminiscing, really. When I was a child, we used to gather round the radio and listen to our favorite programs. All together. Do you remember such a thing? And everything was so easy to understand. Just damned easy. AND FUN! We all laughed at the same parts, squealed at the same parts, and came away with the same sort of understanding

“…..Hell, and somewhere along the line, everything cracked open. Everything we thought we knew turned out to not be true.

“…..Do you know what things mean? Do you worry too much, or not enough, about what things mean? Do you know what your living room means, for example? See what I mean?”

Following her speech, Father Mumbles (Mike Iveson) sits at the piano, tinkles its keys, and introduces us to Mabrel and Colonel “Fritz” Fitzhubert (Laurena Allan and Vin Knight) in their home at 127 Whirlaway Drive. The priest, dressed like a bishop, goes into once-upon-a-time story mode, describing and explaining everything so clearly and fully – indeed, in such laborious and mundane detail – that this is really just a parody of storytelling.

The story he tells is of “Fritz” coming home to dinner, and their dinner being interrupted by Local Representative Wheatson (Greig Sargeant), who has been going door to door visiting his constituents to speak to them “about certain matters.” The couple invite him to dinner, but Mabrel says “Please keep in mind that we will prefer to have no dramatic action this evening.” (Not conventional dramatic action in any case.)

The local representative never says why he wanted to visit. Mabrel also adds the letter h to words that have no h, such as room (rhoom) and coffee (choffee). But they do talk about a Bible and tiny door, and apparently enter through it.

The scene ends with Fritz, a tired Death of A Salesman type working man, quoting the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard: “An image costs as much labor to humanity as a new characteristic to a plant.”†

In a subsequent scene, they have passed into a chalet in the Swiss Alps…

Eventually we meet the Krampus, which eats naughty children, and witches who steal souls, and The Face of the Ghost of Jesus Christ, and a farmer who delivers a pig, who gives birth to toy piglets that flip around on stage, and Queen Patrice, the Deposed and Dethroned Grand Queen Empress, and The Cat Self-Hating Cat Butler, who listens to Collette Richland on the radio, and characters who turn into Roman soldiers and a mermaid, and a bellboy who was once the priest … and

At one point, one of the characters says he doesn’t know what’s going on. A member of the audience calls out “You and me both, buddy.” The house lights go up, the cast gathers on stage, and the man is ejected – he’s a plant, of course, although without any new characteristics.

When I stayed for Act II, rather than feeling envious of those who were on their way home to their comfortable beds, or eating some solid and recognizable food in a nearby restaurant, I looked at the crazy tableaux created by the actors on the stage, and imagined that it was even later at night and that I was dreaming.

Fondly, Collette Richland

New York Theater Workshop

Written by: Sibyl Kempson

Created and performed by: Elevator Repair Service
Directed by: John Collins
Scenic Design and Additional Costumes: David Zinn
Costume Design: Jacob A. Climer
Lighting Design: Mark Barton
Sound Design: Ben Williams
Original Music: Mike Iveson
Additional Costumes
: David Zinn
Associate Sound Designer and Sound Operator: Gavin Price
Property Designer: Amanda Villalobos

Assistant Property Design: Matt Leabo
Dance and Movement Coach: Katherine Profeta
Stage Manager: Maurina Lioce
Producer: Ariana Smart Truman
Production Manager: David Nelson
Associate Producer: Lindsay Hockaday
Assistant Set Design: Tim McMath


Father Mumbles / Hans-Pierre: Mike Iveson
Mabrel Fitzhubert: Laurena Allan
Colonel “Fritz” Fitzhubert / Peggy Gladys: Vin Knight
Cat Butler / Clotilde: Susie Sokol or Sarah Willis
Local Representative Wheatsun: Greig Sargeant
Winnifr’d Bexell: Kate Benson
The Deposed & Dethroned Grand Queen Empress Queen Patrice / RMR: Lucy Taylor
Collette Richland / Dora Fitzhubert: April Matthis
Velede: Kaneza Schaal
Miss Glynn Grills / Face of the Ghost of Jesus Christ: Maggie Hoffman
Joan Ham Hobhouse: Lindsay Hockaday
Sailor Boy / The Krampus: Ben Williams

Running time: 2 and 1/2 hours, including an intermission.

Tickets: $69

Fondly, Collette Richland is scheduled to run through October 18, 2015

Update: The show has been extended to October 24. 2015

Love and Information Review: Caryl Churchill’s 10-second Play Festival

At the end of Caryl Churchill’s dazzling experimental play “Love and Information,” theatergoers have spent two hours watching 15 actors portray 100-plus characters in more than 60 scenes, some as short as a few seconds, none longer than a few minutes — each scene, no matter how brief, with its own costumes and props: Two characters elaborately dressed as Elvis Presley impersonators, both looking as if they stayed up too late and drank too much, slouch silently in their seats, until one says: “The difficulty of getting the Israelis and Palestinians to…” Blackout. That’s the whole scene.
A woman tells a boy she is his mother, not his sister; they then argue whether he should tell his mother (actually his grandmother) that he now knows.

A bride in a frilly wedding dress and a groom in a tuxedo sit in what look like car seats, the man looking disgusted.

A man is introduced to somebody, then led to a piano, saying he doesn’t know how to play the piano, but he then sits down and plays beautifully; when he gets up, he is introduced to the same person, and says again he doesn’t know how to play the piano. (Ah, like the  amnesiac with the musical memory whom neurologist Oliver Sacks writes about, I thought, feeling smart — but it was time for the next vignette.)
Some of the scenes are amusing, some haunting, some thought-provoking. Some have delicious banter or striking twists.  Some are just puzzling. All are well-acted — not so easy an accomplishment when you have a few seconds to suggest entire lives and whole worlds.  Many of the vignettes have some clear connection with love, others with information. Not all the scenes are about both love and information, but some can lay claim to both, such as the first scene, which begins:

She: Please, please tell me

He: No

She: Please because I’ll never

He: Don’t ask, don’t ask

She: I’ll never tell

After a few minutes more of her pleading:

He: All right I’ll tell you

She: You don’t have to 

Against a backdrop of a big white cube in vertiginous perspective, scenes are furnished with park benches, or that fully working piano, or a swing set, or a bed cleverly placed upright as if the audience is looking down upon the couple in the bed from their ceiling. (The entire text of that bed scene is in the caption of the photograph above.)
“Love and Information” is an impressive technical achievement, as much a triumph of the  stage manager (Christine Catti, take a bow) and unheralded prop masters who quickly put everything in place, as of director James MacDonald.  Also deserving kudos are the set designer Miriam Buether and especially the costume designers Gabriel Berry and Andrea Hood. Sometimes the visuals seem to be the whole point of the scene, or at least what’s entertaining about it. The costumes in the clown scene, in the photograph above, are clever and hilarious.  In another scene, two women sitting next to each other on an airplane are apparently arguing about the Iraq War, but what made me laugh was the third character, a man fast asleep in the third seat.  Sound designer Christopher Shutt creates a kind of soundscape in the brief darkness during scene changes that helps tie the scenes together.

But are we meant to tie the scenes together? What does “Love and Information” all add up to? Are we supposed to add it up? Or are these like a stream of Tweets, or the little spontaneous stories we glimpse while passing by on a bicycle or in a bus, in which we ourselves supply the missing context and meaning? Is this play meant as an exercise in perception and cognition — a test? It is certainly eye-opening how much we can figure out from a single moment; this makes the very briefest scenes among the most delightful.
Is “Love and Information” also an exercise in patience? Every now and then, a number is projected on the blacked-out scrim – the numbers progress from 1 to 7. Presumably the scenes that fall within each number belong to distinct categories, but those categories are not labeled on stage or in the program.  I’m glad I didn’t know how many numbers there were until the end, because I might have started a countdown. This two-hour show with no intermission starts to feel too long. At around the point where the intermission would have been, I started feeling “Love and Information” overload. I loved it anyway.

Love and Information

by New York Theatre Workshop at the Minetta Lane Theater

by Caryl Churchill

Directed by James MacDonald

Scenic design by Miriam Buether, costume design by Gabriel Berry and Andrea Hood, lighting design by Peter Mumford, sound design by Christopher Shutt, production stage manager — Christine Catti

Cast: Phillip James Brannon, Randy Danson, Susannah Flood, Noah Galvin, Jennifer Ikeda, Karen Kandel, Irene Sofia Lucio, Nate Miller, Kellie Overbey, Adante Power, John Procaccino, Lucas Caleb Rooney, Maria Tucci, James Waterston and Zoë Winters

Love and Information is scheduled to run through Sunday, March 23, 2014

Update: Love and Information has been extended through April 6, 2014

Off-Broadway Openings in February, 2014

February2014OffBroadwayFebruary a fallow month for theater? Feh.

While it’s true there are only two plays scheduled to open in February on Broadway, there are far more Off-Broadway, part of a vibrant Off-Broadway Spring 2014 season. Below are promising shows Off-Broadway, organized chronologically by opening dates. You can attend many of these shows, and many others Off-Broadway, for just $20,  through the 20at20 promotion, if you purchase tickets to the shows anytime up to February 9th.

*Almost, Maine, by John Cariani. Produced by Transport Group at the Gym at Judson. Opening February 4.
Salty waitresses, lost tourists, tough and not-so-tough women and men crack open some beer, start their snowmobiles, pitch a tent, and gather under the northern lights to try to make sense of this strange thing called love. Since its short-lived New York debut, Almost, Maine has become one of the most produced plays around the world.

Riding the Midnight Train with Billy Hayes. Produced by Barbara Ligeti at St. Luke’s Theatre. Opening February 5.

*The Tribute Artist, by Charles BuschProduced by Primary Stages at 59E59. Opening February 9.
Charles Busch is an out-of-work female impersonator who, when his elderly landlady dies in her sleep, takes on her identity in order to hang on to her valuable Greenwich Village townhouse.

Sex Tips for Straight Women from a Gay Man. Produced by Matt Murphy Productions at The 777 Theatre. Opening February 9.

* Dinner with Friends, by Donald Margulies, a revival. Produced by Roundabout Theatre Company at the Harold & Miriam Steinberg Center for the Performing Arts. Opening February 13.

A revival of the Pulitzer Prize winning play about two couples who have been inseparable. But when one marriage unexpectedly crumbles, the couples’ lives begin to veer in opposite directions.

The Chocolate Show! A Tasty New Musical. Produced by Golly Gee Productions at the 47th Street Theatre. Opening February 14.

*Transport. Produced by Irish Rep. Opening February 16.
With a book by  Thomas Keneally (Schindler’s List) and music and lyrics by Larry Kirwan (New York City band Black 47), this musical follows the uneasy ocean voyage of Irish women who were sentenced and then exiled to the relatively uninhabited south coast of Australia in the mid-19th Century.

Bikeman: The 9/11 Theatrical Experience. Produced by Marc Agger at the BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center. OpeningFebruary 18.

*Love and Information by Caryll Churchill. Produced by New York Theatre Workshop at the Minetta Lane. Opening February 19.
Caryl Churchill returns for her seventh American premiere at New York Theatre Workshop with a theatrical kaleidoscope exploring more than a hundred characters as they try to make sense of what they find out,

My Mother Has 4 Noses, by Jonatha BrookeProduced by Patrick Rains at The Duke on 42nd Street. Opening February 20.

Kung Fu. Produced by Signature Theatre. Opening February 24;
Cole Horibe (So You Think You Can Dance) stars as Bruce Lee in David Henry Hwang’s new theater piece blending dance, Chinese opera, martial arts and drama to depict Lee’s journey from troubled Hong Kong youth to martial arts legend.

*London Wall. Produced by Mint Theatre. Opening February 24.
In this 1931 play, John Van Druten explores the tumultuous lives and love affairs of the women employed as shorthand typists in a busy solicitor’s office in 1930’s London

Ode to Joy. Produced by Rattlestick Productions at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Opening February 27.
This play written and directed by Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss, The Dying Gaul) tells the story of love, heartbreak, addiction, and illness through the eyes of Adele, an audacious painter and her destructive relations with Mala and Bill, her two lovers.

This list is provided by The League of Off Broadway Theatres and Producers.  20at20 is a promotion by the Off-Broadway Theater Alliance. The descriptions of the shows come from the shows themselves; nothing is guaranteed in advance of course, which is why I review.

* Asterisks are next to those shows to which I have been invited (and plan) to review as of this writing.