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Thursday, October 17, 2019

Linda Vista (Second Stage Theater)


By Harry Forbes

A divorced man with a deep sense of self-loathing creates havoc for the women in his orbit in Tracy Letts' somewhat overlong, but sharply written, consistently absorbing and exceedingly well acted play which premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2017, and received its West Coast premiere earlier this year at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum. 

Wheeler (Ian Barford), the play’s central character, was a once-promising photojournalist, but saddled with a profound lack of self-esteem, he's now content to toil in a dreary camera repair shop under a loathsome boss Michael (Troy West) who, when not contemplating suicide, is sexually harassing their co-worker Anita (Caroline Neff), a sturdily unflappable young woman recovering from addiction and determined not to backtrack. 

Wheeler’s sardonic friend Paul (Jim True-Frost) has just helped him move to a two-bedroom condo in the San Diego neighborhood that gives the play its title, and in short order, Paul and his wife Margaret (Sally Murphy) set Wheeler up on blind date with Jules (Cora Vander Broek), a life coach with, she reveals, a degree in “Happiness.”  Despite Wheeler’s serious misgivings, he and Jules, in fact, hit it off, and begin what would appear to be a promising relationship.

But matters become complicated when Wheeler’s neighbor Minnie (Chantel Thuy), a free-spirited 27-year-old Vietnamese drifter, knocks on his door and begs for shelter after breaking up with an abusive boyfriend. 

Barford is quite extraordinary throughout, running the gamut of emotions, and he’s barely offstage. His character’s sense of intellectual superiority and his innate narcissism make it hard for us to stay in his court for the duration. But his sense of humor -- and Letts has provided him with some very funny lines -- keeps him mostly likeable so that we can see how it is that he can appeal to the women who should know better. Unfortunately, his bad behavior eventually erodes our sympathy, and at my performance, he was even hissed at several points. 

Suffice to say, it’s an admirably vanity-free performance. He’s playing a greying, middle-aged, paunchy character, and along with the women involved, fearlessly bares it all in two extraordinarily graphic sex scenes. 

The other cast members are spot-on perfect. too. Broek conveys Jules’ cheerful optimism and heartbreaking grief when her relationship with Wheeler goes south; Thuy juggles her character’s streetwise toughness but also vulnerability; and Neff convincingly maintains a no-nonsense pragmatism in the face of an abusive work situation. West starts out as a pitiful loser, but morphs into something more sinister. True-Frost is solid as the loyal friend who, in a well-written locker room scene, pulls no punches in explaining the facts of married life to Wheeler, and Murphy as his no-nonsense wife really delivers the goods in her big second act scene. 

Besides drawing fine performances from his cast, director Dexter Bullard keeps the humor and pathos in Letts’ script in expert balance. At first, Letts’ dialogue -- funny though Wheeler’s wisecracks are -- gives the play the superficial air of sitcom writing, albeit of a superior brand, but as the narrative progresses, and the more serious themes come to the fore, the play takes on a gravitas. 

Todd Rosenthal’s revolving set, deftly lit by Marcus Doshi, allows for exceptionally fluid scene changes (e.g. Wheeler’s living room, bedroom, a bar, karaoke bar, locker room, etc. Laura Bauer’s costumes likewise are character-perfect. 

At two hours and 40 minutes, the play could benefit from a bit of trimming, though I can’t say I was bored for a moment. 

(The Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street; 2st.com or 212-541-4516; through Nov. 10)

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter (The York Theatre Company)


By Harry Forbes

I must confess I feared that Musical in Mufti’s revival of creator Ben Bagley’s 1965 revue of Cole Porter’s songs -- originally staged less than six months after the composer’s death -- might come across as terribly passe. And certainly the show’s heralding of at-the-time “neglected” Porter material would surely not still be the case. After all, thanks to enterprising groups like Encores, the New Amsterdam Theater Company, Musicals Tonight, Medicine Show, and Mufti itself, all of the shows from which these rarities derive have been revived in full, and in some cases, recorded. 

Additionally, dedicated Porter champions such as Steve Ross and the late Bobby Short (who appeared in one of the original editions of the show) have further resurrected an enormous spectrum of his songs. 

But much to my surprise, this revival -- which faithfully utilizes Bagley’s original linking narration -- registers as fresh as ever, thanks to resourceful director Pamela Hunt and a particularly well chosen and attractive cast comprising Danny Gardner, Lauren Molina, Diane Phelan, and Lee Roy Reams. 

And remarkably, although die-hard show buffs will recognize the purview of most of the songs, the show’s adventurous playlist is still, I’m reasonably certain, unfamiliar to most audiences. 

Molina is a delightful comic presence throughout the show, though she also scores on the more thoughtful ballads too, like “I Loved Him (But He Didn’t Love Me)” and “Down in the Depths (on the Ninetieth Floor).”  It was interesting to hear her contrasting, but equally valid, interpretations of the “Fifty Million Frenchmen” numbers which we had just heard a couple of weeks ago in York’s presentation of that show. 

Phelan received two of the biggest ovations at my performance with her feelingly vocalized “I Happen to Like New York” and then “After You, Who?” in the second act. She demonstrates her comedic chops with Beatrice Lillie’s “When I Was a Little Cuckoo” and her naughty duet with Gardner on “But in the Morning, No!”

Veteran Reams starts things off as an affable narrator, later offering solid renditions of “I’m in Love Again,” “I’m a Gigolo” and “Experiment,” and along the way, giving vent to his inner Marlene Dietrich and Sophie Tucker.  Mutli-talented hoofer Gardner reminds us what a polished singer he is with such chestnuts as “At Long Last Love” and “I Worship You,” the latter also from “Fifty Million Frenchmen” and, of course, dances as impressively as always to Trent Kidd’s bright choreography. 

Eric Svejcar’s keyboard accompaniment is deft and often exciting, like his spirited rendition of “Anything Goes” in the show’s overture, and adds vocal harmony to such numbers as “Let’s Fly Away.” 

Projected photos of Porter, courtesy of projection designer Jamie Goodwin,  pay homage to the original production concept of projected paintings. The creator of those images, Shirley Kaplan, appeared at the post-show talkback at my performance, and spoke warmly of creator Bagley.

Based on the extant CD of the 1965 show, which includes not only the greatly abridged original studio cast LP, but live performances, York’s production proves faithful to the song selection (if not always the gender of the vocalist on individual numbers) and Bagley’s original linking narration which made a point of the contrast between the serious world events from the First World War and beyond and Porter’s blithely urbane and witty songs. 

Though original cast members Kaye Ballard, Harold Lang, and the others were inimitable, all in all, the vocal stylings of York’s cast makes for a smoother overall listen. 

Far though we are from the ethos of the mid-1960s, Hunt and her talented cast made the show much more than just an interesting relic, and perhaps, I would suggest, one that could sustain a fully staged regular run. 

(The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s (entrance on East 54th Street, just east of Lexington Avenue); www.yorktheatre.org or 212-935-5820; through October 20)

Photo by Ben Strothmann: Lee Roy Reams, Danny Gardner, Lauren Molina, Diane Phelan.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Slave Play (John Golden Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

This provocative, often humorous, intentionally disturbing play by wunderkind Jeremy O’Harris has come to Broadway after premiering to acclaim last year at New York Theatre Workshop. I didn’t see it there, but visually, I can report it looks just fine on the larger stage of the Golden.

Without revealing more spoilers than necessary, let me say the play divides into three distinct sections. In the first part, we observe the sexual shenanigans between an antebellum female slave and her overseer; a plantation mistress and her Negro manservant; and an indentured white servant and, incongruously, the male slave under whom he labors. (In these sections, sexual content is high and fairly graphic.)

In the next (and longest) section, we find ourselves at a mixed-race couples counseling session ("antebellum sexual performance therapy"). It’s designed to help black partners reconnect with their white partners from whom they are no longer receiving sexual pleasure, a phenomenon labelled racial identify dysfunction (RID).

The session is run by partners (personal and professional) black Teá (Chalia La Tour) and hispanic Patricia (Irene Sofia Lucio). The humor of their psychobabble here is deliciously spot-on. The participants comprise Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango, the one replacement in the otherwise intact Off-Broadway cast) and her white British husband Jim (versatile Paul Alexander Nolan); black Gary (Ato Blankson-Wood) and his actor boyfriend Dustin (James Cusati-Moyer); and Alana (Annie McNamara) and her light-skinned black husband Phillip (Sullivan Jones). The concluding part offers us a dramatic encounter between Kaneisha and Jim which distills all that has come before. 

The cast is superb with Cusasti-Moyer, McNamara, and Jones especially generating big laughs. Cusati-Moyer embodies the archetypal self-absorbed actor and one who refuses to identify as white but, on the other hand, never precisely defines his ethnicity, McNamara an overly earnest acolyte of the group desperately referring to her notes for clarity but, in fact, clueless to her own issues; and Jones playing endearingly befuddlement until clarity finally dawns.

For their parts, La Tour and Lucio are a hoot as the impassioned facilitators, relentlessly determined to “process” every moment, cheering each emotional outburst as a positive breakthrough, while inadvertently revealing that they too have some serious interpersonal issues. They are very funny, and Lucio is particularly so when she allows Patricia’s Latina heritage to surface when it suits her. 

Blankson-Wood, Kalukango and Nolan have the more serious roles, and the last two bring the play to its emotional conclusion. Kalukango, mostly silent for the long second part, has a huge monologue in the last, and impresses with her raw emotion, though elsewhere I had occasional audibility issues with her dialogue. 

Harris’ themes of racial identity and racial trauma, and the psychological warfare of white supremacy, all of which, he contends, have their roots in slavery, are intriguing, though I’m not sure I quite buy all of it. He’s clearly a terrific writer, as demonstrated last season by “Daddy” at The New Group, another lengthy and interesting work, albeit less brilliant than this. 

The intellectual arguments, interesting though they are, get a little bogged down with talkiness both in the counseling session scene and in Kaneisha’s lengthy concluding monologue. And the play could benefit by a bit of trimming. (As it is, “Slave Play” -- its title a punning reference, by the way -- runs two full hours without a break.)

Clint Ramos’ set design -- a mirrored surface in which the audience sees its own reflection, as well as a plantation panorama projected on the mezzanine balustrade -- is attractive,  though clearly meant to make us feel uncomfortable. Jiydun Chang provides some striking lighting effects which tellingly enhance the play, particularly during Kaneisha’s harrowing monologue. Lindsay Jones’ sound and original music add to the mood.  Dede Akyite antebellum and contemporary costumes are, respectively, fun and character defining. 

Director Robert O’Hara -- himself an award-winning playwright -- directs both halves most persuasively, and navigates the play’s serious and humorous mood shifts deftly.

(Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street; 212-239-6200 or Telecharge.com; through January 19)

The full cast of SLAVE PLAY (L to R): Ato Blankson-Wood, Chalia La Tour, Joaquina Kalukango (kneeling), Irene Sofia Lucio, Sullivan Jones, Annie McNamara, Paul Alexander Nolan, and James Cusati-Moyer. (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Fifty Million Frenchmen (The York Theatre Company)


By Harry Forbes

York’s "Musicals in Mufti" Cole Porter celebration has kicked off with a rare staging of the composer-lyricist’s 1929 hit, one which -- according to Porter historian Robert Kimball who spoke at the talkback after my performance -- was a crucial show in Porter's development. From that point on, Kimball contends, Porter was a major creative force on the Great White Way.

I first encountered the piece -- one of Porter’s best, chockablock as it is with one good tune after another -- at a 1991 concert performance at the Alliance Francaise, led by conductor Evans Haille who, together with Tommy Krasker, lovingly restored the score for the Cole Porter Centennial, and came up with a performable acting edition. The original company had well over 100 players, unrealistic in a modern economy.

That concert led to a marvelous recording still available on New World Records. 

As chance would have it, Haile is now York’s Executive Director at the York, so he was on hand to provide half of the sprightly two-piano accompaniment, along with David Hancock Turner. With the period-perfect addition of Dan Erben’s banjo, the score tripped along merrily. 

Since that 1991 resurrection, New York has seen the show -- which, among its treasures features the standard “You Do Something To Me” -- on a few more occasions. There was London’s Lost Musical series, led by Ian Marshall Fisher (also at the Alliance Francaise), Barbara Vann’s shoestring Medicine Show (which had actually predated the aforementioned concert in 1983, though she revived it in 2012), and Mel Miller’s Musicals Tonight. Most satisfying of all, Ohio Light Opera mounted a terrific full-scale staged production with orchestra just last year. 

Though the title is “Fifty Million Frenchmen,” the focus of Herbert Fields’ book is actually not on the French, but a collection of  Americans visiting Paris. Wealthy Peter Forbes (Andy Kelso) becomes enamored of Looloo Carroll (Evy Ortiz), travelling with her social-climbing Indiana parents (Karen Murphy and Ray DeMattis). Peter’s mischievous friend Billy (Cole Burden) bets him $50,000 he can’t win Looloo’s heart and hand in a month’s time without his usual financial resources in hand. A fixed horse race critically figures in the plot before (spoiler) Peter wins the girl minutes before the bet’s deadline. 

Colorfully fleshing out the character roster, there’s cabaret singer May (dynamic Ashley Blanchet), Looloo’s lovelorn friend Joyce (Madeline Trumble), and sardonic fur-buyer Violet (Kristy Cates), and Peter and Billy’s buddy Michael (David Michael Bevis) who happens to be an old school chum of Joyce.

Wade McCollum is solid, has has some bright bits as Hotel Claridge manager (and sometime maitre d’) Louis Pernasse, and Sam Balzac is amusing as a waiter.

The youthful cast was attractive, if frankly not in the same league as that of the 1991 production with its blue-chip lineup of Howard McGillin, Kim Criswell, Jason Graae, and Karen Ziemba. Still, considering the present players had only first seen their parts a few days earlier and mine was technically only the third preview performance, they can be cut some slack, several instances of not projecting adequately notwithstanding. Satisfyingly delivered, however, were Murphy’s “The Queen of Terre Haute,” Burden’s “I Worship You,” McCollum and Balzac’s “It Isn’t Done,” and Cates’ “Where Would You Get Your Coat?” and “The Tale of the Oyster.” 

Director Hans Friedrichs kept things moving with nicely resourceful staging. Trent Kidd’s choreography was another plus, allowing Bevis and Trumble a happy interlude with “You’ve Got That Thing”  and Trumble and Ortiz with “Let’s Step Out,” especially.

Chelsea McPhilimy’s projection design, including some scene-setting vintage footage of Paris, enhanced the proceedings. 

I look forward to York’s next two Porter offerings: “The Decline and Fall of the Entire World as Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter” (10/12-10/20), and “Panama Hattie” (10/26-11/3). 

(The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s (entrance on East 54th Street, just east of Lexington Avenue; 212-935-5820, or online at www.yorktheatre.org; through October 6)

Photo Credit: Ben Strothmann. Pictured (left to right): Karen Murphy, Ray DeMattis, Kristy Cates, Cole Burden, Andy Kelso, Evy Ortiz, Madeline Trumble, David Michael Bevis, Ashley Blanchet, Wade McCollum, Sam Balzac

Saturday, September 28, 2019

The Height of the Storm (Manhattan Theatre Club)


By Harry Forbes

If it’s by French playwright Florian Zeller, there's a pretty good chance that the subject matter will have something to do with dementia. What continues to amaze, however, is how much substantive material he has been able to mine from that singular subject. 

So here we have something of a companion piece to the first of his plays to come to these shores, “The Father,” in which Frank Langella gave such a memorable performance as the titular character André also courtesy of Manhattan Theatre Club. 

Once more, we have a central male character, again named André, and again a distinguished writer, but now in a state of pitiable befuddlement and terror, sadly out of touch with reality. Apart from his wife Madeleine (superbly wry  Eileen Atkins) -- forever cooking André’s beloved mushrooms from their garden -- and daughters, dedicated if bossy Anne (Amanda Drew) and less committed Elise (Lisa O’Hare), he's utterly confused about the other characters in the play, identified as only The Woman (Lucy Cohu) and The Man (James Hillier).

We’re not even sure, of course, if all the family members are alive, at least not at first, but there are clues along the way, including flowers that would appear to have mysteriously arrived without a card. Is their purpose celebratory or condolatory? What does seem clear is that André is not able to live alone in the beautiful country house “somewhere not far from Paris” where he and his wife of 50 years have lived comfortably for so long, and Anne has somehow been entrusted with sorting out his papers and diary.

Anthony Ward’s high-ceilinged and meticulously detailed kitchen/library set, stunningly lit by Hugh Vanstone, makes the place look as idyllic as you can imagine. Besides accurately suggesting the various times of day, Vanstone’s lighting tellingly helps delineate -- up to a point -- the scenes that are real from those that may not be. There seem to be plans afoot to move André to a place where he’ll be looked after. 

The agent of that move might be The Woman (whose persona seems to morph from former flame of André to real estate agent) or The Man (Elise’s rather callous fiance and seemingly an estate agent himself).

When the Pinteresque play begins, it is the morning after a fierce storm, which in a literal sense, gives the play its title. Translated like all the previous Zeller works here by English playwright Christopher Hampton, it was done last year at Wyndham’s Theatre in London and has come with its superb cast almost intact, O’Hare being the Broadway newbie, but she fits in seamlessly. 
                                   
Jonathan Kent’s direction of the play with its ever shifting narrative and time frame could not be more stunningly calibrated, and for all the ambiguity and overall tone of melancholy, the final moments of the play are tremendously moving.    

Pryce is tremendous, ranting and raving, his frustration at not understanding, heartbreakingly real, especially as we can see his former stance was highly authoritarian. HIs pathetic repetition of “What is my position here?” in one speech -- powerfully delivered by Pryce -- has something of ring of Lear’s repeated use of “never.” And indeed there are obvious parallels to “King Lear” in this play. Atkins plays Madeleine as a pillar of common sense fortitude. 
                                   
The play runs 80 minutes without an interval.            
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street; 212-239-6200 or manhattantheatreclub.com.           
Photo by Joan Marcus:  (l-r) Lucy Cohu, Eileen Atkins, Amanda Drew, Jonathan Pryce, Lisa O’Hare.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Derren Brown: Secret (Cort Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

What a splendid entertainment this is! Of all the mentalists you may have seen before, Olivier Award-winning author and UK TV personality Derren Brown’s particular brand of wizardry is in a class by itself. His tricks -- and it almost pains me to characterize them with such a prosaic word -- are mind boggling, and will have you wondering how he could possibly have accomplished them. 

With seeming transparency, Brown explains the science behind the psychological manipulation that anchors his act. He demonstrates this right at the start with a young lady from the audience whom he asks to hold a $20 bill in one of her hands, and over and over again, pretty unerringly declares with accuracy which hand holds the bill.

The second act, wherein he discerns sealed questions from the audience with the same astounding accuracy, performs the same stunt blindfolded, and then asks the audience members to telepathically transmit questions to him are, again, extraordinarily successful. He insists there are no plants in the audience, and when he articulates what certain audience members are thinking or concealing, the look of genuine astonishment or deep embarrassment on their faces says it all. (A roving camcorder comes in close so we can all see this for ourselves.)

In a couple of instances, Brown briefly puts his subjects to sleep through hypnosis, and they would seem to be genuinely under his spell. I overheard one remarking in befuddlement to his companion on leaving the theater, “I don’t know...when I got up on that stage, it was like I was in a trance.”

Brown emphasizes several times that he’s not a psychic or mind-reader and then, of course, proceeds to demonstrate skills that would seem to prove quite the contrary.

Brown doesn’t get around to explaining the title of the show till the end of the second act, but when he does, it’s a doozy. He does begin the show, however, with a confession that when he was younger, his own personal secret was that he was gay, and he didn’t come out till he was 31. But the biographical revelations pretty much stops there. As he explains, everyone constructs a “story” that informs his or her life, and that statement is more or less the theme of the evening.

If case you were wondering, you needn’t be fearful of enforced participation. Unless perhaps you allow your photo to be taken upon entry to the theater or if you catch one of the frisbees Brown throws into the audience when he’s trolling for volunteers, and even so, he sometimes explains that he’s only looking for men or women of a certain demographic.

He’s got quite a compelling personality, full of charisma. And his gentle ribbing of the audience at times sometimes put me amusingly in mind of Barry Humphries in his Dame Edna mode.

At the start of the show, Brown enjoins reviewers not to talk about the show in any detail, so perhaps even now, I’ve said too much. 

Takeshi Kata’s scenic design, Ben Stanton’s lighting, Jill BC Du Boff’s sound, and Caite Hevner’s projection design are contribute to the sparsely elegant overall presentation. 

This isn’t one of those 80 minutes without an interval shows you might expect from a one-person show; it’s a satisfyingly full two-and-a-half hours with intermission. 

Though I didn’t catch the show during its Drama Desk-winning engagement last spring at the Atlantic Theatre Company’s intimate venue, I can attest to how superbly it plays in the larger venue of the Cort Theatre. 

“Derren Brown: Secret” was co-written (and very cleverly so) by Brown, Andrew Nyman and Andrew O’Connor. The latter two also co-directed the show which, make no mistake, is as grandly theatrical and emotionally potent as anything currently on the boards on or off Broadway. 

(Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street; 212-239-6200 or derrenbrownsecret.com; through January 4)

Friday, September 20, 2019

Fern Hill (59E59 Theaters)


By Harry Forbes

Three couples -- lifelong friends -- come together at a well-appointed upstate New York farmhouse for dinner and conviviality and ponder the notion that they might all live there, commune-style, to care for each other in their declining years. All are enthused about the idea except for one who believes they’ll grow tired of each other in such close proximity. 

This would seem to be the principal, if not especially riveting, conflict of the play until, that is, a revelation about the naysayer’s infidelity, one which then shifts the focus to whether or not his wife will or will not forgive him.

“Fern Hill” was developed at the 2017 Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwright’s Conference and received its world premiere at the New Jersey Repertory Company -- with some of the current cast -- last year, receiving generally respectable reviews.

Jill Eikenberry and Mark Blum are the farmhouse couple Sunny and Jer, she a budding artist, he a writer and teacher. They are among the A-listers who make up the present cast, which also includes Mark Linn-Baker and Jodi Long as aging rocker Billy and wife Michiko, and John Glover and Ellen Parker as artist Vincent and photographer-wife Darla. They’re all pros to be sure, and their stage savvy goes a long way towards making actor-author Michael Tucker’s comedy-drama pleasantly tolerable. 

The group -- all artists or academics -- has gathered ostensibly to celebrate the husbands’ respective birthdays: Billy is 60, Jer 70, and Vincent 80.This is the sort of setup with which Alan Ayckbourn in his heyday might have had a field day. But Tucker’s text elicits, at best, only mild chuckles (many courtesy of Linn-Baker’s wise-cracking Billy) when it’s not dealing with infidelities, aging sex lives, and the bounds of friendship. 

Mostly, though, there’s just a lot of meandering chatter, congenial enough certainly but hardly enough to hang a play on. We do like these characters, except perhaps for the self-absorbed Jer who, we are told, used to be “adorable” in Sunny’s eyes. But, as written, he certainly seems anything but, apart from his sympathetic ministrations to Vincent after the latter’s hip replacement. 

There are several observant scenes such as a nicely written and played exchange between Sunny and Vincent who finds it difficult to talk about intimacy. But for the most part, there’s a static quality and not much more depth than average TV fare.

The cast, as noted, is a definite plus. Eikenberry is nicely sympathetic, though her character’s tolerance of Jer, something of a head-scratcher. Glover is masterful as always. And Long is an especially bright presence. 

Nadia Tass’ naturalistic direction anchors the proceedings in something approximating a believable reality.

Jessica Park’s nicely detailed farmhouse set, lighted by Kate McGee, pleases the eye throughout. And Patricia Doherty’s costumes, Kate McGee’s lighting, and Kenneth Goodwin’s sound are all fine.

(59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street; 646-892-7999 or www.59e59.org; through October 20)

Photo by Carol Rosegg: L-R: John Glover, Mark Linn-Baker, Ellen Parker, Jodi Long, Jill Eikenberry, Mark Blum in Michael Tucker’s FERN HILL at 59E59 Theaters.