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Monday, December 17, 2018

American Son (Booth Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

A separated mixed race couple -- African-American Kendra (Kerry Washington) and white Scott (Steven Pasquale) -- wait anxiously for news of their son Jamal who’s gone missing after leaving home in his car the night before. They fear that as a strapping six foot two black kid with cornrows and baggy pants, he may have run afoul of a bigoted cop, despite the young man’s impeccable education and good breeding. Rookie policeman Larkin (Jeremy Jordan) at the station house is none too forthcoming with details, and the parents’ hysteria grows with each passing moment, as they wait anxiously for the promised officer (Eugene Lee) who will know more.

Christopher Demos-Brown’s play is reasonably suspenseful, and offers four meaty roles to his actors, especially for Washington, but this feels rather like a TV police procedural with a didactic overlay of Black Lives Matter and present day race relations messaging. Still, those vitally important issues are intelligently presented from every angle.

At my performance, I felt the crowd was a bit restless, though the candy wrappers and fidgeting subsided as the play neared its tense climax, and gave the cast a deserved enthusiastic ovation at the end.

Demos-Brown does his best to to give us conflict, but one has to suspend some disbelief as each time Larkin or Lieutenant Stokes seems about to impart a tidbit of crucial information, the parents’ aggressive questioning hardly allows the officers to impart what they know.

Racial tensions come to the fore not only between Kendra and Scott and the officers, but between themselves as they seemingly never did during their years of marriage. Jamal was primed to go to West Point, but it seems he had conflicting issues. And though Scott believes he has a good relationship with Jamal, there were serious identify issues, and Jamal was deeply disturbed by Scott’s walking out on Kendra.

I’m reluctant to give more details as even the smallest points are revealed very slowly.

Washington has the lion’s share of dramatic outbursts and superbly displays the emotions of an understandably distraught mother. She arrives at the station house first, and indignantly rebuts the rookie’s suggestions that her Emily Dickinson-quoting son might have a street name or a gold tooth. Pasquale whose character is an FBI man and tellingly, is able to wrest more information from Larkin than his wife had done, has the requisite authority. Jordan, in a rather startling and impressive change of pace, does very well as the doltish cop putting his casually racist foot in his mouth at every turn. And Lee strikes just the right note of paternal empathy and no-nonsense authority when he makes his late entrance.

Kenny Leon directs with customary skill, keeping the tension as taut as the didacticism of the play will allow.

Derek McLane’s set -- the waiting room of a Miami police station --  feels as coldly desolate as such a place would in the wee hours of the morning, with complementary lighting by Peter Kaczorowski.  

Peter Fitzgerald’s sound design, including the realistic thunderstorm outside, adds to the bleak ambience.

The ending of this one act play is shockingly abrupt, but the audience responds emotionally, demonstrating they were, in fact, absorbed all along.

(Booth Theatre, 222 W 45th Street; or 212-239-6200; through January 27)

Friday, December 14, 2018

Network (Belasco Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

I must confess I have not been the keenest fan of trendy director Ivo van Hove, but this exciting production of “Network,” based on the 1976 film by writer Paddy Chayefsky, may have just turned the tide for me. Following the screenplay virtually verbatim, this stage adaptation -- acclaimed at London’s National Theatre -- proves quite a thrilling piece of theater, and Bryan Cranston knocks it way out of the park with his sensational performance in the Oscar-winning Peter Finch role of Howard Beale, a network anchorman whose firing after 25 years leads to an on-air breakdown.

That breakdown -- including an audacious vow to kill himself on air in a week’s time -- leads to high ratings and a callous decision on the part of the fictional UBS network brass to keep him on the air. The decision is fueled by ratings-crazed programming chief Diana Christensen who takes control of the show.

The movie cast of Finch, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, and Robert Duvall was pretty unbeatable, but in addition to Cranston’s outstanding work here, Tony Goldwyn and Tatiana Maslany perform impressively as news chief (and Beale friend) Max Schumacher and ruthless programming head Diana Christensen who wrestles the now high-rated “Howard Beale Show” (Beale now labeled the “mad prophet of the airwaves”) away from Max, while engaging in a torrid affair with the aging (and long-time married) news veteran. (There’s an exceptionally vivid simulated sex scene, which follows a live conversation between Max and Diana on the street outside the theater before seamlessly moving into the alley and then onto the stage.)

Not all the roles are as felicitously cast as the three principals, but certainly Alyssa Bresnahan is outstanding as Max’s wife, and delivers her impassioned speech to Max about his infidelity with much the same bravado as Beatrice Straight in the film. Nick Wyman also makes the most of his role of Communications Corporation of America head, who appears God-like on a high platform, as he puts Howard in his place about the economic realities of television.

Faithful as Hall has stayed to Chayefsky, much of the detail of the Ecumenical Liberation Party, the radical organization that Diana enlists to provide real-life terrorist footage, has been trimmed in favor of the main story arc.

Jan Versweyveld’s set, a mass of video screens both large and small (mirroring the TV monitor imagery of the film), and segmented playing areas for control room, set, office, bar, is highly effective. When an area is out of one’s sightline, one can always watch the screens. And hand-held cameras are able to follow Cranston’s every move, adding a rare intimacy to his performance. Tal Yarden’s video design, so important to the overall concept here, is quite outstanding; period commercials and actual news footage of the period abound.

An D’Huys’ costumes and Eric Sleichim’s sound design and music are also tops.

Adapter Lee (“Billy Elliot”) Hall kept the time frame as it was in the film, with references to Patty Hearst, Gerald Ford, and so on, but the overall vibe seems resolutely contemporary. Certainly, the themes are still uncannily relevant: the public’s mindless devotion to the tube (though, of course, now we would add the internet), the obsession for high ratings at (almost) any cost, the public’s disaffection for the status quo, and the mindless adulation of a demagogue figure.

Though the Belasco audience dutifully shouts out Beale’s “mad as hell” trademark slogan as requested by the UBS warm-up guy (Barzin Akhavan), there’s plenty of genuine response during the post-show video showing a succession of presidential inaugurals. The Obama sequence, for instance, is, predicatably, roundly cheered, while the one for You-Know-Who generates almost frighteningly vociferous booing.

But political matters aside, Cranston is delivering one of the major performances of the season and must not be missed.

(Belasco Theatre, 111 W 44th Street; or 212-239-6200; through April 28)

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

The Hard Problem (Lincoln Center Theater)

By Harry Forbes

Faith in a higher being is pitted against hard-nosed science in Tom Stoppard’s latest play which was first mounted in London in 2015. It was Nicholas Hytner’s last production as head of the National Theatre, and it was the great playwright’s first new play in nine years.

At about one hour and 40 minutes, without intermission, and with an appealing heroine to give humanizing ballast to the intellectual arguments, “The Hard Problem” – that is, getting to the roots of human consciousness -- proves rather less daunting than some of his other works, which is not say that you might not find yourself a bit muddled somewhere along the line.

Cannily directed on this shore by Jack O’Brien and sharply acted by an expert cast, it has much to commend it. The action plays out on David Rockwell’s attractively adaptable set, lighted by Japhy Weideman. Catherine Zuber has provided the apt costumes. There’s an affecting piano score by Bob James.

When we first meet Hilary (Adelaide Clemens), she’s a psychology student applying for a position as a research assistant at a neuroscience think tank, the Krohl Institute for Brain Science. Despite vastly different worldviews, she embarks on an affair with her tutor Spike (Chris O’Shea).

Hilary believes in God, and says her prayers every night, while sincerely endeavoring to be a good person, a concept of dubious merit to Spike who believes, much like her other colleagues at Krohl, that altruism is merely a form of Darwinian self-interest. Hilary’s fervent prayers concern the child she had as a teenager and had to give up. In one poignant scene, she asks the atheistic Spike to pray for the girl whose whereabouts she doesn’t know. But Spike refuses, even challenging the genuineness of maternal love.

The play wraps up with a resolution that is either proof of Divine Providence or simply an instance of mere chance.

The cast is excellent including Eshan Bajpay as Amal, a fellow applicant to the Institute, then colleague, Robert Petkoff as her supervisor Leo, Karoline Xu as her adoring math genius protégé Bo, and Jon Tenney as her alternately sensitive and hard-nosed hedge-funder who runs the Institute with the hope of finding a connection between the brain and financial patterns.

(Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 West 65 Street; or 212-239-6200; through January 6)

Photo by Paul Kolnik: Chris O'Shea and Adelaide Clemens

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Mother of the Maid (The Public Theater)

By Harry Forbes

This clever and absorbing play tells the familiar story of Joan of Arc from the perspective of the saint’s mother. In playwright Jane Anderson’s hands, it’s a conceit that really works.

And best of all, it provides a great vehicle for Glenn Close in her first New York performance since her much acclaimed resurrection of Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard.” And what a contrast!

Without makeup and outfitted (by Jane Greenwood) as the very picture of a hardworking, pragmatic farmer’s wife leading a hardscrabble existence. By turns simple, wise, critical, loving, determined, sorrowful and bravely steadfast, she runs an impressive gamut.

As for Joan -- beautifully played by Grace Van Patton -- she’s first a moody teenager, concealing the miraculous vision she finally admits to her mother Isabelle, then increasingly confident in her mission, but this is Isabelle Arc’s story.

Neither Isabelle nor her husband Jacques (an excellent Dermot Crowley) trust the veracity of Joan’s heavenly injunction to lead an army, and adamantly oppose her stated plan to rout the English who are occupying France. In fact, Jacques beats her and orders her brother Pierre (Andrew Hovelson) tie her to her bed.

But the local priest Father Gilbert (Daniel Pearce) intercedes and informs them the local bishop truly believes her story. The parents -- still skeptical -- eventually get on board and even follow Joan to the Dauphin’s court, though at first Isabelle comforts herself that Joan’s presence in the army is only “to keep the soldiers cheerful.”

There, Nicole (Kelley Curran in a lovely performance), a gracious court lady, takes Isabelle under wing and expresses great regard for Joan and admiration for her mother, but Isabelle will not be patronized. Pierre is made a knight and sent into battle with Joan, while Jacques, ever a caring father despite his gruffness, enjoins Pierre to look after her.

The narrative follows its inevitable course, but as it’s all from Isabelle’s perspective, if you think you’ve had your fill of Saint Joan this year -- after Manhattan Theatre Club’s solid revival -- you needn’t worry that this play covers the same ground.

John Lee Beatty’s scenic design -- which morphs from farmhouse to court banquet hall to prison -- is skillfully evocative, and Lap Chi Chu’s lighting provides a hugely important element in the intimate Anspacher space.

Anderson’s dialogue -- a mix of period and present-day jargon (and expletives) -- seems entirely apt throughout. (The playwright wrote the screenplay for Close’s acclaimed film “The Wife.”)

Director Matthew Penn draws fine performances from all and helms a well-paced production right from the start up through the moving last moments.

(The Public’s Anspacher Theater,  425 Lafayette Street; 212-967-7555 or; through December 23)

Photo by Joan Marcus: Glenn Close and Grace Van Patten

Monday, November 26, 2018

Thom Pain (based on nothing) (SignatureTheatre)

By Harry Forbes

Michael C. Hall, no stranger to playwright Will Eno, having appeared in the “The Realistic Joneses” on Broadway in 2014, takes on Eno’s intriguing 2004 monologue and delivers quite a bravura performance.

From his first few minutes on stage in almost total darkness, Hall authoritatively commands the stage with his voice alone. Eventually the lights come on, and there he is, attired in a dark suit with tie (courtesy of costume designer Anita Yavich), addressing the audience, as if extemporaneously, and ruminating in a seemingly stream-of-consciousness discourse about the meaning of existence, our part of the universe, life’s pain and randomness, love and fear, free will, and other weighty matters.

Alternately world-weary, teasing, forgetful, confidential, affable and severe, throughout the play, he toys with the audience. At one point, he descends into the auditorium, looking for a volunteer to join him on stage. (It’s one of those scary “Oh, please don’t let it be me” moments, especially as he indicates it’s for someone who might “like a little violence.”) I won’t reveal what transpires.

His character’s musings begin with the image of a small boy standing by a puddle whose beloved dog gets electrocuted in front of him by a downed power line. He would seem to be speaking of himself, but we never really know for sure.

Later there’s talk of a past failed relationship but details are sketchy. And there’s lots of animal imagery.”I don’t like magic,” he asserts a couple of times, but then seems on the verge of performing some.

The piece (only about 70 minutes)  is, by its nature, repetitive, and one man sitting close to the stage rudely or perhaps just unthinkingly, sighed audibly several times, probably echoing the feeling of others. But the play is thought-provoking, and Hall proves himself a master of his craft. What a marathon part! In addition to the sheer memorization required for such a lengthy monologue, the work is filled with shifting moods and endless non-sequiturs. Laughter, when it comes, is slightly uncomfortable, especially as early on, Hall’s character chides the audience for its uneasy chuckles.

There’s plenty of intentional humor here, though. “You’ve changed,” a woman once said to him, be adds it was he adds, “the night we met.” And the light banter throughout balances Eno’s more sobering insights into what makes us human, including our memories, our history, and our thoughts.

Amy Rubin’s set -- mostly a bare stage with some upstage props: a door frame, chair, ladder water cooler -- echoes the desolation and mystery of the piece. Jen Schriever’s lighting is key to supporting the text.

Oliver Butler, who directed the premiere of Eno’s “The Open House,” shows his affinity for the playwright’s work with a sensitive and cannily-paced production.

(The Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street;; through December 2).

Photo by Joan Marcus: Michael  C. Hall in Thom  Pain (based  on nothing)

Saturday, November 24, 2018

The Prom (Longacre Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

A group of narcissistic New York theater folk, stung by bad reviews and bemoaning their stalemated careers, decides to reinvigorate their respective reputations by championing a worthy cause. When they hear of an Indiana high school student whose plan to bring her girlfriend to the prom results in the event being cancelled, the four actors and their press agent (Josh Lamon) think they've hit on just the ticket to generate some self-aggrandizing headlines.

From this unlikely premise (concept by Jack Viertel), writers Bob Martin (“The Drowsy Chaperone”) and Chad Beguelin (“Disney’s Aladdin”) have fashioned a very amusing, crowd-pleasing trifle, half show business spoof, half high school musical. With catchy music by Matthew Sklar (“Elf,” “The Wedding Singer”) and smart lyrics by Beguelin, the show is blithely irreverent, filled with Broadway insider jokes, and ultimately, genuinely touching.

Beth Leavel and Brooks Ashmanskas are Dee Dee Allen and Barry Glickman, stars of a roundly roasted and recently shuttered Eleanor Roosevelt musical bio. Christopher Sieber is Trent Oliver, Juilliard graduate (and don’t you forget it) and once in a 1990s sitcom, but now waiting tables, and Angie Schworer is a perennial “Chicago” ensemble dancer never getting her big chance to play Roxie.

At my performance, Leavel, who had taken ill earlier in the day, was replaced by Kate Marilley who was quite marvelous, playing the ego and self-centered star to the hilt with a great voice and assured comic timing. Ashmanskas is a campy whirling dervish who feels special empathy for the high schooler Emma (beautifully played and sung by Caitlin Kinnunen).

Michael Potts is the very empathetic school principal who, surprisingly, happens to be not only a Broadway show fan, and also one long enamored of Dee Dee, whom he invites for dinner at Applebee’s.

Isabelle McCalla is lovely as Emma’s secret girlfriend Alyssa, the daughter of the strident PTA leader (Courteney Collins) who opposes the prom, having no idea of her daughter’s potential involvement.

All the principals get their big musical moments. Schworer’s “Zaaz,” wherein she attempts to liven up the dour Emma with some typical Fosse moves, is a surefire second act showstopper. Ashmanskas brings down the house with his wildly energetic “Barry Is Going to Prom” number. Siebert has a rousing gospel number “Love Thy Neighbor” as he preaches to Emma’s intolerant classmates. And at the reviewed performance, Marilley got to strut her stuff and show what made Dee Dee a star with “The Lady’s Improving."

Kinnunen’s eleven o’clock number “Unruly Heart” is lovely, and ditto her yearning duet with McCalla, “Dance with You.”

Casey Nicholaw -- fresh from mining similar territory with “Mean Girls” -- directs and choreographs with plenty of his customary liveliness and comic sensibility.

I found Brian Ronan’s sound design rather unnecessarily loud and harsh. But no complaints about Scott Park’s scenic design, Natasha Katz’s lighting, or Ann Roth and Matthew Pachtman’s costumes which are all first-rate.

(Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street; or 212-239-6200)

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Lifespan of a Fact (Studio 54)

By Harry Forbes

A meticulous fact-checker at a literary magazine clashes with a writer with scant regard for facts in this entertaining adaptation of the 2012 book of the same name.

A bearded Daniel Radcliffe (very funny and thoroughly convincing as a Yank) plays fact-checker Jim Fingal, and Bobby Cannavale is writer John D’Agata. Their dispute -- which actually played out over several years -- is condensed down to a tension-filled long weekend.

Cherry Jones is Emily, the magazine’s editor who assigns the complex editing task to ambitious intern Jim, a Harvard grad anxious to prove himself, and she is quickly mortified to learn that her distinguished writer has willfully misstated enough facts to fill Jim’s 130-page spreadsheet, all in the name of a greater artistic Truth.

Even at 85 intermission-less minutes, the arguments for factual veracity versus John’s skewed concept becomes just a tad repetitious in the otherwise sharp and witty script credited to the triumvirate of Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell. But the three stars are so accomplished and such a pleasure to watch, that is of little import. And, humor aside, the basic arguments about truth and facts has particularly added resonance in our present era.

The article in question -- actually, essay as John insists his work be called -- concerns the suicide of a teenager in Las Vegas. But among John’s numerous reworking of facts -- along with such minutiae as the number of topless bars and the name of particular saloon -- is his much more questionable assertion that his subject’s leap off a hotel roof was the only such jumping suicide that day. In fact, a young woman took her life in the same manner, but that detail doesn’t suit John’s poetic vision.

Enjoyable though Cannavale is, as he asserts his view of the role of the artist, the impossibility of ever really knowing truth, and his dismissal of bothersome detail -- and citing such major figures from Cicero to Sontag as his distinguished forebears in truth-twisting -- the arguments against his way of thinking are pretty potent. And though the cocky Jim, for his part, seems on the correct side of the argument, he registers as quite the nitpicker.

Still, it’s great fun to watch the escalating tensions between the two -- which occasionally turns physical -- as Emily tries mightily to play the objective referee, as she grapples with her own shifting ideas of storytelling. Jim has taken it upon himself to fly out to Las Vegas to meet John face-to-face, prompting Emily to follow suit.

Leigh Silverman directs this literary battle of wills entertainingly, and draws sharp performances from his talented cast.

Mimi Lien’s sets, lighted by Jen Schriever -- principally Emily’s office, and then John’s Nevada abode -- are beautifully designed, making a most attractive backdrop for the lively literary debate.

(Studio 54 Theatre, 254 West 54th Street; or 212-239-6200)