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Friday, March 22, 2019

Daddy (The New Group and Vineyard Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

Andre (Alan Cumming), an older wealthy English art collector, smitten with Franklin (Ronald Peet), a young black aspiring visual artist, clashes with the latter’s zealous Christian mother Zora (Charlyane Woodard) when -- after her son never answers her calls -- she decides to leave her Virginia home to visit the collector’s luxurious glass house in Bel Air.

Danya Taymor’s striking production of Jeremy O’Harris’ lengthy -- partly realistic, partly surreal -- three-act play, subtitled “a melodrama,” is certainly classy. Matt Saunders’ art-dominated set design includes an onstage swimming pool (those in the front row should prepare for a bit of residual splashing), with spot-on costumes by Montana Levi Bianco, astute lighting capturing the varying times of day by Isabella Byrd, and arresting sound design by Lee Kinney, the last dominated by the tones of Franklin’s ringing cell phone. Taymor’s clever directorial groupings suggest visuals from iconic artworks.

Kinney also composed the original music and arrangements with Darius Smith, who did the vocal arrangements for the three-member gospel choir (Carrie Compere, Denise Manning, and Onyie Nwachukwu) who appear, Greek chorus-like, throughout the play.

Performances are outstanding, starting with the three leads Cumming, Peet, and Woodard, who steals every scene in which she appears with her sassy, all-knowing, sardonic delivery.

Providing colorful support as Franklin’s self-absorbed (but loyal) friends are Tommy Dorfman as out-of-work actor Max and Kahyn Kim (very funny) as his best friend, the superficial but ultimately sensitive Bellamy, and Hari Nef as Alessia, the enthusiastic curator and gallery owner mounting Franklin’s first show, a collection of so-called “coon baby” dolls, with which she hopes to make her mark.

Nudity is pretty fearless here, with Cumming and Peet baring it all, but it’s not exploitative, and it seems part and parcel of a play that deal so forthrightly with hot-button issues, starting with the interracial, intergenerational central relationship.

The most vital part of the drama involves the conflict between Andre and Zora. One can’t help feeling that, in reality, a man in Andre’s position would probably not be so welcoming of his lover’s mother under his roof, nor that Zora, so obviously critical of their lifestyle, would last more than a couple of minutes there. But without her staying, of course, there’d be no drama.

Young playwright Harris writes very well indeed, with some deliciously lively exchanges, and dialogue that rings true. But despite the artful symmetry of the three-act structure -- each with its own mood and perspective on Franklin -- the basic dramatic arc doesn’t quite earn its three-act, two-hour and forty-five minute running time. The last act especially, though the most extravagantly theatrical of all, doesn’t ultimately offer a satisfying payoff.

Nonetheless, this is, for the most part, a highly absorbing evening, and a work of quality from a playwright to watch.

(The Pershing Square Signature Center, The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street; TheNewGroup.org. Or 212-279-4200; through March 31)

Photo by Matt Saunders: Front L-R: Alan Cumming, Ronald Peet, Charlayne Woodard; Back L-R: Onyie Nwachukwu, Denise Manning, Carrie Compere

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Cake (Manhattan Theatre Club)


By Harry Forbes

Playwright Bekah Brunstetter, a producer and writer for TV’s “This is Us,” has cooked up a deft mix of issue play and comic feel-good piece, inspired by those recent headline stories about businesses that refuse to provide services for gay couples on religious grounds.

Debra Jo Rupp, who played the mother on “The 70s Show,” gives a thoroughly delightful performance as the amiable Della, owner of a North Carolina bakery, whose belief system and that of her like-minded husband Tim (Dan Daily), lead to her saying a reluctant no when Jen (Genevieve Angelson), daughter of Della’s late best friend, asks her to bake a cake for Jen's impending marriage to Macy (Marinda Anderson), a black woman with strongly progressive views.

Della believes in “following the directions,” a phrase she repeats several times, and that clearly applies not only to recipes but to her firmly held religious beliefs as well. In a sidebar plot, Della is also very much counting on an upcoming appearance on “The Great American Baking Show,” and throughout the play, there are fantasy sequences wherein she imagines conversations with the disembodied voice of the show’s host (also Daily), exchanges which comment on the action of the play.

The store -- with its yummy cake display and candy-colored motif --  is, like the other settings, most attractively designed by John Lee Beatty, and brightly lighted by Philip S. Rosenberg. Tom Broecker’s costumes are also in keeping with the light tone of the piece.

As Jen, Angelson is wonderfully sincere and marvelously conveys her own deep uncertainty about the step she is about to take, as she is, after all, a product of the same community standards as Della. As the object of her deep affection, Anderson manages to be likable, while avoiding the stridency of a part that could easily be played that way.

What's especially commendable about Brunstetter’s approach is that all sides are treated in balanced and humane fashion, helping us really get under the skin of each character. The sweet-natured approach is totally engaging, even if weightier legalities of this hot-button issue are skirted. Lynne Meadow has directed with just the right lightness of touch and the production, firmly anchored in Rupp's appealing performance, is consistently funny and touching.

(MTC at New York City Center – Stage, 131 West 55th Street; 212-581-1212 or NYCityCenter.org)

 (l - r)  Debra Jo Rupp,  Genevieve Angelson,  Marinda Anderson                      

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The Light (MCC Theater)


By Harry Forbes

Talk about up-to-date, and “ripped from today’s headlines,” as they used to say!  Within the first minutes of Loy A. Webb’s debut play about the relationship between Genesis (Mandi Masden), a school principal, and Rashad (McKinley Belcher III), her longtime boyfriend, a fireman and single father, the 30-something couple are deep in discussion about the Brett Kavanagh hearings.

Apparently Genesis is being pressured to fire a teacher at her school for posting something negative on social media about Dr. Ford’s testimony. This leads to a brief argument between the two. Rashad agrees with Genesis’ colleagues that she should be fired; Genesis counters that the teacher has broken no school rules by tweeting on her own time.

Thereafter, the banter between the two drifts back to more congenial matters between these two who have been in a relationship for two years, and some tender canoodling. But when Genesis refuses Rashad’s hard won tickets to a concert that will feature one of their favorite singers on the principle that she feels the headliner on the bill is a hypocrite and his music disrespectful of women, the mood suddenly turns much darker, and contemporary issues having to do with the Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements come blazingly to the fore. Webb, to her credit, is careful not to stack the cards unfairly against one character or the other.

Without giving anything away, suffice to say Masden and Belcher deliver dynamite performances, each running the proverbial gamut of emotions and Webb’s dialogue is, by turns, sassy, fun, believable, and deadly serious.

The play was originally developed at The New Colony in Chicago.which presented the world premiere at The Den Theatre in January of last year

Logan Vaughn has directed with a sure hand, and one hangs on every word. The climax is emotionally devastating, so much so that there’s a post-show talk back so the audience can deal with its feelings.

Kimie Nishikawa’s upscale Hyde Park Chicago condo set, pristinely white and studded with Afrocentric art, is an uncommonly attractive backdrop to the action. Emilio Sosa’s costumes, Ben Stanton’s lighting, and Elisheba Ittoop’s sound design are all first rate, too.

This 70-minute (sans intermission) work is the premiere production in the black box theater of MCC’s new permanent home, and launches the space in A-plus fashion.

(The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space, 511 West 52nd Street; through March 17)

Photo by Joan Marcus

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Sea Wall / A Life (The Public Theater)


By Harry Forbes

You won’t find two more accomplished performances in town than those given by Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge in these two disparate -- but thematically similar  -- one act plays by British playwrights, each, in its way, dealing with life, love, and humanity.

Though written quite separately, Simon (“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”) Stephens’ “Sea Wall” and Nick Payne’s “A Life” fit together quite naturally, though I gather during the rehearsal process, both playwrights countenanced small tweaks to accommodate the pairing.

The plays -- monologues actually -- are memory pieces. In “Sea Wall,” Sturridge -- in his third play by Stephens -- is Alex, a photographer. Standing atop Laura Jellinick’s two-tiered set, he thinks back to his father-in-law, wife, and daughter and a fateful holiday in the south of France. He eventually makes his way downstage, the narrative taking a tragic turn, which I shan’t reveal, as the gradual unfolding of incidents, in Alex's understandably hesitant telling, is a key part of the drama.


Sturridge is attuned to every painful detail, and reaches true tragic heights by the end. And his reading is so natural and seemingly personal that audience members murmur empathetic responses as if they are hearing a true story, and occasionally speak out the words when he seems to falter.

The same is true with “A Life,” a piece leavened with more humor and allowing Gyllenhaal a more teasing, playful tone, generating laughs even at points where, frankly, there oughtn’t to be any. But today’s audiences are, alas, more attuned to comic delivery than poignancy.

“A Life” blends a semi-autobiographical story about the illness and gradual decline of the narrator Abe’s father with the arrival of a first-born baby. The narrative keeps flip-flopping from one to the other, and one might almost think they’re happening simultaneously, but that’s not the case. Still, it’s clear the earlier incidents involving the father are very much top of mind even in the midst of the later happier event. How can Abe be a father when he still feels very much like a son, he asks poignantly at one critical point.

Gyllenhaal captures the tone of the piece ideally, as he’s clearly in step with Payne’s rhythms, having starred previously in New York in Payne’s “If There Is I Haven’t Found it Yet,” and “Constellations.”

Both he and Sturridge prove themselves master storytellers and command the stage impressively.

Director Carrie Cracknell has steered her stars to give perfectly modulated performances, and despite the vastness the set, has kept overall movement fairly contained, though as the actors pointed out at a post-show talk back, the staging has been modified considerably since the early previews. Gyllenhaal delivers his lines from mostly one vantage point, notwithstanding one sequence that takes into the auditorium, while Sturridge traverses his side of the stage rather more.

The exemplary lighting design, sound, and music by Peter Kaczorowski, Fabian Obispo, and Stuart Earl respectively contribute to setting just the right mood for this intimate and powerful double-header.

(The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street; 212-967-7555 orwww.publictheater.org; through March 31)

Photos: Joan Marcus

Top: Jake Gyllenhaal
Below: Tom Sturridge

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Ages Ago/Mr. Jericho (New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players)



By Harry Forbes

NYGASP’s inspired pairing of two Victorian one-act comic operas -- “Ages Ago” and “Mr. Jericho” -- gets my vote as the most charming and delightful show of the year thus far. And indeed those two adjectives were very much on the lips of just about everyone around me at the close of curtain.

The former -- with its libretto by W.S. Gilbert (before his partnership with Arthur Sullivan, though the two were actually introduced during the show’s rehearsals) and music by Frederic Clay -- is, relatively speaking, the more familiar of the two. It’s been done periodically, including a memorable performance two years ago at Ohio Light Opera. Written not for the Savoy, which would become the home of most of the Gilbert & Sullivan light operas, but rather German Reed’s Royal Gallery of Illustration in 1869, the show was an immediate success (350 performances) and had several revivals throughout the 1800’s.


The plot concerns the inheritance of a castle, as we learn in the opening scene which introduces the current irascible squatter Ebenezer (Matthew Wages), his niece Rosa (Michelle Seipel), Scottish housekeeper Mrs. MacMotherly (Cáitlín Burke), Rosa’s poor suitor Columbus (Cameron Smith), and steward (James Mills). Columbus had just been there but missed his train and now returns needing to spend the night, much to crotchety Ebenezer’s displeasure. That evening, the paintings in the picture gallery come to life and various romantic alliances ensue among the subjects of the paintings, each one a prior owner of the property. By the time they return to their frames, they have amicably decreed who among the modern characters shall inherit the title deed.

These roles were all played by the same five players as the opening scene, allowing for some impressive doubling. Rosa is now the lovely Lady Maud, the housekeeper is imperious Dame Cherry Maybud, Columbus is Cecil Blount, and Ebenezer is the amorous Lord Carnaby Poppytop. The steward shows up as Brown, the subject of a fifth portrait.

The cast skillfully differentiated the characters and nailed their classic comedy prototypes in grand style. Their singing was as apt as their acting. Vocally, Seipel as Lady Maud delivered her awakening aria superbly. Burke, much like a young Patricia Routledge, and Wages, all bluster as Ebenezer and predatory lust as Carnaby, were brilliantly funny.

Though the music isn’t nearly as memorable, of course, as what Sullivan would later compose for the second act of “Ruddigore,” wherein, famously, another picture gallery comes to life, the humor here is arguably even funnier, as the ancestors wrestle with such conundrums as whether a man might love his own grandmother, and whether the most recent owner of the portraits can do with them as he or she likes.

“Mr. Jericho” was written after the G&S partnership had dissolved post-“The Gondoliers,” and they were writing comic operas with other people until they reunited for “Utopia, Limited.”  This one was the curtain raiser for Sullivan’s “Haddon Hall” and featured music by Ernest Ford and libretto by Harry Greenbank. I do recall a performance many years ago at the New York Gilbert & Sullivan Society, but the piece is far more obscure.


It concerns an impoverished Earl, Michael de Vere (Wages), and son Horace (Smith), reduced to doing his own gardening in his small cottage, and bus driver, respectively. Horace falls for Winifred (Seipel), a young lady he’s admired on his bus which, shamefully, he has just crashed. Winifred’s dragon of a widowed mother Lady Bushey (Burke) won’t allow her daughter to marry a commoner, and resolves to lock her in her room. But when a jam manufacturer, the titular Mr. Jericho (Mills), turns up looking for a titled endorsement for his jam, and learns the the Earl genuinely loves it, he offers to restore the Earl’s (and young Horace’s) fortunes. And, as chance would have it, Lady Bushey is Mr. Jericho’s lady love from years before.

Both shows are great silly fun, and NYGASP’s five players -- just as amusing in “Mr Jericho” -- had the requisite style down to their fingertips. Their acting was so good and the scripts so funny, one felt the pieces might have been just as effective without songs at all. I would perhaps give the slight edge to “Mr. Jericho,” as it is just that much more concise and the songs a bit zippier. Jericho’s solo -- infectiously delivered by Mills --  extolling the virtues of “Jericho’s Jams,” for example, is quite the ear-worm.

The show was authentically directed by NYGASP Artistic Director Albert Bergeret who also served as Musical Director, and splendidly accompanied by Elizabeth Rogers on piano.

Albère’s scenic designs were pleasingly picturesque -- the portrait gallery of the first, the cottage and garden of the second -- and beautifully costumed by Gail J. Wofford. The intimate theater space was just right for these pieces, too, and gave the feeling of a real time capsule.

It’s a pity that this was only a three-day run, but perhaps NYGASP will find a way to bring them back in future, maybe as actual curtain raisers for one of their full-length productions.

(The Marjorie S. Deane Little Theatre at The West Side YMCA, 10 W. 64th Street; www.nygasp.org or 212-769-1000, March 1-3)

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Falling in Love For 160 Years (Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!)



By Harry Forbes

VHRP Live’s love-themed concert may have been the company’s best yet, not forgetting such earlier gems as “Son of Dublin” and “Ladies First.” (The title of this late Valentine’s Day treat, if you were wondering, pays homage to the company namesake’s 160th birthday.)

Presenting an especially well-balanced blend of favorites and rarities, the cast of four men and four women paired most winningly in various combinations, while the songs were nicely grouped by category describing the myriad stages of love: “Convincing a Love,” “Missing a Love,” “Longing for Love,” and so on. As usual, Michael Thomas served as ace musical director playing the eighty-eights with his customary high style and sensitivity.

Artistic Director Alyce Mott once again assembled the members of what seems to have become her virtual repertory company, and all of them were in wonderful form. In tandem with choreographer Susanna Organek (whose dances were a continual delight), Mott staged the concert very fluidly.

Soprano Joanie Brittingham reprised a bit of her excellent “Eileen” from a couple of years back singing “When Love Awakens,” and the rapturous “Thine Alone” the latter with tenor Andrew Klima, the one newcomer to VHRP, and one to watch. He especially shone in the solo, “Mary Came Over to Me,” an unabashedly sentimental ditty with lyrics (surprisingly) by Irving Caesar (“No, No, Nanette,” “Swanee”).

The great mezzo Alexa Devlin, Ohio Light Opera’s frequent headliner, had the virtual 11 o’clock number, a richly vocalized “‘Neath the Southern Moon” from “Naughty Marietta.” Her other choice pieces included a melodic duet with sterling baritone Jovani Demetrie, “I Love Thee, I Adore Thee” from “The Serenade,” and another with versatile bass Matthew Wages, the charming “On the Other Side of the Wall” from ”Babette.”


The latter selection followed a bravura coloratura piece from the same show by the impressive Sarah Caldwell Smith entitled “Where the Fairest Flow’rs Are Blooming,” which makes us want to hear the whole show. Wages, for his part, also scored with his stirring “Gypsy Love Song” from “The Fortune Teller,” climaxing with some ethereal offstage vocalizing by Smith, a lovely effect.

Claire Leyden, who made such a strong impression in VHRP’s “The Enchantress” last season confirmed the promise shown there with several bewitching numbers. There was a very cute duet with Smith, “For Better or For Worse,” from “Princess Pat,” their voices blending neatly; then a sequence of numbers from “Sweethearts” with Demetrie (who will be Leyden’s co-star in the full show in April). Demetrie’s began the sequence with a powerfully sung “Every Lover Must Meet His Fate.”


The purity of Leyden’s voice in “The Angelus” and the conviction of her delivery (fittingly staged on a prayer kneeler) was most striking. And she and Demetrie sounded mighty fine together when these numbers were sung in counterpoint. Leyden then led the company in “Sweethearts” itself singing the verse with rare dramatic emphasis. The pair also reunited in “Never Mention Love When We’re Alone” from “The Debutante.”

Overseeing all this vocalizing passion was baritone David Seatter who served as the evening’s affable compere, joining in several of the numbers, as well as dueting most charmingly with Devlin in “Because You’re You” from “The Red Mill,” and then in the second act, “What is Love?” from “The Wizard of the Nile” with Leyden.  

Other highlights included the Cyrano, Christian, and Roxanne wooing scene from Herbert’s 1899 “Cyrano de Bergerac,” not just well sung, but pointedly acted. Other rarities included Brittingham’s “My Gipsy Sweetheart” (complete with tambourine) from “Old Dutch,” and Demetrie leading the men in the virile “My Fair Unknown” from “Miss Dolly Dollars,” Wages’ warmly vocalized “Molly” (not from a show), Brittingham’s plaintive “Heart O’Mine” from “Fanshastics,” and Brittingham and Klima’s posthumously published waltz duet, “Give Your Heart in June-Time.”


And on the more familiar end of the scale, Smith and Klima paired on three of the “Naughty Marietta” chestnuts beautifully, closing the show with, most fittingly, “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life.”

Next up, as indicated, will be “Sweethearts” on April 30 and May 1.

(Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!, Christ & St. Stephen’s Church, 120 West 69th St.; www.vhrplive.org; February 26 and 27 only)

Photos: Jill LeVine

L-R:    Alexa Devlin, Matthew Wages, Claire Leyden, Jovani Demetrie, Sarah Caldwell Smith, Andrew Klima, Joanie Brittingham, David Seatter

L-R: Alexa Devlin, Matthew Wages

L-R: Claire Leydon, Jovani Demetrie

L-R:  Andrew Klima, Matthew Wages, Jovani Demetrie, David Seatter

Friday, March 1, 2019

To Kill a Mockingbird (Sam S. Shubert Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

The legal tussle between the Harper Lee estate and playwright Aaron Sorkin was well publicized last year, and it seems concessions were made before the case was finally settled out of court. But despite the behind-the-scenes friction, what has ultimately emerged is an extraordinarily fine and absorbing evening of theater.

Like the book and 1962 movie, the play is an outstanding artistic triumph in its own right.

Sorkin has restructured the narrative, including some tweaking of the chronology. For instance, we learn right from the start of the death of redneck villain Bob Ewell (played to the vicious hilt by Frederick Weller), and the rape trial of innocent black man Tom Robinson (Gbenga Akinnagbe) begins almost at the start. This works beautifully from a dramatic standpoint, and one is riveted within minutes.

Jeff Daniels’ Atticus Finch is not quite the noble hero of the book and movie (the latter so memorably embodied by Gregory Peck in his Oscar-winning role), but he’s still that admirably principled man standing up for what he believes to be right. In Sorkin’s telling, however, not only his children -- daughter Scout (Celia Keenan-Bolger) and Jem (Will Pullen) -- but also his longtime housekeeper Calpurnia (LaTanya Richardson Jackson), can’t always understand the steadfast insistence on civility, and speak their minds. Calpurnia’s outspoken criticism -- not necessarily an action that would have been ventured by a housekeeper in this particular time and place (1934 Maycomb, Alabama) -- was one of the revisions about which Sorkin was adamant remain. The result is satisfying for a contemporary audience without, arguably, unduly betraying the source material.

Daniels, in a predictably great performance, makes the character his own, no small feat in light of Peck’s beloved identification with this role, and my only issues were, at times, to do with audibility, perhaps having to do with his Southern accent, or maybe just fatigue the night of my performance. He seems less warmly paternal than Peck played him in the film, but the tenderness shows itself at key points, as he puts his arm around Scout and Dill.

The actors are, in fact, quite superb all around. Casting the children with adults (and, mind you, the boys are tall), including endearing Gideon Glick as the Finch children’s eternal optimist friend Dill (his character based on Lee’s childhood pal, Truman Capote), works just fine. For her part, Keenan-Bolger could almost pass for a child physically, but it’s her childlike exuberance that makes her so convincing. And her narrative of events, shared with the others, keeps one squarely attuned to their impressionable perspective all evening.

Erin Wilhelmi as his daughter Mayella demonstrates vividly how much she is her father’s daughter particularly in a witness stand outburst that is frightening in its ferocity. The rest of the time, she’s a tightly coiled rabbit cowering at her table with smarmy prosecutor Horace Gilmer (Stark Sands).

Dakin Matthews is most amusing as the presiding judge, providing some brief moments of levity, and there’s good work too from Danny McCarthy as Sheriff Tate. Neal Huff gives a particularly wonderful performance at witness Link Deas, the “town drunk.” And his revelatory follow-up scene with the children is genuinely heart wrenching.

As the accused Tom Robinson, a role, like Calpurnia’s, built up from the novel to give the character more agency, Akinnagbe shows great dignity. Phyllis Somerville has a choice cameo as the Finch’s mean-spirited old lady neighbor. And Danny Wolohan does well with two roles: a conscience-stricken Klansman and later, the mysterious talked-about neighbor, Boo Radley.

Mirian Buether’s atmospheric and fluid scenic design conjures the period setting, morphing seamlessly from Finch home to courtroom to jail exterior and so on. Ann Roth’s costumes, Jennifer Tipton’s lighting, and Scott Lehrer’s sound design are all likewise superb.

Bartlett Sher, who has proven adept at period Americana with “Golden Boy,” “Awake and Sing!” and “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” orchestrates everything with a beautifully assured hand. He keeps the action taut and, as stated, has elicited exceptionally fine work from his cast.

(Sam S. Shubert Theatre, 235 West 44th Street; 212 239 6200 or Telecharge.com)

Photo by Julieta Cervantes: Jeff Daniels