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Sunday, February 11, 2018

Party Face (NY City Center Stage II)

By Harry Forbes

Hayley Mills provides the principal spark in Isobel Mahon's pleasant if unremarkable domestic Irish comedy/drama. She plays Carmel, a domineering, though not altogether horrid, mother visiting her daughter Mollie May (Gina Costigan) who’s been recently released from a psychiatric ward and now hosting a modest party to show off her new kitchen extension in her suburban Dublin home (sleekly attractive set by Jeff Ridenour).

The guests include cynical sister Maeve (Brenda Meaney) and gossipy neighbor Chloe (Allison Jean White), the latter invited by status-conscious Carmel without her daughters’ knowledge. In the second act, they are joined by germaphobe tomboy Bernie (Klea Blackhurst providing some lively moments). The lady, we learn, was one of Mollie May’s fellow patients in the home. (She’s both manic-depressive and compulsive-obsessive.)

Maeve is divorced, and we never see Mollie May’s husband Alan or their two children. Alan has apparently been absent during Mollie May’s recent travails, and Carmel is kept in the dark about why, but as is eventually revealed, he has, in fact, left home.

A first act flood and a second act catfight give offer the cast some opportunity for physical comedy, and the second act opens with the party in full swing and the ladies dancing in a conga line around the stage to a disco beat, a briefly fun moment that leavens the increasingly serious proceedings, not dissimilar to the impromptu dance occurring in Lucy Kirkwood’s post-apocalyptic “The Children” at Manhattan Theatre Club.

Isobel Mahon’s play is at best innocuously diverting rather than side-splittingly funny, and the whole situation feels more than a little contrived. When the play aims for poignancy, as for instance in Mollie May’s second act accounting of her breakdown, which Costigan delivers superbly with genuine gravity, the shift in tone is rather jarring.

Platitudinous busybody Chloe’s prying into the family’s affairs is particularly unconvincing. And there’s a late play revelation which you’ll probably have long since guessed anyway. Director Amanda Bearse -- who played Marcy D’Arcy on “Married with Children” --  puts her good cast through the paces capably enough, though there’s a sitcom feel to the whole enterprise.

The ladies make a cosy ensemble all in all, but the real treat is Mills, whom we’ve seen far too infrequently here in New York. She nails the domineering, constantly undermining parts of her role, while still retaining her charm. She looks great (nicely outfitted by Lara De Bruijn), demonstrates her stage savviness, and though she affects an Irish brogue here, every so often you catch the voice of the delightful youngster we all so fondly recall from the Disney films.

There were some halftime walkouts -- “Just a bunch of women talking shite,” one man was heard to comment -- but the second act passed enjoyably enough, and earned decent applause.

(City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street; or 212-581-1212; through April 8)

Photo: Hayley Mills and Gina Costigan in Party Face (© Jeremy Daniel)

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Jimmy Titanic (Irish Repertory Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

“Not the Titanic again” you might be thinking. Well, yes it is, but playwright Bernard McMullan’s well-structured take on the iconic 1912 tragedy is uniquely powerful, and provides a one-man showcase for star Colin Hamell who plays an impressive variety of 20-odd characters throughout the 75-minute performance.

The titular Jimmy Boyle (fictitious) is a Belfast dock worker who, after helping construct the ship, earns a job shoveling coal on the doomed vessel’s maiden voyage with his friend Johnny. Hamell embodies those two characters, as well as other unsung crewmen, the ship’s high and low-born passengers (from John Jacob Astor to a poor Italian man imploring help for his family), an anxious New York Times editor, and a Belfast mayor who fears that the city will be blamed for the ship’s faulty construction.

The plights of the ship workers and the doomed passengers are poignantly dramatized. The whole is framed by a whimsical setup of Jimmy in Heaven where, as a survivor, he has become quite the star, as he intermingles with an effete, practical joking Gabriel, a very Italian St. Peter, and a goodfella God.

These Heaven scenes may sound hokey on paper, but actually the brew of humor -- which includes such conceits as a disco where Jimmy has become a magnet for the ladies thanks to his Titanic exploits  -- and high drama are a canny dramatic device, and McMullan doesn’t pull any punches when describing the flaws in the Titanic’s makeup, the inadequate emergency measures, the fatal errors in judgement in terms of the evacuation, and of course, the many instances of bravery and self-sacrifice.

And without weighing down the play with ponderous facts, McMullan manages to work in plenty of extraordinary statistics about the 1500 fatalities (all but one of the numerous newlywed husbands perished, to cite one such) and how the lifeboats that were not filled to capacity, resulting in the needless death of several hundred.

Hamell relates all this with alternating charm, intensity, and unflagging energy.

The piece premiered at Origin Theatre’s 1st Irish Theatre Festival NYC in 2012, and has toured since. It’s been directed by Carmel O’Reilly at a fast-moving, absorbing pace. The whole is greatly enhanced by Michael Gottlieb’s evocative rivet-studded backdrop, new to the Irish Rep’s mounting,  and dramatic lighting, as when Hamell mimes shoveling coal in the fiery furnace.

Simple as the production is, it packs as much of a wallop, in its way, as James Cameron’s epic film and other big budget tellings.

(Irish Rep Theatre, 132 West 22 Street; 212-727-2737 or; through February 18)

Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Friday, January 19, 2018

John Lithgow: Stories By Heart (Roundabout)

By Harry Forbes
John Lithgow is a highly accomplished and versatile actor, and his exemplary thespian skills are on concentrated display in this bare-bones, one-man show which consists, basically, of the reading of a dark Ring Lardner yarn in the first act, and a typically humorous P.G. Wodehouse tale in the second, interspersed with recollections of his highly theatrical father (director, producer, teacher) who introduced him and his three siblings to the myriad short stories compiled by Somerset Maugham in a 1939 collection called “Tellers of Tales.”
Throughout the evening, Lithgow displays the cherished tome (his only prop) -- assuring us it’s the actual family heirloom -- but when acting out the stories, he does indeed perform them from memory.
Though not particularly revelatory or original, Lithgow’s family reminiscences (the other sense of the punning titular “heart”) are rather more compelling than the stories themselves, masterfully though he performs them, utilizing different voices and sound-effects (the barbershop setting of the first, for instance).
He introduces the evening with some self-deprecatory remarks about the simplicity of the evening along with some standard issue setup about the power of storytelling and imagination, etc., an apology not entirely rendered unnecessary by the modest entertainment of the next two hours.
Despite Lithgow’s excellence, one does need to concentrate alertly on the narratives of each story. “Haircut” -- a seemingly folksy Midwestern tale that turns subtly chilling as it progresses -- was a bit confusing in the telling, though I’ll confess I may have just been tired. Still, there were, in fact, some walkouts during the interval.
By contrast, the second half -- the droll “Uncle Fred Flits By” -- was better by far, though Lithgow makes the mistake of rather overstating the hilarity of what we are about to hear in his introductory remarks. Still, the added poignancy of learning that the tale helped his ailing father rally during the latter’s decline gave some added resonance to the telling.
John Lee Beatty’s simple wood-lined set with an armchair and table, Kenneth Posner’s lighting and Peter Fitzgerald’s sound design contribute to a warmly intimate ambience that sits comfortably on the American Airlines Theatre stage.
The evening began under the auspices of Lincoln Center Theater back in 2008. It was directed at that time by Jack O’Brien, and on this occasion, Daniel Sullivan is at the helm, guiding Lithgow through his paces, and giving as much variety to the perforce limited action as possible.
All in all, “Stories By Heart” makes for a pleasantly diverting evening, and an affirmation, not that any such is needed, of Lithgow’s impressive technique and engaging persona.
(American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street; 212.719.1300 or; through March 4)
Photo: Roundabout Theatre Company presents JOHN LITHGOW: STORIES BY HEART on Broadway
Pictured: John Lithgow; Photo by Joan Marcus (2017)
John Lithgow: Stories By Heart (Roundabout)