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Monday, November 12, 2018

The Thanksgiving Play (Playwrights Horizons)


By Harry Forbes

Larissa FastHorse’s very amusing satire centers around the production of a Thanksgiving Day pageant for elementary school children. The four adult principals, who consider themselves extremely “woke” and sensitive, plot out the play -- which they are determined will not only celebrate the titular holiday but also pay homage to Native American Heritage Month -- and find themselves stumbling over multitudinous hurdles as they consider the actual genocide and violence behind the traditionally benign “coming together” harvest theme.

These include Logan (Jennifer Bareilles), a drama teacher who has secured a succession of grants to finance the show, and her boyfriend Jaxton (Greg Keller), her rather dim street performer boyfriend, both proudly vegan; Caden (Jeffrey Bean), an elementary school history teacher who yearns to be a playwright, and though he has written 62 plays, has never had one performed by adults; and Alicia (very funny Margo Seibert), a self-absorbed LA actress hired for the occasion under the mistaken assumption, based on her head shot, that she has indigenous roots.

Logan stresses that the work will be “fully devised,” meaning that each actor will have input into the final product. As the four tortuously debate how they can cause least offence, they become increasingly stymied as to how they can progress at all. After all, they reason, how can any of these white actors have the temerity to speak for Native Americans?

Though the pretensions of these hyper sensitive folk are ripe for humor, FastHorse shows that the popular perception of the holiday does, in fact, cover a multitude of ills, and along the way, she has some perceptive things to say about how we learn history and the vagaries of the funding world, as for instance how some of the requirements for grants often shape what you actually see on stage.

Besides skewering political correctness and the like, she has plenty of insider jibes about theater, like an especially funny line about dramaturgs.

Moritz von Stuelpnagel (“Hand of God,” “Present Laughter”) paces the action for maximum comic effect, and draws sharp performances from his cast.

Wilson Chin’s schoolroom set is spot-on, and Tilly Grimes’ costumes, including those for the opening “Twelve Days of Thanksgiving” song with all four dressed in the conventional Pilgrims (and turkey) attire, add to to the fun.

The play -- originally produced by Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland, Oregon -- runs about 90  minutes without intermission. It does at times seem like a protracted “Saturday Night Live” sketch, but the laughs, as indicated, are plentiful.

(Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street; 212-279-4200 or www.playwrightshorizons.com; through Dec. 2)

Photo by Joan Marcus: (l.-r.) Greg Keller (Jaxton), Jennifer Bareilles (Logan), Jeffrey Bean (Caden), and Margo Seibert (Alicia)

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Girl from the North Country (The Public Theater)


By Harry Forbes

The unlikely mashup of songs from the Bob Dylan songbook with a script by great Irish playwright Conor McPherson has resulted in a perhaps not-totally-seamless, but on the whole, haunting and bewitching brew.

Premiering to acclaim last year at London’s Old Vic, “Girl from the North Country” concerns a boarding house on the verge of foreclosure in Duluth, Minnesota during the Depression. Nick Laine (Stephen Bogardus) and his mentally fragile wife Elizabeth (Mare Winningham) have under their roof such diverse and sad characters as a lonely widow (Jeannette Bayardelle); an African-American prize fighter (Sydney James Harcourt) just out of jail after being wrongly incarcerated; a once successful businessman (Marc Kudisch), his world-weary wife (Luba Mason who doubles on drums) and childlike grown son (Todd Almond); and a shady reverend (David Pittu).

The Laines have an alcoholic son (Colton Ryan) who’s an aspiring writer, and an adopted African-American 19-year-old daughter (Kimber Sprawl), pregnant but refusing to reveal the father.

Other townspeople who weave in and out of the narrative include the local doctor (Robert Joy), once addicted to morphine, who occasionally narrates from the side of the stage; an elderly shoe mender (Tom Nelis); a widower whom Nick tries to match up with his daughter; and a young woman (Caitlin Houlahan) who was the childhood sweetheart of Nick’s troubled son.

Everyone’s dreams and aspirations seem doomed to failure, like Nick’s furtive romance with the widow. And there are some very dark elements such as sexual assault, violent racism, and even murder.

The songs from the Dylan songbook are presentational in style, and don’t necessarily match the details of the plot but rather comment on or elucidate the spoken parts from which they arise. There are about 20 in all written between 1963 and 2012. Nearly all the principals shine in their respective solo numbers, such as Winningham’s powerful “Like a Rolling Stone,” Harcourt’s “Hurricane”; and Mason’s “Tight Connection to My Heart,” to name a few. The ensemble numbers are especially winning like “Make You Feel My Love” and “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” Some are done as if in a 1930s radio studio with the old-fashioned microphones. They are beautifully sung and gorgeously orchestrated by Music Supervisor Simon Hale.

The cast is superb across the board.

McPherson himself directs, and is obviously attuned to every nuance. Movement Director Lucy Hinds keeps the dialogue scenes and musical numbers fluid. Rae Smith’s set and costume designs are period perfect. And Mark Henderson’s lighting is skillfully evocative. Simon Baker’s sound design is a model of restraint and clarity.

Technically, “Girl from the North Country” may fall under the category of that much derided term “jukebox musical,” but whatever it is, it’s a work of uncommonly high artistic quality.

(The Public Theater, -- Lafayette Street; (212) 967-7555 or www.publictheater.org; through December 23)

Photo by Joan Marcus: Todd Almond and the company of "Girl from the North Country"

Thursday, November 1, 2018

The Waverly Gallery (Golden Theatre)


By Harry Forbes

This fine revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s 2001 memory play (a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), which won acclaim for star Eileen Heckart, now features a superb performance by veteran Elaine May as the spirited grandmother, once a lawyer and social activist, gradually succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease.

Though that precis on paper may sound like heavy going, the tone is, in fact, predominantly light-hearted. a bittersweet underpinning notwithstanding.

Gladys Green (May) is the owner of the titular Greenwich Village gallery which, we learn, has seen better days. The owner of the hotel in which the gallery is housed is poised to reclaim the space for conversion into a breakfast room. Now, as her condition worsens by degrees, she exasperates her family with her constant repetition, forgetfulness, and hearing difficulties, but their devotion is never in doubt. These include her loving but stretched-to-the-limit daughter Ellen (Joan Allen), son-in-law Howard (David Cromer) with a penchant for saying the wrong thing, and compassionate grandson Daniel (Lucas Hedges), who also serves as narrator.

When Gladys is visited by Don, a sweet-natured if clueless Boston artist who’s been living in his car, she offers him a cot in the gallery, and allows him to mount his pictures there. (He’s played in nicely understated fashion by an almost unrecognizable Michael Cera in another memorable Lonergan portrayal after last season’s “Lobby Hero”)

The family, at first concerned that she has invited in a total stranger, comes to accept him, and they allow the arrangement. But as scene by scene, she declines (and May brilliantly delineates each stage of that decline), they worry how they’ll be able to take care of her. Daniel lives down the hall from her and her frequent ringing of his doorbell in her confusion is driving him the breaking point.

What makes the play so especially poignant is Gladys’ extraordinary likability, especially as embodied by the winning May. With her patently lovable nature, it’s easy to see why the family puts up with her. And it should be said that though May is only a year behind Gladys’ stated age of 87, she is totally on top of a role that must be especially tricky to learn with its constant repetition and overlapping dialogue.

Hedges is very appealing, and like Cera, has proven his chops with Lonergan dialogue (“Manchester By the Sea”). Allen skillfully conveys her devotion, even at the most trying times.

David Zinn’s beautiful scenic design including the Fine’s apartment, Gladys’, and, of course, the gallery itself, all finely detailed, and expertly lighted by Brian MacDevit. Ann Roth’s costumes capture the late 1980s/early 1990s perfectly. Projections by Tal Yarden between scenes atmospherically evoke an earlier New York.

Lonergan deftly mixes humor and sentiment in a most skillful way. The end is incredibly moving, and will affect anyone who’s experienced a similar situation with an aging parent. A young woman behind me could barely stifle her sobs.

Lila Neugebauer directs the delicate material with a sure hand and elicits well judged performances from her ensemble. But it’s May’s return to the stage that is the cause of greatest celebration, ironically at the very theater where she and her comedy partner Mike Nichols wowed everyone decades ago in “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May.”

(Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200; through January 27)

Photo: Brigitte Lacombe