Sunday, November 28, 2021

The Alchemist (Red Bull Theater)

By Harry Forbes

My last (and until now, only) encounter with Ben Jonson’s classic comedy came by way of Nicholas Hytner’s starry 2006 revival at London’s National Theatre. Its dazzling cast included Alex Jennings, Simon Russell Beale, Lesley Manville, and Ian Richardson, and it was smartly updated to modern times with some textual changes to reflect the new period.

Wonderful in nearly all respects as the production was (especially Jennings), I do remember chunks of Jonson’s text escaped comprehension by my 21st century ears..

That is decidedly not a problem with the current revival created by the same team that came up with the side-splitting adaptation of Gogol’s “The Government Inspector” in 2017: writer/adapter Jeffrey Hatcher and director Jesse Berger. 

Samuel Coleridge declared “The Alchemist” to have one of the three most perfect plots ever constructed. Hatcher, in the program notes, tries to assure us that he has not fiddled drastically with that well oiled machine before admitting that he “did screw around with the plot...dumbing down the highbrow jokes...tossing in anachronisms,” and more. It is, in short, a slimmed down version with one scene instead of four, and fewer characters. But no matter, it is still, in Hatcher’s words, Jonson’s “style and spirit, if not his meter.” 

Putting such purist matters aside, the result is very funny indeed, and indeed far more comprehensible than the more textually authentic National Theatre version. Is it, as several friends have inquired, as hilarious as “The Government Inspector”? I’d say no, but very nearly so. In any case, comparisons are irrelevant as this 1610 comedy is a far different world than Gogol’s.

As with the earlier production, Red Bull Theater has assembled a solid cast of accomplished comic actors who, no doubt, could do an equally fine job with Jonson's unadulterated original. 

Despite the changes to the dialogue, and unlike the Hytner production, the period has not been altered, and plays out at a frenetic pace on Alexis Distler’s handsome set. The plot concerns the machinations of a wealthy man's servant, Face (Manoel Felciano), who joins forces with Subtle (Reg Rogers), the titular pretended alchemist, and Dol (Jennifer Sánchez), a prostitute in cahoots with the others two, who take over the master's house -- while he has gone to the country to escape the plague -- and bilk as many of the gullible characters as they can, promising they can turn base metal into gold, foretell the future, provide magic charms and so forth that their victims, only too motivated by greed, eagerly swallow, hook, line and sinker.

There's tobacconist Dugger (Nathan Christopher); lawyer’s clerk Dapper (Carson Elrod); wealthy Sir Epicure Mammon (Jacob Ming-Trent, fresh from his excellent Falstaff at the Delacorte); his skeptical servant Surly (Louis Mustillo)(played like a Damon Runyan character); Ananais (Stephen DeRosa), a fanatical Anabaptist; Dame Pliant (Teresa Avia Lim), a seemingly shy but shrewd widow; and her volatile brother Kastril (Allen Tedder). 

All skillfully create masterful comic portrayals, and Rogers and Felciano are particularly marvelous in their multiple impersonations.

Berger has staged the mayhem at a frenetic pace with doors opening and closing and farcical entrances and exits at every turn. Tilly Grimes’ costumes are richly designed and frequently witty. 

(New World Stage, 340 West 50th Street; 212-239-6200 or; through December 19)

Photos by Carol Rosegg: 

(Top) (l.-r.) Reg Rogers, Manoel Felciano, Jennifer Sanchez

(Below) Reg Rogers, Manoel Felciano, Jennifer Sanchez, Carson Elrod

Thursday, November 25, 2021

The Visitor (The Public Theater)

By Harry Forbes

Thomas McCarthy’s 2007 film with an Oscar-nominated Richard Jenkins would seem an unlikely candidate for musicalization, though drumming (an African djembe, to be exact) does play a large literal and metaphorical part of the story so perhaps not so unlikely after all. 

In any case, the story concerns a disaffected and widowed economics professor (here, David Hyde Pierce) who returns to his New York apartment to find a couple living there, Tarek (Ahmad Maksoud) an exuberant Syrian drummer, and Zainab (Alysha Deslorieux), a Sengalese jewelry maker with a defensive edge. They had been rented the apartment by a con. They offer profuse apology and vacate promptly, but Walter chases after them with a forgotten item, and ultimately invites them to stay. 

Under the freewheeling influence of Tarek, Walter blossoms emotionally, even taking the first steps at drumming. But when Tarek is unjustly arrested for jumping a subway turnstile, Walter learns that he and Zainab are, in fact, illegal immigrants.

Energized by his young friend’s predicament, Walter does his best to help him. Meanwhile, Tarek’s mother Mouna (Jacqueline Antaramian) arrives unexpectedly from Michigan after not hearing from her son, Walter offers her Tarek’s room. Before long, a bond grows between them. 

The cast is excellent, though Walter’s depressed character forces the always reliable Pierce into an overly low-keyed stance. And even though Walter takes on greater agency as the story progresses, the end result is still, a bit on the pallid side right through his eleven o’clock number, “Better Angels.”

Maksoud, who replaced Ari’el Stachel during previews when the latter allegedly departed over disagreement about how the material was being handled, gives a confident and extremely likable performance. Deslorieux is no less strong  as the more emotionally wounded girlfriend who carries an air of toughness. Antaramian is just lovely, both vocally and dramatically.

Brian Yorkey and Kwame Kwei-Armah have co-written the book which presumably has attempted to take into account the cultural changes of the last 14 years But that hasn’t stopped reviewers criticizing the show for being out of step with today’s woke sensibilities. Some are viewing the show as yet another “white savior” story which, in a sense,  it is, but I think the audience at my performance accepted the narrative in the positive way its authors intended, one which, in any case, is strongly sympathetic to the plight of immigrants, and angrily defiant about our government’s treatment of them.

And anyway, from a purely dramatic viewpoint, it’s Tarek, Zainab, and Mouna about whom we ultimately care the most. Walter’s midlife crisis is simply less interesting. 

It’s always difficult to judge a score on first hearing. But I’d say even if some of it sounds generic in the usual Broadway pop opera way, there are also some very nice things in Tom Kitt’s score (lyrics by Yorkey): Mouna and Zainab’s ode to “Lady Liberty,” Tarek’s “Heart in Your Hands,” the duet “My Love is Free” by Tarek and Zainab, and “What Little I Can Do” for Walter and Mouna.

As usual these days, some of the more lively numbers sound overloaded in Jessica Paz and Sun Hee Kil’s co-sound design muddying the lyrics. Jamshied Sharifi’s orchestrations add flavorsome Middle Eastern or African ethnic flavoring where needed. I left the performance hoping the score might be preserved on CD.

It’s not a dance heavy show, but Lorin Latarro’s choreography is imaginative, from the coordinated movements of attendees at an NYU conference to the more extroverted numbers such as “Drum Circle” wherein Walter joins Tarek for a drumming session in Central Park, and later in “World Between Two Worlds” sung and danced by the angry detainees. 

Daniel Sullivan directs the dramatic material well, and the story is so absorbing that it would work without any songs at all, but I do, upon reflection, think the music enhances the story.

David Zinn’s grey walled moving platform set, strikingly lighted by Japhy Weideman, provides a suitably bleak backdrop for the detention sequences, but proves versatile for the other settings, opening up more warmly forWalter’s apartment and a Queens diner. Video projections (by David Bengali and Haha S. Kim) enhance the visual elements. lighting

It would be a shame if concerns about cultural appropriation and the like kept audiences away, because for all its alleged shortcomings, I felt “The Visitor”  was a genuine crowd pleaser, keeping the audience rapt and earning the strong applause and standing ovation it receives at the end.

(The Public Theater, 425 Lafeyette Street;, 212.967.7555; through December 5)

Photos by Joan Marcus:

(Top) David Hyde Pierce and Ahmad Maksoud (foreground) 

(Below) Jacqueline Antaramian and David Hyde Pierce

Monday, November 22, 2021

Morning’s at Seven (Theatre at St. Clement’s)

By Harry Forbes

The revelatory 1980 revival of Paul Osborn’s 1939 charmer remains a cherished theatrical memory for those of us who saw it, and the play continued to demonstrate it had legs with yet another excellent Broadway mounting in 2002. Both of those revivals, in fact, ran far longer than the original which only lasted 44 performances.

And here it is again in a lovely Off-Broadway revival holding up as sturdily as ever. 

The plot hinges on painfully shy Homer (Jonathan Spivey) bringing home his longtime (seven years!) finance Myrtle (Keri Safran) to meet his well meaning but overly protective mother Ida (Alma Cervo) and melancholic father Carl (John Rubinstein), the latter afflicted with  perennial midlife crisis, and given to strange spells and wanderings.

Homer’s aunts, Cora (Lindsay Crouse) -- married to Thor (Dan Lauria) -- and the single Arry (Alley Mills), who clearly harbors deep feelings for Thor, live together in the house across the way.  A fourth sister Esther (Patty McCormack) is married to snobbish former professor David (Tony Roberts) who thinks the whole brood, with the singular exception of Carl, are “morons,” and discourages, or more accurately, forbids, his wife to visit her kin.   

Carl holds the deed on the house across town which is promised to Homer if and when he decides to tie the knot with Myrtle. Cora, for her part, covets the house as it could mean a break from Arry. Therein lies the play’s principal conflict.

Carl’s perpetual musings on where he is in life, and how things might have been different had he taken a different direction in the “fork in the road” sums up the existential heart of the play which is deeper than it seems at first glance for all its gentle charms and homespun characters. All of them find themselves yearning for change: Cora, dreaming of a life alone with Thor; Arry, frustrated after a lifetime of being the third cog on the wheel, and Esty, beginning to hanker for freedom from her husband’s dictatorial thumb; and so on. 

Like the two previous major New York revivals, this one has been beautifully cast across the board with everyone just perfect in their roles. Dan Wackerman brings out the best of all of them, and skillfully elucidates Osborn’s themes. Apart from the skill with which everyone handles their parts, there’s the added nostalgia value of fondly recalling so many of them in their earlier film and stage triumphs.

It’s unfair to single anyone out, as each so good, but Alley Mills deserves a special shout-out for so beautifully stepping in for the injured Judith Ivey during rehearsals, and creating a fine, touching character. 

Harry Feiner’s two house set on the spacious St. Clement’s stage makes an attractive backdrop to the action. Barbara A. Bell’s costumes are period perfect, the period being 1922. 

It’s a pleasure to experience such a beautifully constructed play, old-fashioned in the best sense. Osborn’s characters are sharply drawn, and though hardly action packed on the surface, the play’s action grips from start to finish. Another positive aspect of the work is the basic decency of all the characters, despite petty jealousies and strife. All of them are extremely identifiable too. 

Though the 1980 revival was adapted for television by Showtime and PBS, it’s rather remarkable that a feature film was never made from a property which besides its New York stagings has had a robust life in stock and regional theater. 

(Theater at St. Clement’s, 423 W. 46th Street; or, 212-239-6200; through December 5)

Photos by Maria Baranova: 

(Top) Alley Mills, Lindsay Crouse, Patty McCormack & Alma Cuervo

(Below) Tony Roberts & John Rubinstein

Friday, November 12, 2021

Fairycakes (Greenwich House Theater)

By Harry Forbes

The unfailingly amusing Douglas Carter Beane has written and directed a promising mashup of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and a handful of fairy tales all turned on their ear in the similar vein of  “Into the Woods”  But on this occasion, the result is an extremely thin diversion that, in greatly condensed form, might have made a nice curtain raiser for something more substantial, perhaps thematically related. 

In fact, I rather expected the second act to be a present day story mirroring the fairy tale characters we had just been watching during the fitfully amusing but not exactly riveting first act. But no, the second act picks up on the action of the first, though there is at least a different sort of twist in store midway through.

Still, on the whole, the second act plays very well and I felt the handful of folks who walked out during intermission would likely have enjoyed themselves if they had stayed.

It helps that Beane has assembled a first rate cast of farceurs including Julie Halson, Jackie Hoffman, and Ann Harada. 

The play is written mostly in verse, and there are some very clever turns of phrase, even if eventually all the rhyming couplets begin to wear.. 

The action is propelled by “Dream’s” Oberon (a dynamic Arnie Burton) and Titania (Halston) deciding to divorce because of the former’s serial philandering. But if they do, the Goddess of the Dawn (Kuhoo Verma) foretells that their daughters will all perish. These include Peaseblossom (an appealing Kristolyn Lloyd), Cobweb (Z Infante), Mustardseed (Ann Harada), and Moth (Jackie Hoffman) who bears some thematic similarities to Tinker Bell.

For her part, Titania is smitten with her handsome young Changeling (James Nanthakumar) in her charge. And before long, the now footloose Oberon encounters the frustrated Virgin Queen Elizabeth (also Halston).

Then there’s Gepetto (Mo Rocca, quite charming) constantly on the hunt for his delinquent creation Pinocchio (Sabatino Cruz). Cinderella (Verma) plays cat and mouse with her handsome Prince (witty Jason Tam who turns up as Cupid), while Sleeping Beauty (Infante) waits for love.

Peasebottom has a love/hate relationship with Puck (Chris Myers) who calls her “Fairycakes.”

And there’s Dirk Deadeye (Burton again), the name borrowed from Dick Deadeye in “H.M.S. Pinafore,” but actually one of the pirates from the “Peter Pan” story. He’s ever on the prowl for love which leads him from Moth to some surprising new territory.

Eventually, all the players are put to sleep, as in “Dream,” to fall in love with the first person they see upon waking, and with predictably unlikely results.

Except for Hoffman and Myers, everyone else gets a double role, and contrasts them skillfully. Halston, with her willowy figure and peerless delivery, is especially fine, as even at her funniest, she always taps into emotional truth.

Tiresome though the antics grow after two hours, Gregory Gale’s costumes are a continual delight, and Shoko Kambara and Adam Crinson have done a commendable job of creating a campily enchanted forest on the smallish Greenwich House Theater stage. Lewis Flinn’s attractive music is another plus.

(Greenwich House Theater, 27 Barrow Street;; through November 21)



(l.-r.) Kristolyn Lloyd, Z Infante, Julie Halston, Ann Harada, Jackie Hoffman


(l.-r.) Arnie Burton, Jackie Hoffman

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Caroline, Or Change (Roundabout Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

This is a terrific revival of the 2003 show with a powerhouse performance by Sharon D. Clarke, winner of the 2019 Olivier Award for Michael Longhurst’s production from the Chichester Festival Theatre.

The 39-year-old titular character has been a maid for 22 years, earning a mere $30 a week to support her children. She toils in the basement of the Louisiana-based Gellman family’s house with an anthropomorphized washing machine (Arica Jackson), radio (Nasia Thomas, Nya, Harper Miles), and dryer (Kevin S. McAllister) her daily companions. Motherless Noah, the eight-year-old boy of the house, idolizes Caroline who lets him light her cigarettes in a daily ritual. Noah’s ineffectual clarinet playing father Stuart (John Cariani) is distant, and his ditsy new stepmother Rose (Caissie Levy) fails to connect with him. 

When Rose instructs Caroline to keep any change she finds in Noah’s pockets to teach the boy the value of money, patronizingly telling her she can consider it part of her salary, the gesture rankles the proud Caroline who is torn between not wanting to take a child’s money and, in fact, desperately needing something extra for her own kids’ food and medical expenses. 

Meanwhile, Caroline’s daughter Emmie (Samantha Williams) disdains what she views as her mother’s lowly position. And Caroline’s friend Dotty (Tamika Lawrence) tries vainly to get through to her.

Adding to the family dynamic are Noah’s grandparents (Stuart Zagnit and Joy Hermalyn), and in the second act, Rose’s rabble-rousing father (Chip Zien) who disparages Martin Luther King’s notion of nonviolent protest, and speaks of a real revolution.

The cast is very strong throughout, not forgetting the fine work of Tonya Pinkins’ Caroline and Anika Noni Rose’s Emmie in the original New York production. Clarke is a pillar of determined resignation, the very picture of a woman whose spirit has been crushed, and who simply can’t change, thus the punning title. So convincing is her portrayal that it’s almost briefly startling to see her come out for a curtain call. On the heels of her Olivier Award across the pond, she’s sure to be a hot contender here come awards season. She’s a commanding actress and an electrifying singer.

Adam Makke was Noah at my performance (there are three alternates), and he was truly remarkable, sparring well with Clarke. Caissie Levy, in a far cry from her last Broadway appearance as Elsa in “Frozen,” was spot-on as the perennially discomfited Rose. Williams’ Emmie had plenty of fire and a show-stopping voice of her own. Veteran Chip Zien sparked the second act with his feisty portrayal.

McAllister, with his deep bass, makes a strong impression not only in Chuck Cooper’s original role of the dryer but also later, as the bus who sonorously informs Caroline and Dotty of John F. Kennedy’s death. And N’Keenge brings a lovely presence and ethereal vocalizing to the omnipresent moon.

The Jewish elements of Kushner’s script didn’t sit well for at least one audience member who during a tense scene between Noah and Caroline gratuitously yelled out “Anti-Semitic”!

The Motown and klezmer infused score by composer Jeanine Tesori with lyrics (and book) by Tony Kushner is filled with good things, including some ravishingly beautiful concerted numbers. 

Fly Davis’ two-level, turntable set provided a deftly workable playing area, and the split down the middle visually underscored the gulf between certain characters like Rose and Noah. Davis’ costumes captured the 1963 time frame and, in the case of the appliances, were quite witty (e.g. soap bubbles on the Washing Machine’s dress, antennae on the three Motown-inspired radio gals, a red loop around the dryer’s neck, etc.).

Technical credits were all top of the line, but Paul Arditti’s sound design was, like so many shows these days, pitched way too loud, rendering some of Kushner’s important lyrics unintelligible. Caroline’s big eleven o’clock number with its repeated refrain of “slam goes the iron” was mush, no fault of Clarke’s.

Director Michael Longhurst’s superb direction bears favorable comparison with George C. Wolfe’s memorable original production. 

(Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street; or 212-719-1300;  through January 9)

Photos by Joan Marcus:

(top)Company of Roundabout Theatre Company's CAROLINE, OR CHANGE, 2021. 

(below)Adam Makké, Sharon D Clarke in Roundabout Theatre Company's CAROLINE, OR CHANGE, 2021.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Lackawanna Blues (Manhattan Theatre Club)


By Harry Forbes

I had not previously seen Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s autobiographical one-man valentine to the extraordinary woman who raised him in the 1950s after he was abandoned by his mother. It debuted at the Public Theater in 2001, and became an all-star HBO film in 2005 garnering many awards. So I was very happy to experience the show -- and Santiago-Hudson’s virtuosic performance -- at last in its Broadway debut.

First and foremost, he offers a wonderfully sympathetic and lovable portrait of Rachel Crosby, the indomitable woman known as Nanny or Mother to the scores of people she helped in her Lackawanna, New York, boarding house and elsewhere around town. He also plays his wide-eyed innocent younger self, and all the colorful characters who populated his young world. There are several like Numb Finger Pete, Mr. Lucious, and Lemuel Taylor who are missing body parts (fingers, an arm, a leg), but nearly all are financially or emotionally handicapped. All are portrayed with great compassion and empathy. Occasionally he breaks character to give us uninflected narration.

There’s no shortage of humor -- one malaprop-inclined character refers amusingly  to “The Statue of Delivery” and a diagnosis of “the roaches of the liver” -- but the overall tone is movingly poignant, and never more so than when young Ruben comes to the realization that Nanny will one day die, or when that eventual inevitability comes to pass.

Effortlessly crossing age and gender lines, he’s as staggeringly chameleon in his many guises as the three multi-faceted stars I recently praised so effusively in “The Lehman Trilogy.” And the material is obviously deeply ingrained, much like Chazz Palminteri’s childhood memory play, “A Bronx Tale,” which, like “Lackawanna Blues,” went from solo show to successful multi-character film. Perhaps, like “A Bronx Tale,” Santiago-Hudson’s play may one day return as a musical.

In the meantime, there’s plenty of music here, as he moves with a dancer’s grace changing his body language as much as his vocal cadence and timbre. Casually outfitted by Karen Perry, he offers a dazzling tour de force, and plays a mean harmonica too. Joining him onstage is guitarist Junior Mack playing the evocative underscoring of Santiago-Hudson’s late longtime collaborator Bill Sims, Jr. 

Michael Carnahan’s simple brick wall set design, Jen Schriever’s mood-shifting lighting and Darron L West’s well-balanced sound contribute to Santiago-Hudson’s mesmerizing achievement.

There are a remarkable number of characters to keep track of (at least 24 as cited in the program), but each is conveyed with remarkable clarity, though I will confess to being a little muddled a handful of times.

How astonished and touched the feisty, self-effacing Rachel Crosby would be to know that her life has been so movingly immortalized!

(Manhattan Theatre Club at The Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street;, 212-239-6200; through November 12)

Photo by Marc J. Franklin: Ruben Santiago-Hudson