Thursday, December 15, 2022

Downstate (Playwrights Horizons)

By Harry Forbes

Here’s a gripping adult drama from Pulitzer Prize winner Bruce Norris (“Clybourne Park”) about four sex offenders -- all of whom have served their time in prison -- now living in a halfway house somewhere in Downstate Illinois. When the play opens, Andy (Tim Hopper), in tandem with his wife Em (Sally Murphy), has come to confront Fred (Francis Guinan) who, as a piano teacher, had abused Andy when the boy was 12, kickstarting the drama into high gear. 

As Andy nervously summons the courage to read the prepared statement articulating the hurt and guilt he feels every day, we meet the other residents: Gio (Glenn Davis), a fast-talking entrepreneurial type barreling over other conversations; Felix (Eddie Torres), a reclusive depressive who emerges from his screened off room only when necessary to use the bathroom or kitchen; and Dee (K. Todd Freeman), a former musical performer who warily watches over the activities in their apartment, and is particularly protective of Fred, now severely disabled.

Eventually, we meet Ivy (Susanna Guzmán), the tough but empathetic probation officer for the residents, who visits to make sure that all the men are abiding by the highly restrictive rules, which include no alcohol, cellphones, internet, or women. And in the second act, Gio comes home with Effie (Gabi Samels), a drug-taking co-worker from the Home Depot where they both work. 

The brilliance of Norris’s work here, beyond the sparky dialogue and compelling arguments weighing matters of justice and retribution, lies in creating characters that defy stereotypes. The perpetrators are not the monsters you might imagine (though their crimes are not for one second minimized), and even the victim, as personified by Andy who eventually shows himself to be hellbent on vengeance, is not as fully sympathetic as he might be drawn in another telling. 

The cast is uniformly superb. In fact, the men all originated these roles at Steppenwolf in 2018, and then London’s National Theatre.

Longtime Norris director Pam MacKinnon directs with an unobtrusively sure hand. Todd Rosenthal’s evocative set -- a dreary, strictly utilitarian residence, realistically lighted by Adam Silverman -- and Clint Ramos’ spot-on costumes are all pitch perfect. 

This is a tough one to watch -- the language is occasionally raw as befits the subject matter, and some may feel that empathy and nuance should be solely focused on the victim -- but the themes are profoundly thought-provoking and the drama never ceases to grip.

(Playwrights Horizons. 416 West 42nd Street;; through Dec. 30)

Photo by Joan Marcus: (l.-r.) Francis Guinan, Sally Murphy, Tim Hopper

Thursday, December 1, 2022

& Juliet (Stephen Sondheim Theater)

By Harry Forbes

Here’s an often witty and generally clever feminist riff on “Romeo and Juliet.” In this telling, William Shakespeare's strong-willed wife, Anne Hathaway, strenuously objects to the original ending of the play and insists that after Romeo dies, Juliet ought to survive and have a happy life free from the strictures of the male dominated Verona. What ensues is a marital battle of quills, as the action plays out before us.

This happens to be a jukebox musical loaded with familiar top 40 hits by the producer/songwriter Max Martin and various collaborators (sharply orchestrated and arranged by Bill Sherman). So we hear familiar chart-busters from the likes of Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Bon Jovi, Katy Perry, and Kelly Clarkson, among others.

That utterly incongruous and anachronistic juxtaposition of contemporary song and Elizabethan era script make for a lot of the fun.

Juliet (Lorna Courtney), in David West Read’s amusing book, is a feisty gal who knows her own mind and decides to buck her parents Lord and Lady Capulet (Nicholas Edwards and Veronica Otim) and hit the road with her sassy nurse Angélique (a delightfully sharp-tongued Melanie La Barrie), and non-binary BFF May (touching Justin David Sullivan).

As Will (Stark Sands) and Anne (Betsy Wolfe) argue about the script, they themselves assume characters in the play: Will as a coachman and Anne as Juliet's worldly-wise older girlfriend April. 

Off they flee to Paris, crash a party hosted by rich kid François (Philippe Arroyo) whose stern father Lance (Paolo Szot in a delightfully wacky change of pace) wants the boy to wed or face life in the military. But (wouldn’t you know?) it’s attraction at first sight for the conflicted François and May and…well, you can guess the rest.

I suppose it’s only a tiny spoiler to reveal that Romeo does, in fact, make a second act appearance but, in this telling, it’s not necessarily a sure bet that he’ll reconnect with his former bride. (He was played by strong-voiced Daniel Maldonado at my performance, subbing for Ben Jackson Walker.)

Read’s book is a politically correct mélange of female empowerment, gay pride and identity, presented in a light-hearted, audience-pleasing manner. The show mixes elements of “Six,” “Head Over Heels,” and “Something Rotten.”

Southa Gilmour’s set is a colorful delight of flashing lighting effects, moving platforms, and air-borne set pieces. Paloma Young’s costumes are cheekily 16th century with a modern-day twist.

Lauren Courtney, in a stunning Broadway debut, raises the roof more than once with her powerful vocals and great stage presence. She has great comedic timing, and this is a real star-making performance.

Sands and Wolfe are strong as the battling Shakespeares, with Read’s script giving them some humorously sharp ripostes. All get their opportunity to shine vocally.

Szot, in a delightfully silly departure from his roles at the Met and as Emile DeBeque in “South Pacific,” really lets down his hair particularly in a second act boy band number, and he and La Barrie make a wonderfully daffy pair. (It turns out Lance and Angélique had a thing years before.)

The show opened in Manchester and then London’s West End in 2019 winning three Olivier Awards and it continues to run at the Shaftesbury Theatre there. If the reaction of the audience at my performance was any indication, I predict it will enjoy a comparably healthy run here.

(Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 123 West 43 Street;

Photos by Matthew Murphy: (top) (l.-r.) Melanie La Barrie and Lorna Courtney

Below: (l.-r.) Stark Sands and Betsy Wolfe