Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Dead Outlaw (Audible)

By Harry Forbes

For its first half, the new musical co-written by David Yazbek and Erik Della Penna takes the form of a stylized concert telling of the life of a two-bit, would be bank/train robber: one Elmer McCurdy, born 1880 (and played with bravura skill by Andrew Durand, late of “Shucked”). but wait. Before long, Elmer is killed by a posse in a 1911 shoot-out. The unnerving and puzzling effect feels somewhat akin to star Janet Leigh being killed so early in “Psycho.” So where can the show go from here? 

Well, as the title should have tipped us off, the remainder of the show’s 100-minute running time tells the utterly fascinating story of what then happens to poor Elmer’s corpse. This is, you see, a true story, one which came to light when the hanging red-painted body in an amusement park’s horror house was discovered by a TV film crew to be the remains of an actual person, not a mere prop. The corpse had already had a decades-long usage as a sideshow/carnival attraction. The saga has already been recounted In books (one by Mark Svenvold), a stage play, and a BBC documentary.

The book of the musical is written by Itamar Moses whose “The Band’s Visit” (also with Yazbek) won him a Tony Award, but this couldn’t be more different from that show, or, for that matter, his concurrent drama, “The Ally,” playing at the Public Theater. 

The score, filled with hard-driving country tunes, rock, and sweet ballads, is an interesting one. And in addition to Durand’s dynamic performance, the cast is very fine. Jeb Brown is the narrator, though he steps off the bandstand to play a bandit gang leader who, to his later regret, takes the inept Elmer under wing. 

Julia Knitel is lovely as a local girl who falls for Elmer, and could be his salvation were it not for Elmer’s psychological problems and heavy drinking which give him a real Jekyll Hyde dynamic. And she plays all the other female characters too. Trent Saunders has a strong moment as Cherokee Andy Payne, a long-distance champion runner on the newly opened Route 66 in 1928. (McCurdy’s arsenic-preserved mummy was a sideshow attraction during the race.)

Thom Sesma has an outrageous but crowd pleasing number as famed LA County Coroner Thomas Noguchi who pieced together the circumstances of McCurdy’s demise. There is superlative work, too, from Eddie Cooper, Dashiell Eaves, and Ken Marks (as Douglas MacArthur who was actually McCurdy’s superior during his brief army stint).

The whole is fluidly directed by David Cromer with movement direction by Ani Taj. Arnulfo Maldonado’s revolving set (both the bandstand and the set itself turn), atmospherically lit by Heather Gilbert, provides visual variety. And Sarah Laux’s costumes run the gamut from late 19th century to the late 1970s.   

Under Dean Sharenow’s music supervision, Rebekah Bruce conducts (and plays the piano for) the exemplary band which includes Della Penna himself on guitars, lap steel, and banjo, HANK, and Chris Smylie. (Bruce, Della Penna, and HANK double as vocalists, too.

The musical, like all Audible productions, will also be recorded for release at a later date,

(Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane; DeadOutlawMusical.com; through April 7)

Photo by Matthew Murphy (2024): (l-r) Trent Saunders, Andrew Durand, and Eddie Cooper

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Corruption (Lincoln Center Theater)

By Harry Forbes

Playwright J.T. Rogers -- whose “Oslo,” about the Arab-Israeli Peace Accord, was memorably mounted at Lincoln Center Theater under the direction of Bartlett Sher -- returns with another ripped-from-the-headlines tale, also directed by Sher, this time concerning the 2010-11 phone hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World in the U.K. 

Writing much in the vein of David Hare (think “The Absence of War” or the Murdoch inspired “Pravda”), Rogers skillfully creates maximum suspense and tension and paints a picture of an environment where, as one character puts it, “government, privacy, and trust are malleable.” Even the police, it is revealed, are involved in the dirty doings.

Toby Stephens plays Tom Watson, the member of Parliament who, as government whip under Prime Minister Gordon Brown (Anthony Cochrane), had himself been smeared by the press, takes on unmasking the rampant phone hacking tactics (against non-celebrities and bold-faced names alike) undertaken under the leadership of formidable chief executive of News International Group, Rebekah Brooks (Saffron Burrows).

Watson does so, even though the ensuing notoriety may jeopardize his wife (Robyn Kerr) and young son. He enlists the help of journalists Martin Hickman (Sanji de Silva) of The Independent and Nick Davies (T. Ryder Smith) from The Guardian as well as solicitor Charlotte Harris (Sepideh Moafi). Rupert Murdoch’s son James (Seth Numrich) is ostensibly Brooks’ boss, but as she’s firmly entrenched in the elder Murdoch’s good graces, he stands little chance of diminishing her power, much as he’s inclined to denigrate print in favor of his pet projects, TV and new media. Brooks, for her part, is aided every step of her ruthless way by the paper’s chief counsel Tom Crone (Dylan Baker). 

Rogers based the play on Watson and Hickman’s book, “Dial M for Murdoch: News Corporation and the Corruption of Britain.”

The Yank-Brit cast is uniformly excellent. Besides all those mentioned, Michael Siberry has some choice moments as wealthy Max Mosely, a victim of the News of the World’s spying tactics, as do Eleanor Handley as New York Times reporter Jo Becker whom Watson and his colleagues try to interest in the story, and K. Todd Freeman as gay MP Chris Bryant, once attacked by Watson, but now enlisted to help in the cause. 

All the actors, except for Stephen and Burrows, play multiple roles which can sometimes cause momentary confusion. So, too, despite Rogers’ expository skill, following the narrative might be a bit challenging, at least for an American audience. Nonetheless, the main thrust of the narrative is clear enough. 

Sher directs at a fast pace and generates requisite momentum even with the dense talk. 

Stephens is terrific, expertly conveying his conflict as he tries, for the sake of his family, to stay neutral on the issue but inexorably drawn into it. And Burrows is convincingly commanding and intimidating as his hard-as-nails nemesis.

There are personal stories here too to balance all the industry talk. There’s the domestic friction between Watson and his wife Siobhan. And Brooks and her new husband Charles (John Behlmann) are attempting to have a child through a somewhat reluctant surrogate mother (also Kerr) whom they fear may change her mind.

Michael Yeagan’s set includes circular sectional tables which continually change position as the narrative unfolds, while newsroom monitors on an overhead ring keeps the eye dazzled, along with back projections of text and video by 59 Productions/ Benjamin Pearcy and Brad Peterson

(Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater,150 West 65 Street; lct.org)

Photo by Charles Erickson: (l.-r.) John Behlmann, Eleanor Handley and Toby Stephens.

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

The Ally (the Public Theater)

By Harry Forbes

Playwright Itamar (“The Band’s Visit”) Moses’ latest work is a provocative drama concerning university writing teacher Asaf (Josh Radnor) who signs a social justice manifesto on the urging of his student Baron (Elijah Jones) after the death of the latter’s cousin at the hands of the police. But his action ignites a a firestorm as the document equates the #BlackLivesMatter situation with that of Palestinians by Israelis. 

As Asaf is of Jewish descent, his involvement raises the particular ire of Judaica student Reuven (Ben Rosenfield) who bursts into Asaf’s office and passionately defends the Jewish side, and excoriates Asaf. And later, when Asaf decides his name should be removed from the manifesto after all, he comes under fire from both Palestinian student Farid (Michael Khalid Karadsheh), who argues the other side just as intensely and persuasively, and Asaf’s ex-girlfriend, Nakia (Cherise Boothe) who, in fact, wrote the manifesto. 

Moses is, like Asaf, of Israeli descent, and his play is a smart summation of all the arguments of the Middle East conflict. Both sides receive balanced, highly charged airings, and Rosenfield and Karadsheh are superb in their lengthy monologues as they argue their respective positions. No one applauded after either of these superbly acted speeches, as if cheering histrionic virtuosity might be mistaken for allegiance to one political side or the other. Or so it seemed.  

The play is a lengthy two hours and 40 minutes, but by the end, there is no actual resolution, as indeed the never-ending conflict in the Mideast seems to bear out. So, too, it was written before the Hamas invasion of Israel on October 7, and all the horrific carnage that followed, so there’s no reference to any of that, but the arguments remain pertinent, and no less potent.

Director Lila Neugebauer who did such a fine job with the current “Appropriate,” keeps the action fluid, and one scene morphs into another without pause. She draws fine performances from all, including Joy Osmanski as Asaf’s wife Gwen, a community relations administrator at the college which is planning to expand its campus; Madeline Weinstein as student Rachel who, though Jewish herself, joins with Farid to sponsor a campus lecture by a best-selling author espousing anti-Zionist sentiments. 

Radnor is ideal as the ever well-meaning Asaf who gets embroiled in such a maelstrom of controversy. Never less than likable, he earns the audience empathy from the start and retains it throughout.

The profusion of ideas is intriguing certainly, though “The Ally” frequently seems less a play than a stimulating debate. But, in fairness, there is a surprising amount of humor amidst the heavy arguments, and just enough domestic conflict in the scenes between Asaf and Gwen, and later, Asaf and old flame Nakia to keep us involved. 

(The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street; publictheater.org or 212-967-7555; through March 24)

Photo by Joan Marcus: Ben Rosenfield and Josh Radnor

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

The Connector (MCC Theater)

By Harry Forbes

Eager beaver Princeton grad Ethan Dobson (Ben Levi Ross) lands a job as a prestigious literary magazine, the titular Connector, after he impresses the longtime editor Conrad O’Brien (Scott Bakula). He quickly befriends assistant copy editor Robin (Hannah Cruz) who becomes something of a girlfriend. 

But she, unlike Ethan, has yet to have one of her stories greenlighted. The story is set in the world of male dominated mid-1990’s journalism on the cusp of a changing media landscape, one in which scrupulous adherence to the facts is pitted against good storytelling. 

Ethan’s first story is an immediate hit with readers, as are his subsequent pieces, and circulation rises. But his winning streak starts to derail when his sensational expose of an embattled New Jersey mayor raises questions of veracity.

Though that plot twist is a bit of a spoiler, the theme has been widely publicized by the creators and MCC’s program notes which spotlight journalistic scandals such as Stephen Glass’s fabrications at The New Republic, presumably an inspiration for the script.

Jonathan Marc Sherman’s book is quite interesting, particularly when the narrative takes that particular turn. I find it difficult to assess Jason Robert Brown’s rhythm-heaving, electronic score on first hearing but it’s certainly as skillful and accomplished as you’d expect from the talented composer/lyricist who leads the band at each performance.

Several numbers beguile the ear, culminating in the Mideast flavored “Western Wall.” Choreographer Karla Puno Garcia has devised her most elaborate movement for that last lengthy number. Still, I couldn’t help feeling that “The Connector” might be just as compelling as a straight play sans songs. 

The show was conceived and very well directed by Daisy Prince in her third collaboration with Brown, following “The Last Five Years” and “Songs for a New World.”

The leads are all well cast. Ross, who starred in the somewhat thematically related “Dear Evan Hanson” for a couple of years, nails all the aspects of his tricky role, and Cruz makes an equally strong impression as the increasingly discontented Robin while Bakula brings the appropriate gravitas. All sing splendidly.

I did feel the band sometimes drowned out important lyrics, but generally Jon Weston's sound design is admirable.

There’s excellent work by Jessica Molaskey as a persistent fact-checker, and Mylinda Hull as a comically dogged fan letter writer whose correspondence take a more aggressive turn when she begins to discern something seriously amiss in Ethan’s copy. Superlative as well is Daniel Jenkins as the magazine’s lawyer. Max Crumm has a standout number as a Scrabble champion, and Fergie Philippe as a rapping informant. 

Beowulf Borritt’s set -- a sort of checkered pattern dominated by a wall of magazine proofs and piles of manuscripts elsewhere -- and dynamic lighting by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew keep the show visually interesting. And Márion Tálan de la Rosa’s costumes capture the period and ambience.

(MCC Theater’s Newman Mills Theater, 511 W 52nd Street; mcctheater.org; through March 17)

Photo by Joan Marcus: (l.-r.) Scott Bakula and Ben Levi Ross