Let's Talk Off Broadway

Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Month: December 2014

Review | Dying For It by Moira Buffini

A free adaptation of The Suicide by Nikolai Erdman, directed by Neil Pepe, The Atlantic Theater Company

… the arrow of disillusion …

Dying For It is an all-out, hilarious satire of life under the rigid Soviet regime with vivid characters and a fascinating turn of plot — but it’s not all funny. 

Semyon Semyonovich, unemployed, lives drearily, supported by the pittance of money earned by his wife, Masha who’s also supporting her live-in mother.  No wonder Masha’s got a bitter streak, making Semyon’s miseries worse. Seeing no other way out, Semyon decides to commit suicide, and is all the more determined after a brief reprieve from despair:  raised hopes followed by utter failure to learn to play the tuba.  Like Molnar’s Liliom, but with an eye to the absurd, the play takes up the psychological import and strains on family life when a man is out of work.

But — wait:  the play reminds us that death holds a great deal of power.  Don’t waste it

The strong-man who rooms upstairs, Alexander Petrovich, corrals off the streets characters, each representative of a segment of Russian society that has become disillusioned with the promises of the Russian Revolution (the Russian Revolution put the Soviets in power in 1917 and Erdman’s play was written in 1928).  Alexander gives them each, for a price, the chance to persuade Semyon to give his suicide purpose by dying in protest for his or her particular cause.    

The aristocratic intellectual, the Priest, the girl looking for “pure love,” the writer wanting to write honestly instead of propaganda — each of them urges Semyon to die a “meaningful heroic death” as a martyr.  Each, though, has a different cause because each, depending on vocation and personality, has become differently disillusioned.  Nothing, it seems, is working right.  The sheer parade of lost illusions attributed to the Soviet system is powerful.  No wonder Stalin banned Erdman’s original play

But where they all agree is that the post-Revolution society has become so repressive, and they are so desperate that the only way to fight the system is by the dramatic act of suicide.   The rub, of course, is that none of them wants to die.  How fortunate that Semyon’s so keen on it:   he’s a weapon for all, “the arrow of disillusionment.”

Well, almost all — let’s not forget about the Postman who lives on the top floor and given to peeking through the keyhole at women using the bathroom and is a Communist loyalist.  He won the Good Postman Award and, popping up and peeping in unexpectedly — we can take him for being a government spy, real or wanna-be

Any play which generates so much taken-by-surprise laughter deserves to be called a “comedy” but that’s not the whole story.  In its representation of key segments of society suppressed under Stalin, it’s a kind of parable and, in reflection, its vision is tragic — laughing all the way, almost.  The paradoxes of laughter and tragedy find a haunting union in poignant violin and accordion music by Josh Schmidt, played by Nathan Dame and Andrew Mayer, woven through the play and enlivening a great party scene.   The play’s final impact is powerful.   

Joey Slotnick as Semyon strikes the right balance between zany clowning and the serious sensitive acting the part of the desperate man requires.  Among the fine ensemble cast, I particularly enjoyed the toughness and vitality of Mia Barron as Margarita who keeps a shady bar and can’t help loving the macho muscle man Yegor, played strongly by Ben Beckely.

Jeanine Serralles as Semyon’s wife is so ratty it’s easy to see why Semyon would be drawn to suicide, though it’s hard to reconcile her nastiness with her professions of true love for her husband.  Though Mary Beth Peil, playing Masha’s mother, seems a little too elegant to be toting around the slop bucket, her takes are so right on I’m happy to have seen her in the part.  An all-star cast fills out the ever-surprising array of characters who, while standing for something beyond themselves are all are vividly individualized.

Walt Spangler’s set of the dilapidated peeling wall-paper rooming house echoes and supports the play, suggesting the mystery and complexity of the varied characters and puzzles of existence. 

I’m not sure what the outstanding playwright, Moira Buffini, did in terms of freely adapting Erdman’s The Suicide — as it is, if feels very “Russian,” though I’m sure she included the element of music, but in any case, this is a fine, satisfying play and that it gives a glimpse into a place and time of special historical interest is a bonus.

Dying For It  plays at the Atlantic Theater in Manhattan’s Chelsea district through January 18, 2015.  For more information and tickets, click on live link of title.

Yvonne Korshak

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Review | Slow Dusk and Markheim | Two Operas by Carlisle Floyd

In new chamber arrangements by Inessa Zaretsky and Raymond J. Lustig, The Little Opera Theatre of NY at 59E59

What a wonderful evening of theater.  Two short American operas, narratives set to dramatic music, superbly performed.  One leaves thrilled and elated.

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L-R Jennifer Roderer, Sarah Beckham-Turner, Alexander Charles Boyd in SLOW DUSK. Photo Buckman

SLOW DUSK takes us from commonplace to ecstatic, to tragedy, from afternoon to dusk.  Aunt Sue is shelling peas on the porch of a farmhouse in the Carolinas when Jess comes in from the fields, we learn of their concern about their niece, Sadie, who’s seeing to much of Micah — his family belong to the Truelights and they belong to the Disciples, and anyhow she’s smart and he never finished eighth grade.  They’re wild for one another and agree to marry but — not family as in Romeo and Juliet — accident intervenes, as fast as it can in life. 

This is Carlisle Floyd’s first opera based on his own short story:  the language is at times over simple but the

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Bray Wilkins and Sarah Beckham Turner in SLOW DUSK. Photo Buckman

music is bold, strong, apt, and intensifies the drama, and the characterizations are both archetypal and realistic.  (I thought, Eugene O’Neil’s Desire Under the Elms could use Carlisle Floyd’s music.)  

The voices might not have carried to the last rows of the Metropolitan Opera house but in this medium sized theater they were overwhelming and very moving.  The acting, direction, costuming and setting are superb.  The impact is powerful. 

Wow, am I glad I’m here!  I thought, almost dazed — what’s next?

Next came one of the most impactful performances I’ve ever seen.  Again it’s short, a lot happens , and you’re left breathless and elated.  MARKHEIM, based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson, takes you to London 1880, and

 

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L-R Scott Six and Jeremy Milner in MARKHEIM. Photo Buckman

Christmas Eve, when an elegant man, Markheim,  who has squandered his family fortune enters a pawn shop to raise cash — drug dealers will kill him if he doesn’t pay up. 

Here, again, characterizations, narrative and music form a gripping whole.  A confrontation between the pawn dealer and Markheim doesn’t end well as Markheim, who’s spent his life digging himself into a hole goes in deeper.  A mysterious Stranger in evening clothes enters.  Now, I’ve seen some wonderful Devils in theater, from Don Juan in Hell to Faust:  this

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L-R Jeremy Milner and Marc Schreiner in MARKHEIM. Photo Buckman

is the Devil whose Hell I’d really consider.  He’s sly, smart, sophisticated, articulate and choreographically active.  With a Devil likethis, redemption’s a tough sell, though there is a kind of redemption …. with an awful lot of collateral damage.

The night I attended Marc Schreiner played the Stranger and he was so seductively charismatic I’d be reluctant to see anybody else in the part — what sheer fun! — and that goes for all the cast of both operas.   Yet, at the same time I’d like to see the other cast since every aspect of this production is so completely fulfilled I imagine they are equally outstanding.

Because there are two casts, I’m listing here the cast the night I attended:  SLOW DUSK:  Aunt Sadie was mezzo-soprana Jennifer Roderer, Jess was baritone Alexander Charles Boyd, Sadie was soprana Sarah Beckham-Turner and Micah was tenor Bray Wilkins.   MARKHEIM:  Josiah Creach (the pawnbroker) was tenor Scott Six, Markheim was bass-baritone Jeremy Milner, Tess (the shop girl) was soprano Marie Masters and A Stranger was tenor Marc Schreiner.  There is an ensemble Christmas carolers.

Richard Cordova conducted the lavish fifteen-piece orchestra:  the richly inventive and dramatic music heightened the emotional content and filled the theater with beauty.

The human scale, the authenticity in the costumes and ambiance as well as in the acting, the set and lighting create an extraordinary “you can’t get enough of it” visual appeal.

Just listing the performers brings back their vivid characterizations and the joy of the entire production – the joy of excellence.  These operas and others of this Carlisle Floyd’s works are available on audio media but I haven’t located any videos of them.  I’d sure like to see as well as hear his two-act opera Susannah.  

SLOW DUSK and MARKHEIM play at 59E59 Theater, in midtown Manhattan (yes, that’s the address) in a limited run through December 14, 2014.  For more information and tickets, click on live link of title.

Yvonne Korshak

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