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

Category: Off-Broadway Theater Page 2 of 30

Yvonne Korshak writes Let’s Talk Off-Broadway fired by the sense that the best theater in New York City is off-Broadway and she wants to spread the word. She conveys the essence of the show – what’s this play about? What would it be like to see it? How is it wonderful? And where might it be stronger?

Gary McNair in A Gambler's Guide to Dying. Photo: Benjamin Cowie

Review | A Gambler’s Guide to Dying | Written and Performed by Gary McNair | Directed by Gareth Nicholls | 59E59 Theaters


Actor-author Gary McNair recounts his granddad’s excitement at winning a big bet on the 1966 World Cup, and a lifelong quest to recreate the thrill.

Having recently seen Benjamin Evett’s masterful telling of a story in a  at 59E59 — Albatross, inspired by Coleridge’s long poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” — I was keen to see Gary McNair tell his story in a one-person show, A Gambler’s Guide To Dying.  McNair is a writer and performer who comes to us from Glasgow.

Gary McNair in A Gambler's Guide to Dying. Photo: Benjamin Cowie

Gary McNair in A Gambler’s Guide to Dying. Photo: Benjamin Cowie

In 1966, against the odds, England won the eighth football (“soccer”) World Cup playing against West Germany – the only time England has won the Cup to this day.   In Britain, the largest number of  TV viewers up to that time watched the match, over 32 million — even today that’s quite a number.  At the start of A Gambler’s Guide To Dying, Gary McNair as Granddad recreates the excitement he and everyone else had of watching that win in a pub– and not only that, Granddad won big!  He had bet on Britain and he made a fortune!

Granddad, we learn, had told and retold this story to the Narrator as Boy many times – it was a favorite event for both of them, and he never told it quite the same way twice.  From the point of view of the grandson, Granddad could be seen in many ways:  “To some he was dad, to some he was mate, to others he was liar, cheat, addict, hero, story teller.”  Granddad did alter his stories with each telling,  and he told tall-tales:  this may have made him a “liar,” but he was certainly an addict.  He never got over the thrill of that first big win – and kept looking for it the rest of his life, starting with his winnings from that 1966 World Cup, which he soon bet and lost.  Not surprisingly, throughout his life, he never had much money. Nevertheless he kept betting to the very end, placing bets as a sick old man on how long he’d stay alive.  Now here’s a question:  Will the desire to win your bet keep you alive longer?  You can see the show to find out.

Gary McNair with quite a pile of gambling chits. A Gambler's Guide To Dying at 59E59 Theaters. Photo Bemjamin Cowie.

Gary McNair with quite a pile of Granddad’s gambling chits. Photo Bemjamin Cowie.

McNair takes on many voices, some brief as an exclamation, others fully developed, such as the voice of Granddad, and that of  his grandson as a boy and a grown man.  He also brings athletic vigor to the part, leaping on boxes, climbing a step-ladder backward (I worried for his safety on that one), and generally seeking with a variety of voices and movements to animate the story and bring its characters to life.

I appreciated McNair’s range and energy, and the passion with which he wanted to tell the story and wanted us as viewers to fully appreciate the novelty and wonder he saw in the granddad.  Still, Granddad did not turn out to be an interesting enough character to carry the show.  Once you catch on that win or lose granddad will keep betting, and that even if he wins a bet, he’ll reinvest the winnings in another bet, there isn’t much suspense.  Granddad didn’t seem endearing as the grandson finds him, more on the annoying and foolish side, so the grandson’s belief that granddad was a “great man” comes across as a strained attempt to end on a high note.

A Gambler’s Guide To Dying plays at 59E59 Theaters in mid-Manhattan through April 23, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Review | Oslo | By J. T. Rogers | Directed by Bartlett Sher | Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center

… at the gates of war … 

No conflicts seem more stubbornly unsolvable in modern politics and history than the hostilities between Israelis and Arabs.   How fascinating that there were, in fact, secret negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, enabled by idealistic,  peace-seeking Norwegians, that resulted in a signed agreement in 1993, the first of the Oslo accords.   Oslo tells the that story in such a way that the audience is caught up in the suspense of high stakes history.

We learn early on about two Israeli academics whose research demonstrates that peace between the Israeli and Palestinians wouldn’t just mitigate violence but would benefit both sides economically.  With these studies as a starting point, Norwegians in their country’s foreign service, convinced that giving representatives of the opposing sides the opportunity to know one another personally will enable cooperation, invite representatives of the Israeli government and the PLO to meet secretly in Oslo.

The Norwegians provide a place for talks and human comforts, good drink and food — Norwegian pancakes play a large role in drawing together these diplomatic representatives on a personal, and progressively warmer level.  The diplomats become friends while not “giving in” to one another’s political demands. There’s give and take: they make some compromises but hold their ground on the non-negotiable issues.

As progress toward an agreement is made, diplomats at even higher levels arrive to hammer out the make-or-break details.   The Americans become involved toward the end and – it’s history — the signing of the Oslo Accord took place in September 1993, with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signing for Israel and Yasir Arafat signing for the PLO, the “first-ever peace deal between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization,” as the playwright writes in his program Note. In a famous photograph, dramatized in this play, Rabin and Arafat shake hands in the Rose Garden of the White House, in the presence of President Bill Clinton.

Knowing the satisfactory, even thrilling ending — which tragically dissipated later, but that’s another part of  history — makes all the more interesting the ins-and-outs and progress and setbacks of the negotiations, through which, ultimately, the PLO agreed to recognize Israel’s right to exist and Israel recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians.

The characters, in representing historical figures, sometime seem like mouthpieces for their points of view rather than coming to life in their own terms.   Two actors, Anthony Azizi as the dominant PLO representative and Michal Aronov for the Israelis, bring charisma and an enlivening free-wheeling body language to their roles which go far to keep the play from seeming too talky-talky.

The two Norwegians most involved in the success of the negotiations are the most fully drawn as characters but, in terms of what the play’s about, they’re peripheral, so their emotional journeys don’t strengthen the sense of human drama as much as if they were more central.  Oslo is occasionally engaging emotionally, but it’s always interesting as the ideas and interplay, underlined by the life and death importance of a good solution, keep our minds engaged.   You have the sense throughout of learning something you really want to know, and of being glad the author has made that a stimulating event.

Oslo plays at the Vivian Beaumont theater in Manhattan’s Lincoln Center through June 18, 2017. For more information and tickets, click here.

Review | Les Bonnes/The Maids | By Jean Genet | Directed by Oliver Henzler | La MaMa

… oppression  …

Enter the weird world of Claire and Solange – the world of what oppression does to the human spirit.

The language is brilliant and stunningly expressed by two great actresses in this production, the psychological twists and freehand switches on role playing are the products of a stupendous dramatic imagination. But unlike the actual notorious murder that inspired the play, the Papin case, the maids, not the mistress, are the ultimate victims.  The author’s profound reversal of the expected ending raises this play from a shocking oddity of kinky love-hate relationships (which it is!) to the level of a true classic.  To have seen this great, passionate production is a life treasure.

In the Papin case, in France in 1933, two sisters, employed in the same household as maids, murdered their employer’s wife and daughter.  In Les Bonnes/The Maids, two maids who are sisters, Claire and Solange, play-act as the mistress whenever Madame, the mistress, is out, masquerade in her dresses, express their furious resentments and debasement, and plot her murder.

Only they don’t seem to have it in them.  They spend so much time analyzing every nuance of the words and actions of each other, and their relationship, and of all the other words, actions and relationships of that touch them – Madame, her lover Monsieur, and the milkman Mario, that Madame always comes home too soon, forcing them into a humiliating scramble to get Madame’s clothes back on the hangers and everything back in order.

They are not, however, totally inept.  In an intimation of what they may be capable of, Claire has written a letter denouncing Monsieur – and the man’s in jail.  But in the course of the play, during their hectic afternoon of dressing up in Madame’s finery, analyzing their anguish, and hurling recriminations, a phone call comes, and they learn Monsieur has been released from prison, forcing a change in their plans, or speeding them up.  Madame arrives, self-involved, patronizing, self-dramatizing – she’s going to follow her lover to the ends of the earth, enraptured by the sense of her own generosity, she’s gives Claire and Solange her red dress that is a dominant feature of the evening, and her fur cape – and takes them back.  But she notices the phone dangling off the hook – questions are asked, mild suspicion aroused and, distracted, she rushes out of the house to meet her lover, not taking time to drink the tea Claire has prepared for her – Madame’s good luck.

Role boundaries are permeable.  Claire becomes Madame, dominating her older sister, Solange who also play-acts as the dominating Madame.  Sisters detest one another and are lovers.  Solange is the virulent hater while Claire has softer moments – but don’t count on it.

When Madame leaves to meet Monsieur, freed from prison, the sisters revert to their play-acting “game” but this time, through a leap of the author’s imagination, and the perverse logic of their role-playing, Oppression gathers in its victims.

This was a stunning production, physically centered around a tall noose-like contraption with a twisted bucket – suggesting buckets of water eternally carried, to which Solange and Claire are tethered, like mules to a grinding stone.  The set design, by Lloyd Huber and Di Girolamo, is as imaginative and emotionally signifying as any I’ve ever seen.

The play was presented in the original French with English titles above, and the acting by two French actresses, Helene Godec as Solange and Laura Lassy Towsend as Claire was surpassing.  The heat of emotions and tightly entwined dialog of these two sisters, who know each other too well, was breath-taking.  Cloe Xhauflaire as Madame was on a par, though her role is less demanding than the astonishing intensity of the interplay between Solange and Claire.

I saw this production of a classic play of huge intellectual and artistic importance at the very end of its run.  The best I can say by way of apologies that it’s not there for you now is:  keep an eye on L’Atelier Theatre Productions and La MaMa.

Les Bonnes/The Maids played at La MaMa theater in Manhattan’s lower East side from March 2-19.  For more information about the production and its creative team, and some telling photos, click here.

Review | Sweat | By Lynn Nottage | Directed by Kate Whoriskey | Studio 54

… losers and losers …

Sweat is not a perfect play but it’s important and by the end has great impact. As this drama unfolds, we witness through the lives of engaging individuals how competition for jobs poisons relationships between ethnic and racial groups and, most poignantly, between friends.  The backdrop is the total disregard of industry and “Wall Street” for the individuals who support them.

The story, set in Reading Pennsylvania, once a heavy industry town, moves back and forth between 2000 and 2008.  We first meet two anguished young men, an agitated Evan and enraged Jason in tense, separate interrogations with their probation officer – they’ve just been released from jail, and the rest of the play tells us how they got there.  Evan is a big, solid-looking Black hoping to find solace in the Bible.  Jason is a skinny pale White with a swastika on his sleeve – he’s come out of prison as a White Supremacist.  And yet we learn when after their recent release they ran into each other in town, they embraced, a paradox central to the play’s meaning.

Much of the action takes place in a bar when, through flashbacks, when the bar was a hangout for a local factory workers who formed a bar family for one another.  Cynthia., Evans’ Black mother and Tracey, Jason’s White mother are specially tight friends in the early years.  They share long experience at the assembly line, pride in their well-paid job in the factory their families worked for generations, fatigue, gripes, and pleasure in celebrating birthdays at the bar.

The snake in the garden comes when Management announces an opening in supervisory position, and a willingness to consider Cynthia and Tracey for the job.  Off the line and into a supervisory position – what a wonderful promotion for Cynthia or Tracey that would be!

But winners create losers: when one of the two actually wins the job, friendship shatters into a bitter outcome.  Early on, the closeness between Cynthia and Tracey seems racially idyllic but as that relationship dissipates, the race war and class war of the world at large are fought out in the microcosm of the bar, with brutal results.  It’s not just about Blacks and White’s, Nottage reminds us:  the victim count includes Stan, the White manager of the bar who’s an earlier victim of the factory owners’ disregard, and the Puerto Rican cleaner, Oscar.  And in the ultimate irony, the “winner” of the competition for the supervisory job turns out to be a loser, too – a tool manipulated by the factory owners who are exporting jobs to Mexico.  Assembly line workers are fired and who does it? … well, somebody has to do their dirty work.

A strength of this play is the thoroughgoing examination of the tragic effects on individual lives of the factory system and of Wall Street.  The inherently exploitive and non-humanistic character of capitalism and its hand maiden, economic competition, are exemplified through the characters’ many different kinds of wounds and defeats, physical and spiritual:  incarceration, drug addiction, alcoholism, family breaks, crippling bodily injuries, disillusionment, obstacles in the path toward worthy goals, and severe bodily injuries.  The play is a political critique but one expressed through vivid human lives:  the personal tragedies, and small triumphs emerge out of the situations and interactions of the three-dimensional characters with which Nottage populates the bar.

Although the play moves cleverly through time, with the set shifting from the probation office to the bar, the first act feels static.  The exposition isn’t well handled: some of the characters give preachy speeches that tell us what we should know and think rather than show us.  And the bar fly, Jessie, seems to have no role to play outside of softening what could be an over simple focus on the two mothers, Tracey and Cynthia.  The play comes alive in the second act where the varying outcomes unfold and the “lesson” of the outcomes of unbridled economic competition are driven home through what happens to the characters who are most central:  Tracey and Cynthia, and to Jason, Chris, Stan, and the rest, who’d once seemed like a family.  All of them are accounted for in important ways.

The cast is uniformly excellent, and among some of the major characters, Johanna Day’s Tracy, the White woman with an embittered sense of entitlement, is totally   convincing.   Michelle Wilson is exciting as the impassioned go-getter, Cynthia, though talky portions of the script sometimes get in the way of her naturalism.  Khris Davis is moving as the young Black man with a hopeful future vision.  Wiry Will Pullen conveys a sense of risk from the get-go as Jason, the White kid with the scary tattoos.  With the set designed by John Lee Beatty, the occasional transitions between the stern venues such as the probation office and the cozy bar have emotional impact.

Lynn Nottage’s earlier play, Ruined (reviewed here) – is also set in a bar, in a tradition that can easily be traced back to Eugene O’Neil’s The Iceman Cometh.  Nottage writes honestly, and in both of these plays, she gives us characters we care about, and then forces us to look at the horrors inflicted on these powerless people we’ve come to love by dehumanized institutions – war in Ruined, and, here, capitalism.  She’s not sentimental but still manages to make the plays seem upbeat and just plain enjoyable. She’s honest in what she lays out about the institutions she writes about, but emotionally lets us off the hook.  In Sweat, the last line, which can be interpreted in different ways, provides a great deal of relief for our concerns for Cynthia and Tracy, Chris and Jason, and the others.

Sweat not only drives home the grim effects of capitalism and “Wall Street,” but it makes the audience feel good.  You’re left with a gratifying the sense that by understanding the truths Nottage lays out – by getting it — you’re now on the side of the angels helping to solve the problems!

As Jake says at the end of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Sweat plays at Studio 54 on West 54th Street in Manhattan .  For more information and tickets, click here.

The playwright ponders ... Pierre Corneille by an unknown 17th century artist. Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

Review | The Liar | By David Ives | Adapted from Corneille’s play Le Menteur | Directed by Michael Kahn | Classic Stage Company

… bold brilliance …

This play is for everybody who loves words, word play, unexpected puns and rhymes of an unbound imagination.  It’s hilarious –and expands one’s sense of the English language.

People like to make a distinction between “plot driven” stories and “character driven” stories – this adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s play by David Ives is “word driven.”  If you’re going to enjoy it, it will be because you love the fancies words can spin, the hilarities they can spring on you, and above all the deep down satisfying pleasure of big warm laughs, one after the other.

The playwright ponders ... Pierre Corneille by an unknown 17th century artist. Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

The playwright ponders … Pierre Corneille by an unknown 17th century artist. Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

Corneille, whose life spanned most of the 17th century, is the father of both the great tradition of French tragedy and comedy.  For Voltaire, Corneille had shown that the French language could be a medium for great art, as Homer had done for ancient Greek, though subsequently Voltaire altered his views.  Le Menteur premiered in 1644,  Meet the big liar, Dorante, who starts us off by boasting of his military career in order to impress two women he meets in the Tuilleries in Paris.  The women – conveniently for farce – have names that sound alike, Clarice and Lucrece.  Even Dorante is mixed up about which is which.

What follows are mistaken identities and amusing confusions.  Dorante, thinking that he prefers Lucrece (no, he really prefers Clarice), initiates the lie that he is already married in order to avoid marrying Clarice – a lie that, as the truth snaps at his heels, he spins into ever more complicated twists and turns, the riotous inventions of a genius liar.  Clarice is engaged – secretly of course – to someone else, duels are arranged, the butler is involved with … as said, the plot is not so much the heart of the matter as the humor.

Michael Kahn has directed an able cast, with Christian Conn as Dorante, Ismenia Mendes as Clarice, Amelia Pedlow as Lucrece, and others who share their perfect timing to fill out the humor.  I particularly loved Carson Elrod as Dorante’s bumpkin butler — naive but he learns fast.

This is the third of David Ives’ adaptations* that have appeared at Classic Stage:  the others are The Heir Apparent, adapted from Jean-Francois Regnard’s Le Legataire universel, seen at Classic Stage in 2014, and The School for Lies, adapted from Molière’s The Misanthrope in 2011.

Taking off from the original plots, David Ives adapts with his particularly liberated and fanciful language so that they are truly new creations, ones that in their way put us in closer touch with the spirit of the original plays, and the gaiety they brought to seventeenth-century theater-goers, than a more “faithful” translation could give.  Through Ives’ bold brilliance, we share the joy inherent in these wonderful comedies.  I count it as one of the great good fortunes to live within range of that theater treasure — Classic Stage Company – and to have seen these plays.

Of the three, The School for Lies, was, well, the funniest – simply over-the-top, unforgettable – one of the rare times I’ve seen a play twice in one run, partly because of Molière’s vivid characters and partly because it featured, among other fine actors, the incomparable Hamish Linklater. But all bear the mark of Ives’ wit, uninhibited imagination, civilized perspective, and joie de vivre.  It’s a privilege to have seen all three of these Ives’ creations.

It’s a privilege to see The Liar.

The Liar plays at Classic Stage Company in Manhattan’s East Village through February 26, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.

* Classic Stage also produced Ives’ profound play about Spinoza, The New Jerusalem, and the  popular play Venus in Fur which opened there before moving to Broadway (as well as two others I haven’t seen).


Review | AdA (Author directing Author) | Power | La MaMa

Written and Directed by Neil LaBute, Marco Calvani, Marta Buchaca

Each playwright wrote one of these short plays, directed by another of the authors, and the acting is for the most part stellar.   It’s a brisk and engrossing evening of theater.

Benjamin Eett as the Mariner. Photo Carol Goldfarb

Review | Albatross | By Matthew Spangler and Benjamin Evett | Starring Benjamin Evett | Inspired by “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge | 59E59 Theaters

“Sometimes there is no why … ” The Mariner

In Albatross, Benjamin Evett gives us a surpassing performance in a magnificent play.

Alone on the stage, Benjamin Evett contends with the wind and waves, the details of his ship’s rigging, loneliness, madness, thirst, hunger, loss, memories, yearnings, cruelty, and the guilt of having caused the arbitrary death of an innocent, friendly creature.  His is an ultimate human voyage.  We are lucky to have so compelling an actor as Evett to take us on this journey:  he keeps us tight beside him all the way.

Benjamin Evett as the Mariner. Photo Carol Goldfarb.

Benjamin Evett as the Mariner. Photo Carole Goldfarb.

This play seeks to tell us the whole story of the Mariner, what it was really like – what Coleridge’s Romantic poem didn’t tell us.  We learn how the Mariner came to go on the voyage in the first place, and what happened after.  Albatross conveys more fully and in specific detail the true brutality of life on an eighteenth-century ship and, going beyond Coleridge’s narrated events, it finds the words to convey the Mariner’s intense inner experiences.

The charming, humorous, weary Mariner begins by hoisting the patched, time-worn sails of the ship, which forms the time and journey evocative setting for the play, and he introduces the mysterious fact that he has told this tale many times over the centuries, and will tell it again.

Before the fateful voyage, the Mariner, by profession a ship’s navigator, was living in shabby circumstances with his wife, whom he was sick of, and his beloved young son, feverish with an unknown illness.  A trip to the pub, a drunken evening, and he’s shanghaied on to the ship of Black Dog, who’s as brutally cruel a captain as has ever been written. “Even the Spanish Inquisition,” the Mariner tells us, “was no match for Black Dog!”  Well, it depends how you feel about people who bite off noses.

Out of Bristol, England, the ship sails south until, chasing a mysterious Spanish galleon, it sails farther than intended, farther south than any ship has ever reached. Our Mariner has lost the way.  The ship’s crew find themselves locked within icy walls “on the bottom of  the goddamn world,” facing a frozen death.  But a great bird with a wing span of 12 feet, an albatross, appears, and leads them them out of their icy rimed trap (a “rime” it turns out, is also a white icy crust that forms in a fast freeze).  The Mariner feeds the albatross, the bird comes every day.  “Days go by an’ he becomes like … a little part’ a me” as his son had been a part of him.  Then,  one day, off-duty, on deck taking target practice with his bow, he turn, shoots and kills the albatross.

Benjamin Eett as the Mariner. Photo Carol Goldfarb

Benjamin Evett as the Mariner. Photo Carole Goldfarb

Immediately afterwards he pleads to understand, “Why?  WHY?  WHY?  TELL ME WHY?”

Ice and fire — now sailing north out of the trap, the ship is becalmed under a blazing sun and the men become desperate for water.  Half mad with thirst, they encounter, again, a Spanish galleon with only two figures aboard, playing dice: Death, a man, and Life-in-Death, a woman.  You might say Death wins because the 200 men on the mariner’s ship shortly die of thirst, but Life-in-Death claims she’s the winner because she wins the fate of the Mariner: he will never die, his penance for his crime against nature will never be fulfilled, and he must live to tell and retell his story through the centuries.  And he has yet to get home.

It’s a tragic story with a possible, ambiguous redemption – redemption here less clear than in Coleridge’s poem.

What courage to take on a famous, iconic poem, what confidence of vision! These contemporary authors meet that challenge fully. This play is written with a passionate, raw, vernacular poetry of its own that makes the telling of the story near-to-overwhelming.  As the Mariner suggests, Coleridge’s rhyming verses muffle grim realities.  Great for its time, but “Industrial revolution.  Global Imperialism.  World Wars.  Cold Wars.  Cyber Wars.  … Today,” the Mariner declares, “people want more.”

Albatross takes us on a journey in search of human nature, and Coleridge’s philosophical invention, the killing of the admirable bird, remains the creative nugget. The authors of Albatross share Coleridge’s frightening and only partly tempered view: humans are prone to destroy. The deathless Mariner continues to tell the story and the Albatross brings it up-to-date.  The play draws upon the pointless killing of the innocent creature to convey our contemporary situation where, it seems, the whole natural world has fallen victim to our species. (To the authors:  I’ll never forget that blue bottle cap.)

Albatross, with set design by Cristina Todesco, costumes by Frances McSherry, light and projections design by Garret Herzig and sound design by Rick Lombardo, is directed by Rick Lombardo, and produced by Michael Seiden.  Albatross plays at 59E59 Theaters in mid-town Manhattan through February 12, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Austin Pendleton as Paul and Eric Joshua Davis as David

Review | Consider the Lilies | Written and Directed by Stuart Fail | House Red Theatre Company

… Socrates and Alcibiades? …

I wanted to see Consider the Lilies because Austin Pendleton is such a fascinating actor to watch:  he didn’t disappoint here, but he’s the main element of interest. (Pendleton is also a fine director, though he didn’t direct this play.)

Austin Pendleton as Paul and Eric Joshua Davis as David

L-R Austin Pendleton as Paul and Eric Joshua Davis as David. Photo Talya Chalef

This is basically a two-person play. Paul an elderly, talented painter (Pendleton) has lost his creative way, while a young man, his agent, David (Eric Joshua Davis) believes in him and urges him to produce more paintings.  They’re in Paris for a gallery opening David has arranged for Paul’s painting.  The play centers around the artist and agent but – far more than business – their relationship is one of complex bonding and emotional dependency.  As old and scruffy as he is, Paul, who is bi-sexual is seeking to seduce David who’s sure he isn’t gay (though Paul thinks he knows better.)

A question that runs through ones mind while watching the play:  can such a scruffy, unkempt-to-verging-on-repulsive old man really think he can seduce such a good-looking young guy?  We’re talking not just about bedding down but falling in love.

Austin Pendleton and Eric Joshua Davis. Photo Talya Chalef

Austin Pendleton and Eric Joshua Davis. Photo Talya Chalef

The idea has excellent credentials and goes back a long way.  Think of the beautiful, young (and rich and aristocratic) Alcibiades enamored of ugly, old Socrates in Plato’s Symposium.   An iconic example in modern theater is the seduction of a young writer by the powerfully willed, tubercular old man in Tennessee Williams’ great play, Vieux Carre, which Pendleton directed a few years back in a Pearl Theater production.  And recently Pendleton acted in a role similar to Paul, in Ira Lewis’ Chinese Coffee – and old and seductive mentor to a handsome young man, though here it’s the younger man who has the genuine talent.

With his irony, oddly misplaced smiles, and his way of pinning down the truths of emotional moments, Pendleton in Consider the Lilies comes close to making us believe it could happen here, too, though he’s so aggressively unkempt, dry and wispy erotic love is a bigger stretch.

The characters are given to repeating in claustrophobic loops rather than advancing.  Themes are introduced such as abandoned children and uncaring parents, and new characters are brought in to keep the drama going:  a violent thief, a successful painter-of-the-moment who gives Paul some tips, and an unfaithful girl-friend, but the situations and language veer toward commonplace (the play could benefit from a red pencil).  The resolution is arbitrary, whether you see it as positive or negative.

Consider the Lilies plays at TBG Theatre in Manhattan’s Chelsea district through January 28, 2017.

Review | The Band’s Visit | Music & Lyrics by David Yazbek | Book by Itamar Moses | Atlantic Theater Company

…. cultural ambassadors …

A travel weary Egyptian ceremonial police band on their way to play a concert in the Israeli city of Petah Tikva get off the bus by mistake at the small town of Bet Hatikva (you can see how that mistake can be made). There won’t be another bus until morning.  Thank heavens for the mistake – or we wouldn’t have this wonderful musical!

The inhabitants of this relative cultural backwater are edgy and cautious about their unexpected visitors but ultimately do what decent humans do:  they take them in for the night.  And that’s what this show is about:  being human, in the better senses of the word.

Language and cultural barriers are bridged in the brief time the Egyptians are marooned in Bet Hatikva.  With plenty of hesitation and resistance on both sides, conversation begins to flow.  Recognition, understanding, true wit, and music flower.

And love.  The beautiful central love story involves Dina owner of the local café, a dusty oasis in the desert, and Tewfiq, the Conductor of the Egyptian Band.  Dina’s hospitality is grudging on the surface but never in doubt, and that’s the kind of woman she is:  gritty and vulnerable.  How fascinating to watch the gorgeous Katrina Lenk in the role of in the role of Dina allure Tewfiq, played with perfect uptight military correctness by Tony Shalhoub.

But like these, all the characters in The Band’s Visit are humanly complex – even the small parts convey fully rounded personalities.  The acting, singing, dancing, and instrumental playing are in all ways perfect, intelligent and exciting.

The music – and there are fourteen musical numbers — has a thrilling, seductive near-eastern tonality and the lyrics are full of originality and wit.  There’s a lot to laugh at and much that is bitter-sweet in the songs and in the unrolling of the characters’ stories.  This is a “you couldn’t want more” kind of show.  But dominating the whole is the nuanced acting, full-throated singing and smart, wise beauty of Katrina Lenk’s Dina.

A particularly enchanting interlude finds Dina and Tewfiq on a park bench:  Tewfiq, encouraged by Dina, sings a profound and introspective song in Arabic as Dina, in a surreal touch, dances around him,  her arms moving with independent grace, as she sings the questions in her mind, wondering what’ s behind the stern, sad mask of the man who so draws her to him.

The set is as perfect as everything else, conjuring up a small town bus station, Dina’s café with its faded sign, a roller skating rink with colored lights (a key aspect of Bet Hatikva night life), and that miraculous park bench — with movement between scenes achieved with deceptive simplicity.  A stage floor with a rolling panel has never been set to better use.

The show is set a decade or so ago, when Egyptian-Israeli cultural exchanges were in play, and the story is based on an incident that really happened.  And so nostalgia meets with what-if in as bittersweet a romance as that between Dina and Tewfiq.  The Band’s finale persuades that music – perhaps even more than love – is the universal language.

The Band’s Visit is based on a screen play by Eran Kolirin, and is directed by David Cromer.  It plays at Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater in Manhattan’s Chelsea district in an extended run through January 8, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Life is for Living, Conversations with Coward, 59E59Theaters December 13, 2016 - January 1, 2017 Noel Coward cabaret evning

Review | Life is for Living | Conversations with Coward | Simon Green with David Shrubsole | 59E59 Theaters

… cabaret with Coward …

Not so much “conversations” with Noel Coward — think cabaret.

Life is for Living, Conversations with Coward, 59E59Theaters December 13, 2016 - January 1, 2017 Noel Coward cabaret evning

David Shrubsole on piano and Simon Green performing Life is for Living. Photo Heidi Bohnenkamp, 2016.

Seating is at intimate round tables.  Simon Green, tall, slim, totally charming and with a wonderful wry smile sings Noel Coward’s songs, with a few by other songwriters, and songs developed from some of his letters and other writings by Green and beautifully turned to music and played by the exciting pianist David Shrubsole.

What a civilized intimacy these performers create!  The cabaret mode is apt – there’s almost nothing Noel Coward, an actor and prolific and successful playwright, didn’t do in theater and that includes, in and around the 1j950’s famously appealing cabaret performances.

Particularly compelling is the way the darker shades of Coward’s spirit emerge. Though not to the manner born, Coward loved associating himself with the upper classes, and hobnobbing with others who were, at the time, at least as famous as he was.  He’s often thought of in terms of a style rather than substance, of surface rather than depth.  But in the choices of material, and in the nuance and ambiguity with which Simon Green delivers the songs, one glimpses more of Coward than the man with in the dressing gown, an elegant cigarette holder between his fingers.  Shading in a two-dimensional persona, they reveal Coward as a man of resonant and eerie depths.

Noel Coward's life ... not an open book. Simon Green singing in Life is for Living. Photo Heidi Bohnenkamp, 2016

Noel Coward’s life … not an open book. Simon Green singing in Life is for Living. Photo Heidi Bohnenkamp, 2016

A brilliant interlude is Green’s rendition of the song “I went to a Marvelous Party,” music and lyrics by Coward. The early incidents at the Gatsby-like party seem amusing – first we laugh, and then we laugh because we feel we should, but as successive vignettes become more exaggerated, with creep toward the grotesque, the tragic ironies emerge and our laughter stutters..

Green also takes on a few songs by others, including Irving Berlin and the Gershwins, and these immediately seem more musical and less philosophical than Coward’s songs.  I’m taking a guess, with some clues from the patter, that Green and Shrubsole hope Berlin’s and the Gershwins’ songs may seem lightweight compared to Coward’s, but oh no, that’s not the impact.  Berlin’s “Always,” the Gershwin’s “Our Love Is Here To Stay” – these are superb here, delivered with Green’s particular delicate amusement, and elsewhere.

It takes some daring to juxtapose Coward “The Master,” as he’s called, with the masters. Taking on that challenge works – Green and Shrubsole illuminate the particular value of Coward’s talent and bring us the pleasures he holds in store for his listeners – a pleasure we wouldn’t have without them.

Life is for Living is a stimulating, thought provoking and delightful evening of cabaret.  Hearing what Noel Coward thinks, says and sings in his particular venue is a rare treat.

Simon Green performs, with David Shrubsole, Musical Director, at the piano.  The work was created and compiled by Green and Shrubsole, with research by Jason Morell.  It plays at 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan through January 1, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.


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