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

Tag: 59E59 Theaters Page 1 of 3

L-R Carol Starks, Derek Hutchinson, Annie Jackson, Brian Protheroe and Richenda Carey. Photo Carol Rosegg. In J. B. Priestley's The Roundabout at 59E59 Theaters

Review | The Roundabout | By J. B. Priestley | Directed by Hugh Ross | 59E59 Theaters

… fun! …

See this play and you’ll have a good time!

L-R Hugh Sachs as Churton Saunders and Emily Laing as Pamela. Photo Carol Rosegg. In J. B. Priestley's The Roundabout at 59E59 Theaters April 20 - may 28, 2017

L-R Hugh Sachs as Churton Saunders and Emily Laing as Pamela. Photo Carol Rosegg.

Lord Kettlewell, at his home in the English countryside, is on edge because his financial investments have turned sour.  Kettlewell is not alone:  lots of investments had turned sour at the time the play was written, in 1931, early in the Great Depression.  Still, as his friend Churton responds to Kettlewell’s sputters with laid back wit, it comes across as all very funny.  And the more Kettlewell sputters – he’s also upset his paramour, Hilda, has announced she’s arriving, uninvited, that afternoon – the funnier it gets.

We don’t have to wait until afternoon though, for the unexpected arrival of his daughter, Pamela, whom he hasn’t seen for so long he can barely recognize, and who falls upon him dressed in unisex scruffy.  He has no interest in her – since their separation ten years ago, his wife has taken care of Pamela.  That this Oxford educated young woman has just returned from Russia where she joined the proletariat in doing factory work does nothing to lift Lord Kettlewell’s mood.  Even worse, she has in tow a skinny young man, Staggles, who insists on being called “Comrade.”  Thus, the young British idealistic Communists meet the British capitalist nobility – at a bad moment for that nobility.

L-R Steven Blakeley and Emily Laing. Photo Carol Rosegg. in J. B. Priestley's The Roundabout at 59E59 Theaters April 20 - May 38, 2017

L-R Steven Blakeley as Comrade Straggles and Emily Laing as Pamela. Photo Carol Rosegg.

At any rate, Pamela announces that she’s moving in with Daddy.  Why?  We really don’t know but luckily there’s plenty of time before we find out for amusing confrontations among political opposites – funny but with underlying meaning — as well as Malvolio-like romantic misunderstandings involving the self-described “austere” but randy Staggles.

But most of all there’s Pamela, a feisty, self-confident, manipulative and generally amused young woman played with compelling wit, charm and bounce by Emily Laing.  She – both as character and actress – is half the show and worth every minute.

L-R Derek Hutchinson and Richenda Carey. Photo Carol Rosegg. in J. B. Priestley's The Roundabout at 59E59 Theaters April 20 - May 28, 2017

L-R Derek Hutchinson as Parsons and Richenda Carey as Lady Knightsbridge. Photo Carol Rosegg.

Well, maybe not quite half because there are some other wonderful characters, all humorous but connected, with the lightest of touches, to the sense that Capitalism is in trouble at this moment while Russia’s factories are humming along. The dream of Parsons the Butler is to purchase the big house from the financially pressed Lord Kettlewell,  and run it as an inn for weekend visitors.  Lady Knightsbridge drops by (peace and quiet are not in Kettlewell’s karma today): she disapproves of Pamela’s breezy breaches of  protocol with aristocratic hauteur – while  trying any way she can to make a pence or a pound.  Hilda, the Lord’s paramour, arrives – you’ll like the way Pamela makes short shrift of her.  And (oh the machinations of Pamela) the long-separated Lady Kettlewell arrives.

The direction is tone-perfect and the cast without exception excellent.  To mention only some, Brian Pretheroe as Lord Kettlewell maintains a fine line between a lordly charismatic presence and current befuddlement.  As the cool-in-the-midst-of-the-storm friend, Churton, Hugh Sachs delivers some of the funniest lines in the play with perfect timing.  Derek Hutchinson is touching as he threads the needle between a butler’s  proper behavior and down-to-earth readiness to take advantage of Kettlewell’s difficulties.  Richenda Carey is particularly wonderful as Lady Knightsbridge – that grim, tough mouth:  you need to see the way her face alternates between high class superiority and practical profit motive!  Steven Blakeley plays Comrade Staggles as a Cassius with a lean and hungry look you have to love.  And making the plot go round is Emily Laing as Pamela – star power in action.

L-R Carol Starks as Hilda, Derek Hutchinson as Parsons, Annie Jackson as Alice, Brian Protheroe as Lord Kettlewell and Richenda Carey as Lady Knightbridge. Photo Carol Rosegg. In J. B. Priestley's The Roundabout at 59E59 Theaters

L-R Carol Starks as Hilda Lancicourt, Derek Hutchinson as Parsons, Annie Jackson as Alice, Brian Protheroe as Lord Kettlewell and Richenda Carey as Lady Knightsbridge. Photo Carol Rosegg.

J. B. Priestly called The Roundabout “a very light comedy … a little less intellectually negligible than most very light comedies.”*  That’s exactly right: it’s very funny but its underpinning of the effects of the great recession as played out among a capitalist English aristocracy and idealistic young left-wingers gives it a particular strength and historical interest. The play ends a little too quickly:  we’re left with a sense that some explanations are needed about why things resolve as they do.  But that’s only after a thoroughly delightful time spent at Lord Kettlewell’s country home.

The Roundabout is produced by Cahoots Theatre Company, The Other Cheek & Park Theatre for Brits Off Broadway.  It plays at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan through May 28, 2017.  For more information and tickets, click here.

*  Quoted by J. B. Priestley’s son Tom Priestley, in the program note.





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.

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.

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.


Jamie Horton as George Orwell and Jeanna de Waal as Carlotta Morrion in Orwell in America by Joe Sutton

Review | Orwell in America | By Joe Sutton | Directed by Peter Hackett | 59E59 Theaters

… No wonder …

George Orwell, an avowed socialist, arrives in the U.S. at the height of fear of the “Communist menace,” shortly after World War II, to promote Animal Farm (1945) on a book tour.

It never happened but what if?

In these post-war years, when hatred of Communism had been whipped up to a fearful of hysteria, notably by Senator Joseph McCarthy (although the play doesn’t make this clear) how will Orwell, the unabashed “man of the left” make out on a book tour, face to face with the American public?  His nervous publishers have provided him with a chaperone, Carlotta, a young woman whose job is to get him to tone down his socialism, because in those “witch-hunting” days, most Americans made no distinction between Socialism and diabolical Communism, as it was thought of.

It’s such a clear-cut premise it’s surprising that the play doesn’t have more intellectual and dramatic clarity.

Jamie Horton as George Orwell and Jeanna de Waal as Carlotta Morrion in Orwell in America by Joe Sutton

Jamie Horton as George Orwell and Jeanna de Waal as Carlotta Morrison.  Photo Carol Rosegg.

The set is simple, a leather sofa, cocktail table and portable bar in a room representing the several hotels on the book tour (for some reason, the ground floor room with a door to the outdoors isn’t  situated or furnished like a hotel room).  Orwell and Carlotta are seen throughout the play talking and skirmishing in an older man — young pretty girl flirtation in and around the leather sofa, giving the play the look and feel of a romantic sit-com.

True, Orwell gets to refer to his beliefs:  his commitment to Socialism, his hatred of totalitarianism, and his dedication to the concise use of the English language.  These issues, however, while central to Orwell’s very being, are not the source of the play’s dramatic tension.  Instead, what is to the fore is the erotic potential between totally charming Carlotta and the grouchy, alcohol imbibing Orwell.  Compared with this male-female hype, the mind of Orwell the author, his passions and his ideas, are reduced to sound bites.

Then, in an effective use of the stage, we get glimpses of Orwell talking before

George Orwell holds forth to the American public. Jamie Horton as Orwell. Photo Carol Rosegg.

George Orwell holds forth to the American public. Jamie Horton as Orwell. Photo Carol Rosegg.

American audiences on his tour.  The spotlight shifts as the author moves stage right and begins speaking to his audiences – to us.  As he announces that he’s a Socialist, he’s immediately heckled for being a Communist (voices call out as if from the audience), because at this time many if not most Americans believed Socialism was synonymous with Communism.  Carlotta, trying to keep him in line, tells the frustrated Orwell he has to understand “the situation” here in America: but what situation is she referring to?

In fact, the play makes only the briefest and notably unspecific reference to what Carlotta calls the “situation,” which in fact refers to the post-war anti-Communist hysteria and witch-hunting, called to this day “McCarthyism.”  What Orwell is up against as a self-proclaimed “man of the left,” and why Carlotta and her publishers are so anxious to keep him on a leash, is not expressed forthrightly within the play.  You have to think over the dates, be aware of what happened in that time period, and absorb it afterwards.

Good gosh:  Animal Farm was published in 1945 and Nineteen Eighty-Four, mentioned as on its way to publication, in 1949 — McCarthyism was rife.  No wonder Orwell didn’t come to America to promote Animal Farm!

And as it happens, the most compelling segment of this play is Orwell giving a dramatic summary of Animal Farm.  Even hearing what’s no more than a plot outline, one thinks, now there’s an author who knew how to write a story!

Jamie Horton is believable, at times touching and at other times monotonous, as the brilliant, weary Orwell, and he manages to look like Orwell too.  Jeanna de Waal brings nuanced wit to her role of Carlotta, the smart, distractingly lovely Vassar graduate determined to have a career in publishing.

Orwell in America provides some explanations for how Orwell came to be the man and writer he was, and how he arrived at the beliefs he held in terms of his background, and his disillusioning experience during the Spanish Civil War.  We do not, however, arrive at the sense of having in some important ways come to know the man or the author, or come to feel we’ve met him.

In an interesting contrast — and currently also at 59E59 Theaters — Hershey Felder, is performing his play Maestro about another well-known cultural figure, Leonard Bernstein, reviewed here below (Maestro is soon to end its run).  Felder gives us the gift of spending time with a living, breathing Bernstein. Though he doesn’t “look like” Bernstein, Felder lets us feel we understand something of how Bernstein came to be as he was and how he came to create.  See it, and you will feel that in a profound way that you’ve met the man.

Who, then, really, was George Orwell?  You don’t find out in this play but you do learn something about his views, some traces of 20th century political and cultural history– and you get a bit of Animal Farm, sketchy outline.  There are better ways.

Orwell in America plays at Manhattan’s 59E59 Theaters through October 30, 2016. For more information and tickets, click here.

Leonard Bernstein conducting. Photo Paul de Heuck, courtesy of the Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.

Review | Maestro | Hershey Felder as Leonard Bernstein | 59E59 Theatres

… doing it all …

In a 90 minute fest of music, wit and insight, the multi-talented Hershey Felder sings, talks, and plays the piano through the life and art of Leonard Bernstein.

Leonard Bernstein as pianist. Photo courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc

Leonard Bernstein as pianist. Photo courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc

I liked that Felder doesn’t impersonate Bernstein but evokes him, as he switches from narration to being Bernstein, in a tale that takes us from Bernstein’s boyhood to the end of his life.  The importance of Bernstein being Jewish is one strong theme that emerges as we see and hear him escape the expectations of his domineering, Talmud-immersed father, and fight his way through to his great vocation and a life of music.   As you read these written words about MAESTRO, hear music!  Felder plays Bernstein’s biography with tremendous verve and excitement, and sings it with great range and passion.

Leonard Bernstein composing. Photo courtesy of the Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.

Leonard Bernstein composing. Photo courtesy of the Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.

But in what form was that life of music to take?  Pianist?  Composer?  Conductor?  Bernstein, who early on attracted attention playing the piano, wanted to be a composer – the next great American composer after Copeland, with whom he was close – but, assertive as he was, the world opened up to him as a conductor.  From Harvard on (his father proud he was in Harvard but sorry it was in the Music Department!) he was serially taken under the wing of great conductors of the day, Mitropooulos, Reiner and Koussevitzky and nudged, partly through intimate love, toward conducting.

Ultimately he did it all: played, composed, conducted and more – he was an outstanding impresario, took great pride in bringing classical music to a broad audience through television where he commented, taught, and not least of it conducted the nine Beethoven symphonies.  He founded the Symphony Orchestra of Israel.  He composed music in the classical tradition and he composed West Side Story with which he and the other creators – book by Sondheim, choreography by Robbins – took pride in bringing what they felt was a new kind of musical theater to America.

Leonard Bernstein conducting. Photo Paul de Heuck, courtesy of the Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.

Leonard Bernstein conducting. Photo Paul de Heuck, courtesy of the Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.

Which brings up another theme.  And irony.  By any account Bernstein was as successful in his chosen field as one can be, earning surpassing recognition, acclaim, fame, influence, and wealth.  But in Felder’s vision. Bernstein never reached the pinnacle of success as a great composer he yearned for. People remember him best by West Side Story and one song in it:  Maria, the musical theme of that song his sound-recognition equivalent of the first chords of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – and they don’t quit stand up to Beethoven!  This view that he did not reach the greatness as a composer he sought is evidently one that nagged at Bernstein as his own, independent of the opinion of others one way or the other.  Though I knew that Bernstein had composed for Candide, Peter Pan, and other shows, I now know that he wrote the music for On The Waterfront — now I have to see that great movie — yet again!

Felder creates this musical biography with a grand piano and modest-sized stage, and with the help of large photograph projections, wonderful close-ups for the most part of those who figured importantly in Bernstein’s, including his wife, Felicia, and of Bernstein himself, from the remarkably handsome youthful impresario to the end of his life.

There are a few blanks.  We don’t hear about his siblings, or much about his mother.  And the blank that caught my breath as one of Bernstein’s great triumphs, in 1944, was being described:  why wasn’t he in the war?  I now know that he was exempted because of chronic asthma but one needed to hear more about it:  how did World War II affect Bernstein? – the war isn’t so much as mentioned.

Felder goes beyond his own musical virtuosity in bringing us an intelligent and thoughtful interpretation of a major figure in music – in whichever mode! – of the 20th Century.  In MAESTRO the ideas are rich and the music compelling and joyous.

MAESTRO, directed by Joel Zwick, plays at 59E59 Theater in midtown Manhattan through October 23, 2016.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Review | Radiant Vermin | By Philip Ridley | Directed by David Mercatali | 59E59 Theaters

… enough is never enough …

This play is quite an accomplishment and delightfully imaginative:  using black comedy, the macabre and fairy tale, Philip Ridley creates a hilarious — but tense and compelling – social critique, and a parable of the downside of contemporary consumerism.  And the acting is phenomenal – witty, energetic, and totally on target.

Jill (Scarlett Alice Johnson) and Ollie (Sean Michael Verey) are sweet, ”typical” young marrieds stuck in a cramped and crummy apartment in a dangerous neighborhood.  Their living situation becomes all the more intolerable now that Jill is pregnant, until Miss Dee (Debra Baker), a stylishly dressed realtor Fairy Godmother with a gleaming, golden portfolio, offers them a big house — free.  The house is a fixer upper in an abandoned neighborhood but Ollie’s handy.  Wary about things “too good to be true”, but filled with house-lust, they override their unease and accept Miss Dee’s realtor’s explanation for her gift:  by repairing the house, they’ll be making the first step toward improving the neighborhood.  It’s a win-win.  No catch.

Or is there?

On the first night, a vagrant barges in downstairs in the kitchen.  They’re terrified.  Cautiously but valiantly Ollie goes after the vagrant, and after a scuffle, and quite by accident, Ollie kills him.

Wonder of wonders, the kitchen immediately is transformed into a modern renovation to die for.  Only the vagrant, not Ollie, died for it.

A couple of more such accidents and their house has become more and more renovated with stunning taste, room by room.  Only there’s always more to do – the room for the expected baby, the garage, an upgrade on the original renovation … The murders of the vagrants move from accidental to premeditated.  And of course soon one “renovation” a night is not enough.  As Jill and Ollie become ever more thrilled, gratified, excited by their improved material surroundings, the number of vagrants they manage to do away with in a night escalates because, when it comes to material goodies, “enough is never enough.”

It’s like Arsenic and Old Lace, only Jill and Ollie are under no illusion that they’re doing the vagrants any good – they’re satisfying their own lust for stuff, especially home improvements, a lust, the playwright makes clear, that animates our materialist culture.  The wealth of some is created out of the destruction of others.

And so recognizable — the whole scheme depends on the fact that the vagrants are so cut off from society and their families, and of so little interest to the authorities, that they can be murdered without anyone knowing.

Everything works as it should:  new upscale neighbors move in.  They’re very friendly but have a complaint: as it looks to them, Jill and Ollie are drawing vagrants to the neighborhood by being kind to them, taking them in for a meal.   People only notice vagrants when thy appear, not when they disappear.

Ridley gives full dramatic and comic play to the inhibiting factors that we credit with keeping us on the straight and narrow.  Jill’s religion gives her second thoughts.  Ollie’s ethics intrude.  Can normal individuals remain sane while omitting serial homicides?   And what about our sense of common humanity? — Jill converses heart-to-heart and bonds with a vagrant.  Do these things stop them?

The perfect timing and emotional truth behind the actors’ takes on events is riveting.  A garden party for the neighborhood to celebrate the baby’s first birthday turns in to a frantic ballet, as Johnson and Verey play all the personalities of the neighbors speaking faster and louder as drinks are poured and at the same time play Jill and Ollie, in the throes of accelerating panic.   What a tour de force of acting, directing and writing!  That goes for the whole show.

Radiant Vermin, part of the Brits Off Broadway, is produced by Metal Rabbit and Supporting Wall in association with SOHO Theatre, and plays at 59E59 theatre in mid-town Manhattan through July 3, 2016.  For more information and tickets,  click here.


Ideation by Aaron Loeb, directed by Josh Costello. L-R Carrie Paff, Mark Anderson Phillips, and Michael Ray Wisely. Photo Carol Rosegg

Review | Ideation | By Aaron Loeb | Directed by Josh Costello | San Francisco Playhouse at 59E59 Theaters

but how do you know? …

In a conference room of a management consultant firm, a team has just sped home from work in Greece to take up the firm’s new fast-tracked project which turns out to be:   how do you liquidate a couple of million people without anyone noticing?  The purpose is to stop a deadly virus from decimating the entire human race.

L-R Carrie Paff, Mark Anderson Phillips, and Michael Ray Wisely in IDEATION by Aaron Loeb, directed by Josh Costello. Photo Carol Rosegg

L-R Carrie Paff, Mark Anderson Phillips, and Michael Ray Wisely. Photo Carol Rosegg

As they ideate — that’s new-speak for brainstorming by professional problem solvers – the project’s horrific difficulties emerge.  What’s the most efficient way to kill that many people?  How do you keep it secret to allay panic and how do you make all those bodies disappear?   The team comes up with imperfect and inevitably gruesome solutions.  But, contemplating the grotesque, balking emotionally at the disgusting details of the tactics they dutifully develop, they’re driven to ask, what’s gotten us into this?  Why on earth are we doing this?

Good questions:  are we facilitating mass murder, they begin to wonder — which is, after all, what it looks like?  Terrorism?  Or are we doing good?

Is the save humankind story a lie to keep us on project?  Or true?

L-R Michael Ray Wisely, Jason Kapoor, Mark Anderson Phillips, and Ben Euphrat, in IDEATION by Aaron Loeb, directed by Josh Costello, San Francisco Playhouse at 59E59, in Manhattan, March 2016. Photo Carol Rosegg.

L-R Michael Ray Wisely, Jason Kapoor, Mark Anderson Phillips, and Ben Euphrat. Photo Carol Rosegg.

And then the startling thought:  Is the boss telling us the truth, or deceiving us to protect a lucrative contract?  Or does the boss himself even know the truth?

In the short time they have to come up with the preliminary plan, personal and ethical concerns collide with the project which, however, they keep working at – their jobs are at stake.  How do we kill all those people?  Do my colleagues know more than me?  Why’d my lover go out for coffee?  How do we get rid of the bodies?  How do we know the truth?

Ideation is fast-paced, entertaining and witty as it bounces around its profound subject, how do we know anything for sure?  How can we trust anybody?

The characters reflect stereotypes in a humorous way but are individually drawn and distinct, fast talking but fully motivated.

Carrie Paff as Hannah is crisp and in-charge as the executive riding herd on the bright guys of the consultant team.  She moves around the stage with special ease, unifying the set and the play.  Mark Anderson Phillips is hilarious as Brock, the dour, ironic member of the team.  Michael Pay Wisely as Ted, more immune than the others to the philosophical issues of “how do you know,” is steadfast in his focus on the job.  Jason Kapoor as the Indian engineer Sandeep is thoughtful, weighty.  Ben Euphrat as Scooter is humorously brash as the young kid with a father on the Board.

Ideation by Aaron Loeb, directed by Josh Costello. L-R Carrie Paff, Mark Anderson Phillips, and Michael Ray Wisely. Photo Carol Rosegg

L-R Carrie Paff, Michael Ray Wisely, and Mark Anderson. Photo Carol Rosegg

These are smart people who see the humor as well as the invitation to disaster in their preposterous dilemmas, making for an enjoyable and thought-provoking play.

Ideation plays at 59E59 theater in midtown Manhattan through April 17, 2016.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Clea Alsip and Tony Maumovski in Wide Awake Hearts at 59E59 Theaters, January 2016

Review | Wide Awake Hearts | By Brendan Gall | Directed by Stefan Zeparoski | 59E59 Theaters

Wide Awake Hearts lets us swim around the entangled love affairs of a set of four attractive people making a movie.

Tony Naumovski as C, Ben Cole as A, and Clea Alsip as B in Wide Awake Hearts by Brendan Gall at 59E59 Theaters, January 2016. Photo Carol Rosegg

L-R Tony Naumovski (C), Ben Cole (A), and Clea Alsip (B). Photo Carol Rosegg.

We’re in the affluent home of a hip movie writer, A, and his actress wife, B, who’ll star in his next movie.  All characters are named with the first letters of the alphabet in order of appearance.  Why? Perhaps because in pairing off as lovers, they mix and match as readily as letters make words. The entry of another man, C, and, eventually, another woman, D, into their living room cause recrimination, anger revelation, and a lot of screaming, something like Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Wolfe, although the characterizations are less rich than in Albee’s play.

C, a bullish guy with an alluring Slavic manner, and the writer’s good friend, is the trouble maker.  An actor who comes from somewhere else, he’s going to be in the film so the writer invites him to stay with him and his wife.  Why? We know from the start that C is a wolf in wolf’s clothing – why can’t the writer see it? We learn fast that C has, in fact, been the wife’s lover for as long as they’ve all known one another, and they waste no time when the writer leaves to make passionate love, although the director keeps it visually non-transgressive.

It’s transgressive enough, though, for the writer to become wretched and ironic when he walks in on them.   This confrontation triggers a lot of swilling red wine around in glasses, predictable comments and, as mentioned, screaming.  The arrival of the film editor, D, who is C’s more-loving-than-loved lover, generates a fresh onslaught of agonizing.  The dialog is not the strength of this play, although the monologs, and the acting, are fine.

Maren Bush and Ben Cole in Wide Awake Hearts at 59E59 Theaters, January 2016. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Maren Bush as D and Ben Cole as A. Photo Carol Rosegg.

About midway through the play (90 minutes, no intermission), the Slavic actor kneels center on a dark stage facing the audience with the spotlight upon him and delivers a long speech to God, boldly listing his extensive sins:  I found this really intriguing for being so comprehensive – one man did all that.  All the characters are flawed in characteristically human ways, but C is the snake in the garden.  And like the Devil in Shaw’s Man and Superman, C gets the best lines – his monolog is richly articulate, varied in language and rhythm, and in all ways more effective than the flat dialog (“I love you.”  “I love you sometimes.”  “Do you love me?”  “No.”).  While C’s monolog is particularly dramatic, each of the characters has his or her own compelling monolog, all much stronger than what passes in between.

The farther the play advances, the less sure we become of what, if anything, is “reallife” and what is the movie being filmed.  Did C “really” get on his knees and have that, ultimately disappointing, communication with God or were the cameras whirling?   Among A, B, C and D, who finally comes to love whom is, as one of them says, “predictable,” in fact trivial, so for narrative interest, we’re left to puzzle over what’s real life and what’s film making, though no particular insight is brought to this age-old play of ambiguities.

Ben Cole as the film writer is engaging in his initial monolog, humorous and appropriately ironic throughout without making irony a cliché.  Clea Aslip as the flighty wife has terrific timing and subtle expressive nuance in her voice.  Tony Naumovski acts the seductive Slavic brute as a type but finds depth in his remarkable monolog and anyhow, he’s just fun to watch.  Maren Bush is crisp and yet touchingly vulnerable as the film editor.

Produced by Birdland Theatre, Wide Awake Hearts plays at 59E59 Theaters in mid-town Manhattan through February 7, 2016.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Review | Songbird | Based on Chekhov’s The Seagull | Written by Michael Kimmel | Songs by Lauren Pritchard | Directed by JV Mercanti

… a terrific new musical is born …

Here is a really amazing idea – Songbird  is a country music musical based in Chekhov’s The Seagull.  While it stays quite close to the plot of the symbolist and heavily psychological end-of-the-19th century Russian drama, it soars on its own life-affirming wings. This exciting production with its all star-quality cast of singer-musician-actors, is set in Jason Sherwood’s stunningly beautiful interpretation of a honky-tonk bar, topped by gorgeously illuminated whiskey bottles in multi colors.

After a meteoric rise to fame, country music singer Tammy Trip, marvelously played, sung and danced by Kate Baldwin, returns to her roots near Nashville and the son she left behind who has been cared for by her best friend, Pauline.  Tammy brings in tow her lover, the famous commercial songwriter Beck (Eric William Morris).  Although she’s only a local, doing her singing in church, Pauline, played by Erin Dilly, is as terrific a country music singer as Tammy.  This show is absolutely filled with music!

When her aspiring and clearly nervous song-writer son, Dean (Adam Cochran) and his girlfriend, Mia (Ephie Aardema), sing his new song, a mournful melody without pep, bulldozer Tammy is openly amused, bored and disruptive, humiliating him in front of everyone, a hard scene to watch, though beautifully played.

In despair, Dean goes off alone while most everyone else including Beck, Tammy’s brother Soren (Bob Stillman), Pauline and her husband Samuel Andy Taylor) , Pauline’s lover Doc (Drew McVety) and her daughter, Missy (Kacie Sheik) who loves Dean but eventually — in contrast to those characters in the play who, with varying results, refuse to settle — “settles” in her marriage with Rip (Don Guillory). Everybody’s family here, and everybody is completely musical, picking up guitars off the wall to accompany the singing – or the violin, tambourine, ukulele, mandolin and cello.

And where’s the seagull?  A bluebird (of happiness) Dean hits with his truck stands in for the seagull but Mia – standing in for Chekhov’s ingénue Nina — has no patience with his grief, caught up with the glamour of the big-time visitors, envisioning a country music singing career for herself, and infatuated with the famous songwriter, Beck, with results that parallel those in Chekhov.

For all the connections with Chekhov, and all the story’s rich complexities of pure art and commerce, new forms and convention, love and jealousy, betrayal and death, the tone of SONGBIRD lifts off from the moody symbolism of Chekhov’s play into its own joy, rising on the wings of songs wonderful at the time they’re heard, though hard to remember after, and a clever, witty book.  I have to think that – once he caught on to the idea — Chekhov would have loved SONGBIRD.

SONGBIRD plays at 59E59 Theaters through November 29, 2015, extended to December 6th, 2015, and I’m sure that’s just the beginning for this terrific show — it doesn’t seem like a work in progress – it’s already all there.   For more information and tickets, click here.

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