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

Tag: Atlantic Theater Company

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.

Review | The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois | Written & Directed by Adam Rapp | Atlantic Theater Company

… holding on …

Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois is a tense, brilliant drama that takes you from the worst to the best.

From the first moment we see Ellis, a man in his 40’s in khakis and a plaid shirt, agonizing over deodorant and picking invisible dirt out of the rug, we know that he’s crazily over-anxious about expected visitors, erratically nutty, and trying to seem “OK” like other men.  When two teenage girls arrive, Monique, a Black, fast-talking self-defined “gangsta,” and Catherine, White, thin, on edge, who seems unable to look anybody in the eye, you think you’ve snagged it.  He’s got himself a pair of over-young girls for sex.  Monique appears obviously in charge of Catherine who seems barely able to speak and Monique had made the contact with Ellis.  Monique dangerously dominates Catherine — It looks like we’re headed toward a grisly destruction of innocence.


Rapp does keep you on the edge of your seat – or thinking you might do better not to watch.  But surprisingly Catherine, who seemed so morbidly shy and ashamed, takes charge.  She tells Monique she wants to be alone with Ellis, sending Monique off to wait in the bedroom.  We realize it’s Catherine, not Monique nor Ellis, who made this meeting happen (with some help from Facebook) but we’re not sure why.  Monique, somewhat apprehensive for her friend, disappears into the bedroom.

Powerful relationships are revealed.  I won’t spell them out because it’s part of the suspense.  I can say that Catherine, who seemed a beleaguered, dominated girl of low intelligence, turns out to be quite a person who, at thirteen, has clear career plans to become a graphic novelist plus a plan to enable her to get to art camp in the coming summer.  She’s filled with admirable purpose.  And when you consider the steps she has taken in this play to get what and where she wants, and how well she succeeds by the end of it, you feel she has every chance to make it.

But what about Ellis?  The more we learn about his propensity to violence and then, specifically, about the terrible thing he’s done, the more certain it seems that there’s no way Catherine can hold  on to the relationship she’s bravely sought from him, in fact, no way she (nor the audience) can forgive him.  Wrong again.

Catherine keeps seeking:  she doesn’t give up on Ellis.  And Adam Rapp has more to say about him.  You think he’s done the worst thing possible – but there’s another way to look at it.  We come to understand, partly through information from Barrett, Ellis’s visiting nurse, that while the play has confronted us with mortal violence and visible brutality to make you wince – not only from Ellis — we haven’t witnessed evil.  Catherine holds on, and we learn from this thirteen-year old girl: don’t be so fast the judge others.

The acting and directing are extraordinary.  In the role of Ellis, William Apps is completely convincing as an ordinary nice looking man struggling against his demons to maintain that semblance of conventionality and composure.   This is a great performance.   Katherine Reis conveys the several purposes and emotions in her young woman’s heart with fascinating subtlety.  Nothing is missed:  hers, too, is a great performance.

Susan Heyward is terrific as the all-out Monique, dancing, slanging, transgressive, but with a bottom line of decency that needs some prodding from Barrett, played by Connor Barrett, guardian angel on hand – and what is a guardian angel after all?  A mature person with the skill to defuse destructive directions and enable fulfillment.

Adromache Chalfant’s set of Ellis’s modest home, with lighting by Keith Parham, is a checklist of bare minimum:  living room with sofa, table, lamp, pale flower picture on the wall needing color, needing love.  The beige rug is a portrait of Ellis’s state of being, washed, rubbed, scrubbed, cleaned hard, but with a ghostly stubborn stain.

I have to thank Adam Rapp:  he has given me not one but two outstanding theater experiences in a single year, The Purple Lights Of Joppa Illinois, and his play Wolf In The River, which has just ended its run at The Flea theater, reviewed here.  Rapp writes with revelatory sympathy and great humanity about those who live on the margins of society, their relationship to the more conventional, centrist world, and about the possibility of transcendence. You don’t expect dramas as saturated with brutality as Rapp’s to be inspiring but they are. I enjoyed the mythic expansiveness of Wolf In The River; The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois is more spare:  both are powerful.

In The Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois, we worry when things don’t seem to be going well for the characters, we’re relieved when they do, and we’re inspired by their determination to love.  Rapp uses brutality not just for sensationalism (though that’s there), but to take you to a deeper understanding.  The sense that that we ourselves may be at fault, that — in contrast to Catherine — we’re too quick to think the worst of others, heightens the impact of the stunning, breathtaking ending.  I felt changed.

Purple Lights of Joppa Illinois plays at the Atlantic Stage 2  in Manhattan’s Chelsea district through June 26, 2016.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Review | Cloud Nine | By Caryl Churchill | Directed by James Macdonald | Atlantic Theater

… mix and match through time … 

Looking at first like a comedy of manners, Act I takes us to a British colony in Africa during Victorian times.  We soon learn that the characters – members of a nuclear family, some friends, servants and hangers-on – are embroiled in infidelity and/or non-conventional sexual arrangements, passions and longings in the context of stiff upper lip British Empire attitudes and a do-what-you-want-as-long-as-it-stays-discrete way of getting along.

Review | Guards At The Taj | By Rajiv Joseph | With Omar Metwaly and Arian Moayed | Directed by Amy Morton | Atlantic Theater Company

Two guards are on duty at an outer gate in the walls surrounding the Taj Mahal on the day of its completion, Humayan, conservative and authority fearing and Babur, a free spirit with an inventive imagination.  Word comes out that Shah Jihan, who had the Taj built as a tomb for his favorite wife, has now ordered the amputation of the hands of all of those who worked on the Taj – including those of its great architect — to make sure that no building of equal beauty can ever be built.  

Review | Posterity | Written and Directed by Doug Wright | Starring John Noble as Henrik Ibsen and Hamish Linklater as the sculptor Gustav Vigeland | Atlantic Theater Company

Posterity is an unexpected, fascinating and brilliant play performed by great actors.

It’s 1901 and as the end of life draws near for great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, the City of Oslo (Kristiana at the time) seeking to commemorate him with a portrait bust, awards the commission to the sculptor, Gustav Vigeland. Thus begins a play of titanic struggle between and within – between the playwright and the sculptor, and within their souls.

Both have reasons to want the Ibsen portrait and to distrust it, to hate it.  They’re both opinionated, individualistic, and self-centered, and with their own set of agendas.  They enrage one another to a fury but respect each other’s intelligence, creating dazzling verbal wordplay.

Review | Dying For It by Moira Buffini | A Free Adaptation of The Suicide by Nikolai Erdman | Directed by Neil Pepe | 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.

Review | Found: A New Musical | Directed by Lee Overtree | Based on the Found Books and Magazines by Davy Rothbart | Music and Original Lyrics by Eli Bolin | Book by Hunter Bell and Lee Overtree | Atlantic Theater Company

… found objects … 

Found is a charming, touching musical with lots of big laughs, beautifully performed.

It turns out there’s really a magazine, Found, that collects bits and pieces and scraps of writing — “love letters, birthday cards, kids’ homework, to-do lists, ticket stubs, poetry on napkins, receipts, doodles”  — and now there’s a totally delightful musical based on them.

A couple of original and independent-minded young people in need of jobs — but ones with meaning — come up with the idea of creating the magazine based on what turns out to be powerful emotional flotsam and jetsam.  Davy first recognizes the impact of these notes.  His is the original bright idea and his buddies Mikey D and Denise are in on getting the magazine going, encouraging him and doing a lot of the work — Denise quits her job to help him create the magazine — FOUND.  Success is followed by temptation in the form of an aspiring press agent from the West Coast, glamorous Kate beckoning with a plan for big money to be made with a FOUND TV program.  But the TV offer comes with strings attached, challenging the idealism – the purity — of the original vision.  How will this play out?

It plays out on a marvelously conceived set by David Korins, a wallpaper created out of the various pieces of paper, lined and unlined, ad hoc and fancy, intact and torn — an agglutinative compendium of heartbreak and hope.  The show is rich with delightful songs that trace the story of creation of the magazine, the looming compromises that follow success, and the outcome, and — in a parallel that strengthens an otherwise cliche love triangle — the personal stories of creative and hedonistic Davy, earnest, independent Denise and glamorous  and fiscally motivated Kate.  Words from the notes filter in at emotional junctures and morph into the songs, startling and touching the heart.

Like the radiance discovered in the diverse notes, the performers, headed by Nick Blaemire as Davy, Barret Wilbert Weed as Denise, Betsy Morgan as Kate and Daniel Everidge as Mikey D, are varied in size, shape, gender and color, and are radiantly expressive and alluring.

The music is lovely if not overwhelming, the performers are excellent, the set is a work of art and the show’s hilariously funny.  And what underlies the show and gives it strength and meaning — and what I think is really its ticket to the list of American musicals that will be with us for a long time — is the revelatory power of the notes, and the respect and appreciation the show leads us to feel for these things that have been thrown away, these authentic expressions — as specific as they can be, and at the same time universal.

Found plays at the Atlantic Theater in Manhattan’s Chelsea district through November 9, 2014.

Review | The Threepenny Opera | Book and Lyrics by Bertolt Brecht | Music by Kurt Weill | English Adaptation by Mark Blitzstein | Directed and Choreographed by Martha Clarke | Atlantic Theater Company

Mack the Soupspoon (… couldn’t resist …)

From the first moments of the overture, discordant and musical, played by superb musicians from the back of the stage, you know you’re experiencing something great.  The Threepenny Opera is one of the greatest pieces of musical theatre of the 20th Century — it’s up there with Porgy and Bess — and happily this production fulfills it.

Based on John Gay’s 18th-century The Beggar’s Opera, The Threepenny Opera was first produced in Berlin in 1928.  It’s an outstanding and unusual  example of a political point of view, here Brecht’s socialist critique of capitalist society, transformed into art that’s not preachy: skip the preaching, as Jenny reminds us in her “Solomon Song.”  Yet the message,  “First feed the face, and then talk right and wrong,” comes across loud and clear — and joyously.

Set in 19th century London and populated by low-life characters, including prostitutes, beggars and thieves, the show centers on a lean, mean crook Macheath, known as Mack the Knife.  Irresistible to women, he turns the head of Polly, the protected daughter of the wise-to-the world Mr. Peachum, “King of the Beggars”, and Mrs. Peachum.  When Macheath marries Polly (sort of), a furious Mr. Peachum determines to have him hanged;  there are crimes aplenty to accuse him of but the Chief of Police is — guess what — corrupt.  Still, caught in the snare of his “old dependency — women”, as Mrs. Peachum sings it, he comes near to death, only to … see the show!  It’s such a great ending.  Yes, more joyous irony.

What a marvelous wealth of songs!  The singers are all good but some capture the grating quality of the style of Weimar Berlin with which Martha Clarke imbues the show.  John Kelly as the Street Singer delivers a wonderfully subversive introductory “Ballad of Mack the Knife” and is charismatically sleazy throughout in the role of Fitch. Mary Beth Peil is tough and terrific as Mrs. Peachum.  These two most fully capture the character of the music and the essence of The Threepenny Opera.

As Macheath, Michael Park understands the meanings of his all-out songs and gets them across with rich vigor, but his persona, and gorgeously tailored suit, are too comfortable looking — too capitalist — for Mack the Knife.  Not knife-like, he’s more a Mack the Soup Spoon.  F. Murray Abraham is gruff and tender as Mr. Peachum, though he’s not a great singer.  Laura Osnes sings Polly’s songs with a beautiful, strong voice, though she seems too worldly-wise in advance, rather than learning a thing or three from Macheath.

Now what about Jenny?  A big question for this show. Jenny, a prostitute and maid in the brothel, and Macheath’s sometime lover, is the pivotal role Lotte Lenya sang in the original Berlin production in Berlin in 1928 and again in the 1956 production at the Theater de Lys in New York City, and often heard recorded since.  In this production Jenny is misconceived:  turning her back of the strident, no-holds-barred Jenny that Miss Lenya gave and that’s scripted, Miss Clarke gives us a depressed, near-ingenue Jenny, played by Sally Murphy, even to the point of changing the words to suit this passive characterization.  Ending her famous revenge fantasy song, “Pirate Jenny,” by imagining all “the bodies piled up” in front of her, Miss Murphy sings with a shrug: “So what?”  A far cry from Lotte Lenya’s vengeful words:  “That’ll learn ya.”

Maybe Miss Clarke thought Lotte Lenya’s tough Jenny was too iconic, so went the other way.  At any rate, this passive characterization lets us down also in “Solomon Song” where, abandoning irony for woebegone, Miss Murphy sings, face turned away, brushing across the far walls of the set like a teen-ager without a prom date.  The role is salvaged only by the fact that it’s a stupendous song, and Sally Murphy is a poignant, fine performer so that wistful, though off-key, didn’t interrupt the impact of this wonderful show.

The production’s overall concept, set, lighting and costumes are glorious.  The spirit of caricature, the costumes, and choreography are inspired by images from George Grosz’s gutsy and unblinking illustrations of Berlin low-life of the period, as Robert Ruben, who saw the show with me commented, a bringing together of art and theater that recalls Miss Clarke’s Garden of Earthly Delights inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s famous painting, reviewed here in 2008.    For instance, the sofa in the brothel and the choreographed arrangement of girls on and around it appear to be drawn directly from an illustration by Grosz, a sort of tableaux vivant. All is over-washed with Martha Clarke’s luscious glow and sense of luxury.  George Grosz deserves mention in the show’s program.

Joyous irony:  the show’s grim, underdog message — useless, it’s useless, even when you’re playing rough, useless, it’s useless, you’re never rough enough — is transformed through transcendent art: you walk out of the theater elated.

The Threepenny Opera  plays at the Atlantic Theater in Manhattan’s Chelsea district through May 4th, 2014 — extended through May 11th.

Review | The Night Alive | Written and Directed by Conor McPherson | A Donmar Warehouse Production | AtlanticTheater Company

… author ex machina …

Never mind the hype — this is not a good play.  The characters and their problems are interesting, but their dire situations are resolved too easily.

The setting is the junked up Dublin apartment of Tommy, and like the apartment that has the requisite parts — a sink, a bathroom, beds, chairs, the characters are recognizable but junked up, unable to engage fully with the regular world.  Tommy, whose ex-wife hammers at him for abandoning his kids, ekes out a living from odd jobs, employing Doc, a little guy who (we’re told) is slow witted and is wearing out his welcome at his sister’s place.  Going out for a snack one night, Tommy comes home with a beaten and bleeding girl, Aimee, whose tight low jeans and sparse speech convey bottom of the social barrel.

Tommy’s Uncle Maurice, who owns the house where Tommy rents, is neat and well dressed:  a property owner and a “normal person” one thinks briefly, but he turns out to be an alcoholic.

Tommy calls Doc “disabled” and these characters are all one way or another disabled, and yet in their various ways they’re all kind, like Tommy who takes the battered, threatened girl into his home. But there’s nothing kind about Kenneth, Aimee’s pimp.  Evil incarnate — the Devil: as he clamps in vampire teeth, his face becomes a Devil’s mask.  He wreaks brutal havoc, creating through his own acts and catalyzing others to commit what looks like irrevocable damage.

Only the murderous results of Kenneth’s brutality are, as if by magic, repaired.  Through a series of unexplained and implausible leaps — largely off-stage — things turn out OK — even better than OK.  As the play moves along, there’s more and more imagery of shining and light.

The characters’ problems are solved, partly through the actions of an angelic Uncle Maurice.  Tommy works out with others the healthy relatedness that had been lacking in his life.  Doc gets a secure place to live.  So eventually does Aimee.  And the bad man gets his just deserts.  Yeay!  Never mind that to reach these good results we have to accept some disturbingly unpunished crime. In such a redemptive glow, it’s square to even think about the law.

Things happen not through consistent characters or effective plotting but because it’s how the author wants them.  Tommy tells us that Doc “will always, always, be five to ten minutes behind everybody else,” but seen in action, Doc outfoxes Tommy to get the money he’s owed, and elsewhere shows the wherewithal to get what he needs and wants.

What particularly annoys me about this play is that problems are resolved by a stroke of the author’s hand rather than through struggles on the part of the characters that we witness or understand. Doc rambles in his idiot savant way about black holes and non-time but down-to-earth Tommy ignores him in favor of all that shining and light imagery.

The author doesn’t allow arbitrary turns of events and downright implausibility to get in the way of redemption. In my book, that’s a writerly sin.

The Night Alive plays at the Atlantic Theater in Manhattan’s Chelsea district through February 2, 2014.

Gabriel by Moira Buffini | Directed by David Esbjorn | Atlantic Theater Company

Review | Gabriel by Moira Buffini | Directed by David Esbjorn | Atlantic Theater Company

… archipelago …

There’s an archipelago in the English Channel, nearer to France than to Britain, that England felt it could not defend during World War II and so it fell under German occupation.  Gabriel takes place in February, 1943 on one of the small, occupied islands, populated by natives, the German occupiers, and slave laborers the Germans imported from Eastern Europe to construct fortifications. We never see the slave laborers but their presence is felt in the looming, bunker-like backdrop with its slit-eye.

Jeanne Becquet is trying to keep her hearth and home together in the face of food shortages and the ever-threatening arbitrary violence of the Nazis who, in this small scale slice of large scale totalitarian life, are their own law. As the poetic but ideologically Nazi German officer, Von Pfunz tells Estelle, Jeanne’s willful daughter who believes she can’t be killed because she’s a child, “My dear, there’s something you have not yet comprehended about war.”

Von Pfunz is powerfully attracted to Jeanne, letting her — and her daughter who’s up to nasty quixotic pranks in the cause of freedom — off the hook. Yet he’s always the Nazi, revealed in full horror in his purloined diary and in the final choice he throws Jeanne. She berates him while flirting with him, hating him and what he stands for while leading him on to protect her family — and at the same time she’s genuinely drawn to him — one thinks of Salvador Dali’s sense of the sex appeal of fascism.

In contrast to the complexities of Von Pfunz, Jeanne and Estelle, Margaret Lake, an older woman who helps out around the house, is there mainly, I think, to broaden the view of the occupation beyond those in Jeanne’s family. And Lilian Becquet, the wife of Jeanne’s son who’s presumed dead in action, is totally good — although she does have one serious imperfection in Jeanne’s eyes as well as Von Pfunz’s: she’s a Jew. That aside, she’s rather angelic.

And speaking of angels, Gabriel, a man handsome enough, and ambiguous enough to be an angel is washed up on the island’s shore and brought home by Lillian and Estelle where he lies unconscious in Jeanne’s home while Lillian and Estelle fall in love with him, each in her own way. He awakes, but is amnesiac. Who is Gabriel?

Since Gabriel speaks fluent German, Von Pfunz believes he may be “one of ours,” a missing German SS leader. But he speaks English equally fluently and so may be a recently downed British airman.   German or British, discovered between life and death, he seems both of this world and of some other, Gabriel the angelic messenger who links heaven and earth — at least we hope he’s from the heavenly realm, but it could be otherwise.

Buffini, a daring and almost shockingly inventive playwright, derives suspenseful plot turns from these characters thrust into a dangerously close situation. Will Von Pfunz discover that the Becquet’s are harboring a fugitive? And will that work to or against their advantage? What still worse trouble will the volatile Estelle get her family into? And to what extent and for how long will Pfunz’s attraction to Jeanne save this family from itself?

Like Buffini’s play Dinner  (the recent production in Sag Harbor reviewed here), Gabriel is presented as realistic but drenched with symbols, some clearly recognizable as Christian and others more ambiguous.  In Dinner, the young man who arrives at the party, an outsider and object of fascination and love, is (among other things) a Christ figure, and here, too, the young man thrown up on the beach, again an outsider and object of fascination and love, has the name of an angel. The language of the play is filled with images of flickering light: is Gabriel a starry messenger or a fugitive from the flames of hell? Since the young girl’s name — Estelle –means star, does that throw the balance toward hope?

I won’t reveal whether or not Gabriel saves the day but he uses the same device to do it as in Dinner — something found around the kitchen that can easily do double duty as a weapon. Dinner is, if anything, bolder in its wild inventiveness and symbolic power, but Gabriel holds the special interest of revealing a situation of World War II not well known. This is a near-to-flawless production of a fascinating play by a highly original and intriguing playwright.

Gabriel plays at the Linda Gross Theater of the Atlantic Theater Company in NYC’s Chelsea through June 20th.

Gabriel by Moira Buffini | Directed by David Esbjorn | Atlantic Theater Company

Gabriel by Moira Buffini | Directed by David Esbjorn | Atlantic Theater Company

Gabriel by Moira Buffini | Directed by David Esbjorn | Atlantic Theater Company

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