Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Schreiber Shorts 2017

Drama should be compressed. That’s why short plays – 10-minute or 15-minute plays – have such potential. But it’s a very challenging form, and most short plays fail. The playwright needs to make us care quickly, and a lot depends on the characterization being specific.

T. Schreiber Theatre, Off-off-Broadway, has presented ten short plays in its program Schreiber Shorts 2017. The evening is a success. Most of the scripts are quite good. The directions is uniformly adroit, and the acting throughout is first-rate.

The best play of the evening, a great example of a successful short play, is Nathan Yungerberg’s Golden Gate.  A young man has arrived in town and is befriended by an older man. Seems simple enough, but it’s successful because it’s written with mystery. It also gives us the evening’s best performance, from Gus Solomons Jr, as the elder man. The character’s behavior is inexplicable, but it has a dramatic truth that the actor illuminates.

Prize Fight, by Michael Weems, presents us with a female boxer, her trainer, and a rival boxer. What makes the play work is the complexity of the relationship between the trainer and the boxer, which is skillfully revealed. When we think we understand it, we learn more. It contains truthful surprise, a dramatic device well used.

Cowboy Cut, by Nelson Clark, presents us with Arizona Slim, a contractor who’s bribing someone named Shelby for a contract to build prisons. It isn’t clear if Shelby is a politician or just representing a politician. The play is absorbing, with a set of reversals. It’s another example of truthful surprise.

Jim Gordon attempts to portray an intensely dramatic situation in The First Bridge. A young actress has committed suicide after making a pornographic movie, and her mother confronts the porn producer. This set-up is almost too fierce for a short play; we don’t have the time to absorb the magnitude of the emotions. Raquel Almazan has directed non-realistically, although the script is realistic. Her actors use 12 boxes, with an overlay of new age (no lead) music. It’s interesting, an admirable attempt.

The Sleeping Beauty of Brooklyn, by Rosemary Frisino Toohey, is light piece about a couple who discover their cleaning lady dead in their apartment - an unfortunate circumstance, since the realtor is showing it in a few minutes. We mustn’t take it seriously, but it’s fun. It doesn’t finish; it merely stops.

A much darker piece is A Sudden Loss of Altitude, by Peter Kennedy. It concerns a couple of gay men, an air pilot and a politician, who’ve just spent the night in a hotel room. The pilot is about to handle a flight even though he’s probably inebriated. It’s a first-rate example of short drama, well served by Anthony Inneo as the senator. Jake Turner directs with great skill.

Shelley Berman’s No Soap is a comedy credited to Bob Canning; it’s based on a Shelley Berman sketch. It’s an epistulatory play. The characters read aloud to us the letters they’re writing. On one side of this exchange is a frustrated hotel guest. The hotel maids insist on leaving him small bars of Camay, Cashmere Bouquet, Ivory and “one rogue bar of Palmolive” soap when he prefers his own Irish Spring bath soap. On the other side are the maids and other hotel staff. It’s amusing, and there’s a sweet ending.

Two by Eugenie Carabatsos, presents us with two dolls, Benjamin and Bernadette, in a box. They’re in an attic – “I’ve deduced it,” Bernadette announces. She keeps trying to rip off her own head out of frustration. Benjamin has better sense, and there’s some lovely interaction between them, and a nice, warm ending.

Speed Play, by Alex Dremann, and A Long Trip, by Dan McGeehan, fail because of their standard situations. The first is about a park bench date, the second about an older couple trying to recall their first kiss. The good actors can’t compensate for the generalized characters.

Schreiber Shorts 2017, then, makes for a satisfying evening of theater. T. Schreiber Theatre has done a fine job.

Steve Capra
February 2017

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Made in China

Made in China opens with 56-year-old Mary Harrison sitting naked on her sofa with her dog Lily. Mary sings:
This is me
Talking to my dog
Sitting in a fog
Eating macaroni
But in my head, I’m far away.

We soon meet Mary’s neighbor, a Chinese ex-pat named Eddie Wang (we will learn that the name is pronounced Wong) and his dog Yo Yo. Eddie sings:
I really like this place
I’m glad that I have come here
Neighbors say “Hello”
Treat me like I’m from here
Except for the woman next door
Who strangely is hiding and sneaking
But always those blue eyes are peeking
Why is she always watching me?
She’s a crazy person watching me – yet she’s
A woman watching me.

Such is the set-up for the musical, promising, as musicals do, romance. But there are many exceptional things about this musical – not least that Mary and Eddie are puppets. The whole show is whimsical and fantastic. It’s written by Gwendolyn Warnock and Kirjan Waage with help from the Made in China Ensemble, and presented by Wakka Wakka, a co-production with Nordland Visual Theatre, MiNensemblet and the Hopkins Center, Dartmouth College, at 59E59Theaters.

As the plot unfolds, Mary drowns her sorrows in a shopping spree, singing:
More! More! More! More! More!
I gotta get more! You gotta get more!
I gotta get more!

In fact, she gets more than she bargained for. In a box of Christmas decorations she finds a note written in Chinese and English that reads: “Help us! Good person please kindly take this letter to a human rights organization. I am a prisoner and work in unit 5 at the Masanjia labor camp.” It proceeds to describe beatings and torture.

Of course, she brings the letter to Eddie, and together the two of them have an exciting, silly, terrific adventure. They get sucked into her toilet, all the way to China. She finds that she can fly for a while, Eddie on her back, but they end up in a Chinese labor camp anyway. Then they enter a lovely bamboo forest where there’s a fabulous red dragon with glowing eyes.

One of the terrific things about the puppetry is that the puppets do things actors could never do, like getting sucked into the porcelain bowl, or getting eaten by that dragon. Moreover, there’s a singing plunger: “I come all the way from China,” it sings to Mary, “The land of ten thousand factories!” The plunger is soon joined by a lamp and a gun. “Help! My house is coming to life,” Mary screams into the phone.

And so the script introduces human rights and consumerism into its unlikely concept. In one of the best songs, Uncle Sam and Chairman Mao sing a duet:

Welcome to the Factory of Voluntary Joy!
We’re so happy you’ve arrived to help us make a toy! …
Labor is its own reward
What the Chairman most adored
We won’t give you room and board, you buy that on your dime.

The music is appealing, and it’s at its best when we hear the occasional sound of classical Chinese music. It’s performed by MiNensemblet with Yan Li and Max Mamon. Music and lyrics are written by Yan Li.

Finally, of course, the couple find themselves at home, where they have puppet sex on Mary’s sofa. The final song is a march, Mary and Eddie determine to take the letter she found to The New York Times, singing (with the help of the plunger):
All I need to change the world is you
Maybe like America, the dream can come true.

The clever puppets were created by Kirjan Waage. There are 30 of them in the show, but Mary and Eddie take nearly all the focus. They’re two or three feet tall, presented in the style of the Japanese bunraku puppetry tradition. There are seven puppeteers, dressed in black against the black back wall. Alex Goldberg’s lighting is so well done that we forget the puppeteers are there. The directors are the writers, Gwendolyn Warnock and Kirjan Waage, and they’ve gone to great lengths to place the puppets precisely on the stage. Their direction keeps surprising us.

Puppeteer Peter Russo voices Mary, and Ariel Estrada handles Eddie, both very well. Andy Manjuck and Dorothy James voice YoY o and Lily, the dogs, respectively, giving us terrific barking with great whimsy.

It would be a mistake to take the show too seriously. The plot elements are disjointed and the final political awakening is unconvincing. What’s more, some of the show is vulgar – after all, there’s a toilet involved. But the creative company manage to earn our belief in their puppet characters and, what’s more, to make us care about them. It’s all great fun!

Steve Capra
January 2017

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Fringe of Humanity

Paul Calderon packs so many obscenities into his play Fringe of Humanity that they nearly form a barrier between the audience and the characters. The scatology can’t be defended by claims to verisimilitude or naturalism; it’s just vulgar writing. Mr. Calderon doesn’t seem to be able to write a line without obscenity.

And this is a shame since Fringe of Humanity, presented by Primitive Grace and Access Theater at The Access Theatre off-off-Broadway, is otherwise a nice production. It concerns an L.A. film crew making a movie in a Latin American country. They’re in pre-production, still casting, about to scout for locations. The characters argue and jockey for alpha position, working through greed and vanity and jealousy. “You wanna make movies, you gotta deal with assholes,” says the producer, and the foul-mouthed characters confirm the postulate.

The immediate business for these movie-makers is to audition a couple of young actresses in the hotel room. But the audition doesn’t take up all that much time, actually. More time is spent with the men arguing among themselves. One hothead pulls out a knife a couple of times, but it doesn’t amount to anything. These characters are just volatile and infantile. Mr. Calderon makes us believe in them, but he never makes us care about them.

There’s not much plot here, but Mr. Calderon, who also directs, keeps the play full of dramatic action. He keeps the dialogue moving allegro, and he makes each beat clear and crisp. He often has salsa music playing under the dialogue, and it gives the play a frenetic tone. From time to time the rhythm climaxes in an exciting moment, very well done. Unfortunately, Mr. Calderon doesn’t leave his actors time to think between beats, and he directs them to yell.

Mr. Calderon himself plays the central role of the director, expressively, if not with subtlety. David Zayas plays the producer; he’s servicable but he shouts too much, all bluster. We get a first-rate performance from Jakob Von Eichel as an assistant director. He has opposites in his character that make for a depth the other characters lack. Rebecca Nyahay also works very well as the producer’s wife, succeeding when she’s called upon to be hysterical. We miss a structured plot in this production, but the cast keep us absorbed.

Mr. Calderon, then, is a better actor than playwright and a better director than actor. His vision isn’t totally bleak. Some of the characters indicate a real moral fiber after the play’s crisis; it’s the producer who’s an affront to decency. He shows an interesting facet of his character when he calls himself an artist, and he calls his work “commercial art, but art nevertheless.” There’s an insecurity in him that’s only suggested.

All in all, Fringe of Humanity is an interesting study of characters. It seems to be a cautionary tale warning New York actors to keep away from the L.A. film industry. And it’s a vehicle for some work that’s engaging – obscenities aside – if unremarkable.

Steve Capra
January 2017

Thursday, January 12, 2017


When Mark Chapman murdered John Lennon in 1980, he was carrying a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. When John Hinckley shot President Reagan a year later, he had a copy of that book in his hotel room.

Playwright Anisa George has taken this strange confluence and used it as the basis for her play Holden, presented by George & Co. and The New Ohio Theatre. Her play takes place in J.D. Salinger’s writing retreat. Salinger himself is there, of course. We also find Chapman and Hinckley living there, acting as a sort of pair of muses.

Into this secluded haven arrives a fourth, Zev. It isn’t clear if he’s murdered anyone. It isn’t even clear if he’s read Catcher. He himself doesn’t know what he’s doing there. What is clear is that he has a murderous temperament. When Chapman and Hinckley explain the situation to him, he responds with a list of people that he’d like to kill: Bob Dylan; Bill Gates; Arnold Schwarzenegger; Alex Trebek. He’d like to break the record of 69 killed in the 2011 shooting in Norway. Even Chapman and Hinckley are disgusted.

It’s through the two assassins’ explanations to Zev that we learn about the world of the play.  “If you’re gonna be a catcher, Zev, there are rules,” Chapman says.

This is a brilliant concept, and it’s a great play and a great production. At its heart is the mysterious stage reality of Chapman, Hinckley and Zev. They don’t exist in Salinger’s mind, exactly. Indeed, he barely pays attention to them. They cajole him to write, but he never addresses them.

Instead, we’re in a unique world of dramatic truth. This is Chapman’s and Hinckley’s fantasy, not Salinger’s. He presumably hasn’t invited them in. Still, Ms. George is exposing the amorality of art. The assassins didn’t inspire Salinger, but they admired him. And Chapman and Hinckley aren’t evil here so much as they are insane. They think of themselves as, as Chapman says, catchers.

The show is directed by the playwright, and she keeps us absorbed without much aid from plot. She does it by keeping the play full of action within the fluid relationship between Chapman, Hinckley and Zev. Even during moments without dialogue we’re engrossed in the fiction. She gives the production a strong, animated rhythm.

The cast, as well, gives us terrific work – Jaime Maseda as Chapman, Scott R. Sheppard as Hinckley, Matteo Scammell as Zev, Bill George as Salinger (who has little to say). Their internal life keeps us involved when we might otherwise be lost due to the lack of a strong through line.

Nick Benacerraf’s set is beautiful – chopped wood on all sides, a clothesline with papers pinned to it, a cot, a stove. Seth Reiser’s lighting and Rebecca Kanach’s costumes work wonderfully. In all, they reflect our common fantasy of the reclusive writer Salinger.

Indeed, the dialogue as well is peppered with recognition of the fabled recluse. “He’s all wrapped up in practicing detachment from public opinion,” Chapman says of him.

The problem with the script is its unsatisfying ending; it calls into question Zev’s stage reality, that idiosyncratic dramatic construction that the playwright has heretofore defined so carefully. It’s particularly odd in light of Zev’s evil nature, and we wonder what sort of point Ms. George might be making.

But Holden is a terrific production, both commanding and subtle, making for a thrilling 90 minutes of theatre.

Steve Capra
January 2017

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Martin Luther on Trial

The Fellowship for Performing Arts has just produced a play called Martin Luther on Trial, by Chris Cragin-Day and Max McLean, at The Pearl Theatre. It puts Martin Luther in historical, personal and, most importantly, ideological context. It’s a sort of courtroom drama. The Devil himself is prosecuting Luther for “the unforgivable sin”. Luther’s wife, Katie Von Bora (“a runaway nun”), is his defender. “The unforgivable sin” is defined variously, but essentially as “telling God I don’t need you.” The script presents Luther in a non-linear way, into his later life, when he states “I am orthodox.”

The witnesses in this strange case come from a range of personalities and periods: Hitler; Freud; Martin Luther King; Pope Francis. And there are others, like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and even The Brothers Grimm, whom we never see. The officiating judge is St. Peter.

The trial takes place in the Afterlife – neither heaven nor hell nor Earth. But from time to time the lights isolate a downstage area and we meet Luther in his life. The most extended of these scenes is a discussion with a Rabbi, rather too prolonged. What’s clear is that Luther loves to debate.

We also see a courtship scene with Katie Von Bora. And there’s an interesting scene between Luther and the Devil. Luther’s hand trembles when they play chess. And of course, they debate.

The concept is enormously creative, a hyper-intellectual fantasy in the genre of Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell (from Man and Superman). And it’s very well executed. It’s directed by Michael Parva, who keeps an eloquent tone to the whole thing, a sort of realism within a surreal moment.

In a moment repeated intermittently, Luther drives a nail, affixing the famous 95 theses into that church door in 1517. The hammer stroke’s thud resonates as if echoing across the centuries. And Parva gives great attention to detail, as when the prosecuting devil and defending wife take notes throughout the trial.

Fletcher McTaggart’s performance as Martin Luther is terrific, with a strong and precise internal life. He registers thoughts as if they were physical sensations. He has a squinting, quizzical expression, and he leans into his debate partners. Paul Schoeffler, as The Devil, gives a great performance as well, more theatrical and externalized. His final speech is a powerful display of acting technique. It’s interrupted by Luther, who resumes his chess game with the Devil, and in the final action of the play the Devil himself experiences a revelation.

Kersti Bryan is successful as Katie Von Bora, but rather tense throughout. Von Bora is an active ally of Luther in their movement. “What in God’s name are we doing? This is not our Reformation!” she says late in the play.

John Michalski is suitably judicial as St. Peter. Mark Boyett and Jamil A.C. Mangan, in multiple roles, also give us some very nice work.

The set, by Kelly James Tighe, and the costumes, by Nicole Wee, are all handsome. The effective lighting if by Geoffrey D. Fishburn.

The ideological point of the whole thing is obscured by some over-writing. Pope Francis, unfortunately, is made to look like a fool – perhaps because he’s the only living witness. But Martin Luther on Trial is a unique accomplishment. Fellowship for Performing Arts creates theater with a Christian perspective, and it’s good to see that its work is so robust.

Steve Capra
December 2016

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Big Uncut Flick

Sometimes we don’t want a massive production, especially when we want a comedy. And so Gracye Productions’ mounting of Todd Michael’s play The Big Uncut Flick (at The Studio Theatre at Theatre Row) fits the bill for a slight 75 minutes of fun. The show presents an afternoon TV movie program (the titular Big Uncut Flick) in 1953. There are two hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Matinee, aka Jack Sheldon and Arlene Lewis, who epitomize the bland complacency of the fifties. The script puts them squarely in the period. “As Senator Joe McCarthy would say,” says Jack, “Point of order, Mr. Chairman.” And “You think our commercials are annoying, you should see the ones they show on Russian TV.”

The rest of the cast perform on stage the day’s movie, a 1934 crime drama called Say Ya Prayers, Ya Mug. It’s about an ex-convict, a police sergeant, the ex-convict’s sister (who’s a nun), a singer, a nice girl from the mid-West just arrived in the city – in short, the whole crew of stock movie characters. We soon stop trying to follow the plot and just enjoy the writing. “Put a muzzle on the holy book lingo,” Michael writes. And “People who live in tin houses shouldn’t throw can openers.”

Michael gives some variation on the theme when the movie loses sound and the actors speak soundlessly, and when the film breaks and the actors slump forward like marionettes without strings.

Director Synge Maher keeps everything moving lickety-split during the movie; the pace is more laid back for the hosts. He creates a terrific tension between the tones of the two stage realities, juxtaposing 1953’s reflection of 1953 with 1934’s reflection of 1934. He’s captured the unique, unmistakable flavor of each.

Maher has cast actors as Arlene Lewis (Todd Geringswald) and the nun (David L. Zwiers), and he’s cast an actress (Melissa Firlit) as the police sergeant. The gender-jumping is successful in the first two instances, less so in the third. Craig MacArthur is right for Red, the ex-convict.

But all the cast have comic skill. The actors in the movie keep a consistent parodic tone; they’re cartoons.

Comedy doesn’t get broader than Say Ya Prayers, Ya Mug, and it’s well done. They’ve been directed to get all the comic mileage they can out of the cheap, urban diction of most of these characters – “It’s a good day for a double moydah,” for example.

But the show is at its best during the movie’s breaks, when we’re presented with a more subtle comedy from Mr. and Mrs. Matinee. Michael has given them stereotypically 50’s TV business, as when they call a woman at home for the game Prizes on the Line.

J. Richey Nash is terrific as Mr. Matinee. He flashes his teeth in a stage smile and clips his diction in a stage voice. He gets drunk without overdoing the comic shtick and nods off matter-of-factly. It’s great!

We grow a little tired of the heavy comic diction, but The Big Uncut Flick is great fun. We always want to have a parody like this included in our Off-Off-Broadway buffet.

Steve Capra
December 2016

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Man in Snow

Israel Horovitz’ play Man in Snow began its life as a radio play, and the playwright adapted it for the stage. The set consists of a single chair and a significant amount of the dialogue consists of phone conversations. It still feels like a radio play.

Man in Snow is a portrait of a man, David, haunted by the memory of a lost son, Joey. The play begins with his wife, Franny, screaming “No”, as the family has just been told of Joey’s death in a motorcycle accident. The remainder of the play jumps around in later time, and mostly takes place six years later,

David speaks to his lost son and Joey generally appears onstage when he does. But David talks to Joey even during conversations with living characters. This would be effective expression of inner life, but some of the things David says to Joey are so obvious that they lack specificity and dramatic pith – “Why am I alive, Joey” and “Why did you die, Joey?”

David guides a group of tourists up Mt. McKinley, and he calls his wife on the phone a few times. David and Franny make small talk during these conversations. They say “I love you” so often it’s suspicious. And indeed, we find out that there are issues of fidelity that complicate their marriage. It’s during these conversations that the play is most effective, as we hear people trying to force warmth through resentment.

There are three other characters – David’s daughter, a tour guide and the tour company manager. Emily, the daughter, is small comfort to David; she heartlessly demands attention after Joey’s death. The guide and the manager offer companionship and conversation, but none of the roles ever network to form plot.

We welcome the moments when David recites the poetry he’s been writing. “This is snow in August,” he says.

Mr. Horovitz directs the show himself, and he stresses the emotional cold – the snow – surrounding the character. His dialogue has moments of lovely lyricism. “Is every light another person?” David says to Joey, speaking of the stars. The actors are undeniably skilled – Will Lyman as David and Sandra Shipley as Franny – with their focus and high definition.

But their talents are misapplied. The cast deliver the lines so deliberately and artificially that they seem to be reading from a script. They’re expressing the distance between David and the others, but the result is acting that lacks privacy even when the dialogue expresses intimacy. Because it doesn’t engage us, this meditation on death – there are two deaths in the play – is maudlin.

Man in Snow is a Gloucester Stage Company Production presented by La MaMa in association with Barefoot Theatre Company & Compagnia Horovitz-Paciotto.

Steve Capra
November 2016