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‘Come From Away’ and ‘The Price’ Weigh the Pros and Cons of Basic Human Kindness

The airport at Gander, Newfoundland, used to appear on every international traveler’s itinerary: It was the primary spot where transatlantic jets from Europe had to stop to refuel before zooming on to New York or anywhere else in North America. When jet-engine technology improved, allowing for nonstop flights, the airport’s use dwindled, and Gander reverted to its essence — a pleasant, modest-sized rural town on a rocky, wooded island off Canada’s eastern shore.

Then came September 11, 2001. The FAA shut down all U.S. airspace. Thirty-eight incoming transatlantic flights were diverted to Gander, bringing almost seven thousand bewildered passengers, whom the townsfolk — like most of us, already traumatized by the news — had to accommodate until, five days later, the travelers-in-limbo began to be allowed to fly on to their destinations. In effect, for those five days, the population of Gander and the neighboring towns nearly doubled, suddenly including such anomalies as East Africans, Hindus, a clutch of world-class cardiologists, an Orthodox rabbi, an Egyptian master chef, nine dogs, seven cats (one epileptic), and a mated pair of bonobo chimps destined for the Cleveland Zoo.

The new Broadway musical Come From Away (Schoenfeld Theatre), a blend of pop oratorio and high-speed docudrama, tells the story of Gander’s interaction with this horde of unexpected guests. With a book and score by two newcomers, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, and directed with his customary whip-smart precision by Christopher Ashley, the show offers the exhilarating combination of a set of feel-good stories with the hectic pace of breaking-news coverage. It doesn’t dig deep: Its characters are rarely more than thumbnail sketches, and its lively music tickles the ear rather than catching the heart. But the overall shape of the event, told with smart skill and a generous spirit, has a sweet-tasting goodness to it that constitutes a healthful rebuke to the evil times we’re currently living through.

Shifting rapidly from story to story, while its actors, all playing multiple roles, shift from townsfolk to passengers, Come From Away makes a point of touching on as many potential sources of dramatic tension as possible: a gay couple (Chad Kimball and Caesar Samayoa) fearful of local homophobia; an African-American New Yorker (Rodney Hicks) mistrustful of local generosity; a New York firefighter’s mom (Q. Smith) trying desperately to reach her son; a pilot (Jenn Colella) panicked about the fate of her pilot husband’s plane. Inevitably, the stories that touch on the larger reality of 9-11 aspire to tragic stature — the pilot story almost reaches it, mainly thanks to Colella’s tightly focused emotional force — while those that pit urbanites’ caution against the locals’ innate generosity result in good-natured comedy.

Appealing as all the niceness is, its uniformity gets a little unnerving: Wasn’t any resident of Gander even a little selfish, resentful, suspicious, peremptory, or perhaps just a teeny bit bigoted? Canadians — at least the ones I know — are nice people, but definitely not devoid of all negative attitude. (In Canada at large, “Newfies” feature in the national equivalent of what would be “redneck” jokes down here.) As the horrific mosque attack in Québec City in January demonstrated, Canadians aren’t immune to the lunatic fear of foreigners that since 9-11 has escalated to fever pitch on this continent.

That you feel wildly remote from such dark matters while watching Come From Away suggests its major shortcoming, the converse of which is its major asset. We don’t, after all, need musical entertainments to remind us of what happened on 9-11 and its consequences, which march through our news headlines every day. But we do need to be reminded, often, that the world offers other possibilities, and that goodwill among human beings can still exist, despite the Republican Party’s constant efforts to disprove the fact.

One special delight of Come From Away is that Ashley’s cast, which mixes seasoned Broadway performers with artists from the original Canadian production, looks much more like a random assemblage of ordinary people than like a trimly turned-out Broadway ensemble. As they line up along the forestage in the opening number, you want to believe in them: a batch of just-plain-folks whose first reaction to trouble is “How can I help?” rather than “Get away from me.” I know — from 9-11 among other occasions — that New York is full of such people; why shouldn’t Newfoundland be? Welcome Canadian arrivals like Petrina Bromley, Geno Carr, and Astrid Van Wieren, mingling easily with more familiar figures like Colella, Kimball, Hicks, and Joel Hatch, make the notion plausible. There’s no sense in believing that all human beings are good, but being aware of the possibility helps us go on.

Arthur Miller’s 1968 play, The Price, now getting its fourth Broadway revival at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre, digs more complexly, if perhaps a little abstractly, into what’s good and bad about people. A stubbornly honest beat cop (Mark Ruffalo) and his long-estranged, super-rich surgeon brother (Tony Shalhoub) have inherited an attic full of furniture from their long-dead parents. The building’s being torn down, so it’s time to sell. The cop randomly calls in a used-furniture dealer (Danny DeVito), whose shrewdly flamboyant, Yiddish-inflected bargaining turns out to be a magic salve that soothes tensions between the cop and his unhappy wife (Jessica Hecht), while also stripping away the multilayered resentment between the brothers, bringing about a peaceful, though not facilely happy, resolution.

Terry Kinney’s new production manages to dodge, as some earlier revivals haven’t, the earnest, schematic streak that weighs the play down. Coaxing a vital, personalized eccentricity from each of his four equally strong actors, he’s come up with the best rendition of The Price since John Stix’s 1979 version, with the unforgettable Joseph Buloff as the furniture dealer. Buloff’s comedy was gigantic; DeVito’s feisty, energetic extravagance makes him loom nearly as large. As the play’s old, bitter arguments and counterarguments get unpacked, its moral begins to seem an intriguing sidelight on Come From Away‘s: A little more overt generosity at the start might have spared the characters all these deep-packed recriminations.

Come From Away
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
236 West 45th Street
212-239-6200
comefromaway.com

The Price
American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street
212-719-1300
roundabouttheatre.org
Through May 7

 

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook Listings Theater

Flaming Out: A New Musical About Joan of Arc Oversells Its Timeliness

The new musical Joan of Arc: Into the Fire begins with an unmissable message, hand-painted on the curtain of the Public’s Newman Theater: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Mitch McConnell’s now notorious complaint about Elizabeth Warren is your first clue that this show wants to be very relevant.

What that relevance might be is anybody’s guess, though, even after ninety minutes of high-octane rock from David Byrne and energetic staging by Alex Timbers. A clear bid to follow on the heels of 2013’s Here Lies Love, Byrne and Timbers’s widely praised first collaboration at the Public, Joan misses the mark by a wide margin. Despite impressive vocals and dancing by the show’s young and athletic ensemble, this show suffers from meager, often banal book- and lyric-writing (also Byrne), unwittingly raising the question of just how important Saint Joan’s story is to our time.

In the lead, Jo Lampert is, naturally, the main attraction. Appearing early on in a muslin frock with long, Meredith Monk–style braids, she quickly jumps into a faux-hawk and head-to-toe leather gear to diva-belt Byrne’s unremarkable lyrics: “Take my dress and take my hair/Sword and fire be my prayer/I’m not a boy and I’m not a girl/The King of Heaven rules my world.” But Joan doesn’t know what to make of its protagonist’s radical butchness — what queer theorist Jack Halberstam calls “female masculinity” — and struggles to get off the ground from there.

For a famously tormented icon, Joan shows little internal struggle or uncertainty; in her campaign to oust the English occupiers from France, she wins support from her countrymen with no real resistance or dramatic conflict. “Have faith, be strong” is her earnest mantra, repeated throughout the evening, but her insights don’t get any deeper. It’s unclear what makes her so compelling to those around her — or what elevates her above mere fanaticism. Meanwhile, the show trudges from one power ballad to the next, and Joan goes to her pyrotechnic death crying familiar but decontextualized slogans like “It’s the fire next time” and “You can’t kill an idea.” What exactly the big idea is remains unclear.

Of course, the problem isn’t that the underlying story lacks political meaning; Brecht, for example, adapted it three separate times between 1930 and 1952. It’s rather that Byrne and Timbers (who have been working on this show since well before the election) want to keep emphasizing the supposed timeliness with gestures that are flatfooted and superficial, like the ham-fisted curtain quote. Persist, have faith, be strong — of course, but we also need to think in deeper, more careful and specific terms about the world. That, not showy proclamations, is how we mount a resistance that doesn’t end up in flames.

Joan of Arc: Into the Fire
Newman Theater
425 Lafayette Street
publictheater.org
Through April 30

 

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

Minor Theater’s Julia Jarcho on Fear, Gogol, and How to Make Theater Scary

Playwright and director Julia Jarcho’s The Terrifying — directed by the author and playing at Abrons Arts Center through April 2 — marks the debut production of her company, Minor Theater. The company brings together actors and designers who have collaborated on Jarcho’s past productions, like Ben Williams and Jenny Seastone, both of whom performed in 2013’s Grimly Handsome. That piece, which garnered an Obie award for Best New American Play, was a funny, creepy story of Christmas tree salesmen, hard-boiled cops, and red pandas, written in Jarcho’s characteristically idiosyncratic, richly imaginative dialogue. Obie-winning costume designer Ásta Bennie Hostetter, the company’s fourth member, designs The Terrifying, which also stars an ensemble cast including Jess Barbagallo and Pete Simpson. The play is a horror story, following the teenage inhabitants of a tiny village under the frightening sway of a monster, and meditating on the forces of destruction, literal and metaphorical. Jarcho’s intimate staging plays to small audiences, gathered onstage with the performers, and features live, immersive sound design by Williams. As the show’s run gets under way, Jarcho spoke with the Voice about horror, playwriting, and the launch of her new company.

Village Voice: Where did the idea for The Terrifying come from?

Julia Jarcho: It was a convergence of things. Ben Williams has acted in my shows, but he’s also this incredible sound designer, and I wanted to come up with a project that would be especially hospitable to an intense sound design. A lot of my plays have horror elements, but I am really interested in genre, and never having dealt with the genre of horror before, it seemed like a fun thing to try. Also, around this time, I was reading the introduction to Gogol’s The Government Inspector, and I came across a reference to his unfinished horror story. It was called “The Terrifying Boar” — and that sounded amazing.

The other important piece is that, a couple of years ago, I decided to start a company. So I was looking for a project that would present opportunities to engage with the designers in a thoroughgoing way. Allowing myself to write things belonging to a genre that really lives in cinema has made for a lot of conversation.

What’s so interesting to you about fear?

I could give two answers. There’s the better answer: I think we’re all really scared right now. We, as a society, and a subsociety — we, the producers and consumers of a certain stratum of culture — are experiencing fear as a bigger piece of the pie, emotionally. So one hypothesis is: Is it useful to bring fear into theater, because it’s a place where we hang out with each other? It’s also a place where we see individual agency. And then there’s a less interesting answer. For me, fear has always been a massive part of what it means to be alive. The interimbrication of fear and desire seems like a huge driver of the narratives of our lives.

Are those emotions — fear and desire — at the forefront of this play?

Anger is in the mix. It’s really a story about being a girl, and what it means to come of age, sexually, in a world that is premised on your being the object of predation. How can that become a resource for ingenuity, and for pleasure? We can’t pretend that the political and the erotic are ever separate, but how do you play with these elements, acknowledge that they always are in play, without just adding another charcoal brick to the big bonfire?

So should the audience be genuinely terrified?

I hope the audience is scared. Because one thing I like about horror is that it burns off some of that fear. I hope that the play is also funny, because I think theater has to always be funny — my theater does anyway. But it’s also a design challenge: How do you make theater be scary?

This is Minor Theater’s first premiere. Where did the company’s name come from?

I was thinking about this shift toward the epic that I was seeing in some downtown work — and that is not what I’m doing. I’m interested in what happens if you say: My aims are not limited, but they are shaped by the idea of being small, and sharp, and sneaky. Then there’s Deleuze, writing on minor literature: He says “to be as another in one’s own language,” and that feels really resonant to me. And of course, the minor key.

Is the company specifically interested in horror? What are your common artistic concerns?

We’re all perfectionists. We all really appreciate obsessing over details. We share a dark sensibility, a certain fundamental sense that things are messed up and that we align ourselves with a position of messed-upness. Another thing about horror that’s appealing is the way that it’s associated with weird teenage boys — that’s a demographic that I identify with, at least abstractly, because of that sense of being misshapen, and not knowing how to be with other people. That, for me, is a fundamental thing that theater offers to explore and to have fun with, because it’s all about being with other people.

The Terrifying
Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand Street
212-351-3101
Through April 2

 

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

In “Villa,” Guillermo Calderón Asks Whether Brutality Is Worth Remembering

Villa Grimaldi, on the outskirts of Santiago, Chile, is a quiet spot. There’s a rose garden, and a majestic view of the snow-capped Andes. But during the Pinochet regime, Grimaldi was the site of a notorious detention center, where Chilean secret police tortured, and sometimes killed, political prisoners. The legacy of that horror — how to remember it, whether to forget it — forms the subject of Villa, a smart, ironic drama written and directed by Guillermo Calderón, and produced in its English language premiere by The Play Company.

Calderón, one of Chile’s most celebrated playwrights, has created a body of intelligent, wryly funny work that probes Chilean life under and after the military dictatorship. New Yorkers might remember his dark comedies Escuela, Diciembre, and Neva, presented at the Public in recent years, all of which commented, directly or obliquely, on Chilean history while offering smart, humorous perspectives on collective action and national identity.

In the fictional events of the play, three young women (Crystal Finn, Vivia Font, and Harmony Stempel) form a special committee deputized to plan Villa Grimaldi’s future. Should the detention center be reconstructed precisely, down to the instruments of torture and the sickening smell? Or should it be rebuilt as a gleaming art museum, with installations indirectly recalling the site’s former identity? (The real Grimaldi, which closed in 1978, has been open as a memorial since the mid-Nineties; its design combines partial reconstructions and mismatched monuments.) The committee casts ballot after ballot, hoping for a majority, but someone keeps sabotaging the vote with a write-in — Marichiweu, a rallying cry of the indigenous Mapuche in their struggle for rights and recognition, a movement that emerged forcefully in the years after Pinochet’s fall. The rogue vote is a wrench in the works, a suggestion that, in a country where regime officials went largely unpunished, sanctioned memorializing amounts to capitulation.

Huddled around a scale model of the villa, the women advocate possible plans, their impassioned proposals growing surreal and dystopian. Perhaps the buildings should be demolished in favor of a beautiful field, where visitors could pleasantly picnic while imagining the site’s legacy of torture. Perhaps the hypothetical museum could house a live German shepherd as testament to the detention center’s guard dogs, which at least one prisoner alleged were used as torture devices. Adding a tinge of farce to the proceedings, the committee members take turns visiting the bathroom and gossiping savagely about each colleague in her absence.

This combination — gruesome humor paired with deep insight — is what Calderón does best. The women’s hypothetical visions raise unanswerable questions about whether trauma can ever be responsibly remembered, or really forgotten. They forge reality and fantasy into theatrical richness — a deeper kind than the play’s ultimate moment of truth, when we learn why these particular women were chosen for such a momentous task.

But just when Villa veers toward the literal, metaphor reappears. The set begins to shake, water glasses tumble and smash, and the women back, terrified, toward the walls. It’s an earthquake. But it’s also an image for the larger, uncontrollable forces at stake in confronting collective trauma: for the emotions and memories that can’t be captured by monuments or plaques, and that still have the power to shake walls.

Villa
The Wild Project
195 East 3rd Street
212-228-1195
Through April 1

 

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

You’re the Worst’s Aya Cash Takes On “The Light Years”

The actress Aya Cash arrived recently at a midtown theater styled like an on-trend street urchin: light gray felt hat, dark gray wool coat. Perched on a sofa, green juice in hand, she joked about her ill-advised tattoo (“in the Nineties place”) and the deep unhipness of her Subaru. But when it comes to theater, Cash doesn’t kid around.

“Theater is like my spiritual practice,” she said, almost apologetically. “It’s my temple. It’s my sangha. Whatever it is.”

This is sober stuff for a woman with a wild and relentless approach to comedy, from her breakout role as Kalina, the Slavic cosmetologist in Bruce Norris’s play The Pain and the Itch, to her current berth on FXX’s You’re the Worst as Gretchen, a self-absorbed publicist who once made the words “theater girl” sound like a shattering insult.

Yet Cash is a theater girl, a devoted one, and she’s choosing to spend her months off from You’re the Worst in The Light Years, a new play from the Debate Society that opens next week at Playwrights Horizons. Set in Chicago, the experimental drama straddles two periods and two world’s fairs, one in 1893, one in 1933. Cash plays two roles: Adeline, a frolicsome woman married to a genius electrician, and Ruth, a young mother trying to support her jingle-writing husband forty years later. Their stories are stealthily connected.

The piece is perhaps the most ambitious that the Debate Society, a devised-theater group known for its playfully literary work, has ever undertaken, and it’s the first not to star its authors, Paul Thureen and Hannah Bos. Enter Cash.

She first saw the Debate Society in 2010, in the detective story and racquetball duel Buddy Cop 2, which she attended at the request of her actor friend Michael Cyril Creighton. She thought it would be terrible. Instead, she was smitten with the company and its deadpan approach to genre tales. “I sort of became obsessed with them,” Cash said.

So when the Debate Society told her about The Light Years and mentioned it would be produced by Playwrights Horizons, the theater that launched her, “there was just no way I could say no.”

Then she read the script. She often gets hired to play women like Gretchen, “with a high level of snark and sarcasm, really damaged people,” she said. Yet Adeline and Ruth are, she thinks, snark-averse, so “full of hope and light.”

“Whoops,” she said. “Casting mistake.”

Cash grew up in San Francisco, the daughter of a writer mother and a father who once did street theater and is now a Buddhist priest. She fell into acting, hard, studying theater at the University of Minnesota and then waitressing for years in New York.

She was still taking orders at the Cowgirl during the run of The Pain and the Itch. She didn’t have a lead role, but she click-clacked away with most of the reviews and was eventually able to quit her day job.

Norris, who wrote Pain, remembers both her practicality (“she seems to look at the challenge of being an actor entirely unromantically”) and her “indomitable intelligence and fearlessness. She’s like a terrier, completely unintimidated by anyone,” he said.

More plays followed, in New York and at regional theaters. Some film and TV, too. It was a life and more or less a living. And then, a few years ago, the writer Stephen Falk was looking for a female lead for You’re the Worst, a romantic comedy he’d created, designed to feel “more real and more honest and less glossy,” he said. He wanted Cash, whom he considered poised and beautiful but also “kind of a little down and dirty.” The studio wanted someone “a little sweeter, a little less dangerous.” Falk triumphed, and Cash’s Gretchen wears her damage like a statement necklace.

But in her day-to-day life, Cash isn’t much like the sharp-tongued, borderline alcoholic Gretchen. She lives quietly with her husband, a documentary filmmaker, and their dog. She barely drinks. She reads a lot. But she’s sterner and saltier than her buoyant Light Years characters. She exists, she thinks, “yeah, definitely in between.”

It’s that clash of hard edge and kind heart that makes her so captivating to watch. Bos, who’d written the parts of Adeline and Ruth for herself but was forced to drop out due to family commitments, thought immediately of Cash for her replacement. “She’s really strong as a person and onstage,” Bos said. “And I really like her.”

Cash is still feeling her way into the twin parts. She’s balancing the practicalities of playing two roles — finding a distinctive walk and voice and gestural vocabulary for each — with something a little more mystical. So far, it seems to be working. “She sparkles,” the director of The Light Years, Oliver Butler, wrote in an email. (And no, he doesn’t see casting her as a mistake.) “She is deeply humble and also radiant.”

During previews, Cash had a couple of nights that didn’t go so well, “like you show up and God doesn’t talk to you and it’s so horrible,” she said. But on other nights, “something just flows through you,” she said. “You actually can do no wrong because you’re just there and it’s right.”

Her Light Years characters are in keeping with a resolution she made last year. After the November elections, and given what she feels they revealed about attitudes toward women, Cash decided she would “no longer play someone who’s there to get fucked or there to be desired without any sort of real story of her own.”

She goes back and forth on how much acting matters at this political moment. “Like, sometimes it doesn’t feel like it makes sense,” she said. But she’s come to believe “that art is the gateway to empathy, and I just think that’s really important right now.”

So important that she jokes about getting “Empathy Whore” as another tattoo. Chances are, she’d make it look great.

 

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

Sally Field’s “Glass Menagerie” Remains Unbreakable, While the Electric “Light Years” Proves Unfathomable

To most people, the word “poetry” means something not of this world — fanciful, verbally elaborate, too ornate or delicate to thrive in our everyday reality. But an alternative notion of poetry — one that many poets and poetry lovers prefer — holds that a poem derives its power from the force of its simplicity, with words and details drawn from the hard specifics of ordinary life. One concept frees poetry from reality; the other affirms its place there. The two are less alternatives than the elements of a dialectic: most poets traffic in both; the greatest have managed to fuse the two into a paradoxical unity.

Tennessee Williams, who relished both kinds of poetry, often strove to draw a sharp line between them. For him, reality was sordid and cruel — it needed to be covered with the escapism of pure fancy, like the naked light bulb that Blanche DuBois covers with a paper lantern in A Streetcar Named Desire. The confrontation between the two concepts — the moment when Mitch rips the lantern off the bulb to get a good look at Blanche — is the central battle in Williams’s dramatic vision. In The Glass Menagerie (1944), he puts a double spin on it: Tom’s failure to pay the light bill — because he has secretly used the money to pay his union dues in the Merchant Marine — enables Laura and her Gentleman Caller to unburden themselves to each other by candlelight. Sordid reality and its tragic deceits pave the way for a momentary, quasi-romantic escape.

Some are complaining that Sam Gold’s new production of The Glass Menagerie, at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre, has somehow robbed Williams’s most familiar play of its poetry. Maybe that’s true if you equate poetry exclusively with the magical and moonlit side of life. But for me, and apparently many others, The Glass Menagerie‘s poetic strength lies in its realistic harshness and pain — the poetry of Amanda’s relentless “Rise and shine!” every morning, and of Tom’s equally relentless lies about going to the movies every night. The fantasies he embroiders on these untruths to amuse Laura may be dressed up to look like poetry, but they charm her, and us, because we know they’re fake. Despite Tom’s claim that “the play is memory” and therefore “sentimental,” these memories hurt him, and through him, us. The play’s poetry lies in its harsh, tormenting facts. Odd that so many theatergoers have come to regard it as some sort of delicate daydream.

Gold’s production, stark and stripped nearly bare of decor, sets the hard-fact tone from the start, as the actors come onstage from the auditorium, with house lights still up. When Joe Mantello’s Tom tells you he has things up his sleeve, you know it’s a fib: He’s wearing a short-sleeved T-shirt. Gold makes the challenge of squeezing poetry from this cold-eyed context one degree harder on himself by casting as Laura Madison Ferris, a young actress with muscular dystrophy. No gentleman caller could pretend that this Laura’s leg impairment was barely noticeable: She gets about in a wheelchair, out of which she has to be helped.

The casting is one of Gold’s two questionable choices — not because of any artistic limitations on Ferris’s part, but because her situation in effect rewrites Williams’s conception of Laura. That she and Gold have worked out an interpretation of the role that also seems to conflict with the text — a staunch, stubbornly sullen Laura in place of the script’s tremulous neurasthenic — throws the drama’s balance off kilter, and also seems to give Finn Wittrock’s Gentleman Caller an extra shot of overstated jitters. Gold’s other distracting directorial choice is an elaborate rain effect, splashing the stage and dampening Laura’s dress — an intrusive directorial metaphor in a production otherwise valuable precisely because it eschews fancy-dress metaphors.

Gold has also been assailed — unfairly, I think — for allowing costume designer Wojciech Dziedzic to put Sally Field’s Amanda in the garish pink cotillion gown of the dinner scene. But this glaringly “wrong” choice fits perfectly among the excessive, delusion-building choices Amanda makes in preparing for the Gentleman Caller’s arrival. It underlines a neglected aspect of the work: Amanda, too often oversimplified into a monomaniac nonstop talker trying to push her children toward success, is as much a divided soul as her offspring. The dinner party becomes her imagined reward for years of desperate drudging. Field’s Amanda, curt, careworn, and heartsick at her youngsters’ failings, lights up in these later scenes with an eerie inner electricity; the arc of her transformation is this flawed but fascinating production’s sturdy spine.

Electricity is the essence, too, of The Light Years by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, directed by Oliver Butler, at Playwrights Horizons. But these three founders of the Debate Society theater collective have, unlike Gold, put their faith in elaborate effects, both visual and dramaturgic, rather than in the inner light that sustains characters through a narrative. Jumping off from an obscure footnote to American theater history — the actor-impresario Steele MacKaye’s failed attempt to build a giant “Spectatorium” for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago — Bos and Thureen tell two criss-crossing stories. The first narrates the tragedy of MacKaye’s devoted chief electrician (Erik Lochtefeld) and his impulsive young wife (Aya Cash). The second, set in their former apartment forty years later, during the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition, deals with an aspiring composer of ad jingles (Ken Barnett), his ultra-patient wife (Cash again), and their gifted son (Graydon Peter Yosowitz).

Framed in voice-over narration by MacKaye (an amusingly ornate Rocco Sisto), the two intercut stories seem to fade in and out, rather than gaining momentum or strength from each other. Laden with explanations of historical tidbits that are hard to care about, both stories also contain glitchy, arbitrary turns that keep distancing the characters from us. Likewise, neither seems particularly connected to MacKaye’s foolhardy, grandiose scheme for a gigantic sound-and-light pageant celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage. Full of visual beauty, intelligent writing and fine acting — add two extra cheers for Barnett’s and Yosowitz’s excellent piano playing — The Light Years nonetheless seems to orbit farther away from our grasp with each new scene.

The Glass Menagerie
Belasco Theatre
111 West 44th Street
212-239-6200
Through July 2

The Light Years
Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street
212-564-1235
Through April 2

 

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

“Demerara Gold” Is A Black Feminist Caribbean Play You Need To See

Actress Ingrid Griffith wrote Demerara Gold, her one-woman play as an autobiographical account of immigrating from Guyana to the United States, while dealing with growing pains and domestic violence at home. Griffith herself stars as eighteen characters, ranging from an excitable 7-year-old to a rigid schoolmarm grandmother.

Griffith, who has recently earned praise for her role in Tina Andrew’s Buckingham, says Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun partly inspired her to write her story. “I was playing the role of Ruth in a production when I thought, I should write my story, the Caribbean immigrant’s coming-to-America story,” Griffith told the Voice. “My parents’ dream of moving our family to the U.S. for a better life and the aspirations of the Younger family were similar.”

The stark set consists of one chair, a screen, and speakers that blast everything from calypso drums to Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” at emotionally resonant moments. “I love music,” she laughed after one performance. Right before, she had whipped out a selfie stick to take a picture with the audience. That kind of warmth translates to the stage.

This coming-of-age story melds wit with drama, producing inescapably funny, quirky moments. The play opens with Griffith’s parents leaving for America, where they plan to save up for visas for her and her sister. It will be 5 years before Griffith gets to see her parents in America. But in the mean time she’s sent to live with Ada, her strict grandmother, whose lessons will be familiar to any woman from the Caribbean.

A typical talking to, delivered in a raspy patois: “1. Boys are dirty. 2. Boys are trouble. 3. Boys will get you pregnant. 4. Stay away from boys.” The lessons prove resonant later in a delightfully acrobatic and hallucinogenic scene involving a romp in the backseat of a car.

Griffith’s frank portrayal of a young girl coming to terms with her sexuality — and the brutality of men — is especially timely during Women’s History Month. “I was born a feminist,” she explains, “I’m glad that I’m of this era when you’re not burned at the stakes for being a girl and woman who will not be dominated…In Guyana, I was called ‘own way.’ ”

Domestic violence is a specter that haunts Griffith’s time in America. It follows her to school and back, culminating in a terrifying showdown between father and daughter. “I bring it up in my show to help our community begin to understand that, although domestic violence might seem normal, it is not healthy and we are ones to break the cycle,” she explained.

Griffith began performing Demerara Gold in 2014 and has since traveled to Guyana and the UK to stage the play for international audiences. She’s partnered with Braata Productions, an organization dedicated to showcasing Caribbean culture, to perform the show at New Perspective Theater this weekend.

Though she promotes the visibility of Caribbean narratives, Griffith refuses to be pigeonholed. When I suggested immigrants might relate more to her play than Americans, she was quick to correct me: “The immigrant experience, I believe, is common to most Americans.”

The heart, humor, and poignancy Griffith delivers her play with will prove her right.

Demerara Gold
By Ingrid Griffith
New Perspectives Theater
456 West 37th Street
Through March 12

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

LCT3’s Tale of Love, Education, and Suffrage Is Insufficiently Radical

With rights of every kind under assault in America, one can imagine welcoming a consoling glimpse at the age of feisty suffragettes. Bull in a China Shop, a new play by Bryna Turner and directed by Lee Sunday Evans at LCT3, could have provided that refreshing history lesson: It’s based on the decades-long correspondence between Mary Woolley and Jeanette Marks, early feminists, lesbians, and educational reformers at the turn of the twentieth century.

Unfortunately, Turner’s text doesn’t quite succeed in locating the dramatic potential in this epistolary romance. The play follows the couple over nearly forty years, beginning when Woolley (Enid Graham) is appointed president of a women’s college in Holyoke, Massachusetts, and asks her lover, Marks (Ruibo Qian), to join her there. Woolley plans on implementing radical curricular change, teaching young women to be freethinking intellectuals instead of well-behaved wives. Marks, a writer, hopes the Western Massachusetts woods will prove an inspiring retreat. Once at school, however, the pair find themselves under attack from both conservatives and progressives. Deans and trustees question Woolley’s forward-thinking policies, while faculty radicals, Marks included, find Woolley too slow to endorse women’s suffrage. Public pressure and private disagreements strain the romantic relationship, too.

Although Turner informs us that these women led surprising, exciting lives — Woolley travels to China in 1921 and serves as the only American female delegate to the 1932 World Disarmament Conference — we rarely glimpse these adventures. Instead, likely as a result of the text’s origins in written correspondence, we’re treated to lengthy monologues and repetitive dialogues parsing events that have already happened. A plot like this might still be theatrically compelling with a believable romance at its center, but onstage, it’s tough to buy the idea that Graham and Qian share more than a halfhearted interest in each other’s lives — or in tearing off each other’s frilly bloomers.

Throughout, Turner updates the play’s language, peppering it with curses and 21st-century teen lingo (or an adult’s shaky idea of the latter). A particularly presumptuous pupil (Michele Selene Ang) founds a secret student club dedicated to obsessively following the women’s relationship, and gushes to Marks about it in modern fangirl-speak. These textual embellishments, without an emotional core to build on, are little more than cute.

Woolley, on several occasions, compares her own public persona to the titular bull: smashing conventions and incurring collateral damage along the way. Watching Turner’s play, one might wish she’d taken a page from Woolley’s book and been a little bolder herself.

Bull in a China Shop
By Bryna Turner
Claire Tow Theater
150 West 65th Street
Through March 26

 

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

Joys Great and Small: A Spectacular ‘Skin of Our Teeth’ and Will Eno’s Tiny ‘Wakey Wakey’

Good news can come in any size; this week the theater gave me two specimens starkly contrasted in scale. To take the smaller one first: Will Eno’s Wakey Wakey, at the Signature, consists mostly of a guy named Guy (Michael Emerson), sitting in a wheelchair, which he apparently doesn’t need, chatting desultorily about life. Or sometimes chatting about his awareness that he’s chatting and we’re listening. Occasionally he clicks a remote, causing images to appear on a big screen above and to his right. Late in the 75-minute piece, a woman named Lisa (January LaVoy) joins him for some equally desultory, disconnected dialogue. At the end there’s a big cascade
of light-show effects, with bubbles and balloons; as you exit, you’re offered
fortune cookies, coffee cake, and figs.

It all sounds absurdly trivial and random, which is part of writer-director Eno’s intention. Many fears drive his boundless ambivalence about making theater: He doesn’t want to impose on us, to engage in fakery or emotional
manipulation. He’s anxious to keep us entertained while simultaneously tackling big, somber matters: Death, barely mentioned but constantly adumbrated, is Wakey Wakey‘s actual subject. And defiance is the flip side of Eno’s diffidence. He knows that his approach, resolutely shirking conventional expectations, will infuriate some theatergoers. His previous works in this gnomic vein (Thom Pain, Title and Deed) left me uninfuriated but also unenthusiastic. But Wakey Wakey‘s sharp writing, heightened by the easygoing asperity of Emerson’s
performance, stirs deeper feelings. Granted, the truth it conveys is small, rarefied, and overly hedged with decorative distractions. Even so, it’s genuine.

Onward to bigger things. Thornton Wilder wrote The Skin of Our Teeth in 1942, when the world was a living hell and no one knew whether it would survive. Well, welcome to 2017. Our living hell is a more comfortably cushioned one, but this time around the worry over its survival stings more harshly, since the lunatic sits in the White House instead of the Reichskanzlei. Wilder, suddenly, has become a prophet again, searching for values that make humanity worth saving, in a world constantly on the verge of being destroyed either by pitiless nature or by human rage, selfishness, and folly.

An Absurdist joke, cheerfully cartooned over this abyss of terrors, Wilder’s comedy recounts three crises in the cozy suburban life of George and Maggie Antrobus (David Rasche and Kecia Lewis),
of Excelsior, New Jersey, and their kids Gladys (Kimber Monroe) and Henry (Reynaldo Piniella). Such nice people, you’d think, except that their older son, Abel, has mysteriously vanished, and when Henry’s hair is brushed back, his forehead displays a large red scar in the shape of a c. (The Antrobuses, who’ve been married at least five thousand years, used to be named Adam and Eva.) And then there’s
Sabina (Mary Wiseman),
the languidly self-centered,
perpetually pessimistic parlormaid whom Mr. Antrobus “raped home from [the]
Sabine hills” on a long-ago day that
Mrs. Antrobus would like to forget, just
as she’d like to forget that her precious Henry was once named Cain.

So your usual sitcom family this is not. For Wilder, the stereotypical American home seethes with Jungian undercurrents, mythic recollections of millennia past, always heaving upward to wreck its suburban coziness. First the Antrobus clan has to survive the Ice Age, taking in a crowd of refugees who include Moses, Homer, and the nine Muses. Next, when the “Ancient Order of Mammals” convenes in Atlantic City, the family’s forced to escape the Flood by clambering onto a convenient boat, taking along two of
every kind of beast. Finally they survive
a great war, which is somewhat trickier because Antrobus’s chief enemy, as you might have guessed, turns out to be Henry. Weary and battle-scarred, the family patches up a provisional peace
and moves on, guided by fragmentary recollections of the great philosophers and the music of the cosmos.

Dense-packed with ideas and allusions beneath its vaudevillian surface, Wilder’s text demands a directorial one-two punch — a joyous spirit that can sustain the superficial brightness while keeping a firm grasp on its dark underpinnings. Arin Arbus’s production, at Brooklyn’s Theatre for a New Audience, gets more of both than I’ve experienced in any previous staging. Wiseman’s Sabina, veering frenetically from saucy smirk to panicked scream, takes ferocious charge of the fun department. Lewis and Rasche, an enchantingly improbable couple,
apply a deep, grounded acting power that makes the play’s somber side hit home through all the giddy clutter and clamor. These are two definitive performances, bolstered by subsidiary delights like Monroe’s sweetly offhand Gladys, César Alvarez’s vivid music, and Riccardo Hernandez’s flamboyantly changeable set.

Arbus sometimes wavers, for instance letting the noisy revelers steal focus from Mary Lou Rosato’s turn as the flood-predicting Fortune Teller. Lighting
designer Marcus Doshi’s resolutely gray postwar twilight diminishes the all-important climactic fight between Henry and his father. But these minor flaws shrink in the larger context: A big, important American play has been reawakened for a historical moment that desperately needs it. Complainers say that the implied values within Wilder’s structure are dated: the relegation of women to the maternal homemaker versus mistress/muse dichotomy, the notion of war as
Oedipal rivalry. But these aren’t Wilder’s concepts — they’re the ones he sees
humanity recapitulating blindly. How
we escape from them and move on is
the big, aching question he leaves unanswered.

Meantime, almost every second line in Skin of Our Teeth resonates for us, stuck in today’s impending disaster. A sample quote, from Antrobus’s final confrontation with Henry: “I shall continue fighting you until my last breath, as long as you mix up your idea of liberty with your idea of hogging everything for yourself.” Sending that sentiment, on a postcard, to every Republican congressman might prove a useful action.

Wakey Wakey
Signature Theatre
480 West 42nd Street
212-244-7529
Through March 26

The Skin of Our Teeth
Theatre for a New Audience
262 Ashland Place, Brooklyn
866-811-4111
Through March 19

 

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

Stellar ‘Dolphins and Sharks’ Pits the Powerless Against One Other

America has always pitted the powerless against one another, forcing the economically disadvantaged to compete for scarce resources while those on top remain there. James Anthony Tyler’s smart new play, Dolphins and Sharks, produced by Labyrinth Theater Company and expertly directed by Charlotte Brathwaite, stages this tragic dynamic in microcosm: a Harlem copy shop becomes the crucible for surging tensions over race, class, and economic opportunity, offering humane insight into historical forces of vast proportions.

Yusuf (Chinaza Uche) is fresh out of college and working his first real job: customer service at Harlem Office, a far cry from his NYU philosophy classes. He can’t resist dropping the odd reference to Rousseau, or to his ambitions for a Ph.D. — to the irritation of copy shop veterans Xiomara (Flor De Liz Perez) and Isabel (Pernell Walker). For them, Harlem Office is a livelihood, not a way station en route to fancier things. When a management position opens up, deeper tensions emerge: Isabel, who has seniority, doesn’t apply, but Xiomara does, soon finding herself uncomfortably enforcing the profit-driven policies of the store’s offstage white owner.

Under the pressure of this new power hierarchy, the initially boisterous camaraderie among the employees curdles, and racial rifts surface. There’s mutual prejudice between Yusuf, raised in New York by Nigerian parents, and Isabel, a black American. Then, too, Isabel believes Xiomara’s been promoted because she’s Dominican (Isabel, it turns out, has been turned down for manager many times), and Xiomara rankles at Isabel’s casual Latina slurs. All of this unfolds against the backdrop of a gentrifying Harlem, where historically black institutions are under threat and the racial and economic landscape is shifting fast.

Meanwhile, surreal theatrical flourishes remind us of deeper histories still. At the beginning of each act, the company performs the choreographed gestures of a chain gang; music plays, and the shop’s TV screens display images from America’s racial past — slavery, sharecropping, segregation. The copy machines themselves occasionally go haywire mid-scene, erupting in unsettling displays of bright light and staticky sound, as if to remind us that the advance of technology, too, will threaten the jobs and lives at stake.

Dolphins and Sharks owes much of its power to Brathwaite’s stellar production. The ensemble cast is excellent, imbuing their characters with sympathetic detail. The powerhouse design team turns Harlem Office into a richly embodied world, with Marsha Ginsberg’s hyper-realistic set placing us in a deeply recognizable run-down retail space complete with fluorescent light, shabby reddish carpet, and bags of Styrofoam peanuts. Andrew Schneider’s sophisticated video design adds allusive imagery and tracks Harlem Office’s evolving visual brand as the store acquires an increasingly “professional” identity.

The production’s strength lends the play a sophistication it might otherwise sometimes lack. Tyler’s writing is packed with thoughtfully observed psychology, but becomes structurally repetitive in the second act, as screaming matches pile up. Even so, these cyclical arguments bear their own kind of message: Historical inequalities perpetuate themselves through repetition, as the workers lob well-aimed barbs at each other, leaving the unseen owner offstage and unscathed.

Dolphins and Sharks
By James Anthony Tyler
Bank Street Theater
155 Bank Street
Through March 19