Reviews Off Broadway / Whats On Off Broadway

Off Broadway (and sometimes Broadway) Reviews and Information.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

A Deal Comes Away with Laughs, But No Easy Answers


The world premiere of A Deal at Urban Stages occurs just as the play is staged also being staged in China and one can’t help but wonder what lessons the Chinese audience will take away. A Deal depends on looking at stereotypes and assumptions with fresh eyes. That is a tough, but valuable, thing to ask audiences to do.
The funny comedy is deceptively simple. Wei-Yin Lin plays Li Su, a Chinese national who has just recently graduated from Colombia’s Master of Fine Arts program. Her parents, only known as Mr. and Mrs. Li, are played by Alan Ariano and Lydia Gaston. Mr. Li is a relatively high-ranking member of the Communist Party and he has put away some money to buy an apartment in New York for his daughter. He and his wife come to New York to buy an apartment and surprise their daughter. Mrs. Li has found memories of the stage when she was a younger woman and sympathizes with her daughter's dreams. They play then follows the child and her parents on concurrent paths.
Lydia Gaston, Wei-Yi Lin and Alan Ariano in A Deal
Li Su gets to opportunity to play the lead role in an off-Broadway play about a tragic abandoned Chinese girl and the system she struggles to grow up in. In order to sell herself to the producers, she convinces the backers and show-goers that she herself is an orphan, a product of the very system they are exposing. It is a poorly sold tale, but one the American backers are happy to exploit. This leads not just to Li Su getting the part, but to  television appearances, panel discussions and relative fame. Her parents, who don’t understand English, are none the wiser.
Mr. and Mrs. Li, after being cheated out of a down payment in Shanghai, engage the services of Peter (Pun Bandhu) an old flame and acting partner of Mrs. Li, to help them find an apartment in New York. Peter left China years ago, and is now a real estate agent in New York. Their interaction revolves around trying to get them settled in the city and Peter’s devotion to Mrs. Li. Mr. Li is annoyed at the country, the city, his wife’s ex-partner and the lack of order that China provides. He also cannot understand the idea of “becoming” an American. The pull of understood versus unexpected and stability versus opportunity is amplified by the undercurrent of Peter’s affection for Mrs. Li and the conflict that creates with Mr. Li.
A Deal looks at the dichotomy of choices and outcomes between the old and the new. Not just defined as old equals China, but generation versus generation. The China which Peter left isn’t the China that Mr. and Mrs. Li live in now. Their stereotypes of America are reinforced, just American’s expectations of China are self-reinforcing. Playwright Zhu Yi does a great job of exploiting these assumptions for laughs, but still leaving enough steel underneath the laughs to make us question our assumptions.
Helen Coxe and Seth Moore pick up multiple roles in the show, and their great acting – as with the entire troupe, is critical for making the show work so well.
It is a very good play, and Zhu Yi will do great things. That said, there are some rough edges that will hit viewer. A Deal is made up of a series vignettes, and there are a lot of them for such a short show. Occasionally this makes the show a little choppy. Director John Giampietro does a great job of making them seamless, but there are still a lot of changes. The longer scenes just pack a deeper punch.
A Deal | Playwright: Zhu Yi | Director: John Giampietro | Cast: Alan Ariano, Pun Bandhu, Helen Coxe, Lydia Gaston, Wei-Yi Lin, Seth Moore | website

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Meteor Shower is Comedic Comet – Luminous and Lovely, then Over


Meteor Shower is hilarious. It is one of the funniest shows I have seen on Broadway and one that fully utilizes the medium. It isn’t a transfer or remake or reimaginering of some other piece. It is a wholly unique show.
Writer Steve Martin has produced sympathetic roles that are stereotypical, somehow both over the top and completely believable. Director Jerry Zaks has let this perfect cast loose on these roles, letting them play broad without dissolving into farce.
Amy Schumer and Jeremy Shamos play married couple Corky and Norm, a married couple from Ojai (a small spa town in the foothills of the California Coast). Corky and Norm are aggressively normal, neurotic South Californians, complete with moments of confessional discussions of marital and personal aggressions. They even start the evening with a pre-wine, you know, the wine before the guests arrive - so it doesn’t count. They both play the “straight man” to the high wire act of craziness provided by Keegan-Michael Key and Laura Benanti.
Keegan-Michael Key, Jeremy Shamos, Amy Schumber & Laura Benanti (photo: Michael Murphy)
Key and Benanti play Gerald and Laura, the supersaturated ids of competitive marriage. Gerald and Laura have been invited up to Ojai to watch a coming meteor shower, the darkness in the country more conducive than the city lights of Santa Barbara. They arrive with mayhem on their minds. There is pure joy watching Keegan-Michael Key pontificate on the relationship of the cosmos to his own self-worth. You are swept up in the pure, uncomfortable oddness of the moment.
Meteor Shower provides a bountiful accounting of how far very normal and nice people are willing to go to accommodate the unexpected. Then, after the first third or so, the play tilts your expectations and reruns some of the previous interaction from a slightly different angle, with slightly different results. The replay signals that the audience is in for an multilayered experience rather than a singular narrative.
Gerald and Laura enter again, with more exposition, but different results. The confusion of both Corky and Norm is now reflected by the audience. Here the play spins off into ever more dubious realities, which Schumer and Shamos struggle to cope with. The audience has no problem following, because each moment is funnier than the last.
Go see Meteor Shower to watch fantastic comedic acting. Amy Schumer is simply hilarious as Corky, but is matched by the cast. Everyone involved seems to bring out the best in each other. The laughs will stay with you a long time, the memory of the show might not.
Meteor Shower | Playwright: Steve Martin | Director: Jerry Zacks | Cast: Laura Benanti, Keegan-Michael Key, Amy Schumer, Jeremy Shamos | website

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Life On The Road As Therapy

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The Mad Ones, now on-stage at 59 E 59 Theaters, is a musical of both youthful exuberance and heartbreak. In a very non-New York centric way, it uses the analogy of cars and the road for freedom. For most of America, it is an obvious metaphor.  The title itself refers to the characters from Jack Kerouac’s novel, On The RoadThe Mad Ones are the freewheeling group that speaks to our heroine.
L-R: Emma Hunton (as Kelly) and Krystina Alabado (as Samantha Brown) in Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk’s THE MAD ONES at 59E59 Theaters. Photo by Richard Termine
Samantha (Krystina Alabado) is a teenager on the cusp of adulthood, and all the emotional baggage that entails. She longs to be crazy and free - in general terms like the characters in Kerouac’s novel and, in specific, like her friend Kelly (Emma Hunton). She and Kelly have taken road trips, stayed out late talking through the night, and planned to chuck it all and just drive away. Kelly was Samantha’s best friend and instigator. But Kelly was killed right before graduation, and Samantha has been frozen since.
Samantha’s mother, Beverly (Leah Hocking), is a dynamic professor, brilliant woman and overly protective single mother. She wants Samantha, High School Valedictorian, to attend an Ivy League school and become a success. Samantha is pulled between the future her mother wants and the future her friend Kelly offers. Thrown into the mix is her unobtrusive and supportive, if a bit dim, boyfriend Adam (Jay Armstrong Johnson). Adam is just “there” for Samantha, the sweet boy without an agenda, unloved both Kelly and her mother.
These competing forces converge one night as Samantha is about to drive away from home, maybe to college, maybe just drive away. She sits caught between the competing visions of her future. The Mad Ones is a musical set against these competing visions, and the cast has the pipes to carry the show beautifully. Each actor has at least one moment in song that is touching, but the stars of this show are Krystina Alabado and Emma Hunton. Their voices are wonderful and their scenes together are a joy.
But this combination is also key to the drawback of The Mad Ones. Together, Kelly drives Sam into action. However, when alone, Samantha is a passive character. True, she longs for something, that something is frustratingly undefined. Samantha is a reactive creature: reacting to her friend, her mother or her boyfriend in turn. When alone, her youthful confusion has a tendency to turn into whining.
Most of the songs (Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk) are very good: catchy and fun or serious and soulful. There is an overreliance on the metaphor of a car as freedom, which grinds after a while. The sparse direction of Stephen Brackett is perfect for the space here. It is a spare story in a spare space and he allows the actors to fill it with pathos and song. The Mad Ones may not make you wish for a road trip, but you definitely want the best for our little Sam, all grown up now.
The Mad Ones | Book, Lyrics & Music: Kait Kerrigan, Brian Lowdermilk | Director: Stephen Brackett | Cast: Krystina Alabado, Leah Hocking, Emma Hunton, Jay Armstrong Johnson | Website
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Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Off Broadway News Nov 15, 2017

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The Drama League has revamped and expanded their “DirectorFest” festival. https://www.directorfest.org/ Taken place from January 13 – 22nd, it will showcase the new directors that have been working with the Drama League for the past year. In its 34th year, the festival will include five fully-staged productions, a showcase evening of new musicals, staged readings, discussion panels, books signings, workshops and conversations with America’s most notable directors.
Taking place over two weeks in venues across Manhattan, highlights of the festival include rarely-seen plays by David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly), Enda Walsh (Once: The Musical), new works by Gabrielle Reisman, Alejandro RicaƱo and more, all directed by the 2017 Drama League Directors Project Fellows: Laura Brandel, Bonnie Gabel, Matt Dickson, Flordelino Lagundino, and Rebecca Martinez.  Chosen last spring from over 330 applicants nationwide, these five visionary emerging directors recently completed their year of mentorship, assistantships, training and career development as part of The Drama League Directors Project.

Interesting Small Work “Foreign and Domestic” to play LES Nov 17 – 19
This looks interesting:
"Foreign & Domestic" is a 20-minute play that follows Lucy, an Argentinian immigrant living in NYC, who is forced to introduce her new boyfriend, all-American Jake to her closest friends - all of whom happen to be aliens.
Power play, immigration talk and war of the accents ensue!
There are FIVE consecutive shows each night, starting at 8pm. Tickets are $5 and are sold at the door (cash only). Please make sure to get there with enough time since the space only allows FIFTEEN audience members for each show.”
David Hyde Pierce Headlines a Benefit Reading of A Christmas Carol
David Hyde Pierce is doing a benefit reading of a Christmas Carol on Dec 11th.  There is some amazing talent with him: John Glover, Harriet Harris, Edward Hibbert, Julie White, Kathryn Meisle, Brian Reddy, Richard Topol and the Brooklyn Boys Choir. It is a benefit for The Acting Company.

Sam Underwood Reprises Losing Days



Sam Underwood, a favorite from stage and television, will be at 54 Below on Monday Dec 4th in Losing Days. Losing Days is a one man musical theater piece Mr. Underwood performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It gives New York audiences a chance to see this well received show and another chance to hear Mr. Underwood's voice - always welcome.
The show at 54 Below has been updated to include “The Boxroom Larrys”. And, part of the proceeds will go to a mental health organization.  See it if you can.
 link

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Romance Doesn’t Fit in a Trapezoid


The idea behind Romantic Trapezoid is interesting - it is an updated take on a 1930s sex comedy, complete with gender role reversal. The lead male character, Dave, teaches film, so the call backs make sense. Unfortunately the show never takes off.
The trapezoid is thus: Melissa (Elizabeth Inghram) is a sexy confident writer who enjoys the company of Dave, three nights a week, and other men other times. Dave (Zack Calhoon) is a love-struck mensch who wants to marry and settle down with Melissa. He has the Miriam Hopkins role here, hopelessly in love with Melissa and unable to force the her into marriage. Beth is the final part of the Trapezoid (all the other men are in one corner). Beth (Joy Donze) is Dave’s graduate assistant, who states she wants to marry Dave so Melissa better decide to take him or leave him. It isn’t clear if Beth is actually in love with Dave or if this is a ruse of Dave’s to force Melissa’s hand. You see, Melissa has the Clark Gable role here: handsome, suave and sure of herself and her sex appeal.  But just like poor dumb Clark Gable, she falls for the ruse, even though she knows it might be a ruse and all is wrapped up by the final reel.
Elizabeth Inghram and Joy Donze
But... a 1930s sex romp can be excused for not showing any sex. Romantic Trapezoid is  surprisingly lacking in romance or sex. And, in the black and white movies, it is funny to see a man get played by a woman. However, in person, it is a little creepy seeing a woman being manipulated by a man into marriage.
Wedging Dave into the role of impotent love toy is both unrealistic and unappealing. Poor Mr. Calhoon is called on to be a wimp, a stud, fun and a killjoy almost concurrently. Then, he is called on to give old movie dialog with a wink and a nod. It does not work. Melissa has an easier time of being a sexy but ungrateful louche. But her transition to jealousy is too generic to be fun.
Joy Donze is the only cast member with a believable story and she makes the most of it. Ms. Donze luxuriates in a role that might have been a throw away. She is hilarious.
Romantic Trapezoid tries to pull off a high wire act of witty banter winning out, just like in the movies. When it works it sparkles, but it doesn’t work enough.
Romantic Trapezoid | Playwright: Victor L. Cahn |  Director: Alberto Bonilla | Cast: Zack Calhoon, Joy Donze, Elizabeth Inghram | website

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Junk Revels in Nihilism


Junk, now playing at the Lincoln Center, is a play full of fantastic acting, interesting staging and intelligent writing. Unfortunately, it is also a depressing call back to the worst of the 1980’s that holds up a fun house mirror to today’s issues, making that horrible time look quaint by comparison. It is not a pleasant evening. Your tolerance for Junk will depend on how much you can appreciate great actors being horrible people.
The story is complex, but not complicated. At its essence, Junk tells the tale of a corporate raider, his lawyer, and the acquiring firm’s CEO and their struggle to acquire a steel conglomerate listed on the Dow Jones. These three are played excellently by Steven Psaquale, Matthew Saldivar and Matthew Rauch, respectively. Steven Pasquale is Robert Merkin, the new Time Magazine Cover Boy of junk bonds and leveraged debt. For Robert Merkin, takeovers are both personal and professional. As a Jewish man, he witnessed his father’s rejection by the (WASP) Wall Street power brokers. Today, his drive and desire to rip apart that world is equal parts revenge, greed and Napoleon complex.
Hunter and Prey - Steven Psaquale and Rick Holmes in Junk (Henry Stram- upstage right)
Rick Holmes is Thomas Everton Jr., CEO of Everton Steel, the takeover target. He is a nice guy CEO, although he may be cooking the books a little to save steel jobs in his hometown. His two lawyers are a Jewish man and an African American Woman (Henry Stram and Ito Aghayere) who try to explain the new paradigm of debt financing and the threat to his company. Everton is too rigid, too sentimental and a little too bigoted to make it in this new cut-throat world.
The final leg of the triangle of players is a Chinese American journalist (Teresa Avia Lim) and rich old white power player Leo Tressler (Michael Siberry - who is wonderfully morally superior). These characters provide the extensive exposition and creepy sexual politics.
There are a lot of shades of grey in the morality of this show, but not in the manner you’re used to seeing. Normally shades of grey define the mental conflict of the good vs. the bad guys. Here, everyone is a greedy S.O.B., there are no good guys. The grey here is displayed as some of the characters are, occasionally, less morally bankrupt than others.  America, as defined by Junk, is a fight between greedy upstarts with grudges to bear - who delight in humiliating their enemies, versus greedy white male racists. Women fare poorly, each one in Junk sells out her principals for money or power, often both. Men fare worse, only because there are more of them who provide a greater variety of repulsive moral traits.
Playwright Ayad Akhtar and director Doug Hughes do a fantastic job of explaining the way takeovers are financed, the impacts of “creative destruction” and showing that everyone in America is complicit. Junk might have provided an apt warning against smugness if Hillary Clinton had won the election. In the current political environment, however, it just feels like gratuitous piling on.  The American Dream is dead, we get it.
Junk | Playwright: Ayad Akhtar | Director: Doug Hughes | Cast: Steven Pasquale, Teresa Avia Lim, Matthew Rauch, Matthew Saldivar, Rick Homes, Henry Stram, Ito Aghayere, Michael Siberry, Joey Slotnick | Lincoln Center Website for Junk