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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Horse Girls

Horse Girls

December 18, 2014: There is a point at which Jenny Rachel Weiner’s Horse Girls becomes totally incoherent. This point — spoiler alert — comes well before one character brains another character to death with a golden horse-head trophy. The aggressor is Ashleigh (Olivia Macklin), the unhinged alpha of the Lady Jean Ladies tween group, which is meeting in her horse-theme, pastel bedroom to discuss all things equine. Her victim is Trish (Eleonore Condo), who isn’t even a member of the group but simply hanging out with her cousin Camille (Anna Baryshnikov). When it comes to girls, outsiders are always expendable. I’m all for a good braining. But it was sad to see Trish go; she had been an island of relatability in this addled preteen hothouse, her facial expressions cycling between condescending skepticism, terrorized disgust and what appeared to be the concentration of someone praying to be anywhere but here. Here in this case is the Cell, an aptly claustrophobic space (the front-row of the audience is essentially sitting in Daniel Geggatt’s pitch-perfect set) for Horse Girls, a 50-minute pop descent into madness directed by Sarah Krohn.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Pocatello

Pocatello

December 15, 2014: Toward the conclusion of Samuel D. Hunter’s Pocatello, an old-fashioned drama about dead-end lives, an unhappy restaurant manager played by T. R. Knight laments the interchangeability of American towns. He describes the monotonous vista he sees driving home — punctuated by the sights of a Starbucks, a Walmart, a Burger King — and says wearily, “I don’t know where I live anymore.” At that moment, I couldn't help identifying with this sad sack, and not just because Mr. Knight seems so emotionally invested in his role. All through the production, which opened on Monday night at Playwrights Horizons under the direction of Davis McCallum, I kept envisioning a similar terrain. But my landmarks weren’t chain restaurants and big-box stores. Instead, I saw books, movies and plays stretching back to the beginning of the 20th century, dotting an unending plain of small-town American loneliness: works like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio; William Inge’s Picnic; the film of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show; and Neil LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty. The melancholy ghost of Inge seemed especially present. And there were moments, whenever a contemporary reference like Best Buy or Applebee’s came up, that I found myself startled to realize that we weren’t back in the conformist heyday of Inge and Eisenhower. Pocatello suggests that while the brand names may have changed, the blues sung by quietly desperate middle Americans still have the same old lyrics. Listen, for example, to the plaint of an alcoholic housewife, portrayed by Jessica Dickey, who married young and now sees that her chances of escaping from her straitjacket marriage are slim: “I mean, there are plenty of unhappy people in the world. Why should we be the ones who get to be happy?”

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Every Brilliant Thing

Every Brilliant Thing

December 14, 2014: Even the most dry-eyed among us get weepy in December. There’s something about short, dark days piling up toward another year’s end, while carolers trill about comfort and joy, that brings out the Niobe in men and women of stone. Put one of them in front of a television with James Stewart on the brink in It’s a Wonderful Life, and you’ll need mops to wipe up the tears. If you’ve finally had your fill of that movie but are still in search of seasonal catharsis, might I suggest a very charming alternative, one that offers sentimentality without shame? It’s called Every Brilliant Thing, and it’s pretty much guaranteed to keep your eyes brimming. Granted, you may have to restrain yourself from out-and-out bawling. You see, even though it’s advertised as a one-man show, it’s quite possible that you’ll be asked to become a cast member of this production, which opened on Sunday night at the Barrow Street Theater. And you wouldn’t want to let down its ingratiating star, the British comedian Jonny Donahoe, by blubbering. Oh, dear. I have the feeling I may have scared you off with that last paragraph since it refers to things that give many New Yorkers I know the willies: one-person shows, British humor and (this is often the deal breaker) audience participation. But Every Brilliant Thing, written by Duncan Macmillan (with Mr. Donahoe) and directed by George Perrin, has a way of turning perceived bugaboos into blessings. Like It’s a Wonderful Life, in which Stewart is talked out of offing himself by a visiting angel, Brilliant (adapted from a short story by Mr. Macmillan) pits reasons to live against the urge not to. In this case, the advocate for team life is our narrator (Mr. Donahoe), who describes growing up with a suicidal mother, who first tries to kill herself when he is 7.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Nella Tempesta

Nella Tempesta

December 12, 2014: You can talk all you like about ideals and class resentment and visions of the future. But the ingredient most essential to getting a revolution off the ground is energy, the kind that incinerates as it moves. And the place you’ll find the highest concentration of that precious entity is in the restless bodies of the young. Judged by these criteria, the Motus Theater Company of Italy is the most truly revolutionary troupe in town. Seen to scorching effect in 2012 with Alexis. A Greek Tragedy, which translated the rage of Sophocles’ defiant Antigone into the 21st century, Motus is now channeling the pent-up lifeblood of two slaves out of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, chafing at their bondage to an imperial magician named Prospero. Ariel and Caliban, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains. Nella Tempesta, which runs through Sunday at the Ellen Stewart Theater at La MaMa, is a full-throated cry to the young and disaffected to get off their collective duffs, shake off their shackles and do something. Conceived and directed by Daniela Nicolò and Enrico Casagrande, this production turns a cast of six and an assortment of blankets into an 80-minute youthquake that seems likely to leave even cynical audience members shaken and stirred. There was a time, a half-century ago, when such rough-hewed, kinetically charged, politically aggressive theater was common in New York. And Nella Tempesta quivers with vibrations from that time. It seems only right that the production should be staged at La MaMa, which has a history of convention-flouting theater in the raw that dates to the early 1960s, and that its soundscape includes the recorded voice of Judith Malina, a founder of the iconoclastic Living Theater.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: War Lesbian

War Lesbian

December 12, 2014: Hey, remember that heroic myth where a thought springs fully formed from a Marie Antoinette wig, befriends a beached whale and does deadly battle with Ellen DeGeneres? Me neither. Kristine Haruna Lee’s lively, haphazard War Lesbian, at Dixon Place, whirls together Hesiod’s poem Theogony with daytime talk shows, horror movies, nature documentaries, lesbian pulp fiction and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto. It is a show so full of impulses and ideas and splendid, fractious energy that it’s an hour or so before you begin to suspect that it may not be about much of anything at all. On a stage lavishly cluttered with sheets of crumpled paper, a womb (Jessica Almasy) in an elaborate headdress births a thought (Erin Markey). The demigod Ellen DeGeneres (Ms. Lee) names that thought Sedna. Despite the cropped hair and masculine tailoring, this demonic figure may not be the Ellen you know and supposedly love. “I’m ripping your tiny little souls in half and eating it on a silver platter with other fine expensive animal guts and grapes,” she says cheerily.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical

Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical

December 9, 2014: He’s a mean one, Mr. Grinch — but oh, what a charmer! On a Christmas Eve heist of his neighbors, the Whos, he’s joyously wicked and funny and crass. There’s no harm in cheering as he cleans out their house: We know he’ll reform; he’ll bring the stuff back. But really? We’d take his side, no matter what. The strapping man inside the shaggy green suit is the Tony winner Shuler Hensley, and his Grinch is magnificent, a charismatic showman of a menace who will never truly frighten the children. If only he didn't have to carry the whole production. Mr. Hensley’s strutting, preening performance is by far the best thing about Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical, directed by Matt August at the Theater at Madison Square Garden. Along with John Lee Beatty’s picture book set and the Whos’ gravity-defying hair (costumes are by Robert Morgan), it’s one of the few elements of this terribly thin 90-minute show that feels genuinely Seussian. The musical, which spent a couple of holiday seasons on Broadway, beginning in 2006, is adapted from a pair of classics: Dr. Seuss’s 1957 children’s book and the 1966 animated television special, which contributes the only memorable songs here, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and the Whos’ anthem “Welcome, Christmas.” The others are by the composer Mel Marvin and the lyricist Timothy Mason, who also wrote the show’s book. The inhabitants of Who-ville, a bell-shaped people attired in candy cane colors, are visually entertaining. So is a snowfall effect over part of the audience close to the stage, though what falls is sticky and will leave hair tangled. But the writing that doesn’t belong to Dr. Seuss, including an entire song about shopping, is undistinguished.

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