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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: A Month in the Country

A Month in the Country

January 30, 2015: A Month in the Country feels like a week in the gulag — or perhaps I should say a stint in a minimum-security prison? — in the Classic Stage Company’s listless staging of Ivan Turgenev’s melancholy comedy of romantic misalliances and infatuations. The production, which opened on Thursday night, stars two performers riding high on television fame: Taylor Schilling, the jailed Piper Chapman of Orange Is the New Black, portrays the restless, disaffected heroine, Natalya, and Peter Dinklage, from Game of Thrones, is her ardent admirer, Rakitin. While both may bring some luster to the box office — nary a seat was empty at the performance I caught — they don’t do much to enliven the director Erica Schmidt’s torpid staging of this delicate play. (Ms. Schmidt and Mr. Dinklage are married.) Ms. Schilling, making her New York stage debut, certainly looks ravishing in the single-hued, full-skirted gowns designed by Tom Broecker — perfect red-carpet wear for all those celebrity runways of 19th-century Russia. But she brings little nuance to her portrayal of the emotionally adrift Natalya, who’s bored with her marriage, and has even grown tired of her intimate flirtation with Rakitin, on whom she has long depended for his quiet adoration. Natalya’s restless heart finds a new emotional stimulus in the tutor Belyaev (Mike Faist), whom she has hired to teach her young son, Koyla (Ian Etheridge). But she is not the only member of the household to fall under the spell of his high spirits. As Natalya begins to feel the stirrings of love for this younger man, she intuitively senses a similar attraction to Belyaev in her ward, Vera (Megan West).

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Golden Toad

The Golden Toad

January 29, 2015: The Golden Toad, the latest work by the experimental troupe the Talking Band, is a long, often amusing journey of discovery, but its characters do most of the discovering. The audience eventually learns everybody’s back story and who connects to whom, but not much about what it would be like to be any of these people. Watching the show, an elaborate construction in which the audience changes theaters four times, is like doing a jigsaw puzzle with friends: Eventually, the pieces fit together, and you see a picture, but the real rewards are presumably found along the way. Certainly the group, celebrating its 40th year with this production, gives you a lot to see and hear on the trip. The piece is told in four episodes and a short epilogue, the audience hoofing to a new part of La MaMa’s rather large space for each segment. First is an apartment building in Brooklyn, where it’s 2009, and Valerie (Ellen Maddow, a founder of the Talking Band) is having some trouble with her upstairs neighbors. They’re a gay couple (Mikeah Ernest Jennings and James Tigger! Ferguson) who are raising a daughter, Ava (Helen Gutowski, the standout in this cast). The next three hours are occupied by what happens to these and other characters in the ensuing years and the unexpected ways their lives intertwine.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Road to Damascus

The Road to Damascus

January 29, 2015: The “not so distant future” looks a lot like the recent past in The Road to Damascus, a serious and mostly satisfying new political thriller at 59E59 Theaters. In the play, terrorist attacks have set the government scrambling to find the culprit. “The president can’t afford to look like a wimp,” says Dexter Hobhouse, an American diplomat. By following flawed intelligence or ignoring crucial reports, the president has fixed his sights on Syria, which is mired in civil war and may or may not be funding an Islamic faction said to be responsible for the attacks. To prevent an American invasion of Syria, Pope Augustine — a black cardinal newly elected from Africa — has resolved to travel to Damascus as a human shield. Hobhouse is dispatched to Rome to prevent that, or at least to stall the pope long enough for a military assault to commence.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Nevermore

Nevermore

January 26, 2015: Exquisitely stylish and excessively bleak, the new musical Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, at New World Stages, takes the sad facts of Poe’s life and makes them gloomier still. Written and directed by Jonathan Christenson, artistic director of Catalyst Theater from Canada, it opens with Poe (Scott Shpeley) on a steamer bound for New York City just days before his death. His fellow shipmates are a troupe of traveling players, who politely offer to perform his biography, from his father’s abandonment to his mother’s tubercular death to his foster mother’s demise to his fiancée’s jilting — and that’s only the first act. “What a tragic life,” I heard a man say to his companion at intermission. “And it gets worse.” It does. As the lead player announces in the first song’s first lines, this is a tale “of mystery and horror/And of unrelenting woe.” Just when things seem to be going all right for young Edgar, someone coughs up blood, or someone else goes insane, and there he is, wretched again. The bare truth of Poe’s haphazard life and early death would seem sufficiently horrible. Mr. Christenson renders it that much worse. (Though, for decorum’s sake, even he leaves out a couple of the most unsavory details, like the age of Poe’s cousin Virginia, just 13 when he married her.) Into the historical record, he weaves origin stories for Poe’s tales and poems — most of the famous ones, as well as a few obscurities. So a ticking clock inspires “The Pit and the Pendulum,” a once beloved pet becomes the horror of “The Black Cat,” his foster mother’s dottiness calls forth “The Imp of the Perverse.” There’s plenty of puppetry, all of it terrifying.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Da

Da

January 26, 2015: If you have to be haunted, you really couldn’t ask for a nicer sort of ghost. The specter at the heart of Hugh Leonard’s semi-autobiographical play Da, revived by the Irish Repertory Theater, pours piping cups of tea and proffers packs of cigarettes. Most of the time he lounges in his favorite armchair, singing snatches of songs and telling jokes. This friendly ghoul is the Da of the title, of course, a retired gardener, jovial and unambitious. Just because he’s been laid to rest doesn’t mean he has any intention of leaving alone his adopted son, Charlie (an adept Ciaran O’Reilly, who has played the role in an earlier revival). Charlie, a successful writer, can hardly wait to zip back to civilized London. But as he sorts through his father’s papers and photographs and unused razors, he’s bothered by a fright of ghosts — not only his adoptive da (Paul O’Brien), but also his adoptive mother (Fiana Toibin), his former boss (Sean Gormley), his younger self (Adam Petherbridge) — crowding around the kitchen table. A memory play with a spectral turn, Da has an exceedingly familiar feel. The cozy set could substitute for a dozen Irish Rep plays. The characters and themes (family, responsibility, loss) seem pretty typical, too. The oddest thing about “Da”: It won the 1978 Tony Award for best play. (That wasn’t the strongest of years.)

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Let the Right One In

Let the Right One In

January 25, 2015: Few bloodsuckers are as irresistible as Eli, the wan and abject heroine of Let the Right One In, which quietly shivered open on Sunday night to wring your heart while scaring the mortal stuffing out of you. True, Eli is nothing like the beautiful It vampires who slither across screens in movies like Only Lovers Left Alive and the Twilight series. As portrayed by the remarkable Rebecca Benson in this gut-clutching import from the National Theater of Scotland, now at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn through Feb. 15, Eli resembles some stunted woodland plant, long deprived of sun and nourishment. Her glamour quotient is nil, as are her social skills, and she is said to smell like a cross between pus and a wet dog. Yet she speaks to that little creature in all of us that will always feel rejected and alone in this big, brutal world. And she somehow confirms your darkest suspicions that the human race isn’t even worth belonging to. For a lad like Oskar (Cristian Ortega), a social pariah just entering puberty, she is oh so easy to love. Adapted by Jack Thorne from a novel and screenplay by the Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist, and killingly staged by John Tiffany and Steven Hoggett, Let the Right One In is both the bleakest and most compassionate of vampire stories. It provides the surface frissons you expect from portraits of the undead, with graphic bloodletting and a couple of great “gotcha” (in the neck) moments. (There’s a reason the credits include a special effects designer, Jeremy Chernick.) But the play is scary in deeper ways. In presenting an eternal, innocently murderous child as the ideal playmate for a bullied boy from a broken home, Right One addresses our most primitive instincts for retribution, the same ones that animated our adolescent revenge fantasies against everyone who spurned or humiliated us.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Lionboy

Lionboy

January 25, 2015: The Disney feline that has bestrode Broadway for well over a decade has a lot going for it, obviously, but at Lionboy, playing a few blocks south at the New Victory Theater on West 42nd Street, the audience gets to do something it doesn’t at The Lion King, namely let out a big, gutsy roar in the middle of the show. The youngsters in the audience at this spirited, inventive entertainment, the first children’s show from the acclaimed British troupe Complicite, clearly delighted in this moment of audience participation. But I heard just as much guttural bellowing from the adults, letting forth with their inner Katy Perry, I suppose. Adapted by Marcelo Dos Santos from the trilogy by Zizou Corder (a pseudonym for the novelist Louisa Young and her daughter Isabel Adomakoh Young), and directed by Clive Mendus and James Yeatman, the production falls in with Complicite tradition by employing often minimal theatrical means to maximum effect. The simple set, by Jon Bausor and Jean Chan, is a large, weather-beaten disc on which the cast deploys a few basic props: a series of wooden and metal ladders become a boat or the walls of a prison cell. The eight nimble actors in the cast use their bodies and their voices to do much of the storytelling, which involves generous passages of direct narration. This sometimes dampens the theatrical momentum, but given the fantastic realms into which the story ventures, the reliance on direct address is understandable. It would require a Lion King-sized budget, and then some, to fully dramatize onstage the events conjured in Lionboy.

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