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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Barceló con Hielo

Barceló con Hielo

August 26, 2014: No young man ever needed a little marijuana more than Sergio in Barceló con Hielo. Luckily, his brother persuades him to smoke before their father gets home. Herbally abetted, the painfully reserved Sergio (Iván Camilo) smiles and laughs for the first time in this comic drama. Marco Antonio Rodríguez wrote the play and stars in the Repertorio Español production as the father, Nino, a seriously ill immigrant from the Dominican Republic who misses everything about home except the corruption. Medical anxiety may explain why he begins to see ghosts. The first spirit, who slips quietly into the living room, introduces himself as Joaquín Balaguer, a three-term president of the Dominican Republic. His predecessor was the dictator Rafael Trujillo, and there are conversations about whether Balaguer was just as bad.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: And I and Silence

And I and Silence

August 26, 2014: Women in prison: the new black? It’s mere coincidence, but with the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black having become one of the most talked-about television shows of the past few years, along comes And I and Silence, a play by Naomi Wallace about two young women incarcerated in the 1950s. Can “Caged: The Musical,” an all-singing, all-dancing update of that immortal B movie starring Eleanor Parker, be far behind? Fans of the Netflix show will probably not find much to satisfy them in Ms. Wallace’s play, which opened on Monday night at the Pershing Square Signature Center, kicking off the Signature Theater Company’s new season on a dirge-like note. The author of the well-regarded, much-produced black-plague drama One Flea Spare (from 1995) and several subsequent plays, Ms. Wallace does not write pulp. True, And I and Silence does contain a culminating spasm of violence, as well as a sexual encounter between its two characters, Dee and Jamie, who meet in the lockup when they are both still teenagers. (One is 17, the other about to turn the same age.) But it’s a long, dreary wait for any drama to emerge.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Last Days of Cleopatra

The Last Days of Cleopatra

August 25, 2014: Last year, the actress-playwright Laoisa Sexton delivered a bleak, funny and flavorful take on women’s lives in recession-ravaged Dublin with her winning For Love at the Irish Repertory Theater. With The Last Days of Cleopatra, now at Urban Stages, she again depicts that city’s working class, but across genders and generations. The central event in Cleopatra is the death of Tess, the largely unseen matriarch to a fractious clan. The father, Harry (Kenneth Ryan), once a touring trumpeter, drives a cab and hangs at the pub but somewhat fancies himself a smooth operator. Though he waxes nostalgic about Tess (his “Cleopatra”), he flirts with a friend’s ex. (Kevin Marron, here in drag, inhabits small roles.) Harry’s son, Jackey (Michael Mellamphy), is a pudgy newsstand clerk obsessed with Twitter and twerking. (Harry calls him a “twinkle toes.”) Harry’s daughter, the alternately caustic and tentative Natalie (Ms. Sexton), strives for a performing career of sorts, wearing Elmo and Easter bunny costumes at children’s birthday parties and drifting uneasily into striptease.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Voices of Swords

Voices of Swords

August 25, 2014: Like an earnest Lifetime TV movie bleached of plot and tension, Voices of Swords is occasionally tolerable but mostly just talky. This is a play eager to chatter on about accepting yourself and others. Trouble is, all those speeches are at the expense of any real drama. The story starts with the daffy Alexis (Celia Schaefer, who has done better work elsewhere) arriving at the home of Olivia (Loni Ackerman), a stubborn retiree preparing to undergo surgery. Alexis, a personal organizer, has been hired by Kosey (Phillip Christian), Olivia’s son, to help his mother around the house. As expected, these two women with contrasting personalities soon find reasons to argue, then to make up, then to become entangled in each other’s personal lives. Though a far-fetched secret comes to light and some suppressed emotions are eventually voiced, cliché is always close by.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Family Album (OSF)

Family Album

August 20, 2014: Negotiating the choppy waters of middle age isn’t easy for anyone, but it’s extra ornery for the almost-famous rock ’n’ rollers in Family Album, the half-marvelous, half-maddening new musical by Stew and Heidi Rodewald (Passing Strange), which is having its premiere here at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Endless nights on the road, grotty club bathrooms, meager pay, fending off (or not) the groupies: It’s all much easier to deal with when you have the resilience of youth and the energy of high ambition to fuel you. Like Passing Strange, which had a brief Broadway run and garnered several Tony nominations, the new musical draws on its authors’ life experience, although, in this case, the writing is less overtly autobiographical, and Stew (who goes by a single name) does not star in the production, which was created in collaboration with the director, Joanna Settle. (Stew and Ms. Rodewald are presumably hard at work on another project, The Total Bent, which comes to the Public Theater next spring.) The long but engaging first act of Family Album focuses on the contrasting fortunes of Heimvey (the likable, laid-back Luqman Brown), the stand-in for Stew, and his ex-girlfriend, Cleo (Miriam A. Laube). Like his creator, Heimvey’s an African-American singer-songwriter carrying a few pounds too many and considerable emotional baggage. As the show begins, Heimvey’s band is playing a New Jersey club, but on the horizon is a much bigger gig: an opening slot at a Madison Square Garden show, the biggest chance this longtime “cult” band has had at breaking through.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Great Society (OSF)

The Great Society

August 18, 2014: “Christ, I feel like a catfish that’s bit a big juicy worm only to find a right sharp hook in the middle of it,” says Lyndon B. Johnson in The Great Society, the second part of Robert Schenkkan’s sprawling dramatization of Johnson’s tumultuous years in the White House. As the play opens, Johnson has just been elected to a full presidential term, but there’s no time for a celebratory fishing trip, because he’s already facing a full slate of problems. Mr. Schenkkan’s historical drama is making its premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where the first part, All the Way, made its debut two seasons ago before ultimately moving to Broadway, having acquired Bryan Cranston in the central role. It took home Tony Awards for both Mr. Cranston’s lead performance and best play. The Great Society, which features an effective if less ferocious performance by Jack Willis as Johnson (he originated the role in All the Way here), picks up where the first installment left off. Johnson has secured the mandate of a big presidential win, and with his foot firmly on the gas pedal, begins pushing through Congress a mighty pile of legislation that he believes will reshape the country along the ideals enshrined in its Constitution.

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