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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Dark Meat on a Funny Mind

Dark Meat on a Funny Mind

August 19, 2014: Louis C.K. once began a riff about how much he hated standing in the audience of a comedy show by joking that even if Richard Pryor came back from the dead, he would still see Pryor’s show only if he could sit down. The fantasy of seeing Pryor do stand-up again is a large part of the appeal for any play about that comedian, but it’s also why pulling off the performance is so difficult. It shouldn’t surprise that Dark Meat on a Funny Mind, a clumsy stumble through the highlights of Pryor’s life, presents the comedian with none of his magnetism. Charles Weldon doesn’t look or sound like the man he’s portraying. Nor does he capture his daring, existential fear or ruthless, even dangerous commitment to confessional comedy. Part of the problem is that he hasn’t committed his lines to memory — and it’s hard to sustain confidence in a play about a wildly brilliant comedian when the lights go up on two podiums with scripts on top of them. (Mr. Weldon replaced Anthony Chisholm, who dropped out.)

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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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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Poor Behavior

Poor Behavior

August 17, 2014: Theresa Rebeck’s assertively glib Poor Behavior, at Primary Stages, takes place at a weekend getaway — provided your idea of a getaway is Napoleon’s retreat from Russia. Peter and Ella have invited Maureen and Ian to their country cottage for wine and chatter. Before a day has passed, egos are bruised and hearts battered. There’s also a potential suicide and an assault with a frying pan. The drama begins after a boozy dinner. Wine bottles clutter the kitchen island and the conversation has turned slurry and heated. Ella (Katie Kreisler) wants to talk about what constitutes goodness, while Ian (Brian Avers) insists there’s no such thing. This is the sort of argument that flummoxes great philosophers. Here the dialogue quickly descends into quotations from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and a discussion of whether or not trees are moral. (Verbal pyrotechnics aren’t really Ms. Rebeck’s thing. But trees, which also loomed over her recent Broadway play, Dead Accounts, apparently are.) Soon Peter (Jeff Biehl) and Maureen (Heidi Armbruster) slip off to bed, leaving Ian and Ella to debate the ethics of Yosemite. Their conversation gradually grows more personal. When Maureen wanders back into the kitchen, she finds them in a near embrace. Is the clinch comforting or erotic? Maureen decides it’s adulterous. The weekend devolves from there.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Finding Neverland (American Rep)

Finding Neverland

August 14, 2014: As long-suffering authorities like the Wright Brothers and Icarus could have told you, becoming airborne is never easy. That’s the lesson being contemplated, on several levels, by Finding Neverland, the ever-evolving, highly determined Broadway-bound children’s musical that opened on Wednesday night at the American Repertory Theater. The principal character of this show, the Peter Pan-creating author James M. Barrie, insists that all a so-called miracle requires is the will to believe, and that includes sending earthbound children into orbit. (The word “Believe” gleams with imperative, echo-chamber luminosity below the title on the show’s posters.) And a lovely young widow — Barrie’s platonic soul mate, as it happens — is heard telling her children that birds can fly because they have perfect faith that they will be able to. But the practical world (cue the boos and hisses) has a discouraging word to add to such airiness. Making anything fly — especially a multimillion-dollar musical — demands expensive technology and months of preparation and fine-tuning. Of course, a little faith that it is all truly worthwhile never hurts. It seems safe to say that Harvey Weinstein has that faith, and you can envision his homes being filled with framed samplers extolling the importance of that virtue — well, perhaps of chutzpah, too. Ever since he steamrollered the lightweight Shakespeare in Love all the way to an Academy Award for best picture, Mr. Weinstein has developed a reputation as one of Hollywood’s most productively pushy players. Now he has trained his formidable powers of faith on a work of theater, and he’s already demonstrated that a little adversity along the way isn’t going to keep his baby from growing wings. Finding Neverland is based on a 2004 film of the same title, which was a Weinstein production.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson

Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson

August 13, 2014: See if you can spot the joke built into the title of the new rock musical at the Minetta Lane Theater: Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter. Could it be the elbow? Nope. Something about the guy’s name? Not that, either. The joke is the useless occupation. For a furniture painter, there’s no work to be had. Huh? But so goes the cryptic comic reasoning of the Icelandic brothers Ivar Pall Jonsson and Gunnlaugur Jonsson, making their musical theater debut with this quirky, great-looking but discombobulated satire about greed and economic collapse. The show’s book, music and lyrics are by Ivar Pall Jonsson, from a story the brothers wrote together. And what a peculiar story it is, set inside the body of the title character, where the tiny people of Elbowville fish lobsters from his lymphatic system and pray to their god, Robert Redford, whose movies can be seen up north in Eyesockette. Ragnar is a big fan.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Puppet Titus Andronicus

Puppet Titus Andronicus

August 12, 2014: Titus Andronicus — convoluted and graphically violent as all get-out — is not generally regarded as one of Shakespeare’s better plays. This tragedy about a Roman general whose family is at odds with the Goths is a relentless parade of revenge, cannibalism and bloodletting. But its excesses lend themselves to a comic shellacking, and at the Beckett Theater, the mischief makers in the Puppet Shakespeare Players have a semi-improvised field day. The troupe’s productions include Puppet Hamlet and Puppet Romeo and Juliet, but it’s hard to imagine as suitable a candidate for sendup as Titus. The production sidesteps much of the early action (“It was mostly exposition, anyway,” says a voice-over introduction, which alerts viewers to the prospect of “puppet puke”), and soon gets right into the violence, beginning with the death of Bassianus and the rape of Lavinia. Adam Weppler makes a fittingly stolid Titus, while Sarah Villegas vamps as the perfidious, cuckolding Goth queen, Tamora. Christopher Gebauer gets off some funny deadpan reactions as Titus’s ineffectual brother, Marcus. But these actors are predictably upstaged by the many puppets, designed by A. J. Coté, who plays Tamora’s lover, Aaron (here a boar).

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