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Photo: Carol Rosegg

OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Lonesome Traveler

Lonesome Traveler

March 25, 2015: “Lonesome Traveler” is full of familiar songs prettily sung, a sort of jukebox folk musical. Too bad it didn’t aspire to be more; still, it sounds great. The play, written and directed by James O’Neil, gives a drive-by history of folk music in the last century, or at least the largely white version as embodied by groups like the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary. It serves up songs that anyone over 60 and many younger than that know by heart — “Guantanamera,” “Midnight Special,” “Tom Dooley” and more than 30 others, played and sung by a skilled cast that encourages the audience at 59E59’s Theater A to sing along. A sparse narrative accompanies the songs, which are arranged roughly chronologically, beginning in the 1920s and ending in the mid-1960s as the folk revival was being nudged aside by electric guitars. The cast members become personifications of various singers and groups — Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Almanac Singers, the Weavers, the Limeliters, Odetta and so on. It’s not a particularly inclusive definition of folk music. The show’s two black performers, Anthony Manough and the fabulous Jennifer Leigh Warren, often seem sandwiched in as afterthoughts. And the song selection is virtually surprise-free, sticking almost exclusively to folk’s greatest hits. Does anyone really need to hear “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” again?

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Tallest Tree in the Forest

The Tallest Tree in the Forest

March 24, 2015: The lives of actors often contain heady highs and dispiriting lows, so fragile is their hold on the public’s imagination and their access to the levers of power in the industry. But the story of Paul Robeson, the great African-American performer who achieved international fame in the 1920s and ’30s, only to be condemned for his political beliefs and branded a Communist during the witch hunts of the ’50s, is a particularly egregious example of a star falling at warp speed. The extraordinary arc of Robeson’s life and career is resurrected with grace in “The Tallest Tree in the Forest,” an engrossing solo show written and performed by Daniel Beaty, and directed by Moisés Kaufman. In the production, which can be seen through Sunday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Mr. Beaty portrays Robeson and various men and women who cross his path, including his father, his brother and his wife, nearly 40 roles in all. He is joined by a trio of musicians who provide able accompaniment for his accomplished renditions of songs associated with Robeson, most memorably “Ol’ Man River,” with which he opens the show. That song, from “Show Boat,” is perhaps the one most linked to Robeson, although he didn’t originate the role of Joe in the Broadway production of “Show Boat” but was recruited to star in the London version, which made his name. (He later starred in the 1936 movie.)

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Small Mouth Sounds

Small Mouth Sounds

March 23, 2015: A half-dozen troubled souls find that enforced silence doesn’t necessarily bring inner peace in “Small Mouth Sounds,” an enchanting new play by Bess Wohl presented at Ars Nova. As funny as it is, uh, quietly moving, Ms. Wohl’s play is also a model of ingenuity. During its 100-minute running time and with one exception — the (unseen) guru running this spiritual retreat — the characters hardly ever speak. Both the humor and the pathos spring mostly from wordless interaction, which is testimony to Ms. Wohl’s intrepid writing, to the superb acting and to the precise work of the production’s director, Rachel Chavkin. The setting for this weeklong silent soul-spa is rural, as can be gleaned from the murmurs of rustling woods and wildlife (courtesy of Stowe Nelson’s nifty sound design) and the panels depicting slices of the bucolic surroundings (more expert work from the inventive set designer Laura Jellinek). Rain is thundering down as the participants assemble for their orientation talk. A disembodied voice, soothing and with a tinge of an accent (Indian?), welcomes the participants and sets the ground rules, after beginning with an allegory about a pair of frogs that inspires befuddlement in most of the guests. Clothing is optional at the nearby lake, although all “nudity must be in the spirit of respect, community and adventure.” Cellphones are verboten “except in the parking lot, inside your vehicle, with all doors and windows closed.” No refunds, no exceptions. And, of course, no talking.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Feast

The Feast

March 20, 2015: Ever had a leaky faucet? Or a clogged drain? Cory Finley’s “The Feast” at the Flea is the sort of play to make you grateful for such mundane plumbing problems. Matt’s wonky W.C. is a whole lot eerier. Screams and groans emanate from deep within his toilet. “Like a man, tied up down there,” a plumber (Donaldo Prescod) explains. “Water streaming over his mouth. All day. Not quite a human. Almost like a dying whale. Full of sorrow. Like it was whispering the experience of its own slow death into your ear.” Is there a Roto-Rooter in the house? (That the Flea’s downstairs space adjoins its musty lavatories makes the production practically site-specific.) Maybe Matt (Ivan Dolido), a painter of postcard-size canvases, is truly harassed by a haunted commode. Or maybe relationship troubles and creative stagnation have triggered a psychotic break. Or maybe the screams in the toilet are some sort of vaguely unsanitary metaphor.

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BROADWAY REVIEW: The Heidi Chronicles

The Heidi Chronicles

March 19, 2015: Do the responsibilities that come with age inevitably erode the ideals of youth? Can women achieve the most in their careers while enjoying a fully satisfying family life? Is sadness a natural — as opposed to pathological — response to the realization that life will not bring us everything we had hoped it would? These questions resonate today as strongly, and at times as painfully, as they did when Wendy Wasserstein’s most celebrated play, “The Heidi Chronicles,” stormed Broadway in 1989, going on to win the best play Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize the next year. They are being posed once again, with the same bright humor and reflective intelligence, in the vibrant revival that opened at the Music Box Theater on Thursday night, led by a softly radiant Elisabeth Moss in the title role. Ms. Moss, a superb actor who possesses an unusual ability to project innocence and smarts at the same time, inherits a role played by many since Joan Allen originated it when the play had its premiere at Playwrights Horizons Off Broadway. (I saw Mary McDonnell, one of several who succeeded Ms. Allen during the play’s long Broadway run; Jamie Lee Curtis played the role in a television movie.) Known for her demure but ambitious Peggy in “Mad Men,” Ms. Moss puts her own distinctive stamp on the part. As Heidi Holland grows from a burgeoning feminist in the 1960s to a high-achieving but emotionally fragile art historian in the 1970s and ’80s, Ms. Moss is constantly questioning both her own choices and those of the circle of friends and lovers who surround her.

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