Photo: Sara Krulwich

OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Sex with Strangers

Sex with Strangers

July 31, 2014: “Who are you?” Those are the first words spoken in Sex With Strangers, a twisty and timely new play by Laura Eason, and they cut right to the core of this two-character drama about lust, love and the complex nature of identity in our digital-dominated era. When a persona can be tweaked, primped or entirely fabricated online, it may be a little tricky to figure out exactly who is lying in bed beside you: a sympathetic soul, or just a brand with a hot body? That opening line comes from Olivia, played by Anna Gunn (of Breaking Bad), a writer holed up in a remote bed-and-breakfast, spying a car out the window. She is idly wondering who would brave a snowstorm to reach this informal writers’ retreat in rural Michigan. The visitor turns out to be Ethan, played by Billy Magnussen (best known as the Boy Toy of the Chiseled Abs in Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike). The simmering rapport these two talented actors develop quickly lights a fire under Ms. Eason’s drama of good sex and bad faith, which opened on Wednesday night at Second Stage Theater in a production directed by the actor David Schwimmer.





July 30, 2014: Gentrification has come to Harlem: the wine bars, the refurbished brownstones, the swanky potato chips at the corner bodega. You can catch a close-up view of that kind of transition onstage in Seth Zvi Rosenfeld’s play Handball, in Marcus Garvey Park. Handball, produced by SummerStage, takes place in an unnamed neighborhood. It might be North Brooklyn or the South Bronx or even the Harlem blocks around Marcus Garvey. The action plays out on a similar patch of ground, the center of contention between the locals who use it for handball and dominoes and the new arrivals who want to build dog runs and flower gardens. “It’s bogus at the highest of levels,” a longtime resident tells an incomer. “Go back to Westchester.” He replies, “I’m actually from Connecticut.” A production of Urban Theater Movement, the play owes a debt to Stephen Adly Guirgis’s gaily profane odes to city life. The characters also include several teenagers and a local politico, all jockeying for control of the same plot of grass and concrete. The script is somewhat distended. Scenes go on too long, and structure sags so that Mr. Rosenfeld can insert more jokey exchanges.



Mala Hierba

July 29, 2014: A steamy snippet of a telenovela is heating up the McGinn/Cazale Theater, where Mala Hierba, a new play by Tanya Saracho, opened on Monday night as part of the Second Stage Theater’s Uptown series. A crisis in the life of a young Mexican-American woman suffering under the thumb of a rich but brutal husband provides the juice in this sudsy but enjoyable drama. In her grand mansion in a southern Texas town, the beautiful Lili (Marta Milans) lives in uncertain splendor as the wife of Alberto, a “border magnate,” as the script vaguely describes her unseen husband. She’s the latest in a series, as Alberto’s 25-year-old daughter, Fabi (Ana Nogueira), repeatedly reminds her; although Fabi gushes that Lili is her favorite of Alberto’s wives, the implied taunt (later made explicit) is that she will certainly not be the last. The brittle, viper-tongued Fabi lives in Houston, where she spends her time enrolling in, and then dropping out of, college classes, while spending lots of Alberto’s money. She’s come south this weekend because Lili is giving a party for Alberto’s 55th birthday. But Fabi decides that Lili deserves a present, too. She casually announces that she’s invited Lili’s old friend Mari (Roberta Colindrez), whom she ran into in town, to the party.


OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Fool for Love (Williamstown)

Fool For Love

July 28, 2014: Nina Arianda and Sam Rockwell must have gotten to know each other real well, real fast this summer. If their impossible mission was to achieve an instant, unfathomable intimacy, that assignment has been more than fulfilled in Daniel Aukin’s knockout production of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love, which runs through Saturday at the Williamstown Theater Festival here. Playing a man and a woman who spend their lives running away from, and straight toward, each other in this 75-minute, 31-year-old drama, Mr. Rockwell and Ms. Arianda project a mutual understanding that stings like a cut that won’t scab. Such dangerous awareness is found only among members of the same mortal family or longtime lovers. Imagine what it means if, like May and Eddie in Fool, you happen to be both. Ms. Arianda and Mr. Rockwell were cast in their roles barely a month ago, after the show’s original stars, Lauren Ambrose and Chris Pine, dropped out. Sometimes urgency is the soul of theater, and perhaps limited rehearsal time worked to the advantage of a play that is, as the script dictates, to be “performed relentlessly without a break.”


OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Strictly Dishonorable

Strictly Dishonorable

July 27, 2014: Strictly Dishonorable, the 1929 Preston Sturges comedy revived by the Attic Theater, is an old-fashioned kind of show. You can tell right from its first scene when the speakeasy proprietor, Tomaso (Christopher Tocco), sprinkles bitters onto a sugar cube before adding whiskey, ice and a cherry. Just try and leave this charmer without a fondness for Sturges and a craving for a strong cocktail. A clever if ultimately conservative comedy of sexual morality, Strictly Dishonorable begins when the vivacious Isabelle (Keilly McQuail) and her stuffed-shirt fiancé, Henry (Thomas Christopher Matthews), venture into Tomaso’s saloon. Isabelle is eager; Henry is grouchy. After downing a few whiskeys, he becomes outright belligerent. Meanwhile, Isabelle has caught the eye of Gus (Michael Labbadia), a romantic tenor who picks up and discards women as though they were so much sheet music. It’s love at first sip. Or more likely just lust. When Henry is ejected from the bar, the virginal Isabelle agrees to shelter for the night in Gus’s apartment. His intentions toward her? Strictly dishonorable. Or so he believes.


OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Lightning Theif

The Lightning Theif

July 25, 2014: I plan to change the subject when my 11-year-old daughter asks about The Lightning Thief, a new musical at the Lucille Lortel Theater. She was excited to attend, but a last-minute appointment prevented it. To tell her how much fun she missed might be a little cruel. The show, part of the Theatreworks free summer theater program, is adapted from Rick Riordan’s young-adult novel of the same name. In the story, Percy Jackson, a bright sixth grader, grows frustrated after being expelled from the latest school he’s attending. He’s got plenty of other concerns too — dyslexia, hyperactivity and a desire to find the father he never knew. Soon he discovers that Dad is one of the ancient Greek gods, and Percy is sent to a supernatural summer camp where the boy meets others like himself. Before long he and his friends embark on a journey, battling monsters and Medusa in a quest to end a war, rescue his mother and prove his courage. While the show imparts the expected reassuring lessons — “Normal is a myth/Everyone has issues they’re dealing with” — it’s seldom saccharine or didactic. The musical’s book, by Joe Tracz, and music and lyrics, by Rob Rokicki, strike a tone that’s sassy though not snarky, and energetic without being hectic.



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