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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Lips Together, Teeth Apart

Lips Together, Teeth Apart

October 29, 2014: The summer ocean swells ominously, and even the beckoning swimming pool proves uninviting in Terrence McNally’s 1991 play Lips Together, Teeth Apart. Intimations of mortality seem immanent: The mere zapping of a mosquito strikes an unsettling note in this tender, subtly drawn comedy-drama, set during the height of the AIDS crisis, about two couples visiting the Fire Island home of a relative who has recently died. Unfortunately, the middling revival that opened on Wednesday night at the Second Stage Theater doesn’t fully excavate the rich seams of feeling in this, one of Mr. McNally’s finest plays — and one that hasn’t dated, despite its apparently topical subject matter. (It’s infinitely better than his cough-and-you’ve-missed-a-dropped-name comedy It’s Only a Play, Broadway’s toughest ticket.) While the cast features four talented young actors, including America Ferrera (of Ugly Betty) and the versatile Tracee Chimo (Bad Jews), their performances, under the direction of Peter DuBois, tend to Jet Ski along the crests of the writing.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Father Comes Home From the Wars

Father Comes Home From the Wars

October 28, 2014: By turns philosophical and playful, lyrical and earthy, Suzan-Lori Parks’s new play, Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), swoops, leaps, dives and soars across three endlessly stimulating hours, reimagining a turbulent turning point in American history through a cockeyed contemporary lens. An epic drama that follows the fortunes of a slave who troops off to fight in the Civil War — on the Confederate side — Ms. Parks’s play, which opened at the Public Theater on Tuesday night, seems to me the finest work yet from this gifted writer. (Ms. Parks won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for Topdog/Underdog.) The production also represents a high-water mark in the career of the director Jo Bonney. And while I’m throwing around superlatives, I might as well add that Father Comes Home From the Wars might just be the best new play I’ve seen all year. Ms. Parks’s mighty aims are signaled by the noble template she has chosen to tell her story: Homer’s The Odyssey, the epic poem about a Greek warrior’s long journey home from an epochal conflict. But her classical borrowings are loose, frisky and far from self-important. The central character in the plays is a slave named Hero (Sterling K. Brown), who leaves behind a devoted wife, Penny (Jenny Jules), and eventually claims the name Ulysses: the Roman name for Homer’s Odysseus, but also, of course, the name of the leader of the Union forces.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Not Afraid

Not Afraid

October 28, 2014: If she’d wanted an apron to match her Anthrax T-shirt, she could have gotten it from that band’s official merchandise site: a black cotton number, meant for use at the barbecue grill. But baking is more Bets’s style, and when she takes a break from her death-metal blog to whip up a batch of calzones, she wraps herself in a sweet, girly apron decorated in polka dots and roses. In Nora Sorena Casey’s Not Afraid, having its premiere in a PowerOut production at Under St. Marks, Bets (an impressive Taylor Shurte) is a post-collegiate waif with dark-rimmed eyes and a widow’s peak. Though she spends most of her time at her laptop, obsessing over bands with names like Napalm Death and Deathbound, there is a charming ebullience to her passion. It might be healthy, however, if she would occasionally leave the house. “Your world is tiny, and it’s all in your brain,” says her roommate, Hunter (Anna Van Valin), a beer-swilling law student, and that’s truer than she knows.

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BROADWAY REVIEW: The Last Ship

The Last ship

October 26, 2014: Hard times, blighted lives and the bleak humor that occasionally lifts the fog: The universe of The Last Ship, the new musical with a score by Sting about a shipbuilding town in decline, lies at some distance from its peppier neighbors on Broadway, where megaphoned uplift and easy escapism tend to thrive. For that reason alone, it’s hard not to root for this ambitious, earnest musical, which opened on Sunday night at the Neil Simon Theater. Rich in atmosphere — I half expected to see sea gulls reeling in the rafters — and buoyed by a seductive score that ranks among the best composed by a rock or pop figure for Broadway, the musical explores with grit and compassion the lives of the town’s disenfranchised citizens, left behind as the industry that gave them their livelihood set sail for foreign lands. But along with its accomplishments, which include a host of vital performances from its ample cast under the direction of Joe Mantello, The Last Ship also has its share of nagging flaws. The book, by John Logan (Red) and Brian Yorkey (Next to Normal), and inspired in part by Sting’s own upbringing in the northeast England town Wallsend, where the show is set, is unfocused and diffuse. It’s hamstrung by a division between a David versus Goliath story — of the little folk fighting against the faceless forces of the global economy — and a romantic love triangle.

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BROADWAY REVIEW: Disgraced

Disgraced

October 23, 2014: “Bon appétit!” The festive phrase announcing the start of a meal sounds more like a bell signaling another round in a prizefight when it is chirped by Gretchen Mol, playing a hostess whose dinner party has become a verbal jousting tournament in Ayad Akhtar’s terrific, turbulent drama Disgraced. By this point in the play, which opened at the Lyceum Theater on Thursday night, the nerves of everyone settling down to eat have been scraped raw. It’s hard to concentrate on your fennel and anchovy salad when the conversation over cocktails has descended into a fierce debate about the rise of Islamic terrorism and the basic tenets or the meaning of the Quran. Mr. Akhtar’s play, which was first seen in New York in 2012 and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, has come roaring back to life on Broadway in a first-rate production directed by Kimberly Senior that features an almost entirely new cast. In the years since it was first produced here, the play’s exploration of the conflicts between modern culture and Islamic faith, as embodied by the complicated man at its center — a Pakistani-born, thoroughly assimilated New Yorker — have become ever more pertinent. The rise of the so-called Islamic State, and the news that radicalized Muslims from Europe and the United States have joined the conflict raging in Syria and Iraq, brings an even keener edge to Mr. Akhtar’s engrossing drama. At first blush, Amir (Hari Dhillon) seems to be in admirable possession of an American-dream life. He’s a lawyer specializing in mergers and acquisitions, which explains the immaculate apartment with a terrace to make any New Yorker salivate. His wife, Emily (Ms. Mol), is a painter on track to be included in a new show at the Whitney. Emily has begun a portrait of Amir inspired by a Velazquez painting of his Moorish assistant. An incident with a waiter at a restaurant the night before brought Amir’s ethnic heritage to the fore, and Emily has become intrigued by the gap “between what he was assuming about you, and what you really are”: words that will prove eerily prophetic as the drama unfolds.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Deliverance

Deliverance

October 23, 2014: Four urbanites plan a relaxing holiday on a Georgia river. They’ll drink beers, play guitar, shoot the occasional doe. Well, leave it to sniper fire and rape to spoil a country weekend. Godlight Theater Company, a troupe committed to bringing books to the stage, has given James Dickey’s 1970 novel, Deliverance, the theatrical treatment. (It differs from the better-known film in several respects. Don’t expect any pig squealing.) Performed by seven actors on an intimate stage just 12 feet by 12 feet, it’s the kind of backwoods saga that will make you lavishly thankful for the comforts of concrete and taxis and takeout Chinese. If this is a story of a really bad vacation (someone should post a strongly worded warning on TripAdvisor’s Georgia board), it is more broadly about a crisis in masculinity. It’s because the survivalist Lewis (Gregory Konow) fears that easy living will make him soft that he talks his pals into joining him on a canoe trip, a way to stave off “the long declining routine of our lives.”

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