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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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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Fortress of Solitude

The Fortress of Solitude

October 22, 2014: For a novel that featured a magic ring that allowed teenagers to fly and turn invisible, Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude felt uncannily true to life. This 2003 chronicle of a Jewish boy growing up in a largely African-American Brooklyn neighborhood understood that nothing is ever as simple as black and white. It’s appropriate that the R&B group that formed part of the soundtrack of the coming-of-age of Mr. Lethem’s ambivalent hero was called the Subtle Distinctions. Whether the subject was music, comic books, graffiti, absent parents or experimental sex, the fine differences in their forms — and our narrator’s painful consciousness of them — made the book an especially authentic-tasting brew. The Subtle Distinctions surface again in the big-hearted but thin-blooded musical adaptation of The Fortress of Solitude, which opened Wednesday night at the Public Theater. I’m referring exclusively to the musical quartet. Subtle distinctions, without the capital letters, are rarely in evidence in this production, which features a book by Itamar Moses and songs by Michael Friedman. Directed by Daniel Aukin, who also conceived the show, this Fortress operates mostly on an either-or binary system, as opposed to the more multistranded approach taken by Mr. Lethem. Parallels, contrasts and conflicts are laid out neatly.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: brownsville song (b-side for tray)

brownsville song (b-side for tray)

October 21, 2014: Tray, a high school senior in Brooklyn, is struggling with a scholarship essay. His tutor wants him to describe the challenges he’s faced. Tray resists. “Poor black boy from the violent ghetto,” he says. “That ain’t my life. Ain’t gon be my life.” The tragedy of Kimber Lee’s plaintive brownsville song (b-side for tray) is that Tray (Sheldon Best) has so little life left. A loving big brother, a dogged amateur boxer and an exuberant, impetuous teenager, he’ll be killed — thoughtlessly, almost casually — soon after he finishes that essay. Ms. Lee’s moving if somewhat predictable play, directed by Patricia McGregor and produced by LCT3, means to make Tray’s death more than just “a few damn lines in the paper.” The drama moves back and forth in time, vaulting from the weeks and months before Tray’s shooting to its aftermath. Before his death, Tray lives with his strict, loving grandmother, Lena (Lizan Mitchell), and his quirky kid sister, Devine (Taliyah Whitaker). (While all the other girls in her creative-dance class twirl and flutter as swans, Devine sways in the background as a weeping willow.) Tray’s stepmother, Merrell (Sun Mee Chomet), a former addict, abandoned the family. Looking for a way to return, she’s offered to help him with his college essays.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: 4:48 Psychosis

4:48 Psychosis

October 20, 2014: The basic strategy is as simple as it is devastating: Go ahead, open up that sealed room; let some light into the darkness. Then watch helplessly as the darkness devours the light. That’s the operating theory behind the TR Warszawa company’s stunning reinvention of 4:48 Psychosis, Sarah Kane’s sustained suicide note of a play, which opened on Sunday night at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. As adapted and directed by Grzegorz Jarzyna, this Polish-language (and language-transcending) production ropes its audience into unconditional engagement with a baleful, private spectacle of self-destruction. “See me,” says its unnamed heroine, fully and unflinchingly embodied by the brilliant Magdalena Cielecka. “Touch me.” The words are a taunt, since she is so far beyond our reach. The final work from Kane, a prodigiously gifted British dramatist who hanged herself in 1999 at the age of 28, 4:48 Psychosis would have seemed to be all but unstageable. It is written in fragments, in phrases of disgust and despair and recrimination, annotated with specific dosage numbers for prescription drugs used to treat depression.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Billy & Ray

Billy & Ray

October 20, 2014: Any given five minutes of the classic film noir Double Indemnity — I am tempted to say any single frame of the classic film noir Double Indemnity — packs more heat than the torpid two hours of Billy & Ray, a play by Mike Bencivenga about the combative collaboration between Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler on the movie’s screenplay. Mr. Bencivenga’s slumberous drama, which opened at the Vineyard Theater on Monday night in a stolid production directed by the television veteran Garry Marshall, mostly takes place in the tony Paramount offices of Wilder, played by the Mad Men star Vincent Kartheiser. By this point, Wilder was an established writer-director who had just had a professional breakup with his favored screenwriting partner, Charles Brackett. (Noises suggesting their tumultuous parting are heard before the lights go up on Charlie Corcoran’s sleek set. The reason for their divorce has something to do with Wilder’s itch to film a certain pitch-black James M. Cain novel, which Brackett considered insufficiently uplifting. This is bad news for the producer Joe Sistrom (Drew Gehling), who paid a pile of Paramount’s money to option the book. But the pugnacious Wilder refuses to give in. “It’s time the movies grew up,” he scoffs. Scorning the stable of writers at the studio, he insists on finding the right guy for the material.

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