Photo: Sara Krulwich

OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Important Hats of the Twentieth Century

Important Hats of the Twentieth Century

November 23, 2015: Milliners — all 12 of you still practicing that noble craft — should not get too excited about “Important Hats of the Twentieth Century,” a new comedy by Nick Jones that opened on Monday at City Center in a Manhattan Theater Club production. A parade of historic headgear does not feature in Mr. Jones’s frothy but chiffon-thin play about rivalrous fashion designers, semi-mad scientists and time travel. Mr. Jones’s woolly fantasy, set mostly in 1937, with frequent flights to 1998, begins like a film noir, with a reporter arriving at the scene of a crime. T. B. Doyle, played with funny, square-jawed seriousness by John Behlmann, is interrogating a police officer about a break-in at the laboratory of the “brilliant overweight scientist” Dr. Cromwell (Remy Auberjonois). The cop seems a bit vague about the device purloined and the supposedly grave implications of its theft (“You know these scientists — they think the whole world revolves around science — ha!”), but he’s quite taken with Doyle’s hat, which he finds quite “chic.” We are clearly in fantasyland when beat cops are tossing around lingo like that in 1937.



OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom

Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom

November 20, 2015: The homey voice of Mister Rogers can be heard chirping that “it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood” shortly before the latest production at the Flea Theater begins. But the audience knows that beautiful days are unlikely to be on the menu. The title of the show is “Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom,” and everyone is happily braced for the campy scarefest that would seem to be signaled by the contrast between the neighborhoods of a children’s television song and those of this play’s reality. Or rather, virtual reality. Written by Jennifer Haley, “Neighborhood 3” takes place mostly in an alternate online universe that simulates the natural habitat of the kids playing the game of the title. And since Ms. Haley is the author of “The Nether,” presented by the MCC earlier this year and perhaps the most sophisticated (and disturbing) onstage exploration to date of Internet addiction, expectations are understandably high for this variation on the same theme. Yet “Neighborhood 3,” which has been staged by the indefatigable film director Joel Schumacher, never convincingly inhabits either of its principal settings — the green, green grassy world of the all-American suburbs or its creepy computer-rendered counterpart. Though it was seen in an earlier version more than seven years ago at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky., this work still appears to take place on that flat, in-between zone of creativity commonly known as the drawing board.


BROADWAY REVIEW: The Illusionists

The Illusionists

November 20, 2015: Magic acts, it seems to me, are best served like a nice dry martini, straight up. That’s not the theory behind “The Illusionists,” directed and choreographed by Neil Dorward. It seems to have been designed along the lines of television contest shows like “The Voice” and “America’s Got Talent,” with all sorts of trumped-up glitz attempting to feed the excitement. We get continuous blasts of thunderous, supposedly suspense-enhancing music played onstage by a band. In addition to the seven magicians themselves, a chorus of assistants slinks around in gothic attire attempting to look sexy, or menacing, or something. There are laser beams, digital video screens and more. All this serves not to enhance the brilliance of the feats being performed but to distract from it. In fact, all the fancy stagecraft surrounding the acts makes the tricks themselves seem less impressive. A giant screen that hangs above the stage, offering us a close-up view of the sleight of hand, tends to grab your attention. Everyone knows that watching a magic act on television instead of live robs it of much of its allure.


OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces

November 19, 2015: Ignatius J. Reilly, the blimp-sized, eloquently imperious, gastrically challenged antihero of John Kennedy Toole’s long-celebrated 1980 novel “A Confederacy of Dunces” has at last made it to the stage, in the person of Nick Offerman, of “Parks and Recreation” fame, in an adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher having its premiere at the Huntington Theater Company here. He is surrounded, as in the book, by the riotous assortment of fools and knaves gabbling, carping, sniping and generally distracting the great Ignatius from his monumental philosophical work, in which he will prove beyond doubt that civilization has been snowballing downhill since the Middle Ages. But perhaps inevitably, in clambering from the pages of Toole’s capacious book onto the Huntington stage, where the rigors of dramatic form can pinch, Ignatius and company seem to have lost some of their seedy, vicious charm, and Ignatius himself some of his unforgettable comic girth.




November 18, 2015: Hello, not-so-young lovers, wherever you are. Do you know what Rodgers and Hammerstein show I’m (sort of) quoting there? Even if you don’t (it’s “The King and I”), you’re likely to have a swell time at “Steve,” a surprisingly serious comedy by Mark Gerrard in which no event is so grave or so trivial that it cannot be annotated with a musical comedy reference. This deliciously well-acted New Group production, which opened under Cynthia Nixon’s assured direction on Wednesday night at the Pershing Square Signature Center, portrays a group of middle-aged gay New Yorkers for whom life was once truly a cabaret. No, make that a piano bar — the kind where, between show tunes, you might lock eyes with someone who’d turn out to be, if not the love of your life, at least the flavor of the night.



Pike St.

November 17, 2015: Evelyn, the principal character in Nilaja Sun’s terrific new solo show, “Pike St.,” had her hands full even before news came of the hurricane bearing down on New York. Her 15-year-old daughter, Candi, is severely disabled and needs constant care. Four years ago, Candi had an aneurysm — or some similar catastrophic brain malfunction — and now she can barely speak and cannot feed herself. She also requires a respirator. It’s that respirator — and a dialysis machine — that’s jangling in Evelyn’s mind when we first meet her, on a phone call with Con Edison, trying to find out whether her building, on the Lower East Side street that gives the play its title, is likely to lose power. Evelyn desperately needs a generator in case it does. Moving with Candi into a shelter, as they did the last time a big storm hit, was traumatic for everyone.




November 17, 2015: When the cast list for a play identifies its characters only by pronouns, it might as well have a warning sticker attached, reading, “Whimsy alert: severe artiness ahead.” These days, surely only dramatists of Edward Albee’s generation, which came of age in the absurdist shadows of Ionesco and Pirandello, can be forgiven such universal nomenclature, and even they can irritate in that regard. So my heart sank a bit when I picked up the program for the German playwright Maria Milisavljevic’s “Abyss,” which opened on Monday night at Theaterlab in a Play Company production, and saw that the three-member ensemble would be portraying people named I, She and He. Yet while I (I mean me, not the character) suppose that this poetic drama qualifies as severely arty, it is also genuinely artful. And if you bear with its more fanciful flourishes, it will take you places you didn’t expect to go.



Good for Otto

November 16, 2015: The sound of an orchestra tuning up signals the start of “Good for Otto,” the new play by David Rabe having its premiere at the small Gift Theater here. It’s a smart touch from the director, Michael Patrick Thornton, for Mr. Rabe’s moving drama does have a symphonic quality, although an apt analogy would be mournful Shostakovich rather than something jubilantly lyrical from, say, Schubert. As exciting as it can be to discover fresh new voices, it can be just as heartening to see a veteran playwright return to powerful form, as Mr. Rabe unquestionably does in this sprawling drama about mental illness. (The play is based on material from the book “Undoing Depression,” by Richard O’Connor.) With an amplitude that almost overwhelms — the play, with a 15-member cast, runs a full three hours — Mr. Rabe digs into his subject with a depth that almost feels bottomless. The expansiveness at times can be a little oppressive — we are still meeting new people with new problems late in the first act — but the play’s near-epic nature is integral to its strength. We come to share, in a small way, the sense of laboring under an unbearable burden that plagues the central character, a counselor and administrator at a mental health clinic in the Berkshires.




November 15, 2015: Though it is based on one of Stephen King’s most terrifying novels, the stage version of “Misery” will not, I promise, leave you cold with terror. The production that opened on Sunday night at the Broadhurst Theater, which stars a vacant Bruce Willis (in his Broadway debut) and a hardworking Laurie Metcalf, sustains a steady, drowsy room temperature throughout. Never mind that we start off in darkest, deepest winter in an isolated gothic farmhouse as thunder cracks and lighting flashes. You’re more likely to experience chills sitting in a tepid bath at home. This lack of shivers may not bother theatergoers who have bought their tickets simply to see an action hero of the screen in the flesh. Portraying Paul Sheldon, a best-selling novelist who finds himself held captive by a deranged fan who wields a mean mallet, Mr. Willis behaves in much the same way as he does as the indestructible Detective McClane while being tortured, shot at and nearly blown to oblivion in the “Die Hard” film series, for which he is best known.



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