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Photo: Kevin Frest

OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Comfort Dogs

Comfort Dogs

March 1, 2015: The performers in the playwright and director William Burke’s Comfort Dogs: Live From the Pink House are unusually brazen. They will sniff your hand, nuzzle your thigh, leap into your lap. Some of these actors are dogs. Some are people playing dogs. All are pretty cute. Short, sweet and still sort of nebulous, Mr. Burke’s play, part of the Damnable Scribbling series celebrating Brooklyn College playwrights at Jack in Clinton Hill, centers on therapy dogs and the people who find solace and succor in their wet-nosed company. Well, maybe it does. Honestly, it’s a little hard to tell. There are speeches and songs seemingly written from a dog’s-eye perspective: “Not afraid. The wheel. The welcome. The smell. Not afraid. Walk. The door. The door.” There are also letters, placed on seats throughout the small theater, that are begged for by the actors playing dogs and are apparently supposed to be written by people: “When the time is right. Please come back. Your head will always have a place on my lap.”

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: John & Jen

John & Jen

March 1, 2015: Growing up isn’t easy. Just take a look at Richard Linklater’s Boyhood if you need reminding. But imagine how difficult it must be to do so — and I mean the hard part, from early childhood to the end of adolescence — in less than two hours, and in song, and in front of a live audience. That’s the task that’s been assigned to Kate Baldwin and Conor Ryan, the appealing stars (and entire cast) of the Keen Company’s 20th-anniversary revival of John & Jen, Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald’s blunt button pusher of a musical about changing times and a fraying family. Yet these agile performers find a beguiling grace in the ungainly process of fast-forward maturation. Mercifully, they also manage, whenever possible, to avoid getting stuck in the syrupy sticky patches with which the show lines their path. As the title characters in this Jonathan Silverstein production, which opened on Thursday night on Theater Row, Ms. Baldwin and Mr. Ryan must advance from being cute, loving siblings in the 1950s to political antagonists in the tumultuous ’60s, building a legacy of guilt along the way.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Hitting Bedrock

Hitting Bedrock

March 1, 2015: When I was first told to leave the theater during the beginning of Hitting Bedrock, I grinned, thinking I’d misheard. A repeated request, however, was hard and clear enough to let me know that this was no joke. That demand was soon made of everyone in the audience, and within a few minutes we were shepherded out of our seats and downstairs into a basement passageway, then relocated to another shadowy space, all while carrying our belongings in bags. This experimental docuplay at La MaMa, which relates stories of Ukrainian war refugees, loses power the longer it goes on. Yet those early moments effectively mimic the confusion felt by people caught in war’s upheaval. Hitting Bedrock, conceived and directed by Virlana Tkacz, started out as a relatively benign project. In 2013, the Yara Arts Group traveled to Donetsk, Ukraine, for a theater program that asked residents to describe their dreams for the future. It seemed an interesting question to pose to those who live in an unassuming town known primarily for mining (hence the play’s title), and many were eager to participate.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Rocket to the Moon

Rocket to the Moon

March 1, 2015: The Depression is raging, and so is the summer heat. The patients with money have left the city for the beach, and the others can’t afford to have their teeth fixed, anyway. Clifford Odets’s 1938 Rocket to the Moon — a lesser-known work from his Group Theater days — takes place in a dental office bereft of patients, a sort of purgatory whose proprietor can’t summon the will to leave it. The play’s revival by the Peccadillo Theater Company, directed by Dan Wackerman at the Theater at St. Clement’s, rewards the curiosity of anyone with an interest in Odets, but possibly not quite in the way it intends. Ben Stark (Ned Eisenberg), a middle-aged Manhattan dentist and confirmed milquetoast, dreams of a less soul-sucking life, yet lacks the courage to try to build one. It’s like the quandary the Hollywood star Charlie Castle faces in Odets’s The Big Knife, but for lower moral and material stakes. As the play begins, Ben’s wealthy father-in-law, Mr. Prince (Jonathan Hadary, amusingly nettlesome), has offered to set him up as a specialist. The proposition may be sincere, but there’s not much chance that Ben will accept it. His sour wife, Belle (Marilyn Matarrese), estranged from her father, opposes any financial risk.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Light Princess

The Light Princess

March 1, 2015: If only NASA had existed in days of yore. Its scientists might have had coping strategies for the heroine of The Light Princess, who has an unusual fairy tale problem: weightlessness. This musical, performed at the New Victory Theater by the A.R.T. Institute at Harvard (a graduate program founded by the American Repertory Theater), has source material most Disney-saturated young New Yorkers won’t have heard of: a story by the Scottish Victorian George MacDonald. But that’s not the only reason to recommend it. Richly imagined and delightfully acted, this 70-minute production proves unexpected in almost every way. With a book by Lila Rose Kaplan, and a catchy pop score and lyrics by Mike Pettry, the show begins like many such narratives. A royal couple (Corey Sullivan and Steph Jack) turn to a witch, the queen’s vindictive sister, for a solution to their childlessness. The witch (Kristin Wetherington) delivers, but warns of a price. (“There always is,” she purrs.) The parents soon discover that their daughter lacks not just gravity, but gravitas: She feels no fear, sadness or love. If she can’t attain gravity by her 16th birthday, the curse will be permanent, and the witch will become queen.

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