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Photo: Sara Krulwich

OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: While I Was Waiting

July 20, 2017: Political theater, with its tendency toward hectoring and grandiosity, is hard to credit these days. After all, both politics and theater have been with us for centuries, barely making an inch of difference in the tide of human brutality. “While I Was Waiting,” a subtly harrowing play by Mohammad Al Attar that opened on Wednesday in a Lincoln Center Festival production, gets around the problem by embracing failure as its central subject: the failure of government, yes, but also of resistance. As a character named Omar says, “How can nothing have changed, after all that happened?” Omar is referring specifically to the aftermath of the attempted peaceful revolution in Syria during the Arab Spring of 2011. Nearly half a million have so far died in the ensuing civil war, yet President Bashar al-Assad remains in power. That sense of stasis despite enormous disruption is what gives Mr. Al Attar’s play its convincing bite: “While I Was Waiting,” as its title suggests, is about the oxymoron of permanent crisis, in which ordinary characters face ordinary problems in a world gone mortally absurd.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Spoon River

July 16, 2017: Don’t expect the silence of the grave to be honored in the small-town churchyard of “Spoon River,” the exuberant musical from Soulpepper, the Toronto-based troupe in residence at the Pershing Square Signature Center this summer. Most of the characters in this production, adapted from Edgar Lee Masters’s “Spoon River Anthology,” may be pushing up daisies. But they are also all as fresh as those proverbial flowers, even when they wallow in regrets and recriminations about the lives they once led. As embodied by a foot-stomping, string-plucking ensemble of 19, the dearly (and sometimes rancorously) departed souls of “Spoon River” are far sprier than the lumbering zombies of “The Walking Dead.” They are also a lot more mellifluous.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Hamlet-Public

July 13, 2017: Who’s afraid of “Hamlet”? Certainly not the director Sam Gold, whose gloriously involving new production at the Public Theater treats Shakespeare’s daunting tragedy with an easy, jokey familiarity that’s usually reserved for siblings and longtime drinking buddies. As in such relationships, Mr. Gold and his top-flight cast — led by a majestically impudent Oscar Isaac in the title role — tease and tweak the object of their affections, which happens to be the best-known play in English literature and one of the knottiest. But that’s because the creative team here obviously knows and loves its “Hamlet” so very well.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Assassins-City Center

July 13, 2017: Two of the last three Tony Award-winning best musicals — “Fun Home” and “Dear Evan Hansen” — have featured suicide as a central plot point. Other recent winners have spoofed serial killing and mocked religion. Still, I submit that the most shocking mainstream musical ever written is the 26-year-old “Assassins,” which begins with an invitation to “C’mon and shoot a president” and then goes considerably further. The shock is not just in the daring but in — pardon me — the execution. John Weidman’s book situates nine of the country’s would-be presidential assassins, from John Wilkes Booth to John Hinckley, in a metaphysical shooting gallery and lets them goad one another across time. Stephen Sondheim’s score explores their motivations, but also, in its pungent use of American pastiche, burrows deep into the national character that bred them.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Opening Skinner’s Box

July 11, 2017: There are six eager performers in “Opening Skinner’s Box,” part of the Lincoln Center Festival, which begins this week. And their industriousness in the service of science and theater is not to be denied. During this whimsically informative overview of psychological experimentation in the 20th century, they dutifully transform themselves into drug-addicted rats, maternally challenged monkeys, lobotomy recipients and miffed psychologists. They also explain concepts like cognitive dissonance and negative reinforcement with that demonstrative gusto often found in beloved middle school teachers.

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