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Photo: Hiroko Masuike

OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Ramona

Ramona

July 30, 2015: “Ramona,” a play from Georgia’s Gabriadze Theater at the Lincoln Center Festival, stars two star-crossed steam locomotives. You could say it’s about the romance of travel, though here that romance ends in an unusually tearful scene of smelting. In just over an hour, this puppet show, set in the postwar Soviet Union, tackles freedom and duty, love and death, and metallurgy. The winsome Ramona is a shunting engine, relegated to tootling up and down a small railroad station in the Rioni region. Her lover is Ermon, a strapping hunk of horsepower. When he is sent to help rebuild infrastructure in Siberia, Ramona pines away for months and then years. But she regains a sense of purpose when a couple of dodgy circus impresarios persuade her to carry their troupe over the mountain pass to the spa town of Tskaltubo to rescue their circus tent and their livelihood. Then their star tightrope walker is injured, and these mountebanks demand from Ramona a further, aerodynamically unlikely sacrifice.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Paradise Blue

Paradise Blue

July 29, 2015: Her name is Silver, but everything about her says noir: the slinky, hip-swaying gait; the voice — one part molasses, one part bourbon and cigarettes; the electric charge she sends through a room just by walking in. When this alluring stranger glides into a Detroit nightclub in Dominique Morisseau’s jazz-infused “Paradise Blue” — clad in glamorous widow’s weeds, a set of alligator luggage in tow — you may think you’ve seen her kind before. But one of the juicy pleasures of this overloaded drama, set in 1949 and receiving its world premiere at the Williamstown Theater Festival, is the way Ms. Morisseau upends expectations. In Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s stylishly designed production, she’s expertly abetted by some marvelous actors, reveling in the musicality of the language as they rip into roles that seem, at first, to be drawn from stock. So does the plot that’s ostensibly at the center of the piece: Blue (Blair Underwood), the nightclub’s dapper trumpet-playing owner, is secretly planning to sell the place and leave town, putting the house musicians, Corn (Keith Randolph Smith) and P-Sam (Andre Holland), out of a gig and wrenching his compliant girlfriend, Pumpkin (Kristolyn Lloyd), from her beloved home. By the time Silver (De’Adre Aziza) arrives on the scene, Blue is practically halfway out the door.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Miss Julie

Miss Julie

July 28, 2015: Our global age of income inequality certainly cannot be guaranteed to add a jolt of relevance to any classic play, but it definitely serves as an illuminating backdrop to Thomas Ostermeier’s stark and penetrating production of “Miss Julie,” August Strindberg’s celebrated 1888 drama about the turbulent war of wills between a well-to-do young woman and her father’s servant. For his first visit to the Lincoln Center Festival, Mr. Ostermeier has brought a Russian-language production of the play originally staged in 2011 at the Theater of Nations in Moscow. Like his versions of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” “Hedda Gabler” and “An Enemy of the People,” all seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Mr. Ostermeier’s “Miss Julie” takes place in the here and now, in this case the here and now of Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia, where globe-trotting billionaires minted after the collapse of the Soviet Union live in extreme luxury while much of the population merely subsists. The production, at City Center through Sunday, takes places on a minimalist set depicting a gleaming modern kitchen decked out in stainless steel. Video has become an almost obligatory element of European avant-garde theater (see Declan Donnellan’s stimulating “Ubu Roi,” also at the festival this year), and Mr. Ostermeier’s “Miss Julie” is no exception. A large screen hanging above the black turntable set shows us (mostly) a bird’s-eye view of the proceedings, which begin with the servant Christine (an amusingly unflappable Julia Peresild) meticulously preparing chicken bouillon — for her mistress’s young puppy, who’s been newly spayed.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Summer Shorts

Summer Shorts

July 28, 2015: Looking to switch up your exercise regimen? Want to challenge your ethics while you increase your heart rate and tone your glutes? Then why not audition for a Neil LaBute play? Since “Bash,” a 1999 trilogy of one-acts, Mr. LaBute has shown himself to be adept at plays in brief. If “10K” doesn’t match the high intensity of some of his earlier works, it’s still a highlight of the first evening of 59E59’s annual “Summer Shorts” festival. And it’s a great cardiovascular routine for its actors, too. A man (J. J. Kandel) and a woman (Clea Alsip) meet while stretching at a suburban park. They decide to run together, and as the kilometers tick by they reveal fantasies and secrets, a mix of the mildly far-fetched and the nicely chilling. You can feel the playwright’s manipulations, but the play is vigorously performed. Mr. LaBute, who also directs, has the actors jogging in place at a fast clip, feet slapping the stage floor, breasts and pecs bouncing. That Ms. Alsip and Mr. Kandel should manage to speak the lines without panting or collapsing seems sufficient accomplishment. That they can convey character at the same time really deserves applause. Let’s hope someone hands them rehydration salts as soon as they come offstage.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Mrs. Smith’s Broadway Cat-Tacular!

Mrs. Smith’s Broadway Cat-Tacular!

July 28, 2015: “Mrs. Smith’s Broadway Cat-Tacular!,” at the 47th Street Theater, is a decent drag show, but it needs more “cat,” or something, to really earn that “tacular.” David Hanbury, who created it, has been working his Mrs. Smith character for ages and by now has her down to a well-defined, confidently rendered portrait. She’s a grande dame on the high-strung side, with 14 husbands in her past and a fierce attachment to her cat, Carlyle, who has been missing, in this show’s conceit, for two and a half years. The search inspires her to mount a Ziegfeld-style show in which she intends to tell her life story, occasionally mention the lost cat and in general achieve a catharsis. “Tonight I’m going to cathart all over you,” she promises. That’s a pretty broad premise, and Mr. Hanbury uses it to visit the repertories of Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli and assorted other drag-show favorites. He has a stronger singing voice than many in the genre, and though none of his renditions will make you forget the performers who made the songs famous, they’re solid enough. A Bette Midler-style “Do You Want to Dance?” is oddly poignant, and a parody of “The Ladies Who Lunch,” part of a long story about performing for Pat Nixon, lands pretty well.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: King Liz

King Liz

July 27, 2015: As portrayed with fierce and compelling focus by Karen Pittman, Liz Rico, the heroine of “King Liz,” a new play by Fernanda Coppel, is as powerfully smart as she is powerfully sexy. Also just plain powerful, at least in the realm of sports-agenting, where she has nearly reached the pinnacle. Ms. Coppel’s engrossing if sometimes formulaic drama, at the McGinn/Cazale Theater as part of Second Stage’s Uptown summer season, explores the pressures that Liz comes under as an independent black woman in a field generally dominated by — well, not black women, independent or otherwise. Liz has worked for more than two decades at an agency run by a more typical macher in the field, the white, older Mr. Candy (Michael Cullen), who has been a generous mentor but can also casually reveal his condescension to the woman whose career he shaped. As the play begins, he puts pressure on Liz to sign Freddie Luna (Jeremie Harris), a high school basketball phenomenon from the hard streets of Red Hook, Brooklyn. (Yes, I know, some are not so hard anymore.) Liz has qualms about his maturity, but his talent is undeniable, and Mr. Candy suggests that landing Freddie — and signing him with a major franchise — would go some way toward securing Liz’s stature as the preferred candidate to take over the agency when he imminently retires.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Three Days to See

Three Days to See

July 27, 2015: Helen Keller had a brief stage career. This might sound like a joke. It isn’t. In the 1920s, she toured the vaudeville circuit with Annie Sullivan, swanning around in sequined dresses while demonstrating her accomplishments and cracking jokes about drink and politics. A New York Times review effused, “Helen Keller has conquered again.” Many decades after that triumph, Keller is onstage again in the Transport Group’s often moving, sometimes sudsy, sometimes dull “Three Days to See,” a play drawn from Keller’s writing and speeches. The director Jack Cummings III has culled nearly two hours of observations and anecdotes and assigned them to a cast of seven animated actors. These performers — a grab bag of age, race, gender and height — all play Keller, occasionally wearing a pinafore. While there is much discussion of Sullivan’s teaching methods, there’s not a lot in “Three Days to See” that will make you think of “The Miracle Worker.” Sure, there are occasional bouts of earnestness, but much of the material is playful and even peppy, with passages set to an unimaginative assortment of show tune instrumentals and classical jingles.

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