OFF-BROADWAY REVIEWS

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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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Lippy

Lippy

October 19, 2014: Oh, for the comfort of a corpse that yields its secrets. That’s the premise and promise behind many a television crime series, in which forensic science quantifies irrational human savagery into rational codes that seem as readable as ABC (or N.C.I.S., or S.V.U.). Nary a scrap of alphabetical reassurance is on offer in Lippy, a very smart, very chilly play out of Ireland centered on four dead bodies that refuse to tell their tales. This production from the Dublin-based Dead Centre company, which runs through Nov. 2 at the Abrons Arts Center, is the antithesis of the classic detective story and its satisfying solutions. The clouds of mystery never part in this multilayered, multiform examination of the 2000 real-life suicide pact of three sisters and their aunt, who appear to have died by voluntary starvation in the house they shared in a small Irish town. If anything, the fog of confusion just keeps thickening, taunting our ultimate lack of insight into the lives of others. Sometimes, of course, there’s a cheap thrill in not knowing the answers to lurid mysteries. That’s why David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (soon to be disinterred for a sequel) was such a titillating anomaly for its first season.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Belle of Amherst

The Belle of Amherst

October 19, 2014: Emily Dickinson, that famously welcoming New England hostess of the 19th century, has thrown open her parlor doors to all comers at the Westside Theater, where a new production of William Luce’s biographical play The Belle of Amherst, starring Joely Richardson and directed by Steve Cosson, opened on Sunday night. Please note the sarcasm in that sentence. Although the posthumous publication of her extraordinary poetry made Dickinson a celebrated literary figure, during her lifetime, she was known in her hometown primarily for a reclusiveness bordering on pathology. The notion that she would confide her life story and her most deeply felt poems — or even her recipes for cake and gingerbread — to a couple of hundred strangers a night renders Mr. Luce’s play almost nonsensical from the get-go. Well, never mind. Mr. Luce dispenses with the anomalous conceit by having Dickinson announce in the opening moments: “Forgive me if I’m frightened. I never see strangers.” In any case, Dickinson idolizers are presumably not the target audience for this fluidly written solo play, which served as a durable vehicle for Julie Harris when it was first produced on Broadway in 1976.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Lennon: Through a Glass Onion

Lennon: Through a Glass Onion

October 17, 2014: Even after Broadway’s “Beatlemania” and the Fab Faux, it still takes some moxie to tackle a stage portrait of a giant like John Lennon. John R. Waters, in Lennon: Through a Glass Onion, wisely doesn’t attempt a complete impersonation. There are no glasses or beard or mop top here, just an evocative approximation of the voice and a deeply felt reflection of the man. The stage is occupied only by a piano (Stewart D’Arrietta accompanies Mr. Waters) and a mike stand. The gray-haired Mr. Waters, in black pants, T-shirt and leather jacket, steps up and describes the New York winter of 1980 and a guy waiting five hours across the street from the Dakota. The lights go dark, five shots are heard, and Mr. Waters, sometimes accompanying himself on guitar, begins a loose account of the singer’s life in the first person. Well-trod Beatle lore is addressed, including the rivalry with Paul McCartney; the visit to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; the breakup; and the resentment of Yoko Ono (“British Anglo-Saxon racism — that’s what it was”).

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Labyrinth

Labyrinth

October 17, 2014: What’s in the center of Mark Dendy’s Labyrinth? Maybe it’s the man dressed as a mechanical bull. Maybe it’s the “dea ex machina” in the see-through raincoat? Maybe it’s Mr. Dendy himself, sorting through decades of anxiety and injury. Mr. Dendy, 53, a Broadway choreographer who also creates and performs original work, structures this autobiographical piece around the myth of Theseus. This Theseus, played by Mr. Dendy, is on his way to create a new dance for the Rockettes when he has a psychotic break in the middle of Times Square. This seems like a sensible response to so many flashing lights and furry characters, but Theseus winds up on the psych ward, trying to navigate the labyrinth of his own whirling mind. Staged in the Abrons Arts Center’s grim underground theater (maybe Daedalus could do an upgrade?), Labyrinth combines Mr. Dendy’s confessional speeches with dance, video and Heather Christian’s feisty and imaginative songs. A dead transgender sex worker, Princess Pawnie Ariadne (also played by Mr. Dendy), shows up as a coke-addled spirit guide, but the real animating forces are Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and the kind of performance work Mr. Dendy first encountered in the East Village 30 years ago. “Telling personal stories and dancing about them in public is so ’80s,” Stephen Donovan sneers, as Theseus’ shadow self.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Uncanny Valley

Uncanny Valley

October 16, 2014: He who dies with the most toys wins, or so they say. But what’s the point of having all those playthings if death is going to rip you from them anyway? In Thomas Gibbons’s futuristic two-hander Uncanny Valley, presented by the Contemporary American Theater Festival at 59E59 Theaters, a very wealthy man named Julian hasn’t quite found immortality, but he has bought a means to forestall his demise for at least a couple of centuries. With pancreatic cancer about to kill him, Julian plans to download the contents of his mind into an artificial human that carries his DNA and looks just as he did at 34, more than half a lifetime ago. The machine will assume his identity and his existence. “I haven’t had enough,” Julian tells Claire, a neuroscientist who has spent her career working on artificial consciousness. “This world, this life! I can’t even imagine having my fill.”

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