May 25, 2016: A singing preacher and his singing son go mano-a-mano, or rather microphone-to-microphone, in “The Total Bent,” a blazingly entertaining new musical set mostly during the 1960s from the creators of “Passing Strange,” Stew and his regular collaborator Heidi Rodewald. The novelty here is that Stew himself is not center stage, as he was in that loosely autobiographical show, which started at the Public Theater before moving to Broadway. He’s onstage, to be sure — and once again at the Public — singing, playing guitar and piano, and chiming in with a line or two of dialogue. Ms. Rodewald is also present, mostly seated on a couch playing bass and adding vocals. But there’s hardly a void at the center of this fresh and funny if sometimes wayward show, with a text by Stew and music by Stew and Ms. Rodewald. Quite the contrary. Playing the preacher is the vibrant Vondie Curtis Hall, who seems to shine with a righteous light when he sings. And as his son, Ato Blankson-Wood gives a breakout performance of wry wit and musical intensity. Portraying a gay young man who moves from composing songs for his father to composing them for himself, he transforms before our eyes from a rebellious boy fiddling with a recording console into a live-wire performer, half Tina Turner, half Mick Jagger and all strutting bravado and androgynous sex appeal. (There’s even a sly allusion to Ms. Turner’s spoken introduction to her fiery version of “Proud Mary.”) The story of Joe Roy (Mr. Hall) and his son, Marty, (Mr. Blankson-Wood) begins as Marty is urging Joe to resurrect his career by recording a protest album, to get on board with the civil rights movement that is roiling the South, and specifically Montgomery, Ala., where they live and where a bus boycott is underway. (The city is referred to throughout at “Bluntgomery.”) Joe’s thriving career as an itinerant preacher and singer of gospel hits composed by Marty fell apart when he attempted an unwise foray into faith healing, and he desperately needs a comeback. But he’s none too pleased with the song that opens the show — although you would hardly know it from Mr. Hall’s mesmerizing performance. Marty’s latest includes a chorus celebrating the mercy of Jesus, with the repeated refrain, “That’s why he’s Jesus and you’re not, whitey.” Their angry sparring over the song becomes personal, as Joe shares with the audience his contempt for a son who wore his mother’s high heels as a boy (“She loved that,” Marty interjects) and had “an unhealthy obsession with Danny Kaye movies.” Also: He hated all sports — except tennis. But Joe’s dim view of his son’s character is matched by Marty’s anger at his father’s reactionary attitudes, which Joe expresses in a song featuring a chorus admonishing the local agitators to “shut up and get back on the bus” and “suffer your oppression with a smile.” (“Which one y’all wrote this?” Marty angrily demands of the onstage band as Joe sings.) Their opposed worldviews eventually lead to a rift — although this is glossed over a little abruptly. Joe continues to preach accommodation, making a television appearance to calm the waters. Meanwhile, Marty turns a couple of fellows sneaking into the recording studio into his backup singers and dancers, and begins recording himself. (Jahi Kearse and Curtis Wiley give lively performances in these fairly substantial roles.) Helping him make the transformation is Byron Blackwell (a marvelously oily David Cale), a British man obsessed with black music who styles himself as a producer and also, it is implied, becomes Marty’s lover. At the same time, he attempts to cajole Joe, whom he also considers a musical genius, into recording for him, causing friction on all sides. “The Total Bent” can get a little fuzzy when it comes to the details of its story. Stew’s book is not always cogent, although it’s consistently funny. But then the show as a whole, directed by Joanna Settle, has an intentionally loose vibe, with the band interacting with the characters (and occasionally even singing their lines) and the characters at times talking to the audience as much as to one another. The set, by Andrew Lieberman, echoes the casual attitude, featuring garish-mod carpeting and a jumble of period furniture, as well as a church pew. Even if you may scratch your head at a few points — half the characters have some sort of mystical conversion experience, though what they are converting to or from is unclear — “The Total Bent” keeps you hooked through the surging power of its sensational score, which blends elements of the blues, gospel, funk and throbbing guitar-driven rock. Stew’s lyrics, too, are a consistent pleasure. One particularly pointed song finds a mystified Byron asking, as the song is titled, “Why Do Black People Still Believe in God?” Pointing out the history of African-Americans’ oppression, he’s backed up by Marty, but opposed by other members of the cast, notably Deacon Charlie (a dignified Kenny Brawner), who sing, “Hell ain’t so bad when you know you goin’ to heaven.” “The Total Bent” — the title comes from a speech by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and is the name of Marty’s breakthrough album — becomes bogged down when it comes to the character of Marty himself. Is he, in the end, a real believer? It’s hard to tell. But Mr. Hall and Mr. Blankson-Wood give such galvanizing performances, as equally stubborn men who cannot seem to free themselves from each other’s emotional orbit, that the nagging questions — like what exactly happened to Marty’s mother, or why does Marty end up in jail at one point? — are easy to forget. Mr. Hall sings with a seductive purr that can rise to soaring, soulful heights. And Mr. Blankson-Wood delivers a reflective ballad with silken authority, but also rips into the slashing up-tempo songs with a flair that recalls any number of great black R&B stars. When either performer is pouring himself into one of the heat-generating songs, you may forget you’re watching a musical at all. At its best, “The Total Bent” feels more like an ecstatic combination of revival meeting and rock concert.




May 25, 2016: Toward the end of Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt,” a saga of self under siege, the title character is discovered peeling an onion, finding in the layers of that humble vegetable a symbol for the chapters of an eventful life. In most productions of this bulky fantasia, the moment is a long time coming — as much as five or six hours — and audiences are likely to feel as depleted as the now aged Peer. But in John Doyle’s bare-boned adaptation of “Peer Gynt,” which opened on Wednesday night at the Classic Stage Company, the dialogue between man and onion arrives after a mere 100 minutes or so. The onion is definitely real and definitely itself, one of the few items in this scenery-free production of which this might be said. As for the man, though he’s embodied in the sullied flesh by the talented Gabriel Ebert, his identity is, as always, open to debate. So, come to think of it, is that of the strange and swirling play in which he appears, though in this telling “Peer Gynt” is both more digestible and less flavorful than usual. Mr. Doyle, whose similarly minimalist version of the musical “The Color Purple” is one of the triumphs of the recently concluded Broadway season, has here done his imaginative best to tame, through shrinkage, one of the great, shape-shifting monsters of world theater. (Mr. Doyle is the newly anointed artistic director of the Classic Stage Company, and you can imagine this valuable institution will be saving a fortune on production budgets.) Originally composed in five acts of verse that travel the globe amid various real and surreal estate, this early work by Ibsen would seem to have little in common with his later, better-known dramas of scalding social realism, “Ghosts” and “A Doll’s House.” Yet in some ways, “Peer Gynt,” inspired by Norwegian folk tales, is the most prophetically modern of all his plays, anticipating writers of the page (Joyce, Kafka) and stage (Ionesco, Pirandello) who would question the very nature of reality and identity. Writing in The New York Times in 1969, the great critic Walter Kerr observed: “We have, at this particular time in our theatrical history, caught up with ‘Peer Gynt,’ above all with what used to seem its stylistic contrariness. This is the kind of play we know now, breathe now, live with now.” That production, staged in Central Park by Gerald Freedman, was said to be a sprawling eyeful, replete with grotesque visions out of Hieronymus Bosch, appropriate to a play that conspicuously features trolls (of the pre-Internet variety). “Peer Gynt” has since attracted directors of ripe imagistic bent, including Ingmar Bergman and, more recently, Robert Wilson. Mr. Doyle (who also did the compellingly skeletal 2005 Broadway revival of “Sweeney Todd”) doesn’t do spectacle. His approach is the same one that Peer applies to the onion: Keep stripping until you find the core. Of course in Peer’s case what is finally found is plenty of nothing, an apt conclusion for a man for whom a solid self remains elusive. Mr. Doyle’s six-performer, single-set, intermission-free condensation delivers somewhat more fruitful results. If this production lacks the teeming, motley exuberance that pulses in Ibsen’s text, it definitely distills the intriguing philosophical essence of a play that still seems unsettlingly relevant. And you may wind up filling in the blanks left by Mr. Doyle’s stark staging with contemporary scenes from, among other sources, the current presidential race. Like your typical American politician, our Peer, played with radiant petulance and inexhaustible athleticism by Mr. Ebert, is a figure of great bluster, ambition and duplicity. We first meet him as a boy telling his impoverished, understandably distrustful Mother (Becky Ann Baker) extravagantly tall tales of riding an enchanted stag through the mountain. Someday, he says, he’s going to be emperor. And in the scenes that follow, he makes good on the boast, as he roams from the mazelike, snowy forests of Norway to the boundless sea, with stops in the New World and the North African desert. He becomes, among other things, a prince in the realm of the trolls; a millionaire slave trader (“I wanted to stimulate the economy,” he explains); and a seducer and abandoner of assorted women. At the same time, he never stops wondering what personality has been shaped by this nomadic life. “Man, be thyself,” goes an injunction oft-repeated in the play. But who is that? As he contemplates his imminent death, Peer broods, “Then let the snow fall over me and on my resting place may they write — ‘Here Lies No One.’” I’m making “Peer Gynt,” a work of endless contradictions, sound simpler than it is. Every assertion is followed by its opposite. And the figures who bedevil Peer include, in addition to the trolls he takes up with (embodied by Dylan Baker and Jane Pfitsch), a mysterious stranger on a doomed ship (George Abud); a cosmic button molder (Adam Heller); and Solveig (a touching Quincy Tyler Bernstine), Peer’s pure-hearted, ever-waiting sweetheart. WRITE A COMMENT Their diverse interactions — hauntingly underscored by Dan Moses Schreier’s music and sound design — occur on and around a ragged raised platform of a stage (David L. Arsenault did the set). But it’s a small space, basically built for one, and it seems safe to say Peer has seldom seemed as solitary a soul as he does here. By the time he comes to his tête-à-tête with the onion, we may not feel like weeping, as Peer does (it’s an onion, remember). But in this production, we can definitely understand why and how he’s reached this pathetic moment of communion.


OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: A Doll’s House & The Father


May 25, 2016: A noise of primal desperation emanates from each of the two suspenseful dramas that have been resonantly paired in repertory by Theater for a New Audience. They are Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” and Strindberg’s “The Father.” And there comes a moment about halfway through both productions when a solitary soul is heard gasping as if her last breath were at hand. It’s the sound of a woman realizing that she is trapped. And that if she doesn’t act fast, the walls of her already claustrophobic world are going to crush her. Both women — their names are Nora (in “A Doll’s House”) and Laura (in “The Father”) — are very capably portrayed by the same actress, Maggie Lacey. Their adversaries, who are also (but of course) their husbands, are embodied by the formidable John Douglas Thompson. Since Mr. Thompson is one of the most commanding classical actors around, you would think any performer pitted against him would be doomed to defeat. But in each instance, it’s the woman who wins, though the characters’ individual routes to victory speak volumes about the differences between the rivalrous playwrights who created them. Yeah, I know. I’ve gone and spoiled the endings. (And while I’m at it, Oedipus’s wife is his mother, and Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father.) But what’s most startling about Arin Arbus’s engrossing productions, which opened on Tuesday and Wednesday nights at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, isn’t their conclusions. What really awakens the senses here is the feeling of suffocation that pervades two domestic battlefields, an impression of doom woven into the fabric of a social order. Seen on its own, each production makes this achingly clear. But to see seen them in tandem is to experience two of modern theater’s most influential minds locked in fierce dialogue about the untenable position of Scandinavian wives in the late 19th century. I say Scandinavian and 19th century, but if the corset fits … There’s nothing arbitrary about the pairing of “A Doll’s House” (1879) and “The Father” (1887). The Norwegian Ibsen and the Swedish Strindberg, who was 20 years the younger, were intensely aware of each other’s work. Ibsen even kept a portrait of Strindberg above his desk to gall him into creativity, while Strindberg was infuriated by Ibsen’s celebrity. Continue reading the main story FROM OUR ADVERTISERS Indeed, “The Father” was written as a retort to “A Doll’s House,” which Strindberg described as “swinery,” filled with logical potholes and tendentious argument. He also felt that Ibsen had grossly weighted his play in the woman’s favor. Or to quote the title character in “The Father,” as newly adapted by the Scottish playwright David Greig, on the subject of the dead patriarch in another Ibsen play, “Ghosts”: “Watching it, I couldn’t help but wonder what Mr. Alving might say if only he could claw his way out of the coffin. So many ex-husbands cold in their graves, so many women telling their tales.” Those lines are delivered by Mr. Thompson late in “The Father,” and by that time, his character, the Captain, has just about reached the breaking point. During the previous hour, we have watched the Captain’s wife, Laura — with whom he’s been fighting over the education of their daughter, Bertha (Kimber Monroe) — systematically undermine her husband’s well-being. She has planted in his mind the toxic suspicion that Bertha might not be his biological child. Given Strindberg’s reputation as a misogynist — and Mr. Thompson’s power in conveying raw torment — you might assume that your sympathies would lie entirely with the Captain. But Ms. Arbus’s interpretation and Ms. Lacey’s performance help insure that the argument here is by no means one-sided. If Laura is compelled to destroy her husband, it’s because she has effectively been his prisoner for so long. Or as she says, in rueful triumph: “I wasn’t trying to hurt you. I was only trying to breathe.” With some softening, that declaration could be spoken by the infantilized Nora to her husband, Thorwald (Mr. Thompson) at the end of “A Doll’s House,” when she comes to the realization that her seemingly happy marriage has been a lie. But it is to the credit of this interpretation, which uses Thornton Wilder’s 1937 version, that you feel not only for the painfully enlightened wife but also for the bewildered husband in torment. Ms. Arbus, whose earlier work for Theater for a New Audience includes “Othello” and “Macbeth” with Mr. Thompson, is a refreshingly levelheaded director. Her first objectives are clarity and accessibility rather than sensationalism. When she did “King Lear” here last year, she presented Shakespeare’s violently divided royal clan as the dysfunctional family next door. These twinned productions of Strindberg and Ibsen maintain a similarly low hysteria quotient (or as low as Strindberg allows), without sacrificing the plays’ anxious and compelling momentum. Using a solid doubled cast that includes Nigel Gore, Jesse J. Perez, Linda Powell and Laurie Kennedy (who’s marvelous as the fretful nanny in “The Father”), Ms. Arbus makes sure that we can hear — but really hear — what everyone in each play is saying. Ms. Lacey’s ostensible ordinariness (she made her Broadway debut as Emily in “Our Town” in 2002) always makes her easy to identify with. She is more at ease as Nora, whom she endows with an innate shrewdness, but her calm, matter-of-fact portrayal of Laura keeps us from seeing the character as a castrating witch; we know where this woman’s coming from. Mr. Thompson, whose presence always reads large, is hardly a natural choice for the small-minded Thorwald. But for that very reason, the character’s egotism has seldom seemed so daunting. His Captain in “The Father” is, in a word, brilliant, an exact and devastating portrait of one man’s inevitable collapse that brings to mind Mr. Thompson’s thrilling portrayal of “Othello.” This was the first time that I have read or seen “The Father” that “Othello” came so specifically to mind. That’s what I love about Ms. Arbus as a director: It’s like having a dream teacher at your elbow as you navigate difficult classics, one who leads you into insights without pushing. With these productions, she lets us see how two literary geniuses dealt with one subject, to notice the similarities as well as the differences, and to appreciate the qualifying detail used to draw characters often remembered as monolithic. Can you identify the writer of the following? “There are two kinds of spiritual laws and two kinds of consciences — one for men and one for women. They do not understand each other, but in the practical matters of life women are judged by men’s law, as if they were not women, but men.” That was Ibsen, speaking of “A Doll’s House” in a letter from 1878. But after seeing Ms. Arbus’s double feature, you may be excused for thinking that Strindberg might written exactly the same words.




May 24, 2016: Mysteries swirl in storm clouds in Nick Payne’s “Incognito,” which opened on Tuesday night at City Center Stage I, enough to fill many seasons of cliffhanger soap operas. The subjects of these tantalizing puzzles include questions of paternity, a man who murdered his wife on their 30th wedding anniversary, the secrets that lovers keep from each other and the disappearance of an essential anatomical part of a great scientist. Yet the biggest mystery of all, the one that dominates every aspect of this lively, self-examining drama of ideas, is the very apparatus that you’re using to make sense of this sentence. I mean your brain. Granted, it’s somebody else’s brain — the one that belonged to Albert Einstein — that’s at the center of “Incognito,” which embroiders the true story of a Princeton pathologist who spirited away that epochal physicist’s gray matter after performing an autopsy. But really, it’s everybody’s brain that’s being subjected to such probing and exasperated analysis in a work that — directed by Doug Hughes and enacted by a sparkling cast of four — deserves to be called cerebral in every conceivable sense of the word. Restless intellectualism is only to be expected of Mr. Payne, the young British playwright who is fast becoming the theater’s equivalent to Prof. Brian Cox, the heartthrob science nerd of the BBC. In Mr. Payne’s “Constellations,” the glorious two-character play staged on Broadway last year with Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson, he applied string theory and quantum mechanics to endlessly fragment and refract the basic boy-meets-girl plot. As for the sources of “Incognito,” well, just take a look at the lengthy list of inspirational books cited in the program for this Manhattan Theater Club production, which have titles such as “The Paradoxical Brain,” “The Making of Memory: From Molecules to Mind” and “Case Studies in Neuropsychological Rehabilitation.” It’s reading matter that might well appear on the bookshelves of many of the play’s dramatis personae. (I may be excused for using Latin in this context, don’t you think?) The cast of “factional” characters (many inspired by real people) embraces a variety of clinical researchers, scientists and psychologists, as well as a lawyer or two and a duplicitous magazine writer, all in pursuit of the elusive knowledge of how the brain works. Then there’s the posthumous Einstein, of course, and his querulous descendants and the keeper of his brain. Most touchingly, there are the amnesiacs whom the doctors study, men whose memories reach back only to the moment before; and those nonamnesiacs — at least by clinical definition — who will themselves to forget through alcohol, drugs or plain old denial. Mr. Payne makes it clear that science and sentimentality need not be mutually exclusive. The script’s diverse figures (21 in total) are embodied by an exceptionally supple ensemble of four: Geneva Carr, Charlie Cox, Heather Lind and Morgan Spector, who shift among their identities with crisply delineating stances and accents. They assemble on Scott Pask’s universal conference room of a set (with nuanced lighting by Ben Stanton), and preface the play’s three memory-themed parts — “Encoding,” “Storing,” “Retrieving” — with precise, ritualistic dances of cryptic semaphore gestures (choreographed by Peter Pucci). It feels right that so few should incarnate so many, since one of Mr. Payne’s implicit points here is that we’re all siblings under the skull. That philosophy means you’re likely to identify with every one of these characters, all groping for certain knowledge and all destined to be thwarted. The most celebrated — and reviled — of the lot is the Princeton pathologist, Thomas Harvey (a piquantly, feverishly defensive Mr. Spector), who winds up schlepping Einstein’s brain all over the place (often in the trunk of his car) and never does manage to crack its (metaphoric) contents. Mr. Cox, a British actor who knows from alter-egos after playing both sides of a superhero on Netflix’s “Daredevil,” is sensational. Among his standout roles in “Incognito” are a deceptively likable journalist and, in the show’s great heartbreaker performance, an amnesiac who has to keep being reintroduced to the love of his life (Ms. Lind, whose tender frustration is almost as touching as Mr. Cox’s eternal bewilderment). Ms. Carr (late of “Hand to God”) plays the adopted granddaughter of Einstein’s son (Mr. Cox), though she may in fact be Einstein’s biological daughter. This actress shows up most vividly as Martha Murphy, a clinical neuropsychologist and newborn lesbian in love with a younger woman (Ms. Lind). Martha, by the way, is also an adopted child who may in fact be the daughter of …. Sorry. I had to pause, both to recover from brain freeze and to stop myself from committing a spoiler. Some mysteries, the kind pursued on tabloid television shows, do indeed find their solutions in “Incognito.” It’s the greater scientific ones that continue to strike baffled awe in the minds of those who should know best about how minds work. As directed by Mr. Hughes (who has also staged another ingenious play about memory from the Manhattan Theater Club, Florian Zeller’s “The Father”), “Incognito” is remarkable for the clarity with which it graphs its various forms of confusion and delusion. At times, it can feel overstuffed, suggesting a compressed combination of “Copenhagen,” Michael Frayn’s 1998 historical drama of wartime physicists, and Peter Brook’s stage adaptations of Oliver Sacks’s cognitive case histories. This means that “Incognito” doesn’t achieve the raw emotional force of the more narrowly focused “Constellations.” But as befits a work about the vagaries of memory, Mr. Payne’s multilayered works remains in your mind, challenging our most fundamental notions of autonomous selfhood. As one of the play’s neuropsychologists puts it: “Our brains are constantly, exhaustively working overtime to give us the illusion that we’re in control, but we’re not. The brain builds a narrative to steady us from moment to moment.” That is essentially what Mr. Payne has built for us here, with grace and dexterity. What gives this work its distinctive impact, though, is the vertiginous views it affords of the roiling, impenetrable depths that always lie below.




May 23, 2016: “It’s a sad song, but we sing it anyway.” We certainly do. The words refer to the classic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, which has been told and retold — sung and resung, danced and filmed — over the centuries in many genres and styles. Now it has become a folk opera, “Hadestown,” by the gifted singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, which opened on Monday at New York Theater Workshop in a gorgeously sung, elementally spare production directed by and developed with Rachel Chavkin (“Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812”).


OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: A Streetcar Named Desire

A Streetcar Named Desire

May 1, 2016: It really is a jungle out there, Blanche, that same cruel, do-or-die world described by Darwin. And while it’s noble of you to plead with your sister not to “hang back with the brutes” — to choose the aesthetes over the animals — you surely know it’s a waste of breath. The New Orleans neighborhood where Blanche DuBois comes calling so disastrously in Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” has never seemed quite as atavistic as it does in Benedict Andrews’s compellingly harsh revival, which opened on Sunday night at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. This production pits a fully adrenalized Gillian Anderson, as Blanche, against Ben Foster, as her adversarial brother-in-law, Stanley Kowalski, in a riveting study of the survival of the fittest. Even if you are unfamiliar with the plot, you shouldn’t have trouble predicting its outcome. Mr. Foster’s slyly commanding Stanley — a performance that makes the specter of Marlon Brando, who created the part, temporarily retreat into the dusk — is obviously the younger, stronger and more confident of the two. But Ms. Anderson’s Blanche has her own arsenal of weapons, and though they may be outdated, she puts up a vigorous defense. This fading feline beauty is clearly fated to lose, but she’s also going down fighting, tooth and manicured nail.



The Effect

March 20, 2016: How much do you love me? Do you love me as much as I love you? Are you happy that you love me? How happy? Children, testing their parents, aren’t the only ones who ask these childish questions; grown-ups do it ad nauseam, and never get satisfactory answers. Though our calculated use of emoji these days would seem to indicate otherwise, it remains an exasperating and thrilling fact of life that emotions cannot be quantified, particularly love. The irreducibility of love is the subject of “The Effect,” Lucy Prebble’s very clever — and ultimately more than clever — play, which opened on Sunday night at the Barrow Street Theater, artfully directed by David Cromer. Ms. Prebble, the British author of “Enron,” has come up with an ingenious variation on one of the more common romantic formulas in fiction: Put two attractive people in an unfamiliar hothouse environment, and see what blooms. Usually such a premise involves an exotic vacation, a sleep-away camp or perhaps enforced confinement due to war, natural disaster or zombie apocalypse. In “The Effect,” boy (name of Tristan Frey, played by Carter Hudson) meets girl (Connie Hall, portrayed by Susannah Flood) at a medical research center in which they are guinea pigs in a four-week pharmaceutical trial for a new antidepressant.


OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: White Rabbit Red Rabbit

White Rabbit Red Rabbit

March 9, 2016: For all I know, as I write these words, Nathan Lane is lying dead on a chaise longue on the stage of the Westside Theater. Probably not. You would have read the obituary by now. But Mr. Lane, who gave the first New York performance of “White Rabbit Red Rabbit,” a playful, enigmatic and haunting solo show by the Iranian writer Nassim Soleimanpour, was lying supine on that chaise when I left the theater as strictly instructed Monday night, the only night of the week the show is being presented. The play concludes with the ominous suggestion that — well, perhaps I shouldn’t say any more. The novelty — or gimmick, or both — of “White Rabbit” is that the actor performing the show does not have a chance to read it before arriving at the theater. He (or she) is handed the script onstage, before us, with no prior knowledge of its contents (unless, of course, he or she has already Googled it and got a general sense of what is in store). Every week, a different actor will perform the 75-minute piece. The list of upcoming performers, a diverse and distinguished lot, includes Whoopi Goldberg, Patrick Wilson, Brian Dennehy and Cynthia Nixon. (Check the show’s website to see who is performing when.)



Daddy Long Legs

September 29, 2015: Will no one pity the postman? Two centuries of novels and plays would have run aground without these couriers delivering menace, promise and revelation with the morning letters. That mailbag is unusually full in “Daddy Long Legs,” a sweet, beautifully sung and only occasionally unsettling musical adaptation of Jean Webster’s 1912 novel, predicated on the lengthy correspondence between a pert orphan and the anonymous benefactor who sends her to college. On the stage of the Davenport Theater, itself not much bigger than a postcard, the adorable Megan McGinnis and the poised Paul Alexander Nolan relate the tale while three musicians huddle above them in an orchestra loft. The story begins as Jerusha Abbott, the eldest orphan at her New England asylum, receives the news that a trustee who calls himself John Smith has agreed to fund her college education. This John Smith demands that she send him a letter once a month, letters that he will never answer. Jerusha can’t abide his alias. “Why couldn’t you have picked out a name with a little personality?” she protests. Because she has had one small glimpse of him and knows him to be tall — and further imagines him old and gray — she calls him Daddy Long Legs.




July 19, 2015: A spiked Shirley Temple of a show, “Ruthless!” opened 23 years ago with the likes of Natalie Portman and Britney Spears playing its occasionally homicidal ingénue. Those little tykes have grown up. Aside from the occasional topical joke (the Olive Garden, Donald Trump), this musical, revived by its creators, has not. Joel Paley’s book and lyrics, set to Marvin Laird’s peppy ballads, tell of Tina Denmark (Tori Murray), a perky prepubescent in tap shoes, willing to do whatever it takes to get the lead in the school play. (In this case, it takes offing a rival with a playground toy.) She’s assisted by an ethics-free talent manager, Sylvia St. Croix (Peter Land), and a monomaniacal drama teacher, Miss Thorn (Andrea McCullough). Her mother, Judy Denmark (Kim Maresca), a Lemon Pledge-scented pushover, initially coddles her, but eventually gets wise to Tina’s manipulations.