OFF-BROADWAY REVIEWS

OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Of Good Stock

Of Good Stock

June 30, 2015: In the middle of a Scotch-and-tear-soaked session of recrimination and consolation with her two sisters, the kind that begins with insults and ends in a group hug, a woman named Jess sees fit to wail, “I am trapped in a bad chick flick.” You said it, Jess; not me. But I think you’re being a little hard on yourself. The play in which you are trapped, Melissa Ross’s “Of Good Stock,” actually feels like a better-than-average chick flick — well acted, smoothly paced, occasionally touching and, for those who indulge in such forms of reassurance, as comforting as a quart of mint chocolate chip ice cream, eaten straight from the container. See, I’m falling into the language of the genre myself, using that ice cream simile. Of course, this comic drama about the three romantically challenged daughters of a famous novelist, which opened on Tuesday night at Stage I of City Center, is replete with the clichés often found in lighter film fare starring the likes of Jennifer Aniston or Kate Hudson.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Shows for Days

Shows for Days

June 29, 2015: Though she has been known to chew scenery into sawdust, Patti LuPone shrewdly resists making a feast of her high-calorie role in “Shows for Days,” the unresolved new comedy by Douglas Carter Beane that opened on Monday night at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. Ms. LuPone has a part that comes with full license for going over the top and staying there: Irene, a coercive community-theater diva and a showy specialist in blackmail, emotional and otherwise. She’s a character a less savvy actress would use to vamp and camp until the cows come home (or until the audience goes home). There are tasty elements of vampery and campery in Ms. LuPone’s performance in “Shows for Days,” which depicts the sentimental education of a 14-year-old boy (the appealing Michael Urie) in the mahvelous world of the theatuh. Yet she also locates a molten core of anger — and honor — in Irene’s affectations. This small-time tyrant may be a bulldozer wrapped in gold lamé. (And there is real gold lamé on hand, courtesy of William Ivey Long’s spot-on bourgeois-gone-bohemian costumes.) But as anyone knows who saw Ms. LuPone as Momma Rose in “Gypsy,” this actress does bulldozers with many gears. And she finds something genuinely and affectingly credible in a play that often taxes credibility.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Happy Days

Happy Days

June 29, 2015: The wattage of Winnie’s smile is what makes it so disconcerting — that and the way it lights up her eyes as she chatters on, her willful cheer sparkling in the sun like the diamonds that glint from her earlobes. A girlish romantic in a lacy, low-cut top, she is a middle-aged remnant of the coquette she once was. Now she’s buried up to her sternum in a mound of packed earth, and her husband, Willie, the grimy fellow scrabbling around behind her on hands and knees, is nearly feral. Events, clearly, have overtaken them. “Not the crawler you were, poor darling,” she says fondly as he struggles, and it amplifies the comedy to know that Brooke Adams, who plays Winnie, has been married for decades to Tony Shalhoub, who plays Willie. “No, not the crawler I gave my heart to.” Andrei Belgrader, that specialist in star-spangled classics, has brought his production of Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” to the Flea Theater, and there are laughs to be had. What’s missing, or was on Saturday afternoon, is the darkness and dread that trigger Winnie’s natterings: the panic she’s trying so desperately to keep at bay.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: SeaWife

SeaWife

June 28, 2015: In the past several years, whales have returned to New York Harbor, breaching and blowing in sight of the city skyline. And these leviathans now drive much of the action of “SeaWife,” a folk musical produced by Naked Angels and performed at the Melville Gallery of the South Street Seaport Museum. “SeaWife,” scripted by Seth Moore and the band the Lobbyists, is a doleful fairy tale ornamented with occasional puppets and agreeable chanteys, performed by the cast of six and one borrowed cellist. Set sometime in the 19th century, the story centers on Percy, a whaler’s son, “who saw his first boat at birth and had his sea legs before his first steps.” Though sickened at first by the blood and brutality of whaling, a series of tragedies transform Percy into a deadly harpooner until the sea calls him home again. The director Liz Carlson, the set designer Jason Sherwood and the lighting designer Jake DeGroot have converted the Melville Gallery into various ports and boats and taverns with the aid of ropes and nets and lanterns set with flickering bulbs. (On one rainy night, a leaking roof provided authentic puddles.) There’s also a bar that sells a $5 shot of rum or a can of I.P.A.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: At the Table

At The Table

June 22, 2015: Chris (Claire Karpen) has only just met this group of friends, so she probably shouldn’t make a scene. But dinner is over, the alcohol is flowing and Stuart (Craig Wesley Divino) — the smug one up there at the head of the table — is being obnoxious. When he tries to bait her into debating abortion rights, she tells him the issue is none of his business, because he is a man. “The terms of a conversation are controlled by who is invited to the table,” Chris says. “And you’re not invited to that particular table.” Escaping for the weekend to a country house, where the laid-back Nate (Aaron Rossini) is their host, these privileged 30-somethings in Michael Perlman’s “At the Table” have brought along a full complement of identity-related baggage to unpack in the common areas. Race, gender, sexual orientation, income level: Any of these might become contentious at any time. That the friends frequently talk over one another, making it difficult to discern what anyone is saying, is part of the point in this overloaded ensemble piece, presented by Fault Line Theater at Here Arts Center. Seemingly so is the fact that we rarely have a clear view of everyone in this crowded house. Mr. Perlman has staged his play in the round, and his blocking is largely naturalistic.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Ada/Ava

Ada/Ava

June 21, 2015: The common wisdom is that once magicians reveal the secrets of their trade, the magic disappears. But that’s hardly the case with the uncanny coven of young sorcerers who operate under the name Manual Cinema. Currently in residence at the 3LD Art & Technology Center in Lower Manhattan, this Chicago troupe is conjuring phantasms to die for in an unclassifiable story of spectral beauty called “Ada/Ava.” And its creators allow their audience to see exactly how they’re doing what they’re doing, which is nothing less than turning substance into shadow and shadow into substance. Such self-exposure, instead of diluting the strength of the illusory, only enhances its hold on our hearts and minds. One feels rather like a child being entertained at night by a storytelling parent who casts silhouettes on the wall with the bedside lamp and a pair of hands. The source of those moving images is in plain sight — it’s just Mom or Dad. But somehow this awareness only strengthens the reality of the alternative world that these clever, powerful grown-ups have created for our delight.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Significant Other

Significant Other

June 18, 2015: Jordan Berman, the hapless but lovable protagonist of Joshua Harmon’s entirely delightful new play, “Significant Other,” seems to see tiers of tulle, sprays of baby’s breath and ill-fitting bridesmaids’ gowns wherever he looks. While Jordan’s romantic life consists of a stalkerish crush on a co-worker that carries little promise of fulfillment, his longtime girlfriends are moving into firm relationships leading to walks down the aisle. Jordan, loyal friend that he is, can only watch in smiling support and increasing loneliness as the bubbling urban life he has led with his friends turns into a series of archived Instagram moments before his watering eyes. Mr. Harmon, the author of the scabrous “Bad Jews,” has fulfilled the promise of that play — and then some — with this tenderly unromantic romantic comedy about a gay man aching for love in the 20-something years, when that ache cuts down to the bone. The play, which opened on Thursday at the Laura Pels Theater in a Roundabout Theater Company production directed with nimble grace by Trip Cullman, is as richly funny as it is ultimately heart-stirring. Writing with a buoyancy belying the play’s undertow of sadness, Mr. Harmon acutely captures that perilous period in young adulthood when friends from college and work begin paling into mere acquaintances. The besties you chatted with almost every day begin pairing off with other people (some you like, some you don’t) and receding into the distance, not entirely but quite perceptibly. Suddenly there’s only the occasional dinner or text exchange to stir the cooling embers of a once-blazing friendship.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Doctor Faustus

Doctor Faustus

June 18, 2015: Psst, Mephistopheles, are you still around, making deals on behalf of the Devil? Promise to give me back the two hours I spent enduring the Classic Stage Company’s misguided production of Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus,” and maybe we can come to an agreement. Eternal damnation doesn’t seem all that bothersome if my memories of this show, starring Chris Noth as the titular soul seller and Zach Grenier as Mephistopheles, can be permanently erased. The production, directed by the veteran Andrei Belgrader, employs a heavily adapted text by David Bridel and Mr. Belgrader. Language has been modernized: “thou” becoming “you” and “hath” becoming “has,” etc. Characters have been tweaked or eliminated, speeches curtailed. Some innovations are helpful, such as having Wagner (Walker Jones), Doctor Faustus’s loyal assistant, pipe up with translations of the Latin that Marlowe sprinkled through the text. Others, not so much. This updated colloquial comedy is not an improvement on the original. (And if thou cannot improve on centuries-old comedy, thou art in trouble.) But, in general, the emendations and cuts are not particularly detrimental to the drama, since there isn’t much in the first place. “Doctor Faustus” is not a text of particular sanctity; it’s rarely performed, and rather than a “tragical history,” as it was called, the play is more a moral (or rather amoral) pageant depicting the title character romping through the world, causing mischief after making that famous pact with the Devil.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Gloria

Gloria

June 17, 2015: Anyone who’s ever worked for a big Manhattan magazine will find much to savor and shudder over in “Gloria,” Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s whip-smart satire of fear and loathing in a beleaguered industry under siege, which opened on Wednesday night at the Vineyard Theater. Everyone else — or at least everyone with a tonic streak of cynicism — is likely to appreciate Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins’s depiction of the cannibal culture cycles that grip and warp Americans’ attention these days. But audiences unacquainted with daily Darwinian life in the halls of publishing may have trouble buying just how craven, petty, perfidious and angry its characters are. “Surely,” you may object, “it’s not really like that.” Well, yeah, it really kind of is. (I say this as someone who once toiled in cubicle-filled, fluorescent-lighted vineyards similar to the one depicted here.) Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins, a young chameleon playwright with a cold but twinkling eye, may have exaggerated certain aspects of this portrait of a profession in flux for comic rhythm and snap.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Tempest

The Tempest

June 16, 2015: As befits a work called “The Tempest,” there’s thunder and lightning aplenty in the production that opened on Tuesday night at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Yet “rough magic” — which is abjured at the play’s end by its ruling wizard, Prospero (a sagely bearded Sam Waterston) — is scarce throughout this exquisite-looking interpretation of Shakespeare’s valedictory romance. The enchantment at work here — and enchantment there is — belongs to a gentler order. As conjured by the director, Michael Greif, and a crack technical team of aesthetic sorcerers, this “Tempest” is always lovely to behold and often illuminating about the patterns that shape this curious, genre-defying tale of revenge and reconciliation on theater’s ultimate fantasy island. But don’t expect the stormy passions that can move an audience to tearful wonder. If Mr. Greif’s “The Tempest” were to be compared with one of the visions that Prospero whips up, it wouldn’t be the ship-sinking gale of the opening scene. Think instead of one of the senses-stroking, sumptuous banquets or parades of sprites and goddesses that he summons as evanescent home entertainment.

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