OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Unexpected Guest

The Unexpected Guest

April 22, 2015: The actors weren’t even onstage yet when a man behind me tried to guess the culprit in Agatha Christie’s “The Unexpected Guest.” Clues were scarce, but he deduced what he could from the set: a wainscoted room with French windows, a cane-back wheelchair parked in front of them. The killer, he declared, would be the person in the wheelchair — unless the person in the wheelchair was the one who turned up dead. Bingo on that second prediction, but please don’t bother pitying the victim. When Richard Warwick is discovered late one night, shot through the head at his home on the Welsh coast, even his elderly mother isn’t terribly torn up about it. The not-so-dearly departed was a sadistic bully. Loads of people had reasons to want him gone. Theater Breaking Through Barriers employs artists with and without disabilities, and fighting stereotypes is central to its mission. “The Unexpected Guest” (1958) includes one character described by the woman of the house as deaf, and another — Richard’s teenage half brother, Jan (Christopher Imbrosciano) — as “what they call retarded.” Ike Schambelan, the troupe’s founding artistic director, who died of cancer in February, had staged the play before and was set to direct this production.



Séquence 8

April 20, 2015: Among the abundant talents possessed by Les 7 Doigts de la Main — the philosophizing acrobats whose delightful new show “Séquence 8” runs through Sunday at City Center — is a gift for subverting metaphors. Many poetic comparisons will probably spring into your mind as you watch this sexy, witty Montreal-based team distort, upend and mock the laws of physics that keep us earthbound. But before you’ve come up with a fancy mot juste or two, the troupe will have blocked the trope. Those two guys who use what looks like a slender seesaw to catapult each other somersaulting into the heavens? Well, when they’ve finished this particular act, they start bickering pretentiously about whether what they’ve done is about life’s eternal quest for balance or a matter of listening to ghosts. As for that tall fellow who juggles boxes into fluid, eye-teasing towers, he announces — in a product-plugging, talk-show-style interview — that he’s written a book on the theory behind it all: “How To Live With the Boxes You’re Thinking Outside Of.” You can’t take any of what this company (which worked on the Broadway revival of “Pippin” and the cabaret circus “Queen of the Night”) says too seriously. Its special art defies not only gravity but also words. Any spoken explanations here have an ironic spin that plays with our desire to put these confoundingly agile young things into, uh, boxes.


OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Emily Climbs (Machine Méchant)

Emily Climbs (Machine Méchant)

April 20, 2015: Put down those probiotics, step away from the treadmill and leave that Lipitor prescription unfilled. You can stop worrying about extending your life via diet and nutrition, because in just a few decades, scientists will perfect the art of regeneration. Well, almost. The titular heroine of “Emily Climbs (Machine Méchant),” at the Brick, undergoes a rebirthing procedure in the year 2090. But she comes back in triplicate. This piece, by the theater company Nellie Tinder, is experimental theater as math problem. If “Emily Climbs” seems like a singular story, it’s actually two stories, told by three actors playing the same character, who shares a name with a book by the Canadian novelist L.M. Montgomery, one in a trilogy. Half of “Emily Climbs” is about this regenerative botch and the multiple Emilys that it births. The other half, rather more interesting, is about Emily’s involvement with a dynamic, disastrous politician named Kathleen.


OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Tailor of Inverness

The Tailor of Inverness

April 19, 2015: The writer and performer Matthew Zajac has a ghost story for you. And an adventure story and a detective story. It’s all the same story, which is apparently a true story and conveniently his own story — well, his and that of his father, Mateusz Zajac, who eventually settled in Inverness, Scotland, supporting his family with his sewing machine. What happens before that and also long after, as Matthew returns to Poland to spool back the lost threads of his father’s life, are the subjects of his impassioned but unfocused solo show, “The Tailor of Inverness,” the first entry in this season’s Brits Off Broadway festival. The younger Mr. Zajac stands on a mostly bare set in a tiny theater at 59E59. He has a thin face and a thin body, his hair recedes in a widow’s peak and square-framed glasses sit on his slightly hawklike nose. When he wears those glasses and speaks in an accent that’s part Eastern European and part Scottish, he’s playing his father. When he takes them off and adopts quieter, more English tones, he’s playing himself. There’s also a violinist, Aidan O’Rourke, always onstage, who supplies sound effects and accompanies Mr. Zajac when he sings Polish folk songs.



Se Llama Cristina

April 17, 2015: A magical realist fable with a side of fried chicken, Octavio Solis’s “Se Llama Cristina” begins with a Latino man and woman (Gerardo Rodriguez and Carmen Zilles) asleep in a squalid room. On waking, they can’t remember where they are or who they are. Eventually, they notice a crib, with a drumstick stuffed into the swaddling. “Maybe, just maybe, we’re still trippin’,” the man suggests. “You and me and the leg of chicken.” There’s definitely something psychoactive about Mr. Solis’s story, directed by Lou Moreno at Intar. An ultimately gentle nightmare, it plunges the couple into flashbacks, each one revealing just a little more about their calamitous pasts, then returns them to their unhappy, poultry-addled present. Gradually, they remember their names and backgrounds. But they still can’t recall what happened to the baby — or any presumptive side dishes.




April 15, 2015: A lavish tiered wedding cake stands sentinel throughout the new production of “Hamlet” that opened Wednesday at the Classic Stage Company, with Peter Sarsgaard in the title role. As the presence of this big pile of pastry suggests, the concept behind this stylish-looking modern-dress production directed by Austin Pendleton essentially presents the action as a long dramatic hangover after the wedding celebrations for Claudius (Harris Yulin) and Gertrude (Penelope Allen). A bar with top-shelf liquor sits in one corner of the theater, a cocktail table in another. At center stage for most of the drama is a round table set for a celebratory dinner, surrounded by black cane chairs, the kind that gnaw into your back at formal functions. (The all black-and-white set design is by Walt Spangler; the formal-wear costumes, in the same palette, are by Constance Hoffman.) Unfortunately, by the end of this respectable but sluggish production, which runs over three hours, you may feel as you do after attending one of those overblown weddings that seem to go on for days, and sometimes do. In other words, dazed and ready for bed.



39 Steps

April 13, 2015: Silliness, it would appear, has been gravely undervalued as a survival strategy. How else to explain the unquenchable life — or rather lives, for there have been many — of Richard Hannay, the charmingly fatuous fop who keeps defying death all over the world and has now returned to fight bad guys with bad accents in New York at the Union Square Theater? That is where “39 Steps,” the larky play in which Hannay appears, opened on Monday night. And, yes, those of you with eagle eyes and sharp memories, that is the correct title. Never mind that when Hannay appeared on Broadway in 2008, saying and doing almost exactly the same thing as now, it was under the rubric of “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps.” Or that when he showed up in 2006 in London’s West End — where he continues to wreak merry havoc in a production that picked up the Olivier Award for best comedy — the show was called “John Buchan’s ‘The 39 Steps.’ ” Like a proper British acquaintance who finally feels you’ve known him long enough to call him by an abbreviated form of his full name, “39 Steps” has shed even its “the” for this reincarnation. If it has also shed a little of the freshness of its first youth, it remains indomitably funny. This century’s most tireless and high-profile example of the little show that could, “39 Steps” was (according to the official credits) adapted from Buchan’s 1915 novel about dastardly espionage in a sleeping Britain. But in its shape, characters and dialogue, it is far closer to Hitchcock’s wonderful 1935 film version, which took more liberties with Buchan than a sailor on shore leave with his one-night stand.




April 13, 2015: Aiming for the endearingly zany, the new musical “Iowa” overshoots the runway, landing somewhere in the vicinity of complete inanity. This oppressively antic show, about the uneasy relationship between an introverted teenage girl and her excessively — make that lunatically — outgoing mother, plays like a series of songs, scenes and sketches with little connecting tissue. Featuring a book by Jenny Schwartz, music by Todd Almond and lyrics by both, “Iowa,” which opened on Monday at Playwrights Horizons (where the program cover and title page call it, confusingly, “Iow@”), tells of the middle-aged Sandy (Karyn Quackenbush), who has been conducting an online romance with a man she met on Facebook. Desperate to seem youthful, she tends to speak in textese. In a loopy monologue about sex, she asks her 14-year-old daughter, Becca (Jill Shackner), “BTW are you a lesbian?” The answer, which is no, comes during a conversation in which Sandy introduces Becca, via Skype it would appear, to Roger, the man she calls her fiancé. His voice occasionally interrupts Sandy’s dithery and often cruel ramblings about Becca, whom she mockingly calls Bookah, because she reads a lot.



Ludic Proxy

April 12, 2015: Nina, a Russian woman now living with her sister in America, finds herself back in her childhood apartment. She sees her mailbox, her mother’s kitchenware, her father’s vodka bottles, “all the books we left behind.” But Nina isn’t really home; she’s watching her nephew play a version of the video game Call of Duty, set in Pripyat, the Ukrainian town she was forced to evacuate after the Chernobyl disaster. “Ludic Proxy,” an ambitious and intermittently successful drama written and directed by Aya Ogawa for the Play Company, takes its title from a particularly contemporary phenomenon: the feeling that we know a place in reality because we have encountered it virtually. (A few years ago, my husband was driving on a Miami causeway for the first time when he realized he knew the route already — from Grand Theft Auto.) The play shows how the simulated can adjoin, infuse or ultimately replace the actual. In the first and strongest section, Nina (Jackie Katzman) slips between her rose-colored Russian girlhood, as she rehearses the part of Nina in Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” and the starker present-day world of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. As her nephew and his friend play Call of Duty, actors create the game’s visuals by using tiny cameras to film a dollhouse (beautifully conceived by the lighting and video designer Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew).




April 12, 2015: So this is what all the fuss was about. Richard Eyre’s full-strength production of Ibsen’s “Ghosts,” which opened over the weekend at the Harvey Theater of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, allows you to feel the bruising force with which this drama assaulted unsuspecting audiences of the late 19th century. “Ghosts,” after all, remains the great historical example of a single play’s power to disturb. Its first productions left theatergoers reeling and revolted, with critics scrambling to outdo one another with expressions of disgust and derision, including The Daily Telegraph’s immortal characterization of the play as “an open drain; a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly.” Cultural shock tremors tend to subside over the years, allowing later generations to chuckle at how squeamish and priggish their ancestors were. Then along comes a production like this “Ghosts,” adapted and directed by Mr. Eyre and starring a coruscating Lesley Manville, and the laughter dies in our throats. For what comes through so searingly in this version, from the Almeida Theater in London — possibly the best “Ghosts” you’ll ever see — is the Jehovah-like mercilessness of Ibsen’s indictment of a middle class that remains smug in an advanced state of decay. You realize, with a visceral jolt, that what unsettled this work’s early audiences weren’t just the play’s explicit references to unsavory matters like venereal disease.