OFF-BROADWAY REVIEWS

OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Sound and the Fury

The Sound and the Fury

May 21, 2015: Time flies and crawls, warps and balances, melts and freezes. It passes by before you know it and it stands still forever. All those contradictory kinetic clichés are pulsing away in Elevator Repair Service’s mesmerizing “The Sound and the Fury,” which opened on Thursday night at the Public Theater. Adapted from the opening section of William Faulkner’s 1929 novel — the chapter titled “April Seventh, 1928” —this sprawling but surreally symmetrical production dares to try to capture onstage one of the most dizzyingly subjective points of view ever committed to print. For the narrator here is a man with the mind of a child, someone who, as another character describes him, has “been 3 years old 30 years.” This man-child’s name is Benjamin, though it was once Maury, and a lot of people call him Benjy. Trying to figure out what Benjy knows has been the bane and delight of countless modern comp-lit students. Many a densely written book has been devoted to Benjy’s way with words, which is a lot less arbitrary than it seems. But as far as I know, Elevator Repair Service is the first theater company to transform everything that’s said, thought and done in “April Seventh, 1928” into a sustained theatrical spectacle. I saw an earlier version of this “Sound and the Fury” at the New York Theater Workshop seven years ago.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Other Thing

The Other Thing

May 21, 2015: “The Other Thing,” a new play by Emily Schwend, spikes a ghost story with a twist of feminism. That unusual recipe gives the play a certain novelty, but Ms. Schwend’s dark drama, which can be seen at the McGinn/Cazale Theater as part of the Second Stage’s uptown summer series, ultimately comes across as preposterous. Of course tales of ghosts, zombies, vampires, werewolves and more garden-variety freaks are a strong draw on television, so Ms. Schwend’s play, about a reporter profiling a renowned ghost hunter, qualifies as on-trend, even if such tales tend to be more satisfyingly chilling on screen. The central character, Kim (Samantha Soule), has settled on a friendly old fellow named Carl (John Doman, oozing equal measures of Southern courtliness and orneriness) as the perfect subject for a piece she wants to write about ghost chasers. She joins him and his son, Brady (an amusingly cranky James Kautz), for a night vigil outside a supposedly haunted barn in Virginia. Why anyone would care whether or not a barn was haunted did occur to me more than once during the sluggish first act. Also, why would any self-respecting ghost want to hang around a barn, anyway? Still, the owner has been spooked by a light that flickers weirdly, some strange banging noises and unusual cold spots. (Sounds like my apartment almost any night this winter.)

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Macbeth

Macbeth

May 20, 2015: There’s very little creeping in the Public Theater’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit production of “Macbeth.” And the pace the director Edward Torres sets isn’t exactly petty. Part of a project dedicated to bringing Shakespeare to underserved audiences, this sped-up and slimmed-down tragedy toured prisons, shelters and community centers before bundling its witches and thanes back to Lafayette Street. Mr. Torres knocked out audiences a few years ago with his staging of Kristoffer Diaz’s “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” a wrestling comedy that was also a stealthy piece of social commentary. His style is brisk and kinetic, which you sense in the Scottish play’s opening scene, when a critical battle is fought in about 45 seconds. For “Macbeth,” this is both a strength and a snag. The Mobile Shakespeare Unit has had great success with comedies and romances like “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Pericles, Prince of Tyre,” plays that depend on event and incident and the occasional dance party. But tragedy relies more heavily on character, and this approach doesn’t really allow its characters to develop.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Permission

Permission

May 20, 2015: The sex farce has all but disappeared from the contemporary stage, and those of you mourning its demise (Hello out there?) may want to check out “Permission,” the new play by Robert Askins, author of the darkly subversive “Hand to God,” now on Broadway. In Mr. Askins’s sex comedy with a twist — or rather a kink — two God-loving young couples discover corporal punishment as a way of spicing up their sex lives, or alleviating the tensions in their marriages, or a little of both. All in the name of Jesus, of course. The play, which opened on Wednesday at the Lucille Lortel Theater in an MCC Theater production, is less substantial than “Hand to God,” which manages to provide explosive entertainment value (via an obscenity-spewing puppet, mind you) while also movingly exploring the psychological fallout of loss. “Permission” has less heavy matters on its mind. (And — sad face — no paddle-wielding puppet.) Although this tale of young Christians embarking on unusual sexual adventures also suggests that once the libido has been given full rein, anarchy may not be far away, the play never digs deeply into the psyches of its characters, remaining content to exploit its gimmick for raucous, mildly raunchy comedy. Zach (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) and Michelle (Nicole Lowrance) are hosting a casual dinner party as the play begins. She’s a little late with the preparation, which inspires Zach to hold up an admonitory finger — which we come to learn is a matter of counting the transgressions before strict discipline is in order.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: In Vestments

In Vestments

May 19, 2015: The teenager crouches on the rectory’s kitchen floor, idly inking his forearm with a ballpoint pen. His face is bruised, his complexion pale green, his hair dusted with white. He’s a ghost, and a persistent one, trailing his older brother, Nathan, through life. That’s hardly the only haunting going on in Sara Fellini’s unwieldy new play, “In Vestments,” in which Isaac Byrne’s high-energy production is by turns earnest and campy, wrenching and visually eloquent. Set in a Roman Catholic parish called Our Lady of Perpetual Sighs, it’s performed in the intimate chapel of West Park Presbyterian Church on the Upper West Side, where the audience sits in pews lining the walls. As the play begins, the priests face a quandary: What to do with sacramental wine that was tainted by plaster falling from the ceiling at the moment of transubstantiation, just as the wine became the blood of Christ? The metaphor — poison in the very structure of the church — is worryingly on the nose, and the money-grubbing ways of Father Falke (Ted Wold), the ranking priest, similarly lack subtlety. But the play mostly gets better from there, even if it refuses to settle into a tone.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Tuesday’s at Tesco’s

Tuesday’s at Tesco’s

May 19, 2015: Pauline knows that you’re looking at her. People always do. Her response is to look right back — hard — until you drop or soften your gaze. You better. Pauline is determined to make you feel more embarrassed by the fact of her existence than she is. In a bold and expert performance that makes no concessions to an actor’s vanity or an audience’s sympathy, the august British actor Simon Callow portrays — no, fully inhabits — Pauline in Emmanuel Darley’s “Tuesday’s at Tesco’s.” This bleak portrait of a woman defending her identity, which opened on Tuesday night at 59E59 as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, is letting no one off easy. Pauline — nee Paul — has none of the ingratiating, flirtatious, life-affirming aspects that we have come to associate with lovable transgender characters for politically enlightened audiences. From the moment Mr. Callow stomps onto the stage — in a cleavage-flashing red blouse, a tasteful beige skirt and pop-out splashes of turquoise — it is clear that Pauline is an enraged and aggrieved woman. And, yes, she is emphatically a woman, though her broad shoulders, rough-hewn features and growling voice might suggest otherwise. The sole character in this 75-minute show, directed (by Simon Stokes) and designed (by Robin Don) with poetic severity, Pauline has always known what sex she is, even when she lived as a little boy in the working-class home where much of this show is set.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Way We Get By

The Way We Get By

May 19, 2015: Anyone who’s ever woken up in a strange apartment with an unexpected bedmate and a deathly hangover will appreciate the brute fear that pervades the first moments of “The Way We Get By,” a slight but spirited new play by Neil LaBute, which opened on Tuesday night at Second Stage Theater. It’s not just the pained walk of that man in his boxer shorts (Thomas Sadoski), lumbering across the stage like a zombie in search of brains, that commands instant pity and terror. So does the what-the-hell-have-I-done expression plastered on his face like a “Wanted” sign, and the subtle, ominous hum (the throb of conscience or merely traffic in the distance?) that underscores every step he takes. Since this is a work by Mr. LaBute, who as a filmmaker and dramatist loves to play nasty games in the dark, we are prepared to assume the worst. Like the presence of a decapitated corpse somewhere on the premises, or an old troll with a satisfied leer waiting under stained sheets. Surprise! The only thing lurking in the other room turns out to be a gorgeous woman — played, as it happens, by a gorgeous movie star, Amanda Seyfried, wearing only a “Star Wars” T-shirt. This is no waking nightmare; it’s a red-blooded American boy’s dream come true!

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: One Hand Clapping

One Hand Clapping

May 18, 2015: Probing the shallow consumerism of the 1950s and ’60s has been a popular pastime of late, but “One Hand Clapping,” at 59E59 Theaters, reminds us that the “Mad Men” culture was mocked practically before it had even fully materialized. This play, part of the Brits Off Broadway festival, is Lucia Cox’s adaptation of a 1961 novel by Anthony Burgess (who was best known for the book “A Clockwork Orange”). If its darkly comic story doesn’t seem especially insightful today, it’s because so many others have mined the same territory in the past 54 years. When we first meet them, the humorless Howard (Oliver Devoti) and seemingly vacuous Janet (Eve Burley) are living an utterly ordinary British life despite Howard’s unusual gift: He has a photographic memory. Their unremarkable existence changes when he goes on a game show and wins a pile of money, then uses it to make an even bigger pile of money, because it turns out he also has a gift for predicting the results of horse races. Howard, though, has an odd mix of ideas about wealth accumulation; he has a grim view of materialism, yet at the same time he wants to spend the money as fast as he makes it. “We’ve got to have everything money can buy, that’s what we’ve got to do,” he tries to explain to Janet. “It’s a sort of duty.”

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Flatiron Hex

The Flatiron Hex

May 18, 2015: James Godwin’s deliriously weird puppet show, “The Flatiron Hex,” takes place in a New York only a little different from the one we know and sporadically love: “a maze of ghosts and minor gods, floating in the middle of a toxic swamp.” A postmodern assemblage of the eerie and the icky, it follows Wylie Walker, a plumber, I.T. expert and high-level shaman, as he works to protect the city from a catastrophic storm. At the start of the play, Mr. Godwin enters the Dixon Place stage wearing a mask like a gazelle’s skull and murmuring ominously, an almost cozy entrance compared with what comes after. The plot that unfurls somehow whirls together Mickey Spillane, H. P. Lovecraft, an AppleCare employee manual and occasional gouts of blood. Though Mr. Godwin most often plays our hero, Wylie, he also voices the other characters, and manipulates them, too. Some are dolls, some are marionettes, some are paper cutouts, some are stranger than that. Much of the staging involves overhead projectors and when the light bulb on one broke during a preview performance, Mr. Godwin had to improvise, frenetically, while a couple of technicians repaired it. “Please reset your imaginations,” Mr. Godwin said when he was ready to go on.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: 35th Marathon of One-Act Plays

35th Marathon of One-Act Plays

May 18, 2015: In just two hours, Series A of the Ensemble Studio Theater’s “35th Marathon of One-Act Plays” races from Manhattan to Brooklyn, from a port town in Kenya to the capital of Idaho, from the 1950s to right now. A collection of short works, most Ensemble regulars, this speed-trial evening emphasizes how difficult it is for theater artists to work in miniature and how satisfying when they succeed. The tidiest and most effective play of the series, Chiara Atik’s “52nd to Bowery to Cobble Hill, in Brooklyn,” is also the speediest. On a rainy night, two female friends who aren’t really friends (Megan Tusing and Molly Carden) share a cab. Nothing much happens, but Ms. Atik, who used the short form to excellent effect in her recent “Five Times in One Night,” nails the rhythms and preoccupations of contemporary urban conversation. The director, Adrienne Campbell-Holt, helps the actors find believable relationships and cadences. Will Snider’s “The Big Man,” directed by Matt Penn, centers on an American working in Kenya (Gianmarco Soresi) who is pleading with a couple of cops (Brian D. Coats and Ray Anthony Thomas) to return his truck. Mr. Snider provides some local detail and has a fine way of reversing expectations, although the final U-turn actually circles back to a conventional narrative, in which seemingly unsophisticated men show a know-it-all how little he actually knows.

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