OFF-BROADWAY REVIEWS

OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: And I and Silence

And I and Silence

August 26, 2014: Women in prison: the new black? It’s mere coincidence, but with the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black having become one of the most talked-about television shows of the past few years, along comes And I and Silence, a play by Naomi Wallace about two young women incarcerated in the 1950s. Can “Caged: The Musical,” an all-singing, all-dancing update of that immortal B movie starring Eleanor Parker, be far behind? Fans of the Netflix show will probably not find much to satisfy them in Ms. Wallace’s play, which opened on Monday night at the Pershing Square Signature Center, kicking off the Signature Theater Company’s new season on a dirge-like note. The author of the well-regarded, much-produced black-plague drama One Flea Spare (from 1995) and several subsequent plays, Ms. Wallace does not write pulp. True, And I and Silence does contain a culminating spasm of violence, as well as a sexual encounter between its two characters, Dee and Jamie, who meet in the lockup when they are both still teenagers. (One is 17, the other about to turn the same age.) But it’s a long, dreary wait for any drama to emerge.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Barceló con Hielo

Barceló con Hielo

August 26, 2014: No young man ever needed a little marijuana more than Sergio in Barceló con Hielo. Luckily, his brother persuades him to smoke before their father gets home. Herbally abetted, the painfully reserved Sergio (Iván Camilo) smiles and laughs for the first time in this comic drama. Marco Antonio Rodríguez wrote the play and stars in the Repertorio Español production as the father, Nino, a seriously ill immigrant from the Dominican Republic who misses everything about home except the corruption. Medical anxiety may explain why he begins to see ghosts. The first spirit, who slips quietly into the living room, introduces himself as Joaquín Balaguer, a three-term president of the Dominican Republic. His predecessor was the dictator Rafael Trujillo, and there are conversations about whether Balaguer was just as bad.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Voices of Swords

Voices of Swords

August 25, 2014: Like an earnest Lifetime TV movie bleached of plot and tension, Voices of Swords is occasionally tolerable but mostly just talky. This is a play eager to chatter on about accepting yourself and others. Trouble is, all those speeches are at the expense of any real drama. The story starts with the daffy Alexis (Celia Schaefer, who has done better work elsewhere) arriving at the home of Olivia (Loni Ackerman), a stubborn retiree preparing to undergo surgery. Alexis, a personal organizer, has been hired by Kosey (Phillip Christian), Olivia’s son, to help his mother around the house. As expected, these two women with contrasting personalities soon find reasons to argue, then to make up, then to become entangled in each other’s personal lives. Though a far-fetched secret comes to light and some suppressed emotions are eventually voiced, cliché is always close by.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Last Days of Cleopatra

The Last Days of Cleopatra

August 25, 2014: Last year, the actress-playwright Laoisa Sexton delivered a bleak, funny and flavorful take on women’s lives in recession-ravaged Dublin with her winning For Love at the Irish Repertory Theater. With The Last Days of Cleopatra, now at Urban Stages, she again depicts that city’s working class, but across genders and generations. The central event in Cleopatra is the death of Tess, the largely unseen matriarch to a fractious clan. The father, Harry (Kenneth Ryan), once a touring trumpeter, drives a cab and hangs at the pub but somewhat fancies himself a smooth operator. Though he waxes nostalgic about Tess (his “Cleopatra”), he flirts with a friend’s ex. (Kevin Marron, here in drag, inhabits small roles.) Harry’s son, Jackey (Michael Mellamphy), is a pudgy newsstand clerk obsessed with Twitter and twerking. (Harry calls him a “twinkle toes.”) Harry’s daughter, the alternately caustic and tentative Natalie (Ms. Sexton), strives for a performing career of sorts, wearing Elmo and Easter bunny costumes at children’s birthday parties and drifting uneasily into striptease.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Great Society (OSF)

The Great Society

August 18, 2014: “Christ, I feel like a catfish that’s bit a big juicy worm only to find a right sharp hook in the middle of it,” says Lyndon B. Johnson in The Great Society, the second part of Robert Schenkkan’s sprawling dramatization of Johnson’s tumultuous years in the White House. As the play opens, Johnson has just been elected to a full presidential term, but there’s no time for a celebratory fishing trip, because he’s already facing a full slate of problems. Mr. Schenkkan’s historical drama is making its premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where the first part, All the Way, made its debut two seasons ago before ultimately moving to Broadway, having acquired Bryan Cranston in the central role. It took home Tony Awards for both Mr. Cranston’s lead performance and best play. The Great Society, which features an effective if less ferocious performance by Jack Willis as Johnson (he originated the role in All the Way here), picks up where the first installment left off. Johnson has secured the mandate of a big presidential win, and with his foot firmly on the gas pedal, begins pushing through Congress a mighty pile of legislation that he believes will reshape the country along the ideals enshrined in its Constitution.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Poor Behavior

Poor Behavior

August 17, 2014: Theresa Rebeck’s assertively glib Poor Behavior, at Primary Stages, takes place at a weekend getaway — provided your idea of a getaway is Napoleon’s retreat from Russia. Peter and Ella have invited Maureen and Ian to their country cottage for wine and chatter. Before a day has passed, egos are bruised and hearts battered. There’s also a potential suicide and an assault with a frying pan. The drama begins after a boozy dinner. Wine bottles clutter the kitchen island and the conversation has turned slurry and heated. Ella (Katie Kreisler) wants to talk about what constitutes goodness, while Ian (Brian Avers) insists there’s no such thing. This is the sort of argument that flummoxes great philosophers. Here the dialogue quickly descends into quotations from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and a discussion of whether or not trees are moral. (Verbal pyrotechnics aren’t really Ms. Rebeck’s thing. But trees, which also loomed over her recent Broadway play, Dead Accounts, apparently are.) Soon Peter (Jeff Biehl) and Maureen (Heidi Armbruster) slip off to bed, leaving Ian and Ella to debate the ethics of Yosemite. Their conversation gradually grows more personal. When Maureen wanders back into the kitchen, she finds them in a near embrace. Is the clinch comforting or erotic? Maureen decides it’s adulterous. The weekend devolves from there.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Finding Neverland (American Rep)

Finding Neverland

August 14, 2014: As long-suffering authorities like the Wright Brothers and Icarus could have told you, becoming airborne is never easy. That’s the lesson being contemplated, on several levels, by Finding Neverland, the ever-evolving, highly determined Broadway-bound children’s musical that opened on Wednesday night at the American Repertory Theater. The principal character of this show, the Peter Pan-creating author James M. Barrie, insists that all a so-called miracle requires is the will to believe, and that includes sending earthbound children into orbit. (The word “Believe” gleams with imperative, echo-chamber luminosity below the title on the show’s posters.) And a lovely young widow — Barrie’s platonic soul mate, as it happens — is heard telling her children that birds can fly because they have perfect faith that they will be able to. But the practical world (cue the boos and hisses) has a discouraging word to add to such airiness. Making anything fly — especially a multimillion-dollar musical — demands expensive technology and months of preparation and fine-tuning. Of course, a little faith that it is all truly worthwhile never hurts. It seems safe to say that Harvey Weinstein has that faith, and you can envision his homes being filled with framed samplers extolling the importance of that virtue — well, perhaps of chutzpah, too. Ever since he steamrollered the lightweight Shakespeare in Love all the way to an Academy Award for best picture, Mr. Weinstein has developed a reputation as one of Hollywood’s most productively pushy players. Now he has trained his formidable powers of faith on a work of theater, and he’s already demonstrated that a little adversity along the way isn’t going to keep his baby from growing wings. Finding Neverland is based on a 2004 film of the same title, which was a Weinstein production.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson

Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson

August 13, 2014: See if you can spot the joke built into the title of the new rock musical at the Minetta Lane Theater: Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter. Could it be the elbow? Nope. Something about the guy’s name? Not that, either. The joke is the useless occupation. For a furniture painter, there’s no work to be had. Huh? But so goes the cryptic comic reasoning of the Icelandic brothers Ivar Pall Jonsson and Gunnlaugur Jonsson, making their musical theater debut with this quirky, great-looking but discombobulated satire about greed and economic collapse. The show’s book, music and lyrics are by Ivar Pall Jonsson, from a story the brothers wrote together. And what a peculiar story it is, set inside the body of the title character, where the tiny people of Elbowville fish lobsters from his lymphatic system and pray to their god, Robert Redford, whose movies can be seen up north in Eyesockette. Ragnar is a big fan.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Opponent

The Opponent

August 7, 2014: The next time I walk into a theater and am faced with a boxing ring, I may be tempted to flee. For some reason, pugilism has become the flavor of the moment at the theater. There is Rocky, of course, but also the Muhammad Ali bio-drama Fetch Clay, Make Man (which I’ve reviewed twice) & Tyson vs. Ali, an experimental play about those two famous champions. I’m beginning to feel a little punch-drunk. The next bout on the bill is The Opponent, a slender play by Brett Neveu, which opened Wednesday night at the 59E59 Theaters in a production that originated at the Chicago company A Red Orchid Theater. (The actor Michael Shannon is among the troupe’s founders.) In this two-hander — perhaps I should call it a four-fister — a young boxer, Donell Fuseles (Kamal Angelo Bolden), and a former fighter who runs a training gym, Tre Billiford (Guy Van Swearingen), hop into the ring together on the day of an important fight in Donell’s burgeoning career. As Donell practices his moves and Tre urges him on, they hash over the past and the future, both working up a good sweat as they bob and weave around the somewhat grimy ring of Joey Wade’s pungently detailed set, representing a down-at-the-heels establishment in Lafayette, La. Donell hasn’t been training at Tre’s place lately; the manager that Tre introduced him to a couple years back has moved him over to a higher-class gym. But Donell still feels a loyalty to Tre, and perhaps for sentimental reasons has decided to stop by and work out on the morning before his most important professional fight. Mr. Neveu, a well-regarded Chicago playwright, captures the friendly but occasionally testy give and take between the up-and-comer and his former mentor as they suss out Donell’s approach to his fight. And yet much of the dialogue — when it can be heard among the sounds of leather hitting leather — seems to do little more than establish Mr. Neveu’s admirable grasp of this testosterone-drenched milieu. The script keeps circling without really landing any notable hits.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Good and the True

The Good and the True

August 3, 2014: Milos Dobry and Hana Pravda have apparently never met. Possibly Milos saw one of Hana’s early films, like Marijka the Unfaithful. Maybe she strolled past a Prague soccer field where Milos made save after save at goal. Or maybe, a few years later — now wretched, terrified, half-starved — they might have crossed paths at Auschwitz. The Czech director Daniel Hrbek has twinned their stories in The Good and the True, at the DR2 Theater, a documentary drama assembled from testimony by Ms. Pravda, who died in 2008, and Mr. Dobry, who died in 2012. Here, little unites the lives of the actress Hana (Hannah D. Scott) and the athlete Milos (Saul Reichlin) except their Jewry and the horrors they suffered and witnessed. This brisk 70-minute drama begins with a few particulars of birth and upbringing, but almost immediately it shifts to the camps. At Terezin, the so-called model ghetto, there’s fear, abuse and privation, but also soccer and amateur theatrics. Predictably the story turns far grimmer as the setting shifts to Auschwitz. Milos recalls his arrival: “The doors crashed open. People fell and jumped from the train in the dark, gasping for air. Then searchlights, the dogs and the stamping of boots of the SS men, marching toward us.”

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