OFF-BROADWAY REVIEWS

OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Horse Girls

Horse Girls

December 18, 2014: There is a point at which Jenny Rachel Weiner’s Horse Girls becomes totally incoherent. This point — spoiler alert — comes well before one character brains another character to death with a golden horse-head trophy. The aggressor is Ashleigh (Olivia Macklin), the unhinged alpha of the Lady Jean Ladies tween group, which is meeting in her horse-theme, pastel bedroom to discuss all things equine. Her victim is Trish (Eleonore Condo), who isn’t even a member of the group but simply hanging out with her cousin Camille (Anna Baryshnikov). When it comes to girls, outsiders are always expendable. I’m all for a good braining. But it was sad to see Trish go; she had been an island of relatability in this addled preteen hothouse, her facial expressions cycling between condescending skepticism, terrorized disgust and what appeared to be the concentration of someone praying to be anywhere but here. Here in this case is the Cell, an aptly claustrophobic space (the front-row of the audience is essentially sitting in Daniel Geggatt’s pitch-perfect set) for Horse Girls, a 50-minute pop descent into madness directed by Sarah Krohn.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Pocatello

Pocatello

December 15, 2014: Toward the conclusion of Samuel D. Hunter’s Pocatello, an old-fashioned drama about dead-end lives, an unhappy restaurant manager played by T. R. Knight laments the interchangeability of American towns. He describes the monotonous vista he sees driving home — punctuated by the sights of a Starbucks, a Walmart, a Burger King — and says wearily, “I don’t know where I live anymore.” At that moment, I couldn't help identifying with this sad sack, and not just because Mr. Knight seems so emotionally invested in his role. All through the production, which opened on Monday night at Playwrights Horizons under the direction of Davis McCallum, I kept envisioning a similar terrain. But my landmarks weren’t chain restaurants and big-box stores. Instead, I saw books, movies and plays stretching back to the beginning of the 20th century, dotting an unending plain of small-town American loneliness: works like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio; William Inge’s Picnic; the film of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show; and Neil LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty. The melancholy ghost of Inge seemed especially present. And there were moments, whenever a contemporary reference like Best Buy or Applebee’s came up, that I found myself startled to realize that we weren’t back in the conformist heyday of Inge and Eisenhower. Pocatello suggests that while the brand names may have changed, the blues sung by quietly desperate middle Americans still have the same old lyrics. Listen, for example, to the plaint of an alcoholic housewife, portrayed by Jessica Dickey, who married young and now sees that her chances of escaping from her straitjacket marriage are slim: “I mean, there are plenty of unhappy people in the world. Why should we be the ones who get to be happy?”

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Every Brilliant Thing

Every Brilliant Thing

December 14, 2014: Even the most dry-eyed among us get weepy in December. There’s something about short, dark days piling up toward another year’s end, while carolers trill about comfort and joy, that brings out the Niobe in men and women of stone. Put one of them in front of a television with James Stewart on the brink in It’s a Wonderful Life, and you’ll need mops to wipe up the tears. If you’ve finally had your fill of that movie but are still in search of seasonal catharsis, might I suggest a very charming alternative, one that offers sentimentality without shame? It’s called Every Brilliant Thing, and it’s pretty much guaranteed to keep your eyes brimming. Granted, you may have to restrain yourself from out-and-out bawling. You see, even though it’s advertised as a one-man show, it’s quite possible that you’ll be asked to become a cast member of this production, which opened on Sunday night at the Barrow Street Theater. And you wouldn’t want to let down its ingratiating star, the British comedian Jonny Donahoe, by blubbering. Oh, dear. I have the feeling I may have scared you off with that last paragraph since it refers to things that give many New Yorkers I know the willies: one-person shows, British humor and (this is often the deal breaker) audience participation. But Every Brilliant Thing, written by Duncan Macmillan (with Mr. Donahoe) and directed by George Perrin, has a way of turning perceived bugaboos into blessings. Like It’s a Wonderful Life, in which Stewart is talked out of offing himself by a visiting angel, Brilliant (adapted from a short story by Mr. Macmillan) pits reasons to live against the urge not to. In this case, the advocate for team life is our narrator (Mr. Donahoe), who describes growing up with a suicidal mother, who first tries to kill herself when he is 7.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Nella Tempesta

Nella Tempesta

December 12, 2014: You can talk all you like about ideals and class resentment and visions of the future. But the ingredient most essential to getting a revolution off the ground is energy, the kind that incinerates as it moves. And the place you’ll find the highest concentration of that precious entity is in the restless bodies of the young. Judged by these criteria, the Motus Theater Company of Italy is the most truly revolutionary troupe in town. Seen to scorching effect in 2012 with Alexis. A Greek Tragedy, which translated the rage of Sophocles’ defiant Antigone into the 21st century, Motus is now channeling the pent-up lifeblood of two slaves out of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, chafing at their bondage to an imperial magician named Prospero. Ariel and Caliban, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains. Nella Tempesta, which runs through Sunday at the Ellen Stewart Theater at La MaMa, is a full-throated cry to the young and disaffected to get off their collective duffs, shake off their shackles and do something. Conceived and directed by Daniela Nicolò and Enrico Casagrande, this production turns a cast of six and an assortment of blankets into an 80-minute youthquake that seems likely to leave even cynical audience members shaken and stirred. There was a time, a half-century ago, when such rough-hewed, kinetically charged, politically aggressive theater was common in New York. And Nella Tempesta quivers with vibrations from that time. It seems only right that the production should be staged at La MaMa, which has a history of convention-flouting theater in the raw that dates to the early 1960s, and that its soundscape includes the recorded voice of Judith Malina, a founder of the iconoclastic Living Theater.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Asphalt Christmas

The Asphalt Christmas

December 9, 2014: The parochial school’s blond-pigtailed problem child is a cross between little Rhoda in The Bad Seed and Regan in The Exorcist. To the parish priest, Father O’Day, the cure is obvious. “I must perform an exorcism,” he tells the girl’s mother. “It’s the only conceivable way to save your daughter and my Christmas pageant.” The good news for audiences at The Asphalt Christmas, Todd Michael’s satirical mash-up of old Hollywood movies, Christmas-related and otherwise, is that the exorcism is performed onstage, and the 360-degree head spin is the funniest effect in this seemingly shoestring-budget production. The bad news is that the 90-minute play, directed by Lawrence Lesher at the Lion Theater, falls flat much of the time. Aiming to be madcap, it dashes off in multiple directions. Sometimes this works, as in the strand involving the possessed girl’s mother, Dixie (Mr. Michael), a ’40s-style dame who happens to be a stripper. More often, it doesn’t.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical

Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical

December 9, 2014: He’s a mean one, Mr. Grinch — but oh, what a charmer! On a Christmas Eve heist of his neighbors, the Whos, he’s joyously wicked and funny and crass. There’s no harm in cheering as he cleans out their house: We know he’ll reform; he’ll bring the stuff back. But really? We’d take his side, no matter what. The strapping man inside the shaggy green suit is the Tony winner Shuler Hensley, and his Grinch is magnificent, a charismatic showman of a menace who will never truly frighten the children. If only he didn't have to carry the whole production. Mr. Hensley’s strutting, preening performance is by far the best thing about Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical, directed by Matt August at the Theater at Madison Square Garden. Along with John Lee Beatty’s picture book set and the Whos’ gravity-defying hair (costumes are by Robert Morgan), it’s one of the few elements of this terribly thin 90-minute show that feels genuinely Seussian. The musical, which spent a couple of holiday seasons on Broadway, beginning in 2006, is adapted from a pair of classics: Dr. Seuss’s 1957 children’s book and the 1966 animated television special, which contributes the only memorable songs here, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and the Whos’ anthem “Welcome, Christmas.” The others are by the composer Mel Marvin and the lyricist Timothy Mason, who also wrote the show’s book. The inhabitants of Who-ville, a bell-shaped people attired in candy cane colors, are visually entertaining. So is a snowfall effect over part of the audience close to the stage, though what falls is sticky and will leave hair tangled. But the writing that doesn’t belong to Dr. Seuss, including an entire song about shopping, is undistinguished.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Invisible Hand

The Invisible Hand

December 8, 2014: The beheadings of journalists and aid workers that have become a grisly aspect of the tumult in the Middle East hover like ugly ghosts behind The Invisible Hand, the latest play by Ayad Akhtar, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced can currently be seen on Broadway. Like that sizzling drama, Mr. Akhtar’s shrewd play, which opened on Monday night at New York Theater Workshop, raises probing questions about the roots of the Islamic terrorism that has rattled the world for the last decade and more. The victim under threat here, Nick Bright, played by Justin Kirk, is neither a journalist nor a worker for a charitable organization. He’s a high-level American employee of Citibank in Pakistan, being held by militants. Mr. Akhtar’s intelligent if talky drama is less a suspenseful tale of Nick’s endangerment than an investigation of the manipulation of global financial markets — by good guys or bad guys — and the power of the almighty dollar to shape or shake societies around the world. Nick has already been socked away in a nondescript cell as the play opens, kept handcuffed and under supervision. It’s fairly benign supervision, at first. Dar (Jameal Ali), one of his lower-level captors, is seen clipping Nick’s fingernails while they discuss the profitable financial advice Nick had given him: to stockpile potatoes, wait until the price climbs, then sell at a great profit. Oh, and don’t forget to transfer the takings from the unreliable Pakistani rupee into the dollar. This doesn’t sit well with Nick’s more brutal captor, Bashir (Usman Ally), who accuses him of corrupting Dar with his advice. He threatens that if Citibank doesn’t pay the $10 million ransom they are asking for Nick’s release, he will hand Nick over to Lashkar-e-Jhangvi — the violent Islamic terrorist organization centered in Pakistan that was involved in the infamous killing of the journalist Daniel Pearl.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: On the Other Side of the River

On the Other Side of the River,

December 7, 2014: A bleak and cheerless mood seeps into nearly every moment of On the Other Side of the River, a play that’s admirable for the dark chances it takes, even when it’s less than engaging to watch. River tells the story of Mir’l (Jane Cortney), a young woman whose mother died giving birth to her. Her father drowned at about the same time, and Mir’l has since lived with her grandmother (Christine Siracusa) and blind grandfather (David Greenspan). The river waters that took her father’s life are rising again, threatening to bring more sorrow to the family. Amid the flood, Mir’l encounters a stranger (David Arkema) who both frightens and bewitches her. The waters recede, but her morbid obsession with the man intensifies. The play, written by Peretz Hirshbein around 1906 and staged at Here, has the feel of a fairy tale mixed with a nightmare. There’s constant talk of fate, of dreams, of souls, much of it dispensed with no emotion. The dialogue evokes Greek tragedy as well as expressionist and symbolist drama, and comes off as stiff and portentous to ears accustomed to naturalism.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: A Christmas Memory

A Christmas Memory

December 4, 2014: Despite the hefty confections at its center, the Irish Repertory Theater’s A Christmas Memory, a musical version of the Truman Capote short story, is as slight as a popcorn strand, as wispy as tinsel. A tale of a boy’s attachment to his childlike cousin, it is an exercise in holiday nostalgia. In cold blood? More like in warm batter. In Duane Poole’s adaptation, the story begins in the 1950s, when Buddy (the moist-eyed Ashley Robinson), a writer struggling with his second book, returns to the Alabama house where he once lived with three elderly cousins. As he sits at the kitchen table, he’s borne back to his last Christmas there, which his younger self (Silvano Spagnuolo) spent in the glad company of his pup, Queenie, and his cousin Sook (a deglamorized Alice Ripley). Sook is a believer in fairy tales and Bible stories. Kind and playful, she has a marvelous sense of occasion. “Oh, can you feel it?” she asks the young Buddy elatedly. “The excitement in the air of an adventure about to begin?”

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: THE SEAGULL and SENSE & SENSIBILITY

The Seagull

November 26, 2014: Gossip gallops in Bedlam’s invigorating stage version of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, which runs through Dec. 21 at the Sheen Center. The would-be and might-have-been lovers in this enchantingly athletic take on the perils of Austen-style courtship, adapted by Kate Hamill and directed by Eric Tucker, find themselves pushed and pulled by the forces of speculation run rampant. Why, a young woman can’t take tea with a friend without feeling that prying eyes and ears are pressed against the walls and windows, a sentiment to which the ensemble gives literal and very funny life. An ever-rising Babel of voices sometimes overrides the dialogue. And the scenery, which turns out to be highly mobile, has been mounted on casters, since it takes a well-oiled set of wheels to keep up with the velocity of rumor. And you thought Jane Austen was all sedentary sitting around and sewing. No troupe in New York these days rides the storytelling momentum of theater more resourcefully or enthusiastically than Bedlam. Last winter, using a cast of only four, this company performed Shaw’s Saint Joan and Shakespeare’s Hamlet in repertory (also under Mr. Tucker’s direction), with an engrossing energy and narrative ingenuity that made these wordy, worthy dramas feel like suspenseful Olympic events. After that, you might think that Mr. Tucker and his producing director (and frequent leading lady) Andrus Nichols would retire to a spa for a year or two. But here they are again, fewer than 12 months later, alternating high-octane Austen with a loose-jointed production of Chekhov’s The Seagull, a play notorious for thwarting the most accomplished thespians.

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