OFF-BROADWAY REVIEWS

OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Bright Half Life

Bright Half Life

February 26, 2015: Erica and Vicky like to play a game of questions that they call “A B C”: “What’s your favorite color?” Vicky asks. “If you had a superhero power what would it be?” “Do you think forwards or do you think backwards or do you think just ‘now’?” The answer to that last one is absolutely all of the above. Tanya Barfield’s Bright Half Life, a Women’s Project Theater production, follows Vicky (Rachael Holmes) and Erica (Rebecca Henderson) through four-and-a-half decades: introduction, courtship, children, same-sex marriage, not-so-gay divorce and the whisper of mortality. But this brief, prismatic play doesn’t proceed linearly. It flashes forward and falls back and sometimes repeats the same scene twice. As scripted by Ms. Barfield and directed by her frequent collaborator Leigh Silverman, the logic is mostly associative. When Erica’s proposal is rebuffed, the scene speeds to an early date, when she suffers heartburn. A moment just before a sky diving free fall abruptly shifts to a different kind of collapse. A fight glides into a kiss.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Five Times in One Night

Five Times in One Night

February 26, 2015: There were ample giggles throughout the first three parts of Chiara Atik’s Five Times in One Night, a series of comedy sketches with a lewd title and a tender heart at the Ensemble Studio Theater. But it was only in the fourth scene that wails and whimpers of pained recognition rang out. I saw women watching with hands over their mouths and one man who appeared to have shut his eyes entirely. Ms. Atik’s play examines what we talk about when we talk about sex, providing chats from the world’s first couple, Adam and Eve, to its last, Mel and Djuna, the lone survivors of A.D. 2119. Dylan Dawson and Darcy Fowler play all the roles and in the fourth sketch, set “next week,” they are Laura and Tim, a couple suffering an erotic slump. When Tim initiates a conversation about their ho-hum sex life, the tête-à-tête reveals uncomfortable truths — so uncomfortable that each one elicited a chorus of groans. Five Times is more often cute and maybe a little collegiate. Even the sixth-floor space, with its comfy couches and tricked out freight elevator, feels a little like a dorm hangout. Ms. Atik supplies al fresco copulation in a snakeless Garden of Eden and reimagines the letters of the medieval clerics Abelard and Heloise as a series of not-so-instant messages. “Such a fun night,” Heloise writes. “Next time maybe we’ll actually talk about Plato, though, O.K.? Ha.” The castration joke is also pretty good.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: An Octoroon

An Octoroon

February 26, 2015: Walking on a stage covered with cotton balls is a tricky business. It’s all too easy to slip into a pratfall. And forget about running or dancing or hopping like a bunny, as the characters sometimes unwisely attempt in An Octoroon, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s coruscating comedy of unresolved history, which opened on Thursday night at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. But it feels right that the people occupying this production, first seen last year at Soho Rep, should be required to move on what might be called terra infirma. For Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins has deliberately built his play on slippery foundations, the kind likely to trip up any dramatist, performer or theatergoer. An Octoroon, you see, is all about race in these United States, as it was and is and unfortunately probably shall be for a considerable time. That’s race as a subject that no one can get a comfortable hold on. Directed by Sarah Benson, in a style that perfectly matches its mutating content, An Octoroon is a shrewdly awkward riff on Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon (notice the change in article), a 19th-century chestnut about illicit interracial love. Boucicault’s melodrama was a great hit in its day but is now almost never performed, except possibly as a camp diversion for private amusement.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Lives of the Saints

Lives of the Saints

February 25, 2015: A woman returns from the dead to reveal uncomfortable secrets. A friendship almost founders over a gift gone unappreciated. A boy becomes romantically obsessed with a washing machine. A man runs into a fellow who seems to embody, with eerie specificity, the life he chose not to live. Do these sound like subjects rich in belly laughs? Well, maybe the boy-loves-washer one does. And yet in the dexterous hands of the playwright David Ives (Venus in Fur), metaphysical questions and elbow-in-the-ribs gags coexist peacefully; thoughtfulness and silly wordplay live side by side with equanimity. Mr. Ives’s new collection of short plays, Lives of the Saints, which opened on Tuesday night at the Duke on 42nd Street, is continually piquant and pleasurable, sometimes deliriously daffy (the pun-allergic should stay away), and surprisingly moving. The production, directed with sly finesse by Mr. Ives’s frequent collaborator John Rando, comes from Primary Stages, which revived Mr. Ives’s earlier collection All in the Timing a couple of seasons ago. Among the new show’s pleasures are the juicy performances of its gifted cast of five: Arnie Burton, Carson Elrod, Rick Holmes, Kelly Hutchinson and Liv Rooth, all adept at loopy sketch-comedy pyrotechnics but also capable of creating fully realized characters within small frames. It’s hard to choose a favorite among the six plays, half of which are new, with only one having been seen in New York before. If scored by the number of guffaws induced, the winner would have to be “Life Signs,” which opens the second act on an explosively raunchy note.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Brooklynite

Brooklynite

February 25, 2015: It’s not easy being a superhero charged with protecting Brooklyn. Making sure all that fresh produce makes it from farm to table. Breaking up fights at the Park Slope Food Co-op. Preventing French tourists from falling into the Gowanus Canal. These and other daily challenges are the responsibility of six superpower-endowed men and women fighting the good fight in Brooklynite, a slight but goofily endearing new musical that opened on Wednesday at the Vineyard Theater. With a perky pop score by Peter Lerman and a slyly funny book by Mr. Lerman and the veteran Michael Mayer (American Idiot, Spring Awakening), who also directs, the show makes genial sport of both superheroic tropes and the rise of Brooklyn, which has itself become a sort of champ among New York boroughs. (“In a world beyond savin’/Brooklyn is a haven,” runs one of Mr. Lerman’s cheerleading lyrics.) The characters were created by Michael Chabon, whose novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was set during the halcyon days of the comic-book business in the 1940s, and Ayelet Waldman, also a novelist (and married to Mr. Chabon). Another inspiration was the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company — yes, an actual establishment! — for which the musical’s plot supplies an elaborate fictional back story.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Churchill

Churchill

February 24, 2015: For lovers of British history onstage, this is a season bristling with enticements: Elizabeth II, in the form of Helen Mirren, holding court in The Audience; Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn, soon to follow in Wolf Hall; and over at New World Stages, a chatty Winston Churchill, dabbing at oils at his easel and expounding on an action-packed career. His youthful exploits in India, his dramatic escape from captivity during the Boer War, his alarm and revulsion as Europe appeased a rising Adolf Hitler, his relief when the United States entered World War II — it’s all there in SoloChicago Theater’s Churchill, a one-man show adapted and performed by Ronald Keaton. A biography in two acts, Churchill is lecture as entertainment. The year, evidently, is 1946, and the former prime minister, freshly jilted from office by a war-weary populace, is visiting the United States at the invitation of Harry S. Truman. Why he’s speaking to us, or where we’re meant to be, is unclear, but he’s pleasant company, an older gentleman well aware of his bounteous good fortune.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The World of Extreme Happiness

The World of Extreme Happiness

February 24, 2015: Sunny, the heroine of The World of Extreme Happiness, may at times have a cheerful disposition, but there’s a bitter irony in this beleaguered young woman charting an odyssey through contemporary China while carrying the burden of such a hopeful name. Not a lot of sunlight filters down through the smog-clogged skies to brighten her hard life. Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s drama, which opened on Tuesday at City Center in a Manhattan Theater Club production (with the Goodman Theater in Chicago), begins on a note of grim humor as a young woman, Xiao Li (Jo Mei), in the throes of labor, curses her unborn child and cries out for relief. Her husband, Li Han (James Saito) exchanges raunchy talk with a fellow villager, utterly indifferent to his wife’s suffering. (The explosions of vulgarity from both the male and female characters give the impression that Chinese peasants take particular pleasure in profanity.) Li’s indifference turns to irritation when he learns that his wife has given birth to yet another daughter. “A boy is a child,” he says glumly to the midwife. “A girl is a thing.” Just how negligible a thing is indicated when Li opens the pig slop bucket sitting near him, and the midwife tosses the newborn inside. Li then spits into the bucket.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Nether

The Nether

February 24, 2015: It’s a gray, gray tomorrow that greets us in The Nether, Jennifer Haley’s very cunning and equally creepy new play about alternative lives in a future around the corner. When first seen, Laura Jellinek’s fantastical set for this satisfyingly disturbing production, which opened on Tuesday night at the Lucille Lortel Theater, shows a world that has been leached of color. Only the skin tones of the actors relieve the ash and rain-cloud palette of the opening scenes. Granted, we appear to be in an interrogation room, not the kind of place known for festive décor. But the dialogue suggests that what lies beyond this grim chamber is no brighter. Blue skies and leafy green trees, it seems, are a thing of the past. Then a door opens, and a corridor of sunlight cuts through the gloom. It’s emanating from a partly glimpsed, perfect sylvan landscape, a garden in which verdant nature has bowed gracefully to human order. Oh, let’s go there. Let’s go to paradise. On second thought, let’s not. This inviting Eden — which also features an enchanting Victorian manor house — isn’t real, though whenever you step into it, it might as well be. It is the custom-made reflection of one man’s fantasy. And we are told it is the most sophisticated example ever of a complete virtual universe, to be reached only online.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Big Love

Big Love

February 23, 2015: They’re bouncing off the walls in Tina Landau’s frenzied revival of Big Love, Charles Mee’s 2000 play of things martial and marital according to Aeschylus. They’re also dangling from ropes and jumping on trampolines and rolling on the floor and fighting with tooth, claw, knives and slices of wedding cake. Well, as the song says, that’s amore. Actually, that Dean Martin hit isn’t heard in Big Love, which opened on Monday night at the Pershing Square Signature Center.But a whole lot of other tunes — pop and classical — are: “You Don’t Own Me” (immortalized by Lesley Gore), Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” Pachelbel’s Canon, Handel’s Largo, the “come to the window” aria from Mozart’s Don Giovanni and a few less obvious choices. Love, it seems, is a mixtape of clichés in the world of Mr. Mee, whose plays often suggest a collagist who’s gone crazy with the scissors. He has been praised and dissed for riffing wild on venerable works, like Euripides’ The Trojan Women and Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, with what usually registers more as hellbent madness than discernible method.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Insurgents

The Insurgents

February 23, 2015: Beware, America! Sally Wright, a young woman who spends a lot of time with a shotgun in her hands, is having one whale of a nervous breakdown. It is, you might say, a breakdown as big as a whole country, and it’s been building for centuries. Played by Cassie Beck with alarmed eyes that belie her cornfed friendliness, Sally is the central character in The Insurgents, the small but mightily ambitious state-of-the-nation play by Lucy Thurber, which opened on Monday night at the Bank Street Theater. And that shotgun I mentioned? Sally’s going to wind up pointing it right at you. Theatergoers who know Chekhov’s dictum about guns — you know, writers shouldn’t introduce them if they’re not going to shoot them — need not fear for their lives, however. In a prologue to this Labyrinth Theater Company production, the engaging Ms. Beck reassures us that her gun isn’t real and poses no threat to our safety. That is a slightly disingenuous disclaimer. If no violence has occurred by the evening’s end — and this play is mostly all talk — Ms. Thurber still wants us to leave braced for the fire next time. The Insurgents is about a rage that never stops simmering in the home of the free, brave and disenfranchised. And it is achingly, earnestly aware that, as Sally puts it, there’s a fine line in this country between heroism and terrorism.

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