OFF-BROADWAY REVIEWS

OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Dark Meat on a Funny Mind

Dark Meat on a Funny Mind

August 19, 2014: Louis C.K. once began a riff about how much he hated standing in the audience of a comedy show by joking that even if Richard Pryor came back from the dead, he would still see Pryor’s show only if he could sit down. The fantasy of seeing Pryor do stand-up again is a large part of the appeal for any play about that comedian, but it’s also why pulling off the performance is so difficult. It shouldn’t surprise that Dark Meat on a Funny Mind, a clumsy stumble through the highlights of Pryor’s life, presents the comedian with none of his magnetism. Charles Weldon doesn’t look or sound like the man he’s portraying. Nor does he capture his daring, existential fear or ruthless, even dangerous commitment to confessional comedy. Part of the problem is that he hasn’t committed his lines to memory — and it’s hard to sustain confidence in a play about a wildly brilliant comedian when the lights go up on two podiums with scripts on top of them. (Mr. Weldon replaced Anthony Chisholm, who dropped out.)

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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: Phoenix

Phoenix

August 7, 2014: When Scott Organ’s Phoenix begins, Bruce and Sue are on their second date. It isn’t going well. “I can’t see you anymore,” Sue says. She makes this declaration after she’s rated their drunken night together “better than most,” but before she’s revealed that a faulty condom has left her pregnant, and that she intends to terminate the pregnancy. Ah, young love. Unlikely as it seems, Mr. Organ’s play is more or less a romance, a more mannerly and somewhat less likely counterpart to the recent movie comedy Obvious Child. First seen at the Humana Festival in 2010, Phoenix is being revived by Rattlestick Theater and a few other producers at the Cherry Lane. Julia Stiles plays Sue, a visiting nurse with defense mechanisms sturdy enough to repel a Mongol horde. Yet she can’t seem to deter Bruce (James Wirt). He insists on tagging along to the abortion, gassing up his Taurus when she tells him she’s chosen a clinic in Phoenix. Even Bruce is moved to joke about restraining orders. Like many of Mr. Organ’s jokes, it’s only sort of funny.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Summer Shorts: Series B

Summer Shorts

August 5, 2014: “The worst thing was to indulge you,” the woman ruefully tells her disheveled son, who, at 25, is still incapable of making his way in the world. If she weren’t there to stop him, Corey would spend his days playing Minecraft on his laptop. Such is the trouble for mother and man-child in Daniel Reitz’s terribly tender, very funny short play Napoleon in Exile. Directed by Paul Schnee, it leads off Summer Shorts: Series B, presented by Throughline Artists at 59E59 Theaters and also featuring new works by Neil LaBute and Albert Innaurato. Central to Mr. Reitz’s play is that Corey is “on the spectrum”: acutely intelligent, socially hobbled. In Will Dagger’s extraordinarily sympathetic performance, he is also urgent, ashamed, odd, lovable, scared and desperate. Henny Russell, as his mother, has the less rewarding part, but Mr. Reitz has written a rich role in Corey, and Mr. Dagger makes it indelibly his own. The men in Mr. LaBute’s morally complex The Mulberry Bush, like Peter and Jerry in Edward Albee’s classic one-act The Zoo Story, are strangers in a park. Their meeting is not accidental, though it appears that way at first to quiet, distinguished-looking Bill (Victor Slezak), who often eats lunch on a secluded bench. Younger and seemingly lower-class, Kip (J. J. Kandel) has come to accuse Bill — to specify the charge would be a spoiler — and defend his own family.

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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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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Sex with Strangers

Sex with Strangers

July 31, 2014: “Who are you?” Those are the first words spoken in Sex With Strangers, a twisty and timely new play by Laura Eason, and they cut right to the core of this two-character drama about lust, love and the complex nature of identity in our digital-dominated era. When a persona can be tweaked, primped or entirely fabricated online, it may be a little tricky to figure out exactly who is lying in bed beside you: a sympathetic soul, or just a brand with a hot body? That opening line comes from Olivia, played by Anna Gunn (of Breaking Bad), a writer holed up in a remote bed-and-breakfast, spying a car out the window. She is idly wondering who would brave a snowstorm to reach this informal writers’ retreat in rural Michigan. The visitor turns out to be Ethan, played by Billy Magnussen (best known as the Boy Toy of the Chiseled Abs in Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike). The simmering rapport these two talented actors develop quickly lights a fire under Ms. Eason’s drama of good sex and bad faith, which opened on Wednesday night at Second Stage Theater in a production directed by the actor David Schwimmer.

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