OFF-BROADWAY REVIEWS

OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Cabin in the Sky

Cabin in the Sky

February 11, 2016: The Devil and the Lord fight a war by proxy for the soul of a sweet but feckless fellow in “Cabin in the Sky,” an all-black musical from 1940 that kicks off the Encores! season at City Center. A central mission of this beloved series, now more than two decades old, is resurrecting musicals whose scores still shine even as their books have faded into irrelevance. This production — musically vibrant, dramatically a dud — for better and worse offers a prime example of the genre. Michael Potts plays the nominally central figure, Little Joe Jackson, who is on his deathbed — literally — as the musical begins. A powerfully sung a cappella version of the spiritual “God’s Gonna Trouble the Waters” (anyone who’s seen Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations” more than once could probably sing along) kicks the show into high gear on the musical front. Although the ample score is by Vernon Duke (music) and John LaTouche (lyrics), “Cabin in the Sky” features a couple of traditional spirituals, and this production also includes “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe,” a much-recorded standard written by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg for the movie version, which jettisoned many of the original songs.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Smart People

Smart People

February 11, 2016: “I do hope you’re following this,” the professor of neuroscience says to his students in the dizzying prologue of Lydia R. Diamond’s drama “Smart People.” He might well wonder. Prickly, provocative notions about race, class, prejudice, identity and sexuality ricochet like balls scattering across a pool table in this brainy but overstuffed drama, which opened on Thursday at Second Stage Theater in a slick production directed by Kenny Leon. For all their fancy talk (and talk, and talk) about psychology, neurology and the ways in which racism pervades American culture — naturally a churning topic at the moment — the forces that bring these four characters together too often seem dictated more by the playwright’s desire to dive deeply into a swirling whirlpool of ideas rather than by natural circumstances. (Invoking the parlor game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” as Ms. Diamond does, feels like a bit of a fig leaf.)

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Prodigal Son

Prodigal Son

February 9, 2016: John Patrick Shanley has invited you to spend a season with him in what he calls “a special, beautiful room in hell.” As you might expect of this creator of memorably volatile plays (“Danny and the Deep Blue Sea,” “Dirty Story”) and film scripts (“Moonstruck”), it is not the sort of place you feel like sitting back and relaxing. Not that fire, brimstone or any of the usual instruments of infernal torture are deployed in his “Prodigal Son,” which opened on Tuesday night in a Manhattan Theater Club production at City Center directed by Mr. Shanley. What awaits you is far more painful: the sound of a raw adolescent ego screaming for attention. Or as the ego in question, Jim Quinn (played by the gifted Timothée Chalamet), puts it in his opening and closing remarks to the audience, “Do you remember 15?” It could be argued that Mr. Shanley recalls that age so vividly that he hasn’t just written about it; he has also rendered it as if, in his mid-60s, he were still writhing in the stinging throes of his midteens.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Broadway & the Bard

Broadway & the Bard

February 5, 2016: Shakespeare and Broadway have had a relationship quite a bit more intimate than a handshake over the years, but the two have perhaps never met with quite the coziness that they do in “Broadway & the Bard,” an odd but enjoyable solo show, starring the stage veteran Len Cariou, that juxtaposes monologues and sonnets with songs from musicals. Longtime musical-theatergoers know Mr. Cariou best from his appearances in “Applause,” “A Little Night Music” and of course “Sweeney Todd,” in which he created the title role. But as he notes at the top of this 80-minute show at the Lion Theater, six months before appearing in “Applause,” he made his Broadway debut in 1969 in the title role of “Henry V.” His Shakespearean bona fides also include many seasons at the Guthrie Theater and at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. (Mr. Cariou was born in Canada.) This bit of history explains one of the unlikelier transitions in the show, conceived by Mr. Cariou in collaboration with the director, Barry Kleinbort, and the music director, Mark Janas. Henry’s rousing speech at Harfleur (“Once more unto the breach”) is followed immediately by the title tune from “Applause.” There’s more sentiment than logic in this pairing, but most of the other segments are more cleanly aligned.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Sense & Sensibility

Sense & Sensibility

February 4, 2016: Pray do not be alarmed, gentle readers, but I am here to tell you that Jane Austen has been pumped full of helium. Now you might think that the injection of such an alien element would warp, if not altogether explode, that fabled “little bit (two inches wide) of ivory” on which Austen said she worked. Yet the Bedlam theater company’s version of her “Sense & Sensibility,” which opened on Thursday night at the Gym at Judson, expands and magnifies Austen’s delicate comic worldview without cracking a single teacup. First presented for a short run in repertory in 2014, this enchanting romp of a play has returned on its own, with a few adjustments, but with its buoyant spirits, cunning stagecraft and enlivening insights intact. As adapted for the stage by Kate Hamill and directed by Eric Tucker, “Sense & Sensibility” might be described as Jane Austen for those who don’t usually like Jane Austen, finding her work too reserved for lively entertainment. Yet I would imagine that even fanatical Janeites, as her most devoted admirers are known, will not take offense, once they get used to this production’s audaciously high energy level.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Grand Paradise

The Grand Paradise

January 31, 2016: I had barely arrived for my tropical holiday in Brooklyn before I was deflowered. Yes, my lei, which had been hung welcomingly around my neck when I entered the resort called the Grand Paradise, was taken from me (gently) by a vulpine blonde in a pink satin bathing suit and pearls. That occurred in her dressing room, where this guiding siren — whom I had just watched striking pinup poses with giant pearls on a nightclub stage — was showing me faded postcards affixed to her mirror and telling me about the different lovers they brought to mind. “Stan,” she would sigh, or “Harry,” or “Jim,” appending each name with the same wistful postscript: “He was my first.” Now that my lei had been added to her collection, I was feeling shucked and sentimental. In the context of what seemed guaranteed to turn into a night of encounters with intimate strangers, she was, after all, my first. “The Grand Paradise,” the latest and lushest of the many immersive theater spectacles to set up camp in New York in recent years, traffics in instant nostalgia. Created by Third Rail Projects, this interactive tour of an imaginary Floridian pleasure palace from the 1970s manages to summon romantic promise and regretful retrospection in a single, ocean-air breath.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: I and You

I and You

January 27, 2016: If you have dipped into the tear-filled pools of young adult literature — or the films inspired by it — you have probably encountered a couple like Caroline and Anthony. They’re the sparring, sparking high school students in “I and You,” Lauren Gunderson’s perky two-character study in adolescent confusions and cosmic mysteries, which opened on Wednesday at 59E59 Theaters. Portrayed with equal measures of impishness and angst by Kayla Ferguson and Reggie D. White, Caroline and Anthony are unlikely to be to the taste of everybody over 12. So listen to a few examples of what they have to say about themselves (and each other) and decide whether you want to spend 90 minutes in their company. She is combative and snarly — “small but mighty, like a dachshund,” she says. He is a tall basketball player who believes in the virtues of politeness and doing your homework. He practically lives on Pop-Tarts; she unconditionally loves Chunky Monkey ice cream. She digs Elvis; he’s into Coltrane.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Skeleton Crew

Skeleton Crew

January 19, 2016: How do you walk a line that keeps disintegrating beneath you? The characters in “Skeleton Crew,” the very fine new play by Dominique Morisseau that opened on Tuesday night at the Atlantic Stage 2, travel an uncertain path between comfort and chaos, lawfulness and criminality, mutual support and blinkered selfishness. You might add to the list that most traditional of opposites, the good and the bad. Then again, are ethics affordable luxuries when your overriding concern is to avoid joining the homeless? What are your obligations to anybody else when it’s all you can do to keep yourself from sliding over the edge? Such questions are being constantly weighed, discarded and picked up once more in this warm-blooded, astute and beautifully acted four-character drama, the third installment in Ms. Morisseau’s trilogy of plays set in Detroit. I suppose you could say these are questions that to some degree haunt everybody in those Darwinian jungles where we fight for our paychecks.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Clever Little Lies

Clever Little Lies

October 12, 2015: Marlo Thomas headlines the new Broadway revival of Joe DiPietro’s “Clever Little Lies.” JK! That’s just kidding, for those not up on their texting abbreviations, which would probably include anyone with a remote interest in seeing this comedy-drama about infidelity and its consequences. Ms. Thomas is indeed appearing in a play by Mr. DiPietro called “Clever Little Lies,” but while it feels like a throwback to Broadway comedies of the 1960s, this is a new play, or at least it was when it was first presented, in 2013 at the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey. The play, which opened on Monday night — Off Broadway — at the Westside Theater, mostly takes place in the handsome suburban home of Ms. Thomas’s Alice and her husband, Bill, portrayed by Greg Mullavey. The couple’s son, Billy (George Merrick), and daughter-in-law, Jane (Kate Wetherhead), have been invited for coffee and drinks. From another room we occasionally hear the gurglings of their new baby.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Daddy Long Legs

Daddy Long Legs

September 29, 2015: Will no one pity the postman? Two centuries of novels and plays would have run aground without these couriers delivering menace, promise and revelation with the morning letters. That mailbag is unusually full in “Daddy Long Legs,” a sweet, beautifully sung and only occasionally unsettling musical adaptation of Jean Webster’s 1912 novel, predicated on the lengthy correspondence between a pert orphan and the anonymous benefactor who sends her to college. On the stage of the Davenport Theater, itself not much bigger than a postcard, the adorable Megan McGinnis and the poised Paul Alexander Nolan relate the tale while three musicians huddle above them in an orchestra loft. The story begins as Jerusha Abbott, the eldest orphan at her New England asylum, receives the news that a trustee who calls himself John Smith has agreed to fund her college education. This John Smith demands that she send him a letter once a month, letters that he will never answer. Jerusha can’t abide his alias. “Why couldn’t you have picked out a name with a little personality?” she protests. Because she has had one small glimpse of him and knows him to be tall — and further imagines him old and gray — she calls him Daddy Long Legs.

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