OFF-BROADWAY REVIEWS

OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Strictly Dishonorable

Strictly Dishonorable

July 28, 2014: Strictly Dishonorable, the 1929 Preston Sturges comedy revived by the Attic Theater, is an old-fashioned kind of show. You can tell right from its first scene when the speakeasy proprietor, Tomaso (Christopher Tocco), sprinkles bitters onto a sugar cube before adding whiskey, ice and a cherry. Just try and leave this charmer without a fondness for Sturges and a craving for a strong cocktail. A clever if ultimately conservative comedy of sexual morality, Strictly Dishonorable begins when the vivacious Isabelle (Keilly McQuail) and her stuffed-shirt fiancé, Henry (Thomas Christopher Matthews), venture into Tomaso’s saloon. Isabelle is eager; Henry is grouchy. After downing a few whiskeys, he becomes outright belligerent. Meanwhile, Isabelle has caught the eye of Gus (Michael Labbadia), a romantic tenor who picks up and discards women as though they were so much sheet music. It’s love at first sip. Or more likely just lust. When Henry is ejected from the bar, the virginal Isabelle agrees to shelter for the night in Gus’s apartment. His intentions toward her? Strictly dishonorable. Or so he believes.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Lightning Theif

The Lightning Theif

July 25, 2014: I plan to change the subject when my 11-year-old daughter asks about The Lightning Thief, a new musical at the Lucille Lortel Theater. She was excited to attend, but a last-minute appointment prevented it. To tell her how much fun she missed might be a little cruel. The show, part of the Theatreworks free summer theater program, is adapted from Rick Riordan’s young-adult novel of the same name. In the story, Percy Jackson, a bright sixth grader, grows frustrated after being expelled from the latest school he’s attending. He’s got plenty of other concerns too — dyslexia, hyperactivity and a desire to find the father he never knew. Soon he discovers that Dad is one of the ancient Greek gods, and Percy is sent to a supernatural summer camp where the boy meets others like himself. Before long he and his friends embark on a journey, battling monsters and Medusa in a quest to end a war, rescue his mother and prove his courage. While the show imparts the expected reassuring lessons — “Normal is a myth/Everyone has issues they’re dealing with” — it’s seldom saccharine or didactic. The musical’s book, by Joe Tracz, and music and lyrics, by Rob Rokicki, strike a tone that’s sassy though not snarky, and energetic without being hectic.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Summer Shorts: Series A

Summer Shorts

July 24, 2014: Marriages are celebrated. Divorces are granted. Children are born. Parents die. And through all the joy and tumult and change, the Knicks continue to lose. That’s the sweetly despairing premise of Warren Leight’s Sec. 310, Row D, Seats 5 and 6, the highlight of the three one-acts in Summer Shorts: Series A at the 59E59 Theaters. The play follows three friends — the crabby Roman (Peter Jacobson), the irresolute Eddie (Geoffrey Cantor), the composed Josh (Cezar Williams) — drawn back to Madison Square Garden year after year to wallow in basketball catastrophe. At the end of one horrific game, Josh announces he’s finished with season tickets. “It’s been 10 years of heartbreak,” he says. “I’m done. I’m not coming back. My last game, my last year.” The next scene finds him in his usual seat.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Pianist of Willesden Lane

The Pianist of Willesden Lane

July 23, 2014: Playing your mom onstage would be a challenge for even a seasoned actress. Playing your mom at 14? Yikes! So it’s all the more remarkable that Mona Golabek, who is undertaking this feat in The Pianist of Willesden Lane, seems to slip so effortlessly into the persona of her mother, the pianist Lisa Jura, during her tumultuous adolescence in Vienna and London. For Ms. Golabek is not a trained actress, but a concert pianist herself. In this deeply affecting memoir-once-removed, adapted and directed by Hershey Felder, and based on a book by Ms. Golabek and Lee Cohen, Ms. Golabek tells the story of her mother’s youth during World War II in her mother’s voice. Underpinning the story are selections from the classical piano repertoire — Bach and Beethoven, Chopin and Rachmaninoff — which Ms. Golabek performs on the Steinway grand piano that gleams on a gilt-edged platform at center stage and is her sole co-star. After introducing herself, Ms. Golabek glides to the piano and plays a few bars from the Grieg Piano Concerto, as the sound of a recorded orchestra swells behind her. “My name is Lisa Jura, and I’m 14 years old,” she says, her voice taking on a girlish lilt and a slight accent. “It’s Vienna, 1938, and it’s a Friday afternoon. I’m preparing for the most important hour of my week — my piano lesson.” But this week the lesson will not take place. After Lisa makes it past the German soldier with the rifle at the front door, her beloved instructor tells her he has been forbidden to teach Jewish students. “I’m not a brave man,” he says, and bids her goodbye.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Play/Date

Play/Date

July 23, 2014: For the urban eavesdropper, paradise is a place where it’s almost impossible not to overhear human drama unfolding: a park bench, a subway car, a quiet cafe. But in purgatory — a crowded nightclub, say — the roar of sound makes pantomime of strangers’ conversations. So, best of luck listening in on the many intimate one-acts that make up Play/Date, a clever and frustrating show that ponders connection and disconnection through the lens of bar-scene dating and technology. Conceived by Blake McCarty, directed and designed by Michael Counts and written by 17 playwrights, it’s staged on three levels of Fat Baby, a Lower East Side lounge. Mr. McCarty and Mr. Counts produced the show with Mr. Counts’s wife, Sharon, in collaboration with the theater company 3-Legged Dog. Intended as an immersive adventure, Play/Date is instead an obstacle-strewed exercise in thwarted acoustics, though that’s not entirely the fault of the sound designer, Marcelo Añez. Look at the space: hard surfaces everywhere, one level flowing airily into the next, no walls between them. Music plays throughout, a soundtrack to the din of the drinking, chatting, milling crowd that is the audience. Multiple plays are performed simultaneously, all contributing to, and some succumbing to, the sound bleed. Actors wear headset microphones, but even so, they may be inaudible from no more than a few feet away. Women’s voices, especially, tend to dissipate.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Drop Dead Perfect

Drop Dead Perfect

July 22, 2014: In a sweet 1950s peach crocheted dress and matching bolero, Everett Quinton has never looked lovelier. As Idris Seabright, a lonely and overwrought spinster growing old in the Florida Keys, he laments a storm having wreaked “havoc on my African hibiscus — and my poor bougainvillea,” hitting each syllable with that posh Eastern accent that 1930s actresses favored. When a chord of ominous movie music plays, Idris strikes a terrified pose, and we could easily be downtown at the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, where Mr. Quinton and Charles Ludlam starred in the original The Mystery of Irma Vep 30 years ago. Mr. Quinton is a genius. It is absolute rapture to see him in his element in Drop Dead Perfect, a Pecadillo Theater Company production at the Theater at St. Clement’s that originated at Penguin Rep in Rockland County. Drop Dead Perfect has abundant plot. Vivien (Jason Edward Cook), an orphan with artistic talent and a leg brace (“Vivien, you’re a cripple,” Idris snaps), wants to study in New York. The family lawyer, Phineas Fenn (Michael Keyloun), supplies Idris with suspicious pills. A young Cuban, Ricardo (Jason Cruz), pays a visit, setting libidos aflutter. Idris keeps changing her will. And when she’s painting her still lifes, her subjects’ tendency to move annoys her so intensely that she may do something — ominous chord (sound design by William Neal) — horrible.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Piece of My Heart

Piece of My Heart

July 21, 2014: “Does it bother you that your songs are everywhere but you aren’t?” the beautiful dancer asks, lounging in the handsome songwriter’s bed. “No one ever knows who writes the songs, right? Just who sings ’em.” Filling that gap in our rock ’n’ roll awareness is the mission behind the gorgeously tuneful, new jukebox musical Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story — and if your first response to that title is “Bert who?,” well, that’s exactly the point. But if, somewhere in your head, Janis Joplin just ripped into “Piece of My Heart,” you already know Berns’s music.  When Bert Berns died at 38 in 1967, he left a voluminous catalog, and Piece of My Heart — presented by Merged Work Productions at the Pershing Square Signature Center — taps it expertly. “Twist and Shout,” “I Want Candy,” “Hang on Sloopy” and “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” are among the many familiar songs that the show’s stellar singers and splendid eight-piece orchestra may lodge in your brain.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Picture Ourselves in Latvia

Picture Ourselves in Latvia

July 20, 2014: “Very good, Martin.” In Ross Howard’s Picture Ourselves in Latvia, Martin doesn’t have to do much to earn that approbation from Elizabeth Whitehall. But he is not, as you might infer, an overpraised middle-class American 10-year-old; he is an adult patient in a British mental institution where everybody is needy and selfish, even the staff (Nurse Whitehall, among them), and almost everybody wants someone he or she can’t have. Martin (a sweetly appealing Christopher Daftsios) may have a crush on his fellow patient Anna (Dana Benningfield, charmingly shy), who is from Latvia. But the big, burly Duncan (a likable Andy Nogasky) is always asking her out — which, in a psychiatric hospital, consists of an invitation to the television room. Oliver (Gregory James Cohan, convincingly grandiose), who is a big, giant liar, just wants to remind people how important he is. Apparently, he recovered the Falkland Islands from Argentina single-handedly and recalls consulting with Margaret Thatcher at the time (1982) by Skype. (The military has technological innovations long before the public, he explains.) The most frustrated would-be lovers are Dr. Rupert (Christian Ryan, wonderfully off center) and Nurse Whitehall (a solid Amy Lee Pearsall). Both are married to others; in fact, Nurse Whitehall has just returned from maternity leave. Luckily, they have their patients to turn to for romantic guidance during group therapy.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Qualification of Douglas Evans

The Qualification of Douglas Evans

July 18, 2014: Good luck trying to criticize Derek Ahonen’s The Qualification of Douglas Evans, produced by the Amoralists. Mr. Ahonen, who stars as the titular Douglas, has already beaten you to the punch, and it’s a killer combination. Here’s a character reviewing Douglas’s first play: “You wrote a masturbatory play about your stupid relationship with some stupid girl and then you stupidly starred in it and were equally as bad at playing yourself as you were at writing about yourself.” Let’s give Mr. Ahonen some credit. His play concerns several stupid relationships with several young women, and while it’s certainly indulgent — histrionic, arrogant, overlong — it’s really not as bad as all that. Sometimes it’s even pretty funny.  A mildly pervy and awfully self-pitying bildungsroman, Qualification follows Douglas from a fraught childhood with an alcoholic father and put-upon mother to his student days in New York to his writerly success and alcoholic collapse. Running in repertory with Mark Roberts’s Enter at Forest Lawn, Qualification is part of The Gyre, an Amoralists’ mini-festival devoted to “man’s vicious cycles.” Here it’s more like man’s vicious hangover.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Richard III (London)

Richard III

July 18, 2014: The “hell-hound that doth hunt us all to death,” as Richard III is described by one of his many detractors, has been thoroughly domesticated. As portrayed by Martin Freeman at Trafalgar Studios here, the most terrifying psychopath in Shakespeare seems dangerous only in the manner of a persistent insurance salesman who might sell you a policy you don’t really need. Mr. Freeman, who just received Emmy nominations for his performances in Fargo and Sherlock: His Last Vow, is giving us a Richard who almost disappears before your eyes, even when he’s making orgasmic noises while strangling a victim with a telephone cord. That this is a man to be deeply and truly feared is suggested by all the evidence, except Mr. Freeman’s performance. Having recently seen two exceedingly grotesque Richards, in the persons of Kevin Spacey and Mark Rylance, I did find a certain relief in Mr. Freeman’s low-key interpretation. And I think there’s probably a case to be made for doing Richard as a bland bureaucratic functionary, to whom no one pays much heed until he starts lashing out. It’s an approach I’ve often seen applied to the scheming Iago in Othello.

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