October 8, 2015: Not much food is consumed at either of the two fractious family gatherings depicted in “Barbecue,” a rawly funny but uneven new comedy by the talented Robert O’Hara that opened on Thursday at the Public Theater. Grilling meat and slicing pies are really only decoys, in fact. In both cases the real purpose of gathering the siblings from the O’Mallery families — one white, one black — is to wrestle a member of the clan into rehab. Mr. O’Hara, the author of last season’s audacious “Bootycandy,” has a heat-seeking imagination when it comes to style and structure. That play took the form of a sketch comedy show as it tackled a tough subject, the stigmatization of homosexuality in African-American culture. “Barbecue” also has a frisky structure, but, in this case, the fun stops a little too early: Mr. O’Hara springs a big reveal at the close of the first act that ultimately turns the play in a more serious and less satisfying direction.


OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Women’s Voices Theater Festival

Women’s Voices Theater Festival

October 7, 2015: Statistics don’t lie, even if they can be manipulated. But numerous studies in recent years have shown that female writers are underrepresented on American stages. The subject has raised consternation, and agitation, most recently this fall when a brouhaha erupted over a certain New York theater’s female-writer-free season announcement. (I’m not going to rehash it, since I have sympathy for the complications artistic directors face when putting together a slate of plays.) Serendipitously, the theater community in Washington has a current statistic to counter the grim ones. The Women’s Voices Theater Festival, which began in September and runs into November, will present more than 50 new plays and musicals by women in theaters across the city. I spent a weekend sampling the offerings and came away impressed and energized by the quality and diversity on display. Impressed, yes, but not surprised. In the more than 10 years since I’ve written for this paper, I’ve seen more emerging female playwrights consistently produce excellent work than their male counterparts: Sarah Ruhl, Annie Baker, Amy Herzog, Melissa James Gibson and Gina Gionfriddo, to name the first few who come to mind.



Sisters’ Follies

October 7, 2015: When Basil Twist holds a séance, you can bet that some pretty fabulous ghosts will materialize to do his bidding. Mr. Twist, the wizard puppeteer who was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship last week, has a numinous touch that transforms the material — cloth, wire, plastic — into the fantastical, summoning otherworldly creations spiced with wicked worldliness. For his latest endeavor, he calls up the phantoms that haunt the Abrons Arts Center, where his “Sisters’ Follies: Between Two Worlds” opened on Wednesday night in a wildly mixed production that stars the flesh-and-blood (emphasis on flesh) performance artists Joey Arias (“Arias With a Twist”) and Julie Atlas Muz (the X-rated “Beauty and the Beast”). Sure enough, the visions conjured up by Mr. Twist, the creator of the peerless puppet ballet “Symphonie Fantastique,” are often divine, even when they’re infernal. It’s the human factor that tends to drag the show down to earth.



Cloud Nine

October 5, 2015: Sex, in all meanings of the word, is something nobody ever sorts out entirely. Its joys, sorrows, variations and complications are the subjects of countless academic tomes and self-help books, of pulp romances and classic novels. But few writers have come closer to making sense of the hormonal urges that rule, transport and disrupt our lives than Caryl Churchill does in “Cloud Nine,” which opened on Monday night in a glorious revival by the Atlantic Theater Company. That’s because Ms. Churchill (“Top Girls,” “Love and Information”), one of the wisest and bravest playwrights on the planet, understands that sex is endlessly fluid, no matter the time, place or culture in which it is practiced. More than three decades ago — when “trans” as a prefix most commonly meant something to do with automobiles she dared set up camp in that hazy frontier land where the boundaries of gender and the rules of attraction blur and dissolve. That’s the terrain in which “Cloud Nine,” a portrait of an archetypal British family in flux, takes place. And James Macdonald’s pheromone-fresh production, which features a deliciously mutable cast of seven, makes it clear that today we’re still living in this gray zone of polymorphous selves, whether we admit it or not.



The Quare Land

October 1, 2015: When a character in a play so shreds your nerves that you find yourself itching to throttle him within the first 15 minutes, you can be sure an exhilarating night at the theater is not on the menu. When said character is one of only two in the play, the sole item on the menu is likely to be unrelieved agony. This, unfortunately, sums up my experience at John McManus’s comedy “The Quare Land,” which opened on Thursday at the DR2 Theater in an Irish Repertory Theater production. Despite two excellent performances – from Peter Maloney as that irritant and Rufus Collins as the play’s more palatable but far less loquacious character – the play grinds on for 90 minutes, sustained by what is essentially a single joke. Mr. Maloney portrays Hugh Pugh, a 90-year-old Irishman who lives on a much-neglected farm, home to just nine cows despite its dozens of acres. He’s in the bathtub as the play opens. (Spoiler alert: He never gets out of it.) Hugh is having his first soak in 48 months, he cheerfully announces, when Rob McNulty (Mr. Collins), a building developer who’s been trying to contact him for some time, knocks on the door and is welcomed into the bathroom for a chat.



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.



Reread Another

September 28, 2015: Words seem to be plucked from the air, with great care and wonder, in “Reread Another,” a charming Target Margin Theater production based on the writings of Gertrude Stein. They are simple words, said with savor and, occasionally, apprehension. There’s probably not one you haven’t heard before. If you listen with half an ear, they sound, in combination, like the ordinary sentences you overhear every day. Listen more carefully, though, as these words are assembled into the exacting forms of declensions and syllogisms, or quaint questions and answers that suggest foreign language phrase books for travelers. Why, it’s all gobbledygook. Except that something kind of wonderful has happened. These very pedestrian words seem to have sprouted wings, and resonate with surprising novelty. No wonder that the three people speaking them seem so delighted and perplexed. It’s as if they’d been born again as speakers of English.


OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Fondly, Collette Richland

Fondly, Collette Richland

September 28, 2015: Let’s go dreaming, shall we? C’mon, it’ll be fun. Nothing will make any sense at all, and everything will make perfect sense. You’ll feel that you’re in a wild, bright land that you didn’t know existed, but one that you’re still somehow sure that you’ve visited before. What’s more, this is a dream — one of the most entertaining you’re ever likely to have — that you get to experience while you’re wide-awake. Time was when such an invitation involved a sugar cube, a chemical and a medicine dropper. But Elevator Repair Service has come up with a head trip that is as organic as it is delirious. It’s called “Fondly, Collette Richland.” And though what opened on Monday night at New York Theater Workshop is advertised as a play, it is far closer to what happens in the privacy of your own mind when you’re in bed with your unconscious. Turning seemingly passive, interior activities into externalized, dynamic theater is what Elevator Repair Service does. This is the troupe that transformed the experience of reading a great book into a glorious marathon play with “Gatz,” a word-for-word rendering of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”



Baby Doll

September 22, 2015: Everyone onstage looks a little clammy at times in the enjoyable if slightly tame new stage adaptation of “Baby Doll” at the McCarter Theater Center here. The once-grand but now visibly crumbling mansion in which much of the action takes place looks as if it would give scant protection from the fierce Mississippi Delta sun. But the tensions that inflame its inhabitants are the primary cause of any excessive perspiration. If you’ve seen the sensation-causing 1956 movie, written by Tennessee Williams and directed by Elia Kazan, you will probably recall that the clammiest character by far is Archie Lee Meighan, played here by Robert Joy with an oily desperation. Archie Lee has been married to a comely young woman, referred to only by the endearment of the title, for some time, but by agreement with the girl’s now-dead father, the marriage can only be consummated on her 20th birthday, now just days away. Unfortunately, Mr. Joy’s Archie Lee, who looks perpetually as if he’s just run a marathon in bare feet, cannot take much anticipatory pleasure in the prospect of getting his wife out of the crib she still sleeps in and into the marriage bed. There may be no marriage bed to sleep in. His cotton-gin business is in ruins after the opening of a rival company, and the couple’s furniture is soon hauled out of the house. This mortification so appalls Baby Doll (Susannah Hoffman) that she threatens to withhold her favors in perpetuity, or at least until all that furniture comes back.




September 21, 2015: Being a shock artist like Thomas Bradshaw carries its own exacting burden. The knowing theatergoer attends this prolific playwright’s work in a state of anxious anticipation, fearing and hoping to be rattled by some fresh violation of the traditionally taboo. Mr. Bradshaw has usually obliged, with works that don’t so much wrestle with as wallow in fraught subjects like racism, pedophilia, incest, sadomasochism and hate crime, all presented without a trace of authorial censure. He has also continued to venture ever further into new frontiers of outrage. “Job” (2012), his provocative reimagining of one of the most provocative books of the Old Testament, portrayed God as a guy of all-too-human capriciousness, while last year’s “Intimacy” was about a wholesome suburban family that stayed together by making pornography together. I will never forget the moment in “Burning” (2011), my first Bradshaw play, in which two gay men, discovered in flagrante delicto by their young adopted son, cheerfully invited the lad to join them in bed. And that was before the scene in which the neo-Nazi brother and sister started to … well, never mind.