OFF-BROADWAY REVIEWS

OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Animal Wisdom

October 13, 2017:

We who are gathered here tonight in an unconsecrated theater in Brooklyn have been asked to join in a holy invocation, beginning with “Oh, Lord,” as we raise cups filled with – not communion wine – but sacred Coca-Cola. Of course, if our faiths lean in other directions, we are told, we may substitute “Oh, goddess,” “Oh, goodness” or, if we believe in nothing, “O.K.”

This being hipsterfied Brooklyn, land of urban lumberjacks and secular beards, the “O.K.’s” dominate this particular call-and-response. Even agnostics, though, may find themselves almost believing in the spirits, holy and otherwise, who possess “Animal Wisdom,” Heather Christian’s truly one-of-a-kind opus at the Bushwick Starr through Nov. 4.

Ms. Christian, a singer and composer of blazing creative ambition, has set out to create nothing less than a bona fide, full-scale requiem for the dead in all our lives. Filling the roles of barefoot evangelist, séance leader, pianist, vocalist and stand-up memoirist, this willowy reed of a performer lends new credence to the term charismatic Christianity.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Measure For Measure

October 10, 2017: In recent years, Elevator Repair Service has achieved the unexpected distinction of being the troupe that a discerning theatergoer would most like to read a book with. In its stage adaptations of classic American literature, this endlessly exploratory company has plied theatrical inventiveness to simulate the Every Reader experience of falling into — and in love with — a self-contained universe of words. The company’s interpretations of Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” and, above all, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” — rendered in “Gatz” as a word-for-word, six-hour marathon — seemed to pulse dynamically in that fecund space between the written narrative and a reader’s imagination. So there was every reason to rejoice in the prospect of this company finally venturing into the land of William Shakespeare, where words have the quicksilver shimmer of thought itself. Yet its frantic interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” which opened on Tuesday night at the Public Theater, calls to mind Hamlet’s immortally jaded literary critique: “Words, words, words.”

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Too Heavy For Your Pocket

October 5, 2017:

On the evidence of his play “Too Heavy for Your Pocket,” Jiréh Breon Holder either didn’t get the message or decided to pay it no heed.

The message I mean is the one George C. Wolfe delivered so memorably in his 1986 satire “The Colored Museum.” After that blistering takedown of African-American theatrical clichés, what writer would dare attempt a sincere “Mama on the couch” play or anything smacking of collards, church or “Mr. Boss Man”?

Maybe one who wasn’t born yet. Mr. Holder, who is 27 and a recent drama school graduate, has some distinctly post-ironic ideals. “Theater is the new church,” he has said, “where we go to experience clarity and refreshment as a society.”

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Discord

October 1, 2017:

Charles Dickens, as you might expect of a novelist who made his fortune writing serialized cliffhangers, would like a little more drama with his religion. He has just been listening to Thomas Jefferson deliver a rather dry version of the New Testament’s parable of the talents.

As far as the author of “Great Expectations” is concerned, such a presentation — even from a former president of the United States, in biblical exegesis mode — simply won’t do. “Tales must sparkle,” he insists. Otherwise, how on earth (or in heaven, or limbo) do you capture a listener’s attention?

That’s the problem facing Scott Carter, the writer who has so venturesomely put Jefferson, Dickens and Leo Tolstoy in a sealed antechamber to the afterlife, along with a copy of the Bible and some pens and paper. The onerous weight born by anyone who hopes to find the crowd-captivating sparkle therein is suggested by the title of Mr. Carter’s play, which opened Sunday night at the Cherry Lane Theater.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: As You Like It (2017)

September 28, 2017:

The maximalism of musical theater is often a good match for John Doyle’s knife. In pared-back stagings of “Sweeney Todd” and “The Color Purple,” to name just two, he has shown us what is essential by removing everything that isn’t.

You might think that this technique, or perhaps it is more of a worldview, would prove just as illuminating when applied to Shakespeare, that most musical of playwrights. But to judge from Mr. Doyle’s take on “As You Like It,” which opened on Thursday evening at Classic Stage Company, the approach has its limits. This production, Mr. Doyle’s first Shakespeare in New York, is so cut down it has bled out.

I don’t just mean that it is short, though about a third of the text is gone; at 100 minutes it is still 10 minutes longer than the joyful version presented earlier this month by the Public Theater in Central Park. And that one was a musical with a cast of 189.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Mary Jane

September 25, 2017:

Plays don’t usually come with content advisories, but “Mary Jane,” by Amy Herzog, should: Parents strongly cautioned.

Or maybe not just parents. “Mary Jane,” which opened on Monday at New York Theater Workshop, is a heartbreaker for anyone human.

That’s in part the result of a very delicate sleight of hand Ms. Herzog executes in shaping the story, which at first seems to turn on a movie-of-the-week premise about a very sick child named Alex. Born after just 25 weeks of gestation, he was expected to die within days. That he has made it to 2 years old is a double-edged miracle, living as he does with multiple serious conditions, including cerebral palsy, that require round-the-clock attention and an armamentarium of specialized equipment.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Othello: The Remix

November 16, 2016: Last time I checked, there were not a lot of laughs in Shakespeare’s tragedy about a Moorish general beset by the green-eyed monster. Yet giggles abound in “Othello: The Remix,” a clever and exuberantly performed hip-hop version of the play that opened on Wednesday at the Westside Theater. If the unlikely combination of hip-hop and Shakespeare rings a bell, it’s because the writer-composers, directors and stars of the show — known as the Q Brothers, GQ and JQ — have concocted this kind of madcap mash-up before. They had an Off Broadway hit back in 1999 with “The Bomb-itty of Errors,” adapted from — well, you can guess — and have written versions of several other Shakespeare plays.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

July 25, 2016: Oh, for a wizard’s spell that would allow me to tell you everything, and then erase it completely from your memory. But though I paid rapt attention during the afternoon and evening I spent at “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” which opened in a blaze of outrageous enchantment on Monday night at the Palace Theater here, I failed to pick up on any recipe for inducing post-tell-all amnesia in Muggles, which is Potter-speak for nonwizards like you and me. This eagerly anticipated, two-part, five-hour-plus sequel to J. K. Rowling’s best-selling, seven-volume series of “Harry Potter” novels is the kind of play that you want to describe in detail, if only to help you figure out how it achieves what is does. That would be a kind of magic that is purely theatrical yet somehow channels the addictive narrative grip of Ms. Rowling’s prose. Unfortunately, those who have scored tickets to this two-part production, which is sold out through May, are given buttons as they leave the theater that admonish “#KeepTheSecrets.” And I do not want to antagonize Potter fans, who tend to be as vigilant and vengeful as the army of Death Eaters that polices the evil empire of He Who Must Not Be Named, Lord Voldemort. Voldemort is now long gone, of course. Or is he? The story of “The Cursed Child” — conceived by Ms. Rowling with its playwright, Jack Thorne, and director, John Tiffany — makes such questions impossible to answer, and I’m not just being coy because of my pledge of silence. This is a work in which the past casts a distressingly substantive shadow. The past, as Faulkner would say, isn’t even past. Photo Anthony Boyle, left, and Sam Clemmett in this play. Credit Manuel Harlan This point of view saturates “The Cursed Child,” which seems to occur in a land of hypnotically luminous darkness that should mesmerize adults as effectively as children. By even existing, this play is destined to fight against the gravitational force of the memories of young readers. I mean the ones whose coming of age paralleled that of Harry Potter (who advanced from 11 to 17) in the books and the eight blockbuster films they inspired and who may want the Boy Who Lived to stay frozen forever as he was when they last encountered him. As a character in “The Cursed Child” says, “Playing with time — you know we can’t do that.” But playing with time, both gleefully and earnestly, is exactly what this show’s creators are doing. (The production’s memorable images include the most dazzlingly disturbing clocks since the heyday of Salvador Dalí.) Its plot is built on a fantasy that most of us indulge from early childhood: What if we could rewrite our own histories? That premise has been the basis for works as different as the “Back to the Future” film franchise and Nick Payne’s recent physics-infused boy-meets-girl play, “Constellations.” But the notion is singularly well suited to the purposes of “The Cursed Child,” which unfolds as a sort of multiple-choice narrative, allowing Potter fans to encounter various might-have-been, might-yet-be paths for characters they already know intimately and for the new ones introduced here. Continue reading the main story Related Coverage And yes, the old gang is back, or at least the members of it who survived Ms. Rowling’s final Potter novel, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” The first scene of the play is identical to the last one in that novel, and uses much of the same dialogue. Ask Ben Brantley a question about the London theater scene. * Continue By submitting to us, you are promising that the content is original, does not plagiarize from anyone or infringe a copyright or trademark, does not violate anyone’s rights and is not libelous or otherwise unlawful or misleading. You are agreeing that we can use your submission in all manner and media of The New York Times and that we shall have the right to authorize third parties to do so. And you agree to our Terms of Service. Harry (Jamie Parker, who does Potter pain beautifully), now on the edge of middle age and an employee of the Ministry of Magic, and his wife, Ginny (Poppy Miller), are found at King’s Cross railroad station in London, seeing two of their sons — James (Tom Milligan) and Albus (Sam Clemmet) — off to his alma mater, Hogwarts, the academy of magic that provided him with an especially enlightening, if punishing, education. It will be the anxious Albus’s first year, and like his dad, he is a proud, prickly and sensitive plant. Joining Harry and company are his old chums and allies in the fight against darkness, the goofy Ron Weasley (Paul Thornley, delightful) and the perpetual A-student Hermione Granger (Noma Dumezweni, a black actress whose casting provoked controversy but who is perfect in the part), now married and the parents of a Hogwarts-bound girl, Rose (Cherrelle Skeete). Harry’s former archrival, Draco Malfoy (Alex Price), is there, too, with his son, Scorpius (Anthony Boyle). Like Albus, Scorpius is a Hogwarts newbie and the two boys seem destined to become best friends, along with an amiable young woman with blue-tipped hair, Delphi Diggory (Esther Smith). It is a triumvirate that will prove dangerous for, well, pretty much the entire world. Fraught, yearning relationships between fathers and their progeny shape both the play’s form and its content. Who is that cursed child, anyway? More than a few of this story’s many, many characters (the adeptly multifarious cast numbers 42) might fit the description. Like the novels that preceded it, “The Cursed Child” is stuffed with arcana-filled plots that defy diagrams and baldly wrought sentimental life lessons, along with anguished dives into the earnest, tortured solipsism of adolescence. By rights, such a combination should try the patience of any grown-up. But like Ms. Rowling’s books, the play vanquishes resistance. Photo From left, Alex Price, Paul Thornley, Noma Dumezweni, Jamie Parker and Poppy Miller. Credit Manuel Harlan I reread “The Deathly Hallows” on the flight to London from New York, and I was amazed at how naturally what I saw on the stage seemed to flow from the page. Mr. Thorne, Mr. Tiffany and their movement director, Steven Hoggett, and set designer, Christine Jones, collaborated previously on the chilling adolescent vampire play “Let the Right One In,” and they are all expert in mapping the intersection of the uncanny and the everyday. Along with a team that includes Katrina Lindsay (costumes), Neil Austin (lighting) and Imogen Heap (music), Mr. Tiffany and his cast conjure the self-contained world(s) of Ms. Rowling’s books with imagistic wit, precision and, occasionally, stark terror. A convocation of wizards is evoked through the simultaneous swirling of black capes; an otherworldly, xenophobic and unsettlingly topical-feeling Fascist brigade materializes and multiplies out of yawning darkness; and staircases, bookcases and suitcases assume varied and miraculous lives that propel both themes and story. This production captures Ms. Rowling’s sensibility even more persuasively than did the special-effects-driven films. True, the movies were blessed with an unmatchable stable of idiosyncratic British character actors like Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith and, as Voldemort, Ralph Fiennes (now safely ensconced across town at the Almeida Theater, embodying another avatar of evil, Richard III). But in “The Cursed Child,” everyone onstage has direct, present-tense responsibility for the story being told. And most of them play many parts. That includes the show’s principals, though I won’t reveal how and why they do so. Suffice it to say that these transformations become haunting, funny physical reflections of our desire to connect with the people we only think we know well, with the dead who linger in our lives and with the selves we once were and will be. The word for these imaginative leaps of faith is empathy. That’s the magic practiced so affectingly and entertainingly in “The Cursed Child,” and it turns everyone in the audience into a sorcerer’s apprentice.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Blue Man Group

December 28, 2015: The lights in the theater’s entryway turn us all blue as soon as we walk through the door. That’s kind of charming, and so is the ridiculously upbeat song playing on speakers in the lobby bathrooms. The main lyric is the word bathroom, over and over. And over.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Sex Tips for Straight Women From a Gay Man

February 12, 2014: Every theater in New York should hire Stefan to make the precurtain announcements. With his baby face, bedroom eyes and alluring if indeterminate European accent, he can order us to turn off our cellphones and unwrap our hard candies any time. Unfortunately, at the one show that Stefan is introducing these days, things go way downhill fast. Matt Murphy’s Sex Tips for Straight Women From a Gay Man could have been zingy and smart and actually helpful, like Bravo’s erstwhile reality series “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”

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