OFF-BROADWAY REVIEWS

OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Empathy School & Love Story

Empathy School & Love Story

April 22, 2016: Because theater is an inherently social form, most plays are date shows — capital-E events that you want to attend with someone else, so you can rehash the pleasures and problems of them afterward. But there are also those rarer plays to which you to want to go solo, works that make you savor the pleasures of being solitary. Take “Empathy School & Love Story,” the writer and director Aaron Landsman’s engaging diptych on varieties of loneliness, which runs through April 30 at the Abrons Arts Center. Made up of two monologues (but of course), it’s an ideal single-ticket show, perfect for pondering on a quiet walk home by yourself, especially on a spring night in Manhattan that draws out those ephemeral human butterflies called New Yorkers. Yes, you’ve been part of an audience for a while, all of you looking at the same people in the same place. But even though the evening’s first offering has us briefly joining hands with the nearest strangers (it only hurts a minute), the production is dedicated to the perspectives of outsiders who never completely connect with anyone else.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing

April 22, 2016: The body is barely there, more phantasm than person, and at first you might mistake it for a shadow. When the astonishing Irish actress Aoife Duffin makes her entrance in “A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing,” drifting through a corridor of gray light, her features are indistinguishable. And though she soon starts to speak, the words that she says also seem curiously inchoate. “For you,” she says, falteringly, in a voice pitched between a quack and a chirp. “You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say.” Come again? Who’s “you,” anyway? Keep listening, and keep looking. Little by little, the speaker and her speech assume concrete and coherent form. Suddenly, you’re thinking in the language of someone else’s mind, that of a rebellious Irish girl scrambling for a sense of her drifting self. And by the end of a timeless 80 minutes, you’ll have grasped the dimensions of an entire individual life, in all its confused clarity. This uncanny act of materialization, which runs through April 30 at the Jerome Robbins Theater of the Baryshnikov Arts Center, is the more remarkable in that it is also an improbable act of translation, from what would seem to be uncompromisingly literary material. Adapted for the stage by Annie Ryan (also its director), “A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing” is based on the much-laureled first novel of Eimear McBride, a book that was rejected repeatedly by publishers and consigned to a desk drawer for a decade before seeing the light of print.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.

Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.

April 19, 2016: Don’t make the mistake of saying that the women in “Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.” — Alice Birch’s implosive play about the conundrums of being female in the 21st century — are beautiful when they’re angry. Their real-life equivalents would probably (and justifiably) sock you in the jaw, or else combust spontaneously from being subjected to yet another patronizing, cast-iron cliché. Yet the ferocious energy that courses through this short, sharp shock of a production might be characterized as, well, kind of beautiful. Is it O.K. for me to put it that way? I mean, I’m not referring to the physical attributes of any of the four performers (three women, and one very odd-man-out man) who appear in the show that opened on Tuesday night at Soho Rep. Ouch! I just bit my tongue. Ms. Birch’s play, which became a hit for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2014, has a way of making you question everything you say when it comes to discussing women and their relationships with men, one another and a world in a state of unending upheaval. Such linguistic confusion plagues the frantic souls portrayed in this production, which is directed at the pace of a speeding cannon ball by Lileana Blain-Cruz. Even the play’s title, with its use of periods instead of commas, suggests the difficulty of getting words out and how inadequate they seem when you do.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Carlyle

Carlyle

April 18, 2016: This might be seen as singularly bad timing for two plays being presented concurrently here this season: Thomas Bradshaw’s “Carlyle” and Lucas Hnath’s “Hillary and Clinton.” How, after all, do you top a show like the continuing Cirque du Trump? Trust Mr. Bradshaw, one of contemporary theater’s most impish provocateurs, to give it the old college try — and more or less succeed. “Carlyle” is a brash, button-pushing comedy about “how a black person ends up becoming a Republican,” as the title character puts it near the top of the show. Mr. Hnath’s more muted drama focuses on a woman who happens to be named Hillary Clinton and is running for president, although he stresses (not quite convincingly) that she is not actually meant to be that Hillary Clinton. “Carlyle” stars a magnetic James Earl Jones II as a lawyer working for the Republican Party, who is identified as a rising star. But the play teases the audience by repeatedly acknowledging its artifice. In that early monologue, Carlyle tells us it was the Goodman Theater, where the show is being presented, that invited him to perform his life story. (The theater was turned down, he adds, by Colin L. Powell, Condoleezza Rice and others; Ben Carson was willing, but elements of the story he wanted to tell weren’t, um, “very truthful.”) “Carlyle” proceeds as a series of often broadly satirical — and often very funny — scenes from the title character’s life and education, somewhat in the manner of an episode of “Saturday Night Live” devoted to a single theme. But it also tacks toward more general commentary on how African-Americans are depicted in the media, and perceived in the culture. (An early bit mocks stock figures like the “thug” and the “matronly religious” woman.)

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Hillary and Clinton

Hillary and Clinton

April 18, 2016: In “Hillary and Clinton,” Mr. Hnath presents a fictionalized drama about Hillary Clinton’s initial bid for the presidency. An opening monologue stresses that this is fantasy, asking us to imagine another Earth and that “on this planet, Earth light years away from our planet Earth, there is a woman named Hillary.” A program note urges the actors playing the roles to avoid any sense of mimicry. Hillary is portrayed by a black actress, Cheryl Lynn Bruce, who exudes convincing gravitas. The Other Guy, as her opponent is denoted in the script, presumably represents a fictional Barack Obama. He is played by the Latino actor Juan Francisco Villa. Still, on a basic level, both the characters and the situations are pretty clearly modeled on fact. The play is set a few days before the New Hampshire primary. As was the actual case, Hillary’s campaign at this point would need a crucial win. As she talks with her campaign manager, Mark (Keith Kupferer), he stresses that they are running out of money, and even suggests (here we lapse, I would guess, into total fiction) that Hillary take the vice president slot that has been unofficially offered by her opponent. “We poll well with the poor, but the poor don’t have any money,” Mark says. “The other guy polls well with the rich, and so he gets the money.” (Perhaps a winking paradox in there, given the financial dynamics of Mrs. Clinton’s current campaign.)

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Mary Page Marlowe

Mary Page Marlowe

April 17, 2016: “It’s pretty fragile.” Those words, spoken by the title character in “Mary Page Marlowe,” the exquisite new play by Tracy Letts having its premiere at the Steppenwolf Theater here, refer to a quilt in need of some delicate dry cleaning. But they resonate with many meanings in Mr. Letts’s haunting, elliptical drama about the evolutions, reversals and resurrections in a woman’s life. A quilt is a clever symbol for the unusual structure of the play itself. As he charts the course of Mary Page’s life, Mr. Letts, a Tony-winning actor and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “August: Osage County,” hopscotches back and forth through time. Six actors portray the title character as she moves from age 12 to 69. Just as a family quilt is assembled piecemeal over time, “Mary Page Marlowe” is stitched together haphazardly as the story unfolds, leaving us to fill in the gaps and to try to ferret out connections that Mr. Letts intends us to infer. Some may find the play’s form frustrating; I found it beautiful and affecting, like flipping through a friend’s photo album in no particular order, finding some faces familiar, others unexpected. And then you come upon someone entirely unknown — who obviously meant much to your friend — and you realize, with a pang of sadness, that your knowledge of even those closest to you will always be fragmentary and incomplete. (The nonlinear progression, which leaves the play with an abrupt ending, also reminded me of a quote from another Mary, Eugene O’Neill’s Mary Tyrone: “The past is the present, isn’t it? It’s the future, too.”)

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Nathan the Wise

Nathan the Wise

April 13, 2016: Do not give up too early on “Nathan the Wise,” an 18th-century morality play by the German writer and scholar Gotthold Ephraim Lessing being presented by the Classic Stage Company in a production starring the estimable F. Murray Abraham. Midway through the first act of this drama about clashes of faith and family, set in 12th-century Jerusalem, I found myself listing toward boredom. But beginning with the piercing parable that opens the second act — about whether Judaism, Christianity or Islam is the true faith — the play grows increasingly engrossing. Ultimately it proves to be a moving story that speaks, as you might guess, to conflicts that roil the world today. Edward Kemp has provided a new translation, which is in effect more an adaptation. He has sensibly condensed the original, trimming monologues to create fluid dialogue that moves the story forward more briskly. He has also, less felicitously, framed the story with an opening scene in which the characters talk over one another in three languages. (We are not provided supertitles, but you get the gist.) As the play opens the title character, played by Mr. Abraham with a serene dignity befitting the epithet defining him, has just returned from a trading journey to discover that in his absence a fire broke out in his home. His beloved daughter, Rachel (Erin Neufer), was saved from almost certain death when a Christian knight, known as a Templar (Stark Sands), pulled her from the building.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Exit Strategy

Exit Strategy

April 12, 2016: A struggling Chicago high school faces imminent extinction in “Exit Strategy,” a pointed if sentimental drama by Ike Holter that opened at the Cherry Lane Theater on Tuesday in a vividly acted production from Primary Stages. Among the play’s strongest, funniest scenes is its first, a testy meeting between the boyish, tidily dressed assistant principal, Ricky (Ryan Spahn, exuding earnest spunkiness), and a veteran English teacher, Pam (Deirdre Madigan), who glares across the desk that separates them as if she’d like to make a meal of her much younger boss. It’s summer, and Ricky is gently trying to break the news to the school’s staff that, um, as he puts it, “The negotiations didn’t go as smoothly as we expected.” When he continues to dance nervously around the real news, Pam, oozing the weariness of a teacher who has logged 23 years in an inner-city public school, barks at him to get to the point. Like a chastened child, he soon does: The city’s school board has decided that the school will be closed at the end of the year. “Low test scores, unfavorable conditions,” he mumbles. “Lots of — lots of, lots of, lots of stuff.”

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: King and Country

King and Country

April 4, 2016: “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” Those celebrated words, spoken by King Henry IV, might serve as a fitting epigraph for “King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings,” a sweeping, superlative presentation of four history plays — both parts of “Henry IV” bookended by “Richard II” and “Henry V” — by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Not until the hard-won triumph of Henry V over the French, establishing the kingdom as a unified entity at last, does a monarch depicted in these great plays have an entirely comfortable day at court, or possibly even a good night’s sleep. The second and more widely known of Shakespeare’s two history tetralogies, the cycle charts the tumult that roils the British kingdom under three successive rulers. To see the plays together, and in sequence, naturally emphasizes the continuity of the history they unfold. But more than this, one comes away in fresh awe of the infinite variety that Shakespeare, as no other dramatist, captured: robust comedy, plangent feeling, penetrating psychology, a grasp of dramatic tension and momentum, and above all, the thrilling alchemy of life and thought transformed into poetry. All four productions, generally in traditional dress and featuring handsome minimalist sets, are directed by Gregory Doran. And while there are, among these mighty 12 hours of theater, inevitably some sluggish patches, the overall achievement here — which includes one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen, Antony Sher’s Falstaff — is nothing short of magnificent, a testament to the company’s welcome return to top form after its last visit to New York, in 2011, when it presented mostly unremarkable productions of five plays.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Head of Passes

Head of Passes

March 28, 2016: Accomplished actress though she indisputably is, Phylicia Rashad is not someone who comes to mind when you think of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Ms. Rashad, after all, reigns in the American imagination as one of the ultimate wholesome maternal figures, a source of bottomless reassurance. Lear, even at his least unhinged, is anything but comforting. But in her remarkable, pull-out-all-the-stops performance in Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Head of Passes,” which opened on Monday night at the Public Theater, Ms. Rashad gives the impression that she could definitely hold her own on Shakespeare’s blasted heath. Portraying a sorely tested Southern matriarch, she can be found railing against God and the elements with a harrowingly Lear-like rage. We have come a long way, in other words, from the living rooms of Clair Huxtable (of “The Cosby Show,” for which Ms. Rashad won two N.A.A.C.P. Image Awards) and Lena Younger (of “A Raisin in the Sun,” for which she won a Tony Award), where this actress memorably dispensed wit and wisdom. Never mind that for the first act of Mr. McCraney’s fascinating and uneven play, directed by Tina Landau, it appears as if we have traveled little distance at all.

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