OFF-BROADWAY REVIEWS

OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Underground Railroad Game

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September 26, 2016: Our “safe word” for today is “Sojourner.” Those three syllables are the gift of Teacher Stuart and Teacher Caroline to their fifth-grade students in Hanover, Pa., to be used in moments of distress during an especially adventurous history project. “Sojourner,” boys and girls, is what you say when you find yourself way outside your comfort zone and need to take a break. It’s a fairly, uh, safe bet that you will find yourself tempted to cry “Sojourner” on many occasions before the end of “Underground Railroad Game,” the in-all-ways sensational play that opened on Monday night at Ars Nova. Just don’t expect anyone to have mercy on you.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Nat Turner in Jerusalem

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September 26, 2016: Though he is to be hanged in the morning, before a crowd that wants nothing more than to see him die, the title character of “Nat Turner in Jerusalem” lights up the night with a luminous, faith-filled serenity. He regrets that his single, west-looking prison window will not allow him to see the next daybreak, but, as he says, “Where I am going, the sunrises are infinite.” Portrayed with a centered stillness by Phillip James Brannon in Nathan Alan Davis’s contemplative and largely inert play, which opened on Monday night at the New York Theater Workshop, Nat Turner is awaiting his execution in the town of Jerusalem, Va. But if another famous visitor to another Jerusalem — in another part of the world some 1,800 years earlier — comes to mind, that is by no means inappropriate.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Bathing in Moonlight

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September 19, 2016: A Roman Catholic priest faces what might be called a crisis of humanity, rather than a crisis of faith, in “Bathing in Moonlight,” the gauzy new play from Nilo Cruz, which is having its premiere here at the McCarter Theater Center, where Mr. Cruz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Anna in the Tropics” was also presented before moving to Broadway. Raúl Méndez plays Father Monroe, a priest who starts things off with a sermon, addressed to the audience, in which he shares an anecdote about a priest during World War II who expanded the boundaries of his church’s cemetery to include the grave of a soldier whose faith was unclear. “God wants us to remove barriers and walls,” Father Monroe says. “God wants us to extend the perimeters.”

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: What Did You Expect?

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September 18, 2016: The Gabriels are as worried as you are. As one of them says, with a matter-of-factness that suggests long and weary acquaintance with a troublesome state of being, “People are scared. Everyone I know is scared.” Sometimes, though, there’s blessed comfort in being with people who share your anxieties. Even if — or perhaps especially if — what’s on their minds is one of the last things they talk about directly. Watching “What Did You Expect?” at the Public Theater, you’re always aware of what characters, caught in the middle of a presidential election that seems almost too surreal and too important for words, are thinking. And you can tell how those thoughts inform every joke, sigh and anecdote that comes out of their mouths.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Birds

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September 15, 2016: For a vast and aggressive army of homicidal eye-gougers, the title creatures of Conor McPherson’s “The Birds” are a surprisingly low-key lot. The sounds of beating wings and rasping caws can now and then be heard, accompanied by abstract feathery projections, in the listless production that opened on Thursday night at 59E59 Theaters. But for the most part, you forget that these avian marauders are always hovering with intent to kill. You have to take on faith their status as an imminent and fatal threat to humanity.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Marie and Rosetta

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September 14, 2016: There’s an upright piano on the stage of the Atlantic Theater Company, where “Marie and Rosetta,” a new play by George Brant, supplemented by some mighty music-making, opened on Wednesday night. But it may take awhile for you to notice, since the more striking aspect of Riccardo Hernández’s set is the array of coffins surrounding that piano, some of them draped with dresses. The funeral home in 1946 Mississippi, where the play takes place, functions as a rehearsal room, a dressing room and, more alarmingly, a bedroom for the play’s two real-life characters: Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Kecia Lewis), a celebrated gospel and R&B singer who also played guitar and is considered an influential figure in the birth of rock ’n’ roll, and her protégée and collaborator, the younger gospel singer Marie Knight (Rebecca Naomi Jones).

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Aubergine

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September 12, 2016: In the monologue that begins “Aubergine,” a drama by Julia Cho about family, food and mortality that opened on Monday at Playwrights Horizons, a woman named Diane (Jessica Love) speaks at length about her and her husband’s obsessive love of food. They chased down exotic taco stands before taco trucks were, ahem, on every corner. When they came into serious money, they became high-end food tourists, seeking out the most sublime dining experiences — even eating at El Bulli, the ur-temple of molecular gastronomy, in a remote part of Spain not once, not twice, but three times.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Bears in Space

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September 11, 2016: As befits a show that takes place way up in a distant galaxy, “Bears in Space” is likely to induce a serious contact high. No inhalation required. Just relax and put yourself in the hands of the four-member crew of the starship Quickfast. (How quick is it? “If you slowed it to a trillionth of its speed it would still be as fast as an adult man on roller blades.”) After only a few minutes, you’ll find you’ve acquired the mind-set of a rowdy, sleep-deprived university student at 4 a.m., giddily sharing fantasies with fellow nerds for whom goofiness is next to godliness.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Fiorello! (2016)

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September 10, 2016: Imagine, if you can, a musical comedy called “La Guardia!” Picture a chorus angrily lamenting their canceled flights. A frustrated plaint from an overtaxed ticketing agent trying to calm them. A frenetic hip-hop dance number as arriving passengers dodge traffic to find their Uber drivers. We do not have such a musical — and, yes, I know it’s painful. But we do of course have “Fiorello!,” the 1959 musical about the long-serving, corruption-fighting New York mayor whose surname adorns the most reviled airport in the country. The show, with an infectious score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, and a rather complicated book by Jerome Weidman and the musical’s original director, George Abbott, has been featured not once but twice as part of the City Center Encores! musicals-in-concert series, the only show to have been so honored.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Spamilton: An American Parody

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September 8, 2016: Though the juggernaut musical “Hamilton” is bursting with facts and figures from the American Revolution, there’s a whole other, less obvious history that underlies its every performance. No, I am not hinting at the existence of coded conspiracy messages involving the Illuminati. (But apparently, if you play the song “The Reynolds Pamphlet” backward. …) What I’m talking about is a war that has been waged tirelessly for more than a century: the fight to be perceived as the sole musical left standing tall in the battlefield called Broadway. And if you hope to understand the role of “Hamilton” within this epic struggle, you are earnestly advised to attend the (highly) animated dissertation on the subject, titled “Spamilton,” which opened on Thursday night at the Triad.

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