OFF-BROADWAY REVIEWS

OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Healing

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June 22, 2016: “Do you think we could have — done something?” The words hang awkwardly in the air in “The Healing,” a moving, beautifully acted new drama, by Samuel D. Hunter, about friends gathering to mourn a woman who took her own life. Presented by Theater Breaking Through Barriers, a company dedicated to promoting the work of artists with disabilities, the show, which opened on Wednesday at the Clurman Theater, features a cast of mostly disabled actors. Set in a small town in Idaho — the regular stamping grounds of Mr. Hunter, author of “The Whale” and “The Few” — the play, directed sensitively by Stella Powell-Jones, unfolds in the clean but tchotchke-cluttered living room of the deceased woman, Zoe, an obsessive TV shopper. It’s the evening after the funeral, and some of Zoe’s old friends have gathered to sort through her things (she left no close family), and to sort through their sorrow. As children with disabilities of different kinds, they all went to the same Christian Science summer camp, where they were taught by its leader, Joan (Lynne Lipton), to believe, as Sharon (Shannon DeVido), the most sharp-tongued among them, puts it, “that there was something spiritually wrong with us.” Sharon, who was perhaps closest to Zoe, disavowed her childhood faith when she was 13, and along with some of the others, eventually campaigned successfully to have the camp shut down. But Zoe (an affectingly sincere Pamela Sabaugh) remained a believing Christian Scientist. In one of the seamlessly integrated scenes set in the past, Zoe, nagged by a case of strep throat, tries to persuade Sharon to pray with her. “You have a gift,” she says. “God gave you a gift of healing.” She reminds a frustrated Sharon of an incident in their childhood, when Zoe believes that Sharon’s prayer helped heal her after a fall. Sharon, played by Ms. DeVido with a veneer of sardonic toughness covering an innate sensitivity, pushes back. “I didn’t heal you when we were kids, and I can’t heal you now,” she snaps. (But she did, we learn, by secretly slipping antibiotics into Zoe’s food while she was visiting.) Mr. Hunter writes with lively humor and grace, depicting the awkwardness and grief that hover in the air among Zoe’s friends. These include Donald (played with gentle warmth by David Harrell), who’s closest to Sharon and tries to comfort her, despite his own feelings of guilt. Bonnie (a forceful Jamie Petrone) arrives in a flurry of apology, having been unable to get to Idaho in time for the funeral, along with her boyfriend, Greg (John McGinty, nicely playing the genial outsider in the group). Bonnie, in fact, hadn’t been told that Zoe committed suicide, and is angry and dismayed when she learns the truth. She gets the unpleasant news from Laura (Mary Theresa Archbold), a blunt-spoken associate professor of Baltic studies at the University of Montana. Ms. Archbold nails her bone-dry humor: During an awkward conversation with Greg, who’s deaf, Laura says, “I shouldn’t take Vicodin and interact with people.” Ms. Archbold also delivers a particularly fine monologue, about returning to see the institution in Latvia where she spent her early years before being adopted. All of the characters with disabilities are drawn with layered naturalness; you quickly forget that they face challenges most people do not as their exchanges focus on issues that affect everyone: jobs, relationships (or lack thereof), feelings of moral inferiority and anxiety, the solace of religious faith (or the lack thereof) and plain old garden-variety sadness, the kind that some can move through and others, like Zoe, cannot. Although its temperature remains fairly sedate, “The Healing” rises to a quiet emotional climax with the unexpected arrival of Joan herself. Ms. Lipton is wonderful at expressing Joan’s abashed air of apology as she timidly enters the room. Her soft, high voice seems to contain a plea for sympathy — or at least tolerance — from what she assumes will be a hostile reception, particularly from Sharon, who was angry at Donald for even inviting her to the service. But Mr. Hunter surprises us in the touching final scene between these two former adversaries. Both were friends of Zoe’s, and while Sharon cannot help accusing Joan of being partly responsible for her death, the conversation doesn’t stop there. “The Healing” leaves us with a comforting intimation that, just as tragedy can strike us out of the blue, healing can come just as unexpectedly, and from unlikely sources, too.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Out of the Mouths of Babes

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June 19, 2016: A more appropriate title for “Out of the Mouths of Babes,” a new play by Israel Horovitz that opened on Sunday at the Cherry Lane Theater, might be “Dead Man’s Harem.” In this improbable and eventually even fantastical comedy, enlivened by an excellent cast including Judith Ivey and Estelle Parsons, four women who have all been involved with the same man gather to mourn him in his Paris apartment. First on the scene are Evelyn (Ms. Parsons) and Evvie (Ms. Ivey), who exchange polite conversation that becomes somewhat less polite when Evelyn learns that Evvie used to be called Snookie — a nickname bestowed by the man they both loved (whose name is never mentioned). It was Snookie who broke up Evelyn’s marriage to the man. The portrait that emerges of this lifelong womanizer is not a very appealing one. He met all the women in his life, it appears — and there were many, including his first wife, the original Snookie, who killed herself after Evelyn came along — when they were students attending his literature classes at the Sorbonne. Serial predator, one might call him today. Plus: He refused to do dishes. But apparently, and we must take it on faith, he was irresistible, at least to the young women dazzled by his intellect and sophistication. While Evelyn and Evvie are discussing their past, the name Janice crops up. It’s confusing, but apparently Janice slipped in when Evvie was over, but then Evvie came back. Enter Janice (Angelina Fiordellisi), a decade younger than Evvie (who’s 68 to Evelyn’s 88). She is startled to learn that both Evelyn and Evvie received email invitations to the funeral from an unknown woman, and were even given plane tickets so they could fly from the United States. Janice had to read about her former husband’s death online, and invited herself. She’s so upset by this information that she heads straight to a window and tries to jump out — echoing an act of years before, when she discovered her man was back with Evvie and tried to kill herself. Fortunately, this time, too, she fails, when Evelyn and Evvie pull her back from the brink. (The frequent jokes about suicide strike a rather sour note for a comedy.) The mystery of Janice’s non-invitation is solved when a fourth woman enters the apartment the next day: Marie-Belle (Francesca Choy-Kee), bubbly and younger than Janice by two decades, who reveals that she was the last to marry the dead man. Warmly apologetic, she explains that she hadn’t realized Janice was still, er, available. (The implication is she thought Janice was dead.) More peculiarly, Marie-Belle matter-of-factly says that she and her husband remain in communication, causing three pairs of eyebrows to rise — not counting those in the audience. Mr. Horovitz has written more than 70 plays, including “Park Your Car in Harvard Yard” (for which Ms. Ivey earned a Tony nomination in 1992) and “My Old Lady” (in which Ms. Parsons has appeared, and which Mr. Horovitz recently turned into a movie starring Maggie Smith). “Out of the Mouths of Babes” is not among the most substantial, though it offers roles that snugly fit all four actors. Evelyn has the sharpest tongue, and Ms. Parsons, with her tart acerbity, makes the most of it. When Janice solemnly reflects that she has “never chosen men who make me happy,” Evelyn replies, “There’s possibly no such thing as men who make women happy.” Earthy and funny, tilting between sympathy and smiling antagonism, Evelyn has moved far beyond the emotional tumult of her relationship with the dead man. So has Evvie, whom Ms. Ivey imbues with a wry warmth. (Rather bizarrely, Evvie, Evelyn and Janice all came from Boston; apparently the departed Lothario had a thing for New England women.) Evvie never married, preferring to sleep with married men, and eventually established a career writing for television. Janice, on the other hand, still seems susceptible to the tug of old associations. As played with an amusing air of self-seriousness by Ms. Fiordellisi (who is also the artistic director of the Cherry Lane), Janice, who apparently has made several suicide attempts over the years, keeps sliding toward sadness. Evelyn and Evvie are never quite sure she won’t make another dash for the window. And Ms. Choy-Kee brings an easy radiance to her performance as Marie-Belle, making her giggling suggestions of continued sexual relations with her dead husband more amusing than distasteful. She also imbues the character with a sweet, wide-eyed naïveté, so that when Marie-Belle reveals she invited the others not just for the funeral but also to stay and live with her in the apartment, you accept this odd idea as being sincere — as opposed to insane. Although the acting, under Barnet Kellman’s direction, keeps things lively, and the growing camaraderie of the women suffuses the stage with a mild congeniality, “Out of the Mouths of Babes” lacks dramatic drive and has only an intermittent comic bite. To distract yourself from unhappy reflections on the actors’ superiority to their merely serviceable material, however, you can bask in (or sigh in envy at) the lovely set by Neil Patel, an airy loft whose high walls are covered from top to bottom in artwork. A program insert identifies all of the artists, and they are oddly assorted, with an emphasis on paintings and photos by boldface names. I happened to know that Joel Grey was a gifted photographer and artist, but was surprised to learn that Rosie O’Donnell, Eve Plumb, Billy Dee Williams and Tina Louise also moonlighted as painters. “Out of the Mouths of Babes” may not be a major play, but it doubles as an unusual gallery show.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Radiant Vermin

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June 8, 2016: Jill and Ollie are as perky as contestants on a big-bucks game show, the kind where eager eyes and electrified smiles are mandatory. This charming young British couple has been chosen by the gods — or by a government council, to be precise — to participate in a wonderful new program that bears the aspirational rubric of Social Regeneration Through the Creation of Dream Homes. Yes, the house of their dreams will be theirs if they simply do what comes naturally. Of course they may not feel that what’s required of them is anything like natural behavior. But then these dewy newlyweds, who have been living in a squalid council estate known as “the crime capital of the universe,” don’t know human nature as well as Philip Ridley does. Played with manic (and tireless) verve by Scarlett Alice Johnson and Sean Michael Verey, Jill and Ollie are the central characters in Mr. Ridley’s “Radiant Vermin,” which opened on Tuesday night as part of the Brits Off Broadway Festival at 59E59 Theaters. Anyone acquainted with Mr. Ridley’s plays, which include the apocalyptic shocker “Mercury Fur,” understands that bad things happen to good people in his world. Or let’s just say that bad things happen, period. The question of individual goodness, and whether it exists, is moot for Mr. Ridley, though Jill and Ollie would certainly describe themselves as possessing it. That remains true even after they commit acts in the name of upward mobility that would make another ambitious couple, Shakespeare’s Macbeth and his lady, recoil in horror. Directed at a bouncy pace by David Mercatali and featuring an excellent Debra Baker as an all-knowing Mary Poppins-ish bureaucrat (talk about your nanny state), “Radiant Vermin” is a blithely told fable for the age of unaffordable housing. Like a Brothers Grimm story, it is executed with its own consistent fantasy logic, deployed to remind us of the dangers of getting what we wish for. William Reynolds’s white blank-slate set adds a note clinical detachment, as if Jill and Ollie were pathological specimens, there to furnish the room with their wild narrative emissions. At a little over 90 minutes, “Radiant Vermin” is probably too long for its pithy purposes. Once you grasp its basic conceit, about which I am deliberately being coy, there aren’t too many places for it to go that will surprise you. But Mr. Ridley understands the importance of variation in theater. And just when you start to think, “Enough already,” he introduces another element that jolts this moral satire out of its admonitory, singsong rhythms. Such as bringing into view one of the hitherto unseen creatures of the title. If you plan on seeing “Radiant Vermin,” you might want to stop reading here. Because now I’m going to spill the show’s main secret, which is revealed fairly early on. Those vermin are homeless people, who have brought down the market value of the neighborhood into which Jill and Ollie, expecting their first child, have been moved. The house the couple inhabits there is in a woeful state of decay. To make it livable — heck, to make it as glorious as anything out of Architectural Digest — Jill and Ollie are required to kill a neighborhood vagrant on their premises. Each dead homeless person equals another fantastically restored room. And as usually occurs in such fables, the more the greedy get, the more they want. There you have the essence of “Radiant Vermin,” which by Mr. Ridley’s standards is unusually blunt in its moralizing and unusually direct in implicating its audience. Still, it makes for nasty and energetic fun, especially when Ms. Johnson and Mr. Verey act out the entire obnoxious, consumerist guest list of what Ollie describes, without overstatement, as the “birthday party from hell.”

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Indian Summer

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June 8, 2016: Two mismatched teenagers forge a tentative friendship on a Rhode Island beach in “Indian Summer,” a melancholy, rather wan comedy-drama by Gregory S. Moss that opened on Wednesday at Playwrights Horizons. Although the play’s four characters are given sensitive readings by the fine cast, Mr. Moss’s play remains so muted that it feels like an overcast day at the shore, when you were hoping for blazing sun and frothing surf. The central characters are the 16-year-old Daniel (Owen Campbell) and the 17-year-old Izzy (Elise Kibler). They are a natural ill fit. She’s a brash local girl who comes from a large Italian-American family. He’s from out of town — one of the “summer people” Izzy and the locals deride — and has been parked by his mother with his grandfather, George (Jonathan Hadary), for an indeterminate time. Withdrawn, and exuding a terminal sense of uncertainty — unsurprisingly, given that his mother hasn’t said when she’ll be back to pick him up — Daniel nonetheless engages with Izzy when she approaches him on the beach one day. Their rapport moves gradually from tetchy and antagonistic to confiding and intimate, although neither can fully acknowledge — or perhaps even understand — how close they have become. This is in part because their budding friendship has an obvious obstacle in the person of Izzy’s boyfriend, Jeremy (Joe Tippett). He’s 10 years older than Izzy although he acts like a slightly shiftless teenager, confiding at one point to Daniel that he spends too much time getting wasted. Interspersed with the scenes between the younger characters are monologues from George, addressed directly to the audience, in which he talks (at sometimes tedious length) about the weather, the mysterious allure of the ocean and sea life. Noting the resemblance between the depths of the sea and life on solid ground, he says, “Most of life on earth is mysterious and dark and remains unseen.” All the characters have their moments of lyricism, some unlikelier than others. Izzy’s tough hide eventually cracks open to reveal the dreaming young woman within. The notion of moving to Hawaii brings a spurt of fantasy, as she imagines that “the horizon is broad and curved like a smile, and the ocean whispers.” She also expresses a sense of self-alienation, saying: “I lay in bed at night and I’m like, ‘So where is it, Izzy?’ ‘Where is your life?’ ‘Where’s it gonna start?’” The answer: “Somewhere else.” Ms. Kibler manages to make the somewhat contradictory facets of Izzy’s character seem cohesive, although Izzy is more believable when she’s doing hard-edge and spunky than when she’s reeling off flowery verbiage. As the introverted Daniel, Mr. Campbell shades his performance with glints of loneliness and confusion. (I could have done without the character’s cute-quirky fondness for crocheting to ease his anxiety.) Mr. Tippett radiates charisma as the blustery but big-hearted Jeremy, his buoyant physicality bringing welcome liveliness to the stage. And as always, Mr. Hadary is excellent, making George’s nautical-themed monologues and weather updates seem perfectly natural, if not wildly compelling. It is in these passages that Mr. Moss tends to billboard his larger themes. Speaking of the weather phenomenon of the title, for instance, George says that it’s “like a pocket of unexpected time, a little reprieve between seasons, in which things and people, lives and stories, are given a chance to collect themselves, to reconfigure and, possibly, to change.” “Indian Summer,” directed at a languid pace by Carolyn Cantor, has the laid-back feel of an Annie Baker play, with its meandering dialogue and slightly alienated characters. But it also feels vaguely formulaic, as if assembled from a kit to create, well, the kind of delicate-hued, funny-sad plays that Ms. Baker specializes in. All the talk of the ocean and its bottomless depths brings to mind the play’s flaws: it has a washed-out, watery quality, and the characters, while agreeable company, are not exactly bottomlessly interesting.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit

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June 7, 2016: There’s a raw spot — one of the tenderest places on the continent of human emotions — that exists between laughter and pain. Make that between laughter and everything that feeds pain: rage, hatred, desperation, hopelessness, fear, even physical disease. Such is the location of Halley Feiffer’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City,” a play that is as deeply felt as its name is long. To be literal, its setting is a sickeningly pink double room in the hospital of its title. But as anyone who’s spent much time in similar rooms knows, antechambers to death are incubators for those guffaws that it’s hard to distinguish from sobs, places where you find yourself fighting a close battle with the urge to giggle madly. To give in to such an impulse, in such a context, would be very, very inappropriate. Or would it? “Funny Thing,” which opened on Tuesday night at the Lucille Lortel Theater, makes a convincing case that hard laughter is an absolutely appropriate response, if not a socially sanctioned one, to those moments when life seems like too bad a joke not to respond otherwise. And if you feel that way all the time, as does the young stand-up comedian played with uncompromising obnoxiousness by Beth Behrs, well, I pity you. But I sure know where you’re coming from, especially after seeing this gorgeously acted MCC Theater production, directed by Trip Cullman. Ms. Feiffer, the talented young playwright (and actress) whose earlier work includes the recent downtown hit “I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard,” is mining familiar territory. We know what Freud said about humor and hostility, and what cultural pundits have been saying about anger and comedy forever. Wisecracking in the shadow of death has been the basis for entire club acts (Tig Notaro) and amiably morbid movies (Judd Apatow’s “Funny People”). But Ms. Feiffer — whose father is the cartoonist laureate of urban neuroses, Jules Feiffer — has her own winsomely vicious approach to the subject, one that makes us feel close kin to the awkward, feel-bad clowns who dominate open-mike nights. And you start to think that the reasons comedians talk so often before an audience about the fear of dying have far wider implications than you imagined. On the basis of the jokes she’s trying out on a captive (and possibly comatose) audience in the opening scene of “Funny Thing,” Karla (Ms. Behrs) has been dying all her life. “I’ve been single for so long, I’ve started having sexual fantasies about my vibrator,” she says in the play’s opening line, one she will keep amending endlessly. Hold for your laugh, Karla. Except it never arrives. Karla’s audience is her mom, Marcie (Lisa Emery), who’s in the hospital bed recovering from surgery for ovarian cancer. (The set designer Lauren Helpern has provided an unsparingly exact facsimile of hospital décor, starting with its watery Pepto-Bismol walls.) Marcie’s in no condition to do anything but snore right now. Anyway, it turns out that this nonresponse to her daughter’s wit is pretty much the same when Marcie’s awake. Then someone else soon enters the room who, from the other side of a flimsy dividing curtain, can hear Karla’s raunchy musings on masturbation, and they do not sit well with him: Don (Erik Lochtefeld), a lanky, middle-aged millionaire who dresses like a homeless person and who’s there to visit his mother, the vegetative-seeming Geena (Jacqueline Sydney). And there you have the entire cast of characters, and the setup for an extended joke in which death is the inevitable punch line. In fact, it’s the sentence “She’s dead,” uttered in a strangulated voice by the still-sleeping Marcie, that allows Don and Karla to start bonding, after meeting in a barrage of noisy insults that is as classically and irritatingly New York as a stalled subway car. By now, you may think you know where the plot is heading, and your surmises are probably not wrong. For its intermissionless 85 minutes, “Funny Thing” abides by the rom-com rules that a couple who meet antagonistically have to be attracted to each other, and that any heroine who is so aggressively defensive has a tortured back story, preferably involving a mirror-image parent. But to render “Funny Thing” in synopsis doesn’t do justice to Ms. Feiffer’s exposed nerve of a script, or to the open-wound performances, which Mr. Cullman has steered as close to festering as audiences’ stomachs allow. Ms. Behrs, best known as the exiled society princess on television’s “2 Broke Girls,” makes a brave and very effective Manhattan stage debut. Her Karla is one of the New York archetypes you would least like to be trapped in an elevator with: a showboating narcissist who draws you in to push you away, while operating on the conversational principle that there’s no such thing as too much information. But Ms. Behrs finds the frightened passivity within Karla’s aggression, and she keeps us on her character’s side without even asking us to like her. Ms. Sydney is saddled with what might be called a prop part, but in Geena’s fleeting moments of consciousness, she delivers. Ms. Emery is, as always, a knockout, creating a portrait of a monster mom that also reminds you that no human being is truly a monster. And Mr. Lochtefeld is so appealingly heartbroken as the gangly, life-mangled Don that you’ll wonder where he’s been all your life. Ms. Feiffer’s script needs these performances. It’s heavy on monologues of self-revelation that, in the wrong hands, could freeze the show’s momentum. But this spare but choice ensemble listens as well as it talks, and every splenetic speech, no matter how self-contained, still feels like part of a vital dialogue. Besides, these people are all New Yorkers. Monologue is their native tongue. And that sentence sets me up quite nicely to describe what has to be the most sensational — and funniest — sex scene on a New York stage these days. But, hey, I know when to stop. That Ms. Feiffer’s characters do not is what makes them so painfully irresistible.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: War

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June 6, 2016: Identity. Look hard — and then harder — at that word until it wavers, fragments and dissolves before your eyes, and you begin to wonder if it amounts to anything other than an assemblage of diversely shaped letters that might as well be runes. It’s enough to give you a headache, isn’t it? Well, that’s sort of the experience of watching Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s “War,” a portrait of family as a state of civil conflict that opened on Monday night at the Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center. This is a heavily confused play about cultural confusion, a consideration of identity — racial, social, political, anthropological, even biological — that never settles into a coherent identity of its own. You could call it a casualty of the very existential maladies it investigates. And it seems fitting that it should befall a work by Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins, who is both one of the most exciting young dramatists working today and one of the hardest to categorize. His specialty is the ambiguity of self, particularly as defined by skin color, and the futility as well as the necessity of looking for solid answers. To explore this knotty subject, Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins has taken such radically different approaches that it would be hard to immediately determine the authorship of his individual plays if his name weren’t on them. His works have included a satisfyingly cynical thriller, about murder in the workplace (“Gloria,” a Pulitzer Prize finalist this year), and a genre-bending detonation of a 19th-century melodrama about interracial love (the brilliant “An Octoroon”). Then there’s “Neighbors,” a self-described “epic with cartoons” about a blackface-wearing black family, and “Appropriate,” about a white family with an oppressive past, which seemed to borrow from just about every classic American drama of domestic dysfunction. The one thing these works have in common is a cool and canny authorial distance, a sense of an observer with a merciless eye for human inconsistencies. In “War,” directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz (who also staged an earlier version at the Yale Repertory Theater in 2014), it feels as if this writer has for once entered the fray directly, and lost his footing. The story of a divided clan uneasily united around the hospital deathbed of its matriarch, it may well be Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins’s most far-reaching statement about how the hunt for identity strands and estranges people, even from those they should be closest to. But it is so replete with ideas and arguments — and tries to cover so much territory within a confined space — that it chokes on its ambitions. Not that many of the ideas, and the various ways in which they’re presented, aren’t provocative in themselves. There is, for example, the matter of the apes, or alphas, as they prefer to call themselves. They inhabit the limbo-land wherein Roberta (the luminous Charlayne Woodard in gracious hostess mode) finds herself after having a stroke. Her body may be in a Washington hospital, but her spirit inhabits this planet of the apes. And it is here that she must rediscover who and what she was, from the very beginning. At the same time, in the real world by that hospital bed, Roberta’s contentious children — Tate (Chris Myers), a prickly gay political consultant, and Joanne (Rachel Nicks), a stay-at-home mom married to the white Malcolm (Reggie Gowland) — are squabbling over what to do about Mom. Their fight is further stoked by the presence of an addled, non-English-speaking stranger, Elfriede (a touching Michele Shay). Elfriede is accompanied by her grown son, Tobias (a bellicose Austin Durant), who acts as his mother’s interpreter. Thus we learn that Elfriede is a member of the family, the product of a wartime affair between Roberta’s father and a German woman. Now consider the conflicted levels of time and place that Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins has thrown into play here. We have the ancestral oblivion of ape limbo, in which Roberta is lost; the despoiled Germany of the 1940s, in which her father was an exotic alien (the Germans made monkey noises when they saw him); and the fractious present, in which even brother and sister cannot connect. “Why is everything some war in this family!?” asks a tearful Joanne, after an especially nasty blowout with the arrogant Tate. “Everything is a part of some struggle that seems like it’s never going to end — that no one even understands!” That is perhaps the bluntest declaration of the central theme here. But “War” doesn’t lack for other blunt declarations and for long and winding passages of exposition that cover the same patches of family history again and again. (The spectral Roberta has to recreate her entire life story with her ape friends, embodied by the rest of the cast and led by Lance Coadie Williams, who doubles as a sassy hospital nurse.) Now you could argue that modern playwrights have always had a penchant for turning family grievances into repeated litanies. Look at Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” or Stephen Karam’s “The Humans” (both currently on Broadway) or any of Edward Albee’s domestic dramas. The difference is that here Mr. Jacobs-Jenkins uses such repetition not to convey psychological character but to make sociological points. He is unusual among first-rate playwrights in that his empathy seems largely abstract. He understands his characters, but you don’t feel he connects with them. And it makes connection similarly hard for us and for the talented performers playing them. Designed by a solid team that includes Mimi Lien (sets), Matt Frey (lighting) and Bray Poor (sound), “War” works hard to conjure a physical sense of worlds overlapping into eternity, with sliding floors and projected words to translate for the nonverbal apes. But this production, which has become more congested since I saw it at the Yale Rep, still seems to exist in limbo in ways that its seriously gifted writer never intended.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Incognito

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May 24, 2016: Mysteries swirl in storm clouds in Nick Payne’s “Incognito,” which opened on Tuesday night at City Center Stage I, enough to fill many seasons of cliffhanger soap operas. The subjects of these tantalizing puzzles include questions of paternity, a man who murdered his wife on their 30th wedding anniversary, the secrets that lovers keep from each other and the disappearance of an essential anatomical part of a great scientist. Yet the biggest mystery of all, the one that dominates every aspect of this lively, self-examining drama of ideas, is the very apparatus that you’re using to make sense of this sentence. I mean your brain. Granted, it’s somebody else’s brain — the one that belonged to Albert Einstein — that’s at the center of “Incognito,” which embroiders the true story of a Princeton pathologist who spirited away that epochal physicist’s gray matter after performing an autopsy. But really, it’s everybody’s brain that’s being subjected to such probing and exasperated analysis in a work that — directed by Doug Hughes and enacted by a sparkling cast of four — deserves to be called cerebral in every conceivable sense of the word. Restless intellectualism is only to be expected of Mr. Payne, the young British playwright who is fast becoming the theater’s equivalent to Prof. Brian Cox, the heartthrob science nerd of the BBC. In Mr. Payne’s “Constellations,” the glorious two-character play staged on Broadway last year with Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson, he applied string theory and quantum mechanics to endlessly fragment and refract the basic boy-meets-girl plot. As for the sources of “Incognito,” well, just take a look at the lengthy list of inspirational books cited in the program for this Manhattan Theater Club production, which have titles such as “The Paradoxical Brain,” “The Making of Memory: From Molecules to Mind” and “Case Studies in Neuropsychological Rehabilitation.” It’s reading matter that might well appear on the bookshelves of many of the play’s dramatis personae. (I may be excused for using Latin in this context, don’t you think?) The cast of “factional” characters (many inspired by real people) embraces a variety of clinical researchers, scientists and psychologists, as well as a lawyer or two and a duplicitous magazine writer, all in pursuit of the elusive knowledge of how the brain works. Then there’s the posthumous Einstein, of course, and his querulous descendants and the keeper of his brain. Most touchingly, there are the amnesiacs whom the doctors study, men whose memories reach back only to the moment before; and those nonamnesiacs — at least by clinical definition — who will themselves to forget through alcohol, drugs or plain old denial. Mr. Payne makes it clear that science and sentimentality need not be mutually exclusive. The script’s diverse figures (21 in total) are embodied by an exceptionally supple ensemble of four: Geneva Carr, Charlie Cox, Heather Lind and Morgan Spector, who shift among their identities with crisply delineating stances and accents. They assemble on Scott Pask’s universal conference room of a set (with nuanced lighting by Ben Stanton), and preface the play’s three memory-themed parts — “Encoding,” “Storing,” “Retrieving” — with precise, ritualistic dances of cryptic semaphore gestures (choreographed by Peter Pucci). It feels right that so few should incarnate so many, since one of Mr. Payne’s implicit points here is that we’re all siblings under the skull. That philosophy means you’re likely to identify with every one of these characters, all groping for certain knowledge and all destined to be thwarted. The most celebrated — and reviled — of the lot is the Princeton pathologist, Thomas Harvey (a piquantly, feverishly defensive Mr. Spector), who winds up schlepping Einstein’s brain all over the place (often in the trunk of his car) and never does manage to crack its (metaphoric) contents. Mr. Cox, a British actor who knows from alter-egos after playing both sides of a superhero on Netflix’s “Daredevil,” is sensational. Among his standout roles in “Incognito” are a deceptively likable journalist and, in the show’s great heartbreaker performance, an amnesiac who has to keep being reintroduced to the love of his life (Ms. Lind, whose tender frustration is almost as touching as Mr. Cox’s eternal bewilderment). Ms. Carr (late of “Hand to God”) plays the adopted granddaughter of Einstein’s son (Mr. Cox), though she may in fact be Einstein’s biological daughter. This actress shows up most vividly as Martha Murphy, a clinical neuropsychologist and newborn lesbian in love with a younger woman (Ms. Lind). Martha, by the way, is also an adopted child who may in fact be the daughter of …. Sorry. I had to pause, both to recover from brain freeze and to stop myself from committing a spoiler. Some mysteries, the kind pursued on tabloid television shows, do indeed find their solutions in “Incognito.” It’s the greater scientific ones that continue to strike baffled awe in the minds of those who should know best about how minds work. As directed by Mr. Hughes (who has also staged another ingenious play about memory from the Manhattan Theater Club, Florian Zeller’s “The Father”), “Incognito” is remarkable for the clarity with which it graphs its various forms of confusion and delusion. At times, it can feel overstuffed, suggesting a compressed combination of “Copenhagen,” Michael Frayn’s 1998 historical drama of wartime physicists, and Peter Brook’s stage adaptations of Oliver Sacks’s cognitive case histories. This means that “Incognito” doesn’t achieve the raw emotional force of the more narrowly focused “Constellations.” But as befits a work about the vagaries of memory, Mr. Payne’s multilayered works remains in your mind, challenging our most fundamental notions of autonomous selfhood. As one of the play’s neuropsychologists puts it: “Our brains are constantly, exhaustively working overtime to give us the illusion that we’re in control, but we’re not. The brain builds a narrative to steady us from moment to moment.” That is essentially what Mr. Payne has built for us here, with grace and dexterity. What gives this work its distinctive impact, though, is the vertiginous views it affords of the roiling, impenetrable depths that always lie below.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Hadestown

Hadestown_178x236

May 23, 2016: “It’s a sad song, but we sing it anyway.” We certainly do. The words refer to the classic myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, which has been told and retold — sung and resung, danced and filmed — over the centuries in many genres and styles. Now it has become a folk opera, “Hadestown,” by the gifted singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, which opened on Monday at New York Theater Workshop in a gorgeously sung, elementally spare production directed by and developed with Rachel Chavkin (“Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812”).

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Effect

The Effect

March 20, 2016: How much do you love me? Do you love me as much as I love you? Are you happy that you love me? How happy? Children, testing their parents, aren’t the only ones who ask these childish questions; grown-ups do it ad nauseam, and never get satisfactory answers. Though our calculated use of emoji these days would seem to indicate otherwise, it remains an exasperating and thrilling fact of life that emotions cannot be quantified, particularly love. The irreducibility of love is the subject of “The Effect,” Lucy Prebble’s very clever — and ultimately more than clever — play, which opened on Sunday night at the Barrow Street Theater, artfully directed by David Cromer. Ms. Prebble, the British author of “Enron,” has come up with an ingenious variation on one of the more common romantic formulas in fiction: Put two attractive people in an unfamiliar hothouse environment, and see what blooms. Usually such a premise involves an exotic vacation, a sleep-away camp or perhaps enforced confinement due to war, natural disaster or zombie apocalypse. In “The Effect,” boy (name of Tristan Frey, played by Carter Hudson) meets girl (Connie Hall, portrayed by Susannah Flood) at a medical research center in which they are guinea pigs in a four-week pharmaceutical trial for a new antidepressant.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: White Rabbit Red Rabbit

White Rabbit Red Rabbit

March 9, 2016: For all I know, as I write these words, Nathan Lane is lying dead on a chaise longue on the stage of the Westside Theater. Probably not. You would have read the obituary by now. But Mr. Lane, who gave the first New York performance of “White Rabbit Red Rabbit,” a playful, enigmatic and haunting solo show by the Iranian writer Nassim Soleimanpour, was lying supine on that chaise when I left the theater as strictly instructed Monday night, the only night of the week the show is being presented. The play concludes with the ominous suggestion that — well, perhaps I shouldn’t say any more. The novelty — or gimmick, or both — of “White Rabbit” is that the actor performing the show does not have a chance to read it before arriving at the theater. He (or she) is handed the script onstage, before us, with no prior knowledge of its contents (unless, of course, he or she has already Googled it and got a general sense of what is in store). Every week, a different actor will perform the 75-minute piece. The list of upcoming performers, a diverse and distinguished lot, includes Whoopi Goldberg, Patrick Wilson, Brian Dennehy and Cynthia Nixon. (Check the show’s website to see who is performing when.)

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