OFF-BROADWAY REVIEWS

OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Blank! The Musical

Blank

November 21, 2014: Anybody know a surefire cure for getting rid of an earworm — one of those insistent tunes that play on and on in your head until you start smashing things? I’ve been invaded by a really clingy one. It’s the title song of “Directing One Direction,” and even listening to excruciatingly adhesive highlights from The Phantom of the Opera has failed to dislodge it. You probably don’t realize what I’m talking about, since “Directing One Direction” was created only a week ago and was performed only once. But I can assure you that had you been at New World Stages on that singular night, you, too, would still be hearing the fatal motif that would appear on sheet music as (aaahhh, stop it!) C sharp, A, G, B. Yep, I even know the specific notes and not because I have a perfect ear. (I don’t.) I was part of the audience that helped score, script, cast, direct and choreograph “Directing One Direction,” one of the potentially countless productions being whipped up by Blank! The Musical, the do-it-yourself showbiz revue that opened this week. C sharp, A, G, B was a melody line woven from theatergoers randomly shouting out letters between A and G upon request. Earlier, we had submitted, on smartphones, suggestions for names of songs, as well as the title of the show, and then voted on the final choices. (“Directing One Direction” beat out “Frozen Eyebrows,” among other candidates.)

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Asymmetric

Asymmetric

November 21, 2014: The fluorescent lights overhead on the spare set of Mac Rogers’s espionage thriller Asymmetric, now at the 59E59 Theaters, establish the clinical atmosphere, buttressed by percussive electronic music from the sound designer, Jeanne Travis. The milieu is the Washington intelligence establishment, and the C.I.A.’s former ace interrogator, Josh Ruskin (Sean Williams), is yanked out of his drunken retirement by his successor, Zack (Seth Shelden), to extract information from a renegade ex-colleague. Secrets regarding a drone have been sold to “parties hostile to the United States” abroad. The person under question happens to be Josh’s former wife, Sunny (Kate Middleton). But first she’ll be worked on by Ford, a sadist with a metal case of preferred tools, including a nasty pair of shears. Ford (played with piercing vitriol by Rob Maitner) dismisses Josh as an alcoholic has-been, only grudgingly giving him time to induce Sunny to spill her secrets. We learn about Josh’s decline and the implosion of his marriage. And we discover what Sunny has been doing since their parting, including a romantic liaison overseas. Asymmetric, a collaboration between Ground Up Productions and Gideon Productions, and developed at the Vampire Cowboys’ Saturday Night Saloon series, rarely stumbles into obscure techno-speak. Mr. Rogers — working with Jordana Williams, the director and his frequent collaborator — has a keen ear for bureaucratic idioms and finely tuned pitch with narrative momentum. Just when you fear the play is heading down television-thriller avenues, it shifts direction, to address issues of national responsibility and personal accountability without a bit of fuss.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Pitbulls

Pitbulls

November 21, 2014: Lusty soap operas about the crazy ways of sneaky, unwashed hillbillies have gone missing on New York stages in recent years. In olden days, when Tobacco Road ruled Broadway in the 1930s, slick urbanites couldn’t get enough of such moonshine. But now, except for those occasions when Tracy Letts (Killer Joe) is feeling folksy and perverse, that genre has been reduced to festering on reality television. So hats off (preferably accessorized with bullet holes and grease stains) to Keith Josef Adkins, who has reclaimed this rich and odoriferous territory for the stage with Pitbulls. This resplendently foul-mouthed production at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater dares to present, as one character says, “trailer trash in its natural habitat.” That’s Virgil (Billy Eugene Jones), the mean and blackmailing sheriff, speaking to our defiant heroine, Mary (Yvette Ganier), who is the object of desire, fear and derision of many a soul in the Ohio River valley woods where she parks her rusting trailer. Mary is a maker of “real grape wine” (secret ingredient: her own blood), which she has her overgrown son, Dipper (Maurice Williams), sell to passing cars on the offramp.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Little Dancer

Little Dancer

November 20, 2014: Many decades have passed since ballet played a significant role in musical theater, which may be one reason Little Dancer, a new musical directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman, about the girl immortalized in the Edgar Degas statue of the title, has a whiff of the antique about it. This polished and pretty if less than transporting show, with book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and music by Stephen Flaherty, features a dramatic ballet in which the young heroine relives the rapturous highs and demoralizing lows of her life. As danced by Tiler Peck, the brilliant New York City Ballet principal who plays the central role, this wordless passage brings the musical to a stirring climax. Although Ms. Stroman’s classical choreography is often more correct than inventive, here she finds a way to turn classroom steps expressive, as Marie (Ms. Peck) moves from shining pride in her immaculate technique to confusion and terror as visions of her past life buffet her around the stage. The musical, making its premiere at the Kennedy Center here, was inspired by the real-life Marie van Goethem, the teenage model for Degas’s famous sculpture, originally sculpted in wax and later cast in bronze. (The National Gallery of Art here has more than one version.) Not a lot is known about van Goethem’s life, so the show’s authors have imagined her trajectory through the rougher streets of Paris and the cutthroat world of the Paris Opera Ballet. Ms. Peck plays the young Marie, Rebecca Luker the girl all grown up. In a framing device set in Degas’s studio shortly after his death, the older Marie returns to finally see the sculpture she posed for — with, as we shall learn, life-changing consequences. Ms. Luker, in radiant voice, begins to reminisce in song about her first meeting with Degas (Boyd Gaines), celebrated for his paintings of dancers onstage and mostly off, in moments of quiet concentration or idle boredom as they prepare to perform. (The handsome set design, by Beowulf Boritt, employs projections, by Benjamin Pearcy, of some of the artist’s signature works.)

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Allegro

Allegro

November 19, 2014: Having your own personal Greek chorus has never sounded all that appealing. Who wants to be surrounded by a lot of second-guessing Everypeople, the way poor Oedipus and Electra were, while having to listen to observations like: “Boy, that was a stupid move, you shortsighted fool. You’re doomed, doomed!”? But if you absolutely had to live among an echoing, oracular throng, you could do a lot worse than the personable team of singing kibitzers that has been assembled at Classic Stage Company to see one Joseph Taylor Jr. through his growing pains. They’re highly empathetic and encouraging; they trill as prettily as nightingales and they all play, quite dexterously, their own musical instruments. Such is the nature of the ensemble provided by John Doyle’s newly glowing interpretation of the lackluster 1947 musical Allegro, which opened Wednesday night. Allegro is known today, if at all, as the show with which Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II followed up the trailblazing success of their first two collaborations, Oklahoma! and Carousel — and for the first time fell flat on their faces. It was the introduction of the chorus to the American musical — I mean, a Greek-style chorus as opposed to the usual dancing backup singers — that made Allegro seem daring when it opened. And that show’s rejection by many critics and much of the public (its 315-performance run was decent, but meager by R&H standards) was partly attributed to its experimental nature.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Underclassman

The Underclassman

November 19, 2014: Edmund Wilson, what a sweetheart! Seems that before he became a pre-eminent literary critic, he was a really swell guy, a hell of a pal. That’s one of the surprising tidbits in The Underclassman, Prospect Theater Company’s ultra-adorable, suitably tuneful and somewhat flat musical adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920 novel, This Side of Paradise. Another is an all-male cancan number. Peter Mills, the writer-composer, and Cara Reichel, who directed and also contributed to the book, have created a pre-Jazz Age cocktail — two parts Fitzgerald’s autobiographical novel, one part Fitzgerald’s actual biography, stirred with plenty of artistic license. Don’t look for much of a twist — or much of a plot. It’s not until the top of Act II that Scott (an ardent Matt Dengler) can crow, “At last, something had happened!” On a mostly bare set, with arches evoking Princeton’s ivied halls and an orchestra stuffed into a loft like so many pigeons, young Scott dreams of love, literature and social success. Though a lowly sophomore, he has joined the ranks of the Triangle Club, whose members write and perform musical revues. Scott is angling to pen Triangle’s next show, a privilege not usually afforded to underclassmen.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Punk Rock

Punk Rock

November 18, 2014: Something is seriously wrong with the characters in Punk Rock, Simon Stephens’s tender, ferocious and frightening play at the Lucille Lortel Theater. They wear their nerves dangerously close to the skin, and their moods swing unhinged. They think of themselves as the best and the worst of all possible beings. And almost all the time, they hurt, in both the active and passive senses of the word. You know that checklist, right? These miserable people are suffering from the classic and unavoidable condition of being teenagers. Most of their symptoms will eventually go into remission. That is, if they’re lucky enough to survive what ails them. Punk Rock, which opened on Monday night in an MCC production directed by Trip Cullman, inspires wonder that anybody makes it to the end of adolescence. Enacted by a marvelous young cast that dares to go places most grown-ups like to forget exist, this portrait of British private-school students during exam season is one of the most piercing studies of kids’ inhumanity to kids since poor Piggy snuffed it in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. It is hardly new territory being explored here. Exploiting the discontents of puberty as entertainment is a multibillion-dollar business. Our film, television, book and recording industries would all be in sorry shape without teenage angst to draw from.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Straight White Men

Straight White Men

November 18, 2014: They bestride the world, or at least the West, like colossi. Thronging the halls of Congress and, until just recently, the Oval Office. Running giant corporations. Meeting and greeting at powwows in Switzerland. I speak of the species known as the straight white male, the most unoppressed of the world’s peoples. They are feared, envied, occasionally attacked and derided. But pitied? Not so much. The signal surprise of Straight White Men, written and directed by the ever-audacious Young Jean Lee, is that the play is not a full-frontal assault on the beings of the title. True, Ms. Lee does show these creatures in their natural habitat — among other straight white men — sometimes behaving like overgrown boys: sitting zombie-eyed on the couch, obsessively fiddling with a black plastic implement and slaughtering digital foes by the dozen; eating Chinese food right out of the boxes; razzing one another with puerile jokes. But Ms. Lee’s fascinating play, at the Public Theater, goes far beyond cheap satire, ultimately becoming a compassionate and stimulating exploration of one man’s existential crisis. Believe it or not, Ms. Lee wants us to sympathize with the inexpressible anguish of her protagonist, a middle-aged, upper-middle-class straight white man named Matt who has failed to follow the codes of achievement that he’s expected to conform to. The play takes place over the Christmas holidays, where three brothers are assembled at the family home, somewhere in the Midwest, to keep company with their widowed father. None come with wife, girlfriend or children in tow. The youngest, Drew (Pete Simpson), is an award-winning fiction writer. The middle boy, Jake (Gary Wilmes), is a hotshot banker with the swagger to match. Matt (James Stanley) is the oldest, and despite graying temples — he’s definitely north of 40 — he’s been living with Dad for a while now, working a series of small-time temp jobs at do-gooding social organizations.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: By the Water

By The Water

November 18, 2014: By the Water, a new play by Sharyn Rothstein, might be called a kitchen sink drama that’s conspicuously missing a kitchen sink. Also absent: Furniture, save a tattered plaid couch. And walls. The living room in which the play takes place, in a beachside Staten Island house ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, does feature a giant picture window — without the glass. Ms. Rothstein’s affecting play, which opened on Tuesday night at City Center in a Manhattan Theater Club production in association with Ars Nova, traces the impact of that devastating natural disaster on a middle-class couple who were already trudging uphill in the face of financial setbacks. Drawn with acute sympathy and in gritty detail, the play dramatizes the kind of story that filled newspapers in the months after the hurricane swept onto the Eastern Seaboard in 2012. Marty and Mary Murphy (Vyto Ruginis and Deirdre O’Connell) at first seem to share a rock-solid determination to rebuild the home they’ve lived in for most of the 38 years of their marriage. Although the monumental challenge involved smacks us in the face even as we enter the theater, where the set, by Wilson Chin, suggests a bomb site, Marty won’t listen to the urging of his elder son, Sal (Quincy Dunn-Baker), to move somewhere farther from the shore, with the help of the government assistance that’s been promised.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: I See You

I See You

November 17, 2014: If you still enjoy that favorite sport of the “i” age — complaining about the omnipresence of electronic devices and the shortage of real conversation — the Flea Theater has a play, and a woman, for you. If, on the other hand, you’ve heard that particular whine too often and have made your peace with the new reality of modern life, you might have problems with the Flea’s latest offering, a world premiere by Kate Robin called I See You. Ms. Robin, a writer and co-executive producer of the Showtime series The Affair, has apparently been finding extramarital engagements intriguing lately. Here she gives us a two-hander in which a man (Stephen Barker Turner) and a woman (Danielle Slavick), each married to someone else, find their way to a level of intimacy each has been missing, aided by an allergic reaction and alarming weather. They meet cute while watching over their children in a kiddie ball pit, and how credible you find the play will depend on your reaction to a stranger who without provocation disgorges a litany of complaints about Instagram, iPads, gluten, climate change and the impending collapse of civilization.

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