OFF-BROADWAY REVIEWS

OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Cruel Intentions

December 11, 2017:

It’s no “Clueless,” but “Cruel Intentions” has endured better than most 1990s teen movies. Partly this has to do with its cast, especially Reese Witherspoon, just as good playing saintly as she would be ruthless in “Election” a couple of months later. But what really made Roger Kumble’s film stand out were the timeless structure and timely embroideries: a fail-safe plot based on the 18th-century novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” combined with an arch ’90s sensibility and an inspired soundtrack — the denouement, set to the Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” was worthy of Scorsese.

That the film would get the stage treatment isn’t all that surprising, but as its title implies, the nostalgia-fueled “Cruel Intentions: The ’90s Musical Experience” isn’t a traditional tuner, even by jukebox standards.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Today Is My Birthday

December 10, 2017: Like sadomasochists, playwrights sometimes seek freedom through peculiar restraints. Beckett’s experiments in deprivation — his monodrama “Not I” stars a pair of lips — explore how much can be removed from the theatrical experience and still leave theater. Other recent one-arm-tied challenges have included epistolary plays, plays performed in darkness and plays spoken in invented languages. Bess Wohl’s marvelous “Small Mouth Sounds” is set at a silent retreat. The charming dramedy “Today Is My Birthday,” which opened on Thursday evening in a Page 73 production, gives this tradition a contemporary twist. As Susan Soon He Stanton explains at the start of her script, the play “entirely takes place on the telephone, live radio, voice message, and intercom.” (Butt dials and accidental FaceTime calls also figure in.) As a result, no characters are ever in the same location as the protagonist, Emily, a 29-year-old Columbia J-school graduate who has returned to her native Hawaii having “failed in every single way” at life in New York.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Counting Sheep

December 5, 2017:

In the middle of the Maidan revolution in Ukraine, on a city square in Kiev, someone handed me the lyrics to a song. A protester was playing it on an upright piano as couples danced and people sang along. The mood was high-spirited, though the lyrics, in Ukrainian, spoke of flaming tires and a government of criminals that wouldn’t be tolerated anymore.

This was “Counting Sheep,” billed as an “immersive guerrilla folk opera,” at 3LD Art and Technology Center. Presented by Hot Feat USA, it plunges audience members into the uprising, which lasted for a few months in late 2013 and early 2014, resulting in the ouster of Ukraine’s president. I don’t speak Ukrainian, though, and I couldn’t have been the only one there who looked at a sheet of lyrics I didn’t understand and declined to sing them. (Later, I asked the show’s publicist for a translation.) Isn’t knowing what you’re advocating a basic rule of rebellion?

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Describe The Night

December 5, 2017:

The most disgusting and probably the most memorable part of Rajiv Joseph’s play “Describe the Night” is the soup served in the second act.

It’s called qureshi and it’s made with live leeches. According to the old lady who ladles out portions to a young woman and a mysterious visitor sitting at her table in Dresden in 1989, it’s a Polish delicacy, and here’s how you eat it:

Prick your fingertips with a needle. Place them in the bowl. Wait until the leeches, having clamped themselves onto your flesh and sucked your blood, are fully engorged, then pluck them and plop them back into the soup. Add red pepper to burn their flesh. Chow down!

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Who’s Holiday

December 4, 2017:

The playwright Matthew Lombardo likes tough-talking, husky-voiced divas who barrel through life and stage in a blur of campy drama. In his Broadway debut, 2010’s “Looped,” Valerie Harper portrayed the grande dame of the stage Tallulah Bankhead. The following year’s pulpy “High”starred Kathleen Turner as a tough-love nun trying to help drug addicts; a scene in which Ms. Turner calmed down a raving man who had stripped naked remains branded in my memory.

Now, Mr. Lombardo has added Cindy Lou to his gallery. Cindy Lou who? Well, Cindy Lou Who. Last seen as a onesie-wearing 2-year-old in Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!,” our heroine (Lesli Margherita) is all grown up and ready to puff on a bong in the R-rated Off Broadway solo comedy “Who’s Holiday!”

The little tyke has become a bottle-blonde adult — Ms. Margherita’s wig, by Charles G. Lapointe, is a roots-showing relative of whatever lived on Elizabeth Berkley’s head in “Showgirls” — who spends her days in a trailer appointed with Airstream functionality and seasonal kitsch by the set designer David Gallo.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Hundred Days

December 4, 2017:

“Hundred Days,” the luminous musical memoir by the Bengsons and Sarah Gancher, is an everyday horror story with a very provisional happy ending — like so many chapters of human existence. This poignant 90-minute show, which opened on Monday night at the New York Theater Workshop, is a response to one ineradicable and devastating fact of life.

To wit: Whether by choice, chance or — ultimately and unavoidably — death, you will be separated from the person you love most.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Downtown Race Riot

December 3, 2017:

Do not be alarmed by the title, with its promise of dangerous confrontation and energy run amok. Seth Zvi Rosenfeld’s “Downtown Race Riot,” which opened on Sunday night at the Pershing Square Signature Center, is about as likely to raise your blood pressure as a homeopathic sleeping pill.

Yes, this New Group production, directed by Scott Elliott, does feature simulated sex and copious drug use and one climactic fight that draws plenty of stage blood. It considers, among other things, the poison of racial hatred, hardly an irrelevant topic these days. And it stars a glamorously bedraggled Chloë Sevigny, whose name has long been a byword for downtown cool, as a drug-glazed single mom of two sexy teenagers.

What’s more, “Downtown Race Riot” is set in the dirty old New York of the late 1970s, when life (and apartments) were cheap — a time and place resurrected with love and squalor in the current HBO hit “The Deuce.” And true to form for the New Group, which is always precise in its nostalgie de la boue, the production has been designed with a perfectionist’s eye for louche period detail.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: The Mad Ones

November 20, 2017:

One thing to be said for “The Mad Ones,” a musical about a young woman stuck in her car, is that it is highly disciplined in its automotive imagery.

Samantha isn’t literally stuck in that car; she’s stuck in her life on the cusp of college. But her first song is called “The Girl Who Drove Away.” (Another is called “Drive.”) Her best friend, Kelly, keeps telling her to take her metaphorical foot off the brake and throw away the map.

Elsewhere there are plenty of crossroads and roads less taken, not to mention references to “On the Road,” from which the show derives its overambitious title. As if that weren’t enough, Sam’s boyfriend, Adam, works in a tire shop; Beverly, her mother, is a car safety expert.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: School Girls

November 16, 2017:

The reach of American culture may be wide, but it is not always as profound as Americans might hope. At a girls’ boarding school in Africa, dreams are built on the backs of whatever Western brands the students have heard of. Walmart and White Castle (“a castle with food!”) are just as good grist for the fantasy mill as a “Calvin Klean” dress to wear to the dance.

And so it is for theater. “School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play,” which opened on Thursday evening in an MCC Theater production, is a comedy built on borrowed templates: not just “Mean Girls,” as the subtitle admits, but also a whole genre of clique-bait movies including “Heathers,” “Jawbreaker” and “Legally Blonde.”

But something fascinating happens when the author, Jocelyn Bioh, a New York playwright and actor, applies those templates to the world of her parents, who emigrated from Ghana in 1968. The nasty-teen comedy genre emerges wonderfully refreshed and even deepened by its immersion in a world it never considered.

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OFF-BROADWAY REVIEW: Network

November 14, 2017:

LONDON — If there were such a thing as an instant ulcer, then the first five minutes of the National Theater’s production of “Network,” which opened here on Monday night, would be guaranteed to give you one. This is meant as high praise.

The opening scene of this convulsive, immersive adaptation of the 1976 movie about how television hijacked reality is a bravura exercise in torturously applied pressure. Directed by Ivo van Hove and starring a fabulous Bryan Cranston in a state of radioactive meltdown, “Network” may be set in the New York of four decades ago, but as you watch the middle-aged newscaster, Howard Beale (Mr. Cranston), preparing for his nightly television appearance, you feel the overwhelming anxiety of a toxic 21st-century day at the office.

You know, one of those mornings when you’ve arrived late and cranky, and everyone and everything in your technology-driven workplace seems out to get you.

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