Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Plot Twists…

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

A outstanding assembly of DC’s African American LGBTQ artists converged to create Plot Twists…, a late addition to the DC Black Theatre Festival lineup. Conceived and produced by Monte J. Wolfe—and presented in conjunction with the festival by Brave Soul Collective—the show was an anthology of dramatic and comedic monologues, short scenes, and staged readings, each featuring a truly surprising plot twist and each written especially for this one-night-only performance. The result was a thoroughly entertaining and engaging evening that was also timely, topical, and thought-provoking.

Requiem for an Epitaph: A Monologue (written and performed by Michael Sainte-Andress) began the program with a poignant first-person reflection on life as a senior in the LGBT community: “True beauty exists at any age!,” Sainte-Andress preaches inspiringly.

An improbable encounter between a transwoman (played by Jorge Lander) who was being harassed on the street and a bible-thumping church lady (Valerie Papaya Mann) was the almost-sketch-comedy setup in Bad Religion (written by Stanley Freeman and directed by Monte J. Wolfe). But as the two sat down at a café and talked, the play took a completely unexpected turn and ended on a gesture of acceptance that genuinely surprised and pleased the audience.

In a monologue titled Broken Crayons, Writer/Performer Jared Shamberger told a touching and poetic story about liking to color when he was a boy—his favorite Crayolas being midnight blue and scarlet—and a favorite playmate, a boy who also liked to color. They would color together for hours. Then Shamberger learned that the boy had been abused. “Even broken crayons can still color,” Shamberger says hopefully.

Stealth Bombs (written and directed by Monte J. Wolfe) began with a young man (Stanley Freeman) telling a best friend (Wilma Lynn Horton) about his painful breakup with his boyfriend. Their witty banter does nothing to heal the man’s hurt heart. The play takes a sobering turn as the scene shifts to a meeting between the man and his ex-boyfriend (Jivon Lee Jackson), when the real reason the ex behaved so badly is revealed.

Conditioned (written by Stanley Freeman, performed by Monte J. Wolfe) was a tender reminiscence of growing up as a child who was called “sweet” and “soft” and “gay.” There ensue efforts to make him into a real man. But realizing the “hypermasculine image” never fit him, he comes to accept being called soft. “I’ll take it,” he says.

Writer/Director Alan Sharpe created in The Chance of a Lifetime an illuminating short drama about the experience of an older man (Michael Sainte-Andress) who lost scores of friends to HIV/AIDS but survived, and now has turned inward, selfishly surrounding himself with possessions and living a solitary life in suburbia. He is visited by three of those deceased friends (Monte J. Wolfe, Stanley Freeman, and Jared Shamberger), who come to do an intervention: to get him to stop wasting time and squandering his life. The message and the metatheatrical metaphor are stunning.

A Water Break (written and directed by Jared Shamberger) had two guy friends out for a run together (Jeremy Keith Hunger and Jivon Lee Jackson) taking exactly what the title says. It turns out to be the trope of two ostensibly straight men discovering their sexual feelings for each other. The casual flirting is handled cleverly and originally, however, and the buildup and the realization come as an enjoyable surprise.

The most powerful piece of the evening was My Sweet Black Babushka (written by Josette Marina Murray and directed by Monte J. Wolfe). Performed with awesome emotional force by Thembi Duncan, it told a mother’s story of raising her baby boy in a family of strong women only to see him grow up and be shot dead in too-familiar circumstances of racist police action. The action that the mother takes in response had the audience riveted. There was mention during the talkback of turning this short monodrama into a full-length theater piece—a notion with which I wholeheartedly agree. The piece was absolutely superb.

Writer/Performer Monte J. Wolfe—whose multiple talents and producing vision had been been evident all evening—brought the program to a wistful close with another childhood reminiscence. This one, The Fine Print, referenced the do-over joys of playing with an Etch-a-Sketch toy and wondered aloud, “Why can’t life be like that?” And where was the fine print that warned there would be disappointment, heartbreak, and such? “I feel at war with adulthood,” he says.

This was the first time I’d attended one of the one-night-only themed anthology shows that Brave Soul Collective and Monte J. Wolfe have been putting together for several years. Next time another of these creative and content-rich collaborations comes around, my advice is: catch it.

Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.

Plot Twists played June 28, 2015 at Brave Soul Collective performing at the Undercroft Theatre of Mount Vernon United Methodist Church – 900 Massachusetts Avenue NW, in Washington, DC.

Secrets of a Black Boy

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

A theater troupe from Toronto brought this play to town for three performances only for the DC Black Theater Festival. Secrets of a Black Boy speaks with great honesty and artistry. It achieves on stage that rare synthesis when a show that is entertaining  enriches an audience’s understanding at the same time. One wishes it could stay in town longer so that more people could be touched by it.

Written by Darren Anthony, Secrets of a Black Boy reveals the inner lives of five young black men who have gathered for one last game of dominoes at an inner-city community center that is about to be demolished, along with nearby public housing, in an urban gentrification land grab. Though this particular back story is based in Toronto, it resonates implicitly for neighborhoods in DC where it also has been imposed.

Upstage were cardboard boxes piled high into walls painted colorfully with graffiti. Eminently portable (because the boxes could readily be disassembled), this eloquently simple set design evoked perfectly the precarious transcience that brought these five men together. Stage right was DJ O, spinning an evocative mix of “Billy Jean,” “Let My People Go,” Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and such. Across the stage was stretched a yellow construction-site CAUTION tape that was promptly torn down by an actor in soundless protest.  A wordless prolog began—a tableau of a man in African garb being shackled then enslaved then freed. The vivid and evocative stage picture lingered like a haunting collective memory throughout all that followed.

And what followed was engrossing: an amalgam of monologues, scenes, and choreographic interludes that not only brought us into the lives of five distinctly drawn characters but also presented us—through the tight and cohesive performance of the group as a whole—with extraordinary stage images of authenticity among men. The five actors (Troy Crossfield, Shomari Downer, Al St. Louis, Samson Brown, and Leighton Williams) each displayed individual strengths—each was clearly committed to the character he played—but it was when Director Kimahli Powell had the ensemble moving, singing, exulting, incanting together that Secrets of a Black Boy was off the hook with unity and energy.

Here’s just a sampling of insightful moments in the show:

• There’s a fatherless kid named Biscuit, whom the older men try to mentor and raise up right. Biscuit has a funny-sad monolog about how he looked up to his only role model, his big brother, whose sexual prowess with a procession of females he witnessed: “He lasted…eight minutes!” the boy says impressed, to what seemed rueful chuckles of recognition.

• One of the men tells of the day his brother, who was dealing drugs, was shot: “I wake up wondering if this is my day to die.”

• The ensemble mock-instructs the audience in “the wifey checklist”—a semi-serious/semi-facetious list of tips for women who want to keep a man. (“Be a lady on the streets and a freak in the sheets.”) It sends itself up even as it makes points that land.

• One of the men challenges another, whose partner is leaving him, whether he really knows how to satisfy a woman. There follows a riff recommending cunnilingus (“go downtown”) that had female members of the audience audibly amused and affirmed.

• Each of the monologues was terrifically well written but one that seemed particularly edgy yet real was a speech by a character who said he was  “a successful black man with a preference for white women. Deal with it.”

• The lively choreographic interludes—which kept the pace moving briskly—included one set to Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” demonstrating this was a cast that had bonded solidly and with esprit.

• During a five-minute pause  the cardboard boxes were turned to reveal sepia renderings of faces including that of Dr. King. Thereafter the ensemble performed a moving tribute to Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and others: “It coulda been me, another black man down.” “I can’t breathe.” “I was trying to be the best man I could be.”

• Among the powerful monologues in the second part was one by a man who told of losing his temper and abruptly beating the woman he loved. He recalls watching his pops hit his mother, then hit him. And in a stunningly staged episode we see him wreak his own violence on…a metal folding chair. The image of that chair taking his abuse was chilling. But the follow-through, when we see him realize remorsefully what he has done, was equally impactful. In a scene that lasted but ten minutes, the writer, director, and actor achieved something devastatingly iconic and unequivocally condemnatory about domestic violence.

This show had humor. This show had heart. This show was fun to watch. But even more important, Secrets of a Black Boy is a testament to truths that may be told by men among men if they are unafraid to be honest with one another.

Running Time: One hour 45 minutes, including one short pause.

Secrets of a Black Boy played June 26–28, 2015 at The Andrew Foster Theatre of Gallaudet University – 800 Florida Avenue. NE, in Washington, DC.

Finally Quiet in My Head

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

Madness has been dramatized in theater at least since the ancient Greeks. The mind come loose from its moorings, the persona altered, a terror deep in the self—whether in life or on stage, this troubled and troubling extremity of existence holds the human imagination captive. And notwithstanding modern psychiatric and pharmacological interventions, there is a persistent mystery about madness that keeps dramatists returning to it and audiences intrigued by it.

Cristina Bejan’s play Finally Quiet in My Head—which had its U.S. premiere in the DC Black Theater Festival over the weekend—follows the story of a young woman named Morgan, whom we first meet in Saint Elizabeths Hospital, the District’s public mental health facility for intensive inpatient care. Morgan, played with winning high-spiritedness by Muslima Musawwir, begins by reciting, as if at a private poetry slam, a hallucinatory transhistorical dream she has had that includes imagery of plantation life and before.

Thereafter the play unfolds naturalistically, with  scenes set in the psych ward, Morgan’s parents’ home in DC, and her friend Tosha’s New York City apartment. In jump-cut flashback chronology, we see Morgan institutionalized, then out and about, then in again, then out. And for the most part these scenes establish a baseline of conventionality for the narrative. The shrink Dr. Raj (played with cloying cheer by Janani Ramachandran) is almost a cliche of smarmy sympathy. Deborah, Morgan’s mother (played with shrill exasperation by Gwen Lewis), is almost a cliche of  parental scorn. Anthony, Morgan’s father (played with volatile impatience by Steven Langley), is almost a cliche of the even-tempered supportive parent who can blow a fuse in a minute. Tosha, Morgan’s friend from childhood (played with flippant liveliness by Tuesday Barnes), is almost a cliche of the giddy girlfriend who can dish about sex and boyfriends but doesn’t get Morgan at all.

The character in Morgan’s world who breaks the mold, who is conspicuously atypical as dramatis personae go, is a fellow patient she meets in the psych ward named Gerard (played with teddy-bear-like warmth by Christopher Akinbuwa). Gerard is from Senegal, and Morgan has no idea why he has been institutionalized. He doesn’t know why she has been either. In other words, they do not see each other as the world sees them, as “mentally ill.” And on that lovely simpatico and level ground, the two become trusting friends.

At the very end Gerard has a speech that is like a bookend to the one of Morgan’s that began the play—a riff that poetically echoes hers. By this time we have learned what trauma precipitated Morgan’s “nervous breakdown” (eloquently foreshadowed in a dream Morgan relates about Mary the mother of Jesus). And by this time the playwright has arranged for reconciliations that wrap up the story. But with that last speech of Gerard’s, the play leaves us with a provocative loose end: Did Morgan imagine this gentle man to heal herself?

A presentation of the new culture and art collective Bucharest Inside the Beltway, Finally Quiet in My Head was co-directed with evident personal conviction by Bejan and Brittney Sankofa. The play was first produced in 2006 in Oxford, England, where Bejan was a Rhodes Scholar. Though in performance the more conventional scenes lacked the dramatic tension that the play’s overarching theme and weighty substance might suggest, the original story Finally Quiet in My Head tells, its poetic framing, and its two central characters—Morgan and Gerard—stay compellingly in the mind as an intriguing modern take on the age-old enigma of madness.

Running Time: About 75 minutes with no intermission.

Finally Quiet in My Head played June 20 and 21, 2015 at the Anacostia Arts Center – 1231 Good Hope Road, SE, in Washington, D.C.

The Book of Mormon (Revisited)

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

Two years ago I saw the touring production of The Book of Mormon at The Kennedy Center and was utterly blown away. I wrote a column at the time about the profound content of The Book of Mormon, because of its brilliant depiction of the role of human imagination and metaphor in religious language and practice. I found this megahit musical comedy by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone to be “one of theater history’s most significant contributions to global understanding and world peace.” With missionary zeal, I’ve been exhorting everyone since to see the show.

Last night I returned to The Book of Mormon—which given my reverence for the musical had a shrine thing going on. A touring company with an all-new cast is “back by popular demand” until August 16. And I can rapturously report that the show I saw last night is just as good as—maybe better than—the one that blew me away in 2013.

The comic character who most embodies the musical’s revelatory riff on faith is a young Mormon man named Elder Cunningham. He gets paired with another young Mormon man, Elder Price, and deployed on a missionary junket to Uganda. As scripted, Cunningham is the chubby Mutt to Price’s lanky Jeff, the schlubby Costello to Price’s strapping Abbott.

The role of Elder Cunningham is a plum one for someone plump, and Cody Jamison Strand owns it. With an infectiously giddy laugh, a knack for physical buffoonery and nimble dance moves, genius comic timing, and a voice that ranges hilariously from squealing falsetto to faux-macho basso, Strand is an absolute knockout. Expect him to be the next Nathan Lane, the next Bert Lahr, the next Zero Mostel. Strand—who played the part previously on Broadway (right out of the University of South Dakota)—is a major reason for anyone contemplating seeing this road show to book tickets pronto.

David Larsen, who plays Cunningham’s companion Price, also brings it. The two have stunningly gorgeous voices, whether harmonizing  (as on the lovely duet “I Am Here for You”) or belting out solos (Larsen on “I Believe,” Strand on “Man Up”).

A third lead, Candace Quarrels, plays Nabulungi, a young woman whom Cunningham and Price befriend in Uganda. Quarrels simply soars on her solo ode to Salt Lake City, “Sal Tlay Ka Siti,” and the duet that she and Strand sing after coyly having their first coitus, “Baptize Me,” nearly stopped the show.

There is not a nano-instant in this production that hints of long-run-hit fatigue. The choreography and singing by the entire company—the Mormon entourage and the Ugandans alike—is as sharp, polished, and quicksilver fresh as can be. The insanely creative contributions of Directors Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker, Choreographer Nicholaw, and Music Supervisor Stephen Oremus are evident in every delightful detail. And the original lighting by Brian MacDevitt, costumes by Ann Roth, and scenic design by Scott Pask seem brand-sparkling new.

There’s no better time to take in this modern masterwork of musical comedy. By some rare theatrical alchemy this ridiculously heretical entertainment appeals to people who are devout and people who are not, to people who adore big Broadway musicals and people who’ve never been to one in their life.

The Book of Mormon is a hit show you have to see to believe.

Running Time: Two hours 25 minutes, including one intermission.

The Book of Mormon plays through August 16, 2015  at  The Kennedy Center’s Opera House – 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.

Occupied Territories

The theater is no a stranger to the wounds of war.  Countless plays and performance pieces have opened our hearts and minds to that which is unhealed and raw, to that which persists as pain and trauma, to that which has cut down the lives of even those who come home from war alive.

Theater keeps us mindful not only that there are too many such stories to tell but that truthful storytelling of war’s human consequences is essential. For if there is any chance that war will end for ever after, it will be when civilization reaches consensus that no one can ever win a war because war by definition is failure.

The urgent cannon of great theatrical works that tell of war’s grievous after-effects has now been joined by a powerful and heartrending new play just opened at Theater Alliance. Titled Occupied Territories, it looks at what U.S. military action in Vietnam did to one American family—in particular the injury it did to the relationship between one Vietnam veteran and his daughter. Remarkably, in such synecdoche, Occupied Territories becomes before our eyes an emblem of a grieving war-torn era that mires our nation still today.

Occupied Territories is a devised play, meaning that it emerged out of collaborative workshops, not a playwright’s script. It began at Theater Alliance two years ago with but a few sentences of text for each of its scenes sketched by Mollye Maxner, the visionary prime mover who conceived and directed the work and who is herself the daughter of a Vietnam War vet. Unlike devised pieces one sometimes attends that display imaginative theatrical effects but lack a coherent emotional flow to carry things along—so the experience is more diverting than engaging—this one felt as if it were coursing on a current over heart-stopping rapids.

The play is staged in the round; there are only about 40 seats ranged in a circle in the Anacostia Playhouse black box. The story begins in a wood-framed thrust set depicting a basement (by Scenic Designer Andrew Cohen), where two bickering adult sisters, Helena (Adrienne Nelson) and Jude (Nancy Bannon), are going through the belongings of their recently deceased father, a withdrawn and troubled man who served in Vietnam 45 years ago and evidenced lifelong symptoms of PTSD. Jude especially is bitter that her father did not treat her better, and she discounts the significance of his military service, because his story to the family was that he was never in combat.

We learn that’s not what happened at all, in a most affecting dramatic reveal. A squad of Army servicemen led by Miles (Elliott Bales) explosively takes over the space around the basement set and makes of it a perilous night-time jungle in Vietnam (effectively aided by Sound Designer Matthew M. Nielson and Lighting Designer Kyle Gran). One young grunt, a boyish Collins  nicknamed Cornbread (Cody Robinson), bears the brunt of other squad members’ hazing and razzing. He is innocent patriotism personified. “This can’t be for nothing, right?” Collins asks not really rhetorically. “FTA,” says a grit-tough squad mate; “fuck the Army.”

Collins announces with excitement he’s about to be a father. Later he gets a letter telling him he has a newborn daughter, named Jude. And in that stunning moment we realize we are about to find out what happened to Jude’s father 45 years ago in the war that left him unable to communicate the unspeakable.

As Jude’s and Collins’s stories unfold and interconnect across the expanse of 45 years in two immersive and simultaneous settings, the action moves back and forth between basement and war zone. There are  indelible passages of sound and movement, including shocking incidents evoking the horrors of war that American soldiers not only suffered but perpetrated against civilians. There is also a shirtless pas de deux performed with breathtaking force and grace by Hawk (Thomas Rowell) and Harcourt (Nathan Jan Yaffe) that vividly conveys what Jude’s father meant when he told her that the bond between battle buddies far surpassed familial love. (Yaffe doubles uncredited as a civilian in choreography so chilling it seems inhuman.)

Occupied Territories was co-written by Mollye Maxner and Nancy Bannon, co-choreographed by Mollye Maxner and Kelly Maxner, and performed by a cast of eleven, including other Army squad members Lucky (Freddie Bennett), Ace (Desmond Bing), Cargo (Stephan Horst), Alex (Jake MacDevitt), and Professor (Thony Mena).

By the end I was so emotionally devastated by what I had seen that I myself was unable to speak until a good several minutes later. I only half-facetiously reflected that the production should be followed by grief counseling. I surmised from a talkback after that the piece impacted others deeply as well.

Not only is the particular story Occupied Territories tells extraordinary; so also is the original dramatic manner in which it does so. You may think you’ve seen plenty enough of the Vietnam War up close and personal. You may think you already know the drill. But when you experience how Occupied Territories tells its moving, memorable, and mythic story, you’ll have to think again.

The Word and the Wasteland (Source Festival)

At the center of this taut, trenchant play by Timothy Guillot is a fascinatingly enigmatic character named Benjamin Harding. He has very few lines. For the better part of two hours, Joshua Simon performs the role in eloquent silence. With his hollow, glaring eyes, his haunted face and calibrated body language, Simon keeps the character’s secrets and  holds our attention hostage.

As we learn from a cacophany of breaking-news broadcasts projected on vast screens around the theater, Benjamin Harding is in prison in L.A. and under FBI investigation for a terrorist bombing attack on the Walt Disney Concert Hall that killed 225 people and injured hundreds more.  Over the two acts that follow, the tension sprung from that circumstance lets up only intermittently for the kind of nervous laughter that puts the screws on tighter.

Harding appears to fit exactly the profile of nearly every sullen, inscrutable white man who has committed senseless mass murder in the U.S. in recent memory; that much is typical. But Guillot’s very atypical plot gimmick, which makes this play keep ticking like a time bomb, is Harding’s request to have his poetry read by a black woman poet from New York City. Her name is Elizabeth (“Lizzy”), and Benjamin has been following her performances of her own poetry on YouTube. “I’m your biggest fan,” he tells her in their first meeting, which has been arranged against her will by the FBI as a means to get their clammed-up suspect to talk. Tamieka Chavis plays Lizzy with striking inner strength and gravity and vividly expresses the sense in which both poet and  suspect are being held captive.

Joshua W. Kelley, who has deftly directed this gripping drama, sometimes sets up scenes that overlap in time and share the same stage. Thus early on we see the two FBI investigators battle over tactics—new-to-the-force Katherine (played whip-smart and poised by Sarah Ferris) and her gratingly overbearing boss Richard (played brashly by Greg Thompson)—even while we see Benjamin tremulously give Lizzy the handwritten poem he wishes her to read on camera.

As the play gathers momentum and menace, Lizzy’s YouTube delivery of Benjamin’s poem goes viral, and mainstream news outlets latch on to the trending story, turning  Lizzy and Benjamin into media phenoms. Lizzy’s initial reluctance to be involved is replaced by a sympathetic interest in Benjamin, even as he is demonized and dissected by more and more pundits.

Benjamin, we learn, grew up in the Deep South, and his abusive father was a white supremacist who actively supported the Klan and similar hate groups. We also learn that Benjamin has a brother, Woodrow (played by Zach Bopst with a touchingly awkward sinisterness).

Guillot has crafted a shrewd and evocative script that is propelled by crackling dialog, a mesmerizing narrative, an astute spin on media, and the aforementioned enigma,  Benjamin Harding. Not only does the play keep us wondering what makes Harding tick; it turns our voyeuristic curiosity into a measure of concern for the character—an identification that reaches unnerving intensity in a scene when Benjamin is brutally beaten (and Simon’s nearly soundless anguish then is chilling).

What ultimately impressed me most, however, is what the play leaves completely  unremarked and unexamined. It’s almost as if, like the central character Benjamin Harding, it maintains its own right to remain silent. That extraordinary unspokenness has to do with race, a topic never mentioned, either explicitly or referentially, as a theme of the play. By the end, though, the play’s silence on the issue is deafening. Here is a young man, Benjamin, who was literally born to racism; everything about his family upbringing was exactly the sort that imbues children with race hate. Yet the one person in the world Benjamin chooses to trust with his truth is a black woman poet from Harlem.

None of the media commentators who keep showing up onscreen make any mention of that obvious fact; nor does it occur to the FBI investigators as a piece of the puzzle they’re trying to solve. Part of this play’s brilliance is that it leaves us the audience that provocative lead to follow in our own mind on the way home.

The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

A hit Broadway comedy, The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, rounds out Theater J’s 2014–2015 season in a production smartly directed by Eleanor Holdridge. Written in a mainstream mode by Charles Busch—whose oeuvre ordinarily tends toward outlandish—the play takes middle-of-the-road humor on a joy ride with so many enjoyable bends and twists the laughs could not whiz by faster.

The story takes place in an Upper West Side condo valued at (we are told) $2.5 million. Set Designer Caite Hevner Kemp has created a grand living room that’s trying to appear stylish but without any real style. The furniture looks pricey but doesn’t match. It’s as though no interior decorator was allowed near the place and instead the room was put together by someone of means but mediocre taste. That would be the central character, Marjorie Taub, the titular spouse. As the comedy begins she is drowning in a slough of despond, and Susan Rome, who plays Marjorie superbly, makes her mid-life crisis a giggle to watch.

Well read and cultured (she drops names like Herman Hesse and Rilke), and a supporter of a host of worthy charities, Marjorie says she’s mourning the death of her shrink but really she’s depressed about the meaningless of her existence. “I delve, I reflect, I brood,” she says. Her loving and faithful husband, Ira Taub, a revered and retired allergist played with earnest sensitivity by Paul Morella, can do nothing to lift her spirits. “I have ambiguities you can’t begin to fathom,” she tells him. Ira’s practice has set them up for privilege and leisure, but Marjorie’s life is a void she cannot fill.

That’s about to change.

Enter Lee Green, Marjorie’s childhood chum, who drops into the play as if by chance. It’s the classic interloper trope—like Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner and Paul in Six Degrees of Separation—and in Lise Bruneau’s enthrallingly entertaining performance, the character shifts things around and shakes everything up, leaving Marjorie’s life by the end turned around for the better.

Marjorie’s elderly mother, Frieda, lives in an apartment down the hall, makes her way with a walker and, in a running gag, is reliant on suppositories. Frieda adores Ira, her son-in-law, but harshly judges her daughter, Marjorie. Barbara Rappaport brings to the role a feistiness and comic timing that make her every line land to howls from the audience.

A fifth character, Mohammed, an émigré from Iraq, is the building lobby attendant, and in this insightful production Holdridge has given the role more prominence than it has in the script. Stationed stage right at a concierge desk throughout, Mohammed becomes a witness to the proceedings, somewhat the play’s conscience, and he seems to be taking notes on the show as it goes. (Projections Designer Ruthmarie Tenorio has his handwritten narrative texts appear on the proscenium above the stage.) Maboud Ebrahimzadeh’s stolid performance as Mohammed has the effect of grounding the play and its lightweight first world problems in a weightier context—even as the jokes fly fast and furious.

The entire production is as spiffy and classy as can be. Of particular note are the jazz interludes between scenes by Composer/Sound Designer Eric Shimelonis, Costume Designer Frank Labovitz’s elegant wardrobe for Marjorie and Lee, and the bright way Lighting Designer Jason Arnold makes the big abstract painting upstage seem to shimmer with color.

A hit on the Great White Way about 15 years ago (in a production I remember enjoying a lot), the play has been deftly updated  by the author for the Theater J run with contemporary references to current technology and pop culture such that it feels completely fresh, as if written but months ago. Given how much in the world has changed since 2000, that achievement is remarkable.

Though The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife borrows a bunch from the television sit-com style of comic character quirks, clever zingers, and zany situations, it’s got more going on than meets the eye. There’s a method to the madcap, a moral to this tale.  We can see it in Marjorie’s improbable yet persuasive character arc: She gets over herself and gets on with living purposefully. That’s not a bad prescription and it comes in the form of the best medicine—nonstop laughter.

Running Time: Two hours 20 minutes, including one intermission.

The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife plays through July 5, 2015 at Theater J at The Washington DCJCC’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater – 1529 16th Street, NW, (16th and Q Streets), in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (800) 494-8497, or purchase them online.

NSFW

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

Round House Theatre just opened a stunningly good production of NSFW directed by Meredith McDonough. The script by British playwright Lucy Kirkwood is a marvel in itself, because it is a scathingly hilarious comedy and much more.

The jokes, which erupt nonstop—like popcorn on a hot skillet, and just as scrumptious—have been spiked with something serious. They’re like barbed darts laced with truth serum. For in NSFW Kirkwood skewers the way men’s and women’s consumer lifestyle magazines aggravate and ameliorate their target audiences’ insecurities. And in so doing NSFW pokes a spot-on critique at the entire culture’s commodification of gender anxiety.

Myriad magazines pander to consumers’ self-doubt with goading promises: Buy this product and you’ll be more of a man. Buy this product and you’ll be a more alluring woman. We can help you have more power, be more in control, get more girls. We can help you be sexier, please your man, find a man.

Kirkwood’s got those publications’ number. She reads the media’s message loud and clear.

The first part of NSFW is set in the office of a British lads magazine named Doghouse, and the colorfully graphic set design by Tony Cisek leaves little doubt as to the fixations of its demographic of gawkers: the walls, emblazoned with the Union Jack, are hung with blowups of magazine covers prominently featuring  breasts.

Aiden, fortyish, is the canny, conniving editor, and James Whalen brings a dandy drive to the dude. He’s boss over three staffers whose quirks and qualms are a kick to watch: Rupert, a lanky trust-fund heir, is played with randy abandon by Danny Gavigan. Sam, a brain but a bit of a nebbish, is played with touching timidity by Brandon McCoy. Charlotte, the odd woman out, is played by Laura C. Harris with an agreeable affect of composure layered over a simmering inner anger that bubbles up but briefly. Charlotte belongs to a feminist group of women to whom she lies about what she does for a living. In the harsh economic climate that the script makes frequent reference to, both Charlotte and Sam desperately need their jobs and will do whatever it takes to keep them.

Except Sam does not want to accept an assignment from Aiden to go to the Arctic on a “man challenge” and write up the experience for Doghouse. Aiden pressures Sam but he resists, pleading that he has made elaborate plans to celebrate his girlfriend Rona’s birthday and surprise her with a marriage proposal. Though we don’t know it yet, Kirkwood has just slipped Rona into the play as a pivotal character.

The breast-obsessed plot combusts when Doghouse staffers learn that a cover model chosen by Sam is not 18 as he supposed but actually 14. This incriminating news comes from the girl’s father, Mr. Bradshaw, who shows up in a rage. He seems a bumbling country bumpkin but he’s no dummy. As he vents his indignation at the editor who pornographized his daughter, Todd Scofield brings to the role the emotional range of an impressive tragicomedian.

In a long scene between Aiden and Mr. Bradshaw, they face off to thrash out a payoff that could make the father’s lawsuit go away. Throughout it Charlotte remains standing, silent save for one word she speaks in answer to a question. Kirkwood’s choice to keep Charlotte on stage as an inscrutable witnessing presence (she could easily and plausibly be offstage) has a profound effect on how that scene plays. It is not just two adult men contesting the worth of a wronged girl’s life as measured by her looks. It is their dickheaded dispute seen through Charlotte’s eyes. And in Harris’s subtle performance, Charlotte’s unspoken reproach becomes eloquent.

Kirkwood knows exactly what she’s up to, which becomes breathtakingly apparent in the second part of the play. The scene has switched to the office of an upscale women’s magazine called Electra. Cisek’s set is all sleek blacks, grays, and whites, and the magazine covers on the walls are high-fashion supermodel shots.  Miranda, the beguiling, fiftyish top editor (emphasis on the guile), is played by Deborah Hazlett with fascinating flair.

As the scene begins, Miranda is interviewing Sam, who was fired from Doghouse after the underage-model debacle and is desperately seeking employment. The interplay between the two is extraordinary both as scripted and as played. It is as though the raison d’être for NSFW is to focus critically on two symbiotic cultural components—the men’s and then women’s—but only when we get deep into the women’s do the two parts cohere.

In a long passage Miranda, as an exercise, pressures Sam to identify the imperfections in photographs of models—and he can’t. But he must, she tells him. No woman is perfect; every woman is anxious about her imperfections; Electra exists to candidly expose those imperfections, help women not feel alone in them, and promise better beauty and a better body through products, treatments, regimens, diets.

This is the flip side of the puerile voyeurism celebrated at Doghouse: women of a certain age consumed with dread and self-loathing because they are losing their looks.

It turns out Rupert now works for Miranda. Aiden canned him then his father withdrew his trust fund and he needs the work. He enters with his face expressionless, having been Botoxed for a magazine feature in which a man experiences something a woman goes through. He cannot move his lips to speak because his face is numb so he simpers, and Gavigan’s comic turn is a gem.

Near the end Sam has a beautiful monolog in which he becomes in effect the conscience of the play. He tells a story about Rona, the woman he loved. They’ve broken up but he misses her terribly. And the way he describes their relationship could not be more opposite to the values espoused at either Doghouse or Electra. Rona was his soulmate, Sam says, and she became his hero. She was beautiful and she was brave. Once he and Rona were riding the Tube when a man exposed himself and tried to rub his genitals against her. Rona got all the other passengers shouting a shaming chant at the wanker and stopped him cold. The incident affected Sam deeply:

I just loved that, she’s just fearless…and I thought: I actually feel like part of something, you know? For the first time in my life I feel like I’m part of something, like we, people, together, can change things. People can stand up and stop shit things happening. Because that’s what it was like when I was with her, I felt…connected to the world, and all the things the world could be if we were just, better versions of ourselves, so it’s like that better world was sort of a shared space that existed in both our heads, so there was like a world, that we lived in together, that we’d helped to make and it was just for us, it was our secret…. I just really—love her.

Comedy often comes of anxiety. Many a guffaw masks nervous laughter. What is so wonderful about the Round House Theatre production of NSFW is that the heart of its humor comes of honesty. It lets us laugh even as we are looking at that which may not be a laughing matter—which makes for a powerfully on-point play.

Running Time: 95 minutes with no intermission.

NSFW plays through June 21, 2015 at Round House Theatre – 4545 East-West Highway, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (240) 644-1100, or purchase them online.

happiness (and other reasons to die)

You might think a suicide pact among losers who meet on line would not be a terribly good premise for a warmhearted comedy—much less a noir one à la Martin McDonaugh. You might assume there’s not a lotta laughs to be had from a pull-the-plug club. Assuming Chatroulette attracts the suicidal (which apparently it does), you might not care to watch a team of chatterers go terminal in real time on stage. But you would be wrong.  Dead wrong. And the evidence of your mistakenness would be Bob Bartlett’s happiness (and other reasons to die). This new entry from The Welders, directed with fascinating dispatch by Gregg Henry, is a lively and offbeat end-of-life sitcom that is anything but grave.

First of all, there’s the awesome set, which you see first thing as you come in. With it, Scenic Designer Collin Ranney has virtually added a character to Bartlett’s play. It’s a wood-frame room without walls housing a distressed and dilapidated kitchen evidently inhabited by a hoarder—and it’s situated between facing rows of seats so that the audience can see through it to the opposite side.

That set’ll be the last thing the audience sees through for the next hour and a half. Once this riveting and rollicking comedic riff on life and death takes off, you don’t see anything coming.

And it takes off with a bang. Literally. A startling, shocking bang. Which other reviews might give away. But not this one.

Three would-be suicides have gathered here, a cabin on the outskirts of frigid Duluth. They have been cyber-summoned by an octogenarian, a woman whose kitchen this once was. The three are anonymous to one another except as their handles. We (and they) learn their real names are Jeb (Elan Zafir), Misa (Melissa Flaim), and Emilio (Carlos Saldaña).

The pretext for their gathering is a pact they’ve made with one another not to go to their deaths alone. They’re expecting a support group for those who have given up and are ready to give up the ghost. Except they may now be dealing with an actual ghost (an oxymoron, I know; but once you watch this funny-bone tickler, you’ll see what I mean).

In this dark winter’s tale there be chilling sound and light effects, devised by Lighting Designer John D. Alexander and Sound Designer Kenny Neal. There also be two surprise visitors. One is a sort of soothsayer, Misoka (Miyuki Williams). Another is another wannabe-dead pledge, Nolan (Graham Pilato, whose standout performance in this stellar cast was particularly poignant and moving).

Will they or won’t they off themselves? is rather an unsustainable through-line of suspense, since, this being hilarious from the get-go, you kinda guess that’s not gonna happen. But what swiftly turns out to be remarkable and richly rewarding about this play is that the suspense shifts to who these characters are, and who they become to one another, and what bonds them, and what become their reasons to live on.

The script has a few uncertain moments when its clever contrivances seem as exposed as the two-by-four studs and joists framing the playing space, and it sometimes seems oddly noncommittal about whether it wants to be a ghost story. But ultimately the play stands up as a sturdy construction, with payoffs of laughs that are their own lease on life.

happiness (and other reasons to die) may start with a bang but it goes out with no whimper. happiness (and other reasons to die) may be one of the most uplifting comedies you’ll live to see.

Running Time: One hour 30 minutes with no intermission.

happiness (and other reasons to die) plays through June 13, 2015 produced by The Welders performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street, NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

The Trap

(This review was written for DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted here.)

The gaunt and haunted figure of Franz Kafka obsessed the renowned Polish poet, novelist, and dramatist Tadeusz Różewicz (1921-2014).  His two-act play The Trap—part expressionistic, part realistic—poetically thrusts Kafka’s anxieties and nightmares front and center. First published in 1982, The Trap as translated by Adam Czerniawski is now getting its U.S. premiere in an imaginative and fittingly Kafkaesque staging directed for Ambassador Theater by Hanna Bondarewska.

In the lobby a short preshow scene plays out: Inside a cage labeled “Hunger Artist,” the actor who will play Franz (a lean and anguished Matthew Lindsay Payne) rants about why he is starving: as a political rebuke those who overconsume. (Kafka did himself write a story called The Hunger Artist, and Różewicz loosely based a play upon it.) Nearby stand ominously authoritative figures in long black trench coats and dark glasses who usher us into the theater.

More of a fan’s fantasia on Kafka’s life than a fact-based biography, The Trap is an ingenious amalgam of lively sketches and punchy scenes. Among them are episodes from Kafka’s childhood with his overbearing Father (a fearsome Colin Davies), incidents from his serial courtships with women to whom he could not commit—Felice (Morganne Davies), Grete (Ariana Almajan), and Jana Slowik (Abigail Ropp)—and badinage with his best friend Max Brod (a robust Benjamin Koontz). (It was the real Max Brod whom Kafka made promise to burn his writings upon his death but who, recognizing their worth as literature, preserved them instead. Were it not for Brod’s posthumous betrayal, we’d have bupkis of Kafka.) Flash-forwarding in time, The Trap also shows scenes evoking the Holocaust and imagining Kafka’s family being caught up in it (though their lifetimes were actually earlier).

Ambassador Theater is known for importing edgy and important European dramatic literature to DC, and The Trap is its biggest production yet; usually the company’s runs are in smaller venues. The set designed by Carl Gudenius consists of large trapezoidal panels on casters and heavy wooden boxes that, along with other furniture, the actors heave and maneuver into different positions to set each successive scene. The angular, expressionistic flexible playing spaces created thereby are impressive and visually striking—though the scene changes themselves at times seemed to take longer than the scenes in between. These pace-slowing intervals did, however, have an upside: They provided  opportunities to appreciate the exquisite incidental music that was specially scored for this production by Jerzy Satanowski.

An eminent Polish composer with whom Bondarewska has collaborated before, Satanowski has created an extraordinary musical environment that like the play is also an imaginative amalgam—piano, cello, percussion, and assorted other effects evoking bubbling and circuses and a world of wonder all its own. Rarely during a play do I think to myself, as I did during The Trap, that I wished I could listen to its music cues again and again.

What this mounting lacked in momentum it more than made up for in layers of momentous meaning. Among them is the luminous performance of Alexander Rolinski, who plays Young Franz as well as a character identified as Animula, which means “little soul.” The boy has but one scene with dialogue, sick in bed cared for by his nanny Josie (Ariana Almajan).  But during many other passages this little soul moves about, unseen by other characters, as if in silent witness to the inner torment of the elder Franz. In Rolinski’s expressive face can be read a fascinating perspective on the play we are watching: It is the point of view of the inner child who necessarily stays alive in every great artist—and who is here made transparent through the inner life of a exceptionally promising young actor.

Another rich layer of meaning in The Trap is the puzzling and provocative relationship between Różewicz and Kafka, which I found myself pondering all evening. Is Różewicz somehow playing Boswell to a Johnson here? Is Różewicz appropriating and riffing on another artist’s life as if to extoll it but actually to undermine it by insinuating himself into his subject’s aura vicariously? Is Różewicz actually putting Kafka in his place, thereby ennobling himself?

These speculations were prompted by the odd way the character of Kafka is written in the script of The Trap. Pretty much everyone in Kafka’s life bluntly calls him out on his character defects. Not only does young Franz get damagingly critiqued by his distant and judgmental father (who in a biblical nightmare scene that Franz dreams plays Abraham about to slay his son). Franz also gets dissed by the several women he courts who (somewhat unaccountably) fall in love with him, as well as his best bud Brod, who (somewhat unaccountably)  is genuinely fond of him. They all have his number dead on: Franz can’t relate to reality; he’s got lousy social skills; he doesn’t reciprocate their regard for him; he’s a self-obsessed downer and a drag. Basically the script offers little in the way of redeeming features for its central character, unless you remind yourself, Oh right, the historical figure this dude is based on wrote some amazing shit. The upside of this textual vacuum is that it thrusts a provocative dynamic between author and main character front and center. The downside is that the play as written offers an audience little reason to care about the main character or what happens to him.

Well, maybe that’s a bit harsh, but I overstate this case in order to point out that the role of Franz as written is a heckuva challenge for an actor. That actor has to overcome the script’s negativity about the character and portray someone we’ll enjoy the company of long enough to hang with for a couple hours. Matthew Lindsay Payne rises to the challenge commendably. His agile performance is characterized by lots of sudden tone and mood swings—like, really abrupt, as if he’s switching among multiple personalities. This has the salutary effect of conveying Kafka’s inner conflicts while at the same time opening opportunities for the actor to bring to the role his own personable, attractive, and charming qualities—all of which the historical Kafka sorely lacked.

This production is large scale also in the size of its cast, which besides those named above includes Madeline Burrows, John Brennan, Marlowe Vilchez, Emily H. Gilson, Peter Orvetti, Melissa B. Robinson (gripping as Franz’s long-suffering mother), and Ed Klein (who gave a particularly shattering turn in a brief barbershop scene). Sigridur Jonnesdottir’s costume designs, especially for the women actors and the boy, were really lovely to look at. (I did not observe the multimedia projections designed by Riki Kim, which I’m told were not working the night I saw the show;  Michael Stepowany’s lighting also seemed to be operating uncertainly. I have no doubt that will all be fixed.)

Franz Kafka looms over world literature; the mark he made is both indelible and enigmatic. By putting this writer’s troubled persona front and center—as seen through the eyes of a poetic writer distinguished in his own right—The Trap offers us a unique opportunity to reflect on this fascinating figure. And Ambassador Theater’s production plays the compelling and complex portrait to the hilt.

Running Time: Two hours 40 minutes including one intermission.

The Trap plays through June 21, 2015 at The Ambassador Theater performing at XX Bldg at the George Washington University – 814 20th Street, NW, in Washington DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

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