Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: November, 2014

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

“This is a big play,” the playwright Tony Kushner has said without understatement, and without an argument from anyone. It’s sprawling and sweeping and awesome in depth and breadth. It’s also long, about three and a half loquacious hours, with a title so discursive it has been foreshortened to “iHo.” But as Director John Vreeke’s  epically eloquent production just opened at Theater J demonstrates, absolutely nothing else about it needs to be abbreviated.

Kushner’s story centers on an Italian-American family in Brooklyn with radical intellection in its blood. It’s one of those homes where talk overlaps constantly and opinions ping-pong and agile vocabularies are obligatory; and though other people come and go, their  brains all seem networked to the same cognitive cloud. That, of course, would be the prodigious mind of Kushner. The upshot is that drop-in visitors such as ourselves, inquisitive theatergoers, cannot help but be amused and amazed. Even if we don’t catch it all, there’s more than plenty to entertain us. And as we listen in on the brilliant badinage, our own mental faculties are quickened.

The genius of Kushner’s writing in The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide… is that it activates in its audience the very attentiveness it wants and needs us to have in order to tune in to what it says and means—a mentally transformative experience unlike most any other in live theater. What lies in store for the rapt receiver is a story with such a broadband of resonance you’d have to combine Chekhov and Shaw with a soupçon of  Simon to come up with anything close.

On one level iHo centers on Gus, the widowed 72-year-old father of two sons, one gay and one straight, and a daughter, who is divorced from a man and in a lesbian relationship. Gus owns the $4 million brownstone where much of the play takes place. Gus has announced his intention to commit suicide, and his three children, who have their own dramas going on, are determined to change his mind. We know Gus means business because he’s already made a serious attempt. A former longshoreman and labor union organizer, he has become disillusioned with life, not in a morose and depressed way but in an insightful and astute way: The anticapitalist revolution he wanted to happen, and worked so hard to help incite, has not come to pass. Worse, he says, the world is dying because money has become truth.

There’s a bit of an implausibility about Gus: If he’s so smart, why can’t he think himself out of checking out? Well, just because, really. Besides, in Tom Wiggin’s compelling and persuasive performance, Gus’s idée fix propels interconnecting storylines that are as lively and fun to follow as they are dead serious.

The big ideas packed into iHo are about money, class, labor, property, the worth of work, the value of a human life—all loaded concepts in socialist and anticapitalist discourse—as well as about faith, the soul, God, and other spiritual concepts from religious traditions and theological study. Though Kushner’s full title seems an almost mocking amalgam of Marxist and religous frames of thought, it turns out he really does use both languages to dramatize and express his themes. Plus he throws in a lot of laughs and sex.

When the play begins,  Gus’s gay son, known as Pill (the engagingly earnest Lou Liberatore), is on the phone with a hot but dim hustler, Eli (the appealingly ardent Josh Adams). We learn there’s an intense connection of eroticism and commerce between them, not to mention multiple betrayals—including of Pill’s husband, Paul—and as their complex sex-for-sale relationship evolves over the course of the play, Kushner glosses it with some of the play’s most eyeopening observations about the deleterious effect of money on human life and relations.

Similarly Kushner extracts from the narrative of Gus’s suicide planning a potent metaphor for the anathema of property. Unbeknownst to his kids, Gus has found a buyer for the brownstone. He intends to sell it before he kills himself so the money can be divided among the siblings, a notion that distresses and appalls them. The house hangs over their lives not only figuratively; Production Designer Misha Kachman has cleverly suspended over the stage a red brick brownstone facade that does so literally.

Money, property, and labor are also viewed through Kushner’s witty lens in the subplot of Gus’s daughter, called Empty (the energetic Susan Rome), whose very pregnant same-sex partner, Maeve (the droll Lisa Hodsoll), is about to give birth to the child they planned. Empty and Maeve’s relationship is on the rocks, however, again with multiple betrayals. Empty has sex with her ex, Adam (the slick James Whalen), a real estate agent who brokered the sale of the brownstone. The sperm for the baby did not come from a bank as planned because Pill borrowed the money they’d saved up to do that and spent it all on his young hustler. So Maeve used sperm from Empty and Pill’s brother, Vito (the stolid Tim Getman), making her pregnant with her own nephew but locking the baby into an inheritance claim. Sooze (the flighty Sue Jin Song), Vic’s wife, shows up. When she learns Vic delivered the semen to Maeve not as a hand job but in situ, she freaks. Thus does Kushner hilariously and provocatively weight Maeve’s impending labor with impropriety and property, monkeying around and money.

Meanwhile three of the characters extemporize in religious language. Paul (Michael Anthony Williams) is a lecturer in theology, Maeve is a doctor of theology, and Gus’s sister, Zeeko (Rena Cherry Brown), is a former nun. And a character who arrives late in the play, Shelle (Jenifer Belle Deal), brings a loving, personal, and profoundly moving dimension to all the talk of the value of life.

All the stage arts perfectly serve Kushner’s extraordinary script and Vreeke’s focused conception. We are ushered into the philosophical/political landscape of the play by a fascinating montage of images and audio evoking U.S. and European political protest, demonstrations, communist and socialist leaders and mass actions—all by Projections Designer Jared Mezzocchi and Composer/Sound Designer Eric Shimelonis. Similar effects, including by Lighting Designer Dan Covey, mark the play’s passage in time and place and bracket the play’s scenes. While Kachman has framed the realistically furnished playing areas with dramatic abstraction—a wide bookcase suspended askew, a vast cracked wall upstage, that hovering building facade—Costume Designer Ivania Stack has given the characters an unobtrusive commonality of credibility.

Any “intelligent theatergoer’s guide” to The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide… ought to advise that there’s too much relational, emotional, and ideational content here to be appreciated and assimilated in one sitting. And the play lets you know right away that’s perfectly fine. There’s a lot of scintillating and quippy philosophizing, and the play moves at a brisk clip, but every plot point is unmissable and every character arc unmistakable. Whether you take a deep breath and call it The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures or whether you breezily call it iHo, this show is a surfeit of surprise and substance, of significance and delight, of density and shimmering wit. And the long and the short of it is…don’t miss it.

Running Time: Approximately three hours and 20 minutes, with two 10-minute intermissions.

The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures plays through December 21, 2014 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.

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Love Stinks! (concert cabaret)

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

Love and song go together so well they’re a compound noun. Who doesn’t love a love song? But what about love that is disappointing, unreciprocated, wounding—all the loves that dare not speak their pain? What kind of song goes with that? Last night at Atlas Performing Center the Gay Men’s Chorus offered a rousing reply. Borrowing the hook from a J. Geils Band classic, eleven GMC soloists sang a sixteen-song selection called Love Stinks! And it would be hard to imagine love gone wrong sounding more wonderful.

First of all is the pleasure of hearing such a beautiful assortment of male vocalists one after another. There’s something deeply moving about the human voice when it sings purely from the heart in the vocal timbre and range called male—because it’s a voice that manifestly does not play by the manhood rules. It is a voice unmasked, unaffected, and unfiltered by macho posturing and aggression. It is a voice at ease in itself, in its full expressivity and its natural pitch range. It is not a voice that has been butchified, forced to sound lower than it wants to (a habit that over time makes men sound gruff and gravelly because it turns the supple vocal cords they were born with to gristle). Honest emotion, much less heartbreak, is not what manly men are supposed to express—which is why the unfalsified male singing voice is especially stirring.

The gift that Gay Men’s Chorus keeps giving is the beauty of male voices free to be. It liberates because it is liberated. Could a Straight Men’s Chorus give that gift as well? Well, sure, of course. Vocal cords don’t have a sexual orientation (you just have to not wreck them trying not to sound unmanly). But could a Straight Men’s Chorus deliver a program with the emotionally revelatory content of Love Stinks!? I don’t think so.

All the performers were on stage the whole time, dressed in a red-black-white color scheme and seated onstage at cabaret-style tables; then one by one they stood and took the mic. Each of the songs in the program told a story and each was introduced by a singer who told a story from his own life—of a lover who left, a lost love who can’t be forgotten, a boyfriend who betrayed, a relationship turned emotionally and verbally abusive. These candid personal snippets cued up the song choice with the precision of set-up scenes in well-wrought musicals. The personal stories and songs weren’t all torchsongy downers; some were upbeat, sweet, and silly—a couple comically bickering, high hopes for a newfound romance, strategies to steer clear of a jerk. They ran the gay gamut. And the fact that the gamut was gay became more and more significant as the rich narrative arc of the song list was revealed.

I’m guessing each of the soloists had a say in the songs they sang, because the songs suited them so right. The performers, appealing one and all, were GMC members Matt Beck, Jarrod Bennett, Richard Bennett, Stuart Goldstone, Kip Jacobs, Garrick Jordan, Lonny Smith, Michael B. Smith, L. Owen Taggart, Kevin Thomason, and Matt Thompson. But credit for the artistry and tapestry of the evening as a whole belongs to Director Thea Kano and Assistant Director Eric Peterson, along with the masterly musicianship of Pianist Jason Sherlock. What emerged from all the singers’ stories—of lost and regretted loves, of longings and heartaches, of relationship fits and spats—was  a composite character who was greater than the sum of the individual men’s hearts, a kind of collective soulfulness, an Everyman Yearning for the Love of Another Man.  There onstage in the Lang Theatre auditorium was compiled, in separate stories and songs, a candid compendium of exactly what that feels like—and boy could the audience relate.

The last number was astounding (and since this was one a one-night-only show I can report it without giving away a spoiler). The entire cast sang “Cell Block Tango” from Chicago (“He had it coming…”), with originally scripted anecdotes of deserved revenge that were howlingly funny. Every(wronged)man Yearning for Love got his collective comeuppance, and the audience responded to the imagined justice with jubilation. It was a funny and feel-good finale to a show that dared to name the love that hurts.

Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission.

Love Stinks! was performed twice Saturday, November 15, 2014, 5 pm and 8 pm, at The Lang Theatre at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H St NE, in Washington DC.

Bad Jews

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

Bad Jews beggars genre naming. “Comedy of ideas”  doesn’t hold a Shabbat candle to it. Bad Jews is so over-the-top funny, so razor-sharp smart, and so plumb-the-depths profound that it left me gobsmacked in utter awe. Written by Joshua Harmon when he was just 24, and now playing at Studio Theatre only until December 21, Bad Jews is a perfectly polished gem—a don’t-miss gift of exceptional theater whichever holiday you observe (or don’t).

The setting is a studio apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The four characters are all millennials. Three are the grandchildren of a Holocaust survivor named Poppy, whose funeral was that day; the fourth is a goyish girlfriend. The show’s form is fast-paced sitcom. At first it plays like a Friends script, and Serge Seiden directs with hilarious panache.

And then an argument emerges. It’s a conflict between Daphna (the firecracker Irene Sofia Lucio), a devout and observant Jew, and her cousin Liam (the volatile Alex Mandell), who is unapologetically lapsed and antipathetic to the faith. The point of their contention is a mega MacGuffin: Who should inherit Poppy’s cherished chai, a sacred gold charm with a significance and history that Daphna reveres and Liam reviles. This family fissure is the fuse that sets off a megafun explosion.

Jonah, Daphna’s cousin and Liam’s brother, is a gamer slacker and a reluctant spectator to the spat. It’s his apartment, paid for by his well-off folks; and three sleeping areas, a pull-out sofa and two inflated air mattress, were meant to welcome Daphna and Liam.  But Jonah (the still-waters-run-deep Joe Paulik) does not want to be involved in their dispute much less referee.

Liam arrives from a ski trip (so he has missed Poppy’s funeral) with Melody, a pretty blonde WASP who finds herself thrust into a religious hornet’s nest. She seems a bit dim at first, a typical airhead ingenue, but in Maggie Erwin’s spitfire performance, Melody’s surprising character arc becomes a dazzling stroke of brilliance. Just when the fray could not be more fraught with anger, the sweet-tempered Melody, an opera singer manqué, offers to sing a song to calm things down. Erwin’s ensuing off-key rendition of “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess had the audience in stitches and nearly stopped the show.

Set Designer Luciana Stecconi’s earth-tone simplicity and Lighting Designer Daniel MacLean Wagner’s easy ambiance fit the situation just right. Sound Designer Palmer Hefferan’s musical intro and outro evoke Jewish cultural past and millennial present. And Costume Designer Kelsey Hunt makes spot-on character-specific choices—including a pink parka worn by Melody.

When the play turns serious (as it does intermittently), Harmon gives his characters some of the most trenchant and well-wrought speeches I can recall in any contemporary play. The counterposing views of Daphna and Liam are expounded with both gravitas and wit. Liam slams the scriptural cherry-picking required to make Jewish tradition “palatable for your 21st century sensibilities.” He cites in particular biblical passages with anti-female animus, more to rile Daphne than out of any pro-woman sympathies (the guy can hurl misogynist invective with the worst of them).

I can’t get worked up about preserving a totally watered down version of something that wasn’t even true to begin with, and I’m not going to allow it to dictate how I live my life or who I choose to live my life with so I can genetically or biologically pass on something I don’t believe in.

With equal eloquence Daphne gives voice to the essential values at the core of honoring Jewish tradition:

If I stop, if we all stop, it will be gone. And you can’t get it back. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

The playwright presents each view in stark contrast but in stirring equipoise. As we weigh Liam’s and Daphne’s words, we realize Harmon’s thumb is not on the scale. And his command of character-driven ideological conflict makes this comedy-drama a powerfully engaging experience.

The title is a jokey echo of a self-deprecating jest common among nonobservant Jews; but among devout Jews, the title can also seem off-putting and a provocation. Wherever one falls on that continuum of culture and creed (and even if, like me, your ancestors were never met with anti-Semitism), Harmon’s ending will astonish and move you beyond what anyone could possibly expect. I will give nothing away except to say that Jonah, about whom we learn little during the play (compared with the other three characters, he’s kind of a cipher), is revealed in such  a  true and touching way that all laughter stills—and only the heartbeat of great art can be heard.

Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission.

Bad Jews plays through December 21, 2014 at The Studio Theatre’s Mead Theatre-1501 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call (202) 332-3300 or go online.

Pen

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

Washington Stage Guild starts off its 29th season with a smart production of David Marshall Grant’s Pen, a curious play that is by turns provocative and perplexing. The company’s tagline, aptly, is “Smart theatre for a smart town.” Pen‘s dramatis personae are brainy alright. But much as I admired the sharp writing, excellent performances, astute direction, and quality of stagecraft arts on display, at intermission I was scratching my head about what had just happened. By the end I was left wondering if I was perhaps not smart enough to figure out where the play went and how it got there. In the midst of what is ostensibly a naturalistic family drama, there are some surreal twists that just made me go “huh?” That said, this production is a thoroughly engrossing theater experience.

At the center of the family drama, set in 1969, is Matt Bayer, a senior in high school whose psychologist father divorced his mother after she became wheelchair-bound with MS. The hapless but hopeful Matt (in an exceptionally insightful performance by Chris Stinson) lives with his demanding and difficult mother, Helen. He’s torn between the caretaking he feels he owes her and his need to move out and go away to college. Helen, for her part, is abusively clingy, and her brief interludes of maternal concern keep their dynamic cycling between sentimental affection and cynical rejection. Poor Matt—he wants to get as far away from her as possible and she won’t even let him go to the movies. How he has survived their dreadful mother-son dynamic this long is a mystery. (I’m tempted to observe that this trope is not uncommon in works by gay male writers…but I won’t. I’ll just say it’s a vivid depiction of codependence to the enth.)

Emily Townley plays Helen Bayer with engaging range—and if like me you find her character unbearable at first (picture Jo Anne Worley as Mommie Dearest), hanger in there. Over the course of the play Townley reveals touching dimensions of Helen that are as sensitive as they are surprising.

Initially I found the character of the father, Jerry Bayer, appallingly lacking in a self-awareness for a shrink. He’s dumped his disabled wife and is about to marry a young blonde. What’s not to dislike? Equally remarkable, however, is Michael Russotto’s amazingly aware performance in the role. So compelling is he that he nearly had me believing the character might be a nice guy with good intentions. And in a scene in Act Two in a bar where he plays pickup artist, his charm is completely convincing.

Director Kasi Campbell has found just the right balance among these characters, which is no mean feat. We need to care about what happens to them all. At the beginning I cared only about the put-upon son (and Stinson’s deeply intuitive performance is so arresting and satisfying, he’s one of those actors you miss when there’s a scene without them). Campbell, Townley, and Russotto, however, make sure all sides of the troubled triangle solidly sustain the show.

Set Designer Shirong Gu and Lighting Designer Marianne Meadows picture an appealingly moderne living room as well as effective suggestions of a restaurant and bar. Sound Designer Robert Pike offers enjoyable music tracks from the era, and Costume Designer Sydney Moore portrays the period simply and without cliche.

The title refers to a prop pen, a red one, that functions in the play in two ways. On the one hand, it’s an ordinary writing instrument (a particular model Helen prefers because she can do crossword puzzles lying on her back and the ink cartridge doesn’t need shaking). On the other hand, its point is to prompt the play’s Twiglight Zone-y twists. I never figured out what one the hand had to do with the other. But Washington Stage Guild has handled the requisite ambidextrousness handily, and its Pen points most promisingly to its 2014–15 “Season of Love and/or Marriage.”

Gotta hand it to them for that.

Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes with one intermission.

Pen plays at plays through November 23 at the Undercroft Theatre of  Mount Vernon United Methodist Church – 900 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, in Washington, DC. For more information and to purchase tickets, call 240-582-0050 or visit the Washington Stage Guild website.

Not Enuf Lifetimes

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

There is a shortlist of great American plays about hopes and dreams, wrenching and emotionally exacting dramas exposing the anguish when righteous aspiration is tragically not enough. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is one. Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is another. Such plays endure not just because they are uncommonly well written and playable but because they take us into the heart of strivers with such specificity and universality that their stories stay in us long after we walk out of the theater and forever after illuminate how we think about life. Last night a new play opened on H Street that joins that list. Caleen Sinnette Jennings’ Not Enuf Lifetimes is, quite simply, destined to become an American classic.

Not Enuf Lifetimes is the second offering by the new DC-based Welders playwrights collective, which has been promoting the play as being about bridging the generation gap between baby boomers and hip hop culture. And that’s certainly the context of the story. But Not Enuf Lifetimes is about vastly more than that—just as Death of a Salesman is not actually about business travel; and A Raisin in the Sun, not about housing.

What Jennings has dared to do—and phenomenally succeeded at—is to put on stage the moral life crisis of  a white person of conscience who is striving to do good, to make a difference in the world, someone driven by hopes of offering personal recompense for a heritage of white privilege and a dream of social justice. The authenticity of Jennings’ achievement is nothing short of breathtaking.

Jennings, a professor of theater at American University, has said the play was prompted by a conversation she once had with a “skinny, white transfer student with a head full of blond curls who had traveled all the way from the Northwest to go to school in D.C.” He was “bright and politically conscious” and he had taken a challenging job in what white folks call the inner city working with disadvantaged kids. As Jennings explains: “One afternoon, as we sat on a bench on AU’s quad, he seemed particularly sad, and I asked if he was okay. He said his social justice work was sometimes overwhelming. ‘I don’t know,’ he said, ‘It feels like there are not enough lifetimes to make up for all the bad stuff that my people have done.’”

That spark animates Jennings’ central character, Ian, who has dropped out of med school—abandoning the career his mother and father wanted for him—moved into a hood and immersed himself in hip hop and a life of radical racial- and economic-justice activism. Ian (played with wired and electrifying conviction by Kiernan McGowan) tries to explain to his working-class father, Frank (played with weary gruffness by Elliott Bales), why he feels he’s got a “deadline” for his life:

I’ve got this tiny window of time to put the world back on its axis, you know, before it spins out of control…. I’ve been reading about white privilege… racism and oppression. I’m looking for a way to live with myself….I’m trying to create something in myself to love….I’m just trying to find peace in myself and spread it around…

Or as Ian puts it more bluntly later:

I wanna do something worth shit in my life.

With Ian’s personal quest of conscience thus established, Jennings introduces us to her other characters, each of whose role in the story resonates with its own values and yearning: Majit, Ian’s girlfriend, who is of Indian descent and a social worker (played with tough empathy by Shanta Parasuraman); Cheryl, Ian’s religiously devout and superficially sweet but abusive mother (played with transfixing precision by Melissa Flaim); and two characters played by the same extraordinary actor, David Lamont Wilson: Dante, Ian and Magit’s landlord, a computer professional by day and hip hop DJ by night; and Ronnie, a hip hop poet whom Ian mentors. This double casting becomes one of the most evocative elements of the show: As Wilson conveys both Dante’s middle-class demeanor and Ronnie’s street mien, the one is unrecognizable in the other, yet both are seemingly not disparate.

Several passages in the play are spoken aloud as hip hop poetry and they are mindblowingly good. Ronnie challenges Ian’s white-privileged social-activist presumption in a scathing riff:

Where you come from?
Hopping off your white horse, Ridin’ through the ghetto to rescue, of course.
Wanna fight the power, wanna uplift all the poor
Wow, gee, I guess nobody ever tried that before

And Ian responds with a verse that is almost painfully self-aware:

I’m a white boy.
I have no rhythm.
I’m a white boy.
I have no style.
I’m a white boy
I have no way to hide
What they see when they see me
And they see beneath my skin

Jennings delves with sure clarity into both of these specific selves, one black one white, letting each speak honestly, just as she does throughout for each of her complex and compelling characters. Her writing is endlessly satisfying; each synapse of it signals some new twist, some insight, some unexpected emotional instant. And the mastery with which Jennings shapes the story of what becomes of Ian with his hopes and dreams is enthralling and touching all the way to the heartrending end.

Jennings’ fine script has been staged with great inspiration and integrity by Director Psamayene 24.  Scenic Designer Ethan Sinnott has created a splendid  multiplatform playing space, dressed by Scenic Artist Kelley Rowan in graffiti and urban clutter, that artfully contains both interiors and exteriors. At several points there are flashbacks that pick up from and enact an incident being told, and Lighting Designer Allan Sean Weeks fluidly shifts our visual fields to make these transitions in time and space seem perfectly seamless. Sound Designer David Lamont Wilson—playing yet another role in the show—not only makes hip hop come alive but also expands the action effectively with offstage sounds. And  Costume Designer Katie Touart has dressed characters who range from street rapper to church lady such that all seem perfectly suited to tell this remarkable story.

Not Enuf Lifetimes is a play that will live on in other productions, other places, other times. This run is only the first of many to come. But that’s all the more reason to catch this Welders original production—the one that introduced to the theater an essential story for our time never told as powerfully onstage before.

Not Enuf Lifetimes plays through November 15, 2014 at The Welders performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.