Off-Broadway Review: “The Plough and the Stars” at Irish Repertory Theatre

Off-Broadway Review: “The Plough and the Stars” at Irish Repertory Theatre

O’Casey’s themes of nationalism, divisiveness, religious freedoms and “rights,” the merits of socialism, and fantasy versus reality (fake news, alternate facts) counterpoint powerfully with the current political climate in the United States and throughout Europe.

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Off-Broadway Review: “A Strange Loop” at Playwrights Horizons

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  • David Roberts, Chief New York Critic, Outer Critics Circle/Drama Desk Member

Last season, two off-Broadway plays – “Daddy” and “Slave Play” (both by Jeremy O. Harris) – highlighted significant issues about the self-identity of young black gay and queer men and raised rich and enduring questions about the role of family, friends, culture, and “indifferent yet fetishizing white gays” in that process of discovery. This season, Michael R. Jackson’s original musical “A Strange Loop,” currently playing at Playwrights Horizons, similarly “sorts through layers of self-perception and the perceptions of the world around him” as his protagonist Usher (an impressive and transparent Larry Owens) explores “what it can feel like to be a ‘self’ in general and a black queer self in particular.” Usher’s quest is further complicated by his thoughts that interrupt his writing of a musical about his self-perception.

Usher’s inner cogitations are shared with the audience through the words and songs of six on stage “Thoughts” (Antwayn Hopper, James Jackson, Jr., L Morgan Lee, John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, and Jason Veasey). This gifted ensemble cast batters Usher with his obsessive reflections about self and world as both individual and cacophonous choral thoughts and creates a fascinating and original “conversation” with the one having the apprehensions. The actors not only sing through Usher’s thoughts but portray all the characters inhabiting those thoughts. Montana Levi Blanco’s costumes bring appropriate energy to each character.

Usher “thinks” about changing his life forever, his relationship with his loving religious mother who worries for Usher’s soul, his homophobic and verbally abusive alcoholic father, his “inner white girl,” his doctor who thinks he should have more sex, online sex sites, sex role stereotypes, fetishes, HIV/AIDS in the black community, Tyler Perry constructs of black “America,” the white Inwood Daddy who likes boys of color, and the possibility that his “sense of self is just a bunch of meaningless symbols moving from one level of abstraction to another but ending up back where they started” (cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter’s “strange loop”).

Usher’s self-identity “crisis” is parsed by layers of rich and enduring questions that reverberate with deep authenticity and believability. Under Stephen Brackett’s direction, Larry Owens and the cast of “Thoughts” determine whether Usher is capable of change, needs to change, or is simply “stuck” with who he is. They raise the rich question of whether Usher’s struggles are unique to the black queer community or have connections and relevance beyond that specific community. Arnulfo Maldonado’s “multiple doors” set, and Jen Schriever’s lighting give the “Thoughts” the perfect to “express” themselves.

Despite the importance of the discussion Michael R. Jackson initiates with “A Strange Loop,” the play’s repetitive style and content and its dependence on what might seem unnecessary vulgarity often detract from the inner strength of the script. The final scenes in Usher’s home and in the church are overwrought and depend too heavily on lavish and expensive sets. There is enough genuine grit in Michael R. Jackson’s script to carry his important conversation with the minimalism suggested by the multiple subtle explosions across Usher’s cranial synapses that bring his inner world to outer examination.

 

A STRANGE LOOP

The cast of “A Strange Loop” features Antwayn Hopper, James Jackson, Jr., L Morgan Lee, John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, Larry Owens, and Jason Veasey.

The creative team includes Arnulfo Maldonado (Scenic Designer), Montana Levi Blanco (Costume Designer), Jen Schriever (Lighting Designer), Alex Hawthorn (Sound Designer), Cookie Jordan (Hair, Wig and Makeup Designer), Charlie A. Rosen (Orchestrator), Rona Siddiqui (Music Director), Michael R. Jackson (Vocal Arrangements), Tomoko Akaboshi (Music Coordinator), and Erin Gioia Albrecht (Production Stage Manager).

“A Strange Loop” runs at Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd Street) through Sunday July 7, 2019. For more information, including the performance schedule and ticketing information, visit https://www.playwrightshorizons.org/. Running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes without intermission.

Jason Veasey and Larry Owens in “A Strange Loop.” Credit: Joan Marcus.

Off-Broadway Review: “Nomad Hotel”

Off-Broadway Review: “Nomad Hotel”

With a nod (intentional/unintentional) to the genre of disillusioned youth represented by Kenneth Lonergan’s 1996 “This Is Our Youth,” Carla Ching’s “Nomad Hotel” currently running at Atlantic Theater Company Stage 2 dives headlong into the lives of a triangle of vagabond California youth yearning to belatedly separate and individuate from adults who have been less than successful in providing safe and secure environments and unconditional-nonjudgmental love.

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Off-Broadway Review: "Octet at The Pershing Square Signature Center

Off-Broadway Review: "Octet at The Pershing Square Signature Center

It could be argued that everyone has an addiction. It can be as common as drugs or alcohol; it could be more culturally acceptable, like television or video games. Even science and religion can become a person’s addiction.

In Dave Malloy’s new musical, “Octet,” recently extended to June 30 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, he addresses one of the more recent growing addictions, personal technology.

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Off-Broadway Review: Primary Stages “Little Women”

Off-Broadway Review: Primary Stages “Little Women”

Kate Hamill’s retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” plays at Primary Stages at an auspicious time. Amid unprecedented national and political division, issues of gender identity, gender equality, and gender protection continue to be critically important.

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Off-Broadway Review: “Something Clean”

Off-Broadway Review: “Something Clean”

Margot Bordelon directs “Something Clean” with the briskness of a broom that sweeps across Reid Thompson’s relatively expansive set in the Black Box Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. He cleverly divides the spaces between the Center and the Walker homestead with carpet tiles of differing subdued colors and provides three exits for the actors to accommodate the play’s rapid-firing short scenes.

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Off-Broadway Review: "Enter Laughing - The Musical"

Off-Broadway Review: "Enter Laughing - The Musical"

The Big Apple called me, and I really wanted to pay a visit. I also knew friends would be in town and they had already booked me a seat with them to see ‘Enter Laughing, The Musical’.  I knew nothing about the play but recognized several names in the production’s credits and thought to give this one a go at it.

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Off-Broadway Review: “The Pink Unicorn”

Off-Broadway Review: “The Pink Unicorn”

The LGBTQ+ communities have undergone significant and healthy upheaval since Elise Forier Edie developed “The Pink Unicorn” in 2011 at The Blue Mountain Center in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State. Although the playwright has attempted to update the script, its present incarnation currently running at the Episcopal Actors’ Guild falls short of reflecting the rich complexities of gender identity and gender expression, choosing instead a barrage of stereotypes and sometimes offensive diction. This despite an impressive performance by Alice Ripley as a conservative Texas mom who daughter announces she is ‘gender queer.’

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Off-Broadway Review: “Original Sound” at Cherry Lane Studio Theatre

Off-Broadway Review: “Original Sound” at Cherry Lane Studio Theatre

What a pleasant surprise to walk into the Studio space at Cherry Lane Theatre and see a fresh, new look developed for the exciting new production “Original Sound” by Adam Seidel. Scenic designer, Justin Townsend has transformed the space into a multi-purpose set used for several different locations but always having the lingering aura of a contemporary, professional recording studio. Lighting by Kate McGee supports specific locations and has created a multi-colored neon tube installation as a focal point that pulsates during scene changes adding to the highly charged production and sleek design.

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Off-Broadway Review: “Happy Talk”

Off-Broadway Review: “Happy Talk”

Happy talk – the type of verbal communication, replete with counterfeit smiles, that too often serves as a replacement for authentic connection between individuals – cascades across the stage at the New Group’s world premiere of Jesse Eisenberg’s “Happy Talk” at the New Group at Pershing Square Signature Center’s Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre.

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Off-Broadway Review: “BLKS”

Off-Broadway Review: “BLKS”

Poet-playwright Aziza Barnes puts many ingredients into their script blender to whip up a “comedic look” at the lives of Octavia (Paige Gilbert), Imani (Alfie Fuller), and June (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, three twenty something black women living in New York City – a city where black lives seem not to matter and where, for that reason, it has  become difficult for the trio to navigate the bumpy road to finding intimacy and purpose.

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Off-Broadway Review: “Nantucket Sleigh Ride”

Off-Broadway Review: “Nantucket Sleigh Ride”

In the 18th and 19th centuries, new phrases entered the language of the sailors who took to the sea off the island of Nantucket, one of the whaling capitals of the world during that period. One specific expression “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” describes what happens when a harpooned whale drags the sailors in their long boat across the surface of the water in the wake of waves until it dies. During this treacherous event, which was a fight to the finish, sometimes the sailors also perished. John Guare’s somewhat new play (revised from a previous 2012 production at McCarter Theater) is aptly titled since the audience is only given enough to trawl over the surface of the story and characters without any depth of understanding until the play dies or the audience gives up trying to comprehend it. The switching from reality to the surreal and absurd becomes too confusing and too big a whale of a tale to comprehend the message or purpose of the play. Stopping half way through the farcical memory ride for an intermission seemed unnecessary for a ninety-five-minute play.

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Off-Broadway Review: “The Mother”

Off-Broadway Review: “The Mother”

Somewhere in France, or perhaps in England in the nineteenth century, a young married woman is standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes after an evening meal. A dish slips from her hand, breaking I pieces as it hits the floor. The young woman begins to cry, sob really. Her husband not understanding any of this “odd behavior,” reaches out to the family physician who makes the diagnosis of hysteria and prescribes laudanum to “sedate” her. If the laudanum isn’t effective over time, this young woman – like many others of this time period – might be institutionalized for having “felt,” or “been sad,” or “not been a dutiful wife.”

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Off-Broadway Review: “If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka

Off-Broadway Review: “If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka

“If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka” in the Mainstage Theater at Playwrights Horizons is a must see. Audiences need to support new voices like Tori Sampson. Her contributions to the theatre will continue to challenge the ways we have understood what theatre is, how it is expressed, and how its messages can be exposed to audiences.

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Off-Broadway Review: National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s “Fiddler on the Roof”

Off-Broadway Review: National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s “Fiddler on the Roof”

One father longing to be wealthy enough to adequately care for his family – and letting the Creator know he feels overlooked – and three “adult” daughters dodging the craft of the local matchmaker are the grist for an epic challenge to the traditions held dear by the members of Tevye’s Shtetlekh and its “on-the-fence” Der Rov (a confident yet conflicted Adam B. Shapiro) who is often consulted to determine which traditions remain relevant and which might have become obsolete. Tradition. Culture. Politics. Love. Tevye grapples with these four and more in National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene’s “Fiddler on the Roof” currently running at Stage 42.

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Off-Broadway Review: “Hurricane Diane” at New York Theatre Workshop

Off-Broadway Review: “Hurricane Diane” at New York Theatre Workshop

Playwright Madeleine George sets her “Hurricane Diane” in an Early Anthropocene Time, the era defined as “the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.” Most, except members of the current Administration, see that influence to have been deleterious at best and are aware of the dire predictions for Planet Earth’s future viability unless this human activity is modified speedily and thoroughly. The effects of climate change are as evident now as they were when Ms. George’s play had its debut at Two River Theatre in New Jersey in 2017. Perhaps even more so. So why does New York Theatre Workshop team up with Women’s Project Theater to resurrect this problematic play?

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Off-Broadway Review: Fiasco Theater’s Production of “Merrily We Roll Along”

Off-Broadway Review: Fiasco Theater’s Production of “Merrily We Roll Along”

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” could prove to become the mantra of the famed Sondheim musical “Merrily We Roll Along” which was a dismal failure when it first opened on Broadway in 1981. There is a new production helmed by the Roundabout’s resident Fiasco Theater Company which falls short of delivering a new efficacious incarnation, becoming yet another casualty in the history of this troublesome and puzzling show. This current endeavor lacks the emotional depth of the characters needed to successfully bring forth the message; additionally, the cast is not vocally capable of delivering most of the brilliant musical numbers. However, the orchestrations and new arrangements for the eight-piece orchestra by Alexander Gemignani allow the audience to wallow in the brilliance of Mr. Sondheim’s captivating score and are the highlight of this production.

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