Review: "Serving Brulee" at FringeNYC

Review: "Serving Brulee" at FringeNYC

Telling a story about the unrealistic expectations of perfection through the lense of  daytime television, an unapologetically plastic-perfect medium, is a brilliant concept. Though, I found myself wishing that “Serving Brulee” would take the time to lean into that concept a little more, peel back on the jokes, letting them come from a place of truth rather than absurdity, and leave us wanting seconds.

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Review: "Onaje" at FringeNYC

Review: "Onaje" at FringeNYC

Most people don’t like to be reminded outright of the trouble in the world around them, even if everything is crumbling to the ground. As long as they aren’t being hit with the debris, most people won’t even acknowledge it’s there. At its core that is one of the things that theatre is about, forcing an audience to witness, through the eyes of the play, the trouble that exists in the world every day. This is why Onaje is such an important piece of theatre. It tells a tragic story of riots, racism, and hate that, although it is set in both 1967 and 1980, is unfortunately still very relevant.

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Review: “The Gorges Motel” at FringeNYC

David Roberts

  • OnStage Chief New York Theatre Critic

Playwright James Hindman invited a group of playwrights to write short scenes all set in Watkins Glen, New York in a roadside motel that – although it might have “seen better days” – is still frequented by those looking for some semblance of self, by those looking to get married, by those looking for “something new,” and by those who for one reason or another might just be passing by. The result is the new play “The Gorges Motel” currently running at FringeNYC 2016. The individual playwrights shared their work and the resulting piece has the feel of somehow being “woven together” without the scenes necessarily depending upon one another. The parts work as well separately as they do in concert.

Pictured: Dustin Charles and Jody Flader. Photographer: Britannie Bond.

Pictured: Dustin Charles and Jody Flader. Photographer: Britannie Bond.

Mr. Hindman’s “Missing” – Parts I, II, and III – frames the work and sets the context for the remaining six plays. Because of their brevity, these scenes require actors who are able to quickly develop characters with recognizable conflicts and who have the ability to establish setting with alacrity. Under Chris Goutman’s steady and generous direction, the cast of seven handle these tasks with exceptional craft and flexibility. For example, Dustin Charles’s Robert in “Missing – Part I – is barely recognizable as the Greg in “Here Comes the Drone.” And Amanda Sykes brings individuality and charm to her characters Wendy in “Kissing Cousins” and Kayla in “Here Comes the Drone.”

Brevity sometimes weakens the scenes. There are times the audience is not so much left wanting more than it is wondering, “what else could I have done with those five minutes?” Overall, however, the scenes are interesting, provocative, and worth seeing.

Standing out are Craig Pospisil’s “Kissing Cousins” and Gretchen Cryer’s “Breckenridge.” In “Kissing Cousins,” two sisters discover they both have slept with the groom – Dani (Jody Flader) their mutual friend’s bridesmaid slept with him recently, and sister Wendy (Amanda Sykes) experienced a similar tryst years ago back in school. Ms. Flader and Ms. Sykes have impeccable comedic timing and play the discovery and processing of the unexpected information with great skill. Ryan Wesley Gilreath is their competent and equally funny straight man.

In “Breckenridge,” Terry the handsome motel maintenance man (Brian Sheridan) arrives in Penelope’s (Ilene Kristen) Unit to unclog her plumbing so she can stay a while and get some work done. Penelope has been waiting a long time for her Odysseus and her patience has just about run out! Terry and his collection of tools is just the ticket to end of Penelope’s pining and the two actors make this unlikely tryst completely likable. Ms. Cryer’s script is perhaps the most developed and her writing is rich in tropes and authentic characterization.

Cynthia Mace is the consummate “eccentric motel proprietor” and provides the necessary “glue” to hold the play together from disclosing here painful secrets, to welcoming an estranged brother Robert (Dustin Charles) as the guest in the unnumbered Unit 22, to letting us gather our collective and disparate catharses together as she welcomes us – as she always has over the years – to the Watkins Glen laser show.

A visit to the “The Gorges Motel” will not disappoint. Just be sure to book a spot before it closes for the season on August 27.

THE GORGES MOTEL

“The Gorges Motel” is presented by The New York International Fringe Festival and Schondeikkan Productions and Miracle or Two Productions in association with The Journey Company at The Player’s Theatre, 115 MacDougal Street (between West 3rd and Bleecker).

For more information about the show including performance dates, the cast, and creative team, please visit http://gorgesmoteltheplays.com/. For more information about the 20th Annual New York Fringe Festival visit www.FringeNYC.org. Running time is 1 hour and 20 minutes without intermission.

Review: “In the Master’s House There Are Many Mansions” at FringeNYC 2016

David Roberts

OnStage Chief New York Theatre Critic

“Their relative ineffectiveness, however, is reflective of larger forces that combined over many decades to make blacks in the city all but invisible. And by now, the truth is that the black community has few genuinely influential advocates in San Francisco’s centers of power, the business community, and at City Hall.” – Amy Alexander, “The Atlantic”

Following fifteen minutes of a smooth jazz jam session by Noel Freidline (piano and keyboards) and Tim Singh (bass) and a transcendent tap routine by Khalid Hill, the real business of Cherry Jackson’s “In the Master’s House There Are Many Mansions” begins. And it is not a business for the weak of spirit or the faint of heart. It is a business that requires action, decision, commitment to change, and “discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

Mr. Hill settles onto a stool in front of the two-man jazz band as he assumes a new role yet to be determined. The lights dim and in lighting designer Matt Fergen’s chilling shadows, the mortician (played with a vacuous complacency by Jay Morong) finishes his “good work” on his latest Medicaid client Tyrone (played with a disarming but charming virulence by Kineh N’gaojia) and lays him out ready for viewing. Tyrone is one of many young black men who are victims of police violence who end up at the mortician’s door and the payments from Medicaid are enough to keep his arms open wide.

Tyrone’s childhood friend Larry James Fletcher (played with an exuberant and charmed naiveté by Codara Bracy) has taken off work in the fields and taken the bus up from Gainsboro, Texas to see his slain friend. After completing the Medicaid required grilling (are you married, Mr. Fletcher?) and thumb-printing, Larry approaches Tyrone’s covered body; the mortician uncovers his “work” and leaves the room.

What follows is one of the most challenging pieces of theatre in FringeNYC 2016. Tyrone – like Lazarus – comes back from death and he and Larry rehearse their childhood, their adolescence, and their young adulthood as young men of color in what continues to be a world molded by the “Master’s” hand. Without having to provide a spoiler alert and diminish the cathartic power of Ms. Jackson’s play, it is possible to reveal that “In the Master’s House There Are Many Mansions” raises many rich and enduring questions. Why are young black men still being killed as a result of police violence? Do members of black communities across America have any true advocates? Where are these advocates and why are they not more vocal and more proactive?

Under James Vesce’s electrifying direction, the cast is uniformly brilliant and engaging. They each bring authenticity and a level of honesty to their characters that challenges the status quo and reverberates through the performance space with disquieting truthfulness.

The title of Cherry Jackson’s engaging and disarming 1978 play is a mind-bending distortion of the well-known phrase in John 14:2-3, “In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.” “My Father” has become “the Master” and the verses now are unsettling tropes for systemic racism, white privilege and supremacy. 

The play ends with his signature “rapid-fire” up on his toes tap routine by Khalid Hill. Mr. Hill moves in and out of the shadows during the play, sometimes just observing, sometimes assisting the mortician, sometimes weaving in and out of the lives of “the quick and the dead.” Death is a funny guy sometimes and – as Tyrone points out – will find his way into your house no matter how hard you try to keep him out. In the case of Tyrone and the three new clients (one riddled by the bullets from a police officer’s gun) called in at the end of the play, Death far too often appears in the guise of armed men in uniform called to protect and serve. Who is better off? Tyrone or Larry? The one dead or the one still quickened and believing in the goodness of his master?

This is a play that needs to be seen. Please see it before it closes on August 18, 2016.

IN THE MASTERS HOUSE THERE ARE MANY MANSIONS

“In the Master’s House There Are Many Mansions” is presented by The New York International Fringe Festival and Twilight Repertory Company at Teatro LATEA at the Clemente, 107 Suffolk Street, 2nd Floor (between Rivington and Delancey).

The cast of “In the Master’s House There Are Many Mansions” features Codara Bracy, Khalid Hill, Jay Morong, and Kineh N’goajia. Production photos by Daniel Coston.

For more information about the show including performance dates, the cast, and creative team, please visit http://www.jamesvesce.com/twilight-repertory-company.html. For more information about the 20th Annual New York Fringe Festival visit www.FringeNYC.org.

Pictured: Khalid Hill. Photographer: Daniel Coston.

“Hell Is For Real” at FringeNYC 2015

David Roberts

It is Fringe season, and the lower East side of Manhattan is buzzing with the NY International Fringe Festival now celebrating a 19th year with a new theatrical kaleidoscope. As in years past, audiences, reviewers and staff search for the golden ticket, the reward of finding a few shows that might have a glimmer of hope for a future, or at least be treated to an hour or two of good solid theater. The new musical comedy “Hell is for Real” with book, music and lyrics by Gary Apple falls into the category of the typical fringe musical filled with satire, zany characters, vulgar language, derivative music and simple often mundane lyrics. Although this is not the quintessential example of dramatic structure and writing, what it offers is a couple of hours of crazy, ridiculous, superfluous humor in the dog days of summer.

Six year old Davin is accidentally transported to hell where of course he does not belong. Upon returning from his visit, he is plagued with strange, weird and satanic events as well as visits from Carl the banjo playing Bogeyman. Dad Richard goes to all lengths to save his child visiting churches, secret satanic cults, exorcists and finally a trip to hell to meet with Lucifer who gives him an impossible task to complete in order to save his son. What follows is an absurd comical adventure that moves at a fast pace under the direction of Jay Stern.

The cast is strong and plays whole heartedly into the material giving it more substance than it actually has, riding the thin line between actuality and pasquinade. They work extremely well as an ensemble each supporting the other, fully committed to the task at hand. They are accompanied by an overly competent band that deserves more sophisticated material and arrangements. There is nothing new or inventive here, just what you might expect from a wacky musical comedy. Audiences should give it a try if you are looking for a few laughs, some good vocals and an evening of light, mindless entertainment reminiscent of an extended SNL sketch with music. It could possibly become one of those late night cult musicals that lasts for a while, and might be better after a few drinks. 

HELL IS FOR REAL

“Hell Is For Real” is presented by The New York International Fringe Festival at Theatre 80, 80 St. Marks Place (1st and 2nd Avenues).

All performances of “Hell Is For Real” take place at on the following schedule: Sunday August 16th at 1:15 p.m.; Thursday August 27th at 4:45 p.m.; and Saturday August 29 at 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $18.00 at the door and $15.00 for advance purchase. The running time is 1 hour and 55 minutes. For more information about the show and the cast and creative team, please visit http://www.hellisforreal.com/. For more information about the 19th Annual New York Fringe Festival visit www.FringeNYC.org.

Review: “Elaine Stritch Still Here” at FringeNYC 2015

David Roberts

“Elaine Stritch Still Here” is a new musical constructed in cabaret format, paying homage to the theatrical paragon, being presented as part of the NY International Fringe Festival. The legendary Ms. Stritch, played marvelously by Jay Malsky, with the accomplished Keith Rubin as Rob Bowman, her friend and musical director at the piano, deserve a much better venue that might help translate the stature of this theatrical icon. This diminutive look into her amazing career, peers into the short time capsule when she is 86 years old and preparing and performing her last cabaret tour. It is a reflection and a celebration, filled with her undeniable talent, appeal, strength and sarcasm laced with sadness, but not withstanding effects of the relentless demon of alcohol and the debilitating affliction of diabetes. What came before this time seems to have been only the preparation for the battle that takes place now, with no regrets for the misguided plan of attack.

Mr. Malsky captures the physical nuance with ease as he morphs into the larger than life character, appearing in her signature garb of black tights and oversized white dress shirt, announcing that “I hate pants.” He attacks the many vocals that can easily be associated with her name, with powerful insistence, reminiscent of the no nonsense style that was part of her charm. What makes this performance soar is the emotional connection Mr. Malsky displays as he digs deep down into the sadness of being alone after her husband dies, the anger at the debilitating disease, and the weakness for the demon that haunts her.

This show is not perfect but most of that is due to limitations of the space. Direction by Zak Sommerfield is spotty, with a wish for better flow and continuity, even musical interludes of familiar tunes. For those that are familiar with Ms. Stritch it is an opportunity to examine a more personal, intimate facet of her incredible journey; for those who are not that familiar, it may open up an entire new avenue of interest into the incredible life of this theatrical legend. Try to catch a performance during this short run.

ELAINE STRITCH STILL HERE

“Elaine Stritch Still Here” is presented by The New York International Fringe Festival at Spectrum, 121 Ludlow Street, 2nd Floor (Rivington and Delancey).

All performances of “Elaine Stritch Still Here” take place at on the following schedule: Monday August 17th at 9:15 p.m.; Friday August 21st at 10:30 p.m.; Monday August 24th at 8:00 p.m.; and Saturday August 29th at 2:45 p.m. Tickets are $18.00 at the door and $15.00 for advance purchase. The running time is 50 minutes. For more information about the show and the cast and creative team, please visit https://www.facebook.com/elainestritchstillhere. For more information about the 19th Annual New York Fringe Festival visit www.FringeNYC.org.

Review: ‘Virtuous Mongrels’ at Fringe NYC: A Nihilist, Symbolist’s Wet Nightmare.

Thomas Burns Scully

To say that the post-colonial landscape is complicated is… well, it’s an understatement. And saying that it’s an understatement is an understatement in of itself. In this short preamble paragraph, I am not going to kid anybody in to believing that I can sum up the pain, confusion and torturous ambivalence that has followed in the wake of the Empire’s collapse. Suffice to say, there’s a lot of hurt, a fair helping of twisted nostalgia, and a large penny jar full of mixed feelings. As the TV guide might say: a volatile combination. Probably the reason, then, that this landscape has inspired so much art, literature and theatre. With that, we take another foray in to the post-colonial jungle, with a look at the NYC Fringe’s ‘Virtuous Mongrels’.

Set in a burnt out never-space that seems to resemble a bar in a post-empire African state, we see two men, one white, one black, crawling on the floor, desperate for the simplest essentials. Standing aloof above them are two more men, one white, one black… spiritual father-figures with deadening spirits. The two crawling men are joined by a young woman; a daughter of Isreal… the scene starts to get heated. The unhappy five are joined by an unhappy sixth, the girl’s father. What follows is a surreal verbal and psycho-physical brawl between warring ideologies and generations. The younger characters trying to find ways to work together and failing; and the older characters, those remnants of a bitter past, spitting on their failure whilst resting in the filth of their own idle vehemence and faded glory.

‘Virtuous Mongrels’ is not an enjoyable watch, but then it’s not meant to be. It’s the kind of play that indecently assaults you, rather than entertains you. Writer-director Yaya Zeevi has created a piece here which plays with the viscerality of difficult parentage and drinks a cocktail of nine different kinds of anguish. Awash with dystopian semiology representative of the collapsed British Empire, the troubled new Africa and the insular hyper-defensiveness of the modern Jewish state, ‘Mongrels’ is a nihilist, symbolist’s wet nightmare come to life.

As the title suggests, the play has a strong animalistic bent. The actors throw their whole wretch in to the movement, displaying a degree of animality unheard of outside a second-year drama school movement class, or a Trump family reunion. They crawl, stalk and prowl about the stage like the dogs suggested in the title. Their lines are not spoken, so much as thrown, spat or gently pushed between the ribs. In their rare moments of peace, Christopher Wharton is the voice of unquestionable British authority, Matthew Stannah is Kenya’s own adopted wunderkind, Robert Vail is the world’s one true heir and lion-child, Jean-Francois Ogoubiyi is the resolute spokesperson for a disenfranchised race, Alice Van Heuven is a kosher Oasis, and Daniel Gadi is the ghost of Isreal’s Spartacus. But these are rare moments of peace. Most of the time, they are just fighting animals.

I have to be judicious here and say that this play is definitely not for everyone. It’s certainly not a play to bring your local Church book-club to. Even though it runs in at just under an hour, it’s dense enough that it feels longer. It’s also esoteric to a fault, so don’t go on a night when you’re tired or unfocused. However, if you are prepared for the rigor that awaits you, by all means enter the jungle, and sample the strange poisonous fruit that ‘Virtuous Mongrels’ has to offer.

‘Virtuous Mongrels’ has two shows remaining at the NYC Fringe:
Wednesday August 26th at 7:30PM
Saturday August 29th at 3PM
It is playing at Venue #6: DROM, 85 Avenue A, (between 5th and 6th Street). Like all Fringe shows, tickets are $18 (plus fees).
Tickets available via fringenyc.org and Eventbrite.com

This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded in Time Out NY and the New York Times, and his writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.  

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)

Review: “Maybe Tomorrow” at FringeNYC 2015

David Roberts

Based on the true story of a woman who was found stuck on her boyfriend’s toilet after sitting on it for two years in Ness County, Kansas, “Maybe Tomorrow” takes the premise of the meta-theatrical experience into the realm of a stunning psychological study of delusional behavior, the processes of collusion, and the consequences of controlling behavior. Playwright Max Mondi’s complex play might also be about marriage, fame, and a toilet but only in a secondary fashion. 

Unable to cope with her marriage to Ben (Harrison Unger), arts-and-crafts entrepreneur Gail (Jennifer Bareilles) retreats to the bathroom of their trailer making it her “pause room” populated by her mantras “maybe tomorrow” and “I’ll figure it out.” From the relative safety of the toilet and her initial attempts to venture into the rest of the trailer, Gail manages to get pregnant, run her arts and crafts trailer-front store, and adjust to the move to New Jersey where Ben has landed a new job as a luxury car salesperson.

After the move, Gail retreats to the toilet and her “pause room” full-time, seemingly abandoning Ben and the new baby. At this point, it would appear that Gail is “suffering” from a psychotic disorder with hallucinations and that Ben had decided to collude with Gail’s “disorder” since it is the happiest he has ever seen her. But perhaps Gail just prefers “real” time and space and prefers to talk to a real audience (not a hallucination) and is colluding with Ben who is perhaps the delusional one thinking Gail sees no one and that they are simply actors in a play that is accountable to the convention of a fourth wall. Only when the reader attends a performance of “Maybe Tomorrow” can she or he decide if there is a baby beyond the bathroom.

Photography by Al Foote III

Photography by Al Foote III

Harrison Unger’s and Jennifer Bareilles’ strong commitment to Mr. Mondi’s complex and dense writing pays off. “Maybe Tomorrow” engages the audience in a rollercoaster ride that explores ego strength and the arrogance of diagnostic protocols that categorize the intricacies of what is considered mental illness. The title raises a variety of enduring and rich questions about life, love, and the thing we call theatre. Can two human beings make sense of marriage, money, and parenting? Does one member of a couple have the right to define for the other what life style she or he can assume? What defines ‘theatre’ in the twenty-first century? Are there theatrical conventions yet to be discovered and explored on stage? Why can the $18.00 FringeNYC performance of “Maybe Tomorrow” raise more important questions than any $150.00 (plus or minus) show currently running on Broadway?

Mr. Modi's challenging play also comments on the nature of the theatre itself and the assumed lack of realism and question (successfully) what is or what is not “permitted” in playwriting or on the stage. For example in a play where one member of the cast is sitting on a toilet should the audience be invited by the venue manager to visit the “real” bathroom at any time during the performance?

Tomer Adorian’s direction is meticulous, generous, and refreshing and allows Harrison Unger (Ben) and Jennifer Bareilles (Gail) room to explore Max Mondi’s script with impressive craft and commitment to authenticity. “Maybe Tomorrow” is one thing the reader should not put off until tomorrow. Take a break from the “pause room” and purchase tickets today.

MAYBE TOMORROW

“Maybe Tomorrow” is presented by The New York International Fringe Festival and The Poet Acts, Inc. at Under St. Marks, 94 St. Marks Place (1st and Avenues A).

All performances of “Maybe Tomorrow” take place at on the following schedule: Friday August 21st at 7:45 p.m.; Sunday August 23rd at 1:15 p.m.; and Saturday August 29th at 1:15 p.m. Tickets are $18.00 at the door and $15.00 for advance purchase. The running time is 1 hour and 20 minutes. For more information about the show and the cast and creative team, please visit http://www.maybetomorrowtheplay.com/. For more information about the 19th Annual New York Fringe Festival visit www.FringeNYC.org.

Review: “Coping” at FringeNYC 2015

David Roberts

The stressors of coping with the loss of a dear friend and loved one seem to override the default coping mechanisms humans consciously or unconsciously depend on to navigate through the daily matrix of more “normal” stressors like missing a bus, or forgetting a wallet, or nor remembering to charge a cell phone. The dynamics of loss trigger an unhealthy set of inappropriate responses to even the most innocent question or challenge. The bereaved temporarily forget the need for adult-adult responses and slip too easily into parent-child responses which inevitable spiral out of control and leave friends and family pulled into in a dysfunctional vortex.

This process is exacerbated when the deceased has committed suicide as did soon-to-be physician Conner with the gun owned by his OCD girlfriend Sara (Lauren LaRocca) who joins Conner’s sister Jessica (Lipica Shah), her girlfriend Taylor (Lauren Hennessy), and Connor’s roommate Lucas (Scott Thomas) in his apartment to plan Connor’s service and sort out their individual and collective grief. Each member of this non-intentional extended family has her or his own life-problems. Sara is obsessive compulsive (more on this later); Jessica has attempted suicide in the past; Taylor often colludes with Jessica’s controlling and sometimes destructive behavior; and Lucas depends heavily on recreational drugs to get by.

Playwright Jacob Marx Rice brings these characters into the same setting and sparks fly! Mr. Rice has created well-rounded characters each with conflicts easily identified by the audience. These conflicts drive a matrix of interesting plots with rich layers of exposition. The process of grieving and the styles of coping are complicated by the dysfunctional relationships and the individual psychological idiosyncrasies of each member of this oddly configured extended family. An extended family that includes the whacky funeral director Janie (Dinah Berkeley) who is as “professional” as she is completely quirky.

The creative team has developed a convention to help the audience “visualize” the difficulty Sarah has coping with her boyfriend’s suicide. Grieving is one trigger that can “boot up” a string of uncomfortable obsessive- compulsive behaviors and the playwright and director have found an interesting way to deal with that event. It is also used to open the possibility of defining what is real and what is not in the context of the play.

Director Anna Strasser allows her talented ensemble of actors to “paint” with a large brush that fills the stage with colorful scenes that range from comedic interludes to deeply cathartic moments of truth and transparency. It is doubtful the audience will ever understand the process of coping in traditional ways again after seeing “Coping.”

COPING

“Coping” is presented by The New York International Fringe Festival and Audra Arnaudon at Teatro SEA at the Celemente, 107 Suffolk Street (Rivington and Delancey).

All performances of “Coping” take place at on the following schedule: Wednesday August 19th at 7:00 p.m.; Saturday August 22nd at 9:45 p.m.; Wednesday August 26th at 4:45 p.m.; and Friday August 28th at 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $18.00 at the door and $15.00 for advance purchase. The running time is 1 hour and 20 minutes. For more information about the show and the cast and creative team, please visit http://www.copingplay.com/. For more information about the 19th Annual New York Fringe Festival visit www.FringeNYC.org.

Review: “Under: A New Musical”

Nickolaus Hines

Being accepted into an Ivy League school is a badge of honor. It is an asterisk next to a name on a graduation list that screams “I am successful.” It is validation for all of the hard work and dedication that made a student stand out at the high school level. But inside the hallowed halls of that Ivy League, each person has that asterisk, and for some students, the pressures of success are too much.

“Under,” a musical that questions the mental health and treatment of students at Yale, follows one asterisk through her first year of college and her stint at a psychiatric ward. All of the actors, as well as the playwright, are Yale students or former students. The 19th annual New York International Fringe Festival is giving a voice to the students exploring mental health via the stage.

“Under” follows a Yale freshman named Serena, played by rising junior Michaela Murphy, through two different periods in her life. On one side of the stage, Serena is a student looking for a way to stand out among a crowd of talented individuals, fit in with her friends, and maintain her sense of self. On the other side of the stage, Serena is locked in the Yale-New Haven Psychiatric Hospital. Both sides of the story progress at the same speed with each scene change, one ending with her admittance to the hospital, the other ending with her exit from the hospital. 

Monica Hannush, “Under” playwright and rising senior at Yale, wrote what she knew. Hannush struggled with depression and bipolar disorder, she told the website Call Me Adam, and took a leave of absence at Yale after being admitted to the Yale-New Haven Psychiatric Hospital. Her time in the psychiatric ward and a friend she made there helped her create a connected narrative for “Under,” Hannush told Yale Daily News. 

The first line of the musical rings out over the audience and sets the tone. 

“Will somebody get me my fucking meds!” Yells psychiatric patient Billy, played by rising Yale sophomore Aaron McAlevey.

The stage at Theatre 80 in East village off of St. Marks Place is thinly covered in props. A live band covers a portion of the stage, and they play everything from Jason Mraz-esque jazz tunes to mood music led by composer Julian Drucker.

Billy continues to talk to Serena, both in turnip green colored scrubs, about his history of Xanax and drug abuse. Billy is one of the few characters in the musical that doesn’t attend Yale, and the layers of problems in his life present a stark contrast to Serena, who is struggling in a psychiatric ward with the “Yale puzzle” of being like everyone else, but less successful.

Each song comes near the end of each scene and encapsulates the feelings of each character. Most importantly, each song draws attention to the larger issue that the musical is addressing. Every actor has a voice that can rapture an audience by itself, but when multiple actors sing together, the stage lights up. Many members of the cast are members of a cappella groups as well, and it shows.

At Fringe, not every audience member will be able to relate to the severity of being admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Most members of the audience won’t be able to relate to attending an Ivy League school. All members of the audience, however, will be able to relate to the message of growing up. Dramatic scenes of young adult angst seem ripped off of a funhouse mirror pointed at everyday, offstage, life.

A few technical problems with lighting and the microphones, which were covered with the ease of a seasoned professional, distracted a bit from the message of the musical. Yet a little grit and a little improvisation adds to the here and now urgency of certain acts.

“Under” points a heavy handed stage light at a serious issue. Four Yale students since 2010 have committed suicide, and suicide is the third-leading cause of death for people aged 15-24 in the U.S. 

Even so, Hannush found ways to incorporate humor and entertainment. There are playful jabs and pop culture references to Angelina Jolie, Mark Zuckerburg, Belle Knox, Catholics and EDM heads. “Under” is torn from the pages of Hannush’s own life, and there are multiple meta-moments of Serena discussing play writing and song writing.

Theater is a brilliant tool for addressing social issues. The lives and the world of the characters comes alive with references to the lives and the world of the audience. At its core, a musical or a play is just a message that can’t directly change legislation and injustice, but it can change the way an individual thinks.

Put an asterisk next to “Under,” because Hannush’s strong writing, assisted by strong singing, will make you think about your own struggles, the ones you love and the angst we all want to leave behind.

“Under” will be at Theatre 80 until Sunday, Aug. 23.