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.

Read More

Review: “Mercury Fur” at the New Group

David Roberts

“I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’,/I saw a white ladder all covered with water,/I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken,/I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children, And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.” (Bob Dylan)

One's person's/group’s dystopia is another person’s/group’s perfectly normal utopia: nothing abnormal or frightening or undesirable. It might be all about point of view. What the audience sees play out in Philip Ridley’s “Mercury Fur” currently playing at the New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center might seem like a dystopian future or nightmare; however for Spinx (played with a gang-bent oligarchic panache by Sea McHale) it is just another day of “fun.” With his partner Lola (played with cross-dressing charm by Paul Iacono), Spinx oversees their underlings Elliot and Darren whose job it is to locate a place for Spinx’s parties, arrange the space for the party participants and guests, and not overthink the horror with which they collude.

Jack DiFalco and Zane Pais in Mercury Fur

The world of the abandoned New York City apartment chosen by Elliot (played with a confused loyalty and vulnerability by Zane Pais) and his younger brother Darren (played with a trustful neediness from the past by Jack DiFalco) has “progressed” far from the world of the Hogwarts wizardry depicted in the poster inside one of the apartment doors. It is a world of color-coded designer hallucinogenic drugs (butterflies) and expensive themed parties planned to satisfy the bizarre tastes of high-flying clients like their current Party Guest (played with a despicable arrogance by Peter Mark Kendall) the Wall Street professional who wishes to don military garb and dismember (literally) the Party Piece (played with appropriate ragdoll indifference by the young Bradley Fong) procured by Elliot and Darren and “staged” (including make-up) by the lovely Lola.

It is unfortunately not possible to describe in detail what happens at the Party and to the Party Piece except to say the events that unfold will change the viewers’ lives forever. My reaction was only a bit delayed and I was sobbing by the time I left the theatre and everything around me felt surreal. It is enough to know that as is often the case the “best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft a-gley” (Robert Burns). The Party Guest calls for the event five days early. There is an unexpected guest the Duchess (Emily Cass McDonnell), the Party Guest is late in arrival, the Party Piece is unable to perform and a substitute is required and when the guest of honor finally does arrive he has a bit of unexpected news to deliver. It is also important to know that something of the past still survives in this not-so-brave-new-world.

Love still lingers in this not-so-brave new world but it seems to have become overshadowed by greed and a growing dependence on “artificial” feelings. There is a “butterfly” for everything and the designer drugs can simulate or stimulate any experience desired including the wish to commit suicide. Elliot and Darren and their new friend Naz (played with a stunning soulful innocence by Tony Revolori) have authentic memories of the past – Elliot has the most extensive and authentic memory bank – and they playfully share those memories and their affection for one another amidst the surrounding moral decay. Naz, Elliot, and Darren often reach out and touch one another’s hearts and - “Ba-boom” - connect on a deeply affectionate level.

We use 'dystopic" to describe a play primarily in order to distance ourselves from the reality and truth it thrusts in our faces. Philip Ridley’s “Mercury Fur” is really not a dystopian nightmare. His 2005 play could not be more relevant or more important than it is now. It is about the present political-military-industrial complex that has managed to hold us all hostage globally and has successfully enlisted us as pawns for a very long time. Children are tortured and murdered globally in our “utopic” present with impunity. Refugees flee war and oppression and are turned away at “utopic” borders of safety. Urban centers ignore their homeless and their unemployed. Civil employees ignore legal mandates from the Supreme Court and religious fanatics find that somehow godless. The list of decay seems endless.

Philip Ridley’s “Mercury Fur” is an engaging theatre piece that exposes the underbelly of all that we hold to be sane, and normal, and safe – the underbelly of the myriad of utopias humankind has created to distance itself from the sting of reality. Under Scott Elliott’s exacting and thoughtful direction, the ensemble cast of “Mercury Fur” successfully discomfits the assembled comfortable and challenges them not only to witness the depravity of humankind but the (possible) resilience of comradeship and affection and celebrate (perhaps) the importance of protecting those whom we love despite the circumstance and cost involved.

MERCURY FUR

Directed by Scott Elliott, “Mercury Fur” features Jack DiFalco, Bradley Fong, Paul Iacono, Peter Mark Kendall, Emily Cass McDonnell, Sea McHale, Zane Pais and Tony Revolori. The design team includes Derek McLane (Scenic Design), Susan Hilferty (Costume Design), Jeff Croiter (Lighting Design), M.L. Dogg (Sound Design), Jeremy Chernick (Special Effects Design) and UnkleDave’s Fight-House (Fight Direction). Production Supervision is by PRF Productions. Valerie A. Peterson is the Production Stage Manager. Casting is by Judy Henderson, CSA. Production photos are by Monique Carboni.

“Mercury Fur” plays at the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre through September 27 as follows: Tuesday - Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2:00 p.m. & 8:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets may be arranged at www.thenewgroup.org, or by calling Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200, or in person at 416 West 42nd Street (12:00 Noon – 8:00 p.m. daily). Tickets are $25.00 - $95.00. Premium onstage seating packages, including drink tickets, are also available

Review : “The Spoils” at the New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center

David Roberts

“Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from struggling it’s that the best revenge is a life well lived.” -   Ben to Kaylan in “The Spoils”

Jesse Eisenberg's "The Spoils," currently running at the New Group, is the “This Is Our Youth” for the twenty-first century millennial generation and captures the angst of this generation with gripping honesty and often disturbing realism. The complicated dynamics between the protagonist Ben (Jesse Eisenberg), his Nepalese roommate Kalyan (played with a charming innocence by Kunal Nayyar), Kalyan’s girlfriend Reshma (played with a steely veneer by Annapurna Sriram), Ben’s high school mate Ted (played with the right mix of naiveté and revenge by Michael Zegen) and his fiancé Sarah (played with  splendid resolute dignity by Erin Darke) enliven the iconic Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) and splay the stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center with identification, projection, delusional behavior, magical thinking (to name but a few) and near ego strength meltdown. Mr. Eisenberg’s script is the best on or off Broadway at the present time and for quite some time before.

Pictured: Michael Zegen, Jesse Eisenberg & Erin Darke in The New Group production, The Spoils, a new play by Jesse Eisenberg, directed by Scott Elliott. A limited Off-Broadway engagement plays through June 28 at The Pershing Square Signature Center. For more, please visit www.thenewgroup.org. PHOTO CREDIT: Monique Carboni.

Pictured: Michael Zegen, Jesse Eisenberg & Erin Darke in The New Group production, The Spoils, a new play by Jesse Eisenberg, directed by Scott Elliott. A limited Off-Broadway engagement plays through June 28 at The Pershing Square Signature Center. For more, please visit www.thenewgroup.org. PHOTO CREDIT: Monique Carboni.

Ben lives in a New York City apartment (a splendid design by Derek McLane) purchased for him by his father. He is a (sometimes) filmmaker, having – through a “mutual falling out” – left NYU believing the University “did not know how to think of him, what little box to put him in.” Ben invites Kaylan – who have come to the United States from Nepal to start a new life - to be his roommate and a relationship brimming with classism and racism ensues despite Ben’s seeming bromance with Kaylan. In an offbeat way, Kaylan is Ben’s doppelganger. Kaylan’s quest to make sense of living as a stranger in a strange land parallels Ben’s identical quest: Ben does not quite fit in and is out of synch with his environment. Despite his mantra that “the best revenge is a life well lived” he simply cannot achieve that goal and he alienates everyone in his circle of friends.

The apartment becomes a war zone as Ben manages to alienate not only Kaylan, but Reshma, Ted, and Sarah. To detail the emotional warfare waged by Ben would require a spoiler alert. It is enough to know that Ben intends to leave no survivors in his verbal and emotional assaults – all meant to isolate himself and become the champion of self-effacement. And the actual success of his friends – new and old – and the rebuff from Sarah (after he makes advances toward her) push Ben further to the dissolution of his ego strength. The spoils of this inter and intra psychological battle spread across the stage – neatly symbolized by Ben’s burst bag of microwaved popcorn that leaves its contents like fallout from a nuclear blast. Scott Elliott’s direction throughout is exacting and supports the entire cast in delivering outstanding performances that explore the depths of the human psyche with deliberate honesty and authenticity.

Pictured: Jesse Eisenberg & Erin Darke in The New Group production, The Spoils, a new play by Jesse Eisenberg, directed by Scott Elliott. A limited Off-Broadway engagement plays through June 28 at The Pershing Square Signature Center. For more, please visit www.thenewgroup.org. PHOTO CREDIT: Monique Carboni.

Pictured: Jesse Eisenberg & Erin Darke in The New Group production, The Spoils, a new play by Jesse Eisenberg, directed by Scott Elliott. A limited Off-Broadway engagement plays through June 28 at The Pershing Square Signature Center. For more, please visit www.thenewgroup.org. PHOTO CREDIT: Monique Carboni.

In one of the plays most engaging scenes, Ben lashes out at Kalyan, "The thing that the world has been telling you to do at every turn. It’s why your f**ing girlfriend won’t commit. It’s why you can’t get a job at that place. It’s why people like me aren’t going to let you freeload forever. Everything is pointing in one direction for you but you keep walking the other way.” Ben is not really speaking to Kalyan here; rather, Ben is speaking of himself and his situation. It is not until Ben experiences this cathartic moment that he can begin to heal and Sarah further enables that healing with her touching story of eleven-year-old Ben’s rescue of Inga Lushenko, his grade school classmate from the Ukraine. None of the students would go near her because of childish rumors she “had like deadly radiation that was really contagious.” Ben proved Inga was able to be touched, to be cared for and Sarah – despite being abused by Ben – wants Ben to know that he is “not radioactive” and is capable of being embraced and restored to the community he has alienated himself from.

Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of twenty-something Ben is brilliant. The actor is always in the moment and his every move defines his character’s failure to come to terms with his inability to cope with disappointment and rejection. Watching Mr. Eisenberg navigate the vicissitudes of Ben’s experience puts the audience members in touch with their own sense of alienation and cultural ennui. One would expect to see “The Spoils” on stage beyond its current run scheduled to end on Sunday June 28, 2015.

THE SPOILS

“The Spoils” is presented by The New Group (Artistic Director Scott Elliott and Executive Director Adam Bernstein) and is directed by Scott Elliott. “The Spoils” features Erin Darke as Sarah, Jesse Eisenberg as Ben, Kunal Nayyar as Kalyan, Annapurna Sriram as Reshma and Michael Zegen as Ted.  This production includes Set Design by Derek McLane, Costume Design by Susan Hilferty, Lighting Design by Peter Kaczorowski, Sound Design by Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen and Projection Design by Olivia Sebesky. Production photos are by Monique Carboni.

Performances of “The Spoils” take place at The Pershing Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street in Manhattan through Sunday June 28, 2015 and run on the following schedule: Tuesday - Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00pm; Sunday at 2:00 p.m.; with Wednesday matinees at 2:00 p.m. on June 10 and June 24. For further information and to purchase tickets ($77.00 - $97.00), please visit http://www.thenewgroup.org/the-spoils.html or call Ticket Central at 212-279-4200.  The running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes including one intermission.