250 Word Reviews: War

Originally published on 250 Word Reviews.

(Off-Broadway at LCT3)

So much of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s latest is summed up in its name, War. The title simultaneously refers to a family at odds with each other, the aftereffects of a grandfather’s WWII military service, and a look at how what was (“war” in German) affects what is. The family in question is anchored by Charlayne Woodard as Roberta, a mother felled by stroke, who speaks to the audience from within the cage of her mind as she tries to piece together who might need her to return to the world of the living. Who needs each other in a family is the bigger question of the play, as siblings (Chris Myers and Rachel Nicks) disagree about their mother’s treatment – and each others’ life choices. Michele Shay and Austin Durant’s appearance as strangers claiming to be hitherto-unheard-of family members in need should complicate the ethical discussion, but the play seems to take clear sides, going so far as to end with a long speech from the elder stranger (Shay) that shows everyone the errors of their ways and knits them into a happy family unit. The play suggests that “need” was never the right frame for asking these questions at all, and beyond need might lay a more potent framework for family.

Strong performances (particularly from Woodard) and a touch of heightened theatricality help War rise above the average American family drama. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz beautifully balances the play’s realism and metatheatrics, drawing the audience into the play both literally and figuratively.

Production photo by Erin Baiano. Pictured (l-r): Charlayne Woodard, Reggie Gowland, Rachel Nicks, Michele Shay, and Chris Myers.

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250 Word Reviews: Red Speedo

Originally published on 250 Word Reviews.

RED SPEEDO
(Off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop)

The intersection of fame and family – and the tremendous pressure that each can produce – animates Lucas Hnath’s Red Speedo. This ethical dissection centers around Ray (Alex Breaux), a swimmer from a poor family on the verge of achieving Michael Phelps-level stardom pending his performance in his Olympic-qualifying race. A doping scandal finds him torn between his brother/manager Peter (Lucas Caleb Rooney), coach (Peter Jay Fernandez) and disgraced ex-girlfriend/ex-physical therapist, Lydia (Zoë Winters).

As each in Ray’s orbit calculates how far they will go to take advantage of the opportunities Ray’s nascent celebrity affords them, the play teeters dangerously on the line of abstracting its characters into symbols. Hnath’s Mamet-like Wall Of Dialogue script, particularly in the play’s early scenes, doesn’t help as people make long-winded declarations at each other in exchanges that only vaguely resemble the act of conversation. When director Lileana Blain-Cruz allows the characters room to breathe (and even occasionally pause), their humanity peeks through and the play becomes more than a philosophical debate, aided by strong performances all around.

Riccardo Hernandez’s set, which includes an onstage pool, is both iconic and functional, but it’s the architecture of Alex Breaux’s superhumanly muscular body that really steals the show, occasionally to the detriment of the dialogue. Combined with Thomas Schall’s blatantly artificial fight choreography, one wonders if Blain-Cruz was aiming for BrecthianVerfremdungseffekt. If so, she falls a bit short, and we’re left puzzling over these half-characters as much as, if not more than, the ideas they suggest.

Production photo by Joan Marcus. Pictured (l-r): Zoë Winters as Lydia and Alex Breaux as Ray.

250 Word Reviews: Puffs

Originally published on 250 Word Reviews.

Third or Nothing

PUFFS, OR: SEVEN INCREASINGLY EVENTFUL YEARS AT A CERTAIN SCHOOL OF MAGIC & MAGIC
(Off-off-Broadway: The Peoples Improv Theater)

Churchill said, “History is written by the victors,” but how often do we hear about life during great events for the rest of us? Playwright Matt Cox provides this lens on the Second Wizarding War, through the eyes of one Wayne Hopkins (Zac Moon). Wayne dreams of being the hero of his story, but that position has already been filled be a certain Mister Potter. Neither brave nor smart nor anguine, he is sorted into the house for everyone else, Hufflepuff, and makes two best friends: Oliver, a math whiz (Langston Belton) and Megan (Julie Ann Earls), a wannabe villain. Mentored by Cedric Diggory (Evan Maltby), the Puffs’ rallying cry represents their dreams of someday not coming in last: “Third or nothing!” Do they have a chance at making a difference in a world dominated by legendary heroes and villains?

Like Kapow-i GoGo (from the same team) before it, Puffs transcends parody and fan service to create a three-dimensional world populated by believable characters whose tragedies resonate as strongly as their triumphs. There’s a lot of story to get through in 80ish minutes, but director Kristin McCarthy Parker’s sure hand keeps the story clear even as the pace gets frenetic. Moon’s performance, more Hamlet than ham, provides a strong center around which wackier characters orbit. The whole cast excels, but special kudos to Andy Miller for the best “rally the troops” moment this side of Henry V. Knowledge of the Potter canon is helpful but not necessary to love Puffs.

Production photograph by Colin Waitt: Zac Moon (l) as Wayne with (l-r) Nick Carillo, Andy Miller, Eleanor Philips, Jessica Cannizzaro, Madeleine Bundy, and Stephen Stout.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’d like to note that I contributed $10 to this production’s Kickstarter campaign.

250 Word Reviews: The Pavilion

Originally published on 250 Word Reviews.

The Pavilion

THE PAVILION
(Off-off-Broadway: The Producer’s Club)

You know the story: middle-aged white guy has a mid-life crisis, so attends high school reunion to attempt to rekindle things with his high school sweetheart. In Craig Wright’s The Pavilion, the white guy in question is Peter (Jeffrey Delano Davis), returning to Pine City, MN from his life in the Twin Cities to make amends for impregnating then abandoning Kari (Ayesha Adamo). Their encounter is placed into cosmic context by a professorial narrator (Jon Adam Ross), who alternates between spouting philosophy about the nature of time and giving voice to all the other (unseen) reunion guests.

Michael Kostroff’s direction is strongest in the scenes between the two former-lovers, which find Davis exposing raw vulnerability only to be met by Adamo’s measured resistance. Ross is less successful overcoming his obstacles, often lecturing from a podium far off to the side of the stage or adopting ridiculous character voices while facing the opposite direction of his scene partners. The play’s reliance on a projection design (by Javier Molina) that feels straight out of Myst is unnecessary at best and often distracting. Zoey Russo’s simple but effective sets would have more than sufficed on their own.

The play itself isn’t nearly as profound as its philosophizing monologues indicate it wants to be, but it does feature a nice moment of meta-theatrics in the second act that offered one of the few surprises in the writing.

Production photograph by Melissa X. Golebiowski: Jeffrey Delano Davis as Peter and Ayesha Adamo as Kari.

250 Word Reviews: Dada Woof Papa Hot

Originally published on 250 Word Reviews.

Dada Woof Papa Hot

DADA WOOF PAPA HOT
(Off-Broadway: Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse)

Most gay men of a certain age never envisioned a world in which they could get married and have children. At its surface, Dada Woof Papa Hot examines how two couples-with-toddlers adapt to this reality. But at its heart, Peter Parnell’s play considers whether relationships can survive when partners have radically different ideas of what their partnership should look like. Alan (John Benjamin Hickey) came of age in the pre-AIDS-crisis days of gay sexual liberation but was never much interested in partaking. By 2015, he’s married to Rob (Patrick Breen), who dotes on their daughter and relishes fatherhood – another activity in which Alan has only mild interest. They seek out friendship with younger dads Scott (Stephen Plunkett) and Jason (Alex Hurt), which goes well until Jason and Alan have a tête-à-tête, permitted in the Jason’s relationship but a clear violation on Alan’s part. Alan never wanted kids, Jason never wanted monogamy, and their partners who convinced them into their current arrangements feel betrayed.

As directed by Scott Ellis, the play feels more like a math problem than a drama, with a dose of armchair psychology sprinkled in for flavor. John Lee Beatty’s elaborately modular set is the most interesting thing on stage. Despite strong performances, particularly by Hickey and Plunkett, one gets the sense that neither the characters (beyond Jason) nor the playwright seriously considered that gay people might create and fit into relationships that don’t simply mimic heteronormativity, so the play becomes a straw man argument hardly worth engaging.

Production photo by Joan Marcus. Pictured (l-r): Alex Hurt, John Benjamin Hickey, Stephen Plunkett, and Patrick Breen.

250 Word Reviews: On Your Feet: THE STORY OF EMILIO & GLORIA ESTEFAN

Originally published on 250 Word Reviews.

onyourfeet

ON YOUR FEET:THE STORY OF EMILIO & GLORIA ESTEFAN
(Broadway: Marquis Theatre)

One gets the feeling about halfway through the first act of On Your Feet that were you to quiz the cast where the song they were performing takes place, most of them would fail. The cynic in me says it doesn’t matter: the Latin rhythms (provided by a band that includes six members of the actual Miami Sound Machine), spiffy pastel costumes (by ESosa), and energetic dancing (courtesy of Sergio Trujillo) are entertaining enough that we can set dramaturgical demands aside and enjoy the concert. But while Alexander Dinelaris’s book aspires to be more than a greatest hits revue, it’s only intermittently successful. Jerry Mitchell’s nebulous direction does it no favors, and the show trips over itself to fit in most of Estefan’s hits while charting the rise of her career against the destabilization of her family. The latter gets shortest shrift, despite Eliseo Roman, Andréa Burns, and Alma Cuervo all making the most of two-dimensional characters. Genny Lis Padilla, as sister Rebecca, doesn’t even get that much, existing somewhere between prop and backup singer.

Regardless, the show lives and dies on the strength of Ana Villafañe and Josh Segarra as Gloria and Emilio. Villafañe perfectly embodies the Estefan we remember from the 80s: beautiful, strong, and with a voice that never falters. Segarra cuts a striking figure, but his breathy singing never quite makes it past the lip of the stage. Regardless, the show should please Gen X’ers who longed for a Jersey Boys of their own.

Production photo by Matthew Murphy: Ana Villafañe as Gloria Estefan with ensemble.

250 Word Reviews: Sylvia

Originally published on 250 Word Reviews.

sylvia

SYLVIA
(Broadway: Cort Theatre)

If there’s one reason to see Sylvia, A. R. Gurney’s 1995 canine comedy making its Broadway debut, it’s Annaleigh Ashford. As the titular tail-wagger, she delights with comic delivery worthy of Lucille Ball and canine physicality that even Lassie would admire. (Credit to “Physicality Consultant” Nathan Peck.)

Unfortunately, there’s no second reason. Under Daniel Sullivan’s direction, the show plays like burlesque for gentiles, more over-extended sketch than play. Greg (Matthew Broderick) and Kate (Julie White) are recent empty-nesters relocated to the Upper East Side. He is unhappily an investment banker, she a do-gooder educator determined to bring Shakespeare to the city’s underprivileged junior high schools. When Greg brings home a stray dog he befriended in the park, he sees companionship and new vitality; Kate only sees disruption of their newly organized life.

While Ashford brilliantly milks everything from chasing cats to being in heat for laughs, Broderick is saddled with the uncomfortable task of making rape jokes about animals mating while not appearing to be a beastialist himself. Robert Sella, juggling a trio of supporting roles, dispenses with all dignity playing two drag parts that might have been amusing to Republicans in the 90s but were exceptionally distasteful to this liberal today. While Broderick manages to deliver one of his better performances in recent memory despite sub-par material, White disappears beneath her underwritten part of nagging-but-well-meaning wife.

While one might imagine this was a charming amusement off-Broadway twenty years ago, today it is largely a bloated embarrassment.

Production photo by Joan Marcus: Matthew Broderick as Greg and Annaleigh Ashford as Sylvia.