Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Cherry Docs (Theatre of the Expendable)

BOTTOM LINE: Cherry Docs is a well-constructed, fascinating two-man play. A thought-provoking experience with stellar performances. And for only $11 a ticket, it's the same price as a movie but a much more fulfilling way to be entertained.

Sometimes off-off-Broadway is intensely good and you feel sort of bad that they're only charging $18 a ticket while some schlocky Disney musical is charging over $100 a head. Cherry Docs is exactly that kind of show. And their tickets are even cheaper than the standard.

Although this production marks its U.S. debut, Cherry Docs has been performed numerous times in Canada and was made into an indie movie in 2007 called 'Steel Toes' starring David Strathairn. Cherry Docs is the story of a Neo-Nazi Skinhead on trial for murder, and the Jewish attorney appointed to defend him. Tensions and animosity are high, since the men detest each other and all. But as the trial unfolds and both men strive for what they think is morally right, their beliefs are challenged and they begin to find somewhat of an understanding in each other. It's a fascinating character study, and always feels truthful.

The story is pretty intense and the two actors perform with conviction and strength. It's difficult to watch as the intensity peaks, but it held my attention completely for the entire 90 intermission-less minutes. I was consistently invested in the story, largely because the performances are so powerful. Mark Zeisler plays the lawyer, and has a pretty reputable resume including Brooklyn Boy and last year's eurydice at Second Stage. The actor who plays the skinhead (Maximilian Osinski) is making his New York theatre debut with Cherry Docs. Both are perfectly competent in their roles and really take the audience along on their emotional journey...it's impossible not to feel for these people.

Cherry Docs is just as entertaining as any movie about legal conflict and racial tension. Instead of Netflixing American History X, take your butt to see this play, and have a more visceral entertainment experience than sitting on your couch.

(Cherry Docs plays at the WorkShop Theatre's Mainstage, 312 West 36th Street, 4th Floor. Performances are through May 18th...Wed. through Sat. at 8pm and Sun. at 2pm. No performance Wed. April 30. Tickets are $11...visit theatremania.com to purchase.)

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Honor (Hudson Guild Theatre)

BOTTOM LINE: An inventive look at an old story with some pretty good music and Broadway-caliber performances at bargain prices.

Honor is a new musical with music by Peter Mills and book by Cara Reichel and Peter Mills, presented by Prospect Theatre Company. Shakespeare's As You Like It is transplanted to feudal Japan where a young noble girl must disguise her self as a boy and uphold her family's honor while the man she loves also flees the kingdom to avenge her father's banishment. I know that it sounds a little like Mulan, but it's a lot more than that. The playwrights manage to very faithfully interpret Shakespeare's wonderful play almost scene for scene into a setting where all the characters have so much at stake. The setting also allows for some pretty bad-ass Samurai sword fighting!

I have to say that I had a pretty good time at this new musical. Diane Veronica Phelan, who recently appeared at Lincoln Center, and Ali Ewoldt, who recently appeared as Cosette in the revival of Les Miserables both have amazing voices and give performances that are well-worth the $20 ticket price. The show gets off to a slightly rocky start as it introduces all of the characters and sets the stage for the rest of the play, but once it gathers steam it's really interesting. There are some really beautiful moments, but that isn't to say that the evening isn't without some laughs as well. The moments of comedy in this show are really cute and quite funny.

The theatre is really nice for Off-Off Broadway. The only negative might be the location of the space. It's located at 26th and 10th, next door to a Housing Project. You read that correctly. Don't be alarmed though. It's totally safe, but don't think you're lost when trying to find the theatre. It is, in fact, next to a Housing Project, but well worth the trip. You'll be transported to a mystical world, you'll laugh, you might cry, and all for about the same price of two drinks in midtown. I say that's a pretty good deal.

(Honor plays at The Hudson Guild Theatre, 441 West 26th Street through May 18th. Showtimes are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $20.
For Tickets and more infor, visit the theatre's website at prospecttheater.org.)

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Point/Counterpoint: Cry-Baby

Introducing Point/Counterpoint.
Opinions aren't fact, and everybody has 'em. Even your trusty Theatre Is Easy reviewers occasionally disagree! Here is the first installment of our new series, Point/Counterpoint, where Zak and Molly go head to head on the new John Waters' musical, Cry-Baby.

So, where do I begin? Cry-Baby, the new musical based on the John Waters film of the same name, tells the story of a straight-laced, bobby socks wearing girl who falls for the bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks. And that's pretty much all that happens in just over two hours of "musical mayhem."

I was actually pretty excited about this show because the song writing team includes David Javerbaum, executive producer of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," and Adam Schlesinger, a member of one of my favorite indie rock bands, Fountains of Wayne. Schlesinger is also an academy-award nominee for penning "That Thing You Do," the title song from that 50s-tastic Tom Hanks movie. Needless to say, there is a lot of talent in this songwriting team, but I don't know what happened. All of the music captures the era perfectly, but none of it is really that memorable, with the exception of Alli Mauzey's off-beat rendition of "Screw Loose." It's nice, but don't go expecting to leave humming or remembering any of the songs from the show.

The problem with the show isn't really the music. It's the story. The innocent good girl falls in love with the hip-swiveling Cry-Baby in the first scene and then two and half hours later they end up together. So why do we care? Oh, that right, we don't. The show tries to be dirty and bizarre, but falls completely flat. The dancing is fun and high-spirited, and the tap number done on licence plates in the second act is actually pretty amazing. Don't go expecting a show that is ANYWHERE near as satisfying as Hairspray. Go for an evening of COMPLETELY mindless entertainment.

I didn't hate Cry-Baby. Actually, I kind of enjoyed the experience. Did it take me to a wonderful place of imagination and theatrical magic? Not so much. But it did make me giggle a little and oooo a little at the spectacle.

Sure Cry-Baby has it's problems, the biggest of which is that there isn't a sympathetic character to care about so what happens on stage is of no consequence to the audience. But getting past that, it's a clever little show with a hefty Broadway budget. I'm a big fan of the John Waters' movie Cry-Baby, from 1990, which stars Johnny Depp and Ricki Lake. It's irreverent, a little raunchy, and about as campy as you can get. The new musical maintains the irreverence while upping the camp-quotient to as high a level as one can feasibly achieve while still hoping to sell tickets.

Cry-Baby is also smart and self-deprecating, which I respect in quirky musical theatre. In the last song, there is a line that goes "something, something, snobby, buy a sweatshirt in the lobby," referring to the merchandise booth just outside the theatre's door. There's something about self-mockery that I find endearing, especially when it's being sung by a talented soprano.

Although there were no remarkable moments for me, I found Cry-Baby to be a pretty enjoyable experience. A couple of the songs hit the mark, and the actors (though a little too old to be playing high-schoolers) certainly have the chops to be singing them. I think there's an audience for Cry-Baby; I recommend it for those who love how fun and happy musical theatre can be. It's for people who enjoy camp with a modicum of intelligence (and don't mind that the story and music are less than captivating).

(Cry-Baby plays at The Marquis Theatre at 1535 Broadway at 45th St. Showtimes: Tues. at 7pm, Wed. through Sat. at 8pm, Wed. and Sat. at 2pm, Sun. at 3pm. Cry-Baby runs 2 hours and 15 minutes. Tickets are $35-$120 and are available by calling 212.307-4100 or 800.755.4000. Student rush tickets are $26.50 and are available the day of the show at the box office. Visit crybabyonbroadway.com for more info.)

Friday, April 25, 2008

A Catered Affair (Walter Kerr Theatre)

BOTTOM LINE: Harvey Fierstein's new Broadway musical. It's touching and pretty but not very exciting...for those who enjoy a quaint, throw-back musical.

A Catered Affair is a nice, new Broadway musical starring Harvey Fierstein and Faith Prince. It's not the most dynamic piece of theatre, nor the most innovative, but it stands as a solid story with lovely music, an overall entertaining 90 minutes.

Written by Fierstein and based on a movie of the same name from 1956, A Catered Affair is the story of a wedding-gone-awry. Jane (played by Leslie Kritzer) is finally marrying long-term boyfriend Ralph (Matt Cavenaugh). The couple wants a simple wedding with a ceremony at City Hall, but both sets of parents decide they must have the full wedding she-bang. Money becomes a glaring issue as Jane's family doesn't have much and her father feels slighted being forced to pay for dinner for 200 guests, many of whom are strangers. Fierstein's character, Winston, oversees the ordeal as the generous, bachelor uncle.

The best thing A Catered Affair has going for it is a really solid cast of talented actors with powerful voices. The cast is consistently great. Faith Prince plays bitter 1950s housewife with strength and devotion through sorrow; she's fantastic and really takes charge of the stage. Actually, everyone captures their role with a great Leave It To Beaver panache (and has the vocal ability to back it up).

The second best thing going for it is the story. A Catered Affair might actually make a better play than a musical (as a whole, the music is pretty unmemorable). Watching the story unfold, I took a wholehearted interest in what was happening in these characters lives. Plus, hearing the tale of unhappy '50s housewife from the perspective of said housewife is an interesting vantage point.

If you have an affinity for old-school musical theatre, A Catered Affair might be the show for you. It's pretty and endearing but it probably won't change your life.

(A Catered Affair plays at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street; Mon., Wed., Thurs., Fri., and Sat. at 8pm, Tues. at 7pm, Wed. and Sat. at 2pm. The show runs 90 minutes without an intermission. For tickets click here. For more information visit acateredaffaironbroadway.com.)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

From Up Here (Manhattan Theatre Club)

BOTTOM LINE: An interesting story with realistic characters in compelling relationships. It's also laugh-out-loud funny and socially relevant.

From Up Here is a refreshing piece of theatre in mid-April, 2008. I'm not sure it would seem quite as stimulating at another time, but for right now, it's a treat to see. From a theatrical standpoint, it's been a while since I've simply seen a story being told on stage, without bells, whistles, and video projections adding to or messing with the story's integrity. And from the perspective of the plot itself, From Up Here gives a unique vantage point on the very timely issue of violence in schools.

The story takes place in a typical Midwest suburb, at a typical Midwest high school. The playwright, Liz Flahive, carefully weaves the characters personalities so their interactions are believable and sincere. Tension is high on this particular morning as Kenny (Tobias Segal) is allowed back at school after he, months before, brought a gun to school and threatened to use it. Kenny's mom (Julie White) and step-dad (Brian Hutchison) try to keep things "normal" as he prepares to rejoin society and essentially begin a new life. Even though Kenny seems rehabilitated (though it's hard to believe he was ever capable of mass murder), he knows his peers won't accept him with open arms.

Adolescent angst is hard enough without the label of psycho-killer, and Segal plays Kenny with an uncomfortable edge while still letting us see his raw and genuine spirit. He's not a bad-guy, but rather a disturbed kid who illicits sympathy. At Kenny's side are his younger sister Lauren (Aya Cash) and world-traveling aunt Caroline (Arija Bereikis). Lauren is cynical and Juno-esque, and Cash brings out the conflicted attitudes of a 15-year old who is too aware for her own good. Caroline is a big hippie, and the only family member who assures Kenny that life will continue and inevitably improve after he gets through his teenage years.

The main reason I enjoyed From Up Here is because I actually cared about these characters and I wanted to know what would happen and how they would resolve their conflicts. The story never drills plot points into your head, nor does it expect you to pick up on inane details to understand what's happening. The exposition occurs at a comfortable, conversational pace and the dialogue is colloquial enough to ease you right in to these people's lives. Leigh Silverman's direction keeps the energy high and the talented designers (and sizable budgets) make it all realistic.

From Up Here is a well-crafted piece of theatre with the emphasis on telling a story, live and on a stage. Without the frills and tactics of over-produced theatre, From Up Here is what it is, an interesting story that sucked me in and won me over.

(From Up Here plays until June 8 at NY City Center, Stage I, 131 West 55th Street. Tickets are $75 and are available at the City Center website or by calling 212-581-1212. Student tickets are $25 and are available day of show, up to 1 hour before showtime...call the box office at 212-581-1212 for more info. Visit mtc-nyc.org to learn more about the production.)

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Gypsy (St. James Theatre)

BOTTOM LINE: Run to catch this show. A first rate revival with performances not to be missed.

Gypsy is a strange show, and in some ways a sad show. It's about compromised dreams, the fickleness of celebrity, lost opportunities, unrequited love, the death of Vaudeville, overbearing parents and...it's absolutely wonderful.

Every so often when you sit in the theatre you have that rare glimmer of witnessing a moment in theatre history. This particular revival of Gypsy and Patti LuPone's performance as Rose, the stage mother to put all others to shame, is not to be missed. Patti has connected to some cosmic chord of mothers everywhere who live through their children. Her Rose is sexy, flirtatious, desperate, single minded, and as ambitious as they come. She's both tough as nails and deeply vulnerable. From her rendition of "Some People" at the top of the show to her bring-down-the house finale in "Rose's Turn", all you can think is wow. What power. What a theatre animal. What absolutely perfect casting! But she's not the only one. Strong performances by Boyd Gaines, the unassuming Herbie, Rose's love interest, as well as Laura Benanti as Louise and Leigh Ann Larkin as Dainty June, all add to a talented ensemble who know how to hit the right note of sweet and sour in this complicated story.

The story opens during the dying gasp of Vaudeville as Rose is trying to book her daughters on the Orpheum Circuit; a chance to tour the country and make her children stars of the Vaudeville stage. Their act, "Baby June and Her Newsboys", sees little changes even as her daughters grow into young women who laughably no longer fit into their 10 year old material. The production finds lots of mileage in this concept, from the campiness of the children's routines, to having Rose sneak around during their performances and fix the odd bit of scenery or stray costume piece. Baby June is Rose's chance at fame for the girls. She has the looks, the personality, the ability to do the splits and twirl a baton at the same time: all the skills needed for Vaudeville stardom. But June hates her overbearing mother as well as the material and eventually runs off, leaving Rose to cultivate her shyer sibling Louise into a star. When Louise is accidentally booked into a burlesque house she is greeted by three strippers, played by Marilyn Caskey, Lenora Nemetz, and Alison Frasier, who stop the show with their performance of "You've Gotta Get a Gimmick", a number about finding your niche in the world of Burlesque. Louise decides, as a last resort, to give stripping a try and puts the "tease" back in "strip tease" with her lady-like flirtations with the crowd. And soon Gypsy Rose Lee is born.

Set Designer James Youmans, along with director Arthur Laurents, have done a masterful job of capturing and incorporating the spirit of Vaudeville into their staging and designs. Almost every scene, even the ones at Rose's home, have some set elements that evoke a Vaudeville stage, be it a dilapidated roll-on proscenium, or a stray lighting instrument. The story, itself about Vaudeville, is told through Vaudeville. Whether the characters are auditioning for their next gig, or out to dinner, they are always, quite clearly, on stage. The design's facades are crumbling, just like the hopes and dreams of the show's characters, just like the bygone, romantic and simpler era of entertainment that was Vaudeville itself. Arthur Laurents’ staging furthers this idea, with clever transitions between numbers and a light up marquee to introduce each new scene, as does Jerome Robbins’ timeless choreography, here reproduced by Bonnie Walker.

Take your mom and dad, take your next-door neighbor, take yourself out for the hell of it. But don't miss this incredible revival.

(Gypsy plays at the St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St; Tuesday through Saturday at 8pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm, and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are $42-$117 and are available at telecharge. com or at 212.239.6262. Gypsy runs 2 hours and 50 minutes. For more info visit www.gypsybroadway.com.)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

South Pacific (Lincoln Center Theatre)

BOTTOM LINE: Go to be entertained, or go because you’re a fan of the musical and it’s a rare opportunity to see a Broadway-caliber revival, but not because you are expecting to see something new.

South Pacific is back at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre, in its first Broadway remount in more than 50 years, since its 1949 opening. Lincoln Center is banking on another hit like 2005's The Light in the Piazza, having assembled the same team for South Pacific: Tony nominated director Bartlett Sher and Tony nominated lead actress Kelli O'Hara, and actor Matthew Morrison. And it looks like they got it. The musical is due for a commercial transfer and a Broadway run through 2009. And though the production is very well done, and has all the requisite pieces in place for a hit, I always felt a certain amount of emotional distance as an audience member. Ultimately the material itself seemed too outdated to truly connect to.

Based on Pulitzer Prize winner James Michener's collection of short stories "Tales of the South Pacific", the musical tells the story of a young nurse from Arkansas stationed in the South Pacific during World War II, and the French plantation owner Emile de Becque she falls in love with.

When South Pacific originally opened it was only four years after the end of World War II. Everything about the musical was resonant and timely. It would be like witnessing a production of “Iraq War, the Musical” today (Oh, God, please no...). From its examination of wartime life on the islands of the South Pacific to its look at interracial relationships, a key source of conflict in the play, the production challenged its audience with its progressive content. Lincoln Center has decided to revisit the musical which has long been the staple of community theatres and high school auditoriums everywhere, but the real question is, is it still relevant? Are our modern day values going to connect to the central conflicts of the play; that Nellie feels she can't marry Emile de Becque due to (gasp) the two children he had with his now deceased Polynesian wife? Or is the musical valuable as a museum piece, a snapshot of the values of its time? Certainly Bartlett Sher's staging takes these values into consideration, keeping the African American Sea-bee's staged at a distance in ensemble numbers from their white counterparts. These choices to show the racism inherent in the times are effective, but Nellie's quick decision to not marry de Becque, and Cable's song of “You've Got To Be Carefully Taught”, ring outdated in terms of emotional connectivity.

Not having seen a version of the musical myself since watching the 1958 film about 15 years ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself humming to most of the songs. I often found myself thinking, "Oh, that's what this song is from." The music is beautiful and sung with verve by the strong cast. Perhaps casting an opera star like Paulo Szot to play the mysterious Frenchmen Emile de Becque was a bit risky, but he switches genres seamlessly and lends a gravitas to the role. Kelli O'Hara as the formidable and loveable Nurse Nellie Forbush hits her marks. She's cutely clumsy, gets embarrassed when she's caught singing in the shower, and seems quite the cheerful dame, except for that small streak of racism....

Other notable performances include Danny Burstein as the enterprising Luther Billis, and Loretta Ables Sayre as a marvelous Bloody Mary, the opportunistic islander who sells her grass skirts and shrunken heads to the sailors. Michael Yergan's set design is also quite lovely, with modern day technology and projections allowing the Island of Bali Hai to appear and disappear on the horizon throughout the show. Bartlet Sher makes good use of the lush rolling dunes of sand, palm trees, and an airplane set as a back drop for "We Ain't Got Dames." Rows of bamboo thatching hung from the ceiling cast moody shadows and are cleverly used to partition off rooms.

Call me crazy, and I'm sure fans of the musical will, but despite the fact that America once again finds itself at war, and despite its strong performances, seamless direction, and beautiful design choices, the musical worked better for me as a chance to relive Rogers and Hammerstein's sweeping score and memorable tunes, then as a relevant piece of theatre for a 2008 audience.

(South Pacific plays at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street. Tickets are available at telecharge.com.)

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Dirt (Under St. Marks)

BOTTOM LINE: A deeply raw and emotional one-man show about an Arab illegal immigrant living with the racist realities of life in a Western culture...it's equal parts uncomfortable and thought-provoking.

Dirt is a powerful story, told directly to the audience by a passionate–albeit dishonest–Iraqi named Sad (a solid performance by Christopher Domig). The play is set in Sad's apartment, as if the audience has been invited in to get a closer look into his life. Sad explains his past and why he has moved from the Middle East to the Western world (this location is never specifically defined but could certainly be New York). He also describes the discrimination he faces daily as he tries to live a simple life peddling roses on the street.

An interesting technique is applied through Sad's words; a sort of reverse psychology is used. If Sad calls himself out through the racism he experiences, he also calls out the audience on the racist thoughts they themselves have. It's a useful concept and quite interesting to observe. The play gives a sense (through Sad's raw vulnerability) that those in the minority come to think of themselves as less worthy. Whether that's true or not, by presenting this impression, the audience is forced to think twice about their perception of other cultures.

Dirt's history is almost as interesting as the play itself. It was originally written in German (called Dreck), and first performed in Germany in 1993. It had an extended run throughout Europe in the 1990s, becoming the most frequently performed solo show in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. Playwright Robert Schneider was awarded the Best New Playwright of the Year award in 1993 for Dirt from a prestigious German theatre magazine. In 1996 the play was translated into English, and in 2007 it was performed as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. Last summer's production was met with enthusiastic reviews and subsequently led to its current run, at Under St. Marks.

Check it out if you're into theatre that makes you think. Be warned, Dirt is not a calming theatre experience...but it will open your eyes to subject matter that is relevant and quite enthralling when presented in this manner. And Christopher Domig's performance is pretty incredible too.

(Dirt plays at Under St. Marks through April 26th, 94 St. Marks Place between 1st Avenue and Avenue A. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm. Running time is 75 minutes. Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for students. For tickets, visit www.smarttix.com or call 212.868.4444. Visit www.dirt-nyc.com for more information.)

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Jersey Boys phenomenon

The other day I saw Jersey Boys, a Broadway musical unlike any other I've seen before. It's not that the show itself was that phenomenally groundbreaking, or touching, or thought-provoking. And it's not as if the cast, although they were quite good, were any more talented than any other ensemble out there. I've simply never before seen an audience so intensely connected with what was happening on stage.

The Jersey Boys audience demographic is easy to pinpoint...If the performance I saw is any indication, I'd say 98% are upper-middle to upper class white folks between the ages of 50 and 65. The other 2% are conspicuously younger and tagging along with their parents/in-laws/sugar daddies. Yes, it's true that the aforementioned demographic is pretty consistent for all Broadway shows, but there is normally a younger and/or foreign faction in the audience too.

Jersey Boys is the story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. It's a musical with very little dialogue, performed by what is essentially a really great Four Seasons cover band (although I fear some of the especially giddy audience members thought it was the real Four Seasons up there). Jersey Boys has officially been on Broadway for a couple of years now and it won the Tony for Best New Musical in 2006. Although the buzz has died down significantly since it opened, Jersey Boys is still one of the hardest shows in town to get tickets for. I guess I should note that the reason I saw the show was because my boyfriend's parents were in town and they bought our tickets...last summer.

Jersey Boys is still making scads of money and selling out regularly, in large part because it connects so deeply with its audience. As I sat there bopping my head and really enjoying the production, I still felt like I was missing out on something, like I wasn't part of some inside secret. It was as if my fellow audience members were connected to the stage by a rope that was pulling them closer and closer until their happiness became audible, until they were literally singing along. I could see the flashbacks behind their eyes. Don't get me wrong, I'm familiar with many of The Four Seasons' songs and they remind me of fond times too. Except for me, 'Oh What A Night' reminds me of summer camp, and 'Walk Like A Man' reminds me of Robin Williams in drag in Mrs. Doubtfire.

So this Jersey Boys experience got me thinking: if The Four Seasons' songs can define a generation so fiercely that 40 years later this music incites weeping, what will represent me a few decades down the road? Here are some things I hope will not epitomize my generation: boy bands (from New Kids On The Block to N'Sync and every one in between), Boyz II Men's Motownphilly, and the theme song from 90210. I did listen to a lot of Smashing Pumpkins during my formative years, but I'm not sure the Billy Corgan musical would be a big sell either.

Revolutionary movements like grunge and hip hop certainly have their place in pop culture and music history, but I'm not sure if one band or act or artist can bring my generation together the way The Four Seasons entranced the baby boomers. Truthfully, I'm not sure there is one epitomizing band or sound or musical revolution that can sum up the '90s, especially since music branched out into so many genres, and so much of it was overproduced anyway. Maybe someday we'll see the Nirvana story with Frances Bean playing Courtney Love. But maybe it's just as well if we don't; my kids don't need to see me reliving my teenage years as I sing along to 'Come As You Are.'

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Hostage Song (Kraine Theater)

BOTTOM LINE: Hostage Song will make you laugh, have your head bopping and fingers snapping, and induce a panic attack. How many theatrical experiences - other than the Republican National Convention - can lay claim to that?

About halfway through Hostage Song I accepted that the two main characters probably weren’t going to take off their blindfolds or unbind their hands. And while acceptance of this allowed me to experience the balance of the play without the expectation that my desire would be satisfied, it did nothing to alleviate the anxiety this play induced in me. Thank God.

Hostage Song is an incredibly effective play on many levels. It is a rock musical a la Rent and Spring Awakening, with a lively onstage band, a fantastic score and great voices bellowing out songs that will have your head shaking and your toes tapping well into the night. It is a complicated drama about two people held physical hostage in a land the authors go out of their way to not identify by name. It is a story about two people held hostage (perhaps emotionally and psychologically) by the damage, insecurities and limitations imposed on them by their families, their pasts, and perhaps even themselves. It is also enormously and unexpectedly funny. It is no small task to incorporate all of these elements and weave them into a coherent and engaging narrative that examines and illuminates the human condition, yet the creators of this fine work have done just that and more.

What I loved most about this play was the way it teased and taunted me by taking seemingly opposing tactics to tell its tale, thus leaving my expectations and desires evolving along with the narrative. As I already mentioned, many elements pertaining to the specific setting of the story were vague. It was similarly vague about most of the relationships each of the characters had to each other. By not explicitly identifying anything, it put the onus on me to label everything. The inclusion of a band on stage playing lively pop-rock songs didn’t seem to jive with a play about two hostages in a war zone whose fates seemed doomed; the music was loud and mostly upbeat which was an interesting juxtaposition to the quiet sense of slow motion that permeated most of the dialogue-driven scenes between the two prisoners. Because the two main characters were blindfolded for the entire play, there was a sense of danger and tentativeness to their movements which played in opposition to the members of the band who, with no blindfolds on, moved with grace and confidence, weaving themselves in, out and around the stage and the story.

Hostage Song is ultimately about two human souls trying to connect as they face a potentially violent end. The ability to do so is challenged because they are denied the opportunity to actually see or touch one another. Then again, maybe by denying them this opportunity, they are able to more acutely see and touch one another, and thus connect. Likewise, we as an audience are able to see and to be touched.

This play is a challenging emotional experience. The music and the humor alleviate that to some degree, but ultimately the strength of this play is its unwillingness to abandon its principles (so that I wouldn't be more comfortable sitting anonymously in the dark). If I had been comfortable, I would have been no more than a passive observer to the hostages instead of one of them.

(Hostage Song plays at the Kraine Theatre, 85 West 4th Street, until April 26th. Performances are Thursday through Sunday at 8pm. Tickets are $18 and are available by calling SmartTix at 212-868-4444. For more information visit www.HorseTrade.info.)

Photo by Samantha Marble: Hanna Cheek and Abe Goldfarb.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Almost An Evening (Bleecker Street Theatre)

BOTTOM LINE: One Coen brother on stage is a lot like two Coen brothers on screen. Glorious!

Almost An Evening is written by Oscar winning filmmaker Ethan Coen (who normally functions aside his brother Joel). This is a solo writing venture and also Ethan Coen's off-Broadway debut. And it rocks. The Coen brothers are known for eccentric characters, dry humor, and an undertone of intellectual merit (see No Country For Old Men, Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, Fargo, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? for more information).

This production is actually three short one-acts that aren't related in subject matter but are certainly similar in tone and humor. The cast includes 9 actors and each portrays a couple of characters throughout the three plays. The cool thing about Almost An Evening is that it brilliantly walks the line between poignant and funny. It's not a passive theatre experience, but it's also not tedious to follow along. Ethan Coen doesn't try to put anything past you, but it's also intended for a more "with it" audience (read: not the geriatric crowd).

Almost An Evening
brilliantly incorporates that great Coen mindfuck. You know what I mean...in a Coen brothers movie, it might be "gee, how gruesome can this scene get before the audience vomits all over themselves?" Or, "let's convince the audience that something is true and then pull the rug out from under everyone at precisely the right moment." Well, in this play, it's more like "hmm, I wonder if we can still tell this story if we keep it pitch black for 5 minutes."

Almost An Evening premiered at Atlantic Theatre Company in a very sold-out run earlier this year. It is now playing a limited off-Broadway engagement until June 1st. And it's no surprise it was picked up for a longer run, the cast and crew are an acclaimed team. The cast of 9 includes many seasoned actors...they're the kind of people you recognize but then have to imdb when you get home. The most notable cast member is F. Murray Abraham, who plays God like the curmudgeony love child of George Carlin and Lewis Black. The show is directed by the very capable Neil Pepe, the artistic director at Atlantic Theatre Company. Check it out while it's still playing, it's just a good time.

(Almost An Evening plays at The Theatres at 45 Bleecker Street, 45 Bleecker between Mott and Lafayette. Tickets are $50 and are available at the box office, at telecharge.com or by calling 212.239.6200. Student tickets are available at the box office on the day of performance for $20. Visit almostanevening.com for more information.)

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Macbeth (Lyceum Theatre)

BOTTOM LINE: Beam me up, Macbeth. A slightly pretentious and self-indulgent interpretation of Shakespeare's classic. Really only for HUGE fans of Patrick Stewart and die-hard Shakespeare fanatics.

All right. I'm going to start this post by saying that I LOVE Shakespeare, Patrick Stewart, and edgy new interpretations of classical work. That being said, I'm going to go out on a limb here and just say it. I didn't like Macbeth.

When I went to see the latest production of William Shakespeare's Macbeth, recently transferred from a limited run at BAM to its new home at The Lyceum Theatre, I was expecting a night of mind-blowing, engrossing, extraordinary theatre. It has everything going for it: huge star power, an intriguing story, and enough buzz to fuel a bee hive, but I was sadly very disappointed.

Patrick Stewart of Star Trek: The Next Generation and X-Men fame, tackles the title role of the disgruntled Scotsman in this version of the Bard's classic which was produced at England's Chichester Festival Theatre, before crossing the pond to New York. While Stewart has been a part of nearly every play in Shakespeare's cannon, I'm a little sad to say that, in my opinion his performance in this play was nothing to write home about. The producers are probably banking on Stewart's name to lure people to sit through this three hour tour, but they might be a little unsatisfied.

The fault doesn't lie with Captain Picard. While his performance is a little self indulgent, it's not bad. I just don't think that it's worth the $101 ticket price and maybe was better off at its cozy home in Brooklyn. It's said that Macbeth is a cursed play, since Shakespeare used real witches' incantations in the text of the play. Productions are rarely successful and often riddled with catastrophe, and I think that this version is just a little too big for its britches. The show is set in Stalinist Russia, with little to no explanation or justification for the change in setting. Instead of helping to clarify the actions of the characters in the play, it really only slightly confuses the matter by incorporating a working elevator, Russian folk songs, and rapping witches. That's right, I said rapping witches.

Now I know that I might be in the minority of people who don't go wild over this production, but I'm all right with that. (If you think otherwise, let us know.) I thought there were moments of greatness- among them Kate Fleetwood's Lady Macbeth which was consistently off the charts, and the witches (despite the techno rapping) were pretty darn creepy. But overall, I thought the rest of the performances were all over the map. I appreciate that this production might get a new crowd to experience Shakespeare, but I just wish that it were a little better. I'm proud to say that it's all right if you don't like a production of Shakespeare's work. It doesn't mean that you're not educated or cultured. It just might mean that it wasn't that great.

(MacBeth plays at The Lyceum Theatre, 149 West 45th Street, from now through May 24 2008. Weeks beginning March 31, April 14, April 28, May 12: Tuesday - Saturday at 8pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm; Sunday at 3pm. Weeks beginning April 7, April 21, May 5: Tuesday - Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2 and 8pm, Sunday at 3pm. Week beginning May 19: Tuesday - Saturday at 8pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm. Ticket Prices: $51.50 - $101.50. Call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200/(800) 432-7250.)

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


There's a lot of good theatre out there this month, and some of it is actually affordable! Presenting the best of the best, for the cheapest price possible...

TAKE A DATE: In The Heights
(for the second month in a row, but you can't go wrong with sweet romance and smokin' hot dancing. CHEAP TICKETS: play the 'In The Heights' lottery and win 2 tickets for $26.50 each)

TAKE YOUR MOM: Crimes Of The Heart
(it's funny, touching, and chances are she loved the movie 20 years ago...also worth it for the Kathleen Turner "turn your cell phones off" speech before the show starts. CHEAP TICKETS: if you're 35 or under, check out Hiptix for $20 tickets that you can buy in advance.)

FOR A LAUGH: 'Almost An Evening'
(this new Ethan Coen play is as beautifully absurd as any Coen brothers movie. CHEAP TICKETS: $20 student tickets are available at the box office, day of...or just suck it up and buy regular priced tickets here for a mere $50 each.)

ROCK OUT TO: Passing Strange
(2+ hours of good ol' rock and roll thanks to front-man Stew and his talented band. CHEAP TICKETS: if you're 25 or under get $25 tickets at the box office, day of...find ticket information here)

(sure it has that off-beat, downtown feel...and that's why we love it. CHEAP TICKETS: $25 student rush tickets are available at the box office, day of...find ticket information here)

QUALITY BROADWAY: Sunday In The Park With George
(it's a remarkable cast, a lovely musical, and a modern interpretation. CHEAP TICKETS: if you're 35 or under, visit Hiptix...anyone can sit in the nosebleeds for only $36.50...find ticket information here.)

Check back May 1st for a new and updated Best Bets list!