Life Definitely Does not Suck

Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan

It is hard to deny the mastery of Anton Chekhov. His skill for writing rich profound characters is unquestionable. But what many people often forget is that his writing is meant to be seen as comical. I often debate this assertion because his characters are so serious. Then, I remember it is the severity of his characters predilections that make them funny. To everyone’s delight Aaron Posner manages to capture this Chekhovian quality that make his adaptation of Uncle Vanya, entitled Life Sucks, hysterical. To his credit, Posner does not simply make you laugh but manages to make you cry, sometimes at the same time.

Conforming to Checkhovian standards, Posners’ characters are all pining away for someone or something. For starters, the elder Professor brings home his much younger wife Ella who is the subject of everyone’s attention. Her beauty is at the center of the minds, hearts and genitals of all those she comes into contact with, including the virile Dr. Aster, Vanya, and Pickles. Sonia, the Professor’s daughter, is insanely jealous of Ella because Sonia is in love with Dr. Aster. And here we go, the insipid love/lust relationships that we have come to expect from Chekhov start and no one is left unaffected in its tornado like path.

Not only is Posner’s writing sharp, witty, and sardonic, but the performances are nuanced with such professional depth that we are engaged from the very first line to the last. At times, we are in a Brechtian atmosphere, being made publicly aware that we are watching a play, while at other moments the angst of each character is so palpable that we feel as if we are watching modern realism. The cast deserves most of the credit, although Jeff Wises’ direction is praiseworthy, for maneuvering us effortlessly between moments. Michael Schantz plays Dr. Aster alongside Nadia Bowers as Ella. Their fiery chemistry is so palpable that when they finally kiss, the explosion on stage is cataclysmic! And then the heart-wrenching performances delivered by Jeff Biehl as Vanya and Kimberly Chatterjee as Sonia, create an overall balance on stage pitched to perfection. Like the traditional Vanya, Biehl’s deep-seeded need to be loved is something that we can all relate to. His vulnerability on stage is as compelling as it is commendable to watch. There were several moments when Biehl and Chatterjee unveil their innermost desires, which could have easily turned into overindulgent acting, something I loathe on stage. Thankfully the actors are fine tuned enough to let these moments breathe without forcing them or making them predicated on something. They just happen and as simple as that, it hits us with unmistakable potency that is spellbinding to experience. It makes these soul-filled revelations, that feel almost confessional, much more profound because these actors are genuinely living through it.

Like a gourmet dish, this production’s recipe is masterful. It is definitely one of the finest pieces of theater that I have seen in a while (along with The Maids by the Seeing Place Theater). The lighter moments are just as poignant as the more serious ones. Everything comes together perfectly in this wonderful production. If you want quality theater that won’t break your budget, these shows are highly recommended.

Life Sucks plays now through April 20, 2019 at 195 E. 3rd St. http://www.wheelhousetheater.org.

Let’s Talk About a Different Kind of Acting: The Maids at The Seeing Place Theater

By Nicholas Linnehan

dsc_9082 (2)

After being a critic for 12 years now, I have seen a lot of theater, both good and bad. However, I also am an actor with Cerebral Palsy. This causes me to push through my physical limitations and attempt to deliver a good performance when I’m on stage. Now, of course, what is considered “good” is entirely subjective. But I fight for every moment I act. I just finished a three week run of a play called Identity, where I went beyond what I thought was physically possible for myself. I started to uncover a new aspect of my acting that surprised me and seemed to enhance the quality of my work on stage.
Rarely have I seen another actor with such physical issues similar to mine.

Then I saw The Maids brought to us by The Seeing Place Theater. Enter Erin Cronican, one of the most talented actors I know. Sadly, she is battling severe cancer, stage four Breast Cancer. However, she does not stop this from delivering a riveting performance. Now, most actors I know, would have let their disease take over and refuse to attempt performing an 80 minute play, which has heavy line requirements. Does this stop her, no! Her tenacity is awe-inspiring. But this is not an article about her pushing through cancer and applauding her for it. (Although, I do) And it’s not about sympathy for her or me, it’s about acting.

After watching her performance and witnessing her physically fight for every line she says and earn every moment she delivers, it dawned on me that all acting should be rooted in this high-stakes praxis that seems to derive when our bodies are impaired in some fashion. All too often actors miss opportunities to have authentic moments on stage because they just say the lines and sometimes gloss over their chances to have genuine moments on stage.

This brings me to my point of this article, actors should have to fight for every line, every word they utter on stage, like Cronican and I are forced to do. When you have to dig deep, going beyond your bodies comfort zone, something magical happens. I am not saying that our predicaments make us the best actors out there, but it does add a tangible element to our work that is different from what I commonly see in most acting. This revelation only came to me after seeing Cronican’s last two productions and then reflecting on my own experience after my production.

I do not think you have to have cancer or Cerebral Palsy to experience this in your performances. But, I do think it’s worth noting that when and if you make yourself fight for each and every moment on stage and have some physical awareness you will add a layer to your work that is beautiful, riveting, and organic. I urge you to see Cronican in The Maids which plays now through April 14, 2019 and allow yourself to see first hand how profound she is because of what she allows herself to experience and share with the audience.

The Maids plays now through April 14, 2019 at 65 E 4th St. www.theseeingplace.com

Shakespeare Done Write

 

Rusty Flounders, Candice Oden, William Ketter, Sabrina Schlegel-Mejia

(Actors, Left to Right): Rusty Flounders, Candice Oden, William Ketter, Sabrina Schlegel-Mejia. PHOTO BY RUSS ROWLAND

Reviewed by Gregor Collins

As an armchair Shakespearean, I find many productions predictably esoteric, made heavier by actors taking themselves too seriously getting bogged down on the aesthetics of the line instead of the emotion behind it. A worthy antidote is The Seeing Place’s rendition of The Bard’s Measure for Measure—though an intermittently choppy journey, a final destination whose modernized performances and dauntless direction seamlessly transmute 1603 into 2019.

I approach every play I see with an impartial mind, but I can’t help sitting there waiting for a show to begin, feeling how the set sits in silence, or how dusty the smell of creativity is. Which is why I enjoy the Seeing Place: There’s that dusty smell of creativity. And whether I end up liking the show or not, I know I’ll be party to something bold; something that paints outside the lines. With 75% of the shows I see ostensibly satisfied staying within the lines, I highly recommend looking more deeply into The Seeing Place and what two of the hardest working theater-makers in New York, Artistic Directors Erin Cronican and Brandon Walker, are all about.

Measure for Measure involves a young novice nun who is compromised by a corrupt official who offers to save her brother from execution in return for sex. It worked for the Weinstein Company, which is why, according to Cronican, M4M is more relevant than ever:

“Shakespeare wrote Measure for Measure in the early 1600s, yet it remains astonishingly resonant today,” says Cronican, who also acts in and directs about half the shows at Seeing Place. “It sheds light on the abuses of power over women who can’t have their voices heard.”

As the play begins, the duke of Vienna puts his deputy Angelo in charge of the state. Angelo immediately enforces a law outlawing sex outside of marriage and sentences Claudio to death for sleeping with Juliet, Claudio’s fiancée. Claudio’s sister Isabella, a novice nun, appeals to Angelo to save her brother. But the supposedly pure Angelo demands that Isabella sleep with him to save Claudio. Isabella vehemently refuses. The Duke, who has remained in Vienna disguised as a friar, suggests to Claudio that Angelo’s jilted fiancée, Mariana, could take Isabella’s place—he proposes a win-win-win plan: Isabella wouldn’t have to have sex and therefore be guilt-free, Mariana would have the sex and do a good deed, and Claudio would get to have sex as a free man.

What happened, you ask? You have exactly seven more days to find out. Chop-chop.

Director Brandon Walker had fun with the set and the blocking, at impromptu moments breaking the fourth wall by doing things like pulling out his smart phone to snap photos of the onstage action, or by suddenly deciding to hammer home an impassioned point directly into the eyes of a random audience member. It all worked to give the show a more modern salience, and keep our eyes glued to the unfolding drama. Lighting Designer Eve Bandi should also be commended for aptly keeping up with Walker’s frenzied footing.

Rarely do I see a show where there’s not one weak actor: Rusty Flounders and Candice Oden bring a filmic realism to Lucio and Mariana; Robin Friend’s “American” Claudio eases into Pompey’s Eastern-European accent as smoothly as the sun slipping under the skyline; William Ketter, a newcomer on the New York acting scene, is slight in frame and genial in face, yet as Angelo delivers the demonstrative performance of an actor twice his size; with the face of an angel, Sabrina Schlegel-Mejia waxes convincing grittiness of a woman scorned; and brown-robe-clad Brandon Walker floats around the wings like Yoda in his UPS uniform, sprinkling quirky frivolity wherever most needed.

And in my favorite performance of the evening, Jared Mason Murray, who won the right to have his own paragraph, gives a scenes-stealing turn as Escalus, exhibiting every ounce of the jocularity and charisma of a lawyer on a David E. Kelley series. I wouldn’t be surprised if by the time Trump gets reelected he’ll be a series regular on Bull.

MEASURE FOR MEASURE plays March 28-April 14, 2019 GENERAL ADMISSION – $20 (Premium tickets $30) http://www.TheSeeingPlace.com The Seeing Place @ the Paradise Factory 64 East 4th Street, NYC

Tix: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/34676

‘Shareholder Value’ Has the Dramatic Tension of a Saint Bernard Sleeping on a Sheepskin Rug… Am I Even Right For This Job Anymore?

 

32298361537_95021b3251_k

CEO Jerry Ingram (Dennis Holland) alongside his adoring secretary (Kristen Tripolitis, left) and his stalwart wife (Debbie Bernstein).

Reviewed by Gregor Collins

Maybe I’m not the “write” guy for these anymore. Maybe Theater That Matters would do better hiring a reviewer who doesn’t work in “the business,” who goes to their job everyday at the arboretum—I love arboretums by the way—who has just the right amount of dispassionate fondness for theater that gets them out of the house every once in awhile. But I have to believe that people want to read my take because I’m not the arborist who has an arms-lengthed appreciation for theater, I have a PASSION for it, and I both write and revere stories that at least attempt to take no prisoners on their way to the truth. So, I don’t know, maybe I do belong here so you can get that brutal, blue-collar opinion about how to spend your Friday evening.

And for your Friday evening I’m recommending something fun. So, not Shareholder Value. It comes down to this: Just like the stock market fluctuates, just like it ebbs and it flows, so should the energy in a play—unfortunately it’s not what this one does. It was a completely flat market.

Based loosely on the beginning of the meltdown at General Electric around 2008, Shareholder Value, written by Tom Attea, is about the struggles of the CEO of a troubled conglomerate to deliver what he must every quarter. Like all CEO’s of publicly held conglomerates, Jerry Ingram (Dennis Holland)—who looks like Russell Crowe’s slightly older, much better looking brother—of the fictional company Total Electric, must deliver one thing: shareholder value. Ingram scrambles to implement shortsighted ways to deliver quarterly profits, including spinning off divisions, green lighting cutbacks and consistently favoring quick fixes over long-term strategy. An activist investor challenges his leadership, and when the CEO decides to sell the light-bulb division, TE’s founder, Thomas Edison, haunts his dreams. When the stock continues to tumble and debt mounts, the cost of his actions becomes increasingly apparent to his shareholders, his employees, and finally to himself.

This all sounds compelling enough. But it was (aside from the Russell Crowe reference) plucked word-for-word from the press release… and press releases, because they’re doing their job, tend to be more compelling than the plays they summarize.

The script was a snorefest, and the actors, though they brought an energy, brought a counterintuitive energy that didn’t help. You could have plucked every one of them from an episode of the 1950’s Sitcom Leave it to Beaver, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, for a play that’s about one of the most intensely contentious times in recent financial history, the casting felt from the wrong century, injecting it with an incomprehensible flatness throughout entire evening.

Dennis Holland was reasonably watchable, having that Alan Thicke-esque 90’s television-dad-charisma, but it worked to his disadvantage during “heated” exchanges (I use “heated” very loosely here), as even times where we craved seeing his dark or mercurial side, he had only congenial guffaws to give us, as if acting in an after-school special, thwarting any potential for us to be truly invested in his rise and ultimate demise as CEO of TE.

I won’t go into many specifics about where things went wrong, because for me the lack of dramatic tension, anywhere, made the entire play wrong. There were double-whammies all over the place: scenes and plotlines that were introduced for no reason and then never paid off.

Even the “music” (Arthur Abrams, Composer) was depressingly lifeless. There wasn’t really music, there were transitional jingles in between scenes, arranged in such a way that it was sort of like hearing a 9-year-old tenuously playing the xylophone four rooms down the hall. And the director (Mark Marcante), who was savvy enough to play cable news clips from actual shows during transitions to make us feel like we were following the crisis in real-time and real-life, only added to the bizarre dramatic coma we were forced into, as the news clips had no audio and did very little to add any tension because we were already seeing a play devoid of it. Perhaps if the clips and transitions were done in a more intensely auditory way we could have at least experienced the jolt of something that felt… important.

Watching Shareholder Value was akin to, and about as entertaining as, watching an episode of a show on CNBC. The exchanges were filled with all the accurate financial jargon, yet it was in a script that gave us no reason to care. Good theater in my opinion, especially in the Off-Off Broadway world, can’t be about transcribing life, as this show does, it has to be about elevating it.

I don’t sit down in theaters champing at the bit to run home and write reviews like this. I’m like a casting director: there’s nothing I want more than to see that shining human strut through the door, read a line, and freeze time.

The cast: Debbie Bernstein, Joe Candelora, Matt Gorsky, Dennis Holland, Bill McAndrews, Benjamin Russell, and Kristen Tripolitis.

SHAREHOLDER VALUE will play a limited engagement from March 21st through April 14th at Theater For the New City (155 1st Avenue at East 10th Street), with official opening on Saturday, March 30th. Tickets, priced $10-$15, may be purchased online through SmartTix or by calling (212) 868-4444 or the box office at (212) 254-1109.

Do the Sinless Commit Sin?

 

the sinless

Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan

For many of us the effort to be devout, in any religion, is challenging. To worship God and to follow his teachings is a lifelong process. Our humanness causes us a lot of pain and anxiety because sometimes our desires are not in line with what our religion commands us to do. Therefore, many people live in a gray area, caught between our baser and upper sides that exist in us simultaneously. This is the dramatic topic discussed in The Sinless, a new play by Judah Skoff. Unfortunately, it felt more like a philosophical discourse than a piece of theater.

Annabelle and Tuvia are a young married Orthodox Jewish couple. Tuvia is a Rabbinical scholar who struggles with his religious imperfection. He is so concerned with living a perfect, almost impossible life, that anytime his flaws or sins appear, he beats himself up relentlessly. Annabelle is more reasonable with her desires when it comes to weighing them against her religious adherence. She refuses to be fully pious or secular. She wants to find community, her main reason for becoming Orthodox, but refuses to completely give herself over to the prescribed way an Orthodox wife is supposed to live. She especially feels a profound inner conflict when it comes to her sexual desires which lay outside the “acceptable” sexual expression that is deemed appropriate by her religion. Both Tuvia and Annabelle are caught in between their religion and their personal wants and needs. While the scope of their religious transgressions seem very different to an outsider, the guilt and shame they feel for having committed them are very much the same.

Arielle Beth Klein (Annabelle) and Isaac Lunt (Tuvia) do their utmost to play their characters with gusto and passion, but since so much of Skoff’s script is plodding monologues and no dialogue, there is nothing to build upon, and I could almost feel the actors working to create any real dramatic tension that should have arisen organically out of the intrinsic drama of the subject matter at hand. Sadly, Skoff misses these chances through long consecutive diatribes that kill any potential.

The climatic scene (which I will not give away) provides temporary relief, because it is driven not by monologue but by dialogue, that allows Klein and Hannah Viederman, who does a wonderful job as Imogen, an opportunity to make us feel something. Finally the actors can play off each other because there is dual action happening.

In lieu of the play falling short of theatricality and feeling like a series of monolithic preaches, I hope Skoff will look at the success of the climatic moment and infuse some of that dynamic energy into the rest of the piece. This is a great topic that can galvanize riveting theater, but fails to do so as it is currently written.

The Sinless plays now through April 7, 2019 at the 14th Street Y. 344 E 14th St. https://www.thesinlessplay.com

‘A Jewish Joke’ – a ‘Drama About Comedy’ – Had Zero Drama, and Sparse Comedy

 

Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 10.41.33 AM

Bernie Lutz (Phil Johnson) in his one-man show about being blacklisted in 1950’s Hollywood.

Reviewed by Gregor Collins

Have you heard of the Jewish woman who was a kleptomaniac? One day she goes into a store and steals a can of peaches. On her way out, she’s caught, arrested, and brought before a judge. “What you did is disgraceful,” the judge reprimands her. “There were six peaches in that can… so I am giving you six days in jail, one for each peach.”

Suddenly the woman’s husband, seated in back, stands up and shouts: “She also stole a can of peas!”

There were a few of these jokes that really killed, read from notecards by headliner Bernie Lutz (Phil Johnson) at sporadic times throughout the evening when he’s feeling like he—or us—needs defibrillators. And that’s the problem here: For a “dramedy” that surely fancies itself more comedy than drama, having the majority of laughs coming from the occasional joke read off a notecard felt a little cheap.

In A Jewish Joke, Bernie Lutz (Phil Johnson) is a curmudgeonly Jewish comedy screenwriter from MGM, who comes up against the Communist blacklist in 1950’s Hollywood. The play—a one-person show set entirely in Lutz’s cramped, corner office somewhere on a Southern California studio lot—comes from the Roustabouts Theater Company, was written by Marni Freedman and Phil Johnson, directed by David Ellenstein, and runs through March 31st at the Lion Theater on Theater Row.

As far as I could tell, I was the only person in the theater under 50, maybe even 60. On one hand, AJJ isn’t exactly intended for my demographic, but on the other far stronger hand, a good story is a good story is a good story, and despite my being an old-souled millennial who was once a caregiver for a Jewish Holocaust survivor, I left the theater uninspired. Ultimately, AJJ—dubbed “A poignant dramedy about one American’s fight against one of the darkest moments of the mid-20th Century”—had no poignancy, hardly a fight, and no darkness; there was nothing that penetrated the skin, nothing that shed any new or different light on the blacklist movement. Music would have helped; a large screen with images playing concurrent to the action would have helped – how could a director of an Off-Broadway play, in the year 2019, not think to use either of these storytelling techniques? It would have added pennies to the budget, and the audience would have experienced a more affecting show.

But I’m only a reviewer.

In Phil Johnson’s defense, the cards were stacked against the play from the beginning, because the script itself gave a reasonably entertaining actor nothing to really work with aside from one-liners and empty pleas for us to care about his plight as a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter. (Johnson also co-penned the script, so maybe I’m being kind here.)

The play is set in a high-strung, once-successful screenwriter’s dingy office, with scripts and papers strewn about, the phone ringing off the hook every two minutes from either a studio head rejecting his script or his secretary telling him they’ve got “so and so on the line”—with all this going on, Johnson, Freedman and Ellenstein would like you to believe you’re being entertained. But it’s hard to be entertained when you’re not simultaneously being moved.

All we’re getting here is a borderline unlikable comedy writer fumbling around his office answering phone calls for 90 minutes with no intermission. We don’t feel his pain as a blacklisted writer, as a Jew, as a human in crisis, or as any form that he is, because everything is going too fast and there are no moments of silence, empathy or reflection.

There is one touching moment—in the middle of the show when Lutz turns to the audience, for once not in the mood to try and amuse us, and tells us about the day he met his wife: “It was the best stroll of my life,” he says, taking a pause before returning to the chaos of his day.

Too bad there weren’t more of these.

See this show for the 2 or 3 zingers you can regift at the next cocktail party.

Performances begin Thursday, March 7, 2019 at 8:00pm for a limited run through Saturday, March 31, 2019 at The Lion Theater @ Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street – between 9th & 10th Avenues).

Tickets: https://www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/A-Jewish-Joke/Overview

The Art of the Middle-Class White Couple Having a Sh*t Day

 

Caitlin Gallogly and Christopher M. Smith 2

Headliners Caitlin Gallogly (Julie) and Christopher Smith (Robert) hole themselves up in a hotel room to repair their marriage.

Reviewed by Gregor Collins

With 75% of the “indie” theater I review these days feeling like audacious millenials with zero budget cranking out some disturbing amalgam of dystopian-apocalyptic-sci-fi-hyper-realistic-political-satire-absurdist theater—and I say that not as a bad thing—it’s refreshing, in a way, to see a play wax old-school tradition like Fiercely Independent: Lights go up, said couple ambles into a hotel room, said couple endures emotional highs and lows, said couple comes out changed. It’s as if Neil Simon himself were alive and well and hunched over a typewriter.

Unfortunately none of this means you should be forking out $59 to see it.

The plot: Julie and Robert have been married for four years. They are not getting along. They decide to spend 24 hours together in a hotel room with no television, no cellphones, no internet or computers, to see if they can work things out.

As a traditional “well-made” play that played it safe, it’s reasonably engaging. I never twiddled, I never checked my watch, and I was “with them” the whole way—but these days, at least for me, if an indie or Off-Broadway play doesn’t make the kind of bold choices that risk it falling flat on its nose, it’s not going to stick with me… Fiercely won’t give you any new or inspiring perspectives on life. It stays mildly interesting through changes in blocking, changes in time, bringing in a bellhop once in awhile, playing music—but it fails to challenge us, to make us feel anything we didn’t already feel going into it.

Those middle-class white couple notes it hits, we can relate to: We’ve had a relationship (or at least heard of one) teetering on collapse, like matchbox cars racing around a tenuous track; most (at least Western) males have felt what Robert (Christopher Smith) feels, confused by his own inscrutability while tilting at windmills to be the man the world wants him to be; feeling emasculated and living in fear that he won’t be able to keep a woman interested. And Julie (Caitlin Gallogly), frustrated by Robert’s inability to express his true feelings. These are age-old problems with the sexes that feel close to home.

Other things I appreciated: Not having an intermission and it only being 70 minutes; Actor Christopher Smith—after a few minutes of me wondering if he was nervous or just not a good actor—loosening up to give us glimpses of a mercurial Alpha Male cracking open his vulnerability; and Jordan Sobel (Bellman), despite being cast to literally bring props on and off stage, coming across overqualified, almost as if he should have been headlining the show. (later I saw in the playbill that he was Smith’s understudy, confirming my instincts.)

Julie (Gallogly) was, for me, the best part of the play. Maybe she reminded me of a girlfriend I had once. Or a girl I liked. Or a girl I want. But she had a tenderness to her sharp wit, a sensuality to her girl-next-door-ness; I found myself mostly watching her, not because Smith wasn’t interesting, but because she was MORE interesting; I cared about her and hoped she would find a man who could show his true feelings. At the end when the audience was clapping at each actor, the claps rained the hardest when Gallogly stepped forward. She seemed genuinely surprised, almost embarrassed. But we weren’t. We were just showing our appreciation for the actor we felt began, and ended, the story.

Written and directed by 3-time Tony-award winning producer Kathleen K. Johnson in what looks to be her first credit as a playwright—the evening—again, not that there’s anything wrong with this—felt written by a middle-class white woman. Of course, Middle-class white women can write a great play. And they have. But in this case you get what you pay for: A mildly-engaging middle-class white couple having a shit day.

FIERCELY INDEPENDENT will perform through April 7—Wednesdays through Fridays at 7 pm, Saturdays at 2 and 7 pm, and Sundays at 3 pm.

Tickets are $59 and can be purchased at https://www.fiercelysoho.com/

or call 212-691-1555.