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



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.