Monday, March 29, 2010

Theater Review: Next Fall

A look at the Consequences of Putting Things Off
By Lauren Yarger
What’s Geoffrey Nauffts’ play Next Fall about? Depending on whom you ask, the answer might be gay rights, relationships, religion or about not taking anything for granted.

In reality, it’s a mix of all of those issues wrapped into a thought-provoking Broadway work guaranteed to prompt lots of discussion long after you’ve left the theater.

The sounds of a car crash open the action set in a hospital waiting room where family and friends of Luke (Patrick Heusinger) gather while they wait for news about whether he’ll emerge from a coma following the accident. His divorced parents, Butch (Cotter Smith) and Arlene (Connie Ray), make small talk with Luke’s Christian friend, Brandon (Sean Dugan) and Holly (Maddie Corman), who employs Luke in her candle shop, until the arrival of Luke’s lover, Adam (Patrick Breen).

Adam wants to visit Luke and to be involved in medical decisions, but Holly reminds him to back off since Luke never has come out to his parents. Through flashbacks, we see how the couple met and how Luke’s Christian faith and hypochondriac Adam’s atheism clash throughout their relationship.

Disappointed by his son’s decision to switch from a law career to acting (never mind candle selling), Butch, in a move that makes us wonder just how oblivious he is to his son’s sexuality, tells Luke that if he is gay, he’ll never let him see his younger brother again. Luke does try tell his father the truth once, when Butch makes a surprise visit to the couple’s apartment (which they hurriedly try to “degay”), but he declines to do so when Butch chooses that moment to be supportive of his son’s decision to pursue an acting career. Luke promises Adam that he’ll come out to his brother “next fall,” but that season never comes. In a nice metaphor, we hear about Luke’s stellar performance in Our Town, a play about not taking the people you love for granted.
At the heart of Next Fall is the religious conflict between the two men and just about every argument (and stereotype) makes its way into the script, though Nauffts doesn’t really take sides. Holly has tried every kind of new age religion, but falls back on the traditions of her Catholic upbringing for comfort during the ordeal at the hospital. Butch is legalistic and judgmental; especially about gays and Arlene’s dependence on the prescription medications that helped break up their marriage (apparently divorce and gambling aren’t issues for Butch, though). Arlene isn’t sure what she believes.

Luke says he has accepted Jesus Christ, and because of that commitment, all of his sins can be wiped clean. He simply prays for forgiveness after he and Adam have sex.

“We all sin,” he says. “This just happens to be mine.”

Brandon eventually pulls back from their relationship, unable to accept Luke’s constant sinning/repenting routine. Brandon struggles with homosexuality himself, and understands the temptations, but believes Luke crossed a line when he entered into the lifestyle and into a serious relationship with Adam.

“It’s human nature,” Luke rationalizes. “We can’t escape it.”

Adam, meanwhile, doesn’t believe in anything and for him, Luke’s praying after sex becomes a way for God to intrude into their relationship.

“I want you to love me more than Him,” he tells Luke.

In an interesting twist, Luke is kind of quiet about his faith and is reluctant to share too much. Some of Adam’s friends already have stopped spending time with them because they disapprove of Luke’s faith and its negative views about homosexuality. When pushed, Luke fields all of the typical questions non believers ask, like, “What about the Mongolian goat herder who never has heard of Christ?” or “How can the killer of Matthew Shepard repent and go to heaven while Shepard, if non-repentant, heads to hell?” Luke doesn’t really answer, perhaps because he’s somewhat confused himself.

There aren’t any easy answers here, and that’s Nauffts’ intent. The play explores the various relationships and their complexities, but doesn’t try to be a spokesperson for any cause. Interestingly, if Nauffts were to change the Luke character to a female who gave in to the temptation of living with Adam outside of marriage, who struggled with the sin involved with that decision and who was reluctant to tell her father about it, he’d have essentially the same play (though I’m almost certain Sir Elton John would not have signed on as a producer for that one).

The ensemble cast, which director Sheryl Kaller fought to transfer from the Off-Broadway production she helmed last season despite the fact that there aren’t any stars deemed necessary for a successful Broadway run, all turn in solid performances. Some of the more intimate feel of the smaller Off-Broadway theater is lost at the Helen Hayes, but Wilson Chin and Jeff Croiter (scenic and lighting design) effectively make the audience feel as though they are right there in the waiting room with these folks.

Next Fall plays at the Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 West 44th St., NYC. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200 ; Outside NY/NJ/CT: (800) 432-7250. Special discounted tickets for groups are available through Masterwork Productions at http://www.givenik.com/?code=Masterworks.

Christians might also like to know:
• Language
• Nudity in a photograph
• Homosexual activity

Theater Review: Mr. and Mrs. Fitch with John Lithgow and Jennifer Ehle

Some Gossip Columnists Worth Hearing
By Lauren Yarger
Two gossip columnists who find themselves on the outs with who’s in invent an interesting celebrity to put them back on top of their newspaper column writing game, but when the plan backfires, Mr. and Mrs. Fitch might just salvage something more important than a job -- like their marriage.

Douglas Carter Beane’s delightfully droll Off-Broadway play stars John Lithgow and Jennifer Ehle as the titled characters, a couple of literary erudite people who show their affection by trading sarcastic, sardonic and scintillating barbs. Needing a “humdinger” of a column to satisfy his editor and avoid being fired, Fitch, helped by his muse of a wife, invents Jamie Glen, a mysterious celebrity who soon has all of New York wanting to know more about his supposed romantic liaisons. The Fitches, as the sole providers of this information, soon find themselves the toasts of the town, but is that what they really want?

In the middle of trading literary quotes, impersonating F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and trading witty repartee, the couple finds something else: the love that brought them together. It’s a charming look at two people made for each other (believe me, no one else could stand them), and discovering what really matters.

Lithgow and Ehle, directed by Scott Ellis, give solid, affecting and humorous performances. Their bold red Manhattan apartment (except for the horrid lime green hallway, the result of deciding on a paint color during a night of too much partying) is designed by Allen Moyer and is nicely lighted by Kenneth Posner. Costume designed Jeff Mahshie dresses the couple in elegant party clothes for the social scene, but has Ehle in pajamas and dresses cut from unnatural looking fabrics and they are distracting.

Mr. and Mrs. Fitch is the best way I can think of to enjoy a gossip column. It plays at Second Stage theatre, 305 West 43rd St., NYC, through April 4. For ticket information visit http://www.2st.com/.

Christians might also like to know:
• Language
• God’s name taken in vain

Theater Review: All About Me with Michael Feinstein and Dame Edna

Michael Feinstein and Dame Edna
It's Not All About Either of Them, Unfortunately
By Lauren Yarger
All About Me is a pairing of the delightful Michael Feinstein and Dame Edna (a.k.a Barry Humphries) on a Broadway stage. What’s not to like? Well, quite a bit.

First, there is the clumsy script from Christopher Durang (with Humphries) which contrives to have the two personalities feuding over just who is the star of this show. It’s a corny nightclub act at best, hardly worthy of the $125+ Broadway ticket price. The real tragedy is that the ridiculous forced feud eats into time allowed (it's only 90 minutes long) for what we really want to see: Michael Feinstein and Dame Edna doing what they do best.

While Edna sings a couple of typically humorous songs like “The Dingo Ate My Baby” and pokes fun at a few audience members, the song selections for Feinstein are odd and we only get to enjoy a couple of the American songbook standards we’d like to hear (Rob Bowman is the music supervisor). Do we really need to hear him sing “A Lot of Living to Do” when the memories of its being sung on the same stage just a few months ago during the disastrous revival of Bye Bye Birdie still echo instead of, well, anything else by Gershwin, for example?

The script could use some updating as well: Edna pokes fun at Stephen Sondheim while failing to mention that the Henry Miller’s Theater, where she’s performing, soon will be named for him. Annoyingly, the Playbills are designed so that only one of the stars is featured, depending on which one you happen to receive.

If you can put aside the disappointments, however, All About Me still offers entertainment (either one of the stars on a stage equals entertainment, after all). There’s a nice-sounding band on stage (Bowman conducts), two muscled dancers (Gregory Butler and John Paul Mateo) backing up Edna and a stage manager (Francesca Russell) to referee the competition between the stars and who belts out a tune of her own. Oh, and there are sparkly outrageous gowns (for Edna, not Feinstein, possums) and of course, lots of gladiolas.

Catch All About Me at the Henry Miller’s Theatre, 124 West 43rd St., NYC, originally scheduled to run through July 18, has just announced it will close April 4. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200 or outside NY/NJ/CT: (800) 432-7250.

Christians might also like to know:
• Racy humor
• The show posts a Mature Advisory
• Reincarnation philosophy stated

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Back from Vacation

Hi,
We're back... Reviews posting again on Monday, March 29. Up next: Next Fall, The Book of Grace; All About Me; Mr. & Mrs. Fitch and A Cool Dip in the Barren Saharan Crick.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Theater Review: Looped

A Loopy Lady and a Very Funny Play
By Lauren Yarger
A 1965 LA recording session from hell is the setting for Looped, playwright Matthew Lombardo’s laugh-a-minute Broadway debut about the outrageous and larger-than-life screen actress Tallulah Bankhead, played with depth and gusto by Valerie Harper.

It seems that the audio from one of Tallulah’s lines in the film, “Die! Die! My Darling,” must be re-recorded (or looped) before the film can be released. It’s up to film editor Danny (Brian Hutchinson) and sound engineer Steve (Michael Mulheren) to make it happen, but that’s easier said than done.

Tallulah, a little looped herself, shows up under the influence and demanding a drink. What ensues is a hilarious battle of the wills between the brazen Tallulah and the uncomfortably uptight Danny with Steve staying out of sight as much as possible in his second-story sound booth (Adrian W. Jones, set design).

Tallulah, known for her promiscuity and sexual escapades (with both sexes) stops belting back drinks and snorting cocaine only long enough to unleash a torrent of sexually-charged, raunchily funny dialogue that unnerves Danny, who feels her remarks and behavior are inappropriate for the work environment (and perhaps for any environment . . .)

They take a break after numerous, hilarious failed attempts to record the ridiculous line, “And so Patricia, as I was telling you, that deluded rector has, in literal effect, closed the church to me.” When they return, the real drama begins.

Amidst the humor, Lombardo’s play and Harper’s engrossing performance also reveal the Tallulah beneath the surface: a very sad, lonely woman who forces herself to keep up the pretense of the over-the-top free spirit who externally would appear not to care what people think, or to be concerned that the doctors have told her she might not have long to live.

Danny sees through the act, though, and accuses Tallulah of using drugs and alcohol to avoid reality. Not to be outdone Tallulah zeros in on Danny’s most vulnerable spot – and the secrets behind why he married his wife. Lombardo gets applause for writing one of the most plausible “two strangers meet and share their most intimate thoughts” scene in a play and the two unlikely comrades find that they might not be so different after all.

Harper, directed by Rob Ruggiero, throws herself into the part and into the trademark “daaahhhling” type of speech made famous by Tallulah who inspired the creation of the characters Blanche duBois and Cruella de Ville, among others. Harper imbues Tallulah with a vulnerable and feminine depth that makes her more likable and human in the face of the onslaught of vulgarity. Her obnoxiously loud, over-the-top-laugh seems to embody all of the emotions ever felt by this woman and makes you want to laugh and cry at the same time.

Looped plays through April 11 at the Lyceum Theater, 149 W. 42nd St., NYC. Tickets are available by calling (212) 239-6200 or (800) 432-7250.

Christians might also like to know:
• Language
• Sexually explicit dialogue
• Lord’s name taken in vain
• Drug use
• Bisexuality mentioned
• Show posts a Mature rating

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Theater Review: The Miracle Worker

This Revival Doesn’t Work any Miracles, Unfortunately
By Lauren Yarger
William Gibson’s play The Miracle Worker about the efforts by teacher Annie Sullivan to reach young Helen Keller, trapped in a world of blindness and deafness, is a moving piece of drama. You can’t help sit in awe of Sullivan’s determination and rejoice when Helen finally realizes that the words her teacher has been spelling out in sign language on her hands actually mean something.

The original Broadway production starring Patti Duke as Helen and Anne Bancroft as Sullivan took a best play Tony. The stars reprised their roles in the screen version and in a popular TV remake years later, Duke took on the role of Sullivan opposite Melissa Gilbert, then starring in TV’s "Little House on the Prairie," as Helen. The play is beloved and is presented often at regional and amateur theaters around the country.

For its first revival on the Great White Way in 50 years, Alison Pill takes on Sullivan and film actress Abigail Breslin, best known for her roles in “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Raising Helen,” “Nim’s Island” and “Kit Kittredge: an American Girl,” makes her Broadway debut as Helen. Unfortunately, as directed by Kate Whoriskey, this production fails to work any miracles. In fact, Ivoryton Playhouse in Connecticut's recent production directed by Jacqueline Hubbard with Helen played by Jenilee Lea Simons Marques, who in real life is deaf, was far superior and might have have been a better choice for the revival.

Joining Pill and Breslin at Circle in the Square is Matthew Modine as Helen’s father, Captain Keller, the southern gentleman who is at first reluctant to bring an outspoken Yankee woman into his home as a governess/teacher for his wild and undisciplined daughter. He finally gives in to the pleas of his wife, Kate (Jennifer Morrison, whom fans of the TV series “House” will recognize), who hopes Sullivan will be able to teach Helen something and keep the family from having to send her to an asylum.

Adding more opposition is the Captain's estranged son, James (Tobias Segal), who resents everything, including the chaos Helen brings to the household, Kate, whom he thinks too easily replaced his own mother in the Captain’s affections, and Sullivan, who seems to know how to get the Captain’s ever elusive attention.

Haunted by memories of the death of her little brother, Jimmy (Lance Chantiles-Wertz), while they were orphan inmates in an asylum, Sullivan sees reaching Helen as a form of redemption and steadfastly works to find a way to communicate with her while convincing her parents to stop confusing pity with love and to let her enforce some discipline.

The real miracle in the play is not just that Sullivan accomplishes these goals, but also transforms the whole family in different ways. Whoriskey never gets the actors to go beneath the surface, however, so much of the production seems like a bunch of people just shouting lines at each other rather than a study of the relationships.

Elizabeth Franz, Yvette Gannier and Michael Cummings give nice turns in minor roles, but the leads fail to engage. Breslin appears very animated and aware of actors and actions around her, not detached and unaware as we would expect Helen to be. She doesn’t seem to need any help and Pill never emits enough of a feisty spirit to convince us that she does. Most difficult is Morrison’s appearing cold and unfeeling while reciting lines about how much she cares.

Meanwhile, Derek McLane (set design) no doubt had a challenge creating scenes on a three-step floor in the center of the theater in the round. His solution: lace trim forming an oval on the ceiling out of which fly pieces of furniture, door frames, windows and whatever else is needed to create a scene. It doesn’t work. The pieces remain attached to their cables for the duration of their stay and it’s awkward and distracting.

Skillful lighting by Kenneth Posner does help to create different scenic areas. It creates an other-worldly feel when the undergarment-only-clad Jimmy, pitifully thin and racked with convulsive coughs, visits Sullivan’s thoughts. (I prefer other productions, like the one at Ivoryton, where we just hear Jimmy).

Gibson’s play itself is worth a night at the theater, though, especially if you haven’t seen it before. There were a number of giggling young children in the audience and it’s about a “G” rated a play as you’ll see on a Broadway stage.

The Miracle Worker plays Circle in the Square Theatre at 235 W. 50th St., NYC. Discount tickets are available for friends of Masterwork Productions. Go to http://www.givenik.com/?code=Masterworks, click on the show, then indicate at left that Masterwork Productions is the religious charity you wish to support to see the special rates.

Christians might also like to know:
• No content notes for this show

Theater Review: A Behanding in Spokane

This Play and Walken’s Creepy Performance Deserve a Hand for Most Creepy
By Lauren Yarger
Christopher Walken is one creepy guy – and that’s as it should be in Martin McDonagh’s newest Broadway play, and his first set in the USA, A Behanding in Spokane.

Walken plays Carmichael, a psychopathic killer searching for his missing left hand which was chopped off when some hillbillies in Spokane held the 17-year-old youth down in the path of an on-coming train. Cruelly, they used the severed hand to wave goodbye to him and now, years later, Carmichael is still trying to regain what was rightfully his.

The search connects him with a couple of con artists, Toby (Anthony Mackie) and Marilyn (Zoe Kazan), who try to convince him that an Aboriginal hand they stole from a museum is the one he is seeking. The deal disjoints, however, and Carmichael holds the couple hostage, chains them to the radiator in his shabby hotel room (Scott, Pask, set design) and goes to their apartment where they claim to have left the real hand on top of a freezer.

The couple brings new meaning to the word stupid, with Marilyn continually derailing Toby’s attempts to make up stories that might cause Carmichael to let them go, like the “other-hand-on-top-of-the-freezer” tale. She’s oblivious to their danger because she’s ticked off that Carmichael used the “n” word, and she’s even more angry at her African-American boyfriend for not being offended by it. They argue a lot and Toby cries a lot while they make some ridiculous attempts to save themselves. They don’t think of using the phone to call for help, however, until after Toby takes a call from Carmichael’s mother.

Perhaps even more stupid than the hostages, if that is possible, is hotel clerk Mervyn (Sam Rockwell), who obsesses about monkeys and of being a hero one day, all while knowing Carmichael is up to no good. He refuses to help the hostages escape, though, and somehow sees himself as Carmichael's sidekick. The sudden realization that Carmichael is the smartest person in the room is very frightening.

If this all sounds like an unlikely plot for a play, it is, until we notice the scathingly witty comment on society that McDonagh has weaved through it. It’s really uncomfortable to laugh at some of the language and really macabre situations, but it is very funny, and true, if bizarre, and you can’t help yourself.

It’s a dark and creepy comedy, tightly directed by John Crowley and played to perfection by Walken, who seems to enjoy making the audience wince. Only he could pull off shooting someone, then deliver an unaffected “I love you” to his mother on the phone in the next beat.

A Behanding in Spokane plays at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th St., NYC through June 6. Discounted tickets are available for friends of Masterwork Productions by going to http://www.givenik.com/?code=Masterworks. Click on the show and make sure you have selected Masterwork Productions as the charity you are supporting.

Christians might also like to know:
• Language
• God’s name taken in vain
• Violence
• Contains really macabre stuff
• The show posts a mature rating

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Banana Shpeel Sets New Dates Under New Management


Marty Schmelky has closed a deal with Cirque du Soleil to produce Banana Shpeel which will begin performances at the Beacon Theatre in New York on April 29 instead of March 17.

"The bananas are still a little green,” Schmelky said in explaining the postponment.

Those who purchased tickets through Ticketmaster for performances through April 28 will automatically be credited the ticket price and convenience charges. The credit should post to the credit card account within 10 business days. A special discount sent via e-mail will be offered to ticket holders of cancelled dates, which will be valid for performances starting April 29. For customer service inquiries, go to www.ticketmaster.com/h/asktm.html.

Banana Shpeel tickets for performances starting on April 29 can be purchased at http://www.schmelkyproductions.com/, http://www.ticketmaster.com/ or by calling 1-800-745-3000.

Performance Schedule:
April 29 - May 16, 2010:Wednesday-Saturday at 8 pm
Sundays at 3 pm

May 21 – Aug. 29, 2010:
Wednesday at 2 pm and 8 pm
Thursday and Friday at 8 pm
Saturday at 2 pm and 8 pm
Sunday at 2 pm & 6 pm

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Theater Review: Equivocation

The Play About the Play Within the Play’s the Thing. There's No Equivocating on That
By Lauren Yarger
Terrific performances by John Pankow as William Shakespeare and a strong ensemble cast playing multiple roles to portray members of his Jacobean acting company, conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot and various royals and politicos trying to cover up what really happened make for some fabulous theater in Manhattan Theatre Club’s Off-Broadway production of Equivocation.

The brightest star of the play, however, is its author Bill Cain, who skillfully weaves history, intrigue and language of the Bard to tell one of the most satisfying tales on a NY stage this season.

Shag, short for Shagspeare (there are a number of different spellings of his name), has been commissioned by Secretary of State Sir Robert Cecil (David Pittu) to write a play about the Gunpowder Plot, an attempt in 1605 by Catholics to blow up Parliament and assassinate Protestant King James I (David Furr). It seems like easy money for The King’s Men, the acting troupe performing Shakespeare’s plays at the Globe Theatre and at court.

Ah, but here’s the rub: the story on which the play must be based has been written by the king himself and it isn’t based on truth. It’s what those in power would like adopted as the official version. They agree that Shag, whom Cecil thinks is so talented that his works might still be read 50 years hence, should be the one to write it and while he’s at it, James would some witches added just for fun. Furr is equally entertaining playing the spoiled king and Sharpe, a conceited actor in the troupe.

Shag tries to write the play, but finds a lot of the facts don’t hold up under scrutiny (and even today there are unanswered questions about what happened and who really was involved. Visit http://www.gunpowder-plot.org/). Where did Guy Fawkes and a bunch of working class men get all that gunpowder and how did they dig tunnels to plant it underneath Parliament without removing any dirt for instance? In fact, there doesn’t seem to be evidence of a plot at all. Shag sneaks into prison to question tortured co-conspirator Thomas Wintour, but still can’t find any answers.

Also unable to provide any insight is another accused co-conspirator, Father Henry Garnet (Michael Countryman), head of the Jesuits and the last of the “old faith” priests. Garnet writes a pamphlet called “Equivocation” which, according to his critics, teaches persecuted and imprisoned Catholics how to lie under torture, but which, according to its author, explains rather “how to tell the truth in trying times.”

Shag tries to master the art of equivocation so he can write a play that will please the king without rewriting history. The result is really very clever. Cain deserves to take a bow along with the wonderful ensemble directed by Garry Hynes, because, really, the play’s the thing here. Rounding out the troupe is Remy Auberjonois and Charlotte Parry, the only actor besides Pankow playing a single role as Shag’s neglected and unappreciated daughter Judith who obsesses with doing the troupe’s laundry and with ridding her father’s works of boring soliloquies.

Francis O’Connor designs the brooding metal set and costumes that ingeniously appear to be modern and of the period simultaneously. Likewise, Cain’s uses today’s language, yet mixes in enough iambic pentameter to sound like the bard. Get over to the Globe …. I mean New York City Center, and catch this one before it closes March 28.

Tickets are available by calling 212-581-1212. The play is on Stage I at 131 West 55th St., NYC.

Christians might also like to know:
• Language
• Lord’s name taken in vain
• Violence
• Bloody violence/ torture

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Theater Review: Extinction

Michael Weston and James Roday. Carol Rosegg photo


Where Do Relationships Really Begin and End?
By Lauren Yarger
Two old friends get together for an annual weekend of debauchery in Atlantic City, but one of the men’s reluctance to join in the usual sex, drugs, gambling and drinking games this time around tests the boundaries of their relationship as well as how they define themselves in Gabe McKinley’s play Extinction Off Broadway.

Wealthy Max (Michael Weston) offers to bankroll the fun when Finn (James Roday) reveals that he has been wiped out trying to save his mother’s failed restaurant. Max offers money to finance his friend's graduate studies, orders room service and provides alcohol and cocaine in bulk to get Finn in the party mood, but it doesn't work. Finn confesses that he has married a woman they knew in college and that they are expecting a baby. He wants to turn over a new leaf and somehow, competing in a contest with Max where their conquests are assigned points – three points for single women, five for those who are married – just doesn't appeal.

Max is hurt, not only by Finn’s decision to embrace a more traditional life, but because Finn unexpectedly didn’t invite him to the wedding, let alone ask him to stand as best man. He decides to forgive and forget – well, at least to forget everything Finn has said – and asks the prostitute he has purchased for the evening to bring a friend along as a surprise for Finn.

Prostitute Missy (Amanda Detmer) dominates her relationship with the inexperienced Victoria (Stephanie E. Frame) much in the same way Max dominates his with Finn, and she coaches the recently unemployed girl about how to solve her financial problems by being with Finn.

The women try to remain pleasing even while the hostility between the men smolders, then bursts into a conflagration when a game of “remember when” turns ugly. Director Wayne Kasserman skillfully places the actors and brings out performances that show the progressively unattractive side of both men. The clever set designed by Steven C. Kemp (lighting design, Mike Durst) keeps the action in the two men’s hotel rooms separate, but simultaneously viewable. When the two women are left on their own for a few minutes, we discover that their relationship with each other and how they define themselves individually are just as vulnerable to extinction as those of their “dates.”

Roday flings humorous one-liners back and forth with Weston, who ironically happens to be a real-life friend from their NY University days as is McKinley, but the actor sounds nothing like his popular Shawn Spencer character on the hit TV show "Psych," despite the fact that Shawn and his sidekick Gus often share the same kind of banter. (Dulé Hill who plays Gus also happens to be a producer on Extinction and to complete the old-home week theme, Weston also guest starred on an episode of "Psych.") At the curtain call, I could see Roday physically remove himself from the character of Finn in evidence of some great acting.

Though the subject matter is difficult, McKinley injects a lot of sharp humor throughout. He also offers some implied morality about the consequence of some of the poor decisions the men make, about how avoiding temptation probably is the better choice and about how some decisions can come back to haunt you. It’s the type of play that lends itself to lots of discussion after the final curtain. The script also offers a thought-provoking surprise ending.

Extinction plays through March 14 at the Cherry Lane Theater, 38 Commerce St., NYC. Visit http://www.cherrylanetheatre.org/playing.php?page=guest for more information.

Christians also might like to know:
• Sexual activity and violent sexual activity
• Sexual dialogue
• Drug use
• Language
• Lord’s name taken in vain

Theater Review: Conviction

Kevin Hart, Catharine Pilafas and Ami Dayan

Spanish Inquisition's Interrogation Prompts Modern Counterpart
By Lauren Yarger
The confession of a 15th century priest about his secret marriage and his subsequent martyrdom plays out against a 20th century professor’s arrest for stealing the Inquisition’s records of the incident as Chicago Victory Gardens Theater presents the NY premiere of Oren Neeman’s Conviction Off-Broadway.

Neeman’s play, from the novel “Confession” by Yonatan Ben-Nachum, which won the 2001 Prime Minister Prize for Hebrew Literature, is adapted here by Ami Dayan and Mark J. Williams and plays out on a set doubling as a 1962 office in the Spanish National Archives and as a 1486 church confessional minimally designed by Jeremy Cole, who also directs.

The head of the archives, known only as Director (Kevin Hart), questions Israeli Professor Chaim Tal (Dayan) about his interest in the confidential document from the Inquisition. Director can’t figure out why this straight-forward confession of a priest would prompt such interest and make Tal risk arrest to possess it.

The modern-day interrogation continues and as Director rereads the aged pages from an interrogation hundreds of years ago, the story unfolds on stage with Dayan and Hart doubling as Priest Andreas Gonzales and his confessor, Juan De Salamanca, respectively. The Catholic priest no longer can hold the secret of his double life: he secretly has been married to a Jewish woman, Isabel (Catharine Pilafas), for more than a year.

The transition between time periods is well done, aided by some impressive quick-change costumes by Kevin Brainerd and original music by Jon Sousa and Yossi Green. Cole makes good use of the limited set and coaxes compelling performances from all three. A seductive scene between Isabel and Andreas is very artfully staged.

The script contains way too much exposition and is totally predictable, but Conviction is a very intriguing story enhanced by a very helpful printed program with a history lesson about the Jews and the Inquisition in Spain (most of which I had not known) and a glossary of Spanish and religious terms.

The show runs at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th St., NYC through March 21. Tickets are available by calling 212-279-4200 or online at http://www.ticketcentral.com/. For more information visit http://www.59e59.org/.

Christians might also like to know:
• Sexual activity

Monday, March 1, 2010

Theater Review: Signs of Life

Music, Character Development Misplaced in Story of Jews at Terezin
By Lauren Yarger
Jewish artists, political activists, homosexuals and anyone not deemed Arian enough by Hitler were imprisioned in the Czech city of Terezin during World War II. There the artists were forced to paint pictures of the “happy” life within the ghetto’s walls to mislead visiting Red Cross workers visiting the city.

Unbeknownst to the Nazis, artists, realizing they faced certain death, created other images depicting the true horrors of starvation, illness and executions they experienced at Terezin and secreted them in the walls and crawlspaces of the city's buildings. Some escaped detection and survive to this day to tell their story.

Now imagine if while I was telling you all that, the Jews and the Nazis were belting out songs – tons of them – and you’ll have an accurate picture of your own describing Amas Musical Theatre’s Signs of Life playing its world premiere Off-Broadway at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theatre.

Peter Ullian’s book almost seems to clash occasionally with Joel Derfner’s music (lyrics by Len Schiff). The show is directed by Jeremy Dobrish. It's hard to tell sometimes whether you have landed in the middle of “Schindler’s List,” Les Miserables or “Springtime for Hitler.” It’s really a shame, because the story of the Jews in Terezin is one that should be told.

Nic Cory as Jonas and Patricia Noonan as Lorelei Schumann
with Kurt Zischke as Commandant Raum and Allen E. Read as Officer Heindel. Joan Marcus photo.

The protagonist is artist Lorelei Schumann (Patricia Noonan), who is sent to the city Hitler called his “gift to the Jews” with her grandfather, Jacob (Stuart Zagnit), little brother, Wolfie (Gabe Green), fellow artist Jonas (Nic Cory), political agitator and subsequent love interest Simon Muller (Wilson Bridges), entertainer Kurt Gerard (Jason Collins) and the most interesting, but most underdeveloped character of them all, Berta Pluhar (Erika Amato), a Jew who converted to Christianity, renounced by her husband who wants to move up in the Nazi Party.

Amato does justice the show's best song, a chilling “Home Again Soon,” in which Berta shares her heartbreak over trying to comfort children in the camp who ultimately will be sent to Auschwitz. It’s followed by an equally moving response, “Mourner’s Kaddish” sung by Jacob. This is where the story, staging and music (Mike Pettry plays keboard and directs three other musicians offstage), all come together. Unfortunately it’s the only time it happens in the show. Most of the rest of the music seems out of place with singing Nazis and performers who appear to be in belting contests in song after song, many performed in a continuous operatic style, seemingly without end. I glanced at the program well into the first act to incredulously discover they still were singing just the second song.

I wanted to like this show, but couldn’t engage in World War II while I was caught up in the battle of the show’s elements clashing all over the place. The costumes (Jennifer Caprio), for example, seemed too nice and clean under the circumstances.

Then there's the dialogue. Simon’s bumbling attempts to express his feelings for Lorelei are cute at first, but soon wear thin, though Bridges does a fine job of playing the love-struck, tongue-tied boy. Much dialogue has an unnatural sound to it with fluctuations between formal and colloquial like this exchange between a starving Kurt and Lorelei, who agrees to give him one of her dumplings for a kiss:

“A kiss will do, thank you very much. It satisfies my girlish curiosity without too severely compromising my virtue.”

“You’re not going to tell me you’re a virgin?"

“That, Mr. Gerard, is none of your damn business!”

“Please. Kurt. And you?”

“You may call me Miss Schumann.”

Before you have time to ask, “What the heck?” Simon is belting another song.

Lorelei is inexplicably complacent about going to the ghetto and creating what the Nazis want at first, but finally comes to agree with Jonas about painting the truth when she realizes the Nazis aren’t really all that nice. The characters and plot don’t get a chance to develop as much as we’d like and while Terezin’s legacy is one that deserves to be shared, it just doesn’t come together here.

One of the highlights of the show, however, is Alex Distler’s set. Images from the city are projected onto a scrim before the Jews are sent to Terezin. When they arrive, the scrim gives way to a backdrop of stacks of luggage, with creative use of suitcases as props throughout. Also moving is an exhibition in the theater's hallway of some of the actual surviving artwork from Terezin.

Signs of Life plays at the theater inside the YMCA at 5 West 63rd St. through March 21. Post-show discussions have been scheduled as follows:
• March 2 Matinee: Barbara Siesel & Phillip Silver, Juilliard Graduate and Daughter of a Survivor, Colby College Professor Specializing in Music of the Terezin Period
• March 6 Matinee: Edgar Krasa, Terezin Survivor Regularly Performed in the Ghetto.
• March 6 Evening: Fred Terna, internationally recognized artist and scholar
• March 7 Matinee: Edgar Krasa
• March 9 Evening: Gisela Adamski, Terezin Survivor, speaker and member of Holocaust Survivors Inc., Queens Chapter
• March 16 Matinee: Sol Rosenkranz, Terezin Survivor and Volunteer at The Museum Of Jewish Heritage at Battery Park
• March 20 Matinee: Anita Schorr & Stephen Herz, a child survivor of Terezin and Frequent Speaker, Poet and Author of a Collection Inspired by the Terezin Period
• March 20 Evening: John Freund, Terezin survivor and one of the "Boys Of Birkenau."

Tickets are $55 for adults and $40 for seniors and students and $40 for all previews and can be purchased by calling 212-352-3101 or online at www.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/425.

Christians might also like to know:
• Language
• Sex outside of marriage
• Suicide attempt
• God’s name taken in vain
• Sexual dialogue and situations

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.

Copyright

All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com

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Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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