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Off Broadway

Aisle Say On The Square: March at the Signature Center (Part One)

Aisle Say On The Square: March at the Signature Center (Part One)
Wallace Shawn

Wallace Shawn

The Pershing Square Signature Center is among the busiest and most prolific theatre centers anywhere, offering a combination of new and revived material, primarily by contemporary American playwrights. The complex is home to the Signature Theatre company itself, which caters to general audiences of eclectic tastes; and the more renegade New Group, which tends to tread a darker path. Here’s what’s on offer there currently.

New Group Stuff
Matthew Broderick, Wallace Shawn
At first, Wallace Shawn’s Evening at the Talk House, inviting us to one in particular, seems an avuncular slightly arch memory play, as Robert (Matthew Broderick) recalls a gathering in which a number of things changed. The Talk House is an exclusive yet welcoming watering hole for cultural types, offering a comfy club room, gourmet hors d’oeuvres and sometimes temporary shelter. Robert, a former playwright of some prominence, now a hit sitcom headwriter and show runner, acquaints us with laconic Tom, his show’s star (Larry Pine); dishy snob composer-pianist Ted (John Epperson) and former producer Bill (Michael Tucker), happy to offer his negative opinion of anything you might like. Normal showbiz. Yet somehow not. And there is of course everybody’s biggest fan, Nellie (Jill Eikenberry), who runs the place and whose welcoming hear accommodates those not so lucky in their current show careers, like disenfranchised older actor Dick (Shawn). But it’s not until former wardrobe supervisor Annette (Claudia Shear), and then Talk House employee and former actress Jane (Annapurna Sriram) begin to discuss their recent straits that the insinuating truth pokes its heads aboveground and we understand that the Talk House is not merely a club, but a haven, or anyway it tries to be. Because the world outside is not the one you and I arrived from when we took our seats. And inside isn’t as safe as we might have thought.

Jill Eikenberry, Wallace Shawn

I often find the New Group’s—really artistic director Scott Elliott’s—dark vision to have little humanist compensation (obviously discounting lighter fare like Sweet Charity). But this one hits the sweet spot. Bleakly funny and given an environmental staging by Elliot, who has a knack for realism, Evening at the Talk House is unusual and, perhaps not altogether intentionally, a very worthy piece of dystopian speculative fiction, on par with such as Robert Sheckley’s The 10th Victim, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and Stephen King’s (as “Richard Bachman) The Running Man. It may even be chillingly relevant.

Isabelle Fuhrman, Abigail Breslin

Isabelle Fuhrman, Abigail Breslin. Photos by Monique Carboni.

I wish I could say I felt similarly enthusiastic writer-director Erica Schmidt’s All the Fine Boys, an, I think intentionally, claustrophobic play about two teenage girls, horror movie buddies (portent, portent) on the cusp of the sexual experience they crave. Emily (Isabelle Fuhrman) will pursue a dalliance with high school crush Adam (Alex Wolff)—they’re the naïve couple, theoretically the sweet ones—while Jenny (Abigail Breslin) will get entangled with Joseph (Joe Tippett) an older man (early 30s) she knows from church—they’re the hopelessly self-deluding couple, to put it mildly, who act only on impulse with zero sense of consequence until way too late. The play is bumpily acted, probably because it’s bumpily directed—everyone has their moments, though only Ms. Fuhrman seemed to me on solid ground throughout—but that goes along with its being bumpily written; in some ways, the sweet couple are as unsettling as the one headed toward…inevitability. I don’t necessarily need to know the exact reason why I’m taking the ride a playwright wants to take me on, but I want to at least have a sense that the playwright does. I can grudgingly admit it may work for some as a point-of-identification experience—my companion of the evening, a theatre professional from London, said she was “able to relate” to her teenage experience…but I didn’t see the here’s-why-you-care window for anyone lacking the connection.

Isabelle Fuhrman, Alex Wolff

Isabelle Fuhrman, Alex Wolff. Photo by Monique Carboni.

Off Broadway

David Spencer is an award-winning composer-lyricist, lyricist-librettist, author and musical theatre teacher. He has written music and lyrics for the Richard Rodgers Development Award-winning musical The Fabulist, which also contributed to his winning a Kleban lyrics award and several Gilman & Gonzalez-Falla Theatre Foundation grants. He is also lyricist-librettist for two musicals with composer Alan Menken: Weird Romance (WPA 1992, York 2004) and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, which had its sold out, extended world premiere in Montreal in Summer 2015; cast album release soon. He made his professional debut in 1984 with the English Adaptation of La Bohéme at the Public Theatre; and he has since written music and lyrics for Theatreworks/USA’s all-new, award-winning Young Audience versions of The Phantom of the Opera (1996) and Les Misérables (1999) (book and direction for both by Rob Barron). Currently he is writing book, music and lyrics for a musical based on the iconic Russian novel The Golden Calf. Spencer’s published books are the Alien Nation novel Passing Fancy (Pocket, 1994), The Musical Theatre Writer’s Survival Guide (Heinemann, 2005, a regularly reprinted industry standard) and the script of Weird Romance (Samuel French, 1993). He is on faculty and teaches at the BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop and has taught at HB Studio, the Workshop Studio Theater and Goldsmith’s College in London. His primary professional affiliations are BMI, The Dramatists Guild and The International Association of Media Tie-in Writers.

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