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Off Broadway

Aisle Say On The Square: Short Takes and Catch Ups

Aisle Say On The Square: Short Takes and Catch Ups

It’s the annual late season logjam! So in order to catch up, I’m going to blast through a few things in brief yet try to be comprehensive. The trick of capsule reviewing. Here goes.

I wish Sam & Dede, or My Dinner with André the Giant had a longer run, and that I’d been able to get to reviewing it sooner, because it’s among the highlights of the season. And though it ends this weekend, I write of it anyway, because Gino Dilorio’s play is built to travel and be imported (indeed, it’s a production of the Custom Made Theatre Co. out of San Francisco) and is easily produced elsewhere, having only two characters. Based on a true relationship, it examines the dynamic between two unlikely friends, playwright Samuel Beckett (Brendan Averett) and gargantuan wrestler André the Giant aka Dede (Dave Sikula). It begins with their unlikely acquaintance—Sam having been hired by Dede’s father to drive him to school, since even as a boy he’s too big to fit on the bus; then jumps a couple of decades to a long post-wrestling-match dinner, in which the fascinating philosophical discussion centers around how Dede, still growing and aware of his limited mortality (he should already be dead, say the doctors), is becoming more expansive and exuberant, while Sam, growing more insecure and distrustful of his celebrity, is becoming more minimalist; and ends with a Beckett-pastiche coda. In all ways, it’s a fine tour de force for all (including director Leah S. Abrams) and deserves a place in the contemporary repertoire around the country…maybe the world.
Cry Havoc

Cry Havoc

Similarly spectacular is Cry Havoc, at the New Ohio Theatre on Christopher Street, a production of the esteemed Bedlam company, who specialize in minimalist productions covering epic scope. And it doesn’t get more minimalist or epic than this. Performer-writer Stephan Wolfert, with relentless energy, sardonic wit, balletic physical dexterity, heart, humor, and a good deal of Shakespeare, delivers what may be one of the most powerful dramatic evocations of war ever, anywhere. Combining his own anecdotal, autobiographical experience with deconstructive analysis of a soldier’s psyche—how it is coopted, trained, built, honed, poised to operate with hair-trigger, cathartic violence; and how it is then abandoned to societal integration without de-conditioning—he takes you on a ride that is, like the one taken by the soldiers for whom he speaks, both nightmarish and exhilarating.
Church and State

Church and State

At New World Stages, there’s Church and State, about a Southern Senator campaigning for re-election (Rob Nagle), on the eve of his final speech before the vote, who decides to go off-script and say what he really feels about gun control and gun violence, over the objections of his wife (Nadia Bowers) and Eastern-Jewish-Liberal campaign manager (Christa Scott-Reed). An intermissionless 70 minutes, it’s eminently watchable, but your mileage may vary as to its effectiveness. Several theatrical colleagues I respect have put it in their recommend column. Speaking for myself: I found it a pleasant diversion, but I was ahead of it, story-wise, and I felt too aware of a formulaic conception. The dialogue by playwright Jason Odell Williams is solidly utilitarian, but for me, missed the crackle of other, sharper political dramatists like Aaron Sorkin, Gore Vidal and Garry Trudeau. Then again, it may be doing well with certain audience members—it comes to New York after several successful regional productions, most featuring Mr. Nagle—because it’s delivering a humanist message people need to have reinforced. Basic but clean direction is by Markus Potter.
How To Transcend A Happy Marriage

How To Transcend A Happy Marriage

At the Mitzi Newhouse in Lincoln Center, there’s Sarah Ruhl’s latest, How to Transcend a Happy Marriage. No stranger to sex-themed plays, she seems here to be squarely in the arena of sex comedy, though what’s notable is how dead that arena has been since the ‘70s, when three-camera sitcoms pretty much superannuated the genre in theatre. And where once-traditional sex comedy was pretty much a nudgy-winky affair, with innuendo and implication bait-and-switched in for actual, ahem, action, Ms. Ruhl, by accident of the era or conscious design, is changing those rules. This is not to say that there’s all that much to see (visually this is mild by the standards of soft porn), but there’s no ambiguity about the ride we’re on: Two happily married, best-friend couples, fascinated by a polyamorous trio, invite them to dinner at one of their homes to discuss and, ahem, see what transpires, which also leaves them to reckon with the consequences. Happily, Ms. Ruhl doesn’t fall on the sword of traditional formulae, introducing elements of tribal ritual (anthropologically speaking) and magic realism, even eschewing style niceties to move fluidly into and out of different styles (i.e. it isn’t until midway through the first act that a character who will thereafter periodically narrate breaks the fourth wall for the first time). Under the direction of Rebecca Taichman, a very good cast, featuring Marisa Tomei and Robin Weigert, delivers nicely. Not profound, but pleasant enough and maaaaaayyyybe a genre changer. But let’s not overstate the case too soon.

Joan into the Fire

Joan of Arc: Into the Fire

Since we’re into capsule mode, I’ll let discretion be the better part of valor and suggest that the less said the better—two apt clichés for the cliché-ridden rock opera that is David Byrne’s tedious Joan of Arc: Into the Fire, at the Public Theatre. Would that one could go back in time to the mid-70s, I’d be compelled to tell the creative team of Goodtime Charley (a much more foursquare, musical comedy retelling of the Joan story, that ran about three months) that all is forgiven, because comparatively it’s a classic. (And at least has the advantage of a cult-favorite score by Larry Grossman and Hal Hackady, that you can hear on YouTube here: the Fire…not so much.)
Beneath the Gavel

Beneath the Gavel

And while I feel a good deal more benign about Beneath the Gavel, the interactive art-auction…what…play? experience?…at 59E59, it’s a mild affair at best, its comedy too weak and its inside look at the business too ironically artlessly a classroom-type lesson. And as a production, kind of on the above-average community theatre level. Meh.

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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