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Reed Birney, Nana Mensah

Reed Birney, Nana Mensah

What are the top five things that a hamster does?  Spin in his wheelie thing? Stay in his cage?  Or does he break out? This is essentially the question that playwright, Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) is putting out there for us to contemplate in this quiet meditation of life. The provocative play, Man From Nebraska, which opens tonight at the Second Stage Theater, sets in motion a crisis of faith for his male lead, Ken Carpenter, played by the fearless Tony-winning Reed Birney (The Humans).  The first segment is a stunning bit of quiet story telling. Without that Nebraska small town stillness, the break wouldn’t hit us so hard. We are as confused as his wife, Nancy, played with a perplexed perfection by Annette O’Toole (Southern Comfort-so sad I missed this).  What does one say or do at a time like this when we see our own ‘hamster ‘ flail against his cage walls?

Nana Mensah, Max Gordon Moore, Reed Birney

Nana Mensah, Max Gordon Moore, Reed Birney

Joining in with the wife’s confusion, is his daughter, Ashley, wonderfully portrayed by the brave Annika Boras (David Cromer’s Our Town at the Barrow Street). She struggles to comprehend what this all means.  The world she lives in is the one she learned to take comfort in. She learned from her parents to find safety and structure inside these walls, and he is casting it aside; escaping it  for something unknown. Her father leaves his wife (temporarily) and his cage, coaxed out into the world by a caring yet flummoxed Reverend Todd (William Ragsdale) to go on a journey of discovery. Will Ken find what he is searching for? A way back ‘home’ in essence, like Dorothy to Kansas, back to a place of peace and understanding.

Max Gordon Moore, Nana Mensah

Max Gordon Moore, Nana Mensah

Once outside his small hamster cage, the Man From Nebraska is, not surprisingly, confused as to where to seek his salvation. Stunned by the bright big world and after a turbulent flight, he finds comfort and refuge in the hotel bar. All those he encounters, the wild woman, Pat (Heidi Armbruster), the mad artist, Harry (Max Gordon Moore), and most importantly, the magnificent and insightful Tamyra, (Nana Mensah), the bartender who introduces him to more than just a new cocktail. Unbeknownst to all three, in some wild and glorious ways, they help him down the yellow brick road, in his hope to find an the answer. Is it ‘God’ he hopes to find? A wizard to help him back home? Or just to understand what is behind the wizard or his God?

Reed Birney, Heidi Armbruster

The one piece of this puzzle that doesn’t seem to add anything to this compelling journey is the muddled interactions with Nancy and the world Ken left behind. There are powerful moments of confusion and anger between mother and daughter.  They register on numerous painful planes of emotion; abandonment, deception, victimization to name a few. And there are no easy answers here.  There are also some beautiful quiet moments between Nancy and Ken’s ailing mother, Cammie Carpenter (a wonderful Kathleen Peirce, also from Cromer’s Our Town) causing us to recognize Nancy’s isolation. But the interactions involving the Reverend’s father, Bud Todd (Tom Bloom) and Nancy don’t seem to expand on anything besides Nancy’s already finely detailed abandonment and despondency. It’s obvious that both Nancy and Ken believe and value their marriage more than God itself, but I’m not sure we needed this added test to know this about Nancy. Her battle with her angry daughter set that stage earlier on.  Nancy’s role in his quest is something that never gets fully incorporated enough to feel satisfying or as detailed.

Director David Cromer (The Band’s VisitThe Effect) does a superlative job slowly sussing out the details and the layers of Ken’s life, loves, and his lost soul that set him out on this journey of discovery, but not such a good job with Nancy. The space is a constant whirlwind of places and pieces making up the landscape of his journey (spectacularly detailed and creative work from scenic designer: Takeshi Kata; costume designer: Sarah Laux; lighting designer: Keith Parham) His unhappiness and disillusionment is the tornado in his soul that throws himself out of his sweet Kansas, I mean, Nebraskan home (lovingly echoed in the original music and sound design: Daniel Kluger). We hold our breath at the end to discover if and what he discovers about himself and the heavenly powers that be. I would have enjoyed a greater sense of clarity and understanding, and most likely Ken would as well, but the last few minutes are tense and completely engaging. Is there no place like home? Ken is definitely trying to find that out.
For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my last...so far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

Off Broadway

NYTW’s “I Love You So Much I Could Die” Asks A Lot From You. Are You Willing?

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I’ve seen several one-person shows this past week, 3 to be exact (Grand’s Huff, Tarragon’s Guilt, & TPM’s As I Must Live It); sorta 4 if you don’t want to get toooo technical about it all (Soulpepper’s De Profundis). And each one engaged our emotional soul in differing and unique manners. I couldn’t help myself thinking about that theoretical construct as I watched Mona Pirnot, writer and performer of I Love You. So Much I Could Die, walk in from behind, down the stairs, and onto the bare minimalistic set at the downtown New York Theatre Workshop. She sits, facing away from us all, staring upright at the back walk of exposed brick, and turns on her laptop and types a few things in to get this exercise rolling. And I was struck by the abstractionism we were about to sit through for the next 65 minutes. It was clearly going to be a different experience than any of these other shows I experienced last week, and I couldn’t help but wonder how I was going to respond to this setup.

It’s a structural theoretical experience, one destined to play mind tricks with almost every person in the audience. Pirnot (NYTW’s Usual Suspect) never turns to face us with the story she wants to tell. It’s unclear why at the beginning, but as she unleashes her story, not with her own voice, but with the voice of her computer, Microsoft text-to-speech tool, the complicated, and frustrating, unwrapping becomes more and more clear. It’s a completely devastating tale of pain and tragedy that she has set out to detail, most effectively in her “cut to” tense listing of events. And she doesn’t have the voice to actually say it out loud. It’s too much. Too difficult to vocalize. She has the words, obviously, and the wit and strength, but not the voice. Unless she is singing a sad song of sorry, or love, accompanying herself with her trusted guitar that sits, oddly enough, facing us on the wide expanse of the stage.

Mona Pirnot in I Love You So Much I Could Die at New York Theatre Workshop – photo by Jenny Anderson.

The story is spoken out to us from that Microsoft voice, somewhat flat and awkward, distancing ourselves and her from the horribly sad and dark moments of an accident of some sort that incapacitated (to put it mildly) her sister during that complicated timeframe of the pandemic when visiting a loved one in the hospital was just not allowed. It seems she needs that disconnect to really tell us that tale; of that difficult and chaotic time in Florida where she spent months trying to survive her emotional self and the space she found herself with her husband; the playwright and ultimately the director of this show Lucas Hnath (Broadway’s A Doll’s House, Part 2). It’s an understandable predicament, one that I’ve always praised when an actor can tell us such a sad tale and maintain their voice, so I wrestled with that inside my head, somewhat distractively, during her unpacking, and somehow came out the other end understanding and sympathizing with the theory and experiment.

Using that flat computer tone and by staying turned away, she is able to unwind a story that may cripple her if she had to look us in the eye and tell us personally about her pain. I get that entirely, but I wasn’t convinced at the beginning (and maybe a little at the end as well) that this kind of confessional makes for good theatre. I soon discovered that there was little to look at on that stage after the initial few minutes, even with the fine work done by scenic designer Mimi Lien (Broadway’s Sweeney Todd), the fading lighting design mastery of Oona Curley (NYTW’s runboyrun & In Old Age), the simplistic but meaningful costume design by Enver Chakartash (PH’s Stereophonic), and the solid expanding sound design by Mikhail Fiksel (NYTW’s How To Defend Yourself). I could engage during the few musical interludes that filled the space with her lovely voice singing touching songs of sadness and love, but during the other moments, especially the “cut to” scenarios and a sad tale revolving around sickness and death, I could look away, stare at the floor or the wall of ladders that were to my left, and just dive into those flat words with abandonment.

Mona Pirnot in I Love You So Much I Could Die at New York Theatre Workshop – photo by Jenny Anderson

It’s not the simplest experience to endure, and endear, but there is another level, maybe one that director Hnath has played with before in his experimental Dana H., which played both off-Broadway and on (and on a Toronto stage next month that I hope to see) where we have to pull out internal connections to our own pain and sadness to really engulf ourselves in this somewhat slim play. It’s the flatness and metallic quality of the voice that forces us to find what we feel about the tale she is telling. Not an exercise of taking on what an actor is somehow transmitting to us, in a way, telling us how to feel about the pain being described. I’m crying, so you should be too. I’m laughing at this part, so you should laugh too. No one is giving us a sign or direction in the way we should be experiencing this, so we must look deep inside ourselves if we are to really embrace it.

Or we don’t have to. That is the other option. We can let the computer voice give us permission to nod off, and not engage with this terrible event she needs to tell us, nor the love and care she experienced from her husband. Pirnot tells us flat out (in a NYTimes interview), that she “couldn’t find the strength to verbalize her feelings to [Hnath] or her therapist … she typed her thoughts into her laptop, and prompted a text-to-speech program to voice them aloud.” Makes sense, even to this writer (who is also a psychotherapist in his real day job). Does it make great theatre? That is a question that only each audience member can decide for themselves, inside and within that very moment, as they sit in the ever-darkening theatre listening to I Love You So Much I Could Die. Do I dig deep and engage with my own emotional self, led there by no other person but myself? Or do I decide to not go there? Both are credible options, with very different outcomes. You decide. Dig deep or go home. And I won’t judge you for which you choose. I chose one-way last night. I can’t tell you what I might have chosen on a different night. That’s pretty impossible to know.

Mona Pirnot in I Love You So Much I Could Die at New York Theatre Workshop – photo by Jenny Anderson. For tickets and information, click here.

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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Off Broadway

FIVE: The Parody Musical Meets The Press

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Look out SIX, here comes FIVE: The Parody Musical. Henry VIII and his six wives had nothing on Donald, the 45th, and these five ladies. This morning they met the press.

FIVE is an irreverent musical comedy revue starring Anyae Anasia as Ivana, Gabriella Joy Rodriguez (The Color Purple) as Marla, Jaime Lyn Beatty (Stranger Sings! The Parody Musical) as Melania, Gabi Garcia as Stormy, Hannah Bonnett (Legally Blonde national tour) as Ivanka, and Jasmine Rice LaBeija as Hillary Clinton.

Michael Cohen

Featuring a book and lyrics by Shimmy Braun and Moshiel Newman Daphna and music and lyrics by Billy Recce (A Musical About Star Wars), directed and choreographed by Jen Wineman, the production features orchestrations and arrangements by Terence “T” Odonkor, music supervision and arrangements by Lena Gabrielle, scenic design by David Goldstein, costume design by Florence D’Lee, lighting design by Marie Yokoyama, sound design by UptownWorks, hair and wig design by Ian Joseph, and props by Brendan McCann. Mark Osgood is production stage manager.

Moshiel Newman, Billy Recce, Jen Wineman, Shimmy Braun

FIVE begins its run Off-Broadway at Theater 555 February 15. Opening night is February 19, and the limited engagement will continue through March 10.

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Off Broadway

Russian Troll Farm; a Comedy About Dirty Politics, Dirty Russians and Dirty Trolls

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“As I researched the IRA’s (the Internet Research Agency) activities, I started getting this uncomfortable feeling that … I might be really great at this job. Trolls spend all day making up characters, writing dialogue, staging fights, triggering strong emotions … essentially, they’re playwrights!” Sarah Gancher in her program notes.

Sarah Gancher’s Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy takes us back to the time before the 2016 presidential election. Here truth, facts, manipulation, propaganda are in question — or are they?

Hadi Tabba, Renata Friedman
Photo by Carol Rosegg

We are transported to the real-life organization, the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg. The agency employed fake accounts registered on major social networking sites attempting to influence the 2016 United States presidential election. On February 16, 2018, a United States grand jury indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities, including the Internet Research Agency, on charges of violating criminal laws with the intent to interfere “with U.S. elections and political processes”, according to the Justice Department.

Haskell King, John Lavell,Christine Lahti, Renata Friedman, Hadi Tabba
Photo by Carol Rosegg

What Russian Troll Farm does is introduce us to the people inside. We have Egor (Haskell King), who is into his job or is it the people he meets on-line?  Steve (a fabulous John Lavelle) who is on high octane, intimidating others and getting off on 4chan. The supervisor of the floor Nikolai (Hadi Tabbal), whose marriage got him the job and whose chemistry with newcomer Masha (Renata Friedman) a former journalist will be his downfall. Heading them to their dark demise is Ljuba (Christine Lahti), a woman of steel who used to be a KGB senior manager, whose sexuality could get her axed.

Christine Lahti, Renata Friedman
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Like life, the most manipulative see and seek ways to destroy the fold, simply for fun and control.

Christine Lahti, Haskell King Photo by Carol Rosegg

Darko Tresnjak’s direction keeps us at a distance from being too pulled in. It feels as if we are watching a tragedy that has no hope.

Haskell King, John Lavell Photo by Carol Rosegg

Lavelle makes this play thoroughly entertaining, reminding us of Jack Black, as he mops up the stage. He is a frat boy who will never grow up and is still playing those repulsive childish games, just because he can. Christine Lahti’s story is the most human, but it comes out of left field.

The set by Alexander Dodge is sterile and Jared Mezzocchi’s projections with titles to let us know whose game it is are confusing.

There are many who will love Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy, I just think it lost track of what it was trying to say.

Russian Troll Farm: A Workplace Comedy: Vineyard Theatre, 108 E 15th Street through February 25.

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Off Broadway

Off-Broadway Week Starts February 13

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NYC Off-Broadway WeekSM, presented by Mastercard®,has 2-for-1 ticket sales to 30 Off-Broadway shows. This biannual program, which features over a dozen new shows, runs February 12–March 3, 2024.

Participating shows in NYC Off-Broadway Week Winter 2024 include:

  1. A Perfect Peace *

  2. All The Devils Are Here

  3. Blue Man Group

  4. Brooklyn Laundry *

  5. Cinderella The Musical

  6. Dead Outlaw *

  7. Drunk Shakespeare

  8. Eva Luna

  9. Five The Parody Musical *

  10. Friel Project – Aristocrats *

  11. Friends! The Musical Parody

  12. Gazillion Bubble Show 

  13. Hotel Happy *

  14. Jack Tucker: Comedy Standup Hour *

  15. Jonah * 

  16. La Breve Y Maravillosa Vida De Oscar Wao

  17. The Life And Slimes Of Marc Summers *

  18. Make Me Gorgeous * 

  19. Munich Medea: HAPPY FAMILY *

  20. Nicole Travolta Is Doing Alright *

  21. Nina Conti: The Dating Show *

  22. The Office! A Musical Parody

  23. Perfect Crime

  24. Pericles *

  25. Play That Goes Wrong

  26. Radojka

  27. Singfeld! A Musical About Nothing

  28. Tennessee Williams’s The Night Of The Iguana *

  29. Titanique  

  30. White Rose: The Musical *

* New participants in NYC Off-Broadway Week.

“We are proud to have over 30 Off-Broadway productions take part in this year’s NYC Off-Broadway Week program,” said Casey York, President of The Off-Broadway League. “For over a decade, this biannual program has allowed our productions to continue to showcase the intimate setting and diversity that is inherent to the Off-Broadway community, captivating both New Yorkers and visitors alike.”

Participating Off-Broadway shows can be sorted by filters including Genre (Comedy, Drama, Kid-Friendly, Magic, Musical, Play), Audience (Adults Only, Family–All Ages, Not for Younger Children (5+), Teens and Adults), Borough and Neighborhood at nyctourism.com/offbroadwayweek

Since its launch in 2009, over 800 Off-Broadway productions have participated in NYC Off-Broadway Week. The program has also generated nearly $5 million in revenue through sales; over 120,000 tickets have been sold. New York City’s economic recovery continued in 2023 with 61.8 million travelers arriving in the City—marking a recovery of 93% of the City’s record 2019 visitation levels.

For more information and tickets, visit nyctourism.com/offbroadwayweek

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Off Broadway

Still Brings Jayne Atkinson and Tim Daly Off Broadway

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Following a successful run at the Dorset Theatre Festival in 2023, Jayne Atkinson and Tim Daly will be reprising their acclaimed roles as Helen and Mark in the New York premiere of Still by Lia Romeo. The play will be produced by Colt Coeur (Adrienne Campbell-Holt, Founding Artistic Director; Heather Cohn, Executive Producer), directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt (Lucille Lortel Visionary Director Award).

Jayne Atkinson

 

“Lia Romeo has written a play that I feel I’ve waited for my whole life. What an honor!,” said Tony Award nominee Jayne Atkinson.

“This play is funny, moving, thought provoking, and endlessly surprising and as an actor and for an audience that’s an exciting combination of elements,” said Emmy Award nominee Tim Daly.

Thirty years ago, Helen and Mark broke up, but they never completely forgot about each other. When they meet for dinner to catch up, the flame is rekindled… but Mark is running for Congress, and Helen has a secret that could derail his bid. Lost love is revisited and an avocado goes flying in Lia Romeo’s whirlwind New York premiere comedy about getting older, political divisions, and roads not taken.

“I wrote Still because I was struggling with some big questions… what to do when you love someone, but you hate some of the things they believe… and what to do when there’s someone you can’t be with but you also can’t manage to forget. I thought writing about these questions might lead me to answers. It didn’t. But it did show me that they’re questions that also resonate with a lot of other people,” said Playwright Lia Romeo. “I’m so excited that Colt Coeur is bringing this beautiful production to New York. Tim and Jayne bring so much sympathy to these characters… it’s impossible not to love them, even when they’re doing and saying terrible things to one another.”

Still begins previews on April 13, for a limited engagement through May 18, 2024, at DR2 Theatre (103 East 15th Street). The press opening is scheduled for Thursday, April 18.

Tickets begin at $26 and are on sale now at www.telecharge.com and 212-239-6200. Ten $10 tickets will be available for each performance in April while supplies last. Student and Artist Tickets available for a discount in-person at the box office only with valid ID.

 

 

 

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