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I'm just Loving It

I’m Just Loving It by Melissa Maney is set in a realm where nightmares come to life. We meet the sympathetic Glute (Eden Rubinpour) who believes in saving the week and the vulnerable. Trapped inside this hellish place with her is Kane (Lamin Leroy Gibba) who has been blinded and is now out for himself. They have seen others come and go, beaten and hurt by a man only known as Red (Morgan Fay). They live in fear of who will be his next victim. With a crash and a bang the newbie (Belissa Escombedo) shows up and Glute becomes protective where Kane only wants to torment. Like some children of abuse, he has become the abuser. This short play ends with Red coming in and in a surprising twist we learn the abuser is someone we all know and who little children love.

The cast is uniformly good, except for Ms. Escobedo who is the week link. Instead of seeming frightened and lost, she just seems out of it and it confuses the play.

The set was interesting as was the lighting and sound by Eric Nightengale. The direction by Marina Montesanti was well done and captured this terrifying landscape. The movement by Rae Hass also added to this hellish journey.

Ms. Maney’s script is creative, flowing and frightening. Her dialogue is well thought-out and we are easily put headlong into this phantasm. I do have questions about the ending, but a longer script would solve this dilemma.

My only question for this script is who will produce I’m Just Loving It and where it can play. There are horrorfest’s that this is perfect for. This is truly a show that is disturbing and chilling.

I’m Just Loving It: Winterfest, Hudson Guild, 411 West 26th Street. Closed

Suzanna, co-owns and publishes the newspaper Times Square Chronicles or T2C. At one point a working actress, she has performed in numerous productions in film, TV, cabaret, opera and theatre. She has performed at The New Orleans Jazz festival, The United Nations and Carnegie Hall. She has a screenplay and a TV show in the works, which she developed with her mentor and friend the late Arthur Herzog. She is a proud member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle and was a nominator. Email: suzanna@t2conline.com

Off Broadway

Public Theater Brings “The Ally” Forward for an Intense Debate

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So here’s the pickle. This play, The Ally, clocking in at a far too long two hours and forty minutes, throws controversy at you in numerous long-winded speeches one after the other, filling your brain with details and complexities that clash and do battle with each other from beginning to end. The structuring is intelligent, as the Public Theater‘s new play, The Ally, written by Itamar Moses (Outrage; The Band’s Visit) and directed with precision by Lila Neugebauer (Second Stage’s Appropriate), strides forward into dangerous territory with determination against all odds. Wickedly smart and articulate, the play, in general, overwhelms the intellectual senses. It’s factual and intricate, somewhat off-balanced and attacking, delivering detailed positions with fiery accuracy, which only made me question whether I wanted to sit this one out. Or step more in.

It’s unsafe and determined, placing the action (or inaction, if you really want to get into it) inside a college campus, and attempting to engage in deep-level conversations and arguments with the complicated issues of the world. These are exactly the debates worth having, says basically one character to another, in the tradition of arguing. Because banning free speech is “weird on a college campus.” These conundrums and conflicts are core to passionate dialogue, and just the idea of having them is meeting with fierce debate at universities and colleges across the country. The complexities and the tipping points are layered and real, swimming in a sea of questions about what free speech really truly means, and how differing points of view, civil dialogue, and the stark polarization contrasts collide and enflame. And how, in discussion, defensiveness and aggressive emotional stances are taken on and used against one another like weapons; bullets, and missiles. I even feel a bit worried that taking this stance of wanting to back away might be taken as ‘part of the problem’.

Ben Rosenfield and Josh Radnor in The Ally at The Public Theater. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

The program notes that “the theatre is a safe space in the most literal sense of that term: no one is going to be physically harmed during this performance in the Anspacher. But it is most decidedly not a safe space if by that term we mean a space where everyone will feel comfortable and no one will feel angry, saddened, or offended. It can’t be that kind of space. The theater depends on conflict – the form itself refuses the idea of a single truth. It’s why I [Oskar Eustis; Artistic Director of The Public Theater] believe that theater is the ultimate democratic art form – just like citizens in democracy, the theater demands that we listen to and share opposing viewpoints, and that from that conflict, a greater truth will emerge.” And I couldn’t agree more with that.

Yet, even with such heightened emotions on stage, delivered full throttle by the excellent cast that includes Cherise Boothe (Signature’s Fabulation,) as Nakia; Elijah Jones (Signature’s Confederates) as Baron; Michael Khalid Karadsheh (Target Margin’s The Most Oppressed by All) as Farid; Joy Osmanski (“Stargirl“) as Gwen; Josh Radnor (LCT’s The Babylon Line) as Asaf; Ben Rosenfield (RTC’s Love, Love, Love) as Reuven; and Madeline Weinstein (BAM’s Medea) as Rachel, who each try to make it sound more authentic than the writing really allows, the play suffers from how deep of a dive the writing goes. But not without a solid attempt by this cast, bringing qualities and characteristics to the forefront whenever they are given the chance. But a lot of the time, like their main focus, Radnor’s Asaf, they must stand and listen to whoever has the microphone at that one particular speechified moment. And wait, just like us, for the next round. And viewpoint.

Madeline Weinstein, Michael Khalid Karadsheh, and Elijah Jones in Ally at The Public Theater. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

Playwright Itamar has certainly dived fully into some of the most difficult topics of our time and asks us to patiently listen to all sides, even when the dialogue doesn’t really resemble discussion but more like informed lectures or one-framed speeches. On the plainest of sets, designed by Lael Jellinek (Public/Broadway’s Sea Wall/A Life), with costuming by Sarita Fellows (Broadway’s Death of a Salesman), lighting by Reza Behjat (ATC’s English) and sound design by Bray Poor (Broadway’s Take Me Out), The Public‘s The Ally, uncovers some emotional space within the manifestos presented. Itamar states in the note section: It “wasn’t that i had nothing to say,” he carefully explains, like the main character who has to stand back and take on the full force and brunt of the argument. “Rather, I didn’t know where to begin because what I had to say was too confused, too contradictory, too raw.” And if that was the complicated stance he was trying to unpack, the playwright succeeded tremendously well.

But does that make The Ally, at The Public Theater, especially this long-winded one, worth sitting through? I’d say yes, and I’d say no. I couldn’t wait to leave that debate hall, but I was also impressed and intrigued by the arguments presented and discussed, even if ‘debate’ would not exactly be the word I would use for the ideas thrown around at one another with brutal force. One of the later statements said to Radnor’s Asaf by his ex-girlfriend, Nakia (Boothe) at maybe one of the few truly emotional moments of actual human souls speaking their truth, sums up my stance. “The thing you need, may not be words.” I won’t argue with that.

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Off Broadway

The New Group’s “The Seven Year Disappear” Is a Sweet Wonderful Lollipop of Strong Whiskey and Sadness

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Have I got the complicated guy for you?” And with that commentary from one friend to another, The New Group‘s fantastically layered cocktail of whisky and sadness dives in. It’s a deliciously adept remark, related somewhere in the midst of this time-jumping fascination that revels in art and protest; personal and political. Or so The Seven Year Disappear, written with forceful intent and intelligence by Jordan Seavey (Homos, or Everyone in America), tells us. The complication and attraction are stated by one of the many wild and wonderful interactions had by the son and manager of the world-famous performance artist, played to detailed length by the wonderful Cynthia Nixon (“The Gilded Age“; MTC’s The Little Foxes). He, Naphtali, dynamically portrayed by Taylor Trensch (LCT’s Camelot; Broadway’s Hello, Dolly!), is that guy. He’s part of the art, but this time, he has been left out of the loop, abandoned by his mother after vanishing into thin air, as he stood, introducing her to a roomful of donors at an event organized by him to announce a new creation that she has been commissioned for by MoMA.

But, she was gone, yet also, as this play spins forward and back most savagely, she is everywhere. As the timeline zips up and down in the background, giving titles to framed artworks of time, Naphtali tries in his own way to cope with the sudden disappearance and move forward, playing the game, but not aware of the rules. The play, directed with preciseness by Scott Elliott (TNG’s The Seagull/Woodstock, NY), is a masterclass of performance and creation, taught by the incomparable Nixon. She presents herself as both the artist and the art, taking on all the faces of those Trensch’s desperate son engages with during those years; friends, lovers, coworkers, lovers, and flirtations. Nixon digs in with all her might, taking on accents and postures that resonate and reveal both their harshness and their care. It’s clever and fascinating in its construct, especially as it bounces around, unleashing all the responses one could have with such a mother as this.

Taylor Trensch and Cynthia Nixon in The New Group’s The Seven Year Disappear. Photo by Monique Carboni.

And then she returns, suddenly from her disappearance act of art, taking a seat casually, requesting cooperation and involvement, when she has given him neither. Naphtali must confront her absence and neglect, something that has been painted on him from the day he was born, like a canvas. But it all comes to a centerpiece head with a request that baffles him, yet explains so much, without her answering the questions and inquires he has for her. It’s a compelling setup, that delicately transforms itself before us on that meticulously cold-formed stage, courtesy of scenic designer Derek McLane (Broadway’s Moulin Rouge!), with simple yet effective costuming by Qween Jean (TNG’s Black No More), complex and determined lighting by Jeff Croiter (MTC’s Cost of Living), solid and electric sound by Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen (Broadway’s Sweat), and the meticulously well scrolled out projection design by John Narun (Life Jacket’s Gorey…).

It’s all “part of the art“, we are told by The New Group‘s The Seven Year Disappear, and part of the game, and it works, this sweet lollipop of art and attachment, reconstructing its own brilliantly crafted formula as a way to wrap up the discontent and connection. It’s captivating and fascinating, watching the attachment and anger flourish and recede into the performance art that is at its core. The two relish the wonderfully created interactions, finding layers of complication and attraction to interact with inside an installation of reconciliation and art. The range of ideas unspooled is relentless and ravishing in its determined approach to a mother and a son, and their complicated dance of love and misuse. And I was enthralled.

Cynthia Nixon and Taylor Trensch in The New Group’s The Seven Year Disappear. Photo by Monique Carboni.

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Off Broadway

The Connector at MCC

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Journalism as a background topic seems never to fail to please an audience, from The Front Page to All the President’s Men and Network, and now to The Connector. MCC Theater has delivered a gut-punching story, the kind you’ll be talking about at your next party. The basic plot is simple enough, and a thoroughly capable and engaging cast directed by Daisy Prince tells the story succinctly, crisply and effectively.   

I would be remiss if the set design were not in the spotlight. The title is projected onto a scrim the size of the stage in letters 75% the height of the space moving across like the Times Square Zipper. On this scrim one can see pages of the  titled magazine neatly displayed. This partially obscures the orchestra.   

Banker boxes of paper flank the stage and are used to simulate additional office space. 

Lighting on the floor of the stage helps define the space from office to meeting space to cocktail lounge and works like a part of the set design. Hats off to Beowulf Boritt and Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew for a bit of magic before the actors set foot on the stage. 

Ben Levi Ross and company By Joan Marcus

The audience must confront the following statements throughout, and they arrive like a splash of cold water in the face.   The whole world changed and everything stayed the same. Truth is not about the facts—they can be manipulated.  The whole world changed but the truth remained the same. Who cares if it’s true–is truth the same as fact?   Truth is not what you say it is. We believe what we believe.   

Ben Levi Ross By Joan Marcus

The main character is Ethan Dobson (Ben Levi Ross), a wunderkind whose secondary speciality is the ability to ingratiate himself with everyone of consequence.  He is also an excellent writer. His boss Conrad O’Brien (Scott Bakula) sees in Ethan his younger self and becomes his champion. All this is observed by Robin Martinez (Hannah Cruz), a copy writer who feels neglected and underappreciated.    

Shake these characters up a bit and they could be Perry White, Lois Lane and Clark Kent. It would be a disservice to reveal the ending, but suffice it to say that it is predictable while shocking. Elements of this work could have been ripped from newspapers now, which only underscores the eternal truth of the more things change, the more they remain the same. 

The music by Jason Robert Brown works effectively to tell this tale and is modern and true to the times and topic.  The audience was very receptive to it. Jonathan Marc Sherman’s book is riveting, and Daisy Prince keeps this fast-moving train on track beautifully. The ending is quite moving, and there is an element that could be regarded as a gimmick, but unlike most, it works beautifully and will not soon be forgotten. Nor will this play – see it now! 

The Connector: MCC Theater Space, 511 W 52nd Street, through March 17th.

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Off Broadway

Jonah Off-Broadway at Roundabout Cracks Wide Open Trauma and Repair

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The story that is being told is a complete page-turner. Back and forth, up and around, and deep within, flipping from now to back then in a light flash of repeated verbal moment and some lightning cracks in the time continuum. It’s a fantastically compelling unpacking, these articulate moments of disturbing wonder, playing with frameworks and fantasies that gnaw at our stressful hearts and imagination. We are pulled, sweetly, at first, into the world of Ana, played to perfection by the magnificently detailed Gabby Beans (LCT’s The Skin of Our Teeth), completely and within an instant, wanting and waiting for this tender kind of interaction to blossom, but also realizing she walks too fast and too forward. We want to hold on to this cautious, overly emotional tingling, and gigantically charming awkward fumbling. It can make a young man cry. Or a young woman lean in with hope and faith.

Roundabout Theatre Company‘s Jonah, a new play most vitally and inquisitively written by Rachel Bonds (Goodnight Noboby; The Lonely Few), asks us to follow in the quick footsteps of Ana, begging us to keep up, but falling through doorways with abstract oblivion at a moment’s notice. It’s the tenderest of beginnings, with a crack that opens up a world of problematic trauma and complex formulations. Those trapped constructs, and those “deep deep sick” feelings, sneak inside our senses and leave us wondering where we are moment to moment, and what should we believe.

As directed with clarity and vision by Danya Taymor (Broadway’s Pass Over), the effect is deliberately destabilizing, giving you tenderness and discomfort within moments of each other, with the changing of the guard brought upon by sharp cracks and seizures in the universe. The titular character, Jonah, delicately and dynamically portrayed by the sweetest of creatures, Hagan Oliveras (“American Horror Stories“; Players Theatre’s The Trouble with Dead Boyfriends), runs in pursuit of the electric energy of Ana, trying hard to keep up with this fantastical creature. What is she running to? Or from? It’s the most engaging of beginnings, drawing us forward with awkward longing and a supersonic unseared outreach. We couldn’t want this union more as we say “yeah, yeah, yeah” to their cross-legged flirtation with love and understanding, but there is something that just doesn’t feel real, or maybe right, in their outreach. And an uneasiness starts to sink in.

I like you,” he says, with utter sincerity, and our hearts shimmer open a wee bit more. Jonah plays with our sensibilities and our own longing for this kind of thoughtful spring awakening, until that lighting crack and skipping occurs. Much like on an old-fashioned record player, courtesy of the stellar work of set designer Wilson Chin (MTC’s Cost of Living), lighting by Amith Chandrashaker (MTC’s Prayer for the French Republic), and sound design by Kate Marvin (MCC’s Wolf Play), a fracture comes into play, and we are thrown. Or is it he that is thrown? We are no longer in her dorm room, cozy and awkward, retelling our intricate fantasizes to a wide-eyed young man in love, but somewhere else, trying to survive the brutal hard world of before alongside her stepbrother Danny, played powerfully by Samuel H. Levine (Broadway’s The Inheritance). It doesn’t carry with it that same sense of authentic innocence and safety. It’s dangerous, and uncomfortable, even in the care and protective stance of her stepbrother.

Gabby Beans and Samuel H. Levine in RTC’s Jonah. Photo by Joan Marcus.

I do what I want,” is a refrain the young Ana keeps repeating to the lovestruck Jonah, and at first we believe in the bravado, until we see a different aspect of Ana’s existence, a parallel universe, in a way, where the trap has been set, not by her, but by the world of ‘have and have not’; ‘need and hunger’. “She just got trapped,” she says of her mother, “afraid of what he might do.” She knows this caged framework in a way that few of us can understand, yet maybe the third man that comes knocking on that door, later, in a different place and time, can ask the right question from the correct category of topics; the one that is now fixated on the flame of Ana; the very tall Steven, played to itchy delight by John Zdrojeski (Broadway’s Good Night, Oscar).

It is there in the third where something shifts, where protection and need come together, collide, and shatter on the floor. Ana is working hard to find something that resembles her fantasy, or push the thought away behind her writing and a closed door. But also, maybe she can discover at least a pathway for the opening up and the healing to begin. It’s the cleverest of constructs, looking at trauma and pain from a number of angles and vantage points, all at once, from up above, back and forward, and within such a detailed and unique lyrical unwrapping. Beans is absolutely ingenious in her complicated approach to the parallels, giving us a character worthy of the fixation. Jonah is the key, the ointment to stop the itch, and the pathway to healing.

John Zdrojeski and Gabby Beans in Roundabout Theatre Company’s .Jonah. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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Music

Jason Robert Brown’s The Connector Is Intelligent, Thought Provoking and Musically Seamless

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“The truth is not about the facts – forgive me. The facts can always be manipulated, arranged, massaged – We are not purveyors of facts, we are tellers of truths.” …..Or are we?

The Connector now playing at MCC’s Newman Mills Theater space, has twice been extended and in all honesty should move to Broadway this season. If it did it would stand a good chance of being nominated or winning Best Musical, Best Score, Best Orchestration, Best Direction, Best Lead Actor and many of the technical awards. I wouldn’t be surprised if it sweeps the Drama Desk and The Outer Critics Circle Awards come award season.

Set in 1996 at a newspaper called “The Connector”, this unrivaled purveyor of “the truth and nothing but the truth,” is about to be put to the test. Enter Ethan Dobson (the remarkable Ben Levi Ross), fresh out of Princeton who’s arrived with talent, guts and a smarmy style.

Scott Bakula, Ben Levi Ross By Joan Marcus

Ethan has long admired and longs to work for the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Conrad O’Brien (welcome back to the fabulous Scott Bakula), who is being overrun by new owners, who care more about circulation and the color turquoise than facts.

Jessica Molaskey By Joan Marcus

The first person Ethan meets and the voice of a collective conscience is Robin Martinez (normally played by Hannah Cruz, but at my performance Ashley Pérez Flanagan). At first attracted to Ethan, Robin starts to see the cracks, as does fact checker Muriel (a layered performance by Jessica Molaskey). Right from the start, she does not like or trust Ethan. Nor do we. In a strange way, this almost seems like a musicalized version of “The Talented Mr. Ripley”.

As Conrad takes Ethan under his wing, we see three of his stories, each done in a different musical style. The first is about an eccentric West Village scrabble player (the terrific Max Crumm). With a “Rhythm of Life” feel, Ethan becomes an overnight success with circulation increasing and a fan by the name of Mona Bland (a memorable Mylinda Hull) who will end up being his downfall.

Fergie Philippe, Hannah Cruz, and Ben Levi Ross Photo: Joan Marcus

The next story is about the take down of the mayor of Jersey City, done in rap/ gangland style that gets him a nomination for the prestigious National Magazine Award. As his source Willis, Fergie Philippe gives his all, but the problem we soon find out, is that though the story is sensational, there are gaping holes in the facts, which Muriel, Robin and Mona glaringly see. 

In the end who is Ethan really? What is truth and what is fact? Does the public really care or do they just want sensationalism? Has the world really gotten over its sexism? It’s racialism? Sadly, I don’t think so. Everything becomes the movie of the week and then goes away until the next big scandal.

The Connector was conceived and directed by Daisy Prince, who does a remarkable job and asks some really intelligent questions. She has also gathered a fabulous cast, who makes this show seem real, relevant and up to date.

Ben Levi Ross By Joan Marcus

Ben Levi Ross will remind you of Jesse Eisenberg. He is loaded with talent. Not only does he possess a vocal prowess that is unmatched, his nuances and phenomenal acting choices make him so watchable. He is like an onion slowly peeling away each delicate layer. He is brilliant.


As Robin, I saw the understudy who is about to take over the role, Ashley Pérez Flanagan. She sings and acts well, but lacks some of the nuances that originally made me want to see this show. I fell in love with the song “Cassandra” in 2017 and either Jason Robert Brown rewrote some of the notes or they were different in the production I saw. This song is pivotal to the show, as the lyrics talk about how women writers are written off.

“Half the stories of the world are left unwritten, half the stories have been lost along the way. And so the people of the world will not encounter, anything but one perspective, one reflection, one directive, male and white and unenlightened, every day. It’s easy for you, it’s easy for you and I’m missing it”

These are the lyrics by Jason Robert Brown for “Cassandra”. Not only is his music rich in rhythm and style, but it reaches into your soul to take capture. His lyrics hit at the heart of pain, truth, anger and honesty. Each song is a playlet with character-driven narratives and stand on their own. Smartly his band is electric and musically I could sit through this show every night of the week and hear new emotional tugs. I am so excited to announce the album will be released in late spring by Concord Theatricals Recording, because I want to listen to these songs again and again. A plus is JRB is on the piano playing with his band.

Jonathan Marc Sherman’s book is funny, terrifying and taps on timely issues, however I did want more as to the why’s and psychology of Ethan, but maybe that’s the point, we don’t understand the why’s and never will.

Not only is the show wonderfully done, but the raw masterful set by Beowulf Boritt, lighting by and projection design by Janette Oi-Suk Yew and choreography by Karla Puno Garcia are shear perfection.

You will not be able to stop thinking about this show, that is full of thought provoking ideas on journalistic integrity and the difference between fact and truth. This is a show not to be missed and that’s a fact.

The Connector: MCC Theater Space, 511 W 52nd Street, through March 17th.

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