Donald Webber, Jr.; Chris Myers; Derrick Baskin; Daniel J. Watts; Nicholas Chris in Whorl Inside a Loop
The semi-autobiographical new play Whorl Inside a Loop, which recently opened at Second Stage Theatre, raises difficult and troubling questions about ownership and appropriation and the nation’s penal system. And though this might make the play sound dry, it isn’t. Written by Sherie Rene Scott and Dick Scanlon, the show happens to be enormously enjoyable, and the production, directed by Michael Mayer and co-writer Scanlon, features a splendid cast.
Based loosely on Scott and Scanlon’s experiences working as teaching artists in a maximum security prison, Whorl centers on a character known just as The Volunteer (Scott), who works with a group of convicted murderers for a 12-week period. During this time, she helps them transform their stories---about growing up, their crimes, etc.---into monologues. The thought being that through this process they can take ownership of their lives and maybe come to a new understanding of themselves and the events that have shaped them.
In the process, The Volunteer, who readily reports her activities to her friends, comes to see that the work that’s being done in prison could form the basis of a play, and even as she promises her students a safe environment, she, along with a producer friend, begin the process of conceptualizing a production based on the men’s stories and her experiences working with them.
The dynamic makes portions of the show curiously uncomfortable as The Volunteer’s actions are so self-serving. At the same time, Whorl can be viewed as an exercise in metatheatrical expiation. After all, Volunteer tells her students early on, “If you or anybody writes something where you make yourself the asshole ... Showing that you were that proves that you’re not anymore.”
Regardless of how theatergoers respond to Volunteer, who, thanks Scott’s sweet and frequently self-denigrating performance, becomes quite appealing, it’s impossible to resist the actors who play not only the prisoners she’s working with, but also people working in the facility and Volunteer’s intimates. From Nicholas Christopher, who rivets audiences as his character describes a life-changing moment in the prison yard and who makes Volunteer’s gauche female producer friend a comic joy, to Donald Webber Jr., who plays the acting head of the prison---also a woman---with such precision that his orange jumpsuit seems to transform into a meticulous suit, the ensemble’s meticulous work astonishes.
Beyond these two men, there is also Chris Myers who delivers a delicately crafted performance as the shyest and youngest of the inmates; Derrick Baskin who gives a passionate turn as a guy who’s desperately hoping for parole; Daniel J. Watts who turns in excellent portrayals of the flashiest of the prisoners, Volunteer’s gay hairdresser, and a modern dance guru who’s also volunteering at the prison; and Ryan Quinn who proves electrifies with an understated rendering of a prison with intense regret and amuses as the security guard Volunteer must pass each time she arrives.
Co-directors Mayer and Scanlon have not just calibrated these performances to perfection, but they’ve also ensured that the play shifts from its serious to comic moments with grace, and the production unfolds on a wooden platform set in the center of the Second Stage space that’s otherwise stripped bare (scenic design by Christine Jones and Brett Banakis). Throughout , Donald Holder’s lighting design subtly shifts underneath the action that slowly makes both Volunteer rethink her assumptions about the men with whom she works and begins to understand something about the nature of rehabilitation.
---- Andy Propst
Whorl Inside a Loop plays at Second Stage Theatre (305 West 43rd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: 2st.com.
Nick Westrate, Miriam Silverman, and Matt Dellapina in A Delicate Ship
Anna Ziegler offers up a dark and fractured Christmas memory in A Delicate Ship, which the Playwrights Realm opened last night at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater on 42nd Street.
Narrated by its three characters, Ziegler’s poetic and time-shifting drama takes audiences to a Christmas Eve being shared by a Sam and Sarah. The couple’s quiet night is disrupted, though, by the unexpected arrival of Sarah’s childhood friend, Nate, bearing champagne and marijuana.
The fact that Nate comes with an agenda is no surprise. Neither are many of the secrets that are revealed and the fireworks that erupt during the course of this brisk, pungent drama. What sets the piece apart, ultimately, is the searching and timeless question that lies underneath the play’s primary action. When can a child consider himself or herself genuinely adult?
Tautly directed by Margot Bordelon, the production boasts a trio of beautifully etched performances. Nick Westrate’s turn as the intruder Nate proves most memorable. The actor deftly shifts between the character’s aggressively volatile and manipulative moments and the ones in which his neediness and confusion about what his life has become surface. Nate is, ultimately, a lost boy hopelessly at war with himself and the world.
As Sarah, Miriam Silverman turns in a performance that embraces character’s cipher-like qualities. Silverman's Sarah may seem infinitely more controlled than Nate, but, as the play progresses, she slowly reveals that she, too, suffers from some of the same arrested development issues as with whom she guy she grew up.
Matt Dellapina, similarly, brings nuance to his turn as the philosophy-spewing, guitar-playing Sam. The actor marvelously brings the character’s insecurities about himself and his relationship into focus, making this seeming nonchalant milquetoast fascinatingly complex.
Scenic designer Reid Thompson indicates Sarah’s apartment with a few pieces of furniture and a door placed on a platform that seems to float above a moat of small rocks. It’s an apt environment for the characters' memories of the evening to unfold in, and Nicole Pearce’s lighting design subtly indicates temporal shifts as the characters move from their presents into the past and into their own thoughts about where they have been, where they might be going, and what happened on that one momentous night.
----- Andy Propst
A Delicate Ship plays at Peter Jay Sharp Theater (416 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.playwrightsrealm.org.
Maureen Anderman in Love & Money
A.R. Gurney riffs on Charles Dickens and John Guare in his newest play, Love & Money, which opened the other night at the Signature Center, and the playwright also throws in some Cole Porter for good measure. The result: a 75-minute theatrical bonbon that meditates on the allure, advantages, and disadvantages of wealth.
Gurney’s heroine, Cornelia Cunningham, knows all too well that money has its benefits, but in her long life, she has also seen that it can also bring people to ruin. Both of her children, she believes, died because of the privilege that they knew growing up, and she believes that her grandchildren are suffering similarly.
So, Cornelia has made a decision to divest herself of her wealth and property, including everything that’s found in her opulent Upper East Side townhouse (tastefully brought to the stage by scenic designer Michael Yeargan). She’s already begun cutting large checks to her favorite charities, and she plans on leaving whatever is left to Save the Children after she dies.
Her plans have attracted press attention, particularly in her hometown of Buffalo (the place from which both Gurney and so many of his characters hail), and one story caught the eye of Walker Williams, who arrives on Cornelia’s doorstep, claiming to be her grandchild. He says that his father and Cornelia’s daughter had an affair, and when Cornelia’s daughter announced she would be unable to care for the child, his father took him in because he and his wife were unable to have a child of his own.
It’s a scenario straight out of Dickens (there’s even a tear-stained letter from Walker’s mom that he carries at all times), probably most reminiscent of Oliver Twist. Given that Walker, who goes by the name “Scott” because of his fixation on F. Scott Fitzgerald, is African-American, suspicious minds, like those of Cornelia’s attorney and maid, as well as audience members, can’t help but also think of Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation as Walker ingratiates himself to Cornelia.
Whether Walker has come to Cornelia to con her should probably be kept under wraps. About the best thing to say about the places to which Gurney takes Cornelia and Walker is that they contain more than a couple of odd surprises.
Director Mark Lamos has staged with play so that Gurney’s erudite wisecracks sparkle and that its lapses into gentle absurdity seem natural. Maureen Anderman makes a grandmotherly type that’s impossible to resist: sweet, feisty, and just a bit doddering. Given Cornelia’s beliefs about money, it’s rough to not wish that there were a bit more darkness in her performance, but perhaps Gurney’s play couldn’t support that sort of gravitas.
Gabriel Brown, looking dashing in blazer and gray flannels (costume design by Jess Goldstein), cuts a fine figure as Walker, but the actor overplays the character’s gregariousness and joviality. He makes the character seem like a charlatan from the outset, and thus, it becomes difficult to understand why Cornelia allows him to stay as long as he does.
Alongside these two are fine performances from Joe Paulik, playing Cornelia’s aggressive and beleaguered attorney; Pamela Dunlap, as her devoted maid and cook; and Kahyun Kim, as a Julliard student who stands to benefit from Cornelia’s largesse. This latter character arrives to test out a piano that Cornelia’s giving away and that’s how Gurney injects Porter into the proceedings of this lighthearted lark of a play.
---- Andy Propst
Love & Money plays at Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.signaturetheatre.org.
DeLanna Studi and Tina Benko in Informed Consent
One of the world’s oldest conflicts lies at the center of Informed Consent, running at the Duke on 42nd Street in a Primary Stages production. It’s the battle of religion versus science, and in Deborah Zoe Laufer’s thoughtful script, it receives an intriguing 21st century spin.
The crisis between faith and fact erupts when Jillian, a genetic anthropologist, receives a plum assignment from the Arizona university where she works: to study a native American tribe and its gene pool. The hope is she might be able to identify one characteristic trait in the group’s DNA that would help both prevent and cure the rampant diabetes from which they suffer.
After securing the tribe’s reluctant permission to draw blood samples for her study, Jillian, whose mother suffered from early onset Alzheimer’s and who has identified from her own genes that she is apt to succumb to the same affliction, takes the study further. She traces their genetic history, identifying for instance their migratory patterns. It turns out that they did not, as their creation myth relates, originate in the Grand Canyon. The questions become did she have the right to study the blood beyond the purview of diabetes research and did the tribe members receive sufficient information when they consented to the study?
Laufer’s premise fascinates and provokes thought and potential debate between audience members. But while the playwright has begun the process of exploring an important ethical question for our time, she has done little more than that. As Informed Consent moves forward, audiences learn simply that Jillian is a scientist dedicated to uncovering facts at any cost and that the tribe will protect its belief system to the end.
A similar dynamic exists in Jillian’s home life, where she and her husband battle about whether their pre-school age daughter should be tested to see if she, too, might be at risk for early onset Alzheimer’s. Although, in this area, Laufer does enrich the tale with questions of whether Jillian resists bonding with her daughter because of her knowledge that she might leave the girl motherless at any early age. Laufer’s work in paralleling this dilemma with one faced in the Native American community where Jillian’s primary contact is Arella, a woman who has similar fears about her own mortality and her daughter’s health also enriches Consent.
Unfortunately, though, these become mere sidebars to the debate at hand, and despite Liesl Tommy’s fleet direction, the production becomes a static and wearing affair.
There are some fine performances particularly from DeLanna Studi who brings quiet gravitas to her portrayal of Arella and from Jesse J. Perez, who imbues Jillian’s university superior with that curious mixture of inquisitiveness and stubborn flintiness that’s so often found in the academic world. Pun Bandhu turns in a sympathetic performance as Jillian’s husband, and Myra Lucretia Taylor resists leavening the stern and unforgiving university dean with any warmth.
At the show’s center is Tina Benko who makes Jillian a likably arrogant figure. She deftly brings the character’s manic need to push forward her research at any cost while underscoring why the woman’s energy is so intense. Benko’s Jillian does seem to be racing against time.
Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s projections onto the mammoth wall of filing boxes that Wilson Chin has used as a backdrop for the show’s spare scenic design---that also includes a quartet of spiral staircases that look like double-helixes---help shift the action. Jacob A. Climer’s costumes allow the multiply cast ensemble switch between the supporting characters in Jillian’s life, and there are some marvelously subtle lighting effects from designer Matthew Richard.
The result is a handsome package for this play that has at its core an important and timely debate. It’s rough, though, to not wish that the piece’s central question was explored in a more diverse manner.
---- Andy Propst
Informed Consent plays at Primary Stages at The Duke on 42nd Street (229 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: primarystages.org.
Phillipa Soo and Lin-Manuel Miranda in Hamilton
The magnificent achievement that is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton arrived at Broadway’s Richard Rodgers Theatre last week. The show was a stunner when it premiered earlier this year at the Public Theater on Lafayette Street, and it still is, but even more so. In the larger house its almost volcanic energy has a chance to explode freely. Also, the company has fine-tuned performances to perfection. Using the word “electrifying” to describe the effect of Hamilton now feels like an understatement.
The musical, a fusion of hip-hop, R&B, jazz and more, charts the life of the man who was, among other things, the nation’s first Secretary of Treasury and founder of the New York Post, Alexander Hamilton. It literally is a rags to riches story against the backdrop of the American Revolution and the earliest days of our newly independent country’s government.
Miranda’s not only responsible for the astute distillation of the sprawling biographical tale, but also the show’s gorgeously crafted and densely packed lyrics, and its melodically diverse score, he’s also the production’s star, and his portrayal of the title character still has all of the spark and rawness that it did at the Public. It’s also become deeper emotionally, particularly as Hamilton weathers bad times after his ascent in public life.
Also richer is Leslie Odom Jr.’s portrayal of Aaron Burr, who becomes an almost Iago-like foil to Hamilton. Odom crafts a fine portrait of a man who yearns for the acclaim he sees Hamilton receive and yet is constitutionally unable to achieve it. It’s a spell-binding performance, one that slyly overlays an outward cheerfulness on a darker, brooding soul.
Beyond these rivals, there are the other names familiar from history books. There are the two Georges: Washington (a haunted and commanding Christopher Jackson) and the King (played with foppish yet malevolent glee--pardon the pun--by Jonathan Groff). Also, in a bit of brilliant double-casting, Daveed Diggs plays both the Frenchman who aids the revolutionaries, Lafayette, and the man who was, among other things, an inveterate Francophile, Thomas Jefferson. In both roles, Diggs displays a beautiful sense of comic timing as well as a keen sense for the dramatic. He can make a funny barb pierce.
As the women in Hamilton’s life, there’s not just a sterling performance from Phillipa Soo, who plays Eliza, the woman who becomes his wife, but also a radiant one from Renée Elise Goldsberry as Eliza’s older sister who finds in him an unattainable soul-mate. As with the men, these two women have refined their performances since earlier this year, particularly Soo, whose performance after Eliza has been betrayed by Hamilton, has become a model of restrained grief, sadness and bitterness.
Director Thomas Kail’s staging---set against David Korins’ intricately gorgeous wood-scaffolded and brick-backed scenic design---has retained all of its flair, and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler’s dances keep the company in what seems to be constant riveting and energizing motion. What’s perhaps most exceptional about their work, even on a second viewing, is that one cannot tell where one man’s work ends and another’s begins.
It’s craftsmanship that stems from Miranda’s tautly conceived writing, and as all of the elements fuse, one senses history is in the making as both the story of our country’s birth is retold and as the artists propel musical theater into a new realm.
---- Andy Propst
Hamilton plays at the Richard Rodgers Theatre (226 West 46th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.hamiltonbroadway.com.