Samantha Soule and Rachel Nicks in And I and Silence
Naomi Wallace charts a friendship forged in the face of adversity in And I and Silence, which opened last night at the Pershing Signature Center. Bringing to mind an American riff on Jean Genet’s The Maids, the play, which touches on intriguing issues of race and gender equality, has moments of both gentle comedy and drama, and is performed with sensitivity by a talented four person ensemble. Unfortunately, while there is much to admire and contemplate in this 90-minute piece, it’s a show that almost consistently engages the mind, but never fully captures the heart.
Wallace affords theatergoers with the chance to witness the relationship between Dee and Jamie from two perspectives. Initially, they are seen as two 20-something women, just released from prison and hoping to make a new life for themselves as domestics in an unnamed (presumably Southern based on their accents) city in 1959. The play then flashes back to the moment when the two women met for the first time, as teenagers, while they were incarcerated. And I and Silence continues to alternate between the two periods, and what emerges is one tale of hope and another of sad desperation.
It’s the prison side of the tale that is the hopeful portion of Silence. Dee and Janie have had little chance in their formative years, but while they are together in prison, they envision a future for themselves in which they can make their way in the world by serving as maids. In these portions of the play, Trae Harris and Emily Skeggs, as Jamie and Dee respectively, charm. Both actresses capture the characters’ girlishness beautifully, and they modulate their performances with a preternatural hardness that’s both sad and frightening.
Once they have been released and established a home (after a fashion) in a dingy apartment (scenic designer Rachel Hauck provides the abstracted environment that serves as both home and prison), the young women follow through on the plans that they made, but while they have some success at securing work, it’s never lasting. And as their existence becomes increasingly bleak, Dee looks back on their time behind bars, saying: “We weren't hungry. Could use our minds for other things. Now, we got nothing.”
In these portions of the play, Samantha Soule (Dee) and Rachel Nicks (Jamie) deliver performances that start with a delicate shimmer of hopefulness, and as the play progresses, their work takes on a disturbing darkness and bitterness, qualities that are intriguingly echoed in the Elisheba Ittoop’s atmospheric soundscape.
Both pairs of actresses ably traverse the poetic sections of Wallace’s script with finesse (Jamie and Dee have a habit of lapsing into playful rhyming that brings to mind what young girls might chant while jumping rope). Further, the performers gracefully segue into and out of the power games that Wallace builds into the training that African-American Jamie, whose mother was a maid, gives Caucasian Dee for her future life as a domestic.
Director Caitlin McLeod’s seamless and fluid staging also has a subtle tension to it, particularly when the actresses playing the younger incarnations of the characters are glimpsed in the shadows while the adult characters are center stage. McLeod’s fine work, however, does not compensate for some of the lapses in Wallace’s script. For instance, while Jamie and Dee reference the segregation of the prison, it’s never quite clear how the two manage to spend as much time together as they do.
And I and Silence ends with both the younger and older incarnations of the characters sharing the stage together for the first time with guarded optimism blending with utter despair. Theoretically, it's meant to inspire shock and a deep sense of tragedy, but ultimately, all that one can feel is admiration for the deliberate and intelligent craftsmanship of the moment and the entirety of production.
---- Andy Propst
And I and Silence plays at the Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: signaturetheatre.org.
Kate Kreisler and Brian Avers in Poor Behavior
Theresa Rebeck wants to explore some pretty big ideas in her new play Poor Behavior, which Primary Stages opened last night at the Duke on 42nd Street. Among the concepts that are tucked inside this snapshot of two couples' dreadful weekend in the country are questions about what constitutes good and bad, as well as ones about morality. Daringly performed and capably directed by Evan Cabnet, the show should provoke both laughter and introspection. But, Rebeck's haphazard plotting and two-dimensional characters mean that theatergoers can never fully invest in the story or its broader implications.
Set in a comfortable and fashionably appointed country home just outside of New York (deliciously realized by scenic designer Lauren Helpern) that belongs to Ella (Kate Kreisler) and Peter (Jeff Biehl), Poor Behavior starts with a late-night drunken argument between Ella and Ian. After the two have been somewhat calmed, Peter and Maureen retreat to their bedrooms, and Ella and Ian are left to share an intimate moment as Ian mourns his father's passing and the guilt he feels over having not returned to his native Ireland to say goodbye.
Maureen, prone to hysterics and, according to her husband, frequently suicidal, catches Ella consoling Ian. Glimpsing the tenderness that her husband and hostess share sends Maureen into a tailspin, and in short order, she confronts him about his fidelity and regales Peter with the news of her discovery of a seeming affair. It's small wonder that tempers flare all the way around over the next twenty-four hours as Ella attempts to assuage Peter's suspicions, and Ian derails in the face of a barrage of accusations and slurs from his wife.
Audiences might be able to empathize with their plight or seriously consider what Rebeck attempts to explore if the characters were anything more that abstractions of archetypes. But they're not. Ian's a fiery Irishman disillusioned by America and the dream that he believed it promised. Peter's a seeming milquetoast having conquered (seemingly) anger management issues. Ella's a tough-as-nails pragmatist. Maureen's a privileged neurotic.
Theatergoers have to assume they all work for a living, but Rebeck never reveals anything about what they might do when they're not shouting at one another. Worse still is the confused backstory that she creates for how they all know each other. We learn, repeatedly, that Maureen dated Peter's brother, which could explain the genesis of the friendship. But when one factors in Ian's description of how fond his late father was of Ella, it appears that they might have known one another socially before their respective marriages.
The lack of any concrete details that would make these characters or the situation even vaguely plausible only makes Rebeck's plot machinations particularly tougher to swallow. This is particularly true when a pair of earrings becomes the equivalent of the damning handkerchief in Othello.
All that's left for theatergoers are the savory, bravura performances. Each performer appears to be having a great time letting loose for two hours or so. Sadly, though, the ensemble's work is not enough this excursion into poor behavior a rich or satisfying experience.
---- Andy Propst
Poor Behavior plays at the Duke on 42nd Street (). For more information and tickets, visit: primarystages.org.
Steven Boyer and John Lithgow in King Lear
New Yorkers cannot say that they are wanting for productions of Shakespeare's King Lear. Two productions, starring Frank Langella and Michael Pennington, ran in Brooklyn earlier this year, and later this year, Shakespeare's Globe will be bringing another incarnation of the classic to NYU's Skirball Center. To bridge the gap between these three, the Public Theater has opened Daniel Sullivan's staging of the tragedy, starring John Lithgow in the title role, at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park.
Lithgow's presence, along with screen star Annette Bening (in a rare, but welcome NY stage turn) as Lear's eldest daughter Goneril, and a host of solid Broadway veterans including (but not limited to) Jessica Hecht as middle daughter Regan; Jay O. Sanders as Lear's most stalwart ally, Kent; Stephen Boyer as the monarch's Fool; and Clarke Peters as Gloucester, another of the king's supporters, and a man with family problems of his own, means this is nothing short of a solidly performed production. Further, Sullivan has directed these performers as well as their cast mates to perfection with regard to Shakespeare's verse. This very well may the most lucid staging of "Lear" that audiences will encounter this year or for years to come.
In addition, the production has a certain zest thanks to the era in which Sullivan has placed it. Susan Hilferty's costumes---tunics that are by turns elegant and coarse---indicate that the production is unfolding sometime during the time when the Romans occupied England. Further, the show opens with two of the actors performing a kind of cleansing ritual that lends a mythological air to the entire evening.
But as Lear, who divides his kingdom between his two eldest children after his youngest has not professed her love profusely enough for his taste, spirals into madness as Goneril and Regan conspire against him and against each other, and as Gloucester must contend with the duplicity of his illegitimate child Edmund, the production never achieves a genuine cohesiveness. Moments and performance spark individually, but there's no sense of each moment building toward a tragic pinnacle.
With Lithgow's performance, for instance, there's a moment early on which proves indelible. After Cordelia has displeased him, Lithgow manages to communicate that the king's anger is twofold. He's not just bothered by what his favorite daughter has done (or not done as the case may be); he's equally riled about the fact that he's feeling as though her words are forcing him to act so harshly and decisively. It's a telling moment and a terrific detail, but the sense that it's connected to either the king's overall mental health or further outbursts never arrives.
Similarly there are grand interpretations among Lithgow's fellow performers, Boyer imbues Lear's Fool with a bitterness that puts adds a decided edge to the character and puts a unique spin on the character's relationship with his lord. Bening, in a daring---but risky---mode, makes Goneril a archly mannered woman, whose every gesture and word is carefully and purposefully chosen. This is a woman who has been trained to behave in a certain way since birth, and she has learned her lessons well.
In Sanders' hands, Kent becomes a rustic and hearty soul, and Jessica Collins brings a fiery spirit that fascinates to her portrayal of Cordelia. As this character's sister, Hecht brings a wide-sweeping emotionalism to the production that cleverly suggests that mental instability may be congenital problem in the family.
Oddly, it's the impetus behind Hecht's interpretation that seems to have been the guiding spirit behind this "Lear," which paints an intriguing portrait of a family in crisis, which ultimately makes this King Lear more of a Chekhovian character study than a tragedy on an epic scale.
---- Andy Propst
King Lear continues through at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. For more information and ticketing information, visit: publictheater.org.
Stephen McKinley Henderson and Elizabeth Canavan in Between Riverside and Crazy
(©Kevin Thomas Garcia)
There are marvelous theatrical riches in Stephen Adly Guirgis' darkly comic new play Between Riverside and Crazy, which opened last night at Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater on 20th Street. In fact, there might be a few too many splendid things in this densely packed show, and yet, by the time the production, carefully directed by Austin Pendleton has reached its conclusion, there's little doubt that "Riverside" is one of the most energizing plays to come around in a while.
Chief among the show's assets is Stephen McKinley Henderson, a regular face on New York stages, but an actor who has generally been seen in supporting roles. In "Riverside," he is center stage for almost the entirety of the show, playing Walter "Pops" Washington, a retired cop who's living out his golden years in a rent-controlled apartment that has seen better days. In Henderson's capable hands and painstakingly crafted performance, Washington becomes the benevolent dictator of this prime piece of Manhattan real estate.
As the play opens, and Walter has breakfast (and a few drinks) with Oswaldo (sweetly and menacingly played by Victor Almanzar), the recovering addict who's a friend of his son's and now living in the apartment, Henderson's performance brims with grandfatherly warmth. Just moments later, though, Washington eviscerates his son Junior (the understated Ray Anthony Thomas), cruelly and coldly saying "Hurry up and become a fuckin’ man already, son -- so I can break a hip and drop dead in peace."
Henderson's ability to navigate Washington's mercurial nature makes many of the twists and turns that are part of the man's story absolutely natural, and by extension painful. Guirgis has conceived an exceptionally conflicted and contradictory character, and it's a role that Henderson brings to life with tremendous agility.
Not only is Henderson's work matched by Almanzar and Thomas, but also by Michael Rispoli and Elizabeth Canavan, who both play current members of the NYPD and a couple engaged to be married. She was Washington's former partner on the beat, who's moved on to less demanding work. Her fiancé is an aggressively ambitious member of the force, willing to do almost anything to further his career. What impresses most about these performers' work is the intricate chemistry they share. There's never any doubt that these are two people who love one another. At the same time, there's no question that they have and will continue to share a friction-filled union. Further, as with Henderson, they navigate the twists and turns of Guirgis' script as both officers attempt to convince Washington to settle a case against the city about the shooting which was the reason for his retirement.
Guirgis' naturalistic drama takes a sudden detour into the realm of magic realism in the second act with the arrival of a character known only as "Church Lady" (forcefully and movingly played by Liza Colón-Zayas), and though the stylistic change startles, this character's presence in the play sets the stage for one part the unexpected conclusion that Guirgis' play finally reaches. Less successful is the resolution that the playwright finds for one other guest in Washington's home, Junior's girlfriend Lulu. As played by Rosal Colón, this character is an always-intriguing, chipper and vapid spitfire, but nothing in Colón's performance or the script prepares audiences for the one last surprise Guirgis injects into the play.
The dualities of Guirgis' script are expertly echoed in the production's physical production. Walt Spangler's scenic design terrifically telescopes three rooms of Washington's home, allowing theatergoers to sense its former glory all the while making its derelict present palpable. And both Keith Parham's lighting design and Ryan Rumery's original music and sound design strike similar dichotomous balances. Parham's work can be both realistic and cunningly abstract while Rumery creates a soundscape that exceptionally blends music with atmospheric noises like blaring sirens.
These visual and aural bounties combine with meticulously conceived performances and Guirgis' always pungent language and storytelling beautifully, and though I have quibbles about where the play's final moments, the journey to that point proves to be consistently invigorating and satisfying.
---- Andy Propst
Between Riverside and Crazy plays at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: atlantictheater.org.
Teal Wicks and Zak Resnick in Piece of My Heart
Who was Bert Berns? Chances are that pop music aficionados will know the answer, but the general public will not. Both groups, though, will know his songs. They range from "Twist and Shout" to "I Want Candy" to "Cry Baby." Another of Berns' tunes, "Piece of My Heart," has given the new bio-tuner about the songwriter-record producer it title, and this show, which opened last night at the Pershing Square Signature Center, works valiantly and to mixed effect to make sure that a broader public becomes aware of Berns' work and story.
The fact that Berns' life and career are largely unknown helps give some of the show its drive, and it's also the jumping off place for book writer Daniel Goldfarb's script. In Piece of My Heart, Berns' life is revealed in flashbacks as the daughter who never knew him (Berns passed away when she was ten days old) sorts through his belongings at the Manhattan office he once occupied. The mystery conceit adds a modest level of suspense to what might otherwise have been a straightforward jukebox bio.
Goldfarb has less success in integrating another dramatic arc into the show as Berns' daughter races against time to thwart her mother's plan to sell her husband's catalog. The fact that the older woman is played by Linda Hart, who channels Loretta Lynn and Elaine Stritch as she delivers "I'll Be a Liar," making it show's eleven o'clock number, helps enormously. Unfortunately, the struggle between mother and daughter ultimately overcrowds the musical, forcing Goldfarb to rush through large portions of the Berns biography.
Beyond this, the show suffers from the problem that all jukebox musicals face: how to put preexisting songs into the mouths of characters as if they were book songs. Using "Are You Lonely for Me Baby" as a duet between Bert and a woman he has just met in a downtown club in New York makes little sense as they sing "I was on the last train to Jacksonville." In other instances, though, Goldfarb cleverly integrates both familiar numbers and a few forgotten gems into the fabric of the show as ensemble numbers, and he avoids the overused conceit of recreating famous renditions of the big songs.
Directed and choreographed by Denis Jones, the show does feature a winning lead performance from Zak Resnick as Berns. Resnick terrifically belts out song after song, and he brings a goofiness that's almost dreamy to his portrayal of the man. His work certainly helps to distract from questions that the show raises, such as why Berns, who knew he had a bad heart from childhood, had such a self-destructive streak. Throughout the play he's seen smoking and drinking, as the show pushes toward the man's untimely death in 1967 at the age of 38.
Leslie Kritzer brings the kind of quirkiness and vocal prowess that audiences have come to expect from her to her performance as Berns' adult daughter, and Teal Wicks delivers a shrewdly sassy turn as the younger incarnation of Berns' wife, Ilene. There's also fine work from De'Adre Aziza, who offers up some smoky, sultry vocals as Candace, one of Berns' first lovers.
Throughout Ben Stanton shapes space with an eye-poppingly colorful lighting design, and the orchestrations and arrangements from Garry Sherman, Adam Ben-David, and Lon Hoyt are simply terrific, alternating between a bubblegum bounce, pulsating rock, and even the occasional Latin riff. More so than anything else in Piece of My Heart, it's these men's work that make the case for investigating Berns' work. There's a musical fusion at play in his songs that genuinely fascinates.
---- Andy Propst
Piece of My Heart plays at the Pershing Square Signature Center (480 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: pieceofmyheartmusical.com.