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  • AmericanTheaterWeb Original News & Reviews

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'Hard Love' - Complicated Romance


Victoria Mack and Ian Kahn in Hard Love
(©Clark Kim)

Questions of faith complicate those of romance in Motti Lerner’s contemporary potboiler Hard Love, now playing at the Beckett Theatre in a production from The Actors Company Theatre (TACT).

The two-character play centers on Zvi and Hannah, two people who were raised in Me’A She-arim, an orthodox enclave in Jerusalem. They were husband and wife at one point but divorced after he renounced his faith. Their lives subsequent to their separation have included remarriages and children, and it’s their offspring that brings them back together. Hannah has discovered that her daughter has begun dating Zvi’s son, and she doesn’t want the two seeing one another because Zvi’s son is not a member of the enclave.

Lerner gives audiences two snapshots of Zvi and Hannah. The first is in her apartment and the second in his in Tel Aviv. During their reconciliation in the first, sparks start to fly as both realize (and deny) that their love for one another has not diminished in the 20 years since their divorce. In the second, it appears as if the two might be finally in the emotional and intellectual places necessary for them to actually reconcile and move together as one, but ultimately, the questions of faith that drove them apart re-arise.

The twists and turns that Lerner provides during the course of Hard Love border on ones that theatergoers might expect from a daytime (or even nighttime) serial drama, and often, the piece can becomes less than credible. Thankfully, director Scott Alan Evans has two graceful performers at his disposal who help make the production feel a bit more substantial.

As Zvi, Ian Kahn delivers a performance that brims with regrets and fiery---and sometimes confused--- passion. He also fully embraces the character’s formidable narcissism, which also plays a part in the play’s sad conclusion.

Victoria Mack deftly conveys both Hannah’s piety and her need for something more than what is offered within the enclave. It’s a performance that has a chilly and reserved exterior, but even when Hannah is at her most distant, one can sense something simmering under the surface.

Both Mack and Kahn’s performances are to be savored. Unfortunately, Hard Love itself, even though it’s grappling with some fascinating issues, is often difficult to swallow.

---- Andy Propst


Hard Love plays at the Beckett Theatre (410 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.tactnyc.org.

'Perfect Arrangement' - Double Lives in 1950s America


Julia Coffey, Christopher J. Hanke, Jennifer Van Dyck, Kevin O’Rourke, Robert Eli, and Kelly McAndrew in Perfect Arrangement
(©James Leynse)

As Topher Payne’s funny and thoughtful play Perfect Arrangement begins, audiences might think they’re in for a somewhat tongue-in-cheek look at life among the middle to upper middle classes in the 1950s. As a sextet of characters gather for cocktails, the women spout taglines about their favorite products while the men tell feeble jokes and posture to überly masculine effect.

The tone, however, proves to be a red herring. Perfect Arrangement may sometimes look and sound like a 50s sitcom and even provoke the sorts of laughs those shows did and still do. At the same time, Payne’s play focuses on some very troubling stories, namely how gays and lesbians found ways to exist in a pre-Stonewall world when certain federal forces were actively seeking ferret out “deviants” for fear that they posed national security risks.

One might assume that the three couples have nothing to worry about on this front, but that would be a mistake. As two wives and two husbands have married only to create a cover for their homosexuality. Bob and Millie Martindale and Jim and Norma Baxter live in adjacent apartments and maintain the facade of perfect 1950s marriage, but at the end of the day, they nestle in their same-sex relationships. A secret door in a coat closet allows them to have easy means for scurrying back and forth between the two homes undetected.

Theoretically, they have the ideal cover for themselves, but when Bob and Norma, both of whom work for the State Department, get a mandate to begin targeting gays, lesbians, loose women, and others within the government, things get dicey. Eventually, all four are scrambling in attempts to make sure that their “perfect arrangement” doesn’t fall apart.

Zestfully directed by Michael Barakiva, the play zips along merrily up until the moment when the quartet faces exposure. At this juncture, Payne’s script loses some of its bubbliness and veers toward the pedantic as Payne attempts to make grand statements about gay self-loathing and complicity in persecution.

Despite this shift in tone, the production overall proves difficult to resist. To begin, It looks fantastic. Scenic designer Neil Patel has created an interior that has the sort of easy opulence that one might associate with a Douglas Sirk film. Further Jennifer Caprio’s colorful and classy period costumes have both wit and style, and several of her creations for the women seem as if they might have been borrowed from an old Lana Turner collection.

Similarly, the seven-person company delivers a host of smartly crafted performances. Julia Coffey makes Norma a no-nonsense woman---"a career gal" to use the period parlance---who also brims with remarkable warmth. Mikaela Feely-Lehmann plays Millie with a shrewd sense of the characters’ two faces. It’s fascinating to watch as she switches back and forth between her public and private personas.

Feely Lehmann is also terrifically funny as she distracts Jennifer Van Dyck’s delightful portrayal of the incurably ditzy Kitty, who’s married to Norma and Bob’s boss at the State Department, played with rugged good nature by Kevin O’Rourke.

Robert Eli brings a marvelous sense of solidness to his turn as Bob, and Christopher J. Hanke brings impish charm to his turn as the closeted school teacher Jim. And as a colleague of Bob and Norma’s who finds herself suddenly threatened with termination because of her “loose” ways, Kelly McAndrew channels both Eve Arden and Barbara Stanwyck to create a woman who is steely, funny, and ultimately, a joy. It’s little wonder Jim declares “God. You’re fabulous” when he first meets her.

On many levels, the same can be said of the show, which though not perfect, serves up plentiful laughs and examines a sad period in gay and lesbian history with intelligence and style.

---- Andy Propst


Perfect Arrangement plays at The Duke on 42nd Street (229 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: primarystages.org.

'The Gin Game' - Old Age, Cards, and Warmth


James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson in The Gin Game
(©Joan Marcus)



Scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez provides an exquisitely gritty backdrop for the new production of D.L. Coburn’s The Gin Game, which opened last night at the John Golden Theatre on Broadway. It’s the back porch of an old two story house, and two garbage cans on one side of the stage and the haphazard pile of old medical equipment and furniture on the other tell audiences instantly that they’re looking at the place where the refuse ends up.

This could be said to extend to the inhabitants of the building, an old-age home, and Coburn’s characters, Weller Martin (James Earl Jones) and Fonsia Dorsey (Cicely Tyson), in particular. Both Weller and Fonsia are living at the home as they face their final years, unwanted by their families.

All of this could make it seem that Gin Game is strictly a grim affair. It’s not. As it tracks the friendship that develops between Weller and Fonsia as they play the titular card game out on the porch, Coburn’s gentle play brims with humor, particularly as Weller’s anger builds over the fact that he can’t seem to win a single hand.

The play also has genuine heart. During the course of their games, audiences learn about their disappointments in life. Weller’s had bad luck in both business and his personal life, and Fonsia has faced similar problems. Watching as these two warily embark on a late life friendship---letting their guards down with one another---proves to be immensely satisfying and touching.

Similarly, Leonard Foglia has directed this two-hander with economy and breeziness. There might be a rather dark backdrop and the characters’ stories are certainly bittersweet, but the director never allows audiences to focus on this. Instead, he focuses both audiences and performers on the piece’s sweetness and its warmth.

Jones, with his booming voice and formidable frame, could certainly make the prickly and discontent Weller an angry and embittered force to be reckoned with. Jones, though, takes a gentle curmudgeonly approach to the role. Weller might swear up a blue streak and lose his temper every now and then, but there’s never any nastiness or menace at hand.

Similarly, Tyson could focus on Fonsia’s prudish qualities; she was, after all, a woman who was raised “old school” Presbyterian and taught that playing cards was a sin. Tyson, however, focuses on the woman’s strength and generosity of spirit. Fonsia won’t tolerate bad behavior from Weller, and Tyson becomes quite firm and formidable in her own right when the need arises.

Further, the actress’ smile can seemingly light up the stage when Fonsia’s amused by her card-playing companion or trying to shift their friendship to a more intimate level. For instance, the actress seems to transform into a teenager when Fonsia wants Weller to dance to a favorite tune that’s playing in the house (fine sound design throughout from David Van Tieghem), and once he unsurprisingly capitulates, it’s rough not to smile and feel that all might be right in the pair’s world. They might be sharing their existence with a rubbish heap, but they’re certainly not ready for it.

---- Andy Propst


The Gin Game plays at the John Golden Theatre (252 West 45th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.thegingamebroadway.com.

'Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally' - Analog and Digital Worlds Collide


Christina Bennett Lind, Danny Bernardy, Ethan Slater, Nick Flint, and Sarah-Jane Casey in Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally
(©Russ Rowland)

After taking in One Year Lease Theater Company’s exhilarating production of Kevin Armento’s Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally, which has just opened at 59E59 Theaters, theatergoers may be prompted to wonder how long it will be before Apple alters an English proverb. As Aunt Sally not only tells the story of a teen boy partially through the perspective of his smart phone, but also charts how a romance develops because of the contents of the device, it seems that the company could very well change the saying “The eyes are the window of the soul” to “The I’s are the window to the soul.”

Armento’s conceit and his execution of it, as well as Ianthe Demos’ high-adrenaline and sleek production which also has movement direction by Natalie Lomonte, are far richer than this glib marketing idea might indicate.

To start, the show, tells the story of how the student, Red, enters into a romantic relationship with his math teacher after she confiscates his phone in class and then, finds herself drawn into his world from its contents. The playwright cleverly structures the play so that it mimics its titular mnemonic device, one that helps students parse equations in algebra. Aunt Sally actually follows the order that it indicates, starting with a parenthetical (“please”), moving to exponentials (“excuse”), so on and so forth.

Beyond its unique structure, the play also brims with linguistic spirals. Phrases get repeated to intriguing effect as tensions run high. Further, Armento’s language has a kind of poetry to it. In fact, the script reads like a lyric epic, filled with short stanzas that propel the story to exquisite effect.

Demos and Lomonte’s staging beautifully mimics the intensity of the writing. The five-person ensemble are in constant motion on a raised black platform over which a white panel hangs and which has at its center a similarly sized white pit (scenic design by James Hunting). At points they bounce off walls. At others, one member will leap into the others’ arms, only to seemingly be flown from one place to another.

Underscoring the action there’s both a terrifically effective musical soundtrack that fuses an electronic sound with what almost sounds like gentle folk (played by composer Estelle Bajou who sits to one side of the playing area). Similarly, Mike Riggs’ dazzling lighting design infuses the black and white space with color to both indicate locale and the glow of what might be appearing on the smart phone screen.

The company (Danny Bernardy, Sarah-Jane Casey, Nick Flint, Christina Bennett Lind, Ethan Slater) work tirelessly as a Greek chorus, intoning sections of Armento’s script in unison. The actors also take on individual characters. At the play’s center are Slater and Lind as student and teacher, and each delivers a moving portrait of a soul looking for a connection in a otherwise lonely existence. Equally impressive is Nick Flint, who brings surprising dimension---both humorous and touching---to the teacher’s slacker boyfriend.

The fact that these performers, along with Casey as the student’s alcoholic mom and Bernardy as his distant, well-meaning dad, can pull at audience’s heartstrings is not just a testament to their talent, but also to the show as a whole, which both in writing and in execution brilliantly illuminates and explores the tension between analog and digital worlds. It’s a gleaming portrait of our collective contemporary existence.

---- Andy Propst

Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally plays at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.59e59.org.

'Fool for Love' - Romantic Tragedy in the American Southwest


Sam Rockwell in Fool for Love
(©Joan Marcus)



Sam Shepard’s ability to channel a Greek tragedy--like sense of inexorable doom into the modern world never fails to impress. Last year, he intriguingly experimented with the Oedipus myth in A Particle of Dread at Signature Theatre. With his 1983 play Fool for Love, which opened last night in a Manhattan Theatre Club/Williamstown Theatre Festival revival on Broadway, Shepard doesn’t draw directly on any specific tale from the Greek canon, but as a man and a woman enact a violently romantic pas de deux in a rundown motel room somewhere near the Mojave Desert, the sense that catastrophe (the sort found in Sophocles or Euripides) awaits for them couldn’t be more palpable.

Directed with tautness and simplicity by Daniel Aukin and featuring Sam Rockwell and Nina Arianda, as the couple Eddie and May, Fool initially appears to be pretty straightforward. The couple has a 15-year, on-again-off-again relationship, and right now, they’re at a moment of reconnecting. Eddie has driven nearly 3,000 miles to find and reclaim her after an infidelity with a woman she derisively has nicknamed “Countess.” And though May ricochets (often literally) between delight and anger at his presence, one has a pretty good sense that she’ll be leaving that motel with him.

There are tricks up Shepard’s dramaturgical sleeve, however. To begin, there’s a guy, known just as “The Old Man.” Played with quiet brusqueness by Gordon Joseph Weiss, he sits in a lawn chair just outside of scenic designer Dane Laffrey’s grim, dilapidated recreation of a motor inn room, a design that looks like a diorama and that makes the claustrophobic pressure cooker atmosphere of the play even more intense. The Old Man’s interjections throughout the play point the way toward its sad conclusion.

To complicate matters further, Shepard also introduces the soft-spoken and slightly dim Martin (amusingly played by Tom Pelphrey). He arrives to take May to the movies, and it’s his presence that forces Eddie and May to confront the secret that binds them.

As ghoulish green light (design by Justin Townsend) pours through the room, Rockwell and Arianda, who share a palpable chemistry, navigate the shifting terrain of the script and the characters’ relationship with ferocious commitment. Her work throughout is superb and climaxes as May delivers with benumbed bewilderment the actual specifics of how she and Eddie first came together. The moment chills.

Rockwell, brandishing a lasso and bottle of tequila, fails to fully convince early on as Eddie tries to impose himself on May with super-macho intensity. It almost feels as if it’s some sort of act that Eddie has adopted. Once Martin has arrived, and Eddie’s demeanor becomes more smart-ass and erudite, Rockwell’s performance deepens tremendously and, curiously, Eddie’s most dangerous weapon proves to be his intellect, fitting for this high-octane play that marries a sense of the classics with the grunge of a Southwestern mythos.

---- Andy Propst

Fool for Love plays at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (261 West 47th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.manhattantheatreclub.com.