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  • AmericanTheaterWeb Original News & Reviews

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'How to Live on Earth,' 'Pondling,' 'Desire' - Thwarted Dreams


Charles Socarides and Amelia Workman in How to Live on Earth
(©Hunter Canning)

There are a host of dreamers filling off-Broadway stages right now. Sadly, most of them are finding themselves thwarted in their pursuit of happiness or greater things in life.

Downtown at HERE Arts Center, a quartet of people who are looking, quite literally, to the stars are at the center of MJ Kaufman’s How to Live on Earth, each of them hoping to become one of the chosen few to help colonize Mars. Should they be chosen, Kaufman’s characters---a nerdy computer programmer, an aimless teen, a timid librarian, and an alpha-male MD/PhD---would all have to leave behind loved ones, and it’s the conflicts that arise as the applicants wait that provide the primary drama of Earth.

In an age of reality television which focuses on “I hope I get it” drama, Kaufman’s conceit, which ultimately provides a gentle lesson in being present in one’s world and not dreaming of one somewhere else, refreshes. Unfortunately, the playwright’s meandering plot-lines and one-dimensional characters make portions of Earth slow going.

Directed with economy by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, the show does, however, spark thanks to a trio of beautifully conceived performances. Amelia Workman touches as the librarian who seems to shake at the site of anything but a book, and in one the piece’s many dual turns, Charles Socarides makes the overly aggressive doctor the sort of character theatergoers love to hate and delights as a cloistered poet who becomes involved with the librarian.


Genevieve Hulme-Beaman in Pondling
(©Paul McCarthy)

Shifting uptown to 59E59 Theaters, a younger dreamer takes center stage in Genevieve Hulme-Beaman’s Pondling . In this solo show, Hulme-Beaman, produced by the Gúna Nua Theatre Company and Ramblinman, plays a young girl in rural Ireland who is obsessed with gaining the attention and love of an older boy (he’s 14), Johnno Boyle O’Connor, and finding a glamorous maternal figure.

The girl’s need for the former comes as little surprise given what theatergoers learn about the dreary life that she leads with her grandfather and brother on a farm. It’s certainly an existence that helps explain her aggressive behavior and oddly constructed view of the world, which has a youthful self-centeredness to it along with a creepy dark side.

Eventually, she meets a woman who could provide the feminine companionship that she craves, but the girl sadly sabotages the burgeoning friendship. In the process, she also discovers some unpleasant truths about the boy.

For anyone in touch with their inner child (male or female) who might still be stinging from perceived injustices or unmet needs, the story of Pondling has a decided pull. It’s difficult, though, to give in to the piece wholeheartedly though because of Hulme-Beaman’s curiously and unpleasantly conceived performance. The young woman, from start to finish, comes across as one of the caricatured horrible brats who go along with Charlie to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. One wants to root for this girl and see her achieve the happiness she longs for (and all kids deserve). At the same time, though, she seems desperately in need of some hearty discipline.


Mickey Theis and Megan Bartle in John Guare’s “You Lied to Me About Centralia” in Desire
(©Carol Rosegg)

Also at 59E59 Theaters, courtesy of The Acting Company, is Desire, a sextet of short plays based on Tennessee Williams’ short stories, all of which feature the writer’s signature dreamers.

In many of the pieces, theatergoers will find characters from Williams’ plays or ones who distinctly resemble men or women found in them. Take for example David Grimm’s “Oriflamme,” which centers on an unhappy saleswoman who has decided to break free of her dreary life. She’s bought a crimson evening dress and strolls through a park in it, hoping to give free rein to the passions that lie underneath her proper facade.

As this piece, beautifully performed by Liv Roth and Derek Smith, who plays the man she meets while on her excursion, unfolds, it’s rough not to think of Blanche DuBois (and Stanley Kowalski).

More explicitly referential is “You Lied to Me About Centralia” (a gorgeous piece of writing from John Guare, which imagines what happens to the Gentleman Caller after he leaves the Wingfield home. He has met his fiancee at a train station in St. Louis, and as she prattle on about a disastrous trip that she’s taken to try to get a loan for the home she would like to have, he begins to realize that maybe the airier world at the Wingfield home has its benefits.

It’s a heartbreaker of a play, and Megan Bartle, playing the crass and materialistic Betty, and Mickey Theis, as the once-pragmatic, but now not so sure, Jim, are superb.

Other plays in Desire come from Rebecca Gilman, Beth Henley, Elizabeth Egloff, and Marcus Gardley. In these, theatergoers will encounter everything from a sorority girl who gets a sense that her aspirations might be misguided, to a man who hopes to escape inner demons through aggressive (or perhaps masochistic) encounters with a masseur.

There are decided charms to be found throughout be it writing (Gilman’s present-day setting for the university-based play is smart), acting (Yaegel T. Welch’s sweet, arrogant, and slightly menacing turn as the masseur), or design (David C. Woolard’s attractive period and modern costumes). And though there is some evenness in the production, Desire ultimately satisfies.

---- Andy Propst


How to Live on Earth plays at HERE Arts Center (145 Sixth Avenue). For more information and tickets, visit: here.org.

Pondling and Desire play at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: 59e59.org.

'Hamlet in Bed' - A Contemporary Tale, Riffing on the Bard


Michael Laurence and Annette O’Toole in Hamlet in Bed
(©Tristan Fuge)

Writer-performer Michael Laurence enjoys riffing on classic texts. About six years ago in Krapp 39, he offered an intriguing theatrical meditation on Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Now with his fascinating Hamlet in Bed, which opened last night at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, he takes on one of the Bard’s greatest tragedies.

As with Laurence’s Krapp his Hamlet serves as a kind of contemporary dialogue with the familiar text. In this new work he investigating Shakespeare’s mother-son conflict from the perspective of an actor named Michael, who is obsessed with the play and also with finding the woman who gave him up for adoption at birth.

His two fixations collide one day when, at a bookseller’s table near NYU, he comes across a diary that an actress named Anna kept while she was playing Ophelia. From it, he learns that she had an affair with---and became pregnant by---her Hamlet. She carried the child to term, but gave it up for adoption. The boy and Michael share the same birthday.

Michael, believing that this woman could very well be his mother, borrows from the Bard’s script and begins preparations for a workshop production of the tragedy. After tracking Anna down, he casts her as Gertrude, hoping, much like the melancholy Dane, to use the play-within-a-play to spark a confession out of this woman (Annette O’Toole), who has long given up acting and led a mundane, alcohol-infused existence.

It’s an terrifically rich scenario, and under Lisa Peterson’s astute direction, the show unfolds like a highly theatrical noir on a bare stage (scenic designer Rachel Hauck does provide the requisite bed) that lighting designer Scott Zielinski masterfully cloaks in dimness. David Tennent’s black and white projections help make the atmosphere all the more mysterious, and the actors’ consistent use of hand-held microphones (sound design and original music by Bart Fasbender) heighten the production’s immediacy and performers’ intensity.

Throughout Laurence and O’Toole deliver splendidly. His tall, lean physique (outfitted with a black suit courtesy of costume designer Jessica Pabst) and slightly craggy face combine to make him look as if he were some nineteenth century Shakespeare illustration come to life and updated. He also knows his way around his own brand of taut, conflicted lyricism and uses his rich, deeply melodious voice to terrific effect.

O’Toole makes Anna a riveting urban feral creature. Wearing heavy dark makeup around her eyes and equally dark leggings and form-fitting top (for most of the show), she often prowls the stage like a kind of haunted and hunting lioness (appropriate given Anna’s fondness for the street cats outside of her building). And, as striking as her appearance and physicality are, it’s her delivery of Laurence’s text---with both musicality and bluntness---that captivates and entrances.

The play itself proves to be not as thoroughly engaging, particularly as it reaches its climax and the two characters finally play the “Closet Scene” from Hamlet, in which he confronts his mother. Laurence’s writing, assured and provocative throughout, takes on an odd kind of shorthand as Michael and Anna battle not just about the scene, but also about their intentions. By the play’s end though, Laurence’s writing recovers, and he leaves the characters and theatergoers with a marvelous hanging question mark about who these people are.

---- Andy Propst


Hamlet in Bed plays at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (224 Waverly Place). For more information and tickets, visit: rattlestick.org.

'The Christians' - Watching Beliefs Change, Crumble


Linda Powell, Andrew Garman, Larry Powell, and Philip Kerr in The Christians
(©Joan Marcus)


Can people change their fundamental beliefs? Can religions evolve? These two questions lie at the center of Lucas Hnath’s intellectually stimulating new play The Christians, which opened last night at Playwrights Horizons.

Hnath gives theatergoers a pretty basic setup. In the luxe sanctuary of a mega-Church somewhere in the U.S. (rendered with remarkable realism by scenic designer Dane Laffrey), a pastor, after thanking his congregation for its ongoing support which has allowed his ministry to grow from its humble, storefront beginnings, delivers his Sunday sermon. It starts off pretty much as one might expect, but after relating a story about a missionary’s report that he’s heard at a recent conference, the preacher, Paul, announces that there will be a change in his church’s basic philosophy: it will no longer be a requirement for congregants to accept Christ in order to get into Heaven. Or to put it differently, Paul does away with Hell.

It’s a bold move, and its ramifications are swift and significant. Almost immediately, Paul’s associate pastor, Joshua, denounces the move, and quickly defects from the church to start his own. A church elder, Jay, attempts to strike a conciliatory tone for the men and the organization. Paul’s wife, Elizabeth, finds her faith shaken, not just in a religious sense, but also personally as she questions her husband’s core beliefs.

Pastor Paul’s conversations with these characters, along with one other, a congregant played with beautiful simplicity and agonizing confusion by Emily Donahoe, unfold both in public and private. In Les Waters’ presentational staging, which has the actors using hand-held microphones throughout, it falls to lighting designer Ben Stanton to differentiate between the open and closed-door meetings, and he does a superlative job in helping theatergoers understand when the action has shifted.

Equally impressive are the performances, starting with Andrew Garman’s smooth turn as Pastor Paul. It’s a role that could bring out the snake-oil salesman in an acotr. Garman resists this temptation and delivers a sensitive portrayal of a man of God whose beliefs are evolving and who refuses to compromise as they do. As Paul’s associate, Larry Powell delivers an equally heartfelt and slightly oilier (appropriately so) turn, which makes it tantalizing to consider the multiplicity of reasons behind Joshua’s defection. As Paul’s wife, Linda Powell brings a quiet grace to the stage, and when Elizabeth must question the timing of her husband’s decision, the pain the woman feels is palpable. As the church elder, Philip Kerr delivers performance that’s concurrently soft-spoken and subtly commanding.

Hnath never attempts to provide answers to the fundamental questions that lie at the center of The Christians, nor does he sit in judgment of the quintet of characters. In the end, that’s up to theatergoers, who, most likely, will leave the production debating its meaning and the characters’ intentions, even as they consider how systems of belief might change.

---- Andy Propst


The Christians plays at Playwrights Horizons (416 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: playwrightshorizons.org.

'Stoopdreamer' - Memories of an Old Neighborhood

Playwright Pat Fenton delivers a gentle ode to an era, a place, and a romance which have all seemingly disappeared forever in Stoopdreamer, now playing at the cell in Chelsea.

A collection of interconnecting monologues, the play centers on life in Brooklyn’s Windsor Terrace, both before and after Robert Moses’ Prospect Expressway plowed through the predominantly Irish neighborhood. Tales of what life was like come from a trio of characters as they hang at Farrell’s Bar, which has been in operation since 1933.

The proceedings get underway with musings about the place and neighborhood delivered by “The Bartender.” Though at times his work is uncertain, Jack O’Connell imbues the character with the sort of genial gruffness and anti-sentimental attitude that one expects from a guy who’s seen it all from his time serving patrons.

More lyrical is one of the place’s customers, known just “Man.” A retired cop, he’s finally getting to pursue what had always been his dream: to become a writer. It’s with this character that Fenton’s language—colloquially lyrical—throughout becomes most florid, and Bill Cwikowski handles it with aplomb, turning in a soft-spoken, yet passionate, performance.

Alongside the two guys is “Woman,” played by Robin Leslie Brown. She grew up here, but unlike them, she has moved away. She’s come back to the neighborhood, though, to see if she might be able to cross paths with a lost love, and as this woman recounts the changes she saw and the wonderment of a teenage romance, Brown seems to simply shimmer with both remembered joy and current melancholy.

Director Kira Simring has staged the play so that it unfolds along one long wall of the intimate Chelsea theater, and thus, the production gives a sense of one of those long, dark narrow taverns that used to be fixtures not just in Windsor Terrace, but throughout the city.

And while Gertjan Houben’s production design does not perfectly replicate the murkiness of such places (it all just seems so brightly lit), his use of projections more than compensates. Large images of the bar’s neon sign, Moses’ plan for the expressway, and black and white photos of the neighborhood span the back wall, gracefully fading from one to another. Inset in the wall, too, are small frames into which other black and white images are projected, and these, combined with Fenton’s graceful text, evoke past and present to make this brief theatrical memory a piece to treasure.

---- Andy Propst


Stoopdreamer plays at the cell (338 West 23rd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: thecelltheatre.org.

'Empire Travel Agency' - Immersive Drama Extraordinaire


Todd D'Amour in Empire Travel Agency
(©Mitch Dean)

At this juncture, raving about Woodshed Collective’s Empire Travel Agency feels incredibly unfair. This immersive thriller that takes theatergoers (in groups of four) on a journey through lower Manhattan appears to be virtually sold-out. Nevertheless, this work, written by the ensemble and directed by Teddy Bergman, succeeds so well on so many levels that it seems a pity to not talk about it.

The show unspools after audience members meet a representative from the agency on a street corner in the Wall Street area. Soon, one theatergoer’s cell goes off, and instructions about what to do next are given. After this, for about two and a half hours, the show plunges its tiny audience into a drama about forces that are competing to ensure that a substance seemingly similar to LSD, known as “Ambros,” continues to be manufactured in the U.S.

For theatergoers fortunate enough to score a ticket to one of the shows, it seems grossly unfair to reveal specifics about the journey. Suffice it to say that during the course of the piece, the play unfolds in moving cars, requires audiences to search out an agent on the subway, and takes them into some intriguingly outfitted spaces to find clues and/or learn more about the men and women who are at the heart of the struggle.

There’s little profundity about Empire Travel Agency, but that doesn’t matter. It sure is fun, and on the night I caught it, a steady rain only added to the heady atmosphere and urgency that pulses just underneath the tale and the experience. (Inside one car with rain-streaked windows, it was difficult to not feel as if we’d really gotten thrown into Blade Runner as the street lights reflected wildly into the vehicle.)

Director Bergman can’t get credit for how the weather heightened this recent performance, but he and the ensemble deserve accolades for the smoothness and totality of the adventure. The piece is beautifully and immaculately paced, and it’s difficult to not wonder just how on earth actors show up next to you on the middle of the street on cue. Similarly, the performers’ utter commitment to their roles generally astonishes.

As previously noted, Empire Travel Agency is virtually sold out. Facebook posts from the company do, however, indicate when certain spots become available. It’s worth the extra effort to score a spot for this remarkable theatrical journey.

---- Andy Propst


For more information about Empire Travel Agency, visit: www.woodshedcollective.com.