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  • AmericanTheaterWeb Original News & Reviews

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'Sex of the Baby' - Sex Farce-Laced Dramedy


Matthew-Lee Erlbach, Marinda Anderson, and Devin Norik in Sex of the Baby
(©Russ Rowland)

The characters in Matthew-Lee Erlbach’s Sex of the Baby, which has just opened at the Access Theatre, are having difficulty knowing exactly who they are and what they want from life. The same thing can be said for Erlbach’s uneven play, which veers erratically from contemplative dramedy to high-octane sex farce.

At the outset of the show, directed at a frantic pace by Michelle Bossy, it seems as if Baby will be exploring the issues related to surrogate pregnancies as Daniel interviews Bekah, a woman he and his partner Michael might select as the woman to carry the baby they hope to raise. Interestingly, the men, who seem to the outside world to live in domestic bliss, are anything but happily partnered, and the same can be said of their best friends, Erik and T’Kia, who are expecting a child of their own.

With the two couples, both interracial, at the show’s center Erlbach sets the stage for what could be an intriguing look at the difficulties of bringing a child into this world in 2015.

The playwright, however, complicates things after Daniel, a sculptor, embarks on a relationship with Bekah, who begins to act as his muse and more. Relationships fray and secret longings come to the fore. And when the two couples, and BeKah, along with a crass Syrian-born gallery owner who has aspirations for becoming a standup comic, settle down to dinner, mayhem ensues.

Erlbach’s plotting for the high comedy aspects of Baby do inspire laughs, and there very well could be a complex contemporary farce lying at the core of the play. Unfortunately, as soon as this side of the play begins to genuinely catch fire, the playwright interrupts the comedy by having the characters shift to more philosophical discussions about their desires to leave some sort of legacy, be it a child or a piece of art.

The members of the six-person ensemble navigate this bifurcated work to varying degrees success. Most notable is Marinda Anderson, who, as T’Kia, delivers Erlbach’s zingers with precision and sensitively renders the woman’s concerns about her relationship and its future. Similarly, Devin Norik’s performance as Daniel has an aching artiness and a manic confusion that serve both aspects of the play well.

Unfortunately, playwright Erlbach, who also plays Erik, and Korey Jackson, as Daniel’s demanding, career-driven spouse, fail to convince as the show veers between drama and high comedy. Both actors have difficulty launching into two of the play’s most vitriolic sections. As the characters on the outside of the relationships, Clea Alsip brings a genial kookiness to her turn as Bekah, and Ali Sohaili plays the art dealer with a truly horrific sense of comedy with decided panache.

There’s similar flair to Paul Tate DePoo III’s scenic design which ably transforms the Access Theatre’s gallery space into one-bedroom apartment shared by two distinctly different men, and Joseph S. Blaha’s contemporary costumes understatedly serve Erlbach’s characters, who, as the play ends, are still attempting to sort through their confused lives.

---- Andy Propst


Sex of the Baby plays at the Access Theater Gallery Space (380 Broadway). For more information and tickets, visit: www.sexofthebabytheplay.com.

'Whorl Inside a Loop' - Prison Tales, Meticulously Rendered


Donald Webber, Jr.; Chris Myers; Derrick Baskin; Daniel J. Watts; Nicholas Chris in Whorl Inside a Loop
(©Joan Marcus)

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.

'A Delicate Ship' - A Dark Christmas Memory


Nick Westrate, Miriam Silverman, and Matt Dellapina in A Delicate Ship
(©Jenny Anderson)

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.

'Love & Money' - Gurney Channels Dickens, Guare


Maureen Anderman in Love & Money
(©Joan Marcus)

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.

'Informed Consent' - The Ethics of Genetic Anthropology


DeLanna Studi and Tina Benko in Informed Consent
(©James Leynse)

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.