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  • AmericanTheaterWeb Original News & Reviews

  • Use the calendar above to find ATW News & Reviews for a specific day, or use the list to the right to go to a specific review or article. The site's updated 3-4 times a day generally. For you convenience, links below will take you to ATWTopNews (a quick listing of links to some of the day's top stories) and to ATWClips (the complete digest of the day's news from ATW).


'King Liz' - A Sports Agent and Client Attempt to Reach the Top

Russell G Jones, Jeremie Harris and Karen Pittman in King Liz
(©Carol Rosegg)

Karen Pittman wowed last season in Disgraced on Broadway, playing a high-powered attorney, who found herself working as a sort of referee between her husband and one of her colleagues at a dinner party. She’s returned to the stage in Fernanda Coppel’s King Liz to play another character who’s attained an impressive level of success in her field, but in this new play that opened last night at Second Stage Theatre’s uptown home, the McGinn-Cazale Theatre, Pittman’s character, Liz Rico, often can be the one starting the battles in a professional war she has been waging for over two decades.

Liz, you see, has reached nearly the pinnacle in her field: sports-agentry. She has risen from the ranks to a number two slot at her company, and as Coppel’s play opens, Liz’s boss Mr. Candy (Michael Cullen) informs her that the rumors of his pending retirement are true. Candy also has plans to recommend to the company’s board that she--rather than a popular, male, and Caucasian colleague--succeed him as its leader. Yes, there are overtones of King Lear in King Liz.

Before Candy makes his recommendation, however, he wants her to do one thing: sign a contract with a hot-shot 19-year-old basketball player who’s just out of high school in Red Hook. This young man, Freddie Luna (Jeremie Harris), has the potential to be a superstar along the lines of Kobe Bryant. But, he’s also young, and there are lingering questions about his past and run-ins with the law.

Liz, determined to secure the top spot at the agency, takes the assignment, and through a combination of bullying and bluntness, she gets Freddie to sign at their first meeting at a Brooklyn burger joint (Dane Laffrey’s corporate office--like scenic design proves exceptionally flexible). In short order, Liz makes good on her promise to Freddie, getting him a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract with the Knicks, and up until a game-saving play he makes for the team, everything seems to be on track for them both.

Unfortunately, at a press conference following the game, Freddie loses his temper, and Liz has to go on the offensive. In the process, she also has to confront a number of personal issues that she has avoided during her career.

It’s at this point that Coppel’s play--to use a sport term--chokes. She contrives crises for both characters, including a romantic entanglement for Liz, that fail to convince, and while the first half of the play had been a taut, driving machine, its second act sputters from moment to moment despite the performers’ work and director Lisa Peterson’s crisp staging.

Nevertheless Pittman continues a forward press that never loses steam. During the first act, she dazzles as Liz works the phones playing managers from rival teams off one another. And when Liz watches Freddie during the crucial game, there’s something that’s almost leonine about this woman as she stalks the stage, afraid to watch the television and yet, seemingly inexplicably drawn back to it.

Equally impressive is Harris’ work as the young player. He blends swagger with innocence superlatively, creating a character who is painfully and questioningly straddling late adolescence and early adulthood. He and Pittman both are to be commended for only gently playing the parent-child roles that Coppel weaves into the script to create one more layer of Lear in Liz.

Cullen’s work as Candy sparks with both weariness and subtle misogyny, and Irene Sofia Lucio gets laughs as Liz’s beleaguered and overly-eager assistant while Russell G. Jones brings hardnosed sensitivity to his portrayal of Freddie’s coach.

As with Coppel’s Chimichangas and Zoloft which played off-Broadway a few seasons back, King Liz brims with zestful dialogue and there’s little question that both plays display the playwright’s keen interest in exploring unique contemporary multicultural stories. And while not everything in King Liz scores, Pittman’s bravura performance in the title role proves thoroughly and compellingly winning.

---- Andy Propst

King Liz plays at the McGinn-Cazale Theatre (2162 Broadway). For more information and tickets, visit: 2st.com.

'The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey' - A Magical, Moving Solo Show

James Lecesne in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey.
(©Matthew Murphy)

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, which opened last night in a new production at the Westside Theatre, premiered earlier this year at Dixon Place. Below is the review of the original production, which has been newly designed for its transfer to the Westside Theatre.

There’s wondrous magic going on at Dixon Place in James Lecesne’s astonishing one-man show, The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, which opened last night.

The first sort of wizardry that theatergoers will find in the show is Lecesne’s performance. In the space of just seventy minutes creates marvelously etched characters, from a tough-talking, seen-it-all detective in a small town on the Jersey shore to a one-time mafia wife who has begun to have regrets about her culpability in her late husband’s activities to a German man who specializes in repairing antique clocks and watches (a man with regrets of his own).

Now you might think that actors who play multiple roles in their own shows are a dime a dozen in New York. And indeed, they are. But it’s rare that one comes across a performer as gifted as Lecesne. He seamlessly transitions between the characters as a sad mystery concerning the brutal murder of a gay teenager--the Leonard Pelkey of the play’s title--unfolds, and with each lightning-like transition, his transformation is utterly and almost mind-blowingly convincing.

For instance, Lecesne only wears a dark shirt, trousers and a pair of dress shoes during the course of the show, but when he becomes the dead boy’s aunt Gloria, he seems to have somehow slipped into an uncomfortable pair of heels. Similarly, when this woman’s awkward teenage daughter Phoebe takes to the stage, something has gone wrong in the elastic in her knee-highs.

Beyond Lecesne’s attention to detail in his performance, there’s a sense of genuine affection for all of the characters (including a young man who might be the murderer). It’s not that Lecesne’s writing is saccharine. In fact, there a moments when the script allows the audience to laugh at the people he’s portraying. Take for instance a woman who is a customer at Gloria’s beauty parlor. She remembers how she first met Leonard. “Last summer I’m at the CVS browsing decongestants when I notice this kid...,” she says. It’s the kind of detail that inspires a guffaw and, in lesser hands, could signal a caricature that’s about to be revealed. By the end of her sole appearance, though, she’s a woman whom audiences have come to adore and may even feel a little sad for.

This multi-tiered response to this character and the show in general is the other sort of magic that the piece traffics in. It’s both marvelously amusing and deeply moving, often within the space of just a couple of lines. Lecesne’s gift for quick transitions between characters extends to his writing and the emotional rollercoaster of Absolute Brightness proves enormously satisfying.

The show’s success does not rest with Lecesne alone. Director Tony Speciale must be credited with the show’s graceful staging and for integrating Matthew Sandager’s still and animated projections and Duncan Sheik’s delicately evocative incidental music for piano and guitar. These elements beautifully enhance Lecesne’s work, which casts a spell that inspires a winning and warm glow from start to finish.

---- Andy Propst

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey plays at the Westside Theatre (407 West 43rd Street). For more information and tickets, visit absolutebrightnessplay.com.

'Three Days to See' - Helen Keller Beyond 'The Miracle Worker' (and the Jokes)

Zoe Wilson (center) and Barbara Walsh (rear), along with, clockwise, Ito Aghayere, Chinaza Uche, Theresa McCarthy, Patrick Boll, Marc de la Cruz in Three Days to See
(©Carol Rosegg)

For most people the name Helen Keller evokes one of two things. Either they think of Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in the movie The Miracle Worker or they immediately remember the worst jokes about the young woman, who, though born with the ability to see and hear, lost both senses in infancy due to illness.

In Three Days to See, a new theater piece based on Keller’s extensive writings from adulthood that opened last night in a Transport Group production off-Broadway, director-adapter Jack Cummings III gets past both of these generalized impressions about Keller early on. Working on a stage that’s bare except for half a dozen folding tables and chairs (scenic and costume design by Dane Laffrey), the show’s seven person ensemble bounds onto the stage to tell litany of the jokes about the woman that many folks learned in grade school.

After this, and working from Keller’s recollections of her earliest experiences with her teacher Anne Sullivan, Three Days pushes past the two most memorable moments in Miracle Worker: Keller’s first verbalizations at a water pump and the battle royale in the Keller family dining room when Sullivan refuses to let her charge use her hands to eat.

It’s a shrewd move on Cummings’ part, and one that theoretically, should open theatergoers to what follows, a theatrical collage that illuminates Keller’s experiences, social and political stances, and thoughts on her place in the world.

Unfortunately, rather than allowing his talented company to simply recite from Keller’s work or re-enact moments that she chronicled, Cummings has conceived the work as a movement-dance piece (musical staging by Scott Rink), and thus, the dinner table brawl unfolds like a cartoon battle as Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing” thunders underneath.

When Keller decides to leave the lecture circuit for a more lucrative career in vaudeville, the show’s soundtrack turns to the iconic overture to Gypsy, and when Keller, during a sojourn in Hollywood, gets to take her first ride in an airplane, the “Out of My Dreams” ballet from Oklahoma! plays while the company breeze around the stage holding Zoe Wilson aloft as if she herself had taken wing.

This clichéd (remember “Out of My Dreams” contains the lyric “I long to fly”) gimmickry undermines the sensitivity and insight in Keller’s writings, which encompass everything from her thoughts on racial inequality to the suffragette movement. When she discovers that her German publisher has been altering her writing to appease the Nazi government, her ability to blend anger with compassion in her letters chills.

The music choices have secondary, and equally adverse, effect on the production. Throughout the show, the company has to strain to be heard over or keep pace with the pre-recorded pieces. This becomes most notable late in the production when Leonard Bernstein’s bombastic overture to Candide plays, while the ensemble intones Keller’s thoughts on what she might do if she were granted a wish to experience the world visually for 72 hours. The sequence comes at the show’s approaching two-hour mark, and during it, each of the company members sound exhausted rather than excitedly inspired.

When the actors have the chance to simply speak Keller’s words, Three Days does have the ability to move audiences. Barbara Walsh delivers Keller’s memories about Sullivan’s death with poignancy, and Theresa McCarthy blends school-girlish glee with sad regret as Keller recounts a romance that ended badly. Similarly Marc de la Cruz and Chinaza Uche bring an encounter between Keller and Alexander Graham Bell to life with touching delicacy.

Throughout R. Lee Kennedy’s lighting design uses a plethora of colors to gently shape space, indicate locales, and accentuate mood, and it’s difficult to not wish that Three Days to See was as graceful and subtle as his work.

---- Andy Propst

Three Days to See plays at Theater 79 (79 East Fourth Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.transportgroup.org.

'The New York Story' - Colin Quinn's Looking at (and Longing for) the Past

Colin Quinn in The New York Story
(©Mike Lavoie)

Colin Quinn misses the “old” New York. You know, the one that so many of us loathed and loved before 42nd Street began to look like a mall in middle America and places like Whole Foods took up residence on the Bowery.

Toward the end of his new show, The New York Story, which, directed by Jerry Seinfeld, opened last night at the Cherry Lane Theatre in Greenwich Village, Quinn delivers a heartfelt and very funny eulogy to this New York.

Before Quinn gets there, however, he first wants to explore the roots of how New Yorkers came to have their distinctive personality, and to do this, he turns the clock back to its original inhabitants, the Lenapes. “And they’ve already got a bit of that New York attitude. They’re cocky, walking around with their shirts off, pecs hanging out, smoking tobacco.” Then, of course, the Dutch arrive and “set their tone, which is sort of irritable, as New York people are.”

Quinn continues in this manner with each wave of immigrants: the British, Germans, Jews, Puerto Ricans, et al., and with each successive group, Quinn offers a mix of cunning insight about the character of New Yorkers and some old-fashioned ethnic humor. It’s not mean-spirited and actually sort of refreshing in an age that Quinn describes as one where “people are walking on eggshells carefully, trying to make sure they don't offend anyone."

Quinn’s seemingly off-the-cuff and often hilarious reveries about the melting pot of cultures that has been part of the city’s history also set the stage (which, designed by Sara C. Walsh, evokes an era of the city’s past: a grimy stoop, clothes hanging out to dry, etc.) for the last portion of the piece and its slightly bitter edge. As Quinn rightly observes "You can't celebrate diversity and have no differences at the same time."

The comedian’s not advocating a return to a time when people wouldn’t get on the last car of a train, would carry “mugger money,” and even, “would literally write signs to criminals. ‘No radio in car.’” But in a time when areas of the city are becoming virtually indistinguishable from one another, it’s rough not to wonder if he’s onto something with The New York Story, which, by the end, is impressively both a great piece of comedy and social commentary.

---- Andy Propst

Colin Quinn: The New York Story plays at the Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street). For more information and tickets, visit: cherrylanetheatre.org.

'Ruthless!' - Being Wicked Can Be Fun

Peter Land, Tori Muray, and Kim Maresca in Ruthless!
(©Carol Rosegg)

Watching folks being evil can always be so much fun, can’t it? And, if you’re unconvinced by the idea, drop in to St. Luke’s Theatre, where a revival of the 1992 musical Ruthless! has just opened.

With book and lyrics by Joel Paley, who’s also directed, and music by Marvin Laird, the show mashes up backstage stories familiar from Gypsy and All About Eve with elements of The Bad Seed, which charted a mother’s realization that her tween daughter was a murderess. In the case of Ruthless!, it’s perky suburban housewife Judy Denmark (Kim Maresca), who comes to find that her hell-bent-on-fame daughter Tina (Tori Murray) has killed in order to get the lead in the school play. At Tina’s side and egging her on in her ambition--and felonious plotting--is talent agent Sylvia St. James (Peter Land), a woman with secrets and an agenda of her own.

Paley’s book, streamlined to one act for this new production, borrows from other movie-making traditions, and in the process, the show becomes not unlike a loving Carol Burnett Show send-up of Hollywood tropes. Paley includes a revelation about Judy’s true identity and interjects the presence of Tina’s sarcastically sage theatre critic grandmother (Rita McKenzie channeling both Ethel Merman and Joan Rivers).

The problem with the new one-act structure is that some elements of the show, which might have at one point felt fully developed, now feel as if they are extraneous. The most notable example is the character of Eve Allabout (zestfully played by Tracy Jai Edwards), a woman with her own dreams of being in the spotlight. Audiences get an undeniable kick out of the references to Mary Orr’s infamous Eve Harrington once Allabout has been introduced, but given that she never achieves any sort of fame on her own (as is the case in Eve), one can’t help but wonder why she’s part of the action.

Trims to the book also mean that some of Paley and Laird’s amusing and brashly razzmatazz numbers can feel as if they are over-extended, given the relative brevity of the book scenes on either side of them, This is particularly true of “Teaching the Grade,” a number delivered by Tina’s frazzled drama teacher, played with comic bitterness by Andrea McCullough. Some of the problem with the musical material, too, stems from John Grosso’s sound design that grossly over-amplifies the cast and the show’s two pianists.

Ultimately, though, the mock evil spirit of Laird and Paley’s writing and the talents of the show’s three principals overcomes any reservations or resistance that arises. Murray, as the pint-size wannabe starlet, combines appropriate cloying sweetness with powerhouse vocals. As the girl’s mom, Maresca delivers a spot-on caricature of a vapid June Cleaver-like mom and marvelously transforms into an overblown self-entitled woman. And, Lane sashays and poses to laughable effect as the Tina’s mentor.

Josh Iacovelli’s scenic design, which brings Judy and Tina’s suburban home among other locales to life, sparks with some witty touches, and Nina Vartanian’s costumes perfectly match the over-blown nature of the humorously wicked show itself.

---- Andy Propst

Ruthless! plays at St. Luke’s Theatre (308 West 46th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: ruthlessthemusical.com.