Christina Bennett Lind, Danny Bernardy, Ethan Slater, Nick Flint, and Sarah-Jane Casey in Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally
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.
Sam Rockwell in Fool for Love
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.
Kelly Reilly, Eve Best, and Clive Owen in Old Times
The music, courtesy of Thom Yorke of Radiohead, that pulses through the American Airlines Theatre as audiences arrive for Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Old Times gives a clear signal that this new staging of the Harold Pinter classic from 1971, by Douglas Hodge, will be anything but staid. As the show begins in earnest, designer Japhy Weideman focuses strobe lights at theatergoers that flash insistently, and Christine Jones’ set is a model of abstraction with its chief features being a backdrop of a vortex of circles seemingly spiraling toward nothingness, piles of black stones that arc around the playing area, and what appears to be a gigantic block of ice center stage.
It’s a weirdly post-apocalyptic, yet period (indicated by Constance Hoffman’s chic costumes), vision for this play about a married couple entertaining one of the wife’s old friends for an evening. On some levels the concept---and the high-energy, fast-paced performances that it demands---serves the play, but only in a limited way.
Old Times is, after all, an opaque portrait of a power struggle between the three, as husband, Deeley (Clive Owen), and guest, Anna (Eve Best), attempt to outdo one another about their closeness to wife Kate (Kelly Reilly). As it unfolds, the trio’s clipped and conflicting memories about the times that they have shared with Kate could be considered distorted snapshots (hence the strobe light) that have been refracted through time and self-deception (thus the surreal visuals of Jones’ scenic design).
In this sort of world, the actors deliver with intensity and speed almost as if their lives depended on it, and for theatergoers who might not gravitate toward a more emotionally understated and leisurely interpretation of the play, this is also a good thing. The performance style also indicates that Old Times might be taking place in some sort of collective hell for the three.
The tradeoff that comes because of these choices, however, means that this Old Times has a certain superficiality to it, and that the menace that Deeley and Anna (and to a lesser extent Kate) pose to one another over their respective claims on Kate’s life becomes muted.
Nowhere can this be more palpably felt than when Anna reveals that she and Deeley might have met before he first encountered Kate. The specifics of the meeting and her cutting use of them to rile both husband and wife are, at least by early 1970s standards, kind of shocking and a little twisted. Unfortunately, even as Best delivers the tale with cool finesse and decided hauteur, there’s little sense of danger in what she’s revealing (or perhaps fabricating).
The same can be said of Owen’s preening and decidedly cocky Deeley. He may overtly ogle Anna early on, making sure that Kate sees that he’s interested in this other woman, but rarely does it seem like he and Anna have entered either into an amorous ritual of their own or into a battle of wills to see who might ultimately possess her. There’s little doubt that the man could dominate either sexually, but what one misses is the way in which he could potentially take control because of his intellect and erudition.
As Kate, Reilly delivers a performance that has an interesting blend of sweetness and reserve, which makes her appeal to Deeley and Anna understandable on one level. Reilly, however, never makes Kate seem to be a match for these two. Thus, it’s difficult to not wonder why they are competing for her attention and affection, and while this excursion to Old Times never bores---and in fact can be quite entertaining and is viscerally stimulating---it never delivers an emotional punch.
---- Andy Propst
Old Times plays at the American Airlines Theatre (227 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: roundabouttheatre.org.
Chris Perfetti and Izzie Steele in Cloud Nine
Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine centers on events taking place in Africa in the Victorian era and London in 1979, and it’s a play that was first seen in New York in 1981. Given all of this, it very well could feel like a quaint relic. Thanks to a remarkable new production directed by James Macdonald at Atlantic Theater Company, Churchill’s comedy proves to be remarkably contemporary.
During its first act, Cloud Nine looks at the hypocrisy underlying the staid veneers of the British people living during the reign of Queen Victoria. Churchill essentially writes a sex farce that centers on a family living in Africa, where trouble brews among the colonialists and the native people. The patriarch of the clan, Clive, proudly believes that his family and his servants center both their love and devotion on him, while he secretly trysts with Mrs. Sanders, a woman who lives nearby.
Clive’s assumptions, however, are wrong. His wife, Betty, pines for an old family friend, Harry, who returns her affections, and also lavishes them on Clive’s manservant, Joshua, and Clive’s pre-teen son, Edward. Meanwhile, Betty has to contend with advances from the family’s governess.
The sextet’s trysting (or almost trysting) occurs under the watchful and disapproving eye of Betty’s mother Maud, and as things reach fever pitch for the characters on amorous levels, they also climax on the .
The second act of the play flashes forward nearly a 100 years, and fascinatingly examines how, despite the sexual revolution, the mores from the earlier period are still informing people’s behavior. The residual effects are felt not just by this era’s Betty, who after living life as a housewife has decided to strike out on her own following a divorce, but also by Gerry and the era’s Edward, a gay couple who are struggling with the identities that they each want to maintain in their relationship.
And when Betty’s daughter Victoria leaves her husband Martin to shift into a communal and decided bi living arrangement with another woman, Lin, as well as Edward (post-Gerry breakup), Martin and Betty respond with both support and dismay at what is happening in their worlds.
Churchill enlivens the action and the ideas behind it by requiring that roles be cast across genders. For instance, Brooke Bloom plays--to heartbreaking perfection--the young boy Edward in the first act and divorcee Betty in the second. Similarly, Chris Perfetti plays Clive’s Betty in the first half of Cloud Nine, and then, plays Edward, who dreams of a ersatz straight relationship with Gerry, in the play’s second half. Perfetti brings sweetness and touching gentle confusion to both characters.
In both instances, the double casting proves telling. Bloom’s characters are chafing at what they have been taught is expected of them. Edward longs to play with his infant sister’s doll and Betty is searching for something more than her existence as a housewife. As for the roles played by Perfetti, these are characters who are trying to play by the rules, and yet, bristling at them.
It’s fascinating stuff, and intriguingly even in an era when gay marriage and trans-gender identities have become widely accepted, Cloud Nine resonates, asking theatergoers to contemplate messages that they have received about identity and relationships in their lives and how their ideas have evolved over the years. The fact that Churchill’s play contains so much merriment, not just in the play’s farcical aspects, but in its absurdist ones as well, means that such thought never becomes tiresome or pedantic, It's difficult during the first act, for instance, to worry about Churchill's message as the life-size doll-puppet that is used to indicate Clive and Betty’s infant daughter gets tossed about like a football. And yet, oddly, the comic action underscores a sense of children as Clive's chattel.
Other aspects of the play also ring with contemporary resonance. This is perhaps most keenly felt during the second act when Lin and Victoria debate whether it’s appropriate to give their children guns to play with.
Macdonald’s graceful production unfolds in the round with audiences sitting on padded bleachers. The reconfigured space, courtesy of scenic designer Dane Laffrey, gives the production a marvelously communal feel, and Scott Zielinski’s exquisite use of white light adds an interesting clinical dimension to the show. Somehow theatergoers feel both drawn in and kept at the slightest remove, so as to keep emotional and intellectual engagement on equal footing.
And, beyond the performances from Bloom and Perfetti, there are splendid turns from Clarke Thorell, who plays Clive and Lin’s grade-school age daughter Victoria with aplomb; and Lucy Owen, who brings comic dryness to her turn as the stern Maud in the first act and then blossoms with understated frustration as Victoria in the second. John Sanders brings merry randy-ness to his performance as the pansexual Harry and strikes the right balance between kindness and angry disorientation as Victoria’s husband Martin.
Sean Dugan makes Clive’s manservant Joshua a regal creature of subtle menace and imbues Gerry with appealing--and appropriately off-putting--sexual swagger and arrogance, and in a triptych of roles (governess and neighbor in act one, and Lin in act two), Izzie Steele demonstrates not just versatility but also a keen sense of how to meld comedy with weightier feelings.
As the second half of Cloud Nine progresses, elements from the first half begin to filter in, and by the time the play reaches its conclusion, there’s not just a sense of satisfaction in having re-encountered it but also one that it is a modern classic, capable of both provoking thought and stirring the heart.
---- Andy Propst
Cloud Nine at plays at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater (336 West 20th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: atlantictheater.org.
Lauren Luna Velez and Jonathan Walker in Catch the Butcher
Three shows have opened off-Broadway in the past week, and they all share one commonality: a kind of retro-TV feel to them. None of the play attempt to replicate an old program with exactitude. Instead, each puts a spin on the familiar.
Working through them in alphabetical order, the first up is Adam Seidel’s Catch the Butcher at the Cherry Lane Theatre. This one echoes both Love, American Style in its semi-comedic portrait of a romance and some of Bret Easton Ellis’ more gruesome fiction charting the relationship between Bill, a serial killer in an unnamed city in Texas, and Nancy, his latest victim.
After Bill abducts her, he takes her to his home where he straps her to a chair in a basement. He starts the prepartions for torturing, murdering and dismembering her, but she manages to stall. He’s intrigued and eventually he undoes her restraints and invites her upstairs. Once free Nancy doesn’t flee. Instead, she settles down into a ersatz marriage with Bill.
In pairing two people benumbed in contemporary society, Butcher has some promise, but it rapidly becomes preposterous as Nancy initially acquiesces unquestioningly to many of Bill’s demands. Seidel stretches credulity even further, though, once she begins to tire of her existence with her captor-lover.
Directed by Valentina Fratti, the actors deliver unevenly. Lauren Luna Valez (familiar to the serial killer milieu through her work on Dexter) has a certain spunky charm as Nancy but fails to convince as Nancy adopts a kind of Stepford Wives placidity in her new life. Jonathan Walker imbues Bill with an awkward nerdiness that makes it plausible that this man’s crimes could be inspired by long-simmering resentments about failures with women, but it’s a performance without genuine menace.
Angelina Fiordellisi arrives late in the show to play Joanne, a neighbor who stumbles into Bill and Nancy’s odd domestic world and she delivers a standard-issue portrayal of a deep South good ole girl, and it’s Joanne’s presence that spurs Nancy to rethink her relationship with Bill and the play's not unexpected conclusion.
Shane Zeigler and Daniel Johnsen in The Gray Man
There’s a far spookier and more satisfying fare to be found at Walkerspace, where Andrew Farmer’s The Gray Man, which resembles a highly artful episode of The Twilight Zone, is playing in a Pipeline Theatre Company production.
Farmer transports audiences back to New York in the early twentieth century to tell a ghost story set amid the squalor of tenements in lower Manhattan. Here, Simon attempts to navigate his grief over his mother’s death and the residual fear he has in adulthood from a tale that she told him about a Gray Man who lures children to their deaths by making them disregard their parents’ cautions about dangers in the world.
His fears are only exacerbated by the fact that several children from the neighborhood have recently and inexplicably disappeared. His neighbors, two women with kids of their own, wonder if it might be the neighbors whom they hear screaming, but they’re not sure. All Simon knows is that he would like to get out of the city and his pal John may have a way of seeing to it that Simon gets his wish.
Farmer’s play has a terse sort of lyricism to it that’s ably supported by the period-sounding music provided by Mike Brun and Chris Ryan. Andrew Neisler’s richly atmospheric production unfolds in a kind of black void. Scenic designer indicates Simon’s apartment on a platform placed in the center of the stage. There are just a pair of windowed walls and a few sticks of furniture there, but it’s enough to give a sense of the confines in which Simon lives. The fact that Daniel Dabboud's spare lighting design makes it seem as if this is a place floating in a netheworld outside of time makes Man feel all the more eerie.
At the center of the production are two utterly charming performances. Daniel Johnsen brings a sweetness and edginess to his turn as Simon that endears, and as a little girl living in the same building as Simon, Tahlia Ellie, who sings like a dream, captivates, blending innocence with a preternatural maturity. Farmer’s revelations about who has been abducting the neighborhood kids---and about the reality of Simon’s world---do not come as terribly surprising, but it really doesn’t matter. The Gray Man is all about the atmosphere that’s ideal for this time of the year.
Peter Maloney and Rufus Collins in The Quare Land
The third piece that brings to mind television from yesteryear is John McManus’ The Quare Land, which the Irish Repertory Theatre is offering at DR2, their temporary home off Union Square. This one, labeled a “cantankerous comedy,” has an Alfred Hitchcock Presents vibe to it as two men spar over the sale of a plot of land in Ireland.
McManus’ play begins merrily enough as scenic designer Charlie Cochran’s terrifically realistic recreation of a farmhouse revolves to reveal Peter Maloney, playing 90-year-old Hugh Pugh enjoying himself in a bubble bath in an ancient tub. As audiences soon learn, it’s the first that he’s taken in a number of years. Bathing is not the only thing Hugh has been neglecting. He’s also opted to ignore his mail and that’s why real estate developer Rob McNulty has shown up unannounced. He desperately needs a field that belongs to Hugh to expand a golf course at a hotel he operates.
If Hugh were only unwilling to sell, Rob might be able to cope, but before he can even get to the negotiation phase, Rob contends with a barrage of stories from the old man. There are tales about his experiences working in London, ones about his alcoholic older brother, and others about the lost loves of Hugh’s life. As these come barreling out Rob strives desperately to keep him on track, but playwright McManus needs Hugh to tell these tales. They all add up in the end, which, in the tradition of Hitchcock’s television work, has a marvelous (and bitter) twist.
Directed by Ciarán O’Reilly, The Quare Land induces some hearty chuckles, mostly when Maloney’s gruffly impish Hugh has launched into one of his rambling stories. At the same time, however, it’s a bit difficult to accept the lengths to which Rufus Collins’ all-business Rob will go to seal the deal with Hugh, and though seemingly intended to invoke laughter, the demeaning ways in which Hugh turns Rob into a toadie fail to amuse. Similarly, the production’s climax comes not so much as a shock as quick-fix attempt to wind up this shaggy dog story.
Regardless it’s a joy to spend 70 minutes in Maloney’s presence, even if he can never move from the aforementioned bathtub. To command---and deserve---attention from one location on stage is a triumph in itself, and that’s not a feat that can be done on television.
---- Andy Propst
Catch the Butcher plays at the Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street). For more information and tickets, visit: cherrylanetheatre.org.
The Gray Man plays at Walkerspace (46 Walker Street). For more information and tickets, visit: pipelinetheatre.org.
The Quare Land plays at the DR2 (103 East 15th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: irishrep.org.