Clifford Samuel and Neve McIntosh in The Events
Part modern day Greek tragedy and part internal psychological drama, David Greig’s searing play The Events, which opened last night at New York Theatre Workshop, allows theatergoers to journey into the tormented reality of a woman coping with the aftermath of a mass shooting at a community center where she leads a local choir. It’s a discomfiting and disconcerting show to be sure, but it’s also one that haunts and proves terrifically moving.
Loosely based on a shooting incident at a camp on a small Norwegian Island in 2011, the play investigates how Claire (Neve McIntosh) attempts to retain her sense of faith in the days and weeks after a lone gunman, known only at The Boy (Clifford Samuel) opened fire on the choir that she was leading. As she turns to the Boy’s father, a psychologist, a journalist, and others (all played by Samuel) to attempt to make sense of the horror she experienced, she gets little that helps her to genuinely understand what might have motivated him to attack. Claire does get glimmers of his reasons from his xenophobic paranoia to traumas that he suffered as a child, but nothing is enough to help her regain a sense of balance.
Between the exchanges in which Claire talks with these people, Greig’s play also reveals, in short sequences, some of The Boy’s existence, particularly his fascination with Viking Berserkers and their tribal rituals. (Greig’s use of the word ‘tribe’ throughout fascinates.) Perhaps most chilling is a sequence in which The Boy describes his feelings, which border on the mundane, during the shootings.
The play also features actual choral passages too, provided by local singing groups. There’s a different one each evening and at the press performance I attended, the vocals were provided by the Village Light Opera Group. The presence of “ordinary people” alongside the two performers adds several intriguing and compelling levels to the play. At the most basic level, their singing provides a certain veracity for Claire’s work at the community center. More important, though, their presence underscores how The Boy’s actions rip into the lives of a local community. And finally, by giving some members of the group individual lines or passages to read, Greig and director Ramin Gray also turn them into a kind of Greek chorus.
Greig’s multi-layered and staccato script (the scenes seem like small bursts of a fever dream) and Gray’s oftentimes stylized direction (while neither McIntosh nor Samuel dance, they often seem to be mid pas de deux) make The Events a unique theatrical experience that engages both the heart and the mind. There might be a few slips along the way, notably a pair of scenes between Claire and her lover Catriona that, while showing the effect that the shooting has had on Claire’s home life, also come across as pro forma, but such moments are quickly eclipsed by more compelling ones.
Impressively neither McIntosh nor Samuel veers toward overplaying in this heated drama. Instead their work has a natural intensity; His is smolderingly cool and distant and hers is vibrating with confusion and anger. At the same time, both McIntosh and Samuel offer remarkably warm and natural support for the choir when it moves to the center of the action, particularly during one sequence when Claire has brought a shaman in to help the shattered survivors heal. Equally encouraging is pianist Magnus Gilljam who is onstage throughout to accompany the group as they deliver both music that is part of its repertoire and the dissonantly lovely original pieces by John Browne.
All of this unfolds on a stage that designer Chloe Lamford has left almost entirely bare. A curtain hangs in back of the risers on which the choir sits and there are a number of plastic stacking chairs that are deployed throughout. Periodically (and appropriately) lighting designer Charles Balfour shatters the innocuous nature of the environment with color or sharply angled white beams. It’s work that mimics the events that are so terrifically recounted and explored in this splendid production.
---- Andy Propst
The Events plays at New York Theatre Workshop (79 East 4th Street). For more information and tickets, visit: www.nytw.org.
Benjamin Scheuer in The Lion
Last June, Benjamin Scheuer took me, my colleagues, and theatergoers by surprise when he opened his solo autobiographical musical The Lion for Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage II. Scheuer played out his run there, took the production to the U.K., and now he has returned and The Lion reopened last night at The Culture Project in NoHo.
Nothing substantial has changed in either Scheuer’s performance or the production itself, and so I point you toward my original review with just couple of additional observations.
Perhaps most notable about the experience of seeing and hearing The Lion a second time is how it affords theatergoers with the chance to hear how intricately conceived the piece is musically. Scheuer’s not only written some toe-tapping and smile-inducing tunes, but he’s also taken melodies and weaved them into the show like leit motifs for pieces of exposition and linking recitative for the tales he shares. It’s difficult to hear this in a first-time outing, and recognizing it during a second visit, makes it apparent that The Lion isn’t just a string of interrelated songs, it’s a fully developed score. (And one which I hope will be recorded in toto as soon as possible.)
Becoming aware of the show’s craft only deepens the emotional impact that the musical has, and even though I was quite cognizant of both the heartache and joy that would be headed Scheuer’s way as he told his story, I found myself just as rapt and moved as I was when I first encountered the piece nine months ago. The Lion remains one of the brightest musicals of the season.
---- Andy Propst
The Lion plays at The Culture Project (45 Bleecker Street). For more information and tickets, visit: cultureproject.org.
Cheryl Stern and Steven Rattazzi in City Of.
(Photo: Matthew Murphy)
Guys flirt with guys. An older woman begins to embrace her mortality, even as a younger one pines to unleash the operatic voice that she knows she has. And a female pigeon flirts with a gargoyle on the facade of Notre Dame. These stories all collide in Anton Dudley’s fanciful, yet never transporting, City Of, which opened last night in a Playwrights Realm production at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre on 42nd Street.
Beyond its central tales, the play also delves into some history as the ghosts of poet Paul Verlaine and symbolist painter Maurice Denis walk through the streets, sometimes providing advice to the living characters. It’s a heady concoction of stories, and director Stephen Brackett’s simultaneously fluid and stylized staging makes the experience of watching them unfold feel like a briskly surreal dream.
Similarly, the six-member ensemble dives into the various demands of the Dudley’s script and embraces its demands with aplomb. Most notable are Cheryl Stern and Steven Rattazzi, who play, respectively, the aforementioned pigeon and gargoyle with sweetness and delicious conviction. They also are on hand to play a number of other roles. Among those for Stern is a Parisian streetwalker, whom the actress imbues with both world-weary feistiness and maternal warmth.
Rattazzi takes on the two deceased artists with Panache and also plays, to amusing effect, Ludwig El Silverman, a museum curator, who’s recently come out and coping with his mixed heritage. His father was Austrian and his mother was Peruvian, and he was raised on the Upper West Side.
Such complex histories also bedevil the central characters of City Of and are the reasons why they’ve all journeyed from America to Paris. Claude (played with a winning naiveté and a bit of an edge by Jon Norman Schneider) is looking for the mother who abandoned him. He’s also trying to figure out whether the fabulously wealthy art collector Dash (rendered with neurotic charm by Devin Norik) is a kook or the love of his life. Meanwhile Dash is working through his grief over his deceased mother.
Eleanor (the marvelous and commanding Suzanne Bertish) has also arrived in Paris to deal with loss, although hers is not as fresh as Dash’s. She’s trying to come to terms with the loss of her father, even as she deals with her own health issues. As for Cammie (Colby Minifie), well, she’s the woman who’s looking for her voice, and only finds it after a night of wandering through the sewers, where she has absinthe-fueled visions.
Dudley’s ability to interweave these tales in both narrative and thematic ways never ceases to impress, but there comes a point when all of the stories, and the arch poetry that the characters sometimes spout, becomes cloyingly precious. Also, Dudley’s conceit of having characters speak the same lines simultaneously often undermines any emotional connection theatergoers might have begun to develop for them. This is particularly true when Eleanor and Dash are both talking about their parents’ deaths.
Scenic designer Cameron Anderson sets the action in a space that looks both like the glistening interior of an art gallery and the grayed and decaying walls of an ancient edifice, and thanks to Brian Tovar’s lushly and colorfully conceived lighting design, it’s a space that transforms with remarkable ease. Paul Carey, working in shades of mauves and earth-tones for the main characters, gets to shine with some of the more flamboyant outfits that Stern dons.
Carey’s work inspires both smiles and even a little sadness (Pigeon’s waterlogged feather ensemble is just pitiable). Dudley’s play intermittently does accomplishes the same feat. It’s just difficult to not wish that the cumulative effect were more effervescent.
---- Andy Propst
City of plays at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre (416 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: playwrightsrealm.org.
Betty Gilpin and Reed Birney in I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard.
(Photo: Ahron Foster)
Halley Feiffer’s new play I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard, which opened last week at Atlantic’s Stage 2 in Chelsea, cannot be considered--by any stretch of the imagination--pleasant. That fact, however, shouldn’t deter theater lovers from seeking out a ticket. The piece also happens to be one of the most interesting and engaging productions to hit the stage in the past few months.
The drama, laced with biting humor, centers on David (Reed Birney), a much-honored and painfully acerbic playwright, and his daughter Ella (Betty Gilpin). As the play opens, they are spending a wine-, pot- and cocaine-fueled evening together. They are both eagerly awaiting the first reviews of a new off-Broadway production of Chekhov’s The Seagull in which she is playing Masha.
There’s a decided edge to their relationship and not just because they’re tense about what critics might be saying about the show. David’s overbearing, arrogant, and prone to debasing his daughter (both intentionally and not) as he regales her with stories of his rise to fame in the theater. They’re all clearly tales that she knows by heart, yet she eats them up with the eagerness of a little girl, egging him on all the while stroking his ego.
It’s a bracing ride for these two and theatergoers, particularly when David goes after his daughter or when his homophobia comes to the fore. (His first champion in the theater was a gay man.) After the reviews appear, things get even dicier for the pair.
Where Feiffer takes the play in its second half, I refuse to say. (And I don’t know if other critics have or not. I simply refuse to spoil the marvelous surprises that Feiffer’s play contains.)
Certainly nothing in director Trip Cullman’s tautly staged production signals the way in which the show will shift, but when it does, Cullman’s work (abetted by scenic designer Mark Wendlend whose design for David’s well-worn Upper West Side apartment is a realistic marvel) proves equally compelling.
Cullman has also helped Birney and Gilipin craft remarkably nuanced performances. During the first act of the play, it’s astonishing to watch Birney as he embraces every repugnant aspect of the character, even as he infuses each with a kind of perverse (and self-centered) love for Ella. Similarly, Gilpin delivers a spirited (bordering on the appropriately overbearing) turn while they wait for notices and David self-aggrandizes.
And when the play shifts Birney and Gilpin do too, to terrific and heartstring-pulling effect. What’s most remarkable about the actors’ work and Feiffer’s drama is that, after the show has ended, it’s difficult to put it or the questions it raises about victimization out of your mind.
---- Andy Propst
I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard plays at Atlantic’s Stage 2 (330 West 16th Street). For more information and tickets, visit atlantictheater.org.
A scene from Nevermore.
(Photo courtesy of the company)
A torrent of song and rhyming couplets stream through the new music-theater piece Nevermore: The Imaginary Life and Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe, which opened last night at New World Stages, bringing the story of Edgar Allan Poe’s life into creepy and sad perspective.
Written, composed, and directed by Jonathan Christenson, the show delivers Poe’s biography as if it were a series of his own macabre stories. Sorrow, tinged with both despair and curious hope, starts in his childhood. He’s raised by an alcoholic father and an actress-mother who suffers from bouts of manic-depressive mood swings. After he and his two siblings (an older brother and a younger sister) are orphaned, they are separated, and Poe’s shuttled off to a childless couple, where his adoptive mother dotes on him while her husband resents his presence.
More tragedy---as well as loss, madness, cruelty, and fear---awaits in this household as well as in Poe’s first love affair and in his career as an emergent writer. Throughout, there are also references to Poe’s works as black cats, pendulums, and yes, a raven, crop into the biography.
The entire production unfolds in a ghoulish universe, where the versatile and talented ensemble move with an almost robotic precision, clad in production designer Bretta Gerecke’s inventive costumes that bring the meld nineteenth century styles with a decided contemporary avant garde fashionista sensibility. As if the visuals of the clothes and performers (all ghost-like white faces and dark circles under the eyes) weren’t enough, lighting designer Wade Staples uses purples, greens, blues, and yellows pointed at the stage in sharp angles to eerie effect.
Christenson’s music fuses sounds that echo Kurt Weill during his days in when cabaret reigned in the Weimar Germany with insistent music box trilling and even some more contemporary styles to terrific effect. And the melody for the number that closes both acts of Nevermore sticks in the ear for days after the show has ended.
Nevermore is actually enjoying a return visit to New York in this presentation. It was seen in 2010 at the New Victory Theatre, and for anyone who saw that incarnation of the show, this new one might disappoint. The piece has been expanded with a framing device about a group of actors who are leading Poe through his life. It feels unnecessary and though it (along with a scene late in the show when his characters inform him “we are your nightmares, we are your dreams”) only adds perhaps ten minutes to the show’s overall run-time, the additions are enough to make Nevermore feel as if it has become bloated.
Still, for those who did not catch it during its first New York outing, the unity of vision and style that permeates Nevermore is bound to impress, amuse, and maybe even send a small shiver down the spine.
---- Andy Propst
Nevermore plays at New World Stages (340 West 50th Street). For more information, visit: nevermoreshow.com.