By William Wolf

THE CHILDREN  Send This Review to a Friend

Lucy Kirkwood’s ambitious play “The Children,” a presentation of the Manhattan Theatre Club and the Royal Court Theatre of London, where the drama was first staged, has a broad scope. Although it has only three characters, its underlying theme is the very existence of the world as we know it as a result of forces of nature escalated by humans with dire results. The three portrayed are trapped by events they cannot control.

The strength of the imaginative play lies in the interactions of the characters, all three having had professional lives as physicists, as if they were in a drama of far less consequence. Deborah Findlay as Hazel and Ron Cook as Robin are a married British couple driven from their home by a nuclear power plant accident, raging radiation and a tsunami, and now in a temporary dwelling (simple scenic design by Miriam Buether). Francesca Annis as Rose appears unexpectedly. They were once friends, and the sexual tension created indicates that Rose and Robin had something going on between them back in the past.

We never meet the four children of Hazel and Robin who are referred to, and in contrast, we learn that Rose is childless. She also has been hit by cancer. Rose, as we eventually learn, has a humanitarian mission that can give new meaning to her life. Hazel and Robin are engaged in trying to survive. They have a Geiger counter, which at one point Rose runs over Robin’s entire body, and at another Robin ominously coughs up blood.

We are challenged to decide what to make of the characters, their relationship, events of the past and forebodings for the future. Director James Macdonald accents the play’s intensity and step-by-step revelations. Massive projections at the end drive home the central concept.

Mostly, it is the expertise of the three cast members that keeps us glued. Findlay and Cook are consistently superb, and Annis is tautly fascinating in her role of Rose. I have a special soft spot for Annis, who, in addition to her illustrious stage career, has appeared in numerous films, including as Lady Macbeth in Roman Polanski’s 1971 dynamic screen version, which I used in the curriculum for a course that I taught at New York University. Annis was excellent, and Polanski, always the individualist, had her in the nude for the famous sleepwalking scene. I watched her effective total performance repeatedly in class projections over the years, so it is a special delight to see her so excellent in “The Children.” At the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed December 15, 2017.

DESCRIBE THE NIGHT  Send This Review to a Friend

Rajiv Joseph has written a strange but often interesting play that is being offered by the Atlantic Theater Company. It relates to the life of Russian writer Isaac Babel, who was executed in 1940 at the age of 45 during the purges of intellectuals and others under the rule of Joseph Stalin.

Danny Burstein is excellent as Babel, who forms a long friendship with Nikolai, presumably the real Nikolai Yezev, played with bluster by Zach Grenier. Nikolai first is seen as a military officer during the post-World War I battling in Poland. He and Babel, working as a journalist, strike up an unlikely friendship. Nikolai later becomes the chief of the dreaded NKVD. Babel has been arrested and pressured to confess to bogus charges against him. It turns out that Nikolai is the one who kill him, which seems like a contrivance. (Historical note: Yezev was also executed.)

The play jumps between different time structures, the perils of life in Russia and Poland, the cracking of the Berlin Wall and more recent times. The weaving of characters into the different periods, with some cast members playing multiple roles, can be confusing even though the actors are exceedingly good.

A thread that runs through the play is passing along a journal that Babel kept, which contains observant stories about life as he saw it. The playwright gives Babel a fictional granddaughter, who comes into possession of the journal. Presumably, this is meant to symbolize that works of a writer can endure even though he is eliminated.

Grenier is outstanding as Nikolai, shown in various periods, and Nadia Bowers is wonderfully versatile. As Mariya, Nikolai’s wife, she plays a subservient woman with a talent for acting that Babel tries to demonstrate. She blossoms into sensuality as she enacts a scenario that Babel dictates with Nikolai watching. (It becomes clear that Mariya and Babel have an affair, as was the case in real life.) Then, before our eyes, she morphs into the elderly, bent over Mrs. Petrovna, who becomes important to the drama in another way. Other cast members include Stephen Stocking, Tina Benko, Max Gordon Moore and Rebecca Naomi Jones, all impressive.

Director Giovanna Sardelli handles moments of intense conversation with skill, and also accentuates the periodic outbursts. Tim Mackabee’s set nicely accommodates the various locales and time frames.

Still, there is something lacking in what the author has tried to do. One might yearn to learn more about Babel with less skipping around to make connections. Ideas clash, and the result is more of an uneasy mix than the searing look at what happened to Babel that we might want to see instead of the convoluted fictional efforts to span history. At the Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street. Phone: 866-811-4111. Reviewed December 11, 2017.

SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS  Send This Review to a Friend

You don’t have to be a veteran viewer of the animated television series by Stephen Hillenburg on which this new musical is based. I’m not and I found the show a visual blast, This is an astonishing looking scenic achievement. Before I even get to the hard-working cast, I want to salute set and costume designer David Zinn, lighting designer Kevin Adams, production designer Peter Nigrini, sound designer Walter Trarbach and everyone else who put together this dazzling spectacle under the direction of Tina Landau, who conceived the musical production.

On entering the Palace Theatre, where one might expect this show to be ensconced for a long time, one sees musicians playing informally near a side of the stage. The scenery in view is already spectacular, extending out onto both walls with elaborate colorful constructions for later use. A huge collection of balloons cover the top of the stage. Other atmospheric touches are too many to mention.

Soon Jon Rua as the noisy Patchy the Pirate comes on stage to amusingly harangue the audience, and security guards (really actors) hustle him off the stage. He will return. We are then plunged into the world of Bikini Bottom, inhabited by creatures of the sea, those with whom followers of the animation will be familiar. But that’s not necessary. They all standout in their own right as an amusing lot, soon worried about by a volcanic eruption threatening to wipe them out. That’s the main plot thrust in the book by Kyle Jarrow.

Of course, the focus is on SpongeBob SquarePants, delightfully portrayed by the likable, dexterous Ethan Slater, who with his physical agility can dominate the stage as well as set out on a treacherous climb to stop the pending volcanic disaster. Danny Skinner affably plays his robust friend, Patrick Star. The undersea world of SpongeBob teems with cartoon creatures, here brought to life by a superb cast put through entertaining confrontations and elaborate musical numbers. Yes, the book sags now and then but there is always an arresting sight of a new scenic wonder or lighting coup.

One of my favorites among the creatures is Squidward Q. Tentacles, played by Gavin Lee wearing four-legged pants. Whether he walks or tap dances, the effect is uproariously funny, especially when he does a dance routine in front of chorines of the sea who look as if they are would-be Rockettes. (A great job in the show is done by choreographer Christopher Gattelli.) Other characters include Lilli Cooper in the major role of Sandy Cheeks and Brian Ray Norris as Eugene Krabs, wearing huge crab-like mitts. There are many more populating Bikini Bottom, all appropriately costumed and used to advantage, and some occasionally moving through the aisles and interacting with spectators.

As for the score, it consists of original songs written by an army of noted stars in the music world, as well as songs by David Bowie & Brian Eno, and Tom Kenny & Andy Paley, with additional lyrics by Jonathan Coulton and additional music by Tom Kitt, who is also credited with music supervision, orchestrations and arrangements.

Seeing “SpongeBob SquarePants” is a memorable example of the elaborate staging possible in the theater, and anyone interested at that aspect of showbiz should be sure to see it, with or without an enthusiastic child in tow. At the Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway. Phone: 877-250-2929. Reviewed December 8, 2017.

METEOR SHOWER  Send This Review to a Friend

Did you ever wonder what a guy would look like if a zooming meteor tore through his stomach? That’s one of the slapstick bits running through Steve Martin’s “Meteor Shower.” Given Martin’s well-proven reputation, this work is regrettably a weak, disappointing play and offers snatches of amusement mostly thanks to its cast and the skill of director Jerry Zaks.

Martin seems to be aiming to satirize the behavior and interplay of couples, in his case meeting at a house (set design by Beowulf Boritt) in Ojai, California, in 1993 to observe a meteor shower. Via Natasha Katz’s lighting design, we see meteors attractively shooting across the stage to set the scene.

One couple, Corky and Norm, is played by Amy Schumer and Jeremy Shamos. Less-than-welcome guests (at least at first) are Laura and Gerald, played by Laura Benanti and Keegan-Michael Key.

Schumer, who has a large following, is best known for her verbal humor skills, but here she shows that she can excel at physical humor as well, exemplified by the way she can hoist her legs in the air wide apart for a sexual encounter while feigning innocence, or the way she can do a little dance. But the play requires her to also do silly little things with her husband as they have ways of apologizing to one another and vowing their love, and Shamus gets into the spirit with equal foolishness.

Key as Gerald is obnoxiously loud-mouthed and overbearing, played for comic effect, but Benanti is the most skillful of all, looking great and sexy and tossing off droll comments with welcome understatement, especially effective in the midst of the labored mayhem.

Author Martin positions his characters for sexual interplay, both hetero and gay, apparently making the point that everyone is open to something new. Much of the audience on the night I attended seemed to be eating all this up with loud laughter.

True, Martin has shown that as a performer he can be great with nutty, physical comedy. But he has also demonstrated what a witty writer he can be. You won’t find much wit in “Meteor Shower,” but you will find physical comedy deftly performed by his cast. If only he had written a better play. At the Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed December 7, 2017.

THE PARISIAN WOMAN  Send This Review to a Friend

Seeing Uma Thurman make her highly impressive Broadway debut is enough of a reason to go to “The Parisian Woman.” But that’s not the only reason. Beau Willimon’s adaptation of Henri Becque’s 1885 French comedy “La Parisienne,” now set in contemporary Washington, D.C., is an up-to-he-minute story satirizing manipulation during the administration of Donald Trump.

Smartly directed by Pam MacKinnon with a flair for accenting comedic political daggers, the play portrays characters involved in lies and intrigue of the kind that could emerge as exposes in the New York Times or the Washington Post if enterprising reporters were to get wind of what is going on behind closed doors in “The Parisian Woman,” although not with some of the language. At one point Trump is referred to as “that f…ker” in the White House. On the night I attended it was one of the presidential references that earned big laughs. This is, after all, New York.

Back to Thurman, she plays Chloe, a dazzling looking woman who is in an open marriage with Tom (Josh Lucas), a high-level tax lawyer, and is having an affair with Peter (Marton Csokas), an influential Republican banker. Tom is on a short list for an appointment as a judge on the Federal Court of Appeals, but given his lack of judicial experience, his chances of being named are slim. He and Peter are friends, and Tom wants Peter to put in a good word with the president.

Chloe has her own ideas of how to get her husband the judgeship. Although Chloe is insidiously ruthless, she is a much more interesting character than that. She regrets that as a woman she has not achieved as much as she should have in her life. She is very much for other women to do better. She has principles on that score, even as she uses dishonesty to get what she wants for her husband and also in personal relationships.

One of the strongest scenes is a long conversation with her acquaintance, Jeanette, brilliantly played by Blair Brown, a powerful Republican who has been nominated to head the Federal Reserve. The dialogue is snappy, politically and personally, and Jeanette introduces Chloe to her daughter Rebecca, who is portrayed by Phillipa Soo in another of the play’s excellent performances. Rebecca has been studying law and, under her mother’s guidance, has a political career mapped out for her—who knows, she could be president one day. Chloe offers encouragement. Later, we are in for a surprise, and so is Rebecca’s mother.

How the play is worked out is intriguing, and includes exposure of maneuvers involving politics, blackmail and the intricacies of love. Thurman leads the way in top-level performing, demonstrating that she can be as captivating on stage as on screen, and the supporting cast members consistently show their skills. As an example of how timely the play is, there is reference to lobbying the White House’s Kelly, obviously the current Chief of Staff. Of course, given Trump’s unpredictability, a change might be necessary during the play’s run. At the Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th Street. Phone: 855-801-5876. Reviewed December 6, 2017.

ONCE ON THIS ISLAND   Send This Review to a Friend

When you walk in to take your seat at the Circle in the Square you already sense that you are in for something different. The walls are lined with strung up clothing, laundry-drying-style. A lot is going on in the playing area, much of it covered with what resembles sand. Folks are ambling about, one woman is actually cooking with a real stove and a seated youngster is in view. There is also a cage with three live hens. “I didn’t know dinner was being served, “ I joked to the usher. “But they won’t be prepared to your liking,” she shot right back.

One watches the busy goings-on, including someone leading a partly clothed goat about. When the revival of “Once on This Island” (based on the novel “My Love, My Love” by Rosa Guy) begins, it moves into an ultra-lively explosion of song and dance by a talented company of performers as the inhabitants of an island in the French Antilles who assemble to reveal to us a mythical tale involving love and the gods. This production, with book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, music by Stephen Flaherty, scenic design by Dane Laffrey, costumes by Clint Ramos and choreography by Camille A. Brown is a visual treat. Director Michael Arden does himself proud.

There is a standout performance by Hailey Kilgore as Ti Moune, a young woman who falls in love with Daniel (Isaac Powell) when she nurses him after an accident. He also falls for her, but he is obligated to marry another. When Kiglore as Ti Moune sings “Waiting for Life,” “Discovering Daniel” and does a number called “Ti Moune’s Dance,” it is clear how sensationally talented she is. (This is her Broadway debut.)

A group of storytellers help move the plot along, in word as well as song, and we witness a devastating storm, with lighting and sound effects. Major issues are at play, involving status according to skin shades and class. The most well known in the cast, and probably a major draw for the show, is Lea Salonga as Erzulie, goddess of love. The death god is played by Merle Dandrige. There is also a water god, enacted by Quentin Earl Darrington.

Another favorite song outburst is “Mama Will Provide,” sung by Asaka, a mother earth kind of god portrayed by the impressive Alex Newell. (Gender doesn’t matter in this production.) I also enjoyed Isaac Powell in Daniel’s big number “Some Girls.”

The exuberant spirit of the revival is sustained throughout, not only by the performances and music, but by stage business, including the raising of a tree symbolizing rebirth. Never does the power to engage by this production of “Once on This Island” diminish. At Circle in the Square, 50th Street at Eighth Avenue. Phone: 800-447-7400. Reviewed December 5, 2017.

DOWNTOWN RACE RIOT  Send This Review to a Friend

The only thing functional, apart from the acting quality, in this dull look at a dysfunctional family and equally screwed up friends is the apartment set designed by Derek McLane. It is spread out across the width of the long stage, including a bedroom at each end, with a vestibule and a kitchen playing area in the middle.

The time is 1976, the locale Greenwich Village and the issue of the moment is a pending lethal demonstration against minorities. We don’t actually get to see the riot, which at least would enliven the play, written by Seth Zvi Rosenfeld, directed by Scott Elliott and presented by The New Group. The focus is primarily on the mostly uninteresting characters.

Mary Shannon, played in drab garb by the excellent and usually more attractive Chloë Sevigny, is a mother and drug addict. She tries to parent her son, Jimmy (David Levi), and daughter, Joyce (Sadie Scott). Jimmy is an angry mess, who, we ultimately learn, falsely believes he has asthma. Jimmy has a pal, Haitian-born Marcel “Massive” Baptiste (handsome Moise Morancy), who has been striving for acceptance. He wants Jimmy to take part in the planned riot, and so do Jimmy’s Italian-American friends, Tommy-Sick (Cristian DeMeo) and Jay 114 (Daniel Sovich), who apply pressure. To Jimmy’s credit, he doesn’t want to participate and phones to warn a friend not to go because his life will be in danger.

Meanwhile, in the midst of all of this, Marcel and Joyce have been getting it on in her bedroom, which we can watch, and when they take a break, Joyce is telling her mother in the other bedroom that she wants to leave the nest. Not to forget another character, Bob Gilman (Josh Pais), a lawyer, turns up to plot a dubious lawsuit with Mary, and also snort some cocaine with her. Of course, we can expect a bit of violence to erupt when the play leads up to what passes as a climax.

Unfortunately, for all of the sincere strivings of the fine cast members, the play doesn’t pack the strength needed to keep an audience in its grip. It rambles along for 90 minutes without an intermission, and when you come right down to it, the characters do not hold much interest as people to care about. But I did enjoy watching intriguing Chloë Sevigny, even in this drug-addled state. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-279-4200. Reviewed December 4, 2017.

HOT MESS  Send This Review to a Friend

The opening image in the intermission-less comedy written by Dan Rothenberg and Colleen Crabtee is striking. Max Crumm as Max and Lucy DeVito as Elanor are in bed together, but the bed is vertical, and they are lying (actually standing) in it after having had sex. As they cuddle they reveal little things about themselves, but without getting to the nitty-gritty of their lives.

Both Max and Elanor are stand-up comics, with Max more of a writer. Each has something hidden, which we eventually get to know. The situation at first seems rather shallow, but as the play progresses it becomes increasingly entertaining, largely because of the appealing acting. The third member of the cast is talented Paul Molnar who plays Max’s friend, Lewis, who mocks Max’s growing romantic relationship with Elanor, but goads him into the need to be frank about his sex life with her.

Max, you see, has had gay relationships, and his attraction to Elanor leads him to consider himself bisexual. There are laughs in how he handles the revelation task, at one point taking to stand-up to inform an audience of his swinging both ways. But trying to get the nerve to tell Elanor at a rendezvous is difficult.

Both are in for a surprise. Elanor has been hiding something from Max that she is having trouble revealing. What the disclosures will do to their relationship is the subject of broad comedy, almost farce. Lucy DeVito, who plays Elanor and is the daughter of Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman, is cute but also a riot when she goes into a “crash” that occurs when Elanor gets upset and needs to be snapped out of it, a task that confronts Max. They are very funny together and Lucy clearly has comic know-how, as does Crumm in his more reserved manner.

Although the play is on the thin side, the authors have provided an amusing set-up in the ultimate revelations, and Crumm and DeVito, abetted by the outrageousness of Molnar, do the rest under the snappy direction of Jonathan Silverstein. At the Jerry Orbach Theater at the Theater Center, 1627 Broadway at 50th Street, with the more convenient elevator entrance around the corner on 50th Street. Phone: 212-921-7862. Reviewed December 1, 2017.

20TH CENTURY BLUES  Send This Review to a Friend

Playwright Susan Miller takes a serious look at how women regard their aging with misgivings in “20th Century Blues.” There are comic touches too, but Miller sincerely approaches her women to let them have their say about their lives.

The catalyst is Polly Draper as Danny, a photographer in New York City, who addresses the audience in an introductory speech that sets the scene before the back story begins. Then Danny takes us into her plan to photograph her three woman friends to cap a series of photos that she has taken of them over 40 years. It would be a breakthrough exhibit for her at the Museum of Modern Art to show progression of women as they get older.

Now in their late fifties, the friends to be assembled in Danny’s apartment met in jail when they were arrested for being activists back in the days of political commitment and demonstrations. They are presently at various points in their respective lives, which have played out in different ways as time marched on.

There is Franchelle Stewart Dorn as Mac, a black journalist with whom Danny had a past lesbian fling. Ellen Parker plays Sil, a real estate broker who worries about her age showing in the intended photos. Kathryn Grody is Gabby, who is a veterinarian and very chatty.

A major problem develops when Danny asks the women to sign releases for their photos to be used in the exhibition. Sil, who feels the need to keep up appearances in her work, rebels, and suddenly Danny’s project faces derailment. In the process there is much talk about the consequences of aging. Danny applies pressure as she believes in her art project can make an important statement as well as advance her career.

The age question is emphasized with the appearance of Beth Dixon as Danny’s mother, Bess, who arrives with Danny’s son, Simon (Charles Socarides). Bess is sympathetically cheerful but in the throes of losing her memory. One of the funniest lines in the play occurs when Bess asks if she voted, and Danny assures her that she did. Bess then asks, “How is she doing?”

The play reflects women in the face of how they are unjustly regarded in society. The portraits are effective, as the cast members are all excellent in their delineation of what is happening in their lives. The writing is crisp, and yet there is insufficient drama to make the work more dynamic.

But what there is impresses, and one comes away with more awareness of what women go through and how they are affected by a society that prizes youth and beauty and instills fear of becoming over the hill. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-279-4200. Reviewed November 27, 2017.

LATIN HISTORY FOR MORONS  Send This Review to a Friend

If you sign up for the class of “Latin History for Morons” starring John Leguizamo as the professor, you will be enrolled in one of the funniest shows in town. You will also get an education, as the audience is regarded as a collection of “morons” for not knowing the compendium of history that Leguizamo dishes out with his hilarious methods, interpretations and ingenuity as a performer.

Professor Leguizamo, with his blackboards, chalked time-lines, funny drawings, his own written patter and occasional plunges into ethnic dancing, all under the free-flowing direction of Tony Taccone, dredges up history as he sees it to link president day Latinos with ancestors. We “morons” may be amazed to discover so many roots, from the victims of the conquistadors through the Native American displaced tribes to the present struggling Puerto Ricans in the wake of the hurricane.

Late in the show Leguizamo jabs politically at the neglect of Puerto Rico, received with loud applause at the performance I attended. During the show he ventures into Spanish at some points, to the exuberant laughter of his fans who understand him.

In this 95-minute performance without an intermission, what amounts to elaborate standup has a structure around family. There is the son Leguizamo describes as suffering from bullying in school because of his ethnicity and is growing increasingly depressed. He is assigned to write about a hero in order to graduate, and Leguizamo searches through files and books to find a likely Latino subject. The hero his son eventually discovers becomes a statement as well as a revelation.

Leguizamo also imitates his daughter, listening to music on her earphones but also occasionally emerging with wisdom. The working of family into the show provides the chance for sentiment to embellish the comedy. Sometimes that slows things down a bit, but it injects heart into what Leguizamo is seriously dispensing beneath all of the hilarity.

And hilarity is the right word, for Leguizamo is a master of timing, physical comedy (as when he breaks into dance), accents that underline his points, use of funny costumes and overall cleverness that gives meaning to what he does. Those who have seen him before are familiar with his talent. But in this show he rises majestically above what I have seen him achieve previously. So, the message is that theatergoing “morons” should not miss this opportunity to be educated, Leguizamo style, while laughing heartily. At Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed November 19, 2017.

  

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