By William Wolf

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.

THE BAND'S VISIT (BROADWAY)  Send This Review to a Friend

Having been captivated by the off-Broadway production of “The Band’s Visit” at the Atlantic Theater, I wondered how it would fare when brought to Broadway. No need to worry. It is essentially the same mesmerizing musical even though one can never exactly recapture the thrill of seeing something special for the first time. Now the reward is being able to better savor the ingredients with more attention to detail. If you have not seen “The Band’s Visit” in its earlier staging, a special theater treat awaits you, and if you did get to the off-Broadway production, you can have the pleasure of a reprise.

The cast is mostly the same, with a wonderful repeat of the performances by Tony Shalhoub as Tewfiq, the leader of the Egyptian band that winds up in the wrong Israeli town, and Katrina Lenk as Dina, proprietor of a small café. Their scenes together are beautiful, as they strike up an acquaintance with an undertone of romantic longing, expressed both through touching dialogue and song.

David Yazbek’s poignant music and lyrics are so very expressive, as in the infectious “Omar Sharif” that Dina hauntingly sings. The book by Itamar Moses is based on the screenplay by Eran Kolirin for the Israeli film that spawned this stage version. David Cromer directs, as he did for the off-Broadway production.

The plot involves a confusion of towns. It is 1996 and the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra of Egypt has been invited to give a performance at the Arab Cultural Center in Petah Tikva in Israel. But through a language error the group goes to Bet Hatikva instead. The arrival is very funny, as the locals of the sleepy little town don’t know what to make of this little group in band uniforms. But the newcomers, who are stranded for 24 hours before the earliest bus leaves, are graciously welcomed in various ways.

The charm of the show follows the odd interaction, especially between Dina and Tewfiq, and all is presented with sensitive understatement. This is a musical that gets under the skin. Band members include actual musicians--Osama Farouk, Sam Sadigursky, Harvey Valdes and Garo Yellin. After the curtain call, the full band is assembled on stage for a rousing encore to delight those who don’t rush out of the theater.

The theme of the show continues to be pertinent—the concept that Arabs and Jews can find a common ground if only the opportunity is seized. The step by step getting to know one another that the musical depicts becomes a statement illustrated by the show’s overall magical quality. (See Search under Theater for the off-Broadway review and under Film for the review of the movie.)

Scott Pask’s set design, including a revolving stage, enables a very free-flow of scenes. Especially effective numbers include Dina’s singing of “It Is What It Is” and Dina and Tewfiq teaming on “Something Different.” “The Band’s Visit” is definitely an award contender, both for the show itself, and for the lead performances. At the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed November 10, 2017.

OFFICE HOUR  Send This Review to a Friend

You are unlikely to find more riveting theater than playwright Julia Cho’s “Office Hour,” a searing, right-on-target drama dealing with the fear of random violence. I say this even though I have some quarrel with the way the playwright and director Neel Keller toy with the audience via a series of shocks. But, abetted by a razor-sharp cast, the play is hot stuff.

The set-up is at a university where at the outset three professors are sharing anxieties about a problem student, Dennis, who is not only sullen and uncommunicative, but writes assignments filled with hostile, violent language and bloody imagery that instill fear, particularly in exasperated David (Greg Keller), that Dennis is a dangerous student who could commit violence and needs to be kicked out.

Genevieve, another professor (Adeola Role), also is fearful and reports zero progress in trying to communicate with Dennis. But there remains a reluctant feeling that perhaps he deserves one more chance. The third in the group, Gina (Sue Jean Kim), is asked to make an attempt to break through and see if the young man can be helped. Thanks a lot. She reluctantly agrees to try.

The personal fireworks begin when Dennis (Ki Hong Lee) is ordered to Gina’s office and shows up late. Wearing a hood and his usual dark glasses, he is silent and uncooperative at first, but through Gina’s prodding, he begins to reveal how full of self-loathing he is, in addition to hating everyone else. He feels that he is already dead a human being. Still, might he have writing talent if he could be led to move away from his violent diatribes?

What is unsettling is that in her effort to act very compassionately toward Dennis, Gina breaks just about every rule about dealing with students. She talks about problems in her own life. She keeps the door closed. And at an emotional moment she tries to comfort Dennis by hugging him to show he is worthy of compassion. He, of course, wants to go a step further.

This teacher-to-student consultation is periodically interrupted by stage action to show what Gina may be thinking. There are abrupt outbursts that dramatize such thoughts, with the feeling that the author is not playing fair and square with the audience.

The stakes, both in imagination and in reality, escalate as the play charges forward without intermission, and the whole problem of chilling violence that we see in the daily headlines is conceptually addressed.

Kim performs superbly in-depth and Lee is everything he should be as Dennis. He is at first inscrutable with his sullenness and outright bursts of defiance, but also revealing himself to be a poignantly scarred individual with glimmers of potential. He is frighteningly memorable in the characterization.

The result is drama attuned to today, whether the lurking potential violence is on a university campus, in a church, or elsewhere in the country . The playwright, director and cast confront this head-on with such intensity that one is glued to the stage. I have qualms with some of the deceptions foisted on the audience, but as theater it sure works. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Phone: 212-539-8500. Reviewed November 9, 2017.

JUNK  Send This Review to a Friend

The year is 1985 but the financial shenanigans in the use of junk stock to pump up high profits and company takeovers are still a fascinating reminder that the potential for corruption is ever-present. Think of the Trump moves to eliminate restrictions that were put in place to curb such dangerous financial practices.

“Junk,” written by Ayad Akhtar, is flashily directed by Doug Hughes. This Lincoln Center Theater production is presented by arrangement with The Araca Group. John Lee Beatty has designed the sets with a huge background panel to suggest stock market listings, and coupled with the dazzling lighting bursts designed by Ben Stanton, the overall effect is an electrifying accompaniment to the fierce illegalities depicted. Cubicles provide more intimate spaces into which actors s can burst forth.

The prime corrupt force is Robert Merkin, played with frenzied brilliance by Steven Pasquale. Money is his god as he demonstrates his talent for enticing others with the lure of huge profits if they invest in the schemes he deviously executes. Those who carry out his plots find rewards in the millions. The play includes anti-Semitic comments that reflect engrained attitudes.

The first act details what Merkin is up to and introduces characters who will become part of the ultimate wreckage. There is a feeling of repetition that sets in, but the second act picks up with the dramatization of how authorities put the squeeze on entrapped associates. Ultimately Merkin is cornered into having to make a deal that includes some prison time but leaves him with ill-gotten money that remains even after bribing the public figure with whom he cuts the arrangement. The message: Corruption is everywhere.

In addition to Pasquale’s dynamic performance, there is strong acting by Miriam Silverman as Merkin’s wife, Amy, who fights against his plunge into blatant illegality. “Junk” also benefits from the large impressive supporting cast, with some doubling up of roles. At the Vivian Beaumont Theater, 50 Lincoln Center Plaza. Phone: 212-362-7600. Reviewed November 10, 2017.

M. BUTTERFLY  Send This Review to a Friend

The central, nagging problem with David Henry Hwang’s “M. Butterfly,” whether in its original staging or in this revival, is that no matter how good the acting, no matter that it is based on a real story, and no matter how attractive director Julie Taymor tries to make the staging, one is hard-pressed to imagine that a man could be sleeping with another man for many years and still think he’s a woman. We’re not talking trans-sexual here; we’re talking not seeing or feeling the physical equipment through all of the lovemaking.

What kind of a jerk can such a man be? Yet that was the case that resulted in a scandal with the real-life Frenchman Bernard Boursicot, who became infatuated in China with an opera singer he thought was a woman. Their relationship also turned into spying for the Communist Chinese government, for which he received a prison sentence.

Although I cannot precisely remember details of the original Broadway production, it seems that in Hwang’s reworking that has been acknowledged, the author has tried to make the sexuality of the yarn more believable. That interpretation is enhanced by the excellent acting of Clive Owen as the here-named Rene Gallimard, assigned to the French Embassy in China after the Communist takeover. Owen has the burden of convincing an audience that he is not stupid. But in a key scene in which he demands to see his lover naked, he doesn’t follow through.

Owen as Rene is given the task of recalling his story after we meet him in a Paris prison cell in 1986. He skillfully communicates credibility, helping to put a stamp of truth on the oddball tale.

We soon meet Jin Ha as the opera singer Song Liling. Gallimard is a sucker for Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” and he falls fatefully in love even though he is married.

Taymor gives us Communist Chinese dances in celebration of Mao and the revolution, various panels as décor and a wispy projection of fluttering butterflies to fade out the drama. She makes the most of the courtroom trial involving the espionage charges.

But all of the trappings still make it tough to accept the concept that Gallimard could carry on with a man who has a penis and testicles and still think he is with a woman for so many years. The play has a tall wall to scale. At the Cort Theater, 138 West 48th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed October 31, 2017.

ILLYRIA  Send This Review to a Friend

I interviewed the late producer Joe Papp (1921-1991) many years ago and there was more energy in five minutes of our talk than is projected in the entire play “Illyria,” with a pathetically phlegmatic performance as Papp by John Magaro within the writing and direction by Richard Nelson. There is little in the thin, softly spoken play to indicate the dynamism that made Papp one of the theater’s most important producers with a profound legacy of contribution to the arts.

Nelson is probably the wrong writer to have tackled the drama about Papp and his colleagues, especially in a staging at the Public Theater, which Papp founded. Nelson is known for his intimate conversational pieces, such as “The Gabriels” and “The Apple Family Plays.” His specialty is depicting people sitting around quietly gabbing, presumably with insightful revelations.

On this occasion, set in 1958, Papp is shown discussing the future of Shakespeare in the Park, casting choices, differences of opinion and McCarthyism, and celebrating his birthday at a party. Rarely does he raise his voice. There is a discussion as to whether one may have to charge something instead of providing Shakespeare free. John Sanders as director Stuart Vaughan does leave in a huff at one point after an argument. The final scene is set in on the temporary stage, the Belvedere lawn, in Central Park (leaves sprinkled to indicate the park), and at least that has the wistful nature of foretold eventual success.

But in the main all sit around mumbling in the small stage area before an audience on three sides. Even sitting close one has to strain to hear, especially if an actor has a back turned. To be fair, one has to acknowledge the playwright’s apparent intention to show an intimate slice of life in th history of building the Papp contribution and the role of others working with him. A bit of nostalgia does peek through, but the result is mostly boring. Papp deserves better, particularly on his own home stage.

For the record, cast members play real-life characters in the Papp circle at the time—Kristen Connolly as Peggy, Papp’s then actress-wife; Fran Kranz as press agent Merle Debuskey; Emma Duncan as Papp’s assistant Gladys Vaughan, the director’s wife; Blake Delong as musician and composer David Amram; Max Woertendyke as stage manager John Robertson; Rosie Benton as actress Colleen Dewhurst, who went on to renown; Will Brill as Joe’s friend and stage manager Bernie Gersten, who later achieved success with the Lincoln Center Theater, and Naian González Norvind as Mary Bennett, a young actress.

There is still a need for a more convincing portrait of Papp in all his glory, revving up interest, doing battle and showing his foresight in bringing important work to the stage, as well as incisive depiction of his personal life. I recall how passionate he was in talking to me during our interview about wanting to acquaint young students with Shakespeare. He was clearly a man with a mission, and every time I go to a production of the Public Theater I think fondly and respectfully of Joe Papp. I miss him in real life and I miss him in “Illyria.” At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Phone: 212-539-8500. Reviewed October 31, 2017.

THE LAST MATCH  Send This Review to a Friend

How do you portray a tennis match on stage? Playwright Anna Ziegler and director Gaye Taylor Upchurch have solved the problem brilliantly in “The Last Match,” a Roundabout Theatre Company production. They rely on the aura of make-believe one can bring to the theater, plus the expertise of a top-notch cast of four.

The play focuses on combining the rigors of the sport with both the excitement and the toll taken for the players depicted and the women in their lives. What happens when time takes its toll and the satisfaction and the glory ends? How does one balance careers with relationships?

The story is built around the lives of opponents, the American Tim, energetically played by Wilson Bethel, and Sergei, a Russian star portrayed by Alex Mickiewicz. Dressed in tennis garb, they rush about the stage hitting imaginary balls (with tapping sound effects), and in between their combat on the stage, which passes for a court, they talk about their lives. We also see them in encounters with their wives before and after their marriages.

The only touch of tennis realism is provided by a giant tennis scoreboard on each side of the theater, with changes in tallies recording the state of the match as it progresses.

Tim is driven by success and trying to maintain his status. He is desperate to win, especially since a new baby son is in the stands. That is absurdly symbolic, as it’ll take his growing up to know what tennis is all about.

Sergei has his own emotions at play. His parents were killed in an air crash early in his life and he is very sad that they will never learn of his great success as a player. Both men are driven, and both men are haunted by the fear of what will happen after they can no longer compete.

In addition to the excellent performances by Bethel and Mickiewicz, there are superb portrayals of their respective wives--Zoe Winters as Mallory and Natalia Payne as Galina. Mallory was also a tennis player, but her talent was relegated to the background as a result of a marriage and her wanting to become a mother. She is full of resentment, especially since she has gone through the horror of a miscarriage and has had trouble conceiving again. She accuses Tim of lack of understanding.

We see in flashback the clumsy but funny courtship between Sergei and Galina. But there is a spark between them, and in a humorous scene Sergei finds a unique way of proposing. Payne is excellent with her Russian accent and as a woman who prides herself on her svelte shape, which, of course, Sergei appreciates. She also has plenty of sharp dialogue, often droll, and Payne makes the most of the character and lines.

As the match progresses, each woman is on the theater sidelines, whether watching raptly or shouting words of advice and encouragement. It is quite amazing how much excitement is achieved, and how much insight is communicated about all four individuals as well as about the sport. But you don’t have to know tennis to be swept up in the play.

I do find that it could be trimmed some, as there tends to be repetition of some aspects. Although “The Last Match” is only 90 minutes without an intermission there could be a bit of tightening. However, even as is, this is excellent, involving theater. At the Laura Pels Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street. Reviewed October 27, 2017.

OCCUPIED TERRITORIES  Send This Review to a Friend

America has never really faced the realities of the Vietnam War. The U.S. lost, period. The war was wrong, period. For those who served it was a disaster. It was also hell for families of the fallen. Some believe that those who got us into it deserve punishment. “Occupied Territories,” written by Nancy Bannon and Mollye Maxner, with Maxner also directing, attempts to deal with some of the issues unleashed by the war, both on the home front and on the battlefield. The staging ambitiously connects both.

Part of the stage in the small theater space, with audience members seated against the walls on three sides, is a basement of a suburban house. (Andrew Cohen is scenic designer.) We meet two sisters, the older Jude, 45, played by co-author Bannon, is a drug-addicted mess of a single mom who has been through rehab. Her daughter, Alex, 15 (Ciela Elliott) has been staying with Helena, 42, Jude’s sister, who has her life together and is strongly portrayed by Kelley Rae O’Donnell.

What occupies them in the present moment, apart from sorting out personal problems, is the death of their father, Stephen, who served back in the Vietnam War when he was 18 years old, a part excellently acted in battlefield flashbacks by Cody Robinson, who in post-war years has had a rift with Jude, who was a newborn baby during the war. It is eve of the father’s funeral and the tension is high between the sisters. There is a box of photos and letters which Jude discovers in the basement that reflect Stephen’s Vietnam experiences, some of which are projected onto a sheet.

The genius of the play lies in the staging that connects the two time frames. Soldiers march into the playing area, joining in army chants, taking various lookout posts and eventually engaging with the enemy. An exceptionally poignant moment occurs when Stephen looks at a treasured picture of his newborn child.

While the blending of loudly presented military action and what is going on in the household all these years later is very clever, it also becomes awkward at times. Yet the issues in the tragedy persist as the drama progresses in all its scope. The staging is compelling, as audience members are made to come to grips with class issues that erupt among the troops, the futility of the war and the problems for loved ones left behind and persisting through the years. A supporting cast vividly portrays the soldiers and their individual personalities.

A viewer may be frequently shaken by what unravels, especially in the battlefield jungles of Vietnam. One feels for the men both as individuals and symbols of the larger picture whenever they seize the stage.

The authors have taken up the challenge of writing a meaningful play, and if the interaction doesn’t always work as smoothly as it should, the overall impact is dynamically and creatively there. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, For tickets: 212-279-4200 or at www.59e59.org. Reviewed October 26, 2017.

THE PORTUGUESE KID  Send This Review to a Friend

What is the worst offense a character in John Patrick Shanley’s play “The Portuguese Kid” can commit? The answer: Having voted for Donald Trump. In a politically funny running gag voting for Trump is an unforgivable character flaw, the most terrible thing one can say about a person.

Shanley’s comedy, presented by The Manhattan Theatre Club, offers a certain amount of laugh opportunity, not from great writing, but as a vehicle for a good cast who can mine the most out of lines and situations even when the plot becomes rather limp. Shanley does his own direction, and on that score he mostly keeps the play moving at a loud, energy-infused pace that covers up the feebleness of some of the forced situations and gags.

But the five cast members are very enjoyable to watch and merit a salute—Jason Alexander, Sheri Rene Scott, Mary Testa, Pico Alexander and Aimee Carrero.

In the first scene we meet Jason Alexander as Barry Dragonetti, a lawyer being visited by Scott as Atalanta Lagana, a widow, a friend of Barry since childhood and in need of legal sorting out of property only in her dead husband’s name. Scott is terrific as a bundle of complexes and insecurities. Atalanta reveals that for many years during sex she has been calling out Barry’s name. No surprise--this annoyed her husband. That’s a nutty situation Shanley has concocted, but as delivered it is quite funny.

Always intruding is Barry’s monster of a mother, Mrs. Dragonetti, played abrasively by Mary Testa, and if you know Testa’s work, you know that she can be an excellent character actor, and here she is consistently funny in dispensing hate toward Atalanta accompanied by looks that could kill. For good measure she is shown all alone on stage at one point hilariously going through Greek dance steps.

Barry is married to the much younger Patty, played saucily by Carrero. The plot eventually tears into their marriage. Meanwhile, Atalanta is getting it on with a much younger Freddie Imbrossi, played with jaunty abandon by amusing Pico Alexander (no relation to Jason). However, their long bedroom scene, while character defining, drags out with not very funny dialogue. In a later scene we learn that Freddie and Patty had something going between them.

What about the Portuguese kid in the title? It turns out that he was a youngster who menaced Barry as a kid, and Atalanta came to the rescue, which denied Barry his moment to shine on his own, an issue that persists in his memory. Now he tends to view everyone to whom he is hostile as Portuguese no matter their ethnic identity.

The plot speeds into one big muddle of intended comedy and sorting out of the intertwined lives. Shanley’s writing is only intermittently funny along the way, but his cast members consistently come to the rescue as they make the most of everything they are given and are an entertaining lot. Jason Alexander amusingly fumes his way through the crises, and Scott is funnier than I have seen her in other venues.

But overall this is only a somewhat diverting time in the theater. Shanley owes a big vote of thanks to his cast. At New York City Center—Stage I, 131 West 55th Street. Reviewed October 26, 2017.

THE HOME PLACE  Send This Review to a Friend

Any play by the late Brian Friel automatically stirs interest, as is the case of the current penetrating production of “The Home Place” by the Irish Repertory Theatre. One is greeted by the inviting, in-depth set of a country house with trees at the side of the stage (design by James Noone). What follows is a collection of colorful performers under the intelligent command of director Charlotte Moore, who is the company’s dedicated, talented and resourceful Artistic Director.

“The Home Place” is set in 1878 in Ballybeg, County Donegal, Ireland, and there are issues involving principle and personal stories encompassing serious emotions. Christopher Gore, widower, landowner, lord of the household, and English-born although having lived most of his life in Ireland, is played elegantly by John Windsor-Cunningham. It is soon clear that he is in love with his much younger housekeeper, Margaret O’Donnell, assertively portrayed by Rachel Pickup.

However, there is a problem. Gore’s son, David (Ed Malone) is also in love with Margaret and she is attracted to him. One especially effective scene occurs with the father drops all inhibitions and gives Margaret a pleading marital proposal. She firmly but kindly rejects him. Margaret has an independent streak and although she is attracted to David, she has trouble making a commitment.

The issue of principal arises when Christopher’s cousin, Dr. Richard Gore, aggressively played by Christopher Randolph, visits with his talkative assistant Perkins (Stephen Pilkington). Their mission involves an attempt to prove the doctor’s racist theory that the Irish are inferior beings and that can be confirmed by taking skull and body measurements.

The process of taking measurements to prove the inferiority theory as inflicted on experiment subjects is mockingly presented, and it is clear that Friel is taking a swipe at the racist concept. Angry rebels turn up in vehement protest at such slanders of the Irish and demand that the doctor and Perkins get the hell out forthwith. Christopher must take a stand.

The supporting cast members handle their parts well. I particularly like the performance of Andrea Lynn Green as Sally Cavanagh, the compliant but feisty maid working under Margaret. Sally has her own romance unfolding.

“The Home Place” may not be one of playwright Friel’s greatest plays, but it succeeds in delineating part of an era with its controversies, as well as presenting flesh and blood characters attempting to sort out their lives. And director Moore exhibits keen understanding of the play and an ability to effectively communicate its essence. At the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street. Phone: 212-2737. Reviewed October 22, 2017.

  

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