By William Wolf

TIME AND THE CONWAYS  Send This Review to a Friend

The Roundabout Theatre Company has done a service by reviving J. B. Priestley’s thoughtful play “Time and the Conways” in a lively production with an especially impressive performance by Elizabeth McGovern, best known for her role in “Downton Abbey.” The play, set in Britain, premiered in London in 1937 and then was staged on Broadway in 1938.

Priestley was digging into the problems involving class in England between World Wars I and II by focusing on the well-off Conway family and its downfall, with dialogue that also reflected attitudes toward socialism and strikes. His method was to set two time frames, first in 1919 and then in 1937. An ingenious aspect was, after showing the misfortunes in the later date, to flip back in time to again highlight the earlier coziness and aspirations, thereby emphasizing how all went awry.

McGovern has dynamic scenes in the role of the dominating Mrs. Conway, a sometimes flirtatious widow who rules the roost over her four daughters and two sons, each offspring with a very different personality. Early on we get a portrait of what it is like in this upscale environment, with a party in which guests are invited to play charades, and we are clued into the hopes that abound in the wake of the first World War. All seems to be wide open for the future.

When another set descends (the appropriate designs are by Neil Patel) to take us to 1937, we are in for a shock. Life has drastically changed, the Conways are in dire need of money, one daughter has died, and recriminations and regrets abound. Mrs. Conway is trying to keep things together, but rises to the occasion with one angry outburst telling off Ernest Beevers, perfectly portrayed by Steven Boyer, who refuses to lend the Conways money even though he announces that he can well afford it. Having married into the family, he still seethes with resentment over how he has felt looked down upon as an unworthy interloper. McGovern makes the most of a speech in which she reveals how she has always felt about him. It is a major dramatic moment for her.

The entire cast is exceedingly good, including Anna Camp, Anna Baryshnikov, Brooke Bloom and Charlotte Parry as the daughters, and Gabriel Ebert and Matthew James Thomas as the sons, with other roles well-handled by Cara Ricketts and Alfredo Narciso.

The production also indulges in some less effective devices, such as the daughter who died appearing behind a scrim to remind us of haunting memories and an example of what might have been. Another daughter has premonitions of doom. This cuts uncomfortably into the realism that defines the rest of the play. However, those excursions are not enough to derail the overall effectiveness of the author’s incisive look into the situation in England during the era under inspection via his examination of one family’s trajectory.

It is a welcome example of Priestley’s writing, and director Rebecca Teichman has done a sharp job of staging that results in an impressive Roundabout production of a play that merits a revival in our time. At the American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street. Reviewed October 15, 2017. Phone: 212-719-1300.

MEASURE FOR MEASURE (ELEVATOR REPAIR SERVICE)  Send This Review to a Friend

Elevator Repair Service is known for its unusual productions, but rattling off Shakespearean dialogue as if in a speed-talking contest? That’s just too much of a leap, and apart from occasional laughs and one scene that takes hold emotionally for a short spell, this interpretation of “Measure for measure” is a misguided exercise.

That doesn’t mean that the cast isn’t worthy. Working against the text, the actors do their best to interpret the zany plot of the Bard’s difficult play. It involves a death sentence for unlawful sex before marriage, a scheme to save the condemned that involves his virginal sister pretending to have sex in exchange for a pardon of her brother and a switch in which another woman secretly substitutes for her. I would strongly advise those who venture to see this production to read the play first.

Within the machinations are elements of romance and satire. Under the direction of John Collins the cast cavorts as if performing a wild sketch (a bit over two hours with no intermission). The key performance of the Duke, who disguises himself as a friar with a shawl over his head and at times resembles Marty Feldman as Igor in the film “Young Frankenstein,” is performed creatively by Scott Shepherd.

There are projections of text that cast members can reference if need be, but they seem to be at home with their top-speed discourse. Of course, this thoroughly vitiates the beauty of Shakespeare’s language. What’s the point of that?

The concept doesn’t seem to be a case of a vain director putting forth a silly interpretation of a classic. It represents the valid philosophy of a company basically committed to doing plays uniquely. There is one segment that demonstrates what’s otherwise missing, a conversation between the condemned man, Claudio (Greig Sargeant), and his sister, Isabella (Rinne Groff), that becomes sincere and emotional.

The setting (design by Jim Findlay) is an office-like concentration of adjoining desks, with a half dozen telephones in use. That makes the situation look somewhat up to date (but the phones are old-fashioned).

Yes, this version of “Measure for Measure” is certainly different. It is also a misfire. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Phone: 212-539-8500. Reviewed October 12, 2017.

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE  Send This Review to a Friend

After Stanley Kubrick’s stunning and complex film version, it would almost seem foolhardy to attempt a stage production of Anthony Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange.” The effort currently on display makes a lively stab at the challenge, but while the staging is sometimes visually arresting, the meanings are hard to grasp.

Director Alexandra Spencer-Jones relies heavily on choreographed movements, at times ballet-like, to give action to the drama. Male actors, most with muscular bodies, play the assorted roles with extensive doubling. Jonno Davies is the wicked and violent Alex deLarge, who leads his gang of hooligans in contemporary England.

Davies is ultra dynamic and carries the production, which is consistently very busy as it races through the tale with no intermission. The play starts violently, with Alex and his goons in a battle with rivals, very much choreographed.

“A Clockwork Orange” is replete with the made-up language called Nadsat, which sounds a lot like bastardized Russian. The effort is to give a larger than life aura to the world in which Alex and his followers move.

But what does it all mean? The concept is that if one takes away violent aspects of behavior that can also squelch the better impulses. There are those who try to remove the destructiveness, but the corrupt government wants to thwart this approach and also use the subject, Alex, politically.

There are merely nods to such ideas as expressed in the film version, but they are lost in the onslaught of masculine physicality that is highlighted in this staging. The result is loud and extremely busy without emphasizing what “A Clockwork Orange” is really all about. At New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street. Reviewed October 6, 2017.

TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS  Send This Review to a Friend

A friend of mine, Dr. Joy Browne, who died suddenly this past year, was a psychiatrist who held forth on radio, and for a stretch on TV, answering inquiries from listeners seeking help. Her advice usually seemed to be solid and based on her values as applied to other people’s problems. I thought of her anew on watching the revival of “Tiny Beautiful Things,” Nia Vardalos’s stage adaptation based on the book by Cheryl Strayed and conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail and Vardalos.

With a compelling stage presence, Vardalos portrays Sugar, the correspondence name for the mother of two who takes on the challenge and responsibility for becoming an advice counselor via computer. There is no pay and she has no professional qualification for this, other than being a writer, but Sugar is filled with good will and good sense as we see her fielding questions in the setting of her home, convincingly designed by Rachel Hauck.

A cast of three, Teddy Cañez, Hubert Point-Du Jour and Natalie Woolams-Torres, represent the assorted questioners by voicing their inquiries, and Kail, also the director, keeps them in motion a good deal so the play doesn’t become static.

What’s different about Sugar is that she not only advises, but explores her own feelings and problems with those with whom she corresponds. That isn’t what those who dispense advice usually do. Vardalos puts plenty of feeling and sincerity into Sugar’s personal responses.

Occasionally the back and forth becomes a bit wearisome, as all of the inquiries aren’t dealing with momentous problems, but there are also significantly poignant moments. The most emotional sequence for me was the long litany of questions posed numerically and spoken with a great sense of loss by Cañez. Desperate for some sort of solace and direction for coping, the troubled man recounts how he lost his son, who was killed by a speeding driver. Still grieving, he feels that his life has been shattered. How can he go on? Sugar answers point by point with empathy and wisdom, and the tension is gripping.

Each member of an audience may relate best to discussion of situations akin to one’s own problem areas, and in the course of the play the content runs the gamut of human experience and difficulties. Sugar could really turn pro. At the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Phone: 212-539-8500. Reviewed October 4, 2017.

DESPERATE MEASURES  Send This Review to a Friend

If you are looking for a good time at an off-Broadway show, I guarantee that you’ll find it in “Desperate Measures,” a musical high presented at the York Theater Company in association with Cecilia Lin and Hu Guo. With book and lyrics by Peter Kellogg, music by David Friedman, razor-sharp direction and choreography by Bill Castellino and six wonderfully entertaining cast members, the show is inspired by William Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure.”

The term “inspired by” is key here. Fortunately, this isn’t a case of some egotistical director trying to present the Bard’s actual text in a misguided way that’s different. “Desperate Measures” stands firmly on its own, triggered by Shakespeare, but merging as an original, joyful romp. In a nod to the Bard, Kellogg has cleverly written the book in verse, and the talented cast members dispense the lines trippingly on the tongue with such ease that the dialogue comes across as totally natural conversation.

The setting is somewhere out West in the late 1800s, and James Morgan, the York’s Producing Artistic Director, has designed a simple but amusing set that encompasses a jail, a governor’s office, his bedroom and a general playing area. There is a hanging rope to remind us that Johnny Blood, played with delightful vapidity by Conor Ryan, is due to be hanged for killing a man (allegedly in self-defense), unless he gets a reprieve from the governor. Sheriff Martin Green, the show’s male romantic lead played by Peter Saide, is on Johnny’s side. He is also in love with Johnny’s sister, Susanna, who is becoming a nun and is portrayed winsomely by female lead Emma Degerstedt.

Susanna, in nun’s habit, visits to governor to appeal that he spare her brother. Her plea is met with a condition—that she give her body to him in bed, something as a virgin she cannot do. She and the sheriff concoct a plot that involves the local lady of ill-repute, Bella Rose, hilariously played by Lauren Molina with award-level flare and body movements to match, to dress like a nun and, with the lights out, sneak into the governor’s bed as a substitute while Susanna sneaks away.

As for the governor, colorfully named Governor von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber (try and pronounce it), Nick Wyman plays him enjoyably in an appropriately over-the-top performance, whether via his acting or his singing “Some Day They Will Thank Me” and “What a Night.” As we see as the plot expands, von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber’s word is not his bond. Another character providing laughs is the booze-soaked priest, Father Morse, played in a perpetual stupor by Gary Marachek.

There is a scene that captures the show’s zaniness when the sheriff cooperatively leaves the key to Johnny’s cell just out of hand-reach, but within reach of being pulled close enough by Johnny using his boot. The look on none-too-bright Johnny when the penny drops that he is meant to escape is priceless.

All of the scheming and romantic attractions are advanced by the charming score and the excellent voices of the cast members. Degerstedt has a golden soprano that re-enforces her appealing acting, as when she sings “Look into Your Heart.” Saide as Sheriff Green is a natural leading man with a strong voice, exemplified in “That’s Just How It Is” and signing with Susanna and Bella, “The Way You Feel on the Inside.” Ryan as Johnny also hits a strong vocal mark with “Good to be Alive.”

The musical zips along merrily with fine integration of action and song, and by the end, when all has been colorfully worked out, one can applaud gratefully for all of the fun packed into this compact all-around display of talent. Credit is especially due the musical direction and orchestrations by David Hancock Turner, also at the piano, and the three musicians who join in bringing the score to life—Justin Rothberg, guitar and banjo, Joseph Wallace, double bass and Douglas Waterbury-Tieman, fiddle and mandolin. At the York Theater at Saint Peter’s, 619 Lexington Avenue (at 54th Street). Phone: 212-935-5824. Reviewed October 2, 2017.

AS YOU LIKE IT (CSC)  Send This Review to a Friend

There’s a lot of hell-raising, some of it funny, going on in director John Doyle’s staging of “As You Like It,” a presentation of the Classic Stage Company (CSC) in association with the Bay Street Theater. But is it Shakespeare? Doyle, who also designed the production, has sliced it up mercilessly, and in his style, has some of the actors doubling as musicians.

Doyle’s cast plunges into his conception with enthusiasm, and in particular cases, with special acting talent. The dress is contemporary (costume design by Ann Hould-Ward) but in a kind of mélange that doesn’t always add to character definition.

Most prominent is Hannah Cabell as Rosalind, who must be able to disguise herself as a male in the Bard’s convoluted tale. But as dressed, she doesn’t always look much different. However, Cabell does act convincingly in both states.

Veteran actor André de Shields is entertainingly hammy and a scene-stealer as Touchstone. The cast is graced with the renowned Ellen Burstyn in the role of Jacques. Bob Stillman doubles as Duke Frederick and Duke Senior; Noah Brody doubles as Oliver and Corin; Quincy Tyler Bernstein plays Celia; Cass Morgan is Old Anna and Audrey; Leenya Rideout is Phoebe; David Samuel is both Charles and Silvius, and Kyle Scatliffe is Orlando.

None other than Stephen Schwartz has provided some original music, with at least some catchy moments. There is felicitous lighting design by Mike Baldassari. But a problem with this production is that while there are doses of charm and humor, the beauty of the Bard’s language is mostly buried. And by truncating the work way beyond some prudent editing (assuming one should ever do that to Shakespeare), we do not get the play interpreted close to what it probably was meant to be by the author, but only in the form of what emerges from a particular director’s noggin. At the Classic Stage Company (CSC) 136 East 13th Street. Phone: 212-677-421. Reviewed September 29. 2017.

IN THE BLOOD  Send This Review to a Friend

Suzan-Lori Parks’s “In the Blood” blasts us as a vehicle for the outstanding Saycon Sengbloh, who dominates the play explosively as Hester La Negrita. Hester is a woman for the ages, a struggling victim who lives under a bridge and barely survives, emotionally as well as physically.

She is a mother of five and thoroughly battered by life. Parks makes her a symbol of those cast aside by society and condemned to poverty. Hester becomes a stand-in for the have-nots, the homeless and desperate, who populate our rich society.

Louisa Thompson has contributed a set design that accentuates the play’s symbolism. A corner of the stage is loaded with debris, but the major portion consists of a large sloping wall that cannot be fully climbed. One starts going up then slides back to earth. It can sometimes seem like fun, yet the impossibility of rising to the top is always frustratingly there.

All of the cast members except Sengbloh play more than one role. There are Hester’s children and a doctor, a reverend, a friend, a worker, a welfare lady etc. Praise goes to Jocelyn Bioh, Michael Braun, Russell G. Jones, Ana Reeder amd Frank Wood for their assorted portrayals.

Hester is subjected to a stream of pressures, such as consenting to a request for oral sex. There is no way out for her. A ray of hope is a proposal of marriage, but that disintegrates when the would-be suitor realizes that Hester has not been truthful to him.

The play is interrupted at times with direct speeches to the audience, labeled Confessions, by different characters, culminating in one by Hester. She works into a frenzy, as if appealing to the gods, and one becomes even more aware of how good an actress Sengbloh is within the great opportunity Parks has given her to show it. The forthright manner of Sarah Benson’s direction re-enforces Sengbloh’s performance. To say that the play is depressing is an understatement, but art must sometimes be upsetting to make a playwright’s point. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. Reviewed September 24, 2017.

ON THE SHORE OF THE WIDE WORLD  Send This Review to a Friend

The play by Simon Stephens comes with the pedigree of an Olivier award in London, as well as the author’s previous adaptation of the novel “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” In “On the Shore of the Wide World” he focuses on two families in what amounts to a sprawling drama about their struggles to come to terms with life, and in one case, death.

I suspect that the work, set in 2004 in Stockport (near Manchester) and London, played better in its British production. Here, despite some effective acting, there is a mélange of accents, and somehow the working class aspect of the play doesn’t come through as powerfully as it must, an achievement that one knows can be done very effectively in theater in England.

Still, as the play’s involvements progress, there is mounting interest in the characters as written and as delineated by the mostly fine cast, and as we see their lives unfold within the plain, multi-purpose and serviceable set designed by Scott Pask. Neil Pepe’s direction strives for realism, enhanced by accentuating some of the play’s more poignant dialogue.

Peter Maloney and Blair Brown play the elderly couple Charlie and Ellen Holmes, who are bonded in their long marriage despite blips along the way. Their son, Peter, who works in construction and is portrayed by an excellent C.J. Wilson is married to Alice, whom Mary McCann skillfully demonstrates is devoted but missing warmth and excitement in her life, as is her husband. They have two sons, Alex and Christopher, and the fate of one of them leaves a deep mark.

An outsider is Sarah Black, played by Tedra Millan with a grating voice, and she is the girlfriend of one brother, and then the other. More interesting is Amelia Workman as the pregnant Susan Reynolds, a book editor who has hired Peter for a job on her home, and with whom he strikes up interesting conversations.

An important development occurs when Alice is approached by Leroy McClain as John Robinson, who wants to apologize for a terrible event, even though he is not at fault. After at first rejecting him, Alice secretly gets closer in meetings with him and is sexually tempted, which helps illuminate a gap in her emotional life.

There you have the families spanning three generations in their complexity, and the author packs much into the observances of their interwoven lives, with dramatic ups and downs, resentments and pleasures. At the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street. Phone: 866-811-4111. Reviewed September 24, 2017.

F**KING A  Send This Review to a Friend

The revival of the play that defies publications to print the title, written by Suzan-Lori Parks and toughly directed by Jo Bonney, is a searing look into the sordid side of life. Think Bertolt Brecht for an idea of the author’s approach to characters and their existence. For good measure, there are some acidic songs to underscore the nastiness and irony. Think Kurt Weill, although Parks did the music and lyrics for the original numbers.

I have long admired the work of Christine Lahti and here she is at full force as Hester Smith, who performs abortions in her home, is compelled to wear the letter “A” on her to permanently mark her as an abortionist. We see her in a bloody housecoat after her day’s handiwork is done.

On the outside Hester is hard as nails, but inside she hurts for the loss of her young son to a prison sentence after he was labeled a thief by a wealthy woman from whom he stole some meat. We now meet that woman--the wife of the town mayor. A pal of Hester is Jaoquina Kalukango as Canary Mary, the paid mistress of the mayor who would like him to discard his wife and marry her. Marc Kudisch plays the mayor with unfettered arrogance and feeling the right to behave as he wishes. Elizabeth Stanley is pretty as his wife, who longs to have a child, and she has no idea of what awaits her before the play is over.

In one section Hester is duped by prison officials into thinking she is meeting her son for a picnic breakfast outside, but the prisoner turns out to be an imposter and rapes her. She does finally meet her son, known as the Monster, played dynamically by Brandon Victor Dixon, who has been on a crime spree and is hunted by men determined to kill him. Such is the situation faced by Hester when he turns up and is identifiable by the matching scars from cuts that they made on their arms before the lad went to serve his sentence. Hester has a grim decision to make.

An important character is the local butcher, impressively portrayed by Raphael Nash Thompson, who is a friend of Hester and agrees to aid her in a scheme that she concocts to wreak her fierce desire for vengeance.

Various members of the cast also play musical instruments to dispense with stark accompaniment to the singing. One element that seems superfluous and pretentious is the foreign language known as Talk that is spoken sometimes, with translations projected on a screen above the stage, although perhaps that does add somewhat to the eerie overall effect of the production, an ambiance that Bonney maintains even though there are moments that are quite funny.

This is a play that can get under your skin. You may at times wince from what you are watching, and yet the acting and the author’s bleak outlook on humanity, entwined with the theatricality, are powerful. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-244-7529. Reviewed September 21, 2017.

SMALL WORLD  Send This Review to a Friend

What would a meeting between Walt Disney and Igor Stravinsky have been like? In “Small World, playwright Frederick Stroppel imagines such an encounter, and the sparks fly. Disney and Stravinsky, so unlike one another as colorfully performed by Mark Shanahan (Disney) and Stephen D’Ambrose (Stravinsky), have much to fight about.

Stravinsky is depicted as outraged that Disney will co-opt his “The Rite Of Spring,” being in the public domain, for his ambitious “Fantasia,” the animation king’s bold effort to blend his cartoon art with classical music. Stravinsky is appalled at the idea that his music will wind up as accompaniment for dramatizing the beginnings of the world and subsequent dinosaurs roaming the earth. For Disney the idea is glorious, for Stravinsky it is sacrilege. (Actually, Disney also used the work of various other classical composers as well, although the play implies that Stravinsky’s was the only one.)

There is much humor in the dialogue between the two men, Disney with his enthusiastic populist approach to art, and Stravinsky with his hauteur about his position in the classical music world, far from the likes of Disney’s Mickey Mouse. (“Fantasia,” released in 1940, received mixed results from critics, failed at the box office at first, but eventually made money and has emerged with classic status.)

Leopold Stokowski was the maestro associated with the film, and in the play Stravinsky expresses contempt for Stokowski’s descending to Disney’s level. The dialogue between Disney and Stravinsky is cleverly written, and director Joe Brancato keeps the confrontations between the men lively. Not surprisingly, the two begin to bond despite their artistic differences.

“Small World” makes a misstep by tacking on a superfluous coda, with the men, having died, meeting in the afterlife. That section is labored and it would have better to have figured out an ending without the clumsy ploy. But even so, the play is filled with enough wit to make seeing it a very enjoyable experience, with special appreciation for the fine acting. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street. Tickets: 212-279-4200. Reviewed September 18, 2017.

  

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