By William Wolf

THE HEIDI CHRONICLES  Send This Review to a Friend

Apart from the intrinsic interest in seeing Wendy Wasserstein’s provocative 1989 Broadway play “The Heidi Chronicles” revived, a very special focus for me is on the appearance of Elisabeth Moss in the title role. Although she has had considerable stage experience, Moss has become best known for her television role in “Mad Men,” and I’m happy to report that she makes a strong impression as Heidi Holland in a variety of ways.

Wasserstein set the character of Heidi up as the embodiment of a woman who goes through various phases of trying to find herself and square life’s realities with the principles she has attempted to live with as concerns and battles raged about the need for women to gain ground in a male-oriented society. Flipping back from Heidi’s lecture in 1989 on art history, her field of expertise, the play chronicles Heidi’s life beginning in high school in 1965. Moss is extremely impressive in expressing her lack of sureness about herself and the questionable contact with the men whom she meets.

The actress has the gift of showing so much about her feelings in crucial moments by facial expressions, whether it be upset, uncertainty, resentment or anger, as well as moments of beauty when she feels proud of her values and who she is. She has a commanding presence on stage in all situations, and she speaks with feeling and clarity. In her one big speech at a school reunion, she is superb in spontaneously letting her hair down with revealing negative remarks and an embarrassing personal, tearful meltdown. I have qualms about the play’s credibility at that point, as it is questionable whether a person of Heidi’s caliber would pitifully expose herself that way and I consider it a flaw in the writing even though theatrically it becomes a dramatic high point. But that said, Moss delivers the remarks poignantly, especially showing her acting prowess to almost guaranteed audience applause.

There is at one point a television scene in which Heidi and two male acquaintances are interviewed by a ditsy, mugging host, hilariously performed by Tracee Chimo. When questions are tossed at Heidi, the men interrupt and take over, and you can see Heidi quietly fuming, and only later telling off the guys.

As for the men, they are acted excellently. Jason Biggs is convincing as Scoop Rosenbaum, who goes on to be successful as a publisher, but who is an egotist and manipulator who turns Heidi off even as she finds aspects of him attractive. Heidi maintains a long friendship with gay Peter Patron, who is colorfully and at times poignantly depicted by Bryce Pinkham, who matures into a dedicated doctor running a children’s clinic. One scene recalls what it was like for a gay man during the throes of the AIDS epidemic.

Another important character is Susan Johnston, Heidi’s friend, convincingly portrayed by Ali Ahn as she moves through the years to success as a television producer, and as revealed in a key scene, has been seduced by ambition and has little left of the social passion with which she, Heidi and their friends started out. Chimo, Leighton Bryan and Elise Kibler take on multiple women’s roles, as does Andy Truschinski with male roles.

All adds to the main thrust of the play. As pointedly stressed by director Pam MacKinnon, it is to reach back into the way Wasserstein saw the mixed experiences of women passing through that era as they fought to make a contribution (or didn’t) and tried to define themselves personally and politically and achieve happiness or at least self-satisfaction. Is the play, as they say, dated? Of course, but what’s wrong with dated? Every work set in the past is dated, but the good ones offer the opportunity to explore insights and talent, which “The Heidi Chronicles” certain does, and I venture to say that many women who grew up through those challenging years may find the play mirroring aspects of their own lives. And those who had their disagreements with certain of Wasserstein’s takes when the play originally caused a stir will probably have the same ones now. At The Music Box, 239 West 45th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200.

PAINT YOUR WAGON (ENCORES!)  Send This Review to a Friend

The concert-style revival of the 1951 Broadway musical “Paint Your Wagon” retrieves the spirit and quality of the appealing score, with music by Frederick Loewe and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. This thoroughly engaging New York City Center Encores! presentation (March 18-22, 2015) demonstrates how music-driven the show is, with Lerner’s book coming across as a structure for the song-and-dance ingredients that when superbly performed give the work its stature. Once again, Encores! has done a worthy job of bringing fresh attention to a bygone show that many remember favorably, although the Hollywood film version is remembered with distain.

I went back into the files to see what I wrote in Cue magazine when the film opened in 1969. The review said that the show had been converted into “a big, splashy musical about whorehouses and a ménage-a-trois” with the choreography reduced to “clomping in the mud” and the “Lerner-Loewe score muttered by stars who can’t sing.” Film stars Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood were never known for vocal prowess.

In this Encores! staging the cast members, individually and as a chorus, sure can sing dynamically, and the choreography by Denis Jones has plenty of pizzazz and fits handily into the Gold Rush northern California setting where men prospect for gold and long for women. The music benefits from the strong and ever-popular Encores! Orchestra, as conducted by music director Rob Berman. Marc Bruni’s direction provides hell-raising and comedy when called for, and loveliness when needed for the romantic side.

Keith Carradine in the starring role of Ben Rumson sings well, as in “Rumson” and the moving “I Still See Elisa,” an ode to Ben’s late wife,” and “Wand’rin’ Star.” But especially impressive singing comes from Alexandra Socha, who plays Ben’s daughter Jennifer. Her rousing “What’s Goin’ on Here?” expresses the bewilderment of a teenage girl who is starting to feel her sexuality and the reaction of men who are turned on by her but must keep away out of good sense and for fear of her father.

Socha is a standout, both with her voice and her acting, believable as the youngster and convincing a bit older as a more mature young woman expecting to marry the prospector for whom she had fallen before she was sent off to school.

The man she loves, Julio, played by Justin Guarini, is a handsome Mexican, who prides himself as of Castillian decent. Guarini has a thrilling voice, illustrated when he sings “I Talk to the Trees,” one of the musical’s best songs, and “Carino Mio.” Another of the show’s better known songs is “They Call the Wind Maria,” which gets an impressive rendition by Nathaniel Hackmann as Steve, one of the prospectors, and the entourage of men in the makeshift town.

Irresistible musical excitement comes when the men sing in a chorus. One is roused by the spectacle of 17 men coming to the edge of the stage and giving full voice to a number, as is done at the outset with “I’m On My Way” and later with “There’s Coach Comin’ In,” as they await the arrival of women so badly needed.

The staging is very clever, given the concert confines, with trees protruding behind the orchestra (scenic consultant, Anna Louizos), with changing effects on the trees by lighting (Peter Kaczorowski, lighting designer) and some smart ideas. The coming of the coach is demonstrated by the waving of a mini coach model, and then a larger one, with size increases until a regular -sized outer impression of a coach arrives on stage. From behind the opened door step, one by one, a bevy of attractive women, dressed more stylishly (Alejo Vietti, costume consultant) than the working women who they are meant to be. They wind up in an entertaining, razzle-dazzle “Fandangos’” Dance” with a can-can motif.

The second act slows somewhat in working out the plot details. Some of the show could hardly be seen as politically correct. A man with two wives auctions off one, bought by Ben, who later sells her. And we all know what the women out of the coach are supposed to do for the 400 sex-starved men.

None of this alters the good nature of “Paint Your Wagon,” which comes across as a felicitous tribute to those who, filled with hope, went westward in search of gold and the better lives it might bring. At New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street. Phone: 212-581-1212. Reviewed March 22, 2015.

ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY  Send This Review to a Friend

The art deco railway train curtain one sees on entering the theater is immediately eye-catching, and when the porters make their entrance from the audience, do their tap routine on stage, soon followed by the ensemble entourage dressed in William Ivey Long’s fabulous costumes, one already has the feeling that Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of the musical “On the Twentieth Century” is going to be rousingly entertaining. And it sure turns out to be just that, a sure-fire musical hit to brighten the season.

The more I enjoyed the show, the more I felt a note of sadness that Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who wrote the amusing book and lyrics, and Cy Coleman, who wrote the terrific score, are no longer alive to see what director Scott Ellis and others who share in this revival have done with their memorable accomplishment. I enjoyed the musical when it was done in 1978, and I like it even more now with this new cast and smashing train scenery designed by David Rockwell. The show is based on plays by Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur and Bruce Millholland, the original Broadway production directed by Harold Prince.

The show starts to take on strength with the appearance of Peter Gallagher as Oscar Jaffee, the flamboyant producer whose string of flops have made him a failure. His defiant song “I Rise Again” sets the character and the awaiting challenge, accented by his fine singing confreres, Oliver (Mark-Linn-Baker) and Owen (Michael McGrath).

But the show really takes off with the appearance of Kristin Chenoweth, first as pianist Mildred Plotka, then morphing into Hollywood star Lily Garland, who was once in love with Oscar, but now hates him with a passion and is involved with her egotistical boy toy actor Bruce Granit, played with over-the-top fervor by Andy Karl. The amusingly contrived plot as the Tentieth Century Limited train speeds from Chicago to New York involves Oscar trying to make a comeback by signing Lily for a new show, and of course, the rekindling of their relationship.

Chenoweth is a musical comedy wonder. She has a fabulous voice ranging to the high octaves. She’s a dynamo of energy. She is great with comedy, whether verbal or physical. She’s a laugh riot in the giddy, lavishly staged Parisian number “Veronique.” Or she can be wistful singing “Our Private World” with Oscar. Chenoweth gives a great performance that so far dominates the musical comedy season. She is tiny in size but super-large in talent and keeps the show bouncing along gloriously. She and Gallagher work extremely well together, and Karl makes a major contribution, as do all who contribute to this snazzy staging.

There is also an endearingly entertaining supporting performance by Mary Louise Wilson as Letitia Peabody Primrose, the religious, purportedly wealthy lady who fires up Oscar’s hopes by writing a five-zero check ( there’s the zingy song “Five Zeroes”) to finance his Bible-based play with Lily as Mary Magdalene. Chenoweth is hilarious as Lily imagining herself in the role. Wilson is wonderful singing Letitia’s big number “Repent,” as well as appealing with everything she does throughout.

Warren Carlyle has created impressive choreography and Donald Holder’s lighting design plays an important part in delivering visual satisfaction. One can’t say enough about William Ivey Long’s 1930s-style costuming, especially for the women. The entire look of the musical dazzles.

Cheers too for the four porters—Rick Faugno, Richard Riaz Yoder, Phillip Attmore and Drew King—who have some spirited tap routines and become audience favorites. I can’t resist observing that theirs is very contemporary racially mixed casting. In the 1930s the railway porters would most likely have been African-American, an incidental observation not meant to take away from the expertise of the four who help enliven this production.

The musical also reminds us of an era in which train travel was special. The Twentieth Century Limited was a popular train between Chicago and New York and celebrities would make the trip. During the course of the musical we see a miniature of a plane flying faster above the train, indicating the coming change in travel.

Any way you look at it, the show “On the Twentieth Century” is a helluva fun ride. At the American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-719-1300. Reviewed March 18, 2015.

POSTERITY  Send This Review to a Friend

Doug Wright has written and directed a play that presents a provocative take on a relationship between Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland and renowned playwright Henrik Ibsen. “Posterity,” an Atlantic Theater Company presentation set in Norway in 1901, obviously reflects the playwright’s extensive imagination, although there is historical information that Vigeland asked Ibsen to sit for a bust. The play fashioned by Wright is cleverly written, and although its contrivances show blatantly, the confrontations and discussions between the two men convey interesting passions about art and artists.

Derek McLane has provided a set offering a conception of what Viegland’s studio might have looked like—cluttered with shelves of sculpted busts, some covered, some visible, and Vigeland’s sculpting tools. At this point in his life and career Vigeland, played by the versatile Hamish Linklater, is still struggling to be more successful and nurtures his dream of a great project that would make him immortal, but he is stubborn in his artistic purity, is against compromise and guards his dignity and conception of what good art is supposed to be.

In the beginning we see two models posing nude (partially shielded from the audience) for a sculpture. One is his young assistant Anfnn (Mickey Theis) and an older, full-bodied woman, Greta (Dale Soules). Vigeland wants privacy, but his agent Sophus (Henry Stram) bangs on the door until he is admitted. He is quickly aghast when he recognizes Greta as his housekeeper and turns away in disgust at seeing her doing such an undignified thing as posing in that state. Greta earns our respect by sarcastically telling him off for the paltry wages he pays and gets fired, after which Vigeland comes to the rescue by hiring her as his housekeeper.

Sophus bears news that an arrangement can be made for Vigeland to sculpt Ibsen, which would help him win favor to secure financing for his major project. But Ibsen’s reputation as a terribly difficult man turns off Vigeland. Of course, an arrangement will be made for Ibsen to visit Vigeland to discuss the matter.

Australian actor John Noble, cast as Ibsen, does an extremely effective job of capturing the playwright’s enormous ego, his disdain for having a bust made but looking upon his plays to guarantee his reputation after he is gone, and his expectation that Vigeland should bow and scrape to him. Vigeland does just the opposite, even taunting Ibsen by reading clippings of negative reviews, and a clash of personalities and artistic beliefs burst from them. Then, as he is about to leave in a huff, Ibsen collapses and is rushed for medical attention.

Later, seriously ill and increasingly infirm, Ibsen relents and summons Vigeland to come to his home to sculpt him. Vigeland seizes the opportunity, but suddenly there is a very contrived crisis. His assistant, hiding the fact, realizes there is no clay and substitutes some mud instead before he flees the city. Vigeland goes to see Ibsen at home in hope that some clay can be delivered there in time, and meanwhile, pretends to be working while more talk ensues between the artist and his nearly out-of-it subject. We are teased as to whether Ibsen will discover the ruse.

The second act seems overly drawn out, but Wright gets good marks for creating the basic situation and hooking us on the opportunity to see two artists, each in his own sphere, projecting their intellects and passions into discourse that can hold our interest in a production strengthened by the impressive acting. At the Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street. Phone: 866-811-4111. Reviewed March 22, 2015.

THE AUDIENCE  Send This Review to a Friend

Peter Morgan’s elegant and entertaining play “The Audience” is fascinating on two counts. The performance of Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II is a wonderful example of the always-superb actress’s ability as she makes the queen very human and not merely an icon. The play, by dramatizing Her Majesty’s meetings and imagined conversations with a series of prime ministers, also gives us a tour of Britain at various stages and clarifies the relationship between royalty and the country’s parliamentary system.

That’s a tall order, but the playwright and the cast, under the astute direction of Stephen Daldry, make the relationships come very much alive with color and wit. We see Elizabeth as a clever, interesting person who can feel keenly about various situations and see through political smokescreens, as in an excellent scene with Michael Elwyn as Anthony Eden concerning British intervention in the mid-East over the Suez Canal. But the queen knows her place, in that she must always defer to the system in which a prime minister has the last word as an elected representative.

Mirren is remarkably convincing as she shifts into portraying the queen at different ages. She also reveals her personality and feelings conversing with her younger self, well played by Elizabeth Teeter in the performance I saw. (Sadie Sink alternates in the role). The device comes across as somewhat contrived. But it does help to flesh out the character beyond the ritual of the queen’s weekly conversations with the prime ministers that are the heart of the play.

There is considerable humor in these conversations, as when Rufus Wright as current Prime Minister David Cameron drones on and the queen falls asleep in her chair. There is also caricature in the flamboyant portrayal of egotistical Margaret Thatcher as played by Judith Ivey.

I especially enjoyed Richard McCabe in his warm portrayal of former Labour Party Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who is disturbed at the illness overtaking him and is depicted as someone for whom the queen has special affection as well as appreciation for what he stands for. We also meet Dylan Baker as the stuffy John Major, Rod McLachlan as Gordon Brown and Rufus Wright again, doubling as Tony Blair.

Of course, there is Winston Churchill. When he appears, the entrance is striking as we see the former British leader in a look-alike posture, with Dakin Matthews then quickly materializing with reality in the role and rendering Churchill in all his importance.

The assemblage passing through the play underscores the length of the queen’s reign, extending from 1952 (her coronation was in 1953) through the present, with much that has happened in the intervening years. The playwright has provided sharp bits of dialogue that may mean more in England than for an American audience, such as the queen’s twitting of Cameron for his needy alliance with the Liberal Party.

I especially enjoyed the performance by George Beavers as the Equerry, providing introductions to stages of the production. He is the epitome of British sophistication in his delivery.

I have heard comments about Helen Mirren having already played Queen Elizabeth II in the film “The Queen,” giving rise to the feeling that her role in the play would only be repetitious. The fear is misplaced. In “The Audience” we get to see her in the broad variety of encounters, allowing her wide range to provide a closer and much more political view of the monarch who has had such a long reign. At the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed March 9, 2015.

FISH IN THE DARK  Send This Review to a Friend

As one who had enjoyed most episodes of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” I also was among those eager to see “Fish in the Dark,” the comedy written by Larry David, who also stars in it. What I found was something he might have written for the TV show, but expanded to two hours. David is in customary nudnik form, and there are some welcome laughs, but the utter hilarity I had hoped for is not there in this so-so Broadway venture.

The cast is consistently and effectively amusing, and David has concocted a few bizarre situations. But the plot is strained, and the laughs depend on David’s antics, his funniest lines and fan-based audience members willing to settle for what is mainly the opportunity to see him in the flesh and for easy laughs.

The plot involves Norman Drexel (David), whose father is dying, with a parting wish that his son take care of their mother, Gloria (Jayne Houdyshell). But which son? Norman believes that his father meant his brother Arthur (Ben Shenkman), but it is Norman who gets saddled with taking mom home to live with him and his wife Brenda (Rita Wilson).

The tone of humor is set in the hospital (the location is California) when Arthur walks in with a hot looking date, Michelle (the stunning Jenn Lyon), and the result is a laugh when he is castigated for the bad taste of bringing a date to the hospital. But Michelle goes in to see dad, and we soon learn that dad felt her up. Later in the play, when Norman tries the same thing, she indignantly rejects him, and when he notes that she didn’t mind when his father did it, her rejoinder is yes, but he was dying.

We learn what has been going on in the family. Norman’s father has been having an affair with the housekeeper, Fabiana (Rosie Perez), and Norman is astonished to learn they have a grown son, Diego (Jake Cannavale), who is such a dead ringer for his father that when Norman’s unknowing widowed mother sees him arrive at the door she passes out and upon reviving is sure she has seen her husband as he looked when a young man in the military.

David and Fabiana cook up as scheme that involves Diego visiting Gloria at night to get her agreement on what each wants, and Gloria is sexually inspired. Learning of what happened, Norman rants to Diego, “You f----d my mother?” It seems, as it turns out, that mom knows a good opportunity when she sees it.

You get the idea of what’s happening in this household. Norman’s wife complains that he spends so much time in the bathroom getting ready for bed while she waits to have sex that by the time he gets there she is asleep.

The second act is funnier than the first as the comic mess is worked out. Director Anna D. Shapiro moves the action along, and David knows his timing. The well-chosen cast also includes Richard Topol, Molly Ranson, Jonny Orsini, MaryLouise Burke, Kenneth Tigar, Lewis J. Stadlen, Jerry Adler, Maria Elena Ramirez, Jeff Still, Rachel Resheff and Joel Rooks. Naturally, at curtain call David gets a standing ovation. At the Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th Street. Phone: 212-239- 6200. Reviewed March 8, 2015.

THE LIQUID PLAIN  Send This Review to a Friend

In Naomi Wallace’s play “The Liquid Plain,” presented by Signature Theatre, she is courageously attempting to contemplate the outrageous treatment of slaves and their attempt to cope and find a way out. However, Wallace’s method is not realism, far from it, but is attempting to approach her subject with a larger-than-life, almost poetic sensibility underscored by earthiness that results in an odd mixture. She also packs the work with so much incident and complications that the actors—and audience—face a challenge.

The actors do their job exceedingly well, as if making perfect sense out of what Wallace has conjured. Audiences may have difficulty in keeping everything clear, but the playwright should command respect for her heartfelt desire to connect with the atrocities of the slave trade and the painful lingering results.

The play, directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, first is set in “a possible 1791” in Bristol, Rhode Island, and then, in the second act, it shifts to 1837 in the same location. Initially we meet Kristolyn Lloyd as Adjua and Ito Aghayere as Dembi. They are a couple of runaway slaves scrounging a living on the docks by any possible means as they await the possibility of boarding a ship to get them back to Africa. Dembi is really a woman disguising himself as a man, but he is furiously jealous when it comes to Adjua. They are robbing a body retrieved from the ocean, except that the man, Cranston, played by Michael Izquierdo, suddenly springs to life and is subsequently enlisted to aid the couple in the scrounging. Moreover, he has sex with Adjua, who becomes pregnant, leading to Dembi stabbing her. I won’t go into the other plot permutations before intermission.

In the second act we meet Lisagay Hamilton emoting as the feisty Bristol, the daughter Adjua bore, coming from her life in England to the same spot in Rhode Island with a double mission—to find her father and also to kill the man responsible for callously drowning slaves as cargo. We also meet the aged Dembi, who gets rid of dead bodies by tossing them into the water. Bristol is in for some clarification, as is the audience.

I am giving you the bare bones of the extensive plot, far from all of it, which shows how much the playwright has packed into her opus, and I’m not even raising all of the play’s improbabilities. The cast, performing excellently, also includes Karl Miller, Johnny Ramey, Lance Roberts, Tuck Milligan, Robert Hogan and Tara A. Nicolas. Scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez has created a dock-looking set, aided by Alex Koch’s projection design.

Wallace aims high in her play, and it contains admirable elements, but it becomes too cluttered and esoteric in various respects to attain the overall emotional impact that should emerge. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-244-7529. Reviewed March 13, 2015.

ABUNDANCE  Send This Review to a Friend

As usual, The Actors Company Theatre (TACT) has provided a strong cast for its revival of the Beth Henley play “Abundance,” effectively staged by Jenn Thompson. Henley’s drama about frontier brides and their lives, spanning 25 years starting in the late 1860s, has resonance in the historical tracing of the position of women in American society.

Henley constructed an emotional drama about two women who go westward to marry men in response to adverts seeking brides. The play is first set in Wyoming Territory and later in St. Louis, Missouri. The women, very different types, meet while waiting for their respective husbands-to-be to pick them up. Bess Johnson, played by Tracy Middendorf, is shy, enjoys singing and nurtures hope for happiness with a man who has written her promisingly tender letters. Macon Hill, performed by Kelly McAndrew, is an exuberant type full of dreams for a joyous future.

The seeds of disappointment are immediately apparent. Jack Flan, enacted by Todd Lawson, turns up to matter-of-factly tell Bess that his brother, her intended, is dead. Now Jack will marry her instead. But Jack is sullen and abusive, smacking Bess in the face when she sings and asserting that there’ll be no more singing, which he hates.

Will Curtis (Ted Koch), who comes for Macon, is a lug of a guy whom she doesn’t find in the least attractive, but she dutifully goes off to his farm with the intention of making the best of it.

The women bond as friends, and at one point plan to run off together to find a better life, but dreams fade as the years go by and their lot seems sealed. Jack is a nasty character, and not finding Bess attractive, he makes a play for the sexually vulnerable Macon.

Events eventually take a sharp turn as Bess is captured by Indians, returns with facial scars carved during her tribal life, but soon becomes famous for a biographical book that she has written under the guidance of Professor Elmore Crome (Jeff Talbott), who helps her promote it. The book is not only a best seller but leads to increasingly haughty and embittered Bess traveling a lecture circuit, until her story becomes old hat. (Henley was impressed by the real life story of a teenager, Olive Oatman, who was similarly kidnapped.)

Macon grows increasingly resentful, feeling that she has helped Bess and now has nothing to show for it but her hard scrabble life. Her husband, who correctly feels she has never loved or wanted him, announces he is leaving.

The play is a sad one, with insightful writing by Henley, and an excellent cast that illuminates the sharply drawn portraits. Middendrof and McAndrew merit special praise. “Abundance” is a drama that deserves the new attention bestowed upon it by TACT. On the night I saw the production Henley was seated in the row behind me and at the end she seemed visibly moved by what she had seen. At the Beckett Theatre, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Reviewed March 3, 2015.

FASHIONS FOR MEN  Send This Review to a Friend

Mint Theater Company is giving an effervescent revival of the entertainingly cynical “Fashions for Men” by Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnár. First staged in Budapest in 1917, it reached Broadway in 1922 and now seems very much alive and fresh in this staging by Davis McCallum. The humor is sharp, and the cast does a fine job, especially when revealing the manipulative characters driving Molnár’s observations about human behavior.

Daniel Zimmerman’s primary set, a Budapest boutique with fashionable items for both men and women, is so attractively stocked that I felt I could march right in and buy something. Exactly the right visual ambiance is established before anyone utters an opening line, and as the play progresses one also gains special appreciation for the costuming by Martha Hally.

The shop is owned by Peter Juhász, perfectly portrayed by Joe Delafield, who is such a generous, compliant and naïve Mr. Nice Guy that he extends credit to anyone in need. He also is blind to the fact that his wife Adele (Annie Purcell) has fallen in love with his somewhat smarmy salesman Oscar (John Tufts), and when Adele summons the courage to break the news and leave her surprised hubby that night, Peter takes it like the good-hearted schmo that he is.

Peter’s kindly ways have resulted in his store going broke and into receivership. Standing ready to help is Kurt Rhoads as the exuberant, wealthy Count, who hires Peter to work for him at his country cheese-producing farm. The Count soon finds Peter impossible, and insists that he show his ability by firing a worker who has been betraying the Count with a competitor.

It is a super difficult task for Peter, and a scheme is hatched by Paula, who was a cashier at the shop and has wormed her away into being taken as the Count’s assistant. She comes up with the idea for the Count to send Peter money, pretending that it is money owed him, enough to pay his debts and take ownership of his Budapest shop again. Complications arise from that gambit.

The key person in the playwright’s take on people is the attractive, manipulative Paula, played with impeccable, devious charm by Rachel Napoleon. First, she ingratiates herself with the Count, who finds her dangerously sexy, and she gets to go with him. Then, when the younger Peter, with whom she falls in love, takes back the shop, she contrives to follow him and suddenly rules the roost there. Peter is now much the wiser, but Paula is a temptress, and she is even good for him. Molnár gives us a well-ordered resolution.

Other characters introduced in the mix help flesh out a colorful portrait of the little world Molnár zeroes in on so appealingly. The result is a delightful work that Mint Theater has been so wise to revive. At Mint Theater, 311 West 43rd Street. Reviewed March 2, 2015.

THE WORLD OF EXTREME HAPPINESS  Send This Review to a Friend

Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig has written a searing indictment of policies in contemporary China, and it is being given a lively, well-cast production by Manhattan Theatre Club in a co-production with the Goodman Theatre of Chicago. The author, currently a playwright in residence at Manhattan Theatre Club, doesn’t pull any punches in examining manipulation and repression that engulfs various characters in vignettes adding up to a dispiriting portrait of what she sees as happening in that world power.

The action takes place in 1992 and in 2011-2012 and encompasses life in both rural and urban China. Among the targets are the regarding of girl babies as worthless in the quest for sons, luring people from the countryside to urban centers where they can feed the need for workers in the burgeoning factories, the way in which city dwellers look down upon the newcomers, how people can be sold a bill of goods promising brighter futures, sheer blackmail to get ahead, prevalent suicides and the viciousness with which the government clamps down on dissenters.

That’s a tall order for one play, but it is structured around characters whose lives delineate the problems, and the cast members make it all very vivid. Five actors play more than one role, except for the key part of the optimistically named Sunny, impressively portrayed by the excellent Jennifer Lim. At the outset, after Sunny is born, her angry mother, portrayed by Jo Mei, wants to dispose of her in a slop bucket. She is a useless girl. But the baby has a fetching smile that leads her father to rescue her.

We watch Sunny climb what is meant to be the ladder of urban success, as she cleverly takes advantage of what she learns. There is a hilarious scene in which she masturbates her boss and threatens to stop as he heads toward orgasm unless he promises her a promotion. Whatever it takes.

But there is humanity about Sunny, who develops a concern for the way in which workers from the country are exploited, and when she is made a poster woman for the factory where she works as a cleaner in a plan to to use her, she faces a challenge as she gives a required propaganda speech before a crowd. Sunny’s fate is tragic, and Lim’s performance, at times entertaining, ultimately is highly dramatic and deeply moving.

Praise is due the other members of the cast as well—Jo Mei, Francis Jue, Telly Leung, James Saito and Sue Jin Song, who effectively maximize the playwright’s vision in the assorted segments that build into the unsettling whole.

Eric Ting’s direction is incisive, with scenic design by Mimi Lien, lighting design by Micoleau and sound design by Mikhail Fiksel boosting the overall atmospheric effect.

The ironically titled “The World of Extreme Happiness” provides a poignant dramatic window on China, and although some of the sections may seem episodic, overall the play packs a powerful impact. At City Center Stage I, 131 West 55th Street. Phone: 212-581-1212. Reviewed March 1, 2015.


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