I saw nine shows during my recent time back east — including three in one day, thanks to staggered start times! (That is a record for me.) Shows included: three on Broadway, six off-Broadway. Three musicals, six straight plays. A one-woman show. Two revivals of theater pieces by the best of the best (Sondheim and O’Neill). Three new plays by modern playwrights (Nottage, Ruhl, Jacobs-Jenkins). Emerging artists in American musicals (Vernon, Sanoff & Hein). A reflective piece from an international voice (Calderon). And an exceptionally moving ‘issues’ play centered around gun control (Zimmerman). All in all — a very thrilling time at the theater if you’re Erica Meyer, or anyone else who closely follows the world of theater in New York City.
Here we go…
Everybody by Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins (off-Broadway)
Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins is one of a handful of playwrights for whom I will buy a ticket to see his/her new play without waiting for reviews or word-of-mouth recommendations. He never fails to push the envelope, surprise audiences, and usually lay down revelations about privilege and / or race. His newest work — a piece commissioned by Signature Theater as part of their initiative to support emerging and established playwrights — is based on the allegorical ‘Everyman,’ which I probably read excepts of in high school. An usher greets the audience to give the usual “turn off your cell phone” speech and about 30 seconds into it I realize this must be one of the actors because she is clearly delivering a well-written monologue that goes beyond the usual pre-curtain announcements. She explains that actors will play concepts — Friendship, Kinship, Love, Death, God, etc. We find out that God wants Death (played to perfection by Marylouise Burke, a septuagenarian in snazzy outfit) to take one person and ask them to account for their life. The five-person cast of Everymans — a mix of gender, age, and race — are planted in the audience and summoned on-stage by Death. Then each one must draw his or her role by lottery, so they all have the play fully memorized to be able to step into any part. While this is an impressive feat, the whole concept feels inherently gimmicky. At the performance I attended the Everyman character was played by an elderly white man. I think to really appreciate this set-up, you need to see the show more than once (and it’s unlikely that most audience members will return a second time) to understand how vastly different the dynamics of the play can be depending on the permutations of the lottery — for example, one of the actors is pregnant; to watch her approach death (knowing it would also mean death for her baby) would really raise the stakes compared to the old man at my performance. At the very least, Everyman is quite different than anything I’ve seen before, and I appreciate adding it to my personal canon / pantheon of shows. The dialogue is appropriately weighty for a show dealing with life and death; there are some powerful exchanges between characters. Between scenes there are interludes where the lights go out and we hear voiceovers — these did not strike me as necessary or especially compelling. But at one point there are dancing skeletons that are visually cool. Also: it’s rare that sitting in the front row is a bad choice, but so much of this show happened all over the theater that I was constantly turning around, so my front-row preference backfired on me.
How to Transcend a Happy Marriage by Sarah Ruhl (off-Broadway)
Sarah Ruhl is another example of a playwright for whom I will blindly purchase tickets based on her name alone. Her new play at Lincoln Center stars Marissa Tomei and Lena Hall. Upon entering the theater, the audience is greeted by a dead animal hanging center stage over a traditional living room set — when you see something dead and bleeding in front of you, and the title of the show has “happy marriage” in it, you know you’re in for an interesting evening. And there is a traditional floral pattern on the back wall of the stage (and on publicity materials for the show) that juxtaposes with the play’s subject matter: polyamory. It’s a titillating subject but Ruhl mines her plot for deep ideas / choices. The dialogue made me think. (One gripe: the two husband characters are interchangable and need more depth.) You can sort of trace what might be a personal evolution in Ruhl’s work — the Vibrator play (a woman’s sexual awakening), then Oldest Boy (having children), and now Happy Marriage (parents of children further down the road on their own sexual journey). Oh, and I spotted Sarah Ruhl in the lobby afterwards! I didn’t say anything but in retrospect could have greeted her with a simple, “I really enjoyed that!” since playwrights probably aren’t recognized too often.
Sweat by Lynn Nottage (Broadway)
The newly crowned Pulitzer Prize winner for drama! Playwright Lynn Nottage makes her long-awaited Broadway debut with Sweat (which premiered off-Broadway at the Public last fall). Simply put: this play is so compelling. Sweat is about class, as examined through the microcosm of a small Pennsylvania town in 2000. Practically everyone living there works at the local factory (where they manufacture steel? it’s vague and the specifics don’t really matter). These characters work here because their parents and grandparents worked here; it was an inevitable future that did not require education beyond high school. But now their industry is on a decline. (The plot of Sweat is a great parallel to coal mining jobs disappearing in the red states that elected Trump.) One of the main characters (a black woman) is promoted to a supervisor role just as the factory tightens their belt and decides to send its jobs and machines to Mexico; this woman finds herself caught between her friends and bosses. The play is framed by a time period eight years in the future as the sons of two of the main women are released from jail. Gradually, we learn why they ended up in prison (SPOILER ALERT) — factory workers went on strike, tensions grew, and these two teenagers beat up a scab who crossed the picket line. The scab (a Latino) works in the bar where everyone congregates after work. Most of the characters treat him horribly, as far beneath them on the class spectrum, despite the fact that he was born in the States. It’s an interesting look at racism and class — how whites, blacks, and Latinos merge in a small town around 2000. We see a few short clips of former President Bush approving the bank bail out, talking about sums of money that these characters on-stage could never fathom. Perspective makes this play compelling.
VILLA by Guillermo Calderon (off-Broadway)
This is a play I would not have discovered had it not been for the Maxamoo Theater and Performance Podcast — I am so grateful for their recommendations. VILLA is about three woman (in Chile, though that is not explicitly stated in dialogue) who have been chosen to decide what to do with the site of a villa that was used for torture during the Pinochet regime. Over 20 million euros have been allocated for this, but a board (whom we do not see) has been unable to reach agreement on a plan, so these women — strangers to each other — have been chosen to decide (we find out later how they are connected). They take a secret vote, but one of them ruins it by refusing to cast a decision. Each one passionately argues for or against each option — should they rebuild the villa as it was before the atrocities? Turn it into a gleaming museum? A park? A school? Leave it in a ruinous state so everyone can more viscerally remember what happened? What emerges is an incisive debate about how to memorialize a site after a tragedy. (Similarly heated discussions, one must assume, were inherently a part of what to do with the site of the former Twin Towers and other such locations of tragedy.) In the case of the atrocities committed at the Villa, these three women vacillate between wanting to forget the unspeakable horrors and knowing that future visitors must feel pain and discomfort at the site to really understand what happened.
The View UpStairs by Max Vernon (off-Broadway)
I caught a Saturday night 10p performance of this moving new musical by Max Vernon about a secret gay night club (UpStairs Lounge) in New Orleans on the night in 1973 when it was burned down and nearly everyone inside died (based on true events). Our way into this historic tragedy is through a modern-day black, gay 20-something who has just bought this dilapidated space in 2017 (cue the references to Trump). After signing the escrow paperwork, he goes to pull down a curtain and is suddenly transported into the past, where he spends the next 90+ minutes mingling with people from 1973 who don’t realize this is the last night of their lives. Each one tells his story via song. The numbers are moving, incisive, and humanizing; we readily care for each one of these individuals. At the performance I attended, ushers held back programs until the end of the show, so unless you knew about the deadly fire going into it, the ending was a horrible surprise (good call on the creative team’s part; an insert in the program explains more about the fire and its significance as the largest incident like that in the LGBT scene until Orlando in 2016). I am so glad I witnessed this show.
Sunday in the Park with George by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine (Broadway)
The Pulitzer-prize winning Sunday is perhaps Sondheim’s greatest masterpiece, a powerful contemplation on art and life, as examined through the artist Georges Seurat in 1800s Paris and his (fictionalized) great-grandson in the U.S. in the mid-1980s. I am always glad to revisit this show, and its short 10-week run at the newly renovated Hudson Theater is a delight. (This was my second Sondheim show in a 24-hour period, after seeing Assassins at Yale Rep the night before — what a way to celebrate my shared birthday with Sondheim!) The producers of this run have decided not to compete for Tonys, but if they were, I’d be completely fine with Annaleigh Ashford picking up her second for playing Dot; she is so compelling to watch and her choices are always interesting. Jake Gyllenhaal is doing a Mandy Patinkin imitation but that works just fine. The chromolume lighting effect in Act II is everything it’s supposed to be; I wonder if this is the first production to properly capture that on stage. Very glad to have caught this.
On the Exhale by Martín Zimmerman (off-Broadway)
Marin Ireland stars in this one-woman play about gun control. If that doesn’t sound uber compelling, let me say that I’ve never seen an ‘issues’ play that so powerfully communicates its message. Marin plays a woman whose son is a victim of a Sandy Hook-type attack; On the Exhale is a mother’s journey to work through the abject horror of losing a child to gun violence. This show was presented in Roundabout’s small black box theater. I got there early to nab a front-row seat for Ireland’s transcendent performance. I hope producers consider an encore run in other cities (perhaps where gun control is more of a contested debate), as this is a show that needs to be seen.
Come From Away by Irene Sankoff & David Hein (Broadway)
Come From Away is a 9/11 musical. I can’t say I had any interest in seeing it, but it generated very strong word-of-mouth buzz from out of town runs in San Diego, Seattle, D.C., and Toronto. It takes place in Gander, a small town in far eastern Canada (Newfoundland), where planes used to stop to refuel on transatlantic flights before advancements in fuel technology allowed for long-haul air travel. As one character comments, it’s where the Beatles first set foot in North America. For the past few decades Gander has not been relevant in terms of air travel, until that tragic day in September 2001 when the United States closed its airspace and forced all en route international flights to land outside the country. That is the story of Come From Away — how a town of 9,000 swelled to nearly twice its size and the local Canadian population displayed exemplary hospitality towards strangers from all over the globe for the better part of a week until grounded planes were allowed to fly again. From the moment the orchestra plays its first few notes of bluegrass, the show takes off (see what I did there?) at a breakneck pace and never lets up. Twelve capable actors take on dual roles of local townspeople and foreigners (plus even more miscellaneous characters beyond that). We follow a couple dozen threads of storylines over the days following 9/11. In my mind, the clear standout is Jenn Colella as an American Airlines pilot. Come From Away wisely does not linger in tragedy, instead focusing on the resilience and kindness of Canadians. There are some tense moments when a Muslim passenger is detained, but otherwise this show is aggressively positive. I don’t know how the creative team settled on a bluegrass score but it works; I very much enjoyed it. The other thing that impressed me is the diversity of the cast — there are bodies of all shapes, sizes, and colors. They LOOK like real, normal people you might find in Gander or any other town for that matter. And the main love story is carried by 50-year-olds! Very cool.
The Hairy Ape by Eugene O’Neill (off-Broadway)
A seldom-performed Eugene O’Neill play starring a favorite actor of mine (Bobby Cannavale) in a venue I’ve been eager to visit? Count me in! This was my first time seeing a show at the Park Avenue Armory and the venue and set design of this play is SO COOL. It’s a cavernous space with a block of yellow highlighter bleacher seats; the show’s creative team uses a moving track around the audience to bring in set pieces. (Check out a 360-degree view here.) I’m genuinely not sure how they accomplished some of those set changes on a moving track with so little noise. Through its design elements, director Richard Jones elevates this play to its highest level — I don’t know if The Hairy Ape has ever been presented like this before in all the years since its 1922 publication. It’s an expressionistic play about class: Cannavale plays Yank, the lead stoker of a steamship crossing the Atlantic. When the daughter of the shipowner surprises the crew with a visit below deck, she is disgusted by the animalistic behavior of Yank and his gang, comparing him to an ape. Yank holds a tremendous grudge and attempts to seek out the girl for retribution when the ship docks in New York City. He ends up in jail and, upon being released, makes his way to the zoo to talk to a gorilla — to commiserate in their shared lowly status and also to exert Yank’s influence as a human lording over an animal in a zoo cage, at least until a reversal in the final moments. As an O’Neill junkie, I am so glad I caught this definitive production of The Hairy Ape.