Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Adam Rapp’s Through The Yellow Hour is that the playwright/director has intentionally written a piece that will never be performed with a completely age-appropriate cast – at least not legally in this country – since it includes a fully nude, sexually suggestive scene between a thirty-year-old character and another who is fourteen. But because the person playing the youth is obviously of age, the scene is likely to leave audience members thinking of the older character as someone who has learned to trust and be caring again, rather than as someone committing statutory rape.
Of course, the age of consent may have been lowered a bit in Rapp’s apocalyptic vision of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Major American cities have been bombed with both explosives and germs by… well, you know… and surviving men are being castrated while healthy young girls are being harvested, presumably for procreation. Even worse, audience members get stamped on the neck with a red circle on their way into the auditorium and the playwright never tells us why.
Once inside, though, we can admire Andromache Chalfant's splendidly detailed work creating a claustrophobic East Village apartment crumbling from blown out windows and a collapsing ceiling. (The kind of place where a character originated by the playwright’s brother might have lived.) Keith Parham’s shadowy lighting with sharp beams of sun forcing their way in and Christian Frederickson‘s sound design depicting the war zone outside are also excellent. The most foreboding aspect of the visual design, however, is the on-stage toilet; especially if you believe Mr. Rapp isn’t above using it as a stand-in for a Chekhovian on-stage gun.
Speaking of gunplay, the evening begins with the apartment’s inhabitant, a nurse named Ellen (a tense and daring Hani Furstenberg), shooting an unexpected visitor (Brian Mendes), whose dead body spends the next several weeks slumped in a corner, apparently never decomposing, causing a stench or attracting rodents. He may have been just a poor bloke looking for food, but nobody can be trusted in this new world and Ellen hasn’t left the place since her husband has been missing; living on a seemingly endless supply of canned peaches and trading painkillers for means of survival.
An expected guest, drug-addicted Maude (Danielle Slavick), has arrived to hand over her baby girl who, if deemed healthy, can be shipped to a better life through a connection of Ellen’s. Since there’s a big bathtub smack dab center stage, Maude strips down and takes a bath, but when she’s done she puts her grimy, smelly clothes back on instead of, perhaps, rinsing them out a bit first.
Rapp keeps our attention by dishing out information about what the heck is going on in tiny morsels involving Muslims, corporations and mysterious “Egg Heads,” and for the most part, despite lapses of logic, it’s a popcorn-worthy thriller that crosses into B-movie camp only with the arrival of a businesslike doctor (Matt Pilieci) and a deadpan, icy official (Joanne Tucker); both dressed by designer Jessica Pabst in cartoonishly futuristic pristine white getups. They seem to be performing some kind of barter, exchanging the girl for the nervous farm-raised teen (Vladimir Versailles).
With the arrival of a seriously wounded man (Alok Tewari) with information about Ellen’s husband, the dialogue turns to gruesome details of what’s happening to men who are captured, putting some pretty disgusting images into audience members’ heads.
At 100 minutes, Rapp and the strong, committed company provide an enjoyably tense diversion that, as such projects are known to do, warns us of a (hopefully) avoidable future.
Photos by Sandra Coudert: Top: Hani Furstenberg, Brian Mendes and Danielle Slavick; Bottom: Joanne Tucker, Matt Pilieci and Hani Furstenberg.
Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.
Posted on: Tuesday, October 02, 2012 @ 01:15 PM Posted by: Michael Dale
Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 9/30/12 & Theatre Quote of the Week
"Failure in the theater is more dramatic and uglier than any other form of writing. It costs so much, you feel so guilty."
The grosses are out for the week ending 9/30/2012 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.
Up for the week was: BRING IT ON THE MUSICAL (12.8%), GRACE (10.1%), CHAPLIN (8.3%), MAMMA MIA! (6.6%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (6.4%), PETER AND THE STARCATCHER (5.9%), WAR HORSE (5.5%), JERSEY BOYS (4.8%), NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT (4.8%), CYRANO DE BERGERAC (4.3%), ONCE (2.7%), MARY POPPINS (2.7%), AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE (1.8%), THE LION KING (1.4%), NEWSIES (1.1%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (1.1%), CHICAGO (0.9%), EVITA(0.7%),
Down for the week was: WICKED (-0.9%), ROCK OF AGES (-0.3%),
Posted on: Monday, October 01, 2012 @ 05:02 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
Before the comedy boom of the 1980s began dotting New York and every other major American city with clubs devoted exclusively to showcasing stand-ups, comedians worked primarily between sets at music venues or at random comedy nights at bars and restaurants. And while the emergence of burlesque as a form of female-empowered entertainment where men and women both cheerfully whoop it up for their favorite ecdysiasts is still only an occasional feature of variously appointed venues, I do think we’re heading in a direction where before the end of this decade we’ll be seeing the emergence of burlesque clubs – much like today’s comedy clubs and jazz clubs – providing nightly opportunities for good, clean, non-judgmentally positive body image fun.
Reinforcing that notion is The Metropolitan Room’s twice-monthly hosting of The Sophisticates; the popular destination for Gershwin and Porter enthusiasts opening its doors to the strip-tease set for their late-night hi-jinks.
Bastard Keith, a smarmy gadabout throwback to the days when bad boys were the well-dressed intellectuals in glasses who quipped irreverently (“There’s a lot of music that speaks to me, and as a Jew, the most inspirational is the black spiritual.”), hosts the evening with a little song and a little friendly audience bonding. (“I’d say ‘no homo’ but that would be inherently dishonest.”)
Joining Mr. Keith as co-producer is Madame Rosebud, an accomplished writer of sexual issues and self-identified guerilla feminist who sheds layers of her red ensemble like delicate flower petals. Although all the music used in The Sophisticates is recorded, the grand piano remains on stage (Those things are expensive to move.) and Ms. Rosebud grandly hopped atop it for some delightful pinup poses, finishing with a move that I strongly suspect was the reason the show was once kicked out of The Plaza Hotel.
Every performance features a new lineup of guest stars and I was happy to see The Maine Attraction, a performer who has sufficiently dazzled me in the past, on the bill when I attended. It may be a cliché to say a woman of color who dances in an outfit suggesting La Revue Nègre has a bit of Josephine Baker in her, but Ms. Attraction, though certainly of her own style, exudes the same kind of frenetic comic energy that first earned the chanteuse-to-be the title of Highest Paid Chorus Girl In Vaudeville. She acts out routines with the skill of a silent movie clown (in one bit she appears to have swallowed her glove) and stops the show when jiving to “Sing, Sing, Sing” upside down with legs akimbo.
Bettina May, a willowy-armed Canadian with curly red locks and a big wholesome smile, demonstrated how her fan-dancing skills helped earn her a green card as an “alien of extraordinary ability” and Kristina Nekyia displayed wondrous flexibility in her East Indian-inspired routines. Stage kitten Delysia LaChatte found enticing ways to ensure the stage remained spotless after each performance.
Though the sightlines of The Metropolitan Room may not be ideal for burlesque (head-to-toe visuals being so much more important for this sort of thing than for singing Rodgers and Hart) the dancers all compensated by bringing the fun out into the house, sometimes making for special moments with select audience members. Let’s just say the cast of Hair never quite connected with their fans so intimately.
Photo: Madame Rosebud and Bastard Keith.
Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.
Posted on: Friday, September 28, 2012 @ 05:56 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
Red Dog Howls
Sophie’s choice was a casual coin flip compared with decision forced upon a young mother in Alexander Dinelaris’ drama recalling the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian genocide, Red Dog Howls. As a 91-year-old grandmother enduring life with the memory of a horrific confrontation with three sadistic Turks, Kathleen Chalfant gives an extraordinarily convincing performance balancing pain and dark humor, climaxing with an agonizing scene where she reveals a sickening secret. But Chalfant’s performance, certainly worth remembering when award season comes along, is all the production has to recommend.
Set in 1980s New York, the heavy-handed text begins with a writer named Michael (Alfredo Narciso) informing us that, “There are sins, from which we can never be absolved. Sins, so terrible, so... unimaginable, that if, or when, we finally acknowledge the depths of our complicity, we will be changed forever.”
By the evening’s end we’ve discovered the nature of his sin, as Michael narrates a tale from his recent past involving a cryptic message left to him by his now deceased father and the discovery of a grandmother he thought had passed on long ago.
Chalfant’s Rose is a crusty, old world sort who feels compelled to pass on her Armenian heritage and family history to the stranger who turns out to be her grandson, but only at a proper pace and never mentioning the grave secret until he’s ready.
Florencia Lozano plays Michael’s pregnant wife, Gabby, whose presence is more symbolic than dramatic.
Director Ken Rus Schmoll’s production is filled with stilted pauses and Chalfant is the only actor who finesses around the sluggish staging, but the play itself, with its declarative, fact-filled narration and thin characters, is the primary reason the evening is emotionally empty.
Photo of Kathleen Chalfant by Joan Marcus.
Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.
Posted on: Thursday, September 27, 2012 @ 05:16 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
While nobody ever said musical theatre was easy – at least, nobody with any real knowledge of the art – you would think that in writing a musical about the first worldwide beloved figure of the 20th Century there wouldn’t be too much trouble establishing empathy. But the surprisingly dry and emotionless Chaplin, presented in a respectably strong Broadway production, tries to cram so many facts into its two acts that there’s little room left for feeling.
Bookwriter/composer/lyricist Christopher Curtis’ Behind The Limelight, as the show was previously known, seemed extremely promising when it played the New York Musical Theatre Festival six years ago. But despite the addition of master craftsman Thomas Meehan to co-author the book, Chaplin, though it has its moments of charm, comes off as more of a check-list of events than a dramatically propelled entertainment.
The evening begins symbolically with a recreation of Charlie Chaplin’s high wire scene from The Circus, perhaps not the most iconic image from his career. As he struggles to keep his balance, characters below yell out lines from conflicts that are yet to come. While singing on a high wire may not be the easiest task in the world (even when, as in this case, the actor is hooked to safety wires), the moment cries out for a musical reaction from the protagonist, but he remains silent.
We then go back to the man’s London childhood, where his saloon-singing mother (the lovely-voiced and underutilized Christiane Noll) encourages her son (Zachary Unger) to watch the people he passes by every day and imagine the stories that lie beneath their faces. It’s a strong beginning to the story, but once the grown-up Chaplin (Rob McClure) takes over, we’re told that his comedy act, with his straight man brother Sydney (Wayne Alan Wilcox), is a popular music hall attraction without ever getting a sample of it.
We suddenly find out that director Mack Sennett (dependable comic tough guy type Michael McCormick) happened to be in the audience one night and has offered him a higher salary than he’s ever imagined to go to Hollywood and make movies. But when he arrives in California, Sennett finds him completely unfunny on his first day filming. Under the threat of being fired, Chaplin remembers his mother’s advice and develops his Little Tramp character by thinking about the Londoners he once observed. And while the sequence climaxes with the creation of the Chaplin we all came to see, the authors have yet to establish any sense of the man who created him, nor whatever talent he had that the film director originally saw. There’s no thrill in seeing what he became if we have no idea from where he started.
Once we’re told that Chaplin has fast become a popular star (instead of seeing the public’s reaction and learning what it was about the Little Tramp that immediately appealed to audiences), Sennett is out of the picture and Sydney starts negotiating new deals as Charlie’s manager. Though the relationship between the two brothers is the one with the most dramatic potential – particularly because of issue of their mother’s long-term dementia – the authors instead race through decades of material (four teenage wives, the affect of talkies on his career, his on-screen mockery of Hitler, accusations that send him to exile in Switzerland and, finally, an honorary Oscar in 1972) with a parade of one-note characters. The first act ends with a ballet of a dozen Chaplins mimicking the star as part of a look-alike contest; well-executed, but meaningless to the drama.
In the second act brassy-voiced Jenn Colella injects some much-needed musical comedy adrenaline into the proceedings as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who, according to the text, tried to ruin Chaplin’s career because he wouldn’t give her an interview.
Though the material is lacking (the revised score felt much stronger at the festival) director/choreographer Warren Carlyle mounts a handsome enough production, smoothly mixing live action with film clips of McClure. Designers Beowulf Boritt (set), Ken Billington (lights) and Amy Clark and Martin Pakledinaz (costumes) nicely dress the evening in monochrome visuals.
Through a silent art that defied boundaries of language and a new technology that could quickly distribute that art around the globe, Charlie Chapin became world famous faster than anyone could have imagined when the 1900s began. And yet this musical conveys none of the excitement of that time, none of the romance of the period and certainly none of the joy of Chaplin’s work. McClure does an admirable job impersonating the icon, but the gloomy musical he carried on his shoulders offers little opportunity for the actor to shine.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Rob McClure; Bottom: Jenn Colella.
Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.
Posted on: Tuesday, September 25, 2012 @ 08:08 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 9/23/12 & Theatre Quote of the Week
"It is a hopeless endeavour to attract people to a theatre unless they can be first brought to believe that they will never get in."
-- Charles Dickens
The grosses are out for the week ending 9/23/2012 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.
Up for the week was: AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE (12.2%), PORGY AND BESS (3.9%), WICKED(0.8%),
Down for the week was: CHAPLIN (-14.9%), PETER AND THE STARCATCHER (-14.9%), GRACE (-12.8%), MAMMA MIA! (-11.9%), EVITA (-10.9%), WAR HORSE (-10.7%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (-10.5%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (-10.3%), CYRANO DE BERGERAC (-8.1%), NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT (-7.2%), BRING IT ON THE MUSICAL (-6.5%), MARY POPPINS (-6.2%), CHICAGO (-4.2%), ONCE (-3.2%), NEWSIES (-3.1%), JERSEY BOYS (-2.8%), ROCK OF AGES (-2.1%),
Posted on: Monday, September 24, 2012 @ 04:05 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
It’s not unusual for theatergoers at 45 Bleecker Street to see cheery 8x10 photos of the actors they’re about to see displayed in the lobby, but those attending Culture Project’s 10th Anniversary production of The Exonerated are greeted by more somber headshots. Mounted before them are thirteen portraits by painter Daniel Bolick. Titled The Innocence Portraits, they are the faces of people who spent 10… 18… as much as 27-and-a-half years in prison – a combined 71 years on death row – for crimes that DNA and other evidence eventually proved they did not commit.
There are a great many emotions you can imagine when looking into the eyes of Bolick’s depictions: fear, sorrow, confusion and even wisps of relief at having survived a horrifying experience. But oddly enough, none of the portraits appear to be emoting anger. There’s a certain stillness in the display that is also very evident in director Bob Balaban’s production of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s play. Despite the controversies and injustices described, The Exonerated contains no dramatic extremes of emotion, and yet the stories themselves, told simply and quietly, are thoroughly compelling and heartbreaking.
Six stories are told during the course of the 90-minute production; alternating sections so that we follow them simultaneously. Ten actors sit across the stage in a row, dressed in street clothes and reading their scripts from lecterns. There are six regular company members, but the play is designed to easily accommodate a rotating cast of name stars who can slip into the show as their schedules allow. The evening I attended the rotating cast included Stockard Channing, Chris Sarandon, Delroy Lindo and Brian Dennehy. (A complete schedule of rotating cast members can be found on Culture Project’s web site.) Nearly every word they speak is taken from personal interviews with those depicted and documents and transcripts of public record.
The spiritual center of the piece is poet Delbert Tibbs (Lindo), who refuses to despair despite being convicted for rape and murder based on evidence that was later found to be tainted. Sonia ‘‘Sunny’’ Jacobs (Channing) spent 12 years on death row for a murder that someone else confessed to. When police found the parents of Gary Gauger (Dennehy) murdered, his words were misused to suggest a confession. Kerry Max Cook (Sarandon) was found guilty of killing a woman when his fingerprint on her doorknob was found by an “expert” to have been left at the time of the murder; despite the fact that determining the time when a fingerprint was left is impossible. Robert Earl Hayes (JD Williams), a black man, was found guilty of murdering a woman despite the fact that light-colored hair that could not have come from him was found grasped in her hands. (There’s a bit of comic relief in his interactions with his sassy wife, played by April Yvette Thompson.) After spending two years in prison, David Keaton (Curtis McLarin) was found to have been beaten into giving a false confession for killing a police officer, but even after being exonerated he was not released until six years later, after the real killer was found and convicted.
Though the stage is dimly lit, designer Tom Ontiveros places each of the characters in a small cell of light while they speak, exemplifying their loneliness.
The circumstances which lead to their original convictions involved combinations of human error, incompetence, inexperience, racism, red tape and, it’s suggested, the pressure to secure a conviction superseding the need to discover the truth. While this could be seen as a one-sided indictment against the legal system – particularly in the smug, unfeeling way authority figures are portrayed by Jim Bracchitta and Bruce Kronenberg – The Exonerated is not a judgmental piece. Facts are laid out before the audience to inform whatever conclusions they may make.
At the performance I attended, the actual Sunny Jacobs was introduced to the audience, seeming very sweet and upbeat. From September 25-30, she is scheduled to appear on stage playing herself. Expect emotions to be particularly high.
Photo by Carol Rosegg: Bruce Kronenberg, Erik Jensen, Amelia Campbell, Brian Dennehy, Delroy Lindo, Stockard Channing, JD Williams, April Yvette Thompson, Curtis McClarin and Jim Bracchitta.
Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.
Posted on: Saturday, September 22, 2012 @ 02:43 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
In the life they had planned for themselves, upscale suburbanites Mary and Ben probably never thought they’d be trading hosting duties at weekend barbeques with people like Kenny and Sharon. In the life they had planned for themselves Mary and Ben surely never imagined they’d be neighbors with people like Kenny and Sharon. But with their dreams of a secure and prosperous life temporarily – at least they hope temporarily – put on hold because of a precarious American economy, the couple next door just might be a mirror image of what is only a few missed payments away.
Though it debuted with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company two years ago, Lisa D'Amour’s Detroit, a Pulitzer finalist, remains a topical comedy during an election season where unemployment and job creation are hot issues.
The titular city is never mentioned in the play and the program notes describe the setting as a “first ring” suburb outside a mid-size American city; a suburb we eventually find was created as a community of affordable “little boxes.” The notes also include a quote from architecture critic Herbert Muschamp, teaching us that after 40 years the glue that holds plywood together will dry, causing the wood to buckle and peel until rooms made of the material “morph into trick-or-treat versions of themselves.” Hence the happy suburban lifestyle that may have raised people like Mary and Ben in the 1970’s has started turning ghoulish.
Ben (David Schwimmer) is a laid-off bank loan officer approaching the end of his severance pay, but insisting his new web-based financial planning business will soon be ready to take off. Meanwhile, Mary (Amy Ryan) pays the bills as a paralegal and, growing more and more frustrated with Ben’s lack of financial productivity, has turned more and more to alcohol.
Also frustrating them is the patio umbrella that won’t stay open and the sticky sliding door, neither of which faze their new neighbors. Having fallen in love while both were in rehab, Kenny (Darren Pettie) and Sharon (Sarah Sokolovic) fell into taking the house next door through family, though they lack the money to furnish it with their low-income jobs. Having nothing to lose actually looks comfortable on them, as they live their lives without inhibitions; happy to dine on the steaks and imported cheeses served by Mary and Ben while burgers and Cheetos are on the menu when they have company.
While the set-up works, the development is lacking, as the playwright presents the ill effects the couples have on one another in a manner that’s too jokey to be empathetic. Her dialogue is often amusing, but it rarely digs deep into the issues she’s laid out. And while Anne Kauffman’s direction effectively mixes the play’s potentially volatile combination of funny and creepy, Ryan too frequently lunges into a different plane of reality whenever Mary loses control and Schwimmer tends to overplay his underplaying. Pettie and Sokolovic are spot-on, though, subtly showing the potential for violence under Kenny’s genial exterior and the combination of sturdiness and vulnerability that alternates within Sharon.
The best work all around comes in the play’s penultimate scene, where Kenny and Sharon’s influence on Ben and Mary comes to a dangerous climax, but it’s followed by a rather heavy-handed thematic summary of sorts by a character making his first appearance in the play. The fact that the character is played by John Cullum means the heavy-handedness is softened as skillfully as possible, but Detroit, despite being sufficiently entertaining and thought-provoking, feels more like a play of unrealized potential.
Photos by Jeremy Daniel: Top: Amy Ryan and David Schwimmer; Bottom: Sarah Sokolovic and Darren Pettie.
Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.
Posted on: Thursday, September 20, 2012 @ 09:31 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
Broadway Grosses: Week Ending 9/16/12 & Theatre Quote of the Week
"Movies are a fad. Audiences really want to see live actors on a stage."
-- Charlie Chaplin
The grosses are out for the week ending 9/16/2012 and we've got them all right here in BroadwayWorld.com's grosses section.
Up for the week was: PORGY AND BESS (17.6%), WAR HORSE (10.6%), MAMMA MIA! (9.4%), WICKED (7.6%), NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT (6.8%), PETER AND THE STARCATCHER (6.3%), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (6.1%), BRING IT ON THE MUSICAL (4.6%), EVITA (4.4%), NEWSIES (4.2%), JERSEY BOYS (3.9%), CHICAGO (2.3%), ONCE (2.2%), MARY POPPINS (1.6%), AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE (1.3%), SPIDER-MAN TURN OFF THE DARK (1.2%), ROCK OF AGES(0.9%),
Down for the week was: CHAPLIN (-6.9%), THE LION KING (-0.9%),
Posted on: Monday, September 17, 2012 @ 04:53 PM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
Subtle British comedies of sex, morality and class like Mary Broome rarely wash up on these shores without the name George Bernard Shaw attached to them. But thankfully the beachcombers of the Mint Theatre Company, specialists in providing sturdy mountings of the once popular/now obscure, came across this 1911 Allan Monkhouse curiosity that hasn’t been seen in New York since 1919.
The title character (played with noble reserve by Janie Brookshire) is the finest maid ever employed by the exceedingly proper Timbrell family, who quietly confesses in the first scene that she is pregnant by the master’s devilishly irresponsible bachelor son, Leonard (Roderick Hill). In what may seem a surprising move, the family patriarch, Edward (a gruffly domineering Graeme Malcolm), sympathizes more with the help and insists that his son marry her and accept an annual allowance or be cut off from the family wealth. Leonard, who fancies himself as a writer (though an unproductive one), accepts the offer, as does Mary, who does have a gent in her life but would not think of asking him to take her now.
Despite the play’s title, it is Leonard who is the central character, and while a British audience of one hundred years ago might have found him more entertaining and sympathetic than a modern audience of yanks would, Hill, under director Jonathan Bank, skillfully gives Leonard some degree of naïve sincerity to go with his glib humor. If not exactly likeable, he’s not completely abhorrent.
The four talkative acts (delivered in less than two hours) have only a slight plot developing from the marriage and turns mostly into an evening of class-conscious quipping. A slight reminder of how much better Shaw was at this sort of thing arrives with the entrance of Mary’s very Alfred P. Doolittle-ish father. Douglas Rees gives a heartily amusing performance as the self-described radical with socialist leanings; a dingily attired horse-drawn cab driver being driven from his income by the new motorized taxis.
But if the play proves less than satisfactory, it still receives the traditional Mint treatment in a handsomely acted production. Set designer Roger Hanna provides the impression of stately home with a slight touch of modern commentary when an imposing collection of family portraits is used for a very funny sight gag.
Photo of Janie Brookshire and Roderick Hill by Carol Rosegg.
Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.
Posted on: Monday, September 17, 2012 @ 02:53 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
When it comes to the subject of transracial adoption, it would be nice to think that any child is better off with two loving and supportive parents of a different race than with nothing permanent at all, but in Bennett Windheim’s challenging play, Normalcy, which deals specifically with the issue of white parents adopting black children, there is a passionate argument presented that claims such an act will inevitably cause serious damage for the child.
At its best, Normalcy is the kind of play that will make people uncomfortable, in the best possible sense, and stimulate discussion; excellent traits for a new piece. Theatre East’s Off-Off Broadway production is nicely mounted by Benard Cummings (especially good work by set designer Lea Anello for creating numerous locations on what must be a modest budget and to Scott O’Brien for the uneasy moodiness of his score.) but the play, at this state, is an admirable and ambitious work in progress.
Advertising slogan exec Peter (Judson Jones) and his fashion journalist wife Sarah (Aleisha Force) insist they are not rich as they entertain his father and her mother at their Sag Harbor summer home. A retired high school teacher, Peter’s outspoken father, Jules (Harvey Guion), is never at a loss for comments about how his son’s profession contributes nothing to society. Sarah’s mother Marta, who is described by the playwright as being “of vague European descent” (Mary Ann Hay complies with a strong, but vague, accent.) takes an elitist view of her daughter’s profession. (“I do not understand how so many people are interested in fashion they cannot afford and celebrities they will never meet. That’s very American.”)
Unsuccessful at several expensive attempts to conquer their fertility problem, Peter and Sarah announce that not only do they intend to adopt, but specifically that they plan to adopt a black child. The hints of their well-meaning but naïve white liberal guilt motivating this choice are evident throughout the play, but when Peter finally explains the long-ago event that set him on a path of making up for the sins of his forefathers, it plays like an unrealistic cliché.
The play picks up significant steam when the couple meets with social worker, Catherine (Darlene Hope), a black woman who encounters August Wilson-loving, Langston Hughes-appreciating white couples like them every day. Her job is to find suitable homes for countless underserved black children and she is ruthless in her determination to make sure these prospective parents will be prepared for what’s to come. (“But there will be that word you would never ever use, never ever permit in your house, coming out of the mouth of your adopted black son and testing your liberal Upper West Side sensibilities. Now what do you do?”) Like the majority of prospective adoptive parents, Sarah and Peter are looking for an infant, but Catherine expertly plays on their insistence that they want to make a difference for a deserving child and convinces them to spend time with a seven year old boy with attention deficit disorder, as he would be available immediately. We never see the child, but the playwright develops sympathy for him through the conversations of others.
There are broad hints of sexual and romantic tension between Peter and his young black assistant Solonge (Sarah Joyce), who he keeps referring to as Sally, but that subplot never gets fully developed.
Windheim goes for the jugular in the second act when Aiesha (Lisha Mckoy), a guest speaker in front of an audience of white couples hoping to adopt black children, explains how she, a black woman, grew to hate the well-meaning, loving and supportive white couple that adopted her and made it impossible for her to develop a racial identity. (“My awareness of being African has always been on a theoretical level.”) Whether you agree with her position or not, her monologue contains the evening’s best writing and Mckoy delivers it for its full, harsh impact.
The other actors are not as fortunate. Although the acting ensemble does respectable work, the characters are mostly underwritten types. The story carries little emotional punch because the go-getting Sarah and the burnt out Peter are rarely seen relating to each other as a couple.
Most of the scenes in the two-and-a-half hour play can use some trimming, as the characters tend to have conversations that go off in extemporaneous tangents. Perhaps doing so will help streamline focus on the main issue, which is where Normalcy shows potential to be truly exciting.
Photo of Darlene Hope, Aleisha Force and Judson Jones by James M. Wilson.
Click here to follow Michael Dale on Twitter.
Posted on: Friday, September 14, 2012 @ 10:49 AM Posted by: Michael Dale | Leave Feedback
About Michael: After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in
dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular
audience participation murder mysteries (try
improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours
of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical
ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once
housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all
been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his
name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who
wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th
Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The
Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring
free live theatre to underserved communities, and
dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing
cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an
email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first
Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows
Michael can be seen at Shea Stadium pleading for the
Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals
and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared
celebrities making their stage acting debuts by
starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.