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Heidi Schreck’s
“Grand Concourse”
Sunday @ 2PM & 7PM
Tuesday @ 7:30PM
Wednesday @ 7:30PM
Thursday @ 7:30PM
Friday @ 7:30PM
Saturday @ 2Pm & 7:30PM
Through November 30th
Playwrights Horizons

With: Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Ismenia Mendes, Bobby Moreno, Lee Wilkof.

Directed by Kip Fagan.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Exactly how many times should a person be expected to forgive someone? How many times will they actually want to forgive the person? And how far does someone have to go to no longer warrant forgiveness?

These are some of the key questions brought up in the new off-Broadway play, “Grand Concourse,” at Playwrights Horizons, a spotty yet fascinating new work by Heidi Schreck.

This meditation on faith, forgiveness and altruism begins, winningly enough, like a sitcom with larger-than-life characters that are flawed but extremely likeable, exchanging barbs in one forced setting. But Schreck has something deeper in mind so as each character settles into his/her own dimensionality, an ambitious story begins to unfold, one that becomes predictable and, almost inert—until the damning and potent end scene where someone erupts and exorcises his/her own demons by eviscerating the character and actions of another, thereby achieving catharsis for his/herself as well as the audience. (I tried my best to not make that a spoiler!)

The setting is a soup kitchen in the basement of a Bronx Catholic Church run by a troubled nun, Shelley (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) who sets her microwave to one minute every day, forcing herself to pray in hopes she is inspired to “work up to two, and eventually five.” Shelly is a workaholic who has an estranged relationship with her ailing father.

Helping out in the kitchen is her good natured, trusting co-worker, Oscar (Bobby Moreno) and a new volunteer, 19-year old Emma (Ismenia Mendes) who seems to come with her own designer set of psychological and emotional baggage. Emma has dropped out of school and soon becomes a boon to the soup kitchen and a problem for the engaged-to-wed Bobby, who she shamelessly flirts with. The volatile Emma reveals she is terminal, eliciting sympathy and understanding from Shelley, Bobby as well as a pretty superfluous fourth character, a homeless man named Frog (Lee Wilkof), whom Emma helps seek employment.

What is really going on with Emma? Can she be trusted? Is Oscar in love with her? Can Emma help Shelley find her spiritual path?

The first half of “Grand Concourse” does a nice job of intriguing the audience and allowing us to care about the dynamics going on in this odd setting. Unfortunately, the second half meanders too much and by the time we get to the devastating finale, we’ve guessed almost every outcome and it’s simply not satisfying enough. In addition, the final horrible action done by one of the characters just wasn’t horrific enough for me (although I’m sure it was for many audience members).

Thank God for Quincy Tyler Bernstine who grounds the play with her no-nonsense, guarded performance and brilliantly deadpan line deliveries. Shelley’s crisis of faith cuts deep thanks to Bernstine’s tremendous talents.

Bobby Moreno is so appealing, endearing (and sexy), that as soon as he exits the stage you hope and pray he’ll return immediately. Bobby is probably the most moral and compassionate of all four characters and Moreno goes deep into what could have been a surface role. He’s hilarious without trying to be and quite poignant when he needs to be.

Ismenia Mendes has the most difficult role since hers is the least sympathetic and the sketchiest on paper. Mendes does her best to get us to care. She’s like that family member who continues to disappoint, but who keeps coming back to apologize and ask for forgiveness.

Director Kip Fagan does an admirable job of keeping the action moving.

Kudos to the food prep crew since there is quite a lot of real food being chopped, mixed and cooked onstage.

“Grand Concourse” would have had more power as a one act. The writing is certainly good and the ending is kick-ass, but the journey is too long and lacks enough complexity.

For tickets visit: playwrightshorizons.org or call 212-279-4200.

Playwrights Horizons | 416 West 42nd Street, NYC





Terrence McNally’s
"It’s Only a Play"
Sunday @ 3PM
Tuesday @ 7PM
Wednesday @ 2PM & 8PM
Thursday @ 7PM
Friday @ 8PM
Saturday @ 2Pm & 8PM
Closes March 29, 2015
The Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre

Directed by Jack O’Brien.

With: Nathan Lane, Stockard Channing, Matthew Broderick, Megan Mullally, Rupert Grint, F. Murray Abraham, Micah Stock.

For tickets visit: www.ItsOnlyAPlay.com or Telecharge.com

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Outside the Gerald Schoenfeld there’s a selfie of the cast members of “It’s Only a Play,” a la Ellen’s Oscar shot with a space for patrons to stand and be a part of the magic. And on any given day, especially before and after performances, there’s a line formed to do so. Call it a brilliant marketing campaign (the selfie is also the poster, seen all around town and on a gigantic Times Square billboard), since everyone wants to be a part of the hottest ticket in town!

Not having seen the original off-Broadway Manhattan Theatre Club production of the Terrence McNally’ comedy, I remember buying it, reading it and loving it back in the 80s! I also recall thinking that it was the type of “insider” piece that would probably only be enjoyed by those in the “business” or those aspiring to be (like I was).

As I sat through the uproariously funny and delectably biting revival bowing on Broadway, I realized that good casting and a solid text update makes the play palpable for all audiences.

It does have it’s faults which include lackluster direction, an ending that should have been rethought and one mediocre performance, but that’s almost nitpicking, considering the plethora of pluses. And, if sales are any indication, nothing anyone writes will deter theatregoers from stampeding to see it—which is a great thing! Any play (vs. musical) that attracts an audience should be celebrated. And here we have a play that celebrates the insane art of putting on a play (despite the anxiety involved).

The setting is the townhouse of a wealthy, dippy first-time producer (Megan Mullally). It’s the Broadway opening night of “The Golden Egg,” a new play by Peter Austin (Matthew Broderick). At curtain we meet Peter’s bestie, TV regular James Wicker (Nathan Lane) and young Gus (Micah Stock) the coat check boy fresh off farm (literally, his first night in NYC) who’s an “actor-slash-singer-slash-dancer-slash-comedian-slash-performance-artist-slash mime.” Wicker isn’t necessarily there to wish his friend well as he turned down the lead and wants to make certain it was the right decision.

The lunatic diva star of the show, Virginia Noyes (Stockard Channing) arrives, drugs in tow and attitude at full throttle as does celebrated British director, Frank Finger (Rupert Grint) who can do no wrong in the eyes of the critics (much to his upset). Rounding out the cast, second-rate drama critic Ira Drew (F. Murray Abraham), reviled by most and there with an agenda.

The dated, but acceptable raison d’etre for this gathering is to await the New York Times review that, traditionally (still, unfortunately), can make or break a straight play (or musical, without a star attached). By the time this madcap gaggle of misfits are through tearing each other (and everyone else) apart, the review won’t matter as much as simple survival.

Meanwhile, there’s the requisite name dropping for a play about players, whether it’s to diss Faye Dunaway (followed by audience groans), worry about Barbra Streisand (a running gag that should have run a little longer), or lambast Shia LaBeouf, Frank Langella and James Franco—easy targets, indeed, McNally has a field day with toasting and roasting current celebrities. Even the new Pope gets a gentle mention.

Some jokes just don’t play funny anymore. Bashing TV when it’s actually where quality work can be found (as opposed to the 1980s), doesn’t sit right. Nor does the use of a landline, no matter the excuse.

But most of the gags and lines kill because they’re being performed by a stellar, crème de la crème ensemble beginning with the genius Nathan Lane, whose reactions and facial expressions rarely fail to bring the house down. Lane is McNally’s former muse and it’s a delight to see him where he belongs—embodying the great playwright’s creation. His scenes with Stock, especially, are just pricelessly hilarious!

Second in the sidesplitting department is Stockard Channing, overplaying to perfection. She’s the wacky, has-been sister of “Bullets Over Broadway’s” Helen Sinclair—all Grande dame, spitting out her lines like an angry pit bull. Deep down, she just wants to be loved, like everyone else. I couldn’t tell if Channing’s plastic surgery-abused, Botoxed face was mostly makeup or actually her new face. Regardless, it worked for the character.

Micah Stock, dry and deliberately bumpkin, more than holds his own with the Mount Rushmore-plus of theatre superstars. And late in the play he seizes his “Wicked” moment and commands everyone’s attention.

Add another “Harry Potter”-alum to that list of the truly talented. Rupert Grint plays the angsty, kleptomaniac director with maniacal delight. F. Murray Abraham is just the right amount of envy and John Simon (newbies, Google him) for his turn. And Megan Mullally is always fascinating to watch, even in a role that’s less funny than the others.

The lone misfire is Matthew Broderick’s perpetually distressed playwright. The actor’s approach is misguided at best. He’s either deliberately underplaying or lazily phoning his part in. It would have been nice to see this character come alive instead of dragging the play down and ruining a lot of McNally’s clever wordplay. Can’t help but wonder what Bradley Cooper would have done with the part. Or James Franco…

Praise must be lavished on the design team, particularly Scott Pask for the snazzy set and Ann Roth for her fitting costumes.

This is a play where audience members applaud entrances AND exits--mostly with good reason.

“It’s Only a Play” is indeed, only a play. It doesn’t pretend to be “Disgraced.” (Take another gander at the title) But it is wholly entertaining and does ask some pertinent questions about why artists do what they do, why some critics seem to matter more than others (Ben Brantley’s name is tossed around) and how resilient theatre artists are and how resourceful they can be when their livelihood is on the line. Beyond the egomania, feelings of entitlement and cutthroat competitiveness, there’s a bond theatre people have that’s pretty potent.

At the performance I attended, curtain was held for 20 minutes because Stockard Channing was stuck in traffic. About 20 minutes into the piece, Channing’s character explains why she’s only agreed to do six performances a week: “I don’t even get the concept of a matinee.” The line is delivered without irony. And that’s the magic of live theatre.


For tickets call: (212) 239-6200

The Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre | 236 West 45th Street, NYC

 




Simon Stephens’
“Punk Rock”
Sunday @ 3PM
Tuesday @ 7PM
Wednesday @ 7PM
Thursday @ 8PM
Friday @ 8PM
Saturday @ 2Pm & 8PM
Through December 14th
MCC Theater, Lucille Lortel Theatre

With: Douglas Smith, Pico Alexander, Lilly Englert, Annie Funke, David Greenspan, Colby Minifie, Will Pullen, Noah Robbins, Sophie Shapiro.

Directed by Trip Cullman.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

“Punk Rock” should be on Broadway.

Alas, Broadway has become a place for the safe and polished. This past year, the Tony Award went to a slick, safe and revisionist take on LBJ (“All the Way”). Producers used to take chances on daring and edgy work. And these plays were, in turn, rightly acknowledged with accolades. In 1972, David Rabe’s searing “Sticks and Bones,” won top honors. Harvey Fierstein’s epic (and shocking at the time) “Torch Song Trilogy,” took the prize in 1983 and 1993 and 1994, saw the Best Play award go to Tony Kushner’s medium changing, “Angels in America” saga, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika,” respectively.

Ironically, Simon Stephen’s may just win that Tony come June, but not for the game-changing, “Punk Rock,” for his potent, but much safer adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” Both are worthy pieces about the world we live in and how we treat our children (and our children, in turn, treat their fellow mates) but one has the audacity to challenge the audience in a way that is terribly uncomfortable and deliberately devastating.

Theatre should provoke and spark dialogue. That is exactly what “Punk Rock” does. This intermission-less theatrical happening at the Lucille Lortel Theater will infuriate some and exhilarate others, and if you’re among the lucky ones, do both simultaneously.

MCC Theater is to be commended for bringing this Brit import to the NYC stage and casting the work to perfection.

It’s hard to really write about “Punk Rock” without giving away a key plot point that I’d rather not reveal because part of what makes it work so well is simply experiencing it on a visceral level—and then dealing with your own personal feelings and thoughts afterwards. Try not to pay attention to spoilers on social media and in articles and reviews.

What I can tell you, by means of setting the stage, is that the play takes place in one setting: a private school library in town near Manchester, England; a room no one seems to visit, except for our seven main characters.

The play opens with high-strung William (a compelling Douglas Smith) in mid-conversation with the new girl, Lilly (Colby Minifie). Both are on opposite ends of the stage, cinemascope-style, ping-ponging Stephens’ quickfire dialogue. William spits his words out eagerly, impatiently and awkwardly. We instantly know he’s crushing on Lilly. We also surmise she may not share those feelings.

Enter, the handsome jock, Nicholas (an excellent Pico Alexander), who keeps to himself, but takes a liking to Lilly. Nicholas’s friend Bennett (Will Pullen, in an absolutely extraordinary performance) arrives with his not-so-bright gal Cissy (Lilly Englert, nailing it) in tow. Bennett is the guy everyone is afraid of—the class bully who enjoys picking on the nerdy, arrogant Chadwick (Noah Robbins) as well as the overweight, semi-obnoxious Tanya (Annie Funke).

Anyone who’s attended high school will recognize each of these figures almost at once—certainly elements of their personalities. We become privy to the angst, prissiness and moodiness that teens wear so well. They dislike their parents and most authority figures. They have contempt for townies. They’re hypersexual and bursting with all the combustible anxiety that comes with desire. Some have more experience than others. And the laws of attraction rarely work in their favor.

It’s also exam season for our seven protagonists, the kind where the results will decide what college they will attend, and these kids are generally intelligent (of course, they’re British) and so their frustrations are even deeper because they’re forever psychoanalyzing everything about themselves. (I will not disparage the intelligence of many American teens, suffice to say in the US, too often you can substitute boredom for a craving for knowledge when it comes to the reasons we feel frustrated and annoyed.)

The play examines how that feeling of being trapped in a world of hate and alienation--not knowing it’s temporary—can mess with your psyche. These kids only have each other and when that proves to be harmfully dysfunctional, they must find a way to cope. Communication has never been easy for humans--and it’s especially difficult for teens today with social media retarding true social relations growth. So when friends watch other friends being bullied, what do they do? What can they do? Can they step in? Should they? Fear stops some. And a general lack of knowing how to handle things often paralyzes others. In addition, you don’t want to piss the wrong person off, but if you do nothing, that anger and frustration might grow into something more, especially when you already have baggage.

Stephens hits so many pressing marks, the play often feels like a lunatic theme park ride gone to hell with ironies abounding and this volatile bunch strapped in and holding on for dear life.

The character of Bennett is responsible for some unforgettable squirm-in-your-seat moments as well as a scene with Nicholas that is seething with sexual tension and speaks volumes to why Bennett is as messed up as he is. Pullen and Alexander masterfully play this to the homoerotic edges—only to be interrupted by Cissy. It’s a damn shame since the direction it was going in was quite revealing. Credit director Trip Cullman here since on the page, this scene could have been interpreted a lot less effectively.

And Chadwick’s “Human beings are pathetic” speech must be experienced. It’s a frightening, depressing, realistic view of our world. It’s also cleverly written and perfectly delivered (by Robbins).

Cullman does a fascinating job directing throughout. He certainly keeps the drama taut and riveting and his choice to not light certain areas of the stage and the scene- shifting device he uses tend to baffle and disaffect us—which is entirely the point.

I was transfixed by this play and thought the penultimate scene was shocking, remarkable and, oddly, cathartic.

My only complaint is that I found the final scene utterly unnecessary.

“Punk Rock” will get a reaction from you.

Go see this vital and brilliant new work!

For tickets visit: http://www.mcctheater.org/

MCC Theater, Lucille Lortel Theatre | 121 Christopher Street, NYC




David Rabe’s
“Sticks and Bones”
Revival
Sunday @ 2PM
Tuesday @ 7:30PM
Wednesday @ 2PM & 7:30PM
Thursday @ 7:30PM
Friday @ 7:30PM
Saturday @ 2Pm & 8PM
Through December 14th
The New Group at Pershing Square Signature Center

With: Bill Pullman, Holly Hunter, Richard Chamberlain, Ben Schnetzer, Raviv Ullman, Morocco Omari, Nadia Gan.

Directed by Scott Elliott

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Lately, the most arresting theatre is being done off-Broadway and while I am not the biggest fan of revivals (let’s produce new and exciting writer’s for a change!) the enigmatic work of playwright David Rabe deserves revisits. I look forward to some daring group taking a stab at the brilliant “Streamers” one day soon. For now, The New Group is showcasing his 1971 anti-war, anti-bullshit black comedy where his vision and version of America was radically different from what the Nixon administration was selling.

The mind boggles that this erratic, disorderly, disturbing, vexing and dizzyingly refreshing work won the Tony Award for Best Play back then. Today, it would NEVER make it to Broadway. And that’s a sad state of affairs indeed because “Sticks and Bones” and new plays like “Punk Rock” are exactly what Broadway needs—a good dose of something truly uncomfortable and exasperating that makes people wiggle in their seats and forces them to take a good hard look at how they lead their lives. Instead, what is tagged as “the best” along the great white way barely makes an impression. Does “All the Way” really ask any urgent questions about the way we currently lead our lives?

I don’t love “Sticks and Bones” as much as I appreciate it. I studied it at University. And it’s nice to see a production that feels timely but also keeps faithful to Rabe’s fury.

We’ve come a long way since the Vietnam War, and yet, we haven’t learned much since we wage more wars now than ever and send more troops to their death and dismemberment than ever. And we give them no real comfort or help when they do return home. We still expect them to re-assimilate into our hypocritical and trivial ways of living and looking at the world—even after they’ve done unspeakable acts in the name of God and country.

David Rabe decided the quintessential “family” television show was the best way to examine the American and what humans are truly capable of. The patriarch, Ozzie (Bill Pullman) and his wife, Harriet (Holly Hunter), live with their guitar-strumming son, Rick (Raviv Ullman), and await the arrival of their beloved son, David (a deeply affecting Ben Schnetzer), who is returning from Vietnam. Alas, David has changed, and not just physically. He’s undergone a deep, psychological metamorphosis that cannot be comprehended by this ‘normal’ gaggle of relations. Harriet blames Ozzie for the person David’s become, “teaching him sports and fighting.”

“Sticks and Bones” is a parody of sorts set in an awkward, intense, alienating world where racism and congeniality exist in the same breath. Fudge and warm milk cannot cure what ails David, although it’s fine for Rick, who is the perfect, untouched teen—seemingly obliviously going about his routine with nary a trouble in site.

What happens when we must deal with something we have no clue how to deal with?

Directed, with controlled chaos, by Scott Elliott, this brutal revival is just as startling today as it must have been in 1971. Our gadgets might have replaced TV as the supreme distraction tool, but delusion is still pervasive as is the desire to shirk and skirt responsibility. Harriet calls Father Donald (the terrific and unnerving Richard Chamberlain) when she can’t handle things, although the scenes where he goes upstairs to speak with David take on new dimension and subtext, given the last decade’s sex abuse revelations.

The dialogue can be pungent, choppy and stinging. Some of the speeches are maddening. Others potent. It’s that kind of theatre.

The cast keeps you riveted as the play moves to its shattering climax.

Holly Hunter needs to eat a few cookies. She’s too petite and frail. That said her portrayal of Harriet is stupefying. She’s a manic host of irritating ticks, a giddy caricature of what a mother is supposed to be like. Hunter is so keen she is able to humanize this uber-energizer-bunny mamma and allow us to glimpse true concern for her son—until she must protect herself from what his reality really means.

Bill Pullman personifies anxiety. He wants to be the perfect dad but there’s just too much in this ever-changing world, working against that possibility, so he has to shovel his way out of the deep hole he keeps finding himself in. His Ozzie is heartbreaking, even as the surreality of his world is compounded.

Finally, Raviv Ullman, plays Rick in what could easily be seen as a simplistic manner but Ullman laces his portrayal with something more sinister. Sure he bounces in and out, gleefully greeting, “Hi mom, hi dad, hi David.” But Rabe’s text never quite specifies where Rick is going. One gets the impression what he might be doing "out" may not be considered wholesome by his family who fervently detest anything different like "yellow people." And Ullman gives the impression that Rick might just be more warped than his brother, who has good reason to be scarred irrevocably.

Harriet: “Have a good time, Rick.”

Rick: “I’m too pretty not to, ma.”

Rick represents that “Blue Velvety” surface suburbanite—spunky, happy and clean on the outside, but a nasty, dirty boy when no one is looking. He can be out sipping pop with his gal. He can be going to leather gay bars. Or…he could be burying bodies in the basement. The possibilities astound.

For tickets visit: thenewgroup.org or call 212-279-4200

The New Group at Pershing Square Signature Center | 480 West 42nd Street, NYC








 

 


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