Two Composers Lob Ideas and Tennis Balls in Charlie Barnett’s New Play “12Ness”

So these two composers walk into a bar…well, actually, a tennis court. That’s the premise of a provocative new play, 12Ness, that had a recent run at the Ice House in Bethlehem, PA. Written by composer, producer, musician, (and Easton, PA native) Charlie Barnett, 12Ness was presented by the Crowded Kitchen Players, produced by Ara Barlieb and Pamela McLean Wallace, and directed by George B. Miller.

The two composers are American popular songwriter George Gershwin and Austrian expressionist composer Arnold Schoenberg. (The play’s title refers to the 12-toned chromatic scale Schoenberg favored). The mise en scène is Hollywood, 1936-37, alternating between Ira Gershwin’s private tennis court and Schoenberg’s dining room. In an interesting, site-specific staging choice, the audience physically moves upstairs to the Ice House’s second floor for the dining room scenes. The downstairs set, the tennis court, is quite minimal—with only a couple of benches—while the dining room includes a table, furnishings, and a glowing orb meant to signify a full moon. The movement between the two settings enhances the play’s flow, and the audience seemed to enjoy moving about the rustic décor of the old Ice House. In addition to Gershwin (Ryan MacNamara) and Schoenberg (Robert Salsburg), the cast includes Gershwin’s then-girlfriend, actress Ginger Rogers (Stephanie Gawlas Walsh) and Schoenberg’s attractive, much younger wife Gertrud (Syd Stauffer).

We learn in a program note that 62-year-old Schoenberg had recently arrived in America, escaping the Nazi threat in his native Austria with help from Gershwin, and that Gershwin died of a brain tumor (at age 37) less than a year after the men began their tennis rivalry. (Throughout the play, we see Gershwin suffer from various odd sensory symptoms that tell us not all is well).

The two composers, so divergent in temperament, artistic philosophy and style, and age, engage in an ongoing volley of ideas along with the tennis balls. While both men were musical geniuses in their own right, Schoenberg is formal, structured, and somewhat cranky, while Gershwin, a natural, intuitive talent, is much more sociable and happy-go-lucky. In the opening scene, the younger man scolds his older colleague: “You’ve got a rule for everything.” Schoenberg explains his philosophy: “Structure is everything.” He tells an incredulous Gershwin that his current work in progress has “neither notes nor melody.” Perhaps these artistic differences can be best described in a line from the play: “Schoenberg writes music for himself; Gershwin writes music for an audience.”

Certainly the debate about what is and what is not art is a heady subject for a play. However, as presented through the characters of the two highly individual composers, the topic takes on personal weight and meaning, and the play is quite engaging. Each of the four actors does a fine job inhabiting his or her character: Salsburg portrays Schoenberg with the right combination of intellectual fervor and curmudgeonly crank; MacNamara’s Gershwin is by turns light-hearted and tortured; Gawlas Walsh’s Ginger Rogers is intelligent and warm; and Syd Stauffer shows us Gertrud’s painful struggle between admiration for and duty to her husband and longing for a more exciting, passionate existence.

I spoke to the playwright for some behind-the-scenes insight into 12Ness. The following is an edited excerpt from that interview:

Shari Lifland: What was the inspiration behind 12Ness?

Charlie Barnett: The idea for the play came from a 13-second conversational tidbit. I was talking to my friend Graham Townsley about Gershwin and he told me about a standing tennis match between George Gershwin and Arnold Schoenberg. I can’t imagine two more unlikely people playing tennis. That was it—just the idea that George Gershwin and Arnold Schoenberg were standing 30 feet from each other. They’re the most divergent personalities and music that I could imagine. I couldn’t get it out of my head and I tried to figure out what to do with it. I wondered, “Is this going to make its way into a piece of music?” I didn’t really know. I did a minimum bit of research and found out there was basically nothing documented about what they said to each other, which is great for me, because I’m completely uninterested in a biographical sketch. I was interested in the art of it. So I thought, “Oh, good—I can just make up what they say!” Then I went on vacation (I’m not great on vacationing); and I got up every morning at 5 and I wrote for 4 hours. I wrote the play in a week. Then I spent the next 8 months putting it down, picking it up, editing. I invited 100 people whose opinions really matter to me to a reading, and based on that, I made some fairly decisive changes.

Shari Lifland: What are your next plans/hopes for the piece?

Charlie Barnett: It’s pretty clear to me that I’m going to make some changes structurally to it after seeing it this round. I’m going to work with Ara (Barlieb). He’s sharp at this stuff and sees this play with brand new eyes. There’s one big argument in this play—process vs. inspiration— and I have to figure out when enough is enough: when they audience finally gets it, vs. when they’re sick of it. It’s a fine line. Certainly in the play, all the best arguments are for process; there’s no really good argument for being inspired. How do you do it? Either you are or you aren’t.

Shari Lifland: In the play, Gershwin is put on the spot to defend inspiration, which is the only way he knows how to create. Is that fair? Is his art less valuable than Schoenberg’s?

Charlie Barnett: They were both certifiable geniuses in their own spheres, and that stands. There’s a good case to be made on both sides. Maybe I feel for them both equally. As a playwright, I just love the argument. As a composer, I’m probably ambivalent. I sit down to write a piece of orchestral music and it just comes. I’ve written a million pieces without a plan at all. I don’t have a plan like Schoenberg had a plan. I sit down and think, “Hmm. What would the audience like to hear? I’ll write that.” So much of what the characters in the play say is unsurprisingly what I would say.

For news about upcoming productions of 12Ness, visit www.charliebarnett.com

For information about the Crowded Kitchen Players, visit www.ckplayers.com

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me (What’s Not to Love)?

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me

What do a struggling, 21st century single mom musician/composer and a long-dead early 20th century explorer have in common? In a word: courage. Courage in the face of seemingly overwhelming adversity is the message of Ernest Shackleton Loves Me, a hugely entertaining and powerfully uplifting 90-minute “epic musical adventure” now playing at the Tony Kiser Theatre.

The musician is Kat (energetically and winningly played by electric violinist extraordinaire Val Vigoda, who also penned the show’s lyrics), who has been awake and multi-tasking for 36 hours in her freezing apartment: working on her music while trying to attend to her off-stage crying baby. The explorer is Ernest Shackleton (portrayed with irrepressibly engaging charm by Wade McCollum), who led three treacherous expeditions to the Antarctic—most famously in 1914-17, when he traveled over 800 miles in an open boat seeking help that would lead to the nearly miraculous rescue of 22 stranded crewmen.

When we first meet Kat, she is surviving as best as she can, despite her rather bleak situation. Her baby daddy (McCollum again) has left her to tour with a Journey cover band. She’s making ends meet thanks to a gig writing a soundtrack for a video game called “Star Blasters,” until she’s unceremoniously replaced by a high school senior. Things start looking up when she receives a very long distance phone call—a response to her profile on a pessimistic-sounding dating site called “Cupid’s Leftover’s.com”. Who’s calling? It’s Ernest S., who heroically travels through time and space (fittingly arriving from the Antarctic via Kat’s rime-enveloped fridge), just to meet her. Shackleton was a true swashbuckler, a “full-fledged optimist” who brought a banjo along on his expeditions to keep his crew entertained. His message to Kat, who is hovering on the brink of despair, is “Optimism is a form of true moral courage.” He declares that Kat is his muse—flattering, flirting, and encouraging her through an irresistible mix of confidence and charm. McCollum’s portrayal is so incredibly winning that it would seem impossible not to be swept away by Shackleton’s positivity and can-do enthusiasm.

As Kat works with Shackleton to accomplish the daring rescue, she and Ernest form a bond that drifts between friendship and love. Together, they save all 22 of Shackleton’s men, along with Kat’s faith in her art, herself, and the prospect of a brighter future. The action is heightened by accompanying video projections showing actual footage of Shackleton’s expedition and rescue operation. Kat is deeply inspired by her time spent with her intrepid visitor, a man who “Always came through and never gave up, never gave in.” She promises her infant son that she’ll always be there for him, singing, “I’ll be your Ernest.” When her boyfriend returns from his Journey journey, expecting that Kat will welcome him back and allow him to pick up where they left off, she finds the courage to stand up to him, embracing Shackleton’s advice to “Be your own beacon of hope.”

Overall, Vigoda’s lyrics are more interesting than the music (composed by Brendan Milburn), which tends to be somewhat repetitive. The individual songs aren’t listed in the Playbill, so it’s difficult to identify individual tunes. However, one song that stands out as both an emotional and musical highlight is “In the Eye of the Storm,” a sweet lullaby that Shackleton sings to calm Kat’s fussy baby: “Don’t regret what has been. Be the calm in the eye of the storm—sound advice for anyone. Vigoda’s electric violin is nothing short of amazing; it’s even further enhanced through the creative use of electronic playback, allowing to layer her virtuosity.

The show’s dazzling and innovative high-tech imagery and sound (production design is by Alexander V. Nichols; music direction, orchestrations, and additional music by Ryan O’Connell; sound design by Robert Kaplowitz (Tony winner for Fela!) and Ahren Buhmann), plays such a key role in the performance that it almost becomes a third character. The designers have turned the stage into a fake snow-filled polar expanse, incongruously backed by Kat’s array of computers and digital imaging equipment. Tied together by Joe DiPietro’s (Tony Award winner for Memphis) witty book and Obie and Lortel Award-winner Lisa Peterson’s laser-sharp direction, the divergent worlds of modern day musician/mom and early 20th century polar explorer somehow believably and seamlessly mesh together—including that whacky refrigerator entrance.

Did the monumental meeting between Kat and Shackleton really take place? Well, as Shackleton says, “Strange things happen when you haven’t slept in 36 hours.” No matter. The show leaves Kat and the audience much richer for the experience.

The moral can be summed up in a song lyric: “We might hit some really rough seas now and then, but we’ve braved them before and we’ll brave them again.” With so much of Off Broadway focusing on the darker side of life, Ernest Shackleton Loves Me’s message of optimism, hope, and self reliance is a most welcome one, adding up to an original and delightful 90-minute theatrical adventure.

Ernest Shackleton Loves Me plays at the Tony Kiser Theatre (305 W. 43rd St.) through June 11. For ticket information: http://ernestshackletonlovesme.com/

James Naughton Interviews Laura Linney at Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts

Laura Linney

Here’s a disturbing thought: Laura Linney almost didn’t become an actress. “I fought against it for a long time; I felt I had to earn it,” she explained in an interview with actor/director James Naughton at Lincoln Center’s Bruno Walter Auditorium on March 6. Growing up backstage with her father, playwright Romulus Linney, she so revered the theatre that initially, she was “afraid to become a part of it.” Fortunately for her many fans, Linney did eventually embrace the craft, enrolling at Julliard for her training.

The inspiring and entertaining discussion between Linney and Naughton was the latest in an excellent series presented by The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center in collaboration with the League of Professional Theatre Women. Betty Corwin, Pat Addiss, and Sophia Romma produced the event.

Radiant in a simple all-black ensemble—skinny leather pants, knit top, and hip, spikey shoes—Linney looked decades younger than her 53 years. Her acting DNA predates her playwright father:  her grandmother was an actress manqué. In homage to her, Linney proudly displayed the gold sunburst pendant she wore—grandma’s long-ago won elocution medal.

Hailed as one of the best actresses of her generation, Laura Linney continues to captivate audiences with her work in film, television, and theatre. She is a three-time Oscar nominee, three-time Tony nominee, four-time Emmy winner, and two-time Golden Globe winner.

Throughout the hour-long interview, Linney and Naughton covered a lot of creative ground, discussing her childhood, her experience at Juilliard (where she now mentors fourth-year acting students), working with Clint Eastwood, parenthood (Linney gave birth to her son Bennett just before her 50th birthday), and how she manages to overcome her deep dislike of cameras. Throughout, Linney remained forthright, insightful, charming, and completely accessible.

Linney attributes much of her career success to the training she received at Juilliard. She is unstinting in her praise for the school, telling Naughton, “When people ask me, ‘What was your big break?’ I say it was going to Julliard. It’s a tough school, but it for me it was like water in the desert.” She continued, “Once it became clear to me that I could no longer be a ‘closet actress,’ that I was serious about acting, I knew I had to get trained. Juilliard was the right school for me.” She then sighed, lamenting, “I miss my time at Juilliard.”

The actress credited fellow actor Kevin Kline for helping her prepare for her film work with director Clint Eastwood (Eastwood directed her in Absolute Power, Mystic River, and, most recently, Sully): “Kevin told me, ‘Film acting is all about relaxation.’ Clint does one take and no rehearsal. So I learned how to ‘simmer’ all day, to save my energy. I learned how to surrender.” Linney also shared that she does a huge amount of preparation for every role: “Not feeling prepared makes me nervous. I do a lot of work before I get there, which puts my own self-doubt to rest.” When Naughton queried her about her disdain for cameras—ironic for an actress who works in film—she replied, “I don’t like having my picture taken, so I’ve learned to connect with the person behind the camera. I especially love the focus pullers. Generally the camera people look down at the floor between takes, to avoid betraying their feelings. But the focus pullers, I can tell what they’re thinking by their body language. They humanize it for me.”

Naughton and Linney talked about Linney’s work as executive producer and actress on Showtime’s well-received series The Big C, about a suburban wife and mother coping with the disease. Linney won a Golden Globe for the show, which ran for four seasons. The discussion took a personal turn for both Naughton (whose wife died of pancreatic cancer in 2013) and Linney, who was raised by a single-parent mother who worked as a nurse at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Linney shared that she was aware of the disease from a very young age, as she got to know her mother’s grateful patients. She recalled being taken to meet one of her mother’s more famous patients, composer Richard Rodgers. “He hugged her in a way that really made an impression on me, showing how much her care meant to him,” she said.” Linney’s playwright father died of cancer during the filming of The Big C, imbuing the series with a particularly personal resonance. “Comedy is a survival technique,” explained Linney about the show. “We use comedy to find the truth through the chaos.”

In closing, Linney told the audience, “The only career decision I ever made is to cast the net wide, to not say ‘no’.” She outlined what she needs to effectively practice her craft: “Sleep, quiet, and good coffee.” Let’s hope the universe provides all three in great abundance, for many years to come.

Broadway audiences can next catch Laura Linney in April when she will co-star with Cynthia Nixon in Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of Lillian Hellman’s legendary play The Little Foxes. (In an interesting twist, Linney and Nixon will alternate the lead roles of Regina and Birdie). Other upcoming projects include the film The Dinner, directed by Oren Moverman, with Richard Gere, Steve Coogan, and Rebecca Hall and Ozark, a Netflix original series where she plays opposite Jason Bateman and Julia Garner.

The Best Places to Hobnob with Broadway Stars

Everyone knows the stars come out at night. But where do they go after the curtain comes down? Here are 5 places where you can mingle with your favorite actors as they unwind from their 8 performances a week.

Sardi’s: 234 West 44th St.

The quintessential theatre hangout, Sardi’s has been the toast of Broadway for 90 years. Founded by “Vincent” Sardi, Sr. and his wife Jenny in 1947, it continues to provide a neighborhood oasis for those in the theatrical community. The restaurant is distinctive for two reasons: it’s the birthplace of the Tony Award (theatrical producer and director Brock Pemberton came up with the idea while eating lunch at Sardi’s) and for its extensive collection of original caricatures of Broadway luminaries. Like many of the theatres in the neighborhood, Sardi’s goes dark on Mondays.

sardis

Joe Allen: 326 W. 46th St.

While Broadway folk love Joe Allen’s delicious bistro-type delicacies (try the burger or Caesar salad), not one of them wants to see their show’s poster anywhere on the premises. Here’s why: In 1965, soon after Joe Allen opened the restaurant that bears his name, the cast of the show Kelly presented him with their show’s poster. Kelly closed after just one performance—and since then it has been a Broadway tradition for Broadway’s famous and infamous flops to adorn its walls.

joe-allens

Schnippers Quality Kitchen: 620 8th Avenue (40th/41st)

Because of its location and quality fast-ish food menu, Schnippers is the perfect place for a working actor to grab a bite between or after shows. There’s something for everyone—salads and veggie burgers for the ingénue who’s watching her weight; sloppy joes and mac ‘n cheese for the stage crew. And with Aladdin and The Cherry Orchard playing just around the corner, you just might run into the Genie or Joel Grey.

schnippers

Schmackary’s: 362 W. 45th St.

Billing itself as “Generation Y’s answer to the old American bake shop,” this Hell’s Kitchen outpost of all that is sinfully sweet and gooey became an instant Broadway favorite when Zachary “Schmackary” Schmahl first opened his storefront in 2012. You never know who you might see at one of the tables or even behind the counter—Tony winners have worked the counter as part of an ongoing fundraising effort for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Broadway darling Kristin Chenowith is a fan of Schmackary’s “funfetti” cookies and Schmackary’s delish delights can often be found backstage or in performers’ dressing rooms.

schmackarys

Drama Book Shop: 250 W. 40th St.

If it’s printed material relating to the theatre—librettos, scripts, textbooks, criticism, etc.—you’ll find it in this 100-year-old theatre district treasure trove. Here’s what Tony winner Lin Manuel Miranda has to say about it: “The Drama Book Shop is our greatest resource—it’s been here since 1918 [and] I wrote most of In The Heights in the basement.” When the shop suffered extreme water damage due to a burst pipe earlier this year, Miranda launched the hashtag #BuyABook, raising the shop’s profile and revenue enough to allow it to weather the storm.

Drama Book Shop.jpg

 

Theatre Review: Judith Light in Neil LaBute’s “All the Ways to Say I Love You”

judith-light

“What is the weight of a lie?” That’s the opening line and key question of Neil LaBute’s new one act/one character play now playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Although the question—posed by high school English teacher/guidance counselor Mrs. Johnson (Tony, Drama Desk, and Emmy Award winner Judith Light, currently starring in the Golden Globe winning TV series “Transparent”)—seems theoretical, one hour later, when the play (really a monologue) ends, we learn that the answer is in fact, quite literal.

Mrs. Johnson first pondered the question many years before, when a student, inspired by something the teacher mentioned in passing about the “weight of the soul” asked it in class. Mrs. Johnson tells us, “For once, I didn’t have an answer. The teacher’s job is to put forth answers. It doesn’t have to be the right one…We work together to find the answer. And the truth in the end may surprise us all—even me.”

The question about the weight of a lie provides the foundation for the play. Mrs. Johnson is living with the consequences of a very big lie: she violated the #1 law of teacher/student relationships and slept with one of her students, a “second year senior” named Tommy. And that’s not her worst transgression: she became pregnant (she and her husband had tried and failed to conceive a child) and deceived her husband into believing the child was his. Now, years later, she struggles with the guilt of her actions while attempting to somehow rationalize them as acceptable. One thing she knows with absolute certainty: the weight of her particular lie is exactly 6 pounds, 3 ounces.

Ms. Light, an accomplished, respected, and much-loved multiple award-winning actress, gives a breathtakingly watchable performance, covering a wide swath of emotional territory within the short time span of the play. Her Mrs. Johnson is by turns contrite, unrepentant, lascivious, and tortured. Light transitions seamlessly through each of these disparate facets of her character—a master’s class in acting. At the end, we’re left to wonder if Mrs. Johnson is crazy—driven mad by the basic inescapable wrongness of her actions and the resulting guilt that goes along with bearing the weight of the lies she has created to cover up her wrongs.

Leigh Silverman (Violet, Well, LaBute’s The Way We Get By, and the upcoming Sweet Charity with Sutton Foster) provides able direction to Ms. Light and Rachel Hauck’s realistic, somewhat claustrophobic set design of Mrs. Johnson’s guidance office creates just the right atmosphere. But ultimately, the play’s the thing, and in this case, things don’t really add up.

All the Ways to Say I Love You isn’t very effective or satisfying, for several reasons. First, it’s never clear to whom Mrs. Johnson is speaking. Yes, she’s addressing us, the audience, but as stand-ins for whom? A jury? God? Her husband? Herself? The lack of context is confusing and off-putting. Second, it’s difficult to feel much (if any) empathy for Mrs. Johnson. Although she says she loves her husband, she betrayed him—along with her professional ethics—by turning to an impressionable boy in an attempt to fill the void in her passionless marriage. When she speaks graphically (and rhapsodically) about her erotic adventures with Tommy, it’s difficult to suppress the “ick” factor. And the fact that Mrs. Johnson believes that her student benefited from the inappropriate liaison (“I pushed him to go to college; he is successful because of me”) doesn’t help her cause. True, LaBute loves to make us squirm by forcing us to confront the most unattractive, odious parts of ourselves. (He has said, “We humans are fairly barbarous bunch.”). But because he shows us nothing of Mrs. Johnson’s better nature, she remains distant from us, at arm’s length, to be regarded as more of a curiosity than as a fellow human being.

On paper, All the Ways to Say I Love You isn’t one of LaBute’s weightier works; it doesn’t hold its own compared to In the Company of Men, Reasons to be Pretty, Fat Pig, and his other, more substantial plays. Without the luminous Ms. Light inhabiting the tortured, lustful soul of Mrs. Johnson, the play would no doubt be a good deal less effective, the tale much less engaging. But the opportunity to experience Ms. Light’s incandescent acting magic up close and personal in the intimate space of the Lortel adds infinite heft to the lightweight material. As one of the premier actresses of her generation, working across television, film, and thankfully, live theater mediums, Judith Light never brings us anything less than her “A” game. Through her work and commitment to her craft, she repeatedly shows her audiences “all the ways to say I love you”.

All the Ways to Say I Love You is at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St., through October 23. For ticket information: www.mcctheater.org

The Last Five Years

Last 5 Years

The Last Five Years: Pioneer Productions Company at the Art House, Jersey City

Some Background

The Last Five Years is the most famous Broadway musical never to appear on Broadway. Written by 3-time Tony winner Jason Robert Brown (Parade, The Bridges of Madison County, Honeymoon in Vegas), the show had its premiere at Chicago’s Northlight Theatre in 2001, then played Off Broadway at the Minetta Lane Theatre in 2002 and at Second Stage (with Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe) in 2013. The 2015 film adaptation starred Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick. Although it is performed often in venues around the world (as a two-hander, it’s a natural for regional theatre companies looking to keep budgets low), it has yet to make its way to the Main Stem.

 The Story

The story line is a classic he said/she said tale of love found and lost. But there’s a twist: the two characters, Jamie Wellerstein, an up-and-coming writer (Daniel Peter Vissers) and struggling actress Cathy Hiatt (Shanna Levine-Phelps) relate their tale through alternating songs, with Cathy starting in the present, when the marriage ends, and Jamie beginning in the past, when he and Cathy first meet. We witness the joy, uncertainty, and heartbreak, from their two perspectives, backwards and forward through time. Because of the play’s unique structure, Cathy and Jamie sing together only once, at the close of Act 1, when their stories cross paths on their wedding day (“The Next 10 Minutes”).

The show is sung through, with very little dialogue. The opening tune, “Still Hurting,” introduces Cathy at the moment she realizes her marriage is over. She sings, “I’m still hurting…I’m covered with scars I did nothing to earn,” then she slips off her wedding ring and places it on the table where Jamie has already left his. In contrast, Jamie’s first song, “Shiksa Goddess” (one of the show’s best as well as best-known) is an exuberant, hysterical ode to the Irish Catholic lass Jamie has just met and instantly fallen for. Cathy is the polar opposite of a suitable match for a nice Jewish boy—and that’s exactly what makes her so completely irresistible. Jamie imagines the havoc his unorthodox choice in a mate will provoke:

“I’m breaking my mother’s heart;

The JCC of Spring Valley is shaking and crumbling to the ground.

And my grandfather’s rolling in his grave.”

So enamored of her total goyishness is he that nothing about Cathy can dampen his ardor. Among the clever and uproarious characteristics that Jamie vows he would accept of his Shiksa Goddess:

“If you had a pierced tongue, that wouldn’t matter.

If you once were in jail or you once were a man,

If your mother and your brother had ‘relations’ with each other,

And your father was connected to the Gotti clan,

I’d say, ‘Well, nobody’s perfect.’

It’s tragic but it’s true:

I’d say, “Hey! Hey! Shiksa goddess!

I’ve been waiting for someone like you.”

The Production

Both Shanna Levine-Phelps and Daniel Peter Vissers are strong, confident performers and trained, capable singers. Vissers, like any actor playing Jamie, has the advantage in The Last Five Years, as his character is the more sympathetic of the two. After all, Brown based the show on his own life, drawing heavily from his failed marriage to actress Theresa O’Neill. So it’s not surprising that Jamie’s character is more relatable (and gets the best songs). Because the character of Cathy starts out weepy and spends most of the show in a funk, the lion’s share of the fun and laughs go to Jamie. Other than Cathy’s breezy “A Summer in Ohio,” where she laments the life of an actress paying her dues Off, Off, Off, Off Broadway (where she is “Slowly going batty, 40 miles east of Cincinnati”), and her final number, where she sings the sunny counterpart to “Goodbye Until Tomorrow,” most of the tunes in her repertoire are weepy and angst-ridden. Any actress playing Cathy has a tough assignment, as Brown has stacked the deck in favor of his alter ego, Jamie. And it’s difficult not to notice that, while Ms. Levine-Phelps is a lovely young actress, she doesn’t look much like a “Shiksa Goddess” (although artistically, she is more than up to the role’s demands).

Vissers makes the most of his character’s most favored status. He equally conveys the humor in “Shiksa Goddess,” the youthful enthusiasm of “Moving Too Fast,” and the touching pathos of “Nobody Needs to Know” and “Goodbye Until Tomorrow.” He is a gifted, winning performer who truly shines in the role.

The Pioneer production includes a spare but effective set: a bed, a chair, and a clock on the wall flanked by two candles—one looking back, and the other looking forward, mimicking the structure of the show. The incredibly talented (and incredibly young) 5-piece band, under the direction of pianist Sean Cameron, does a superb job backing up the actors, serving as a valuable third performer in the production. Lighting design by John Latona, Jr. and technical direction by Lance A. Michel add to the production’s effectiveness.

The Last Five Years is at Art House, 136 Magnolia Avenue in Jersey City.

Performance schedule: Fridays & Saturdays, July 8, 9, 15, 16, 22, & 23 @8pm;

Sundays, July 10, 17, & 24 @3pm

For ticket information visit http://www.pioneerproductionscompany.org

 

 

Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed on Broadway

Eclipsed

Eclipsed, Danai Gurira’s seering play about 4 women living in captivity during Liberia’s second civil war, is ultimately about power: those who have it, those who don’t, and those who will do anything to get it. It’s a brilliantly written and acted ensemble production that shines a light on important international human rights issues—well worth checking out before it ends its Broadway run on June 19 at the Golden Theatre on 45th Street. The 5-woman cast, performing together in productions both Off-and on Broadway, are a seamless unit of talent, power, and grace.

When the play begins we find 2 women living in squalor in a barely furnished, bullet-riddled hut. We learn they have been kept in captivity, as sexual and domestic slaves, for so long that the maternal older woman known simply as “Wife #1” (Saycon Sengbloh), has no idea how long she’s been there or exactly how old she is. Wife #3 (Pascale Armand), heavily pregnant, is clearly the second banana in this circumscribed world—the less powerful among the powerless. Then, a surprise: a third woman (understudy Ayesha Jordan, at the performance I saw, in for the Tony-nominated, Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o) appears from under a large wash tub. She is a gangly 15-year-old girl, kept hidden by the other women to prevent her from falling victim to their fate of sexual servitude to the (offstage) man they refer to as the “C.O.” However, their efforts prove futile: once the girl steps outside the safety of the hut to urinate, she is immediately grabbed and raped by the C.O., becoming Wife #4. The Girl, who grew up in the city, is different from the other women. She has had the benefit of an education and knows how to read and write. Having been forced from her home only recently, she is still able to dream of a life as a constitutional lawyer.

Anyone paying attention will wonder what became of Wife #2. Where is she? Wife #1 speaks of her scornfully. Wife #3 defends her as much as she dares. Our questions are answered when Wife #2 (Zainab Jah) shows up at the hut with an offering: a huge bag of rice for the women. Despite Wife #3’s entreaties, Wife #1 wants no part of either Wife #2 or the rice. We learn that Wife #2 has chosen the only available route out of her sexual enslavement: she has become a fighter in the rebel army. Taut, jittery, and wiry, dressed in fashionable jeans, a machine gun slung across her body, she is all swagger and tough-girl posturing.

As the action unfolds, we see that each character has her own definition of power. For Wife #1, power means being top dog in the small compound, where she rules the roost (or at least Wife #3). Wife #3 gains power by being the C.O.’s favorite sexual plaything and by carrying his unborn child. Wife #2, who now uses the fighter name “Disgruntled,” finds her power by acting like the brutal men who captured and abused her. She convinces The Girl to reclaim her own power by joining her in battle. The Girl realizes too late that to avoid being a victim, she must now become the victimizer, capturing other young girls for the rebel men to use and abuse. Wife #2 rationalizes the brutality, telling her: “The men are beasts and beasts demand to be fed. It’s either you or them.” At the play’s end, The Girl stands frozen, bearing two radically different symbols of power: a gun in one hand, a book in the other. Which will she choose?

A fifth woman, Rita (Akosua Busia), makes occasional visits to the rebel compound. She is a cultured, educated women dressed all in white who is part of a group of women peace activists dedicated to ending the violence. In one of the play’s most heartbreaking scenes, Rita tries to convince Wife #1 that a better life awaits her. She asks Wife #1 about her past, but the memories of her previous life are too painful for Wife #1 to contemplate; she cannot bear even to speak her real name aloud. After much prodding, she finally whispers it to Rita, who shows the illiterate Wife #1 how to spell it out using a stick in the dirt. “Think about what you can be,” she urges. Wife #1 responds despairingly: “I don’t know who I am.” The contrast between the 2 women is striking: Rita’s power lies in her ability to envision a better future through her peacekeeping work, while Wife #1 believes her only power lies in her place within the compound hierarchy.

During her time as a soldier, The Girl takes the name “Mother’s Blessing,” in memory of her own mother—ironic since she is now responsible for wrenching daughters away from their mothers, condemning them to live under unspeakable tyranny. The significance and importance of one’s name is a recurring theme in Eclipsed. As Rita tells Wife #1: “You must never lose your name.” To illustrate the power of names, the cast dedicates each performance to the abducted schoolgirls in Northern Nigeria and to all abducted girls around the world (#knowhername). At the end of the show cast members (and sometimes guests, who have included Nancy Pelosi and Gloria Steinem) announce the names of 2 missing girls and ask the audience to repeat the names out loud. It is a powerful and chilling moment that brings home the reality that the events depicted in Eclipsed continue today, even as the audience sits comfortably in their seats at the Golden Theatre. It is a prime example of how theatre can not only entertain, but be a call to action.

Zimbabwean playwright (Familiar, In the Continuum) and actress (known for her role on AMC’s “The Walking Dead”) Gurira developed Eclipsed at the Wooly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC. The play was later staged at New York’s Public Theater in 2015 before moving to Broadway. The production will move to the Curran Theatre in San Francisco, California for a limited engagement in Spring 2017. With powerful direction by award-winning South African Liesl Tommy, Eclipsed is the first Broadway production with an all-female cast, director, writer, and production team (except for set & costume designer Clint Ramos).

Eclipsed was nominated for 6 Tony Awards, including Best Play. On June 12, 2016, Clint Ramos won the Tony for Best Costume Design for his work on the play.

Eclipsed continues at the Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th St. through June 19.
Opening night: March 6, 2016; first preview: February 23, 2016.

For more information: http://www.eclipsedbroadway.com/

Backstage after the show!

Eclipsed & Shari