Off Broadway Favorites of 2013

ImageI’m not calling this post the “Best of” Off Broadway 2013, because there is so much to see and so much that I didn’t see (i.e., Fun Home, Here Lies Love, Buyer & Seller, etc.).

However, here are a few words about some of my favorites.

Tally’s Folly (Roundabout): Two people (Matt Friedman and Sally Talley), one setting (An old boathouse on the Talley place, a farm near Lebanon, Missouri). Fortunately, the actors playing Matt & Sally in Roundabout’s revival of this 1979 Lanford Wilson Pulitzer-prize winning play were Danny Burstein and Sarah Paulson. Their performances, along with the simplicity and truth of the play, wove a 97-minute spell over the audience as we watched two disparate people find love, in spite of their differences and the turbulent world around them. Every minute was glorious.

The Whale (Playwrights Horizons): Two words: Shuler Hensley. He plays Charlie, a 600-pound apartment-bound man whose deep unhappiness is causing him to slowly eat himself to death. Hensley, a Tony winner for his portrayal of Jed in the revival of Oklahoma, is one of our best stage actors. Wearing an enormous fat suit and breathing laboriously, he still manages to show us the humanity and beauty inside his character. It’s a performance I’ll never forget.

Nothing to Hide (Werner Entertainment/Ostar Productions at Signature): Starring Helder Guimarães and Derek DelGaudio. Using nothing more than decks of playing cards (and a cameo appearance by a sock monkey) these two masters of distraction and sleight of hand amuse and amaze audiences. Direction is by Renaissance man Neal Patrick Harris, who is President of the Academy of Magical Arts and—who knew?—a bona fide “magic geek”. DelGaudio is a Los Angeles-based magician who consults for Walt Disney Imagineering and has been named Close-up Magician of the Year for 2012 and 2013. Guimarães, a Portuguese now based in California, became the youngest ever World Champion of Card magic in 2006 at the age of 23. The show came to NYC from a record-breaking run at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. These charming performers make it look easy, but they will amaze you.

What’s It All About? (New York Theatre Workshop): It’s all about talent and creativity. Subtitled “Bacharach Reimagined,” this innovative production was conceived by Kyle Riabko, who has appeared on Broadway in Spring Awakening and Hair. Riabko, along with an energetic young cast of singers (who also play all of the instruments in the production) perform Riabko’s new arrangements of all those Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs that are etched into your brain: “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” “Alfie,” “Always Something There to Remind Me,” and many more. The songs are all about love and loss, and here the emphasis is on the lyrics, which are often very touching. There are several sofas on both sides of the stage where some members of the audience are seated. I was lucky to be seated there, practically on the set. It brought back memories of long evenings spent in friends’ basements, hanging out listening to records. Riabko and the other 20-somethings in the show allow the audience to hear these old standards in new, exciting ways. I’m hoping for a move to Broadway.

Old Hats (Signature): There’s a lot of angst and sturm und drang Off Broadway, and it can get depressing. What a joy then, to experience an evening of pure delight with three comedic pros (Bill Irwin, David Shiner, and Nellie McKay). Irwin, a Tony Award-winning actor and original member of the Pickle Family Circus, and Shiner, a former street performer who later starred with Cirque du Soleil, have performed together before, in Fool Moon on Broadway. That production won a Tony for Unique Theatrical Experience. The effervescent Nellie McKay serves as Old Hats’ musical director and performs vocals, piano, and ukulele (an instrument in short supply in today’s theater). Irwin and Shine mix it up, alternating old Vaudeville routines with really creative new bits, especially one involving the use of an iPad. So much fun, I smiled throughout the entire performance.

The Explorers Club (Manhattan Theatre Club). Speaking of smiling throughout a performance…here’s what I wrote about The Explorers Club in a previous Shari on the Aisle post:

Written by Nell Benjamin (Tony and Drama Desk-nominated playwright of Legally Blonde), it is an hour and 45 minutes of madcap delight. When you’re not chuckling you will at least have a smile on your face. (If not, sorry—you are a hopeless curmudgeon). The entire cast is top notch, and the incredibly detailed set by Donyale Werle, crammed with clubby details, is practically worth the price of admission. Delightful, silly fun.


The Explorers Club

Explorers ClubThe Explorers Club

Date:               July 31, 2013

Theatre:         Manhattan Theatre Club, NY City Center Stage I

Shari on the Aisle Rating: ****

Cast:               Brian Avers, Max Baker, Steven Boyer, Arnie Burton, Carson Elrod, David Furr, John McMartin, Lorenzo Pisoni, Jennifer Westfeldt.

Director:         Marc Bruni

Quick Take: The Explorers Club is set in 1879 in the bar/sitting area of a venerable London club dedicated to exploring the world in the name of “science.” Written by Nell Benjamin (Tony and Drama Desk nominated playwright of Legally Blonde), it is an hour and 45 minutes of madcap delight. When you’re not chuckling you will at least have a smile on your face. (If not, sorry–you are a hopeless curmudgeon).

The Details: Lots of people are out to get the members of The Explorers Club: the Queen’s army, the Irish Society, and a violent band of monks. To make matters worse, those cads at the National Geographic Society delight in publicly ridiculing them. And alas, they’re better known for having the “worst bartender in London” than for their scientific prowess. The Club’s president, Harry Percy (David Furr) is as dim-witted as he is dashing. Believing he has discovered the elusive East Pole, he plans to go off in search of the West Pole. One problem: each time he sets off with a group of fellow explorers, he is the sole team member to return alive.

Lucius Fretway (Lorenzo Pisoni), the acting president of the Club until Percy’s return, throws an additional monkey wrench into the situation: he proposes the gentlemen accept a new member—a woman (gasp!) named Phyllida Spotte-Hume (Jennifer Westfeldt) who has just discovered a lost civilization. Ms. Spotte-Hume, played with self-assured pluck by Ms. Westfeldt, has just returned to London with a member of that civilization whom she has named Luigi (it’s a long story). Luigi, played by a scene-stealing Carson Elrod, sports blue body paint and an assortment of juju hanging around his neck. Phyllida has an appointment at the Palace to show her find to the Queen, and even though she has taught Luigi to genuflect grandly when he meets the Monarch, well, let’s just say that the royal audience doesn’t go well.

Add to the mix a bible spouting member who believes the Irish to be the Lost Tribe of Israel, a snake fanatic, a hamster lover, and a former Club member out for revenge. And need I mention that Mr. Fretway’s interest in Ms. Spotte-Hume is not merely scientific?

Should You Go? Absolutely. It’s summer. It’s hot. Too hot for sturm und drang. The Explorers Club’s silly escapism fits the bill. The entire cast is top notch, and the spot on, incredibly detailed set by Donyale Werle, crammed with clubby details, is practically worth the price of admission. But hurry, although the show has been extended, it is scheduled to close on August 4. Tickets are available on TDF, if you’re a member.

Trivia: There is a lot of business involving the tossing and catching of drinks in The Explorers Club. Lorenzo Pisoni is particularly adept at the perfect timing required, as he grew up performing in his family’s circus. Pisoni performed a one-man show (also at MTC), Humor Abuse, where he talked about his unique childhood.

Jennifer Westfeldt will be familiar to audiences from the films Kissing Jessica Stein (which she wrote) and Friends with Kids, which marked her directorial debut. She is also known for being Jon Hamm’s significant other.