Archive for September, 2009

“On the Aisle with Larry – September 29, 2009”

“On the Aisle with Larry”

Lawrence Harbison brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. This week, Larry tells you about THE PRIDE OF PARNELL STREET, IN THE DAYLIGHT, MAHIDA’S EXTRA KEY TO HEAVEN and GOING TO THE RIVER, SERIES B.

I am not usually a fan of plays comprised solely of narration but I have to say, Sebastian Barry’s The Pride of Parnell Street, a series of interlocking monologues in which the characters are a stoic, poor Irish woman and her estranged husband, grabbed me and wouldn’t let go.

Janet struggled to make ends meet while her husband Joe supported the family as a pety criminal. I use the past tense, here, because the playwright does. Both were almost desperately in love with each other; until, that is, Joe got drunk during the celebration at a local pub of the championship of the local football team and beat Janet up. When we meet him, he is in a bad way, dying in hospital. He still loves her, and she him, but their life together is over, both because of his beating of her and because of his impending death. Talk about a tragic love story! It breaks your heart.

Mary Murray and Aidan Kelly transcend mere “moving” in their performances. The Pride of Parnell Street runs until 4 October and is not to be missed.

Tony Glazer’s In the Daylight, at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre, is a dysfunctional family whodunit/thriller. Dear old Dad has died under mysterious circumstances (was he murdered?) and his prodigal son, a famous novelist, has been asked to come home to help his mother and sister decide what to do about the ashes. It’s a dark and stormy night (but of course), and the first act consists largely of the three members of the family screaming at each other, while the ghost of dad wanders around aimlessly, unseen by his family. The acrimony is interrupted by the arrival of a ditzy fan of the novelist, who sat next to him on his plane flight and who is returning his cell phone, which he left behind. Of course, she is not what she seems, nor is anybody.

This play might have worked if director John Gould Rubin had gone for more subtlety, less stridency, with his actors. As it is, the play gets more and more far-fetched, finally devolving into the ridiculous.

You could skip this one.

You could also stand to skip Russell Davis’ Mahida’s Extra Key to Heaven, an Epic Theatre Ensemble production at Signature’s Peter Norton Space, wherein the playwright has created (or, rather, tried to create) an allegory about our nation’s misadventure in Iraq. It’s about a confused young man living at home with his rather dotty, difficult mother, who meets a mysterious young woman waiting late at night by the ocean for a ferry to take her back to the mainland. Turns out, she is a student from Iraq, and her brother has recently arrived to force her to return to her country. Hints are dropped that he may be a terrorist. He is certainly an Islamic fundamentalist, anyway. The young man fears for her safety and offers her a place to stay for the night with him and his mom. Of course, who should show up the next day but the brother, demanding his sister.

Unlike In the Daylight, which had more twists and turns than a politician running for re-election, Davis’ play holds no surprises. Mostly, it’s just talk talk talk, redeemed by the excellent acting all around – particularly, that of Roxanna Hope as the damsel in distress and Michele Pawk as the cranky mother.

Finally, I caught Series B of The River Crosses Rivers, a bill of ten-minute plays by non-white female playwrights at Ensemble Studio Theatre. The first half of this bill disappointed me, but things perked up after the interval with the arrival of PJ Gibson’s Jesse. This is, like The Pride or Parnell Street, a series of interlocking monologues in which the characters are a husband and wife. Gareth and Tauna, successful professionals, are deeply in love, and gush endlessly about it. Fortunately, Gibson has enough wit to make these lovers standable – and then, in the end, veers towards a point of no return. Christopher Burris and Maya Lynne Robinson are charming in this play.

My other fave was Cori Thomas’ moving His Daddy, about two men struggling to deal with the brutal murder of the son they adopted. Lindsay Smiling and Matthew Montelongo are heartbreaking in this gem.

THE PRIDE OF PARNELL STREET. 59 E. 59.
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com. 212-279-4200.
IN THE DAYLIGHT. McGinn/Cazale Theatre. 2162 Broadway.
TICKETS: 212-579-0258.
MAHIDA’S EXTRA KEY TO HEAVEN. Peter Norton Space. 555 W. 42nd
St. TICKETS: 866-811-4111.
THE RIVER CROSSES RIVERS, SERIES B. Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549
W. 52nd St.
TICKETS: 866-811-4111.

“Who is this guy?”

For over thirty years Lawrence Harbison was in charge of new play acquisition for Samuel French, Inc., during which time his work on behalf of playwrights resulted in the first publication of such subsequent luminaries as Jane Martin, Don Nigro, Tina Howe, Theresa Rebeck, José Rivera, William Mastrosimone, Charles Fuller, and Ken Ludwig, among many others; and the acquisition of musicals such as Smoke of the Mountain, A…My Name Is Alice, Little Shop of Horrors and Three Guys Naked from the Waist Down. He is a now a free-lance editor, primarily for Smith and Kraus, Inc., for whom he edits annual anthologies of best plays by new playwrights and women playwrights, best ten-minute plays and best monologues and scenes for men and for women. For many years he wrote a weekly column on his adventures in the theater for two Manhattan Newspapers, the Chelsea Clinton News and The Westsider. His new column, “On the Aisle with Larry,” is a weekly feature at www.smithandkraus.com.

He works with individual playwrights to help them develop their plays (see his website, www.playfixer.com). He has also served as literary manager or literary consultant for several theatres, such as Urban Stages and American Jewish Theatre. He is a member of both the Outer Critics Circle and the Drama Desk. He has served many times over the years as a judge and commentator for various national play contests and lectures regularly at colleges and universities. He holds a B.A. from Kenyon College and an M.A. from the University of Michigan.

He is currently working on a book, Masters of the Contemporary American Drama.

“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”

—– George F. Will

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“On The Aisle with Larry – September 17, 2009”

Lawrence Harbison brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. This week, Larry tells you about AFTERMATH, IS LIFE WORTH LIVING?, THE RIVER CROSSES RIVERS SERIES A and THE RETRIBUTIONISTS.

We live sheltered, and pretty much complacent, lives in this country. The last war fought here ended in 1865. None of us have ever had to face the consequences of war in our own backyards, as most of the rest of the world has done. Consequently, it is difficult for us to feel empathy for people in other parts of the world whose lives have been destroyed by war. It is this lack of empathy which Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen have addressed in their new docudrama, Aftermath, currently at New York Theatre Workshop.

Blank and Jensen spent several weeks in Jordan, interviewing refugees from Iraq, and have organized their interviews into a play, following the same modus operandi used for their The Exonerated, which featured the voices of people who spent many years on death row before they were found to be innocent, and which had a great impact upon the country’s thinking regarding the issue of capital punishment. It inspired empathy for these unjustly convicted people, as well as outrage against the criminal justice “system” which wrecked their lives. I think Aftermath will have a similar effect. It will also, and it should, inspire outrage that we, the land of the free and the home of the brave, were the cause of these people’s suffering.

Aside from the fact that Aftermath tells you something you needed to hear, it is also a taut, gripping, evening, extraordinarily well-acted all around. It’s a don’t-miss.

As is Is Life Worth Living? at the Mint Theatre Co. This is a very amusing comedy by the more or less forgotten Irish playwright Lennox Robinson about what happens to the denizens of an Irish backwater when a touring theatrical troupe arrives for the summer, bringing with them a repertory of high-brow plays by the likes of Ibsen and Tolstoy instead of the usual lightweight summer fare they are used to. Suddenly spouses are going after each other with knives and people are attempting suicide – apparently because the plays they have been seeing have driven them to this. I know the feeling.

The Mint specializes in plays like this which have been unjustly consigned to the dustbin of cultural history. This one’s a doozy. It has been exceedingly well directed by Mint Artistic Director Jonathan Bank. The cast is wall-to-wall outstanding. My faves were Paul O’Brien, the proprietor of the local hotel and theatre, and Kevin Kilner and Jordan Baker as the leading man and lady of the troupe. Jeremy Lawrence scores in the small role of a wimpy local politician.

Again: don’t miss this one. It’s great fun.

The company Going to the River specializes in plays by woman of color, and they currently have two bills of short plays, entitled The River Crosses Rivers, running at Ensemble Studio Theatre. I saw Series A last week and am going to Series B the next.

Series A consists of plays by 7 women, including Ruby Dee, Lynn Nottage, Kara Le Corthron and Bridgette Wimberly. All 7 plays are terrific. Nottage’s is a monologue, called Banana Beer Bath, which could have been an out-take from Ruined, wherein an African woman tells us how she and her sister were hidden in a tub of beer covered with banana leaves to save them from certain rape and murder at the hands of a band of marauding militia, who proceeded to kill their parents. It’s a harrowing tale, harrowingly performed by Elain Graham. I was also impressed by Kara Lee Corthron’s Ladybug Gonna Getcha, about a talentless but fiercely determined punk rock singer, and Bridgette Wimberley’s Rally, about a young woman who takes her grandmother to an Obama campaign rally. The granny was there at the start of the struggle; her granddaughter is there for the end. It’s a poignant, yet often quite amusing play, superbly acted by Venida Evans as the granny and Erin Weems as her granddaughter.

I usually try and find nice things to say about just about everything (one of the reasons I am such a terrible critic); but, sadly, there’s not much I can say in favor of Daniel Goldfarb’s The Retributionists, currently at Playwrights Horizons. It’s based on the true story of a plot by Jews to poison German war criminals in Nuremberg. That’s an interesting story, but not as handled here. For some reason, Goldfarb also throws in a mawkish love story amongst the former partisans who’ve hatched the plot – including much unrequited love and betrayal. Who cares if one of the women has the hots for one of the other women? It seemed to me that this trivialized what could have been compelling tale.

As for the actors, they range from OK to Not Up To The Task. One, Adam Rothenberg, playing Jascha, is a handsome blond hunk with a hairstyle that makes him look right out of the latest issue of GQ. Get a haircut, Jascha!

This is one of those evenings where you can almost hear what the audience is thinking. Which is: What did Playwrights Horizons see in this play?

AFTERMATH. NY Theatre Worskhop, 79 E. 4th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com. 212-239-6200.

IS LIFE WORTH LIVING? Mint Theatre Co., 311 W. 43rd St.
TICKETS: 212-315-0231.

THE RIVER CROSSES RIVERS. Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 W.
52nd St.
TICKETS: www.theatremania.com. 866-811-4111.

THE RETRIBUTIONISTS. Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd.
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com. 212-279-4200.

“Who IS this guy?”

For over thirty years Lawrence Harbison was in charge of new play acquisition for Samuel French, Inc., during which time he was responsible for the first publication of plays by such luminaries as Jane Martin, Don Nigro, Tina Howe, Theresa Rebeck, José Rivera, William Mastrosimone, Charles Fuller, and Ken Ludwig, among many others; and the acquisition of many musicals such as Smoke on the Mountain, A…My Name Is Alice, Little Shop of Horrors and Three Guys Naked From the Waist Down. He has a B. A. from Kenyon College and an M.A. in theatre from the University of Michigan. He is currently Senior Editor for Smith & Kraus, Inc., the nation’s largest theatrical trade publisher, for whom he edits annual anthologies of best plays by new playwrights, best ten-minute plays, best monologues for men and for women and best stage scenes. For many years he wrote a weekly column on his adventures in the theater for two Manhattan newspapers, the Chelsea Clinton News and The Westsider. He has also served as literary manager or literary consultant for several theatres, such as Urban Stages and American Jewish Theatre. He is a member of the NYC press corps and is an Outer Critics Circle member. He has served many times over the years as a judge and commentator for various national play contests and lectures regularly at colleges and universities. He loves to hear from readers – particularly if they disagree with him. E-mail him at LHarbison1@nyc.rr.com

“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”

—– George F. Will

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On the Aisle with Larry – September 1, 2009

Lawrence Harbison brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York. This week, Larry tells you about A LIFETIME BURNING, THE COLUMBINE PROJECT and AFTER LUKE/WHEN I WAS GOD.

Primary Stages, having announced that this season they will present only plays by women, has opened up with Cusi Cram’s A Lifetime Burning, a fascinating drama about a woman who has achieved fast fame with a memoir about her underprivileged childhood, growing up as part Inca. Trouble is, it’s all a fabrication. The author’s sister arrives at her deluded sister’s apartment to confront her about the lies in the book, about which sis is in extreme denial. During this confrontation, we are taken back in time and shown scenes between the hard-driving literary agent who put the publishing deal together, and between the author and a Latino man with whom she had a torrid affair.

I found it hard to believe, even though this play is based on a true story, that a top literary agent and top publisher could be so easily duped, probably because the author of the book is so clearly disturbed; but the core of the play, the battle between the two sisters, is forcibly handled and ultimately won me over.

The Columbine Project at Actors Temple Theatre, written and directed by Paul Anthony Storiale, is clearly inspired by The Laramie Project, which dealt with the death of Matthew Shepherd and its effect on the town of Laramie, Wyoming. Sturiale has created his play from published statements, news reports and newscasts of the tragic shooting spree at Columbine High School. While this is not quite as powerful, or as well done, as was The Laramie Project, it nevertheless succeeds in illuminating the context in which the Columbine shootings occurred, as well as the disturbed minds of the shooters. Storiale’s cast is excellent – particularly, Artie Ahr and Justin Mortelliti, who play the two youths who killed thirteen of their classmates and one teacher before killing themselves.

The production has a somewhat bare-bones feeling in its technical aspects – almost no set, a handful of lighting instruments –which makes the play seem more rudimentary than it is; but I was moved by the telling of this sad story, and recommend the play to one and all.

Irish Rep has a terrific double bill of one act plays by Cónal Creedon on view, After Luke/When I was God, performed by three amazing actors. After Luke is a Cain/Abel tale of two brothers. One is a hard-working auto mechanic, the other a ne’er-do-well who wants their Dadda to sell his land to developers. What ensues is a battle of wills between the two brothers. When I was God is about a demanding, athletics-obsessed father and a son eager to win his love via sports success.

Gary Gregg and Michael Mellamphy are in both plays, and they are superb, as is Colin Lane who plays the rather slow Dadda in the first play. This one is terrific. Don’t miss it.

A LIFETIME BURNING. Primary Stages, 59 E. 59th St.
TICKETS: www.ticketcentral.com. 212-279-4200
THE COLUMBINE PROJECT. Actors Temple Theatre, 339 W. 47th St.
TICKETS: www.telecharge.com. 212-239-6200.
AFTER LUKE/WHEN I WAS GOD. Irish Rep. 132. W. 22nd St.
TICKETS: 212-727-2737

“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”

—– George F. Will

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