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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