Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Peace For Mary Frances

By Joseph Cervelli

First time playwright Lily Thorne’s “Peace for Mary Frances” presented by The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Centre is thoroughly exasperating. This play which lacks structure and has characters walking from room to room like robots is directed by the usually very reliable Lila Neugebauer . But she can add nothing to this with thoroughly disagreeable characters in a lumbering  slice of life drama. 

While it is always wonderful to have the memorable Lois Smith in any play, even she can do little to save this for her own character is not all that likeable. She portrays the title character who is  the matriarch of an Armenian family, and decides that at  age 90 and suffering from water on her lungs it is time for her to die. She seems vital enough except for this issue, and it is more than strange that no family member (and what a bunch they are!) even tries to convince her that if this medical condition was cleared up it would make her life easier. But they themselves are such a miserable bunch they care for no one but their own lives. Her one daughter the messed up Fanny (Johanna Day) is an ex-heroin addict now on methadone and is estranged from her daughter which her family enjoys taunting her about. She seems to be taking care of her mother but her sister Alice (J. Smith-Cameron) who took off from her job spends most of the time complaining about having to now take care of her mother because according to her Fanny has no idea what she is doing. Alice is also an astrologer and spends most of the time complaining she has no money and is thankful that her blouse cost her about $8.00.    

There is  divorced brother Eddie (Paul Lazar) a lawyer having the personality of a wet dishrag and spending most of the time sitting by his mother’s bed eating lunch.

There are two other family members both of whom are Alice’s daughters. Rosie (Natalie Gold) spends time at her grandmother’s house with her baby and her sister Helen (Heather Burns) is an actress on a television series and seems depressed. Since neither characters add nil to the play it makes little sense for their being there.  What also makes even far little sense is why the family decides for no apparent reason to speak about the Armenian Genocide. Thorne just inserts dialogue that has no bearing on the proceedings. 

Bonnie (Mia Katigbak) is the hospice nurse who seems a bit forgetful leaving the morphine in the car and Brian Miskell (Michael)  is the hospice psychologist while Melle Powers is Clara the home healthcare aide.  

Besides dealing with the cacophony of the family which is unceasing there are scenes that are just not believable.  When Mary Frances asks Bonnie how long she has to live the nurse answers, “About two days.” It is hard to believe any health care provider would make such a ludicrous statement. Michael walks into the bedroom where Mary Frances spends just about the entire play, introduces himself and leaves. Why would a psychologist not  speak to ascertain her frame of mind. In one scene Mary Frances hears something from outside her window and literally sprints out of bed astonishing her daughter Alice. Has a miracle occurred or is this just to give the play some bounce? Well, neither is the case here. 

Despite some committed performances, it is a completely dismal play with characters that are either objectionable or just plain bores complete with dialogue that sinks into the mundane.

Mary Frances does find peace at the conclusion and happily so does the audience when they are about to exit. 

Tickets are available at the New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Centre 480 West 42nd Street or by calling 212.279.4200. 


Thursday, May 17, 2018

Paradise Blue--An Intense and Beautifully Woven New Play

By Joseph Cervelli

It is not a spoiler to state that one of the lead characters is shot in the very first scene of Dominique Morisseau’s intense new play at the Pershing Square Signature Theatre which is marked with both fierceness and humor.  Morisseau gave us the excellent “Pipeline” this past season,  and as I did with that show marvel at how well this playwright has an innate feel for her characters. The storyline is never simple but there is such a palpable embodiment in each of her characters. Few playwrights can draw you into the psyches of their characters yet she does it with such ease and believability. 

The first thing you notice are the multitude of posters alining the walls of the theater with ads (scenic designer Neil Patel) for the top jazz musicians and singers and where there they are playing (time of play is 1949.) 

Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson has an ostensible feel for the time period directing in a film noir style which enhances the play's time period. 

The play takes place in Detroit in a jazz club owned by Blue (J. Alphonse Nicholson) which is a fixture in the area previously owned by his late dad who suffered  severe mental issues resulting in tragic consequences. Blue's girlfriend, Pumpkin (Kristolyn Lloyd),   who loves and frequently recites poetry is both dedicated to him and to the bar both cooking and serving the patrons. She is so in love with Blue that she accepts his physical abuse knowing that he is possessed by some demons he cannot control. He is also the trumpet player and has just fired one of the three  other musicians. The other two are the womanising and heavy drinking drummer P-Sam (Francois Battiste) and the mild mannered pianist Corn (Keith Randolph Smith.) P-Sam wants Blue to hire another musician but has the fear that the owner will kowtow to the demands of the mayor who wants to rid the area of “blight” which the musicians feel refer to the blacks. Gentrification is taking place even during this particular time. Blue’s personality is an enigmatic one and Nicholson plays him quite well. He always appears on the  the verge of exploding. You later find out what all these emotional outbursts are the result of. 

The other character is the stunning Silver (Simone Missick) played with the style of a true film noir temptress. She swaggers and purrs when she speaks to the musicians. One thinks of both Lana Turner and Lizabeth Scott from so many of their roles as true femmes fatales. She rents a room above the bar and while she said she killed her husband you never are quite sure. Her sultry seduction of the likeable Corn is for ulterior motives. 

Battiste is both superbly funny and vehement in his portrayal of a man who wants more for this town than to be pushed out. His performance is always on target, and even when he rages it is never overwrought.

Smith makes Corn a very kind hearted fellow who wants to do best by everyone. And Lloyd beautifully plays  the supportive Pumpkin who eventually gets caught up in the behavior of the distraught Blue.

What makes for  such an impressive play is  the way the characters under Santiago-Hudson’s indelibly  sensitive direction interplay with each other so convincingly. The sadness of the plight of these inhabitants  when the redevelopment of the Black Bottom district of Detroit takes place is rendered with real feeling. 

"Paradise Blue" proves to be an  arresting work by Morisseau that makes me full of hope to see what else she has for us. 

Tickets are available at the Pershing Square Signature Theatre 480 West 42nd Street or by calling 877.661.6439. Limited engagement has been extended to June 17. 


Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Gentleman Caller--A Missed Opportunity

By Joseph Cervelli

I am not quite sure what to make out of Philip Dawkins’ maddeningly annoying new play “The Gentleman Caller” at the Cherry Lane Theater. Dawkins who wrote the delightfully funny and sincere “Charm” falters here big time.

The title of the play refers to the working one for Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” before it was changed. Here Dawkins has decided to write what he believes took place between Williams and playwright William Inge (“Picnic” “Come Back Little Sheba”) on two separate occasions back in 1944. I am not sure if this is all just conjecture on the playwright’s part or he actually read reports about what transpired, but it is hard to believe that they carried on in such a wildly campy and frightfully silly manner. 

One big mistake takes place right from the start when Juan Francisco Villa who looks and sounds like Williams addresses the audience about what they are going to see. It lessens the seriousness of the work setting the mark for a frivolous evening which it actually turns out to be. Villa appears to be a fine actor yet under Tony Speciale’s overbooked direction he becomes frustratingly obnoxiously loud and becomes more of  a caricature of the late playwright instead of a true portrayal. 

The first act takes place at the home of Inge (Daniel K. Isaac)  where he is the arts critic for the St. Louis Star-Times and is to interview Williams a month before “Menagerie” is to open in Chicago. I am not sure if there were any interviews recorded with Inge who was a closeted homosexual but from all reports he was not as overt in behavior as Williams.  You would think that part of this misguided play would include a serious yet humorous interview but that is not what Dawkins has in mind. He has written most of  it as pure farce which lessens any tribute to both giants of playwriting. When Inge asks Williams to sign an autograph photo of himself for his nephew he does so by writing something sexual. Suddenly the knotty and frantically insecure Inge becomes sexually crazed and starts to rip off Williams’ clothing. Thankfully, Williams makes him stop before it appears to be a real rape. As written there is such a contradictory look at Inge. We know from interviews that Williams was quite promiscuous especially as he tells tales here about being robbed by two hustlers at a local YMCA. Yet, for Dawkins to have Isaac suddenly adapt an almost  sexually uncontrollable personality makes no sense except to garner laughs from the audience which is achieves. 

The first act goes on with much talk about Williams’ family and his dedication to his sister Rose whom we know he idolized. But there is little connection between the two illustrious playwrights and the interview seems to fall by the wayside. We do discover that Inge has written his first play “Far Off From Heaven” and would like Williams to read it. What we learn from Williams any theater buff will have already known and what we don’t really know about Inge which I would think is a lot is never delved into.

The second act takes place in Williams’ hotel room on New Year Eve just after the opening of “Menagerie.” Inge has arrived and while the sexual content is played more seriously the play still sheds little light the relationship between these two men. It seems that Dawkins is more interested in writing scenes that are nods to the famous works by both men. We see Williams slightly inebriated again with his robe open walking with one crutch (think Brick from “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”) and Inge telling him that his  dog which attacked the other playwright has run away (“Come Back Little Sheba.) Inge has this rather ineffectual and unpleasantly meaningless monologue (nevertheless, well delivered by Isaac)  near the end that is reminiscent of Williams’ “Suddenly Last Summer.” 

While Villa is extreme in his portrayal,  Isaac never seems to gain a grasp on his character. It does not help when Inge’s character is never full delineated. 

Sara C. Walsh’s fascinating set of stacks of manuscripts piled on each other with lamps (not sure about that touch) on each would be more fitting in a play that took a more substantial look at the playwrights instead of this juvenile one.  

What is so disconcerting is that instead of a well written play about what could have transpired which most  could have included romantic and humorous moments has been turned into a doltish affair by both playwright and director. 

         Tickets are available at the Abingdon Theatre Company at the Cherry Lane Theater 38 Commerce Street or by calling 866.811.4111/  The limited engagement ends May 26.