Review: True West

A “straight boy play” that’s actually funny! More than that, a play that consciously caricatures many myths of the of the American heterosexual boy-man-child. Sam Shepard, True West‘s late playwright, was always more of a surrealist satirist than people give him credit for. He’s not celebrating the macho bad boy like Mamet or LaBute, but ruthlessly dissecting him. Shepard never lost an affection for the myth of the lonely cowboy, or the menacing trick of the Pintereque pause; however, he is also smart enough to know that they are myths and tricks, and clever enough to show them as such, again and again.

True West is about what happens when two adult brothers, aspiring screenwriter Austin (Paul Dano) and theiving drifter Lee (Ethan Hawke), cohabit in their vactioning mother’s house. Roles are reversed, hereditary alcoholism indulged, and general chaos wrecked as they try and live up to what they’ve seen in the movies, especially Westerns. Director James Macdonald does a great job balancing the play’s symbolic and psychological components ‒ rightly placing a slightly stronger emphasis on the the symbolic, comic aspect of the show.

Austin initially presents as a milquetoast, but Dano finds darker colors from the very beginning. As he unravels under the pressure of Lee’s more obvious insanity, Dano shows terrific slapstick chops. Lee at first seems to be the kind of “man-boy with brooding menace” role that Hawke is known for, but Lee’s own transformations offer a whole other set of comedic opportunities, and Hawke takes full advantage.

The play is not what you would call “fully woke” ‒ it was written in 1983, for goodness sake ‒ but is certainly more evolved and self-aware than most straight male centered drama of the time. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: Red State, Blue State

Colin Quinn’s new show Red State, Blue State – about the polarization of American politics – finds him going darker than previous shows. As usual he makes canny observations about our national character, but now he seems less sanguine about our ability to move forward.

He’s one of the better comics doing political satire – he communicates highly complicated ideas through the most mundane and absurdly funny examples. He uses images similar to those from his pocket history of the world Long Story Short, such as comparing the Greece of Pericles and Socrates to a centuries-long podcast, and musing on what Caligula would have thought of Tinder.

Quinn’s manner is engagingly off-hand – this is bigger and smarter than your usual stand-up, but it never totally leaves that sphere. He’s a sharp-eyed satirist, his take decidedly expressing a working class point of view, or at least the point of view that’s been formed by being around working class people.

Also, Quinn generally avoids stereotyping ethnic humor from the bad old days – although in one of the more off-putting bits he complains about missing ethnic humor. Here, he replaces it with regional humor, its safer cousin. For his quite funny finale he comes for each of the 50 states individually. Overall, the show is a jaunty, thought-provoking good time that I can easily recommend.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: The Cher Show

This ain’t no chickenshit gig! Whatever problems it may have (mostly the structural difficulties all jukebox bio-musicals share), The Cher Show is rarely less than spectacular, and derives a lot of comedy from it’s sharp-toungued, free-speaking subject.

Cher is played by three different actresses of different ages. The real star is Stephanie J. Block as the mature Cher, who narrates the show and sings the biggest numbers. (This isn’t the first time Block has played a gay icon – she played Liza Minnelli in The Boy from Oz. Is she on a quest to play all of them?). Cher’s a perfect fit for Block, who makes playing to the back row seem effortless. She, and the other two Chers, sing in a loose imitation of Cher’s style, leaning more on delivering the emotional core of the songs than a precise impersonation.

Bob Mackie, whose outlandish costumes for TV’s The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour helped form Cher’s public persona, also designed the costumes for this. Aside from adding glamour to the proceedings – especially in an eye-popping production number that is all about those outfits – Mackie reminded me that under the sequins, he is a visual storyteller of the first order, and a surprisingly subtle one at that. The sparkle will hook you, but the details are where he really does his work.

Jason Moore’s fluid direction smartly leans into variety show glitz and giddy kitsch, and Christopher Gattelli’s choreography is here to entertain and astound you with it’s energy and flash. The Cher Show is hardly perfect, but it’s undeniably lots of fun, and recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Chasing the New White Whale

There’s a visually impressive production of a impassioned new play about heroin abuse in the commercial fishing industry now playing at La MaMa ETC. Chasing the New White Whale uses the framework of Moby Dick to tell the story of New England fishing captain Robby Foerster, who is committed to old fashioned institutions of fishing – hook fishing, independent boats – but runs afoul of heroin addiction.

Both the play, by Michael Gorman, and the direction, by Arthur Adair are ambitious and aesthetically complex. A mysterious contingent of ghostly whale hunters and modern day commercial fishermen inspired by Ahab’s stowaway crew, “Fedallah and the Phantoms,” is a particularly effective device. Donald Eastman’s set makes very inventive use of boats that increase in size and height as the play progresses – later ones move on wheeled scaffolding.

While it is a compelling production, it’s not quite successful in what it sets out to do. The publicity material describe how Robbie “falls deeply into addiction after a fateful first encounter with heroin” – but we never see this “fateful” moment. There is a character called the Chaplain who recalls the long sermon in Moby Dick, baldy stating the plays themes in brief sermonettes. These little lectures are well performed and staged, but are simply not dramatically effective – too much telling, not enough showing.

The acting company, however, is uniformly strong. Alan Barnes Netherton’s portrayal of Foerster is intense and intelligent. Meredith Nicholaev is another standout in her soulful rendering of Robbie’s friend and sometime accountant Therese.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: The Prom

Brooks Ashmanskas is The Prom‘s shining star. After decades of being a comic scene-stealer in roles that ranged from ensemble to supporting, he finally has a lead role, and boy does he make the most of it. Oh, he’s still the comic scene-stealer, even up against such expert competition as Christopher Sieber and Beth Leavel (Leavel was out sick the night I went, her understudy Kate Marilley chewed the scenery with a fervor that would have made Beth proud – Marilley’s one to watch for sure). But in the character of Barry Glickman, the authors of The Prom have given Ashmanskas a role with a touch more depth, giving him a chance to show all his gifts.

As The Prom opens, Glickman is co-starring with diva Dee Dee Allen (Leavel / Marilley) in Eleanor! A musical about Eleanor Roosevelt. They find out at the opening night party that the reviews mean the show will close for sure, and they drown their sorrows with chorus gal Angie (Angie Schworer) and out-of-work pretentious Julliard grad Trent Oliver (Seiber). When these theater relics hear that young lesbian Emma (Caitlin Kinnunen) is being excluded from a small-town Indiana prom – and the press is shining a spotlight on it – they know that it’s time to get involved, and grab a little of that spotlight for themselves while they’re at it. As a t-shirt available at the merch table says, they’re out to “kick-ball-change the world.”

The spine of The Prom is the growing friendship between Glickman and Emma, bonding over what being oppressed queers does to you – it’s a sweeter thing than that description suggests. Kinnunen is as grounded as Ashmanskas is flighty; with all these shameless hams in town, it’s Emma that gets the 11 O’Clock number, the achingly earnest “Unruly Heart,” which Kinnunen knocks out of the ballpark. Director / choreographer Casey Nicholaw is fresh off Mean Girls, so he knows his way around the high-school scene (he’s long known his way around Broadway!), and gives it his usual heart and pizzazz. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: American Son

Regarding #BlackLivesMatter, this play hits every piece of information you need to know, and every raw nerve you need to know about. In American Son, in the middle of the night, black mother Kendra (Kerry Washington) is frantically trying to discover news of her missing son at a Miami-area police station.

Playwright Christopher Demos-Brown, whose plays are frequently produced in Florida, is also a trial attorney in that state, so he writes from a direct knowledge of the issues. He offers no easy answers, but shows us every facet of this thorny situation, with great empathy. It’s very much an issue or “thesis” play, a kind of play originated by Alexandre Dumas fils with his Camille, and brought to maturity with Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. In that vein, American Son is as smart and gripping as they come.

Most thesis plays have characters that speak uncomfortable truths with great clarity, and in this play that is the late-appearing Lieutenant John Stokes (Eugene Lee). The part is relatively small, but Lee clearly knows what a plum it is, giving a performance that I sincerely hope is remembered at awards time.

The main draw here is of course Kerry Washington, and she is as good as I’ve ever seen her. Kendra is the largest and most complex role in the play, and Washington deftly navigates every turn. She and the remainder of the cast are ably aided by director Kenny Leon, who gets the tension high where it needs to be, while giving needed moments of breathing room in this tight coil of a play. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Torch Song

Harvey Fierstein first became famous playing drag queen Arnold Beckoff, the central character in the play he wrote for himself, Torch Song Trilogy. As someone who covers a lot of gay theatre, most productions of this play I’ve seen make the mistake of casting someone in their 40s or 50s as Arnold, when Fierstein himself was in his 20s when he played the role. What a treat, then, to see Michael Urie, only in his 30s, perfectly cast in this fine revival.

Torch Song follows Beckoff from 1971 through 1980 as he negotiates finding love, and losing it. Instead of aping Fierstein’s gravely growl, Urie switches between his normal voice and, for added sissy sass, a variation on that cartoon queen Snagglepuss, even – though in this Broadway transfer that’s more organically incorporated into his mannerisms. Urie’s knack for comedy is wickedly sharp, especially in a hilarious backroom scene. He also plays less to Arnold tragic side, which oddly makes all the heartbreak he goes through that much sharper.

The last act is by far the juiciest part of the play, and Mercedes Ruehl makes a ferocious late entrance as Arnold’s mother. Also terrific is Michael Rosen as Arnold’s pretty younger boyfriend Alan, and Jack DiFalco as David, the smartass gay teen Arnold is planning to adopt. The production doesn’t get everything right – the design for 1971 looks and sounds like a few years later than that – but it gets very close. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.