Review: for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf

There is a lot of joy in for colored girls…, most of it connected to music and dancing, especially the salsa dura of artists like Willie Colón and Eddie Palmieri. Playwright Ntozake Shange did call the play a “choreopoem” after all. But there is also a lot of terror and sadness at the way black women are treated by men. Unfortunately, this is still as timely as ever.

for colored girls is a series of vignettes of life as a black woman that crisscrosses the United States and all kinds of experiences, from the ecstatic to the devestating. We meet, for example, a teenage girl in St. Louis who falls in love with a historical personage she read about in a book: Toussaint L’Ouverture, a heroic leader of the 1790s Haitian Revolution. On her search for him she meets a real St. Louis boy also named Toussaint – and suddenly is less interested in finding M. L’Overture. This sort of fabulist poeticism provides stark contrast to the play’s darkest moments, which include evocations of rape and murder.

The power of this choreopoem can be found in Shange’s truly pungent writing, with lines as powerful as these: “I found God in myself and I loved Her – fearlessly,” “six blocks of cruelty piled up on itself,” “I couldn’t stand being colored and sorry at the same time – it seems redundant in the modern world” “I survive on intimacy and tomorrow,” “I was missing something promised,” – truly an endless flow of pithy, evocative language.

Director and choreographer Camille A. Brown – the first black woman in many decades to execute both roles on Broadway – conveys a propulsive rhythm even in the stillest scenes, which really revs up when paired with composers Martha Redbone and Aaron Whitby’s updated take on salsa dura. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Plaza Suite

Playwright Neil Simon has never been my cup of tea, especially his early plays. From 1983’s Brighton Beach Memoirs onwards, I can appreciate his fully matured skill. And he had a gift for one-liners from his beginning in the TV comedy writing rooms of the 1950s, which makes even his most lackluster plays passably amusing. But on a thematic level, meh – too mild and old-fashioned. Plaza Suite (which originally opened in 1968) is on the high end of the “passably amusing” stack, moving from moody quippiness to increasingly entertaining farce.

The play is in three acts, but the only character that appears in all three is Suite 917 of the Plaza Hotel – so beautiful recreated by set designer John Lee Beatty that it got its own entrance applause as the curtain went up. Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick play a different couple in each act.

The first one finds a businessman and his suspicious wife on their anniversary (during which the marriage essentially unravels). In the second, a successful Hollywood producer attempts to seduce a girlfriend from long ago in their smallish hometown of Tenafly, New Jersey. The final act is a raucous farce about a middle-aged couple whose daughter, in an attack of wedding day jitters, has locked herself in the bathroom.

Broderick and (especially) Parker are in fine form, especially since director John Benjamin Hickey has both doing the damn best phyisical comedy I have ever seen either do, which considerably elevates the production’s funny quotient. Jane Greenwood’s costumes are as handsome and well-considered as Beatty’s set, and are perfect for SJP. Yes, I know she can make anything look good, but these fit as well as the chic leather gloves Greenwood gives her in the second act. The best outfits conjure the Pucci / Gucci side of 60s “mod” with great élan.

It also helps a great deal that well-executed featherweight comedy is what the doctor ordered when the news is as grim as it tends to be these days. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Company

Easily the best thing I’ve seen since live performance returned to New York, it’s no surprise that this is that good. First, it’s one of Stephen Sondheim’s very best musicals. Then it’s Marianne Elliott in the director’s chair, and she’s is probably the only stage director whose work manages to surprise me every 10 minutes. And then this cast! A troupe headlined by talents Katrina Lenk and Patti LuPone that includes exceptionally talented actors such as Claybourne Elder and Christopher Fitzgerald in ensemble roles? You just can’t go wrong.

It is so satisfying that this production of Company is as good in fact as it looks on paper. Elliott had the brilliant idea or changing the bachelor Bobby of the original production into bachelorette Bobbie. As well, she has set the production in the present day, not 1970. Both choices illuminate the musical in ways that are truly fresh.

The male Bobby was always a bit opaque, perhaps a little dull even. Bobbie on the other hand, has more interesting issues: does she want to give up her hard-fought freedom? How much does she really want to be a mother? (There’s even a whole “baby” dream ballet, truly haunting, almost a nightmare). The stakes are significantly higher, and Lenk brilliantly plays every moment.

Elliott’s staging is her usual neon-tinged phantasmagoria which suits this show to a T, giving the whole matter a “Bobbie in Wonderland” feel – as non-linear as the musical itself. As the gimlet-eyed alcoholic matron Joanne, Patti LuPone delivers her trademark razor-sharp timing to fantastic effect. Another brilliant change finds “Amy” changed to “Jamie” a gay man about to marry his long-time boyfriend. Matt Doyle is neurotic perfection in the role, delivering one of Sondheim’s most difficult songs “I’m Not Getting Married Today” with dazzling precision and virtuosity.

I don’t think I could recommend a show more highly than I recommend this one. Truly a must-see.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Trouble in Mind

It’s no accident that the cast of Trouble in Mind, a play, features musical theatre powerhouses like LaChanze and Chuck Cooper – music features prominently in the play, in both positive and negative ways. Alice Childress wrote this backstage drama in the mid-1950s; it follows rehearsalsfor Chaos in Belleville, a patronizing anti-lynching play written by a white author (never seen), and directed by a white man Al Manners (Michael Zegen), who fancies himself a genius, but turns out to be a talentless tyrannical hack.

The positive musical moments are singing for just the joy of it. The negative moments are stereotypical spirituals written into Chaos which Manners thinks he can coach his black cast members to do better. LaChanze plays leading actress Wiletta Mayer, the person who ends up locking horns with Manners the most, in spite of advising a young actor to keep his head down when dealing with “the man.”

Childress uses the intrigues of the rehearsal process to deeply delve into the psychology of race relations as they stood in the 1950s. While it’s clear that Trouble deals with serious themes, I should be clear that it is a very lively play, brimming over with humor and spirit. Cooper supplies a lot of the comic relief as Sheldon, an older actor for whom humor is a defense mechanism. All of the characters are three-dimensional, however, and as such Sheldon also gets a very emotional monologue about witnessing a lynching.

Trouble in Mind was an Off-Broadway success when it first appeared in 1955, and producers were interested in taking it to Broadway. They asked Childress to soften it, very ironic since major themes of the play include learning to stand up for yourself and ask the important questions. Childress predictably refused, and it has taken 66 years for it to finally arrive. It’s a very engaging play, emotionally and intellectually, and I’m so glad it’s here. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Thoughts of a Colored Man

This is a “slice of life in a neighborhood” play, let’s settle that first. And a pretty damn good one. Much was made in the marketing of elements of slam poetry, but there’s only a sprinkling of that here, like a splash of hot sauce. The neighborhood in question is a mostly black neighborhood in Brooklyn, where gentrification is encroaching, barbershops being replaced by Whole Foods and Paris Baguette.

At basis it is a love letter to the camaraderie of black men, symbolized by such barbershops. But Thoughts of a Colored Man is also rigorously critical of not only the daunting challenges created by systemic racism, but also the failings, individually and collectively, of black men. While the characters all have allegorical names like Love and Anger, they are actually finely etched characters who all have their good points and flaws – which is one the play’s great virtues.

While there are whiffs of toxic masculinity here and there, there is also an extraordinary moment when, in the key barbershop scene (one of the longest in the show), Lust (Da’Vinchi) tells a “fag joke” and is immediately rebuked by the shop’s long-time owner Wisdom (Esau Pritchett), allowing gay man Happiness (Bryan Terrell Clark), who is new to the neighborhood, to come out by the end of the scene.

Happiness gets a couple more scenes, one a monologue detailing the difficulties faced by a middle-class black man married to a white man, including “being too black for my white friends and too white for my black friends.” He also has a scene with Depression (Forrest McClendon), a man who studied to be a engineer but was forced by circumstance to take a low-paying job at Whole Foods.

All the actors are seriously impressive performers and director Steve H. Broadnax III’s staging is understated while still being very dynamic. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Dana H

While actress Deirdre O’Connell expertly lip-syncs this entire show, this is galaxies away from, say, Lypsinka. O’Connell lip-syncs to recorded interviews of playwright Lucas Hnath’s mother Dana, regarding her harrowing experience being kidnapped by a murderously insane white supremacist in 1997 (Hnath edited the interviews into a cohesive hour-long piece). O’Connell is amazingly precise, down to every jangle of Dana’s bracelets, yet also brings a layer of expert acting to it that elevates the whole affair. Steve Cuiffo, the Lip Sync Consultant, must have a lock on that area of expertise – he has indeed been known to Lypsinka. He has certainly coached O’Connell well, she never misses a second.

Dana has long been a hospice chaplain in Florida, and in ’97 a suicidal Aryan Brotherhood member came under her care and became attached to her. Eventually he took her captive and tormented her for five months. Dana is quick witted and hardy, so her description of these events rarely descends into self pity. She is, if anything, oddly detached, which makes hearing about this horrible experience somewhat more bearable. But it becomes clear that she was truly powerless in a way she could not have understood before these events.

Director Les Waters stages the evening very minimally, with Dana mostly narrating events from a chair in a motel room (her captor essentially moved them from motel to motel). The moments that depart from that format are all the more effective because of the contrast with that simplicity. Mikhail Fiksel’s audio editing and sound design is truly a marvel. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Lehman Trilogy

Surprisingly brisk, this 3 plus hour drama follows the history of Lehman Brothers for as long an actual Lehman was involved, from 1844 (when Henry Lehman opened a fabric store in Montgomery, Alabama), to around 1969 (when the last Lehman family member to run the bank, Bobby, passed away). There is a brief coda about its decline and fall, but this is mostly the history of the Lehman family. It is a above all a portrait of “The American Dream.” It doesn’t shy away from that dream’s darker side: the brothers make their first fortune on the cotton trade, which at the time was driven by the historical crime of slave labor.

In a clever conceit, director Sam Mendes stages this saga in the offices of Lehman on the day before its 2008 collapse, projecting black and white imagery behind its glass walls to evoke the needed 19th and early 20th locales. Further, the three actors who play the founding brothers Henry (Simon Russel Beale), Emmanuel (Adrian Lester) and Mayer (Adam Godley) also play a host of other people as well. This causes some comedy when the stout, gray-bearded Beale plays a series of Lehman brides, who run the gamut from demure to deeply cynical.

The script, by Stephano Massimi (playwright) and Ben Powers (adapter), is comprised primarily of narration. These dexterous actors rather miraculously find ways to express action and emotion in the driest recitation of numbers and facts, which does a great deal to bring this story to vibrant life. Massimi has skillfully woven throughout the play thematic threads about bad dreams and ever-shortening periods of mourning for family members who pass away. The storytelling is uniformly crisp and exciting.

This so easily could have been tedious, but The Lehman Trilogy is tautly executed from beginning to end. This is the work of expert craftspeople and artists in every field of theatrical endeavor. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Lackawanna Blues

In this solo play, Ruben Santiago-Hudson celebrates the woman who raised him in her boarding house in Lackawanna (just outside Buffalo) who is known variously as Nanny, Mother and Miss Rachel. He not only portrays himself and Miss Rachel, but also some 20 other boarders who passed through the house throughout the 1950s and 1960s, when Ruben was growing up.

I’m usually suspicious of shows that are written and directed by the same person; usually they’re much better at one job than the other. Here Santiago-Hudson does both, as well as playing every part. Based on the tour-de-force result, I’d say the man has earned his bona fides – then again, he has worked with the likes of playwright August Wilson as director and actor, and acted for legendary directors like George C. Wolfe and Lloyd Richards.

Miss Rachel would take care of anybody who needed it, which is why everybody called her “Mother.” In mid-century Lackawanna, this led to a motley collection of misfits and crazies passing through her doors, all of whom Santiago-Hudson portrays with great sensitivity. Many were harmless, but many were violent, and Ruben doesn’t shy away from this. Nanny herself fearlessly stood up to these toughs and abusers, which leads to some of the show’s most dramatic moments, as Santiago-Hudson contrasts their toxic rantings with Miss Rachel’s terrifyingly steely calm.

This show isn’t called a blues for nothing: Almost the entirety of the play is accompanied by blues guitar-playing from Junion Mack, recreating the score created by long-time Santiago-Hudson collaborator, the late Bill Sims Jr. Ruben himself is a talent ed harmonica player, and pipes in with his “harp” at judiciously selected moments. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Is This A Room

Is this a play? It certainly is a transcript of the FBI interrogation of Reality Winner (played here by Emily Davis), a 25-year-old former Air Force linguist charged with leaking evidence of Russian interference in U.S elections. On June 3, 2017, Winner was surprised at her home by the FBI. In Is This A Room, we witness that interaction, filtered through the lens of conceiver and director Tina Satter’s staging.

That filter is of very mixed quality. Some of Satter’s staging is quite elegant, especially the way she indicates redactions in the transcript through freezes, lighting shifts and blackouts. But some is decidedly heavy handed, creating Pinteresque menace where the transcript doesn’t suggest it.

Some moments do feel like TV cop procedural tropes, but that’s largely because those tropes are rooted in truth. There’s Agent Garrick (Pete Simpson), the “good cop” (but who is also clearly a skilled interrogator); Agent Taylor (Will Cobbs), the “bad cop” (but mostly just the strong, silent, sometimes kind cop) and the name-unknown grunt cop (Becca Blackwell). The cast is uniformly terrific with Davis and Simpson skillfully carrying most of the show’s weight.

I’ll allow that the course of the interrogation has significant innate drama, but ultimately isn’t very insightful. The most significantly dramatic thing about Winner’s story is that she received an inordinately long prison sentence for what was ultimately a minor security leak. But that’s a story that isn’t told here, save for brief voice over by the real life Winner at the end. That’s the story I’d be much more interested in seeing.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Chicken & Biscuits

The best way to see Chicken & Biscuits is to arrange to be in front of an enthusiastic church lady. By happy accident I was seated in front of just such a lady, who was definitely not shy with the occasional “Amen!!” and “Tell it!!” – it very much added to the fun of this already quite entertaining show.

The play focuses on the rivalry between the late pastor’s two daughters, the “holier-than-thou” Baneatta (Cleo King) and the flashily vulgar Beverly (Ebony Marshall-Oliver). Baneatta’s husband – and the church’s new pastor – Reginald (the magnificent as always Norm Lewis) tries to keep the peace while preparing the eulogy. There’s also a gay subplot involving Baneatta’s son Kenny (Devere Rogers) and his nebbishy Jewish boyfriend Logan (the ever-hilarious Michael Urie). Baneatta barely tolerates Logan, and Logan is terrified of Baneatta.

Director Zhailon Livingston (the youngest Black director in Broadway history) has assembled a first-rate group of physical comedians who deliver playwright Douglas Lyon’s zesty comic lines with flawless timing. Lewis in particular wonderfully manages a eulogy which begins with very awkward homilies, but eventually finds its way to barnstorming spirit and zeal (church lady loved that part too). The play deals with themes of forgiveness and kindness in well-tread ways, but since the world is in profound need of both qualities you won’t find me raising a strong objection. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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