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.

Review: Pass Over

The simple fact offbeing back in a Broadway theatre, especially one as beautiful as the August Wilson, was a moving experience in and of itself. The play at that theatre, Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over, is several things. For one thing, this black-themed surrealist drama is an opening bell for the Broadway community’s commitment to being more diverse going forward. The play itself certainly has its heart in the right place, but the realization of its high ideals is a mixed bag.

The play mostly draws its inspiration from Waiting for Godot. As in Beckett’s play, we have two protagonists trapped in their situation, in this case a desolate urban street-corner in place of Beckett’s country road. As in Beckett, one, Moses (Jon Michael Hill), is a pontificating top dog, the other, Kitch (Namir Smallwood), a goofy wild card.

My issue: the play works too hard to hew to the outline of Godot. The moments where it deviates the most from Beckett’s model are its most effective, and I wish there were more of them. In fact the best part of the play is its conclusion, where Nwandu abandons Godot for a rapturously strange evocation of the Book of Exodus (not to leer, but it also features nudity, and the actors have clearly been working on their assets).

Also, Moses exhibits traits of toxic masculinity, and while Nwandu has clearly made that character decision intentionally, she offers no coherent criticism of that syndrome – and this in a play jam-packed with coherent criticisms. This just puzzles me. Hill makes the best of it however, sensitively playing to the wounds that led Moses to construct this fiercely defensive emotional armor. In spite of its flaws, Pass Over is an exciting and dynamic return for Broadway, and I can recommend it.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Grand Horizons

The cast was what most drew me to Grand Horizons. The opportunity to see Jane Alexander, Michael Urie, Priscilla Lopez and James Cameron together in a comedy – that’s just too tempting! I knew almost nothing else about the play going in, and playwright Bess Wohl – whose work I had not previously seen – pleasantly surprised me. Her comedy comes more from character than one-liners (save the odd blue word used solely for laughs), and she gets across more about human psychology than most comedies this hilarious ever manage.

Alexander and Cameron play married couple Bill and Nancy French, who have spent fifty years as husband and wife. As the show opens, we find them at an “independent living” house, silently preparing a meal with the kind of synchronization that only comes after many years of living together. Once they sit down to eat, Nancy announces that she wants a divorce.

Among other things, Grand Horizons examines the effect her decision has on their two grown children Brian (Urie) and Ben (Ben McKenzie). Brian is gay, has a tight relationship with Nancy and simply cannot understand why she would want to do this. Bill is taciturn as many men of his generation are, a quality he has passed on to his married son Ben – the chaotic consequences of not communicating is a major theme of the play.

I’ve never seen Jane Alexander do comedy, but I am not shocked that she plays it as superbly as anything she puts her mind to. We know Urie to be an excellent comic actor, and he’s as funny as ever. Cameron and McKenzie are given less to work with, but their silences speak volumes. Priscilla Lopez plays Carla, a contemporary of Bill and Nancy, and provides a marvelously colorful foil to Alexander’s patrician take on Nancy. Ashley Park delights as Ben’s pregnant wife, Jess. Maulik Pancholy is a sexy, riotous hot mess as Tommy, a horny and very frolicsome trick that Brian bring back to his parents residence late at night. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Inheritance

This is an exciting, thought-provoking show. I’ve seen it compared to Angels in America – they both involve gay American history and are split into two long parts – but they are quite different animals. Angels’ author Tony Kushner, tends toward broad scope and metaphysical philosophizing. The Inheritance‘s playwright Matthew Lopez, however, focuses on more human-scale stories. Yes, there is much in the play that underlines how much “the personal is the political,” but running time to one side, The Inheritance concentrates on relatively ordinary people navigating complicated lives.

Does it, then, justify that running time? Thankfully, yes. Lopez has a real gift for crafting believable and engaging characters. Because of this, over its many hours The Inheritance never lapses into tedium, no small accomplishment. Lopez loosely adapts E. M. Forster’s novel Howards End to 21st Century gay New York, following the interlinking lives of three generations of gay men searching for love and a place to call home. Like Forster’s book, the play interrogates social conventions and codes of conduct in relationships, but since the milieu is very different, Lopez reaches intriguingly different conclusions.

Lopez centers his story on Eric Glass (Kyle Soller, in a marvelously nuanced, even elegant portrayal), a a compassionate but conflicted native New Yorker. Also, Forster is not only the source of the plot’s outline, he also appears as a character, played with delicate dignity by Paul Hilton. He advises and inspires a young gay writer played by the remarkably talented (and toned!) Samuel H. Levine. Not for the only time, Lopez teases you with suspense – which of the characters that Levine plays is telling this story? Director Stephen Daldrey gives the narrative lots of air and makes weaving this complex tapestry seem breathtakingly easy. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: A Christmas Carol

This is quite possibly the best stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol I’ve seen. And there have been a lot of them: This holiday chestnut is an audience favorite, and – even better for theatres’ budgets – in the public domain. For this Broadway version, which originated at London’s Old Vic, adaptor Jack Thorne brilliantly interweaves sharp social commentary (never far away in Dickens) with ineffable warmth and joy.

Director Matthew Warchus greatly magnifies that warmth even before the show starts, with the cast tossing and passing clementines and cookies to the audience. They even chat congenially with the audience – a friend of mine had some lovely face time with Andrea Martin (who plays the Spirit of Christmas Past). The smell of people peeling clementines hugely helps to conjure the Christmas spirit. Get there early!

Our Scrooge is Cambpell Scott (whose father George C. Scott played the role in a terrific 1984 TV movie adaptation). He brings great nuance to the role, with flashes of vulnerability even early on, which clearly unnerve Scrooge, but also foreshadow his eventual change of heart. And when that change of heart comes, Warchus turns the warmth and joy all the way up with another bit of audience interaction which spectacularly embraces the entire theatre.

Rob Howell’s set envelops the theatre as well, with Victorian lanterns in huge numbers hanging over the stage and audience. Thorne treats the story as an ensemble piece, and when that ensemble includes performers as fine as Martin and LaChanze, you know you’re in good hands. In another super-smart twist, Tiny Tim is played by a differently-abled boy (Jai Ram Srinivasan at the performance I attended) which makes the scenes with him – which can be mawkishly sentimental – much more realistic and all the more genuinely touching for it. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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