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.

Advertisements

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.

Review: The Waverly Gallery

This play is about Alzheimer’s. That is the major thing you have to be aware of, because if you’ve known someone with the affliction, this can be hard going. The Waverly Gallery is a very good play about Alzheimer’s, with some lighthearted stuff to make it all easier to take (until it isn’t). And at the heart of this revival is a stunning performance from the legendary Elaine May as the person suffering from Alzheimer’s, one Gladys Green.

One of the things that makes The Waverly Gallery more bearable – but ultimately more tragic – is that Gladys has a wonderful personality: intellectual, kind and generous. After working as a lawyer and social activist in her younger days, Gladys operated a small art gallery in Greenwich Village for many decades. The play finds her still running the gallery in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the disease is affecting her more and more, and focuses on the effect of her decline on her family, especially her grandson Daniel (Lucas Hedges, who underplays the part marvelously).

May has the gargantuan task of inhabiting this vital, bright woman who thinks she’s still in full command of her faculties, while also showing us, scene by scene, exactly how much she’s losing her grip, bit by awful bit. It takes a razor-sharp mind to convey that change over the course of an evening, and May is sharp as a tack – even if Gladys isn’t – giving us a mesmerizing portrayal of fragility and decline. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Ferryman

There is an extensive dramatic literature about strife in Ireland. So, crafting a drama that takes a fresh angle, and tells that story in a new way is no small accomplishment. That’s exactly what playwright Jez Butterworth has achieved in The Ferryman, an enormous family tragicomedy set during “The Troubles.” Specifically, the play is set in rural County Armagh, Northern Ireland, late summer 1981. The Carney farmhouse hums with activity in preparation for the annual harvest. A day of hard work on the land and a traditional feast finds the family inexorably – and tragically – drawn back into the arms of the Irish Republican Army.

Director Sam Mendes deftly weaves together the everyday and mystical elements that Butterworth has weaved into this complex tapestry of a play. Paddy Considine plays household head Quinn Carney brilliantly, sharply etching the bright lights and deep darks of this deeply-conflicted central character.

The Ferryman is above all an ensemble show. Butterworth has given each of its many characters a distinctive personality, Mendes has given structure to this often chaotic household, and every member of the ensemble plays the hell out of their part no matter how large or small. A particular standout is the luminous Fionnula Flanagan as Aunt Maggie Far Away, a mostly catatonic elder family member, who, when she comes to life, comes blazingly to life.

Does The Ferryman earn its 3 hour and 15 minutes running time? Not 100%. There are times, especially in Act III, where it feels like Butterworth is luxuriating in a moment too much. But it is still, overall, a rewarding production of a richly written play. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Lifespan of a Fact

This is one tight little machine of a play, never letting up for much of its hour and a half. Even more, while it is dense and thematically packed, the play simultaneously retains a razor-sharp focus on character. This makes it particularly compelling. The Lifespan of a Fact is based on the true story of “What Happens There” an essay by John D’Agata (played here by Bobby Canavale) about the Las Vegas suicide of teenager Levi Presley. Jim Fingal (Daniel Radcliffe), assigned to fact check the piece, ignites a debate on the blurred lines of what passes for truth in literary nonfiction.

The play doesn’t directly address the present administration’s excessively unhinged grasp (or lack thereof) of what constitutes a fact. The closest it comes to that is Fingal warning D’Agata that, in this day and age, playing fast and loose with fact leads directly to unscrupulous or gullible people developing conspiracy theories. That said, its intelligent examination of the very nature of truth feels exceedingly timely. Radcliffe and Canavale are formidable as these two strong personalities, and Cherry Jones (“formidable” could be her middle name) is just as terrific as their editor Emily.

Director Leigh Silverman keep the tension, and propulsion, going in every moment. The Lifespan of a Fact rigorously explores the nature of accuracy in journalism, and the dangers of taking literary license when writing non-fiction, even if the aim is getting at deep truths. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Bernhardt / Hamlet

As a director, I have always practiced diversity in casting, and have long been persuaded of the justice of gender parity in casting, which, more often than not, means that women will be playing men. So the idea that a great actress should play Hamlet seems quite natural to me. I’m very much looking forward to Glenda Jackson playing King Lear later this season. However, I still feel that I’m in the minority here – a growing minority, to be sure, but I find I have to defend that line of thinking more than I’d like. More than feels right.

So just imagine, then, when well over a century ago “The Divine” Sarah Bernhardt let it be known she’d be playing Hamlet. It wasn’t 100% unheard of – Bernhardt herself had already played Lorenzo de’ Medici. But this was, you know, Hamlet! Ever-agile playwright Theresa Rebeck has fashioned a highly entertaining portrayal of the struggle Bernhardt faced in bringing her Hamlet to life.

Rebeck illuminates why a woman is an ideal choice to play the role, while also giving us insight into the artistic challenges facing Bernhardt in particular in making the role align with her decidedly majestic approach to acting. She also looks at the broader social situation in which playwrights offer Bernhardt roles that treat her as some ideal, rather than a complex human being – roles which would of course be a complete bore to play. Thus, Hamlet. As Bernhardt, Janet McTeer is scintillating and mesmerizing, just like you would want “The Divine Sarah” to be. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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