Review: Leopoldstadt

The titular traditionally Jewish district of Vienna is the setting for Tom Stoppard’s latest play, also among his best in my opinion. This district was Jewish long ago, in the 1600s, when it was called Im Werd. Ironically it was renamed Leopoldstadt for Emperor Leopold I, who drove the Jews out of Austria. Later rulers allowed some Jewish families back, but it took time to rebuild. None of this is the subject of Leopoldstadt. Instead it follows a wealthy Jewish family between the years 1899 and 1955. If you know European history you can see where this is going, but Stoppard rings some very interesting changes on one’s expectations.

In 1899, Jewish Vienna – and Vienna in general – was at its most vibrant. Psychology legend Sigmund Freud lived there, the great composer and conductor Gustav Mahler was in residence (he later was director of the New York Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera), both of whom are referenced in this scene, to the effect “they belong to us.” And they were just the tip of the iceberg for that era of Jewish Vienna. As years pass WW I and the Russian Revolution lead to disillusionment among the family.

Then comes the Anschluss – the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany. The family hurriedly devises escape plans, but the Nazis march into their house. This, however, is not the end of this very twisty scene. In 1955, the family members who have survived the Holocaust return to the house. The genius of Stoppard here is that he communicates not only the human cost of the Holocaust – although he does that, to devastating effect – but also the loss of a whole culture of immeasurable importance to Europe’s artistic and intellectual history.

The large cast of this epic play is uniformly excellent, especially the players in the 1955 scene: Jenna Augen, Brandon Uranowitz and Arty Froushan. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Ain’t No Mo’

I was sorely disappointed at the early closing of KPOP, a tightly structured musical that offered freshness, originality and innovative spectacle. Closed before I could even finish a rave review! Perhaps the first musical that made me say “WERQ! LIVING!” Well, I uttered those very same words the following night at the equally fresh and original play Ain’t No Mo’, which, dammit, seemed to be heading for exactly the same fate. Then, luminaries from Tyler Perry to Shonda Rimes stepped in, buying out whole performances, earning the play a week’s reprieve, and dammit, I hope for more.

The premise of the comedy is stated as “What happens if the American government offered African Americans a one-way ticket back to Africa?” Part of the innovation at play here is the structure: it’s a series of comedy sketches that nonetheless are all in service of a single story arc. The tone is also innovative: while this is mostly a wickedly satirical comedy, it can turn tragic on a dime and not be shy about staying there for minutes at a time. One of the songs I was listening to while writing this review, “Drop Dat” by Willie Thee Bawdy, rhymed “books by bell hooks” with “hip hop Mel Brooks” – yep that’s Ain’t No Mo’!

The glue holding the play together is Peaches, the gate agent for the flight taking people back to Africa. When she says the flight number out loud – 1619 (the year the first African slaves were shipped to the colony of Virginia) – it sent a chill up my spine. Mind you, Peaches is played in drag by one Jordan E. Cooper, who is also the playwright, and as such, at 27, the youngest American playwright in Broadway history (there’s a “WERQ!”). We re-visit Peaches several times with increasing urgency (never losing the comic notes) and Cooper delivers whip-smart timing, alternately combining straight up laugh lines and finely graded nuance. And often enough, rage.

The remainder of the cast is very much on Cooper’s level. The costumes are fabulous (I would expect no less from Emilio Sosa), the sets subtle but expressive (I would expect no less from Scott Pask). Run, don’t walk to see this utterly unique and fantastic masterstroke. THE VERY HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION!!

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: A Christmas Carol

There have been a lot of stage adaptations of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol: This holiday chestnut is an audience favorite, and – even better for theatres’ budgets – in the public domain. The best I have ever seen was a very warm and spectacular version on Broadway in 2019, which had the cast tossing and passing clementines and cookies to the audience before the show. This season’s Broadway version is second only to that one, but takes an opposite approach, leaning into the Gothic elements of what is essentially a ghost story.

In fact it’s so Gothic that in place of those clementines there are eerie sounds in the house, and a dimly lit ornate coffin on the stage. A sudden total blackout accompanied by a loud thud of a sound cue reconfirms the chilly, ominous tone. When the lights come back on, the brilliant Jefferson Mays begins narrating a version of the story closely adapted from an abridged version Dickens himself took on many a reading tour. Not for nothing Jefferson Mays is listed in the program simply as “The Mourner.”

But this is certainly not just a reading. The work of all the designers, especially Projection Designer Lucy Mackinnon, transmit the spectral atmosphere with great ingenuity – as spectacular as that 2019 production in an entirely different way.

Mays, long since known to be the master of playing multiple characters, plays no less than 50 here. Most effective: a Jacob Marley who truly appears to have cold dead eyes, a Bob Crachit who is genuinely warmly self-effacing, and of course Scrooge himself, whose arc of redemption Mays gives real heft. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Kite Runner

I am one of the few people who hasn’t read Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner, so I came to Matthew Spangler’s stage adaptation with fresh eyes. And to me, it is a profoundly moving story, deftly told. Many have said the novel is better – but isn’t it always? Novels have time to linger on an image or a thought, and in the compressed world of theatre, you can’t do as much of that. You tell me the novel is better, and I tell you the adaptation, taken by itself, is one of the most powerful plays I have seen in recent memory. The story remains lucidly expessed, the emotional undertow, deeply poingant.

For one thing, director Giles Croft staging is satisfyingly fluid and compelling. For another, Amir Arison (The Blacklist) gives a profoundly emotional performance as narrator and central character Amir, so good that I hope he is remembered when Tony nominations come around. Amir grew up in Kabul, back when it was peaceful and prosperous, the son of a wealthy Pashtun merchant. He becomes close to Hassan (a very expressive Eric Sirakian), the son of his father’s servant, who is Hazara, an ethnic group much discriminated against by Pashtuns.

At a vital moment, Amir betrays Hassan, and the remainder of the tale follows his guilt and eventual redemption. It also tells of the travails of the Afghan nation since Amir’s 1970s youth. He and his father Baba (Faran Tahir) become refugees when the Soviets invade, and settle into a working class life in Northern California. Events compel Amir to go to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, where he is horrified by the deterioration and violence visited on his homeland.

I can’t say it enough, this is powerful, cathartic theatre, truly a must-see. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive

Any show that opens with Julie White screaming the c-word promises to be a wild ride, and POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive does not dissapoint. Those seven magnificent women are: First Lady Margaret (Vanessa Williams), the president’s criminally-minded sister Bernadette (Lea DeLaria), chief of staff Harriet (White), press secretary Jean (Suzy Nakamura), starchy personal secretary Stephanie (Rachel Dratch), “bimbo eruption” Dusty (Julianne Hough), and journalist / mother Chris (Lilli Cooper).

Every single woman is hugely accomplished – even the supposedly ditzy Dusty has surprising hidden talents. While there are side slights at the present political climate, POTUS is mostly about the larger patriarchal idiocy of having charismatic but incompetent men in power, while these goddesses do the grunt work. This is the biggest laugh out loud comedy we’ve had in a very long time, so continuously hilarious it hurts.

Playwright Selina Fellinger spins chaos with pitch perfect precision, combining dialogue that’s both foul-mouthed and witty (often at the same time) with frenetic farcical door-slamming. Beowulf Barrit’s rotating set accelerates with the action until it’s turning like a carousel at the height of the second act’s high-speed pandemonium.

Director Susan Stroman keeps a zippy, even dizzy pace for the whole evening, with an exactitude of movement worthy of her legendary musical theatre work. The entire ensemble is flawless, but there are two definite standouts. Julie White is among the most gifted comic actors of our day, and she’s in her finest fettle here. But Rachel Dratch truly outdoes herself! When her nerdy character accidentally ingests a very powerful psychotropic drug, she reels into some of the most insane (and skilled) slapstick I’ve ever seen. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Hangmen

Strange. Macabre. Very funny. Martin McDonagh. These six words fit perfectly together, in the most natural way (or is it “unnatural”?). The playwright has made his career creating the very best dark comedies of the contemporary stage and screen. His newest play, Hangmen mostly happens in Lancashire in November 1965, just as capital punishment was being abolished in Britain, putting hangmen, whose numbers were already dwindling, completely out of work.

In the play, we follow fictional hangman Harry Wade (David Threlfall), a typical McDonagh comic bastard, who is in many ways awful (he killed people for a living, for goodness sake), but also has redeeming qualities. He now owns a pub, as did the historical “last hangman” Albert Pierrepoint, who has a presence is the play, and the mention of whose name makes Harry bristle.

Harry is joined behind the bar by his wife Alice (Tracie Bennett in full Brit broad mode) and his socially awkard daughter Shirley (Gaby French). Harry is the closest thing the small city of Oldham has to a celebrity, and local newspaper reporter Clegg (Owen Campbell) come’s to Harry’s pub to cover how this executioner feels about being abruptly retired. While initially refusing to talk, Harry eventually sings like a bird, trashing his nemesis Pierrepoint, who executed many more people than Harry, but those dead included Nazis and women, whom Harry chooses not to count. A menacing Londoner named Mooney (Alfie Allen) throws this day even more out of whack.

This being a McDonagh play this is only the first of many twists, mostly of the sinister variety. While he has made some terrific films, McDonagh is without a doubt a creature of the theatre, and I’m thrilled we have him back. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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: To My Girls

A gay sitcom that occassionally gets serious enough to register some important issues, especially those dealing with race and class, To My Girls is, in the main, pretty darn funny. Playwright JC Lee writes zingers that land because they a) tell the truth about joys of gay friendship or b) clock the little hypocrisies and unacknowledged prejudices that trouble such friendships. Does he cut much deeper than that? No. But how many gay plays that have reached the Off-Broadway scene this season have cut even that far? So, To My Girls is sufficiently insightful and entertaining…and sooo gay…to get my approval.

A group of gay friends who met in Brooklyn in the mid-2000s reuinite in 2022 in Palm Springs for a weekend getaway. Things don’t go particularly well, partially because most of them are growing wise to the fact that gorgeous, winsome white manchild Curtis (Jay Armstrong Johnson) is something of a narcissitic jerk underneath it all. We start off thinking this is his story, but it slowly becomes clear that the central character is his South Asian-American best friend Castor (Maulik Pancholy), who is the main object of both Curtis’s charm and his selfish manipulations.

Also in for the weekend from NYC is Leo (Britton Smith), who is what folks in the storytelling business call a “normative” character, that is, the truth-teller and voice of reason. Arriving to stir things up is Castor’s chiseled 20-something trick Omar (Noah J. Ricketts), who unexpectedly turns out to be the smartest person in the play. They are renting the place from gay eminence grise Bernie (Bryan Batt in his finest fettle) who is simulataneously insightful, and perhaps the biggest hypocrite of all.

These gurls musical taste seems to have frozen in time at 2008 (though Castor is revealed to be a fan of the 2010s vintage star Carly Rae Jepsen) – Britney reigns, and current divas like Dua Lipa or Lizzo get nary a mention. This could easily be a conscious choice on Lee’s part, since the arc of the play is from being trapped in the past to envisioning a better future. Lee gets points for addressing race and class, which few enough gay plays do. For that, and for its abundant humor, I can happily recommend To My Girls.

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: To Build A Soul (Justin Elizabeth Sayre)

Justin Elizabeth Sayre – the long-term chairman of “The International Order of Sodomites” – is back in town! This time with a solo autobiographical show detailing his life-long love affair with the theatre. In Sayre’s own words “Written during the pandemic, To Build a Soul is a love letter to the theatre if I never made it back. For the last two years, like so many artists, I wondered if we would ever make it back. If I would ever be able to return to the magic trick of live performance, to which I have dedicated most of my life. If I had one last chance, if I had one more try to stand on a stage and tell my story, what story would I tell? What would I want people to know? To Build a Soul, is that. A sort of farewell, and a call to the future all in one. Plus laughs, because, my god, I think we all need them.”

As such, this is more impassioned and has higher stakes than the kind of storytelling “stand up” Sayre became noted for in his wildly popular variety show The Meeting* (they returns to the variety format in January with the even queerer Assorted Fruit at Joe’s Pub). Sayre occasionally waxes poetic in this piece, though their sassy sissy wit is never far away. His tough yet femme persona remains in glorious effect, brassy as ever.

Sayre spends much time talking about feeling different as a child, including one occasion where a elementary school teacher labels them “too creative for his own good” in which, even though they were years away from puberty, they felt the underlying meaning of being “too faggot for your own faggot, faggot” (they also more objectively thought it was one of the stupidest things they’d ever heard). Performance, be it music or theatre, was Sayre’s saving grace from a very young age.

Sayre’s stories and thoughts are engaging at every turn. As always Sayre delivers a thoughtful but still very hilarious show I can happily highly recommend.

For tickets, click here.

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