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.

Review: The Sound Inside

This subtle play probes enormous life and death issues facing people with big intellects and small lives. Brilliant but defensive (and damaged?) Yale creative writing major Christopher Dunn (Will Hochman) vies for the attention of his self-possessed, reclusive professor Bella Baird (Mary-Louise Parker). She finds herself drawn to him, and mentors him in writing his novel. But life gets in the way, in a big way.

The Sound Inside is above all a vehicle for the actor playing Bella who either narrates or monologues for much of the play. Parker is at the peak of her powers here, playing playwright Adam Rapp’s sometimes purple prose with great precision and restraint. The problems she faces put her in contact with life’s biggest questions, and neither Bella nor Parker flinches in the face of these massive subjects. Hochman rises to her challenge, giving warmth and softness to a young man who could come off as unpleasant. Both performances are remarkably honest and vulnerable.

Director David Cromer does masterful work here, particularly in his collaboration with designers Heather Gilbert (lighting) and Aaron Rhyne (projections). Images and colors appear out of nowhere, and fade back into obscurity with equal delicacy. They wrap Alexander Woodward’s minimalist set in a cloak of mystery and darkness. Daniel Kluger’s music punctuates the play with the lightest of touches. Rapp, for his part, portrays the world of academia with a knowingness that is equal parts affectionate and cynical. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Great Society

Robert Schenkkan compellingly told how Lyndon B. Johnson won the 1964 election in his play All The Way. After Johnson won, he passionately articulated a bold plan to build a just society for all Americans, an agenda of several acts he collectively called “The Great Society.” In the play The Great Society, Schenkkan’s sequel to All the Way, we explore how LBJ went from his landslide victory to his exhausted decision not to run for re-election just three years later.

“The Great Society” was one of the most ambitious reform programs in American history, but would eventually be derailed by ruthless Republican stonewalling, as LBJ himself sank into the quagmire that was the Vietnam War. The Great Society‘s inventive creative team brings this very troubled period of history to vibrant life. Director Bill Rauch deftly arranges the frequent shifts in locale and mood with deceptive simplicity. It also helps that playwright Robert Schenkkan successfully conveys a strong sense of time, place and stakes in every line of his jazzy dialogue.

Playing LBJ, Brian Cox brilliantly captures that president’s tireless energy and ruthless political gamesmanship being worn away by circumstances out of his control. The Great Society has the heft of a Shakespeare history play, which is unsurprising given the play’s origin as a commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Cox’s almost tragic performance as Johnson is the real heart of this production, a moving portrait of a man’s ambitions and dreams rapidly evaporating. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: The Height of the Storm

In Florian Zeller’s delicately surreal new play The Height of the Storm, Zeller investigates grief for the passing of a beloved spouse, as well as the difficulty of dealing with dementia in a spouse or parent. In the last few years, there have been a spate of excellent plays on Broadway dealing with many varieties of dementia – among them Zeller’s own The Father. While there are echoes of that play here, The Height of the Storm emphasizes the complete loss of your life partner, not you memories.

The play bounces back and forth between different narratives. In one, famous writer André (Jonathan Pryce) is grieving for his wife Madeleine (Eileen Atkins). In another, Madeleine is grieving for André. In yet another both are still alive, but André is slipping into dementia – actually this is happening in all of the narratives.

The play is complex enough that one can interpret it several ways. One person I spoke with perceived that this was all in André’s confused mind, as happened in The Father. I prefer to think that we are seeing several different realities play out, perhaps even more than the ones I described above. In one, André had an affair, in another it was a student of his that had the affair, etc., etc. Certainly Zeller keeps us on our toes with his imaginative and precise writing.

I have never seen Jonathan Pryce better. He moved me with his performance, which he has never done before. Eileen Atkins is also exceptional, and the supporting cast uniformly excellent. Director Jonathan Kent and lighting designer Hugh Vanstone help us track the shifting reality with intricately calibrated lighting changes working hand in hand with thoughtful, rigorous staging. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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