December 2018: Deck the halls with exciting theatre

From reluctant dads to monster apes to prom queens, December offers a dizzying range of compelling theatrical encounters.   Here are seven productions worth seeing before the holidays.


King Kong on Broadway

“Animatromics”:  it’s a new theatrical term, and you’d better get used to it.  It’s the phenomenon that’s created the most exciting protagonist on Broadway this season.  He’s 20 feet tall, weighs two thousand pounds, and cost $35 million to produce.

King Kong (photo by Matthew Murphy)

The leading man I’m talking about is, of course, King Kong – in case you didn’t guess already.   He’s a remarkable creation of Creature Technology Company, an off-shoot of an Australian outfit that specializes in bringing animals to life through use of cable-pulled devices.  Kong is the fruit of years of technical development – and what a creation he is!  He has a steel skeleton and a carbon fiber skull.  His chest and abs are airbags, while his limbs are inflatable tubes, and his eyes – made of frosted acrylic – are scarily real.  It takes 10 visible onstage performer/ puppeteers to manipulate the monster on stage, while three so-called “voodoo operators” control some of his action from the theatre’s balcony, manipulating his hips, shoulder, neck, head and facial expressions with joysticks and pedals that operate motors inside his body. (Sixteen micropressors are involved.)   One of the operators creates his “voice – including growls and terrifying roars that modulate with his moods.  In short, it’s the most jaw-dropping technical achievement on Broadway since Lion King and Spiderman.

Adapted from the 1933 film, the King Kong stage adaptation loosely follows the original story.  In this version, a terrifying creature on Skull Island is captured by a filmmaker and transported to New York to be exploited.  In turn, the creature captures the heart of the producer’s leading lady Ann Darrow (played by Christiani Pitts, an African-American actress) who provides him with compassion, support and understanding.   Their friendship is the heart of the story – up until King Kong’s violent end.

Jack Thorne has updated the script for the stage; music and lyrics are by Eddie Perfect and Marius de Vries.  Drew McOnie directs and choreographs, while designer Peter England provides eye-popping projections of Kong stalking through the streets of the terrified city.

Ultimately, Kong is the show, and the show is Kong.  Bring your young family members, or whomever you can find who will help release your “inner child”, your naiveté, and sense of wonder at what the theatre can create today.


The New One on Broadway

It’s the funniest ninety minutes in the theatre so far this season– and that’s quite an accomplishment for a one-man show, one of the toughest acts on any stage.

The credit, of course, goes to Mike Birbiglia, the solo performer of The New One who holds you in his comedic thrall for his entire ninety-minute monologue. The topic?  “Why I don’t want to be a dad.”  He ends up being one, of course – that’s the punch line. (Hence the title.)

The New One (photo by Joan Marcus)

Our expectations are low when the play starts, with a bare-bones stage, and a pleasant-looking, non-threatening guy (roughly 40) in khakis and shirt.  He’s so “chill” and chatty that you snuggle back in your seat and relax, just as he does in the comfy “couch” he calls the anchor of his life, his living room, and his marriage.  Actually, it’s represented by a wooden stool, but he describes the couch so convincingly that it might as well be there, in all its squishy, grungy glory.

Mostly, Mike wanders around the stage and talks about his couch (he loves it), his wife (he loves her), and his many physical ailments (he’s obsessed).  They include bladder cancer, Lyme’s disease, and a sleep disorder that he describes in hilarious detail. Once Mike has charmed us with his easy, casual, meandering narrative, he segues into the real issue at hand – namely, his fear of becoming a father.   He launches into a list of reasons (including their pet cat), but in the end, accedes to his wife’s wishes.

The ensuing narrative covers the trials of pregnancy, birth and the “baby-makes-three” family triangle, described with the same self-deprecating humor that made us cackle with laughter through the first part.  It’s also punctuated by the most surprising coup de théâtre I’ve seen so far this season (as sensational, in its own way, as King Kong’s first appearance, but I won’t say more, to spoil your discovery.)  Thank you, Beowulf Boritt (set designer) and Seth Barrish (director) for that priceless moment.  Suffice it to say, you’ll be laughing throughout.

All during the show, I kept thinking of the late, great, much-missed Spalding Gray, whose memorable monologues were tinged with a similar neurosis and self-preoccupation.  Mike Birbiglia’s touch, however, is much lighter, and exudes an irresistible warmth – like that couch he keeps describing that embraces you like a cocoon while you enjoy his priceless monologue.


The Prom on Broadway

If you’re one of those with painful prom memories – like most of us, here’s your chance to recoup your lost youth.  The exuberant new musical called The Prom (book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin) is the most feel-good show of the season, thus far.

The Prom (photo by Deen van Meer)

The plot is fairly preposterous (but who cares?!)  A quartet of seasoned actors, smarting from terrible reviews of their recent Broadway flop, are determined to live down their label as “narcissists”. They look for a social cause to redeem their reputation – one that will attract positive national publicity.  They hear of an incident in Indiana, where a teenage lesbian couple is being denied attendance to the local high school prom.  So off they go to the town, to try to set things right as a means to restoring their positive image.

The cast is terrific.  Caitlin Kinnunen and Isabella McCalla as Emma and Alyssa – the gay girls – make a touching pair, with wonderful singing voices. Kate Marilley (who played Dee Dee Allen at the performance I saw) is delightful as the truly narcissistic diva, and Brooks Ashmanskas steals the show in the role of Barry Glickman, the aging song-and-dance man.  (Imagine Nathan Lane’s twin – that’s Ashmanskas.)  Christopher Sieber is hilarious as Trent Oliver, the Juilliard grad who never made it past graduation; Josh Lamon is delightful as the pudgy p.r. man of the quartet; and Gabi Campo (who played the Fosse-like chorus girl at the performance I saw) has great stage presence. There are a myriad of fun theatre-in-jokes, including the song-and-dance number “Zazz” (a riff off “All That Jazz”), plus references to Lin Manuel Miranda, Sondheim, and the show Godspell.

But the star of the show is the exuberant young ensemble playing the high school students who dance and sing their hearts out, directed and choreographed by the talented Casey Nicholaw.  He brings the bite of Book of Mormon (which he co-directed and choreographed), the sass of Mean Girls (which he directed), and the absurdity of Something’s Rotten (which he also directed) to this production, along with the extensive  experience he’s had directing other flashy Broadway shows (including Dreamgirls and Aladdin).  The show is tightly assembled on Scott Pask’s set, and the score is a delight. It’s delirious fun and an all-together winning night on Broadway!


The Waverly Gallery on Broadway

 This is a performance for the ages – and I mean that, literally.  I’m referring to the legendary Elaine May as Gladys, the octogenarian protagonist of Kenneth Lonergan’s deeply moving play, The Waverly Gallery.

The Waverly Gallery (photo by Brigitte Lacomb)

Gladys, you see, is 85, and Elaine May is – believe it – 87 years old, playing a matriarch who is slipping deeper and deeper into a devastating dementia before the eyes of her helpless, heartbroken family.   We first meet her in the small Greenwich Village gallery that bears the play’s title, where she spends her days.  A retired lawyer, Gladys is a widow who’s led an action-packed life.  She’s fiercely hanging on, and grateful to have someplace to go to around the corner of the apartment building where she and her grandson Dan are neighbors.  Her doting daughter Ellen and husband Howard invite her and Dan uptown for dinner every week, and it is at these family events that they begin to notice her decline.

The ensemble is superb.  Lucas Hedges, as grandson Dan, narrates the story of his grandmother’s demise with courage, clarity and heartbreaking compassion. Joan Allen (always marvelous) plays Ellen, the responsible daughter who heroically stands by her mother at her own expense.  David Cromer, an accomplished stage director, plays her husband with excellent comedic timing.  Michael Cera, the young painter whom Gladys befriends and invites to live in the gallery, is convincingly needy.  Lila Neugebauer directs the ensemble with skill and precision.

But it’s Elaine May’s show – and she’s a marvel.  She plays Gladys’s loss of language and memory so convincingly that it’s frightening – since you know the actress’s actual age.  As the dreaded dementia advances, as Gladys loses her memory and facility with language, May nonetheless retains the essential charm and wit of her feisty character.  “It’s no fun getting old,” says son-in-law Howard.  “Why do you say that to me?” May responds sharply.  “Nobody wants to hear that!”

Gladys’s journey is almost too painful to watch.  So is the love, compassion, and insight into her heroic struggle, displayed by her grandson Dan.  “I never want to forget what happened to my grandmother,” he says.  “It makes you think it must be worth a lot to be alive.”  Knowing that this play is written from the playwright’s own personal experience makes your heart break all the more.


The Hard Problem at Lincoln Center Theatre

Halfway through The Hard Problem, I felt a warm, welcome wave of recognition. Tom Stoppard’s challenging new play feels like a direct “descendant” of Arcadia, his 1993 masterwork – a dense and marvelous play of ideas filled with a dizzying multiplicity of themes.

The Hard Problem is even more ambitious than its predecessor, in that it tackles the fathomless topic of consciousness, as the title suggests.  As if that weren’t a challenge enough, the play also addresses good and evil, materialism, altruism, parenthood – oh,  and don’t forget God – all in 100 minutes. The richness of the subject matter is the play’s strength – and also its biggest challenge.

The Hard Problem (photo by Paul Kolnick)

The story deals with Hilary, a Ph. D. neuropsychologist who snags a plum position at the Krohn Institute for Brain Science.  As such, she’s preoccupied with challenges like defining “consciousness”, an issue that she debates heatedly with her colleagues.  But Hilary has other concerns, such as a ghost who haunts her – namely, the baby she had a 15 whom she gave up for adoption.  Is that why we find her kneeling at her bedside, praying to be “good”, in the company of her boyfriend Spike?   With all these preoccupations, she’s got a lot on her mind, as, again, the play’s title indicates.

Meanwhile, the blond-haired pony-tailed teenage daughter of her boss, who looks just like Hilary and whom we meet even before Hilary does, is a harbinger of the play’s ultimate resolution of all these conflicting forces within Hilary’s brilliant but beleaguered brain.  Ultimately, Hilary’s solution to the “hard problem”: abandon neuroscience and return to graduate school for a degree in philosophy.  (Hmmm…  Sounds like something that her creator, 81-year-old Tom Stoppard, might want to do, too!  Is Hilary the playwright’s alter ego?)

The cast is excellent – especially Adelaide Clemens, as an intense and earnest Hilary.

Jack O’Brien directs with a skilled and experienced hand.  In the end, love is both the solution and the resolution, as it is in so many of Stoppard’s plays.  Love – and a hefty dose of ideas for us to contemplate.  “I’m concerned with philosophy with a capital “F” and “knowledge” with a capital “N”, Stoppard once quipped.  He means it.


American Son on Broadway

It’s almost too agonizing to watch.  I’m referring to the look on Kerry Washington’s face throughout the 90 agonizing minutes of American Son.

American Son (photo by Peter Cunningham)

Kerry Washington is living through a mother’s worst nightmare.  She plays Kendra Connor, who finds herself at a Miami police station one June morning at 4 a.m., waiting for news of her missing son Jamal.  It’s storming outside the glass windows on Derek McLane’s spare set, but that’s nothing compared the tempest that’s going on in that tension-filled room.

For Kendra, you see, is black, and the Officer Larkin she’s confronting (Jeremy Jordan) is white. He won’t give her any details about her son’s whereabouts – not until her white husband Scott (Steven Pasquale) arrives, and suddenly the information flows freely.

American Son deals with one of the most painful topics today – the interaction between the police and young African-American men.   In Christopher Demos-Brown’s taut drama, he covers all aspects of this explosive dynamic, adding multiple complexities.

The tragedy at the center is Jamal himself (who never appears in the play).  In an explosive confrontation between Kendra and Scott, she reveals that – since Scott left the family four months ago – the heartbroken Jamal has forsaken his white schoolmates and his dream of West Point, and is hanging out with black youths, some of whom have police records.  Moreover, Jamal has put a bumper sticker on the Lexus his father gave him, saying “Shoot cops” – a direct rebuke of his father.

“I’ve been afraid for him since he was born,” Kendra cries at one point, the mother of a black son in white America.  “For us, there is no American Dream,” replies the other black character, Lieutenant Stokes.  And now her worse fears have come true.  It is revealed that Jamal has been apprehended a few hours ago with his friends by the police.  (No spoiler alert – the final outcome is yours to discover.)  Kenny Leon directs the excellent ensemble, wherein each character gets caught up in the maelstrom of racial conflict, stereotyping, and prejudice.

In the end, American Son transcends color, expressing the anguish all mothers endure for their sons in danger.


India Pale Ale at the Manhattan Theatre Club

“I know how it is in America.”

We’re hearing that line a lot on our stage today.  It’s coming from a multiplicity of voices – black, Hispanic, Muslim, Native American, LGBTQ – as they search for a place in our culture. They sometimes call themselves the “other”, but if it’s up to a certain citizen named “Boz” (the latest voice to utter these words), they’ll soon be the mainstream.

India Pale Ale (photo by Joan Marcus)

Boz is the feisty female protagonist of India Pale Ale, Jaclyn Backhaus’s heartfelt new play at the Manhattan Theatre Club.  Boz has a dual identity – she’s born in Raymond, Wisconsin, and she’s of Punjabi heritage.  Her parents (also born in Raymond) and their extended family are content to live in their insular community and practice their traditions.  But Boz (a radiant Shazi Raja) is struggling with her identity.  Who is she?  American?  Punjabi?  She’s tired of hearing the question: “What are you?” posed by polite, inquiring white minds.

So Boz digs deep into her heritage to help her find her way in America.  According to her family’s mythology, they were descended from “Punjabi Pirates” – one in particular, the intrepid Brown Beard, who sailed the high seas on a hijacked ship carrying cargoes of beer.  So she comes up with a plan – to leave the Sikh family cocoon of Raymond, move to Madison, and set up a bar where she can proudly sell beer with the IPA label (referring to India Pale Ale, hence the play’s title.)  In that way she can define who she is.

The play’s strength lies in its lively characters and the Punjabi culture they celebrate. They’re all members of Boz’s extended family, and Will Davis directs a spirited ensemble of eight with alacrity on Neil Patel’s sleek, bare set.  Whether they’re arguing, criticizing, eating, or dancing, the heart of the plays lies in these scenes, where traditional feasting “(langar”) serves as the healing process for a tragedy that occurs at the end of Act I.   It’s a true event that inspired Backhaus to write the play, based on a shooting in a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin (2012).  Without risking a “spoiler,” the event propels Boz back to Raymond, into the bosom of her family, to face an unknown future.

In the end, the characters break the fourth wall and address the audience.

“It’s an American tradition to forge chasms,” says one character.  “What has to change?”