Compelling new works, arresting foreign imports, moving revivals– New York theatre in June is blooming.
The tragic impact of World War II on the English home front has provided endless material for compelling plays and films – from David Hare’s Plenty to John Boorman’s Hope and Glory to the TV series Foyle’s War to countless others.
But the latest on the topic – Operation Crucible – is unique, deserving special recognition. It’s a dazzling ensemble piece, written and performed by Kieren Knowles along with three other members of the Ground Up Theatre Company, founded in 2013 with the premiere of this devised drama.
Operation Crucible tells the story of a devastating moment during the Sheffield Blitz (December 12, 1940), when a bomb fell on the Marples Hotel, and the entire building collapsed. (The Germans code-named the attack “Operation Crucible.”). Four valiant steel workers – who had taken refuge in the building when the sirens sounded – were trapped in the hotel cellar under the rubble.
During this taut 80-minute drama, directed by Bryony Shanahan on an empty stage, the four characters serve as narrators, telling us of their lives in war and peacetime, moving together in meticulously choreographed synchronicity. We see them at work in the steel plant, miming the labor without props, manufacturing the machinery noises themselves: “Bang bang turn brush!” In the next moment we see and hear them cheering on the soccer field: “Roll along, Sheffield United!” They talk of their lives, their wives, their children. Whatever they do, they together, this band of brothers who ultimately find themselves victims of the horror of war. (The passionate, dedicated, seamless ensemble includes Salvatore D’Aquila, Kieran Knowles, Christopher McCurry, and James Wallwork.) The effect is balletic, choric – a beautifully choreographed theatre piece of movement, sound and light.
About halfway through the play, the bombs drop with a terrifying jolt (effects by Daniel Foxsmith)– followed by utter darkness. “We’re stuck in this suspended time,” says one of the men, and the sound of their desperate digging in the dark is heartbreaking. What follows – no spoiler alert – features the most powerful lighting cue I’ve seen on stage this season (designed by Seth Rook Williams).
Suffice it to say, without revealing the ending, this brave band of brothers offers us an evening of “rough theatre” (as Peter Brook calls it) at its finest. “There’s a piece of Sheffield in all of us,” says one. You’ll feel the weight of World War II history in your heart, along with them.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night at BAM
“This is an old play, written in tears, sorrow, and blood.”
So wrote Eugene O’Neill about his autobiographical masterpiece that took him two anguished years to write (1931-41). “Orders were that no one was to go near him,” wrote his wife Carlotta about the painful process that cost him so dearly.
The revival of Long Day’s Journey is always a highlight in one’s theatergoing life – a) because it’s the first great American tragedy; and b) it’s O’Neill’s finest work (in my view), the culmination of four decades of prolific experimentation in the theatre; and c) it’s painfully autobiographical. Clocking at three and a half hours, it’s an endurance test in theatergoing – one from which you emerge both enervated and enriched. In it you meet the Tyrone family – featuring James Sr., a career actor (and a miser); his prodigal son James Sr.; his invalid son Edmund; and their mother Mary, a struggling drug addict – as they try to survive one endless day in their Connecticut summer cottage and face two crises (Edmund’s diagnosis and Mary’s worsening addiction).
What distinguishes Richard Eyre’s current revival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is, surprisingly, the sheer speed of it. In contrast to recent distinguished revivals – Robert Falls’s on Broadway (2003) starring Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Dennehy, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robert Sean Leonard, and Jonathan Kent’s at the Roundabout (2016) starring Gabriel Byrne and Jessica Lange – Eyre’s current rendition plunges through the first two acts at an almost breakneck pace. Rob Howell’s beautiful set with its huge glass window and mirrored ceiling allows the play’s major symbols – the fog, the sea, and the ghosts of the past– to engulf the family during their heroic struggle to survive one day.
The celebrated Jeremy Irons plays Tyrone Sr. with flamboyance and gusto. Rory Keenan’s Jamie, the out-of-favor son, is deeply moving as the “brother’s keeper” of the poetic Edmund (Matthew Beard). Lesley Manville (of the recent Ghosts at BAM and the film Phantom Thread) gives a surprising interpretation of Mary that occasionally channels Blanche DuBois, yet at other times reveals a steely strength. As day turns to night, she emerges as the center of the family vortex, in its tragic, downward spiral.
Entangled in a web of guilt and blame, O’Neill’s doomed family will continue to break your heart. At the same time, Eyre and his distinguished ensemble show us the unbreakable bond of love that will get the Tyrones through another devastating night, intact – to face, once more, a day of hopeless hope.
Our Lady of 121st Street
The scene is Ortiz Funeral Parlor in Harlem. They’ve come from all over the country to pay their respects to the late Sister Rose.
But wait – where’s the body?!
That’s the premise of Our Lady of 121st Street, at Signature Theatre Center. Stephen Adly Guirgis’s heartfelt dark comedy gives us the opportunity to meet the most colorful coterie of characters recently assembled on a stage.
In the course of this two-hour play, we meet a dozen of Sister Rose’s former students and admirers from the neighborhood, now scattered all over the country. But the conversation doesn’t center around Sister Rose or her missing body – although Detective Balthazar (Joey Auzenne) is on the case.
Instead, in a series of duets and trios, these former students with adult-sized problems spend their stage time airing their angst. There’s Flip (Jimonn Cole) and Gail (Kevin Isola), a bi-racial gay couple, struggling with the issue of whether or not to reveal their relationship. There’s Inez (Quincy Tyler Bernstine, unforgettable in a skin tight red dress), railing against the foul-mouthed Norca (Paola Lazaro), who had an affair with her ex-husband, “Rooftop”. There’s Victor (John Procaccino), whose pants were stolen during the corpse heist, who cares more about finding his trousers than finding Sister Rose. There’s Edwin (Erick Betancourt) and his brain-damaged brother Pinky (Maki Borde), bound together by a tragic accident years ago, when Edwin hurled a brick out a window that landed on Pinky’s head. And so on.
Each scene is confrontational, hilarious, and at the same time tinged with heartbreak. The scene between Rooftop (Hill Harper, in spiritual crisis) and the bigoted double-amputee Father Lux (John Doman), in a confessional thick with marijuana smoke, is priceless. (Felicia Rashad directs this motely crew.)
In fact, all these characters are in spiritual crisis, so the play ends up not about finding Sister Rose’s body, but rather about finding forgiveness and even happiness, individually and collectively. The answer, in the play’s cliff-hanging conclusion, lies in the search itself. In the quest for resolution and peace of mind, Guirgis’s characters find a connection with one another, for better or for worse.
“I’m interested in humanity – that’s what I care about,” said Guirgis, in a pre-show discussion. “The play is funny, but there’s more to it. If that’s all you get, then you haven’t gotten the play.”
Paradise Blue at the Signature Theatre Center
Inspired by August Wilson and his ten-play cycle on African-American identity in the twentieth century, the ambitious playwright Dominique Morriseau has written Paradise Blue as part of The Detroit Project, her series of plays about the black experience in that American city.
The scene: Detroit: 1949, in so-called Blackbottom, an African-American neighborhood with a strip called Paradise Valley. Blue, a talented trumpet-player and owner of the Paradise Club (bar and rooming house), is proud of his musical establishment.
But there’s trouble in Paradise. One of the musicians in Blue’s quartet has quit, leaving him blocked – musically, spiritually, and possibly financially. Haunted by the ghost of his violent father, Blue has lost his musical muse and is unable to play his horn.
However, Blue has found a way out – to sell the Club to the city, whose plan it is to buy downtown real-estate and stave off urban decay. Opposing this plan are the other characters in the play – his two fellow musicians, Corn (Keith Randolph Smith) and P-Sam (Francois Battiste), and his loyal girlfriend, Pumpkin (Kristolyn Lloyd). For them, Paradise Valley is their home, where black people run their own businesses and black musicians have pride in their identity.
With the advent of the mysterious Silver to the Paradise Club, tensions between Blue and the others heighten. Silver (Simone Missick) is a so-called “black widow” – slinky, sexy, and gun-carrying – a formidable femme fatale with a dark secret in her past. She ups the ante by offering to buy the Club herself. Meanwhile, an unexpected alliance forms between Silver and the oppressed Pumpkin, who cooks, cleans, and tends to Blue’s every need, despite his abuse.
Playwright Dominique Morriseau juggles a number of themes – racism, urban development, feminism – all of which come to a head at the unexpected climax of this melodrama. The cast members, who double as musicians, are admirably multi-talented, and Reuben Santiago-Hudson directs them skillfully on Neil Patel’s colorful set.
Watching Paradise Blue, one can’t help but feel the influence of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (set in Chicago in the 1920s), Wilson’s play about black identity in a white world, and the struggle of black musicians – men and women alike – to stake out their claim.
Mlima’s Tale at the Public Theater
A magnificent specter is stalking the stage of the Public Theatre. It’s the ghost of a king called Mlima, whose domain was once the Kenyan wilds. He’s an elephant, you see – and a majestic one. And he reigns supreme – even in death – in a stunning new play called Mlima’s Tale.
Lynn Nottage is an American playwright with a social conscience and a gift for identifying urgent issues of the day. Her recent plays Ruined (2007) and Sweat (2015), both Pulitzer Prize winners, deal respectively with the issues of enslavement of women in Central Africa and the disenfranchised working class in America.
And now she’s tackled another moral issue: the illegal ivory trade that endangers the future of wild elephants in Africa.
In this taut parable of a mere eighty minutes, we meet Mlima (Sahr Ngaujah) in scene one, delivering a poetic introduction. “If you really listen, our entire history is on the wind,” he alerts us, moments before he’s slaughtered by a poacher. In the ensuing, interlocking scenes (each poetically titled, Brechtian style), his tusks will be smuggled out of Kenya, through Viet Nam and Malaysia, changing corrupt hands along the way, until the tusks finally end up displayed in a wealthy collector’s drawing room.
The glory of Mlima’s story is how Nottage and her gifted director, Jo Bonney, tell it theatrically. Mlima is onstage throughout, silent, haunting scene after scene, like a spirit in limbo who cannot be set free. Dressed only in a loincloth, Mlima slathers his (dead) body with white paint (an African ritual), which he also smears on everybody who comes into contact with his stolen tusks. The metaphor is clear – all are complicit in the crime against the wildlife we exploit for profit and greed.
Sahr Ngaujah (of Fela fame) is a magnificent Mlima. He writhes his stately body in dance/theatre style, representing the spirit of the slaughtered animal. On Riccardo Hernandez’s bare set and backdrop lit by Lap Chi Chu, all nature responds vividly to Mlima’s fate with color and light. The narrative is underscored by a musician (Justin Hicks), stage right, with voice, electronics and percussive instruments.
Three other actors – Kevin Mambo, JoJo Gonzalez, Ito Aghayere – play multiple roles with precision and virtuosity – including a poacher, a park warden, a corrupt Kenyan official, an Asian businessman, a ship captain, a collector, and others.
Ultimately, Nottage’s powerful parable reminds us that we are citizens of one planet, and that we are all exploiting our natural environment. There’s a smear of white paint on us all.