AISLE SAY New York

SHORT REVIEWS for SEPTEMBER'S END

ME, MYSELF AND I
by Edward Albee
Playwrights Horizons

CAPSULE 33
Written and Performed by Thaddeus Phillips
Co-created by Tatiana Mallarino
Barrow Street Theatre

THROUGH THE NIGHT
Written and Performed by Daniel Beaty
Union Square Theatre
Official Website

HAIRSPRAY
Book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan
Music by Mark Shaiman
Lyrics by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman
Based on the film written and directed by John Waters
Originally Directed on Broadway by Jack O'Brien
Direction Re-created by Matt Lenz
Paper Mill Playhouse

Reviewed by David Spencer


As recently noted on the site’s home page, I’m very much in bunker mode, juggling several show deadlines and teaching schedules in addition to the usual life-in-general, and thus beg your indulgence for these drive-by reviews, the better to at least kick off the season in these pages and keep the ‘zine in the game. And here goes:

 

I’m usually of the firm opinion that nobody sets out to write crap (a few consciously conceived literary hoaxes aside), but after viewing Edward Albee’s Me, Myself and I at Playwrights Horizons, I’m not so sure. This continues Albee’s downward trajectory of plays that feature linguistic smugness (rather than create uniquely conceived language, he has his characters step outside their very pedestrian dialogue to skewer common colloquialism, as if the common rabble [us?] who avail themselves of it are fools); hetero bashing (in the Albee-verse there is no straight relationship that isn’t essentially corrupt or suspect at the core, or that can’t be easily compromised by a sly predator); and aimless giddy flapping around in a theatrical limbo (in which attenuated situation stands in for story development).

                        The situation here involves a twentysomething twin brother named OTTO (Zachary Booth) who plans to eradicate the existence of his identical sibling otto (Preston Sadlier) via impersonation. He intends to confuse his blowsy, oblivious, self-absorbed mother (Elizabeth Ashley), which proves to be absurdly easy, because she’s not sure which twin loves her; and the crazy doctor (Brian Murray) with whom she took up after her husband left 28 years ago (the day the twins were born) which proves impossible, because, being but an interloper in the family, he knows neither of them do. OTTO also plans to fuck otto’s girlfriend Maureen (Natalia Payne) which…

                        No, I’m sorry, to even deadpan this any further is to give it credence. The cast and director Emily Mann do what they can, but really, what can they do?

 

If nothing else, Capsule 33 by Thaddeus Phillips, co-created by Tatiana Mallarino, gets points for originality. With the character of a demolitions worker as narrator (played by the author), it posits the story of Milo Dukanovic (played by the author) and his rubber ducky Fumio (not played by the author) who refuse to move out of their residence—Capsule #33 of the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Japan, a building of modular pod-like dwellings connected only by four high-tension cables each, infamous for an “efficiency” design that forever anchors each capsule to early 1970s technology—on the day it is about to be imploded.

                        On a rotating, upendable mini-set that replicates a pod in selective miniature, in a production powered only by batteries (the entering audience hand-cranks generators to contribute juice to the play’s 70 minute run time), where lighting is only what we need to see the immediate, practical playing area, author-performer Phillips satirically explores issues of technological and socio-political history—which never quite connect to the “green-minded” production values, but as an audience member you don’t strain for the connection either.

                        Structurally, the play meanders a bit, and one might wish that Phillips were a more refined and versatile enough actor to channel his several characters with more polish and nuance. Then again, the concept of make-do production values combined with the co-creator’s rough-hewn performance style may only enhance the enterprise for some. It’s hardly a must-see, but for anyone interested in theatre-thinking out of the box (about a character adamantly within the box), Capsule 33 has enough new and interesting ideas to spark the imagination.

 

Through the Night is author-performer Daniel Beaty’s play for one actor portraying a cross section of African American characters, but even those that hew to familiar tropes are conceived with an interesting spin, and the piece as a whole takes a magic realism approach that is likewise fresh enough in the context to give it some distinction. What ties them together is a refusal to be “brought down” by inner city roots (or existence), but to keep striving upward. Among the characters are a gay pop music publicity executive, the overweight preacher father to whom he's never come out (who is himself struggling—with food addiction), a graduating student, a young man of the streets trying to turn his wayward life around—and the owner of a health food store, seemingly misplaced and losing ground in Harlem—and the spiritual sweet spot where they eventually meet, the shop owner's 11 year old son, Eric, a brilliant kid, experimenting with formulas for herbal iced tea, with ingredients from his father’s shop. Obsessed with the Transformers character he misidentifies as “Optimist Prime” (for the non-geeks among you, the actual name is Optimus Prime), he is equally obsessed with finding a formula that can trigger a similar positive transformation in a human. Women figure into the mix too, but only as passing side characters, whose presence informs what drives the males.

                        Beaty plays them all with bold, clean strokes (though it takes a while and context to completely distinguish between the twenty-something characters) and a versatile voice that is exquisitely musical and can also call forth the kind of stentorian power one associates with James Earl Jones and Avery Brooks.

                        There are nitpicks one can make about the evening, and if I were writing a fuller review I might catalog mine; but then again, I might not. This play, though it has enough universality to appeal to a general audience, contains a powerful, positive message for the African American community in particular, and even with all the forward strides of the last half century and beyond into the New Millennium, one of which there is still some dire need. And maybe it’s best to let that accomplishment shine, untarnished.

 

The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn New Jersey is featuring one of those “recreation” musical productions that is in truth the resurrection of a road tour production, including the original “reduced” sets and the original director’s assistant—in this case Matt Lenz—recreating the original staging. In this case, the musical is Hairspray, and it’s about as engaging and effective as such an enterprise can be, which is to say it pleases the audience mightily and for us spoiled New York brats, doesn’t tarnish one’s memories of the somewhat more opulent Broadway production.

                        If I nonetheless sound a little low-key, I must confess, Hairspray is not my favorite musical—my generally positive but likewise subdued original review can be found here—but that shouldn’t dissuade you. I don’t seem to speak for the vox populi where this show is concerned, nor do I care to deny the show its old and potentially new fans, which it eminently deserves.

                        All that need be reported here is that the cast is just fine, partially populated by a number of familiar Broadway veterans and veterans of the original production and national tours as well. They include (with their roles in parentheses) Christine Danelson (Tracy Turnblad), Christopher Sieber (in drag as mother Edna Turnblad), Lee Roy Reams (Wilbur Turnblad), Donna English (Velma Von Tussle), Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone (Amber Von Tussle), NaTasha Yvette Williams (Motormouth Maybelle), Tyrick Wiltez Jones (Gilbert), and Kasey Marino (Corny Collins) among others.

                        If Hairspray is for you, make the trek. Nothing not to enjoy…


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