by Kristoffer Diaz
Second Stage

by and starring Claudia Shear
New York Theatre Workshop

by Polly Stenham
Starring Laila Robins
Manhattan Theatre Club

by Elizabeth Merriweather
Starring John Laroquette
Cherry Lane Theatre

Written and Directed by Anthony Rapp
Vineyard Theatre

by C.S. Lewis
Adapted and Directed by Max McLean and Jeffrey Fiske
Starring Max McLean
Westside Theatre

Reviewed by David Spencer

I’m happily facing a summer in which I’m multitasking several theatre writing contracts and deadlines, so I have to be short and sweet (or not-so-sweet as appropriate) reviewing; so forgive me taking the round up route.

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity by Kristoffer Diaz, set in the world of pro wrestling, is a great and glorious multi-media roller coaster ride with a hip sense of humor, an equally sharp sense of irony, an excellently told story, crisp direction and a fine cast. It’s the tale of Macedonia Guerra, aka “Mace” (Desmon Borges), a young Hispanic wrestler who’s an old hand at the staged fight game (it’s all showbiz in which no one’s supposed to actually get hurt) but whose career is ever to be The Guy The Champion Beats Up. In this case, the Champion is African American Chad Deity (Terence Archie), who has physique, charisma and high octane celebrity skills but can’t actually wrestle worth a damn. But Mace meets Vingeshwar Paduar (Usman Ally), a young Indian street athlete with an interesting energy and persona to inject into the game, and sees a way to up the status of them both. Mace introduces Vingeshwar to Everett K. Olsen (Michael T. Weiss) his sly, unctious wheeler dealer boss—both creator and host of a hit TV show called THE Wrestling—and after selling the idea, against all odds, of them as a team being the next challengers for Chad's title, finds he has a tiger by the tail when Vingeshwar starts thinking for himself.

                        Caveats about the play? Only one, really. The ending seems a little more downbeat than warranted by the giddy exuberance of the rest of the evening; I think the author could have made his point as well from another angle. But this is a nonetheless swell play, with exhilarating direction by Edward Torres, that deserves a Broadway transfer.

Restoration, by and starring Claudia Shear, at the New York Theatre Workshop, is a dandy little romantic comedy in which the romance is primarily platonic but no less heartfelt for all that. It's about New Yorker Giulia, a plain-looking woman whose profession is restoring antiques—via meticulous, non-invasive cleaning—to their original beauty; and who, thanks to a forgotten proposal, finds herself up for the high profile job of restoring Michaelangelo's David at the Academia Gallery in Florence, Italy. She is not at first a slam dunk for the gig; within her profession she is as famously abrasive as her cleaning solutions are famously not, and this job in particular requires a diplomatic touch, not only among museum personnel, but in front of the press. But of course she does get the job, and of course her personality becomes a factor, and of course, over the year in which the play takes place, the ice between her and her colleagues thaws and they all learn a thing or three about each other. However standard the old trope is, though, it's sturdy too, delivered with humanity, warmth and wit. That it's all under the direction of Christopher Ashley seems to attest further (along with the current Broadway hit Memphis) that he has turned a corner with regard to his capacity for delivering on a deeper level, adding subtler, naturalistic colors to his palatte. He has guided Ms. Shear and her co-stars (Tina Benko, Alan Mandell, Natalija Nogulich and especially Jonathan Cake as a dashing, secretly sensitive security staffer)—or perhaps simply let them find their way, which is as good in the directing game—toward highly affecting, nicely nuanced performances. This one too might well be a credible candidate for Broadway transfer.

That Face written a few years ago by British playwright Polly Stenham when she was a mere 19, to become a significant West End hit, has been imported to New York care of The Manhattan Theatre Club, where it’s currently in residence. It’s a dysfunctional family play—the members being a substance-abusing divorced mother (Laila Robins), her too-devoted teenage son (Christopher Abbott) (the playwright keeps vague whether or not the relationship has actually ever veered into incest), his younger teenage sister who “acts out” her rage at school (Cristin Miloti)…and the estranged father (Victor Slezak). There have been so many bleak plays recently where what seems a random collision of pathologies is packaged as entertainment that That Face runs the risk of being lumped in with them. It’s not an easy two hours to sit through. And the fact that it is a compelling two hours (under the direction of Sarah Benson) is not necessarily an inducement, because depraved, deranged behavior can be compelling even in a bad play—human nature is to find it so. But in the end, That Face is about broken characters trying to struggle toward some kind of light, and that’s the redemptive factor; that and the playwright having unusually mature control and insight for her then-age. Happily too, the unhappiness of That Face is well acted and directed. As to whether or not you want to spend time in the company of its troubled clan—I must leave that up to you.

Oliver Parker! by Elizabeth Merriweather is yet another pathology play, set in a squalid slum apartment in New York City, thumbnailed at the Cherry Lane Theatre website thus: “Oliver [Michael Zegen] is 17 and Jasper [John Laroquette] is 60. They are best friends. Oliver wants to get laid, and Jasper wants to help. Jasper wants to drink himself to death and Oliver wants to save him. And they share a secret that could run them both... if it hasn't already. A jet black comedy about hurting the ones you love, and loving the ones that hurt.” This play seems a little more randomly constructed and a lot less purposeful than That Face, and its aberration-saturated characters can induce a psychic overload in you, despite the funny lines (and, it must be admitted, many of the jokes are good)…but if there’s anything that separates this one from the spate of others—perhaps most iconically represented by UK writer Mark Ravenhill’s spectacularly depraved Shopping and Fucking—is that in Ms. Parker’s world view, as well as Ms. Stenham’s (see That Face, above), people in their darkest despair have it in them to resist depravity, to seek redemption, and crawl—however brokenly—toward a light. It’s not an overwhelming message of the piece (indeed, I think it’s subtle, and it really only strikes you in retrospect—indeed further, it’s the very last moment of the play that makes the case); but it keeps a potentially disturbing play (disturbing in a way that is not, to me, synonymous with provocative) from being repellant. And the performances by its four-person cast—including Monica Raymund and spectacular “old” pros Laroquette and Johanna Day—are almost too good to miss. Remove the qualifier if you don’t mind attending for them more than for the play.

Playwright-director Adam Rapp is no stranger to pathology (or depravity)—I mean as a storyteller—and both hover about The Metal Children, at the Vineyard. It’s about the famous author of what has become an iconic book for young readers—and terribly controversial, as it ends with the young girl who is its main character giving herself an abortion and dying at the feet of someone judgmental and uncaring. And in a Southern town, a cult has formed around this book, leading to the similar death of a real child. In Mr. Rapp’s play, the author (Billy Crudup) travels from NYC to discuss the book with members of the community, which he does in his hotel room and at a town meeting.

                        It’s difficult to know what to make of this play. While Mr. Rapp has himself has authored  a few YA books, and was inspired by a controversy in which one of his own was banned in a Southern community, his main character’s description of the YA publishing game doesn’t jibe with that of any YA scribe I’ve ever known (and I know more than a fair share), nor is the book that’s described one that would find a place in any YA publishing program I’ve ever heard of. (If Mr. Rapp’s own YA books are indeed as dark and heedless of marketplace realities as those of his stand-in hero, then their publication circumstances have to be so idiosyncratic as to throw the verisimilitude of the play into question.) Even on its own terms, the play is an odd intertwining of threads: some follow pathological angst—which includes a pig-masked, author-stalking, knife-wielding assailant—and a very familiar template: the superior-minded Outsider who comes to understand the Real Folk a little better; as they in turn—variously—see different sides to him.

                        So while there’s a convincing verité to the acting and dialogue, and while the goings-on are compelling and at times unsettlingly hypnotic—as usual in a Rapp play—somehow, as an exploration of interesting issues, The Metal Children doesn’t feel like the real deal.

An adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, that has very successfully played NYC before in various venues (as well as regionally), is making a renewed appearance at the Westside Theatre on 43rd Street; but for all the accolades it has received, I find it a disquieting entry. Lewis, arguably the most influential Christian writer of the 20th Century, conceived the original short book as a treatise on the nature of sin and redemption, in the form of letters from an executive demon, Screwtape, to one of a lower order, his nephew Wormwood, who has been assigned to bring a particular “patient” into the fold of Hell, away from Christianity and morality—with severe consequences to Wormwood should he fail. The wordplay is witty in a Shavian/Wilde-like manner, as Screwtape’s upside down view of the universe is used to ironic effect, and pithy observations are made—for example: if you get the patient to take pride in a selfless act, you mitigate the selflessness with the sin of self-satisfaction—but in the end, The Screwtape Letters is still a Christian tract, meant to sermonize and proselytize
(however ironically), if not overtly to recruit and convert; and once its premise is established, and the first few letters “delivered” (in all senses of the word), it can only spin variations on a repetitive theme.

                        The saturnine, dinner-jacketed grandeur of star co-adapter/co-director Max McLean—who puts one in mind of the British actor and voice-over man Tony Jay (he perhaps most visible in the States for the role of the similarly malevolent Paracelsus in the ‘80s romantic fantasy TV series Beauty and the Beast)—certainly commands stage impressively, as he prowls and paces and ponders; with feral “commentary” (vocalized but non-verbal) from his imp assistant Toadpipe (the adorably spiky-tempered and gremlin-like Karen Eleanor Wight, replete with full-body fur); but there comes a point where, no matter what your belief system, you may tire of the ideological game and its agenda of bringing you into the fold of He that Screwtape calls “the enemy.” My companion of the evening suggested that the show might be better suited to the Christian theatre circuit, and I agree it's well suited; but with C.S. Lewis you're dealing with world literature, not merely popular evangelical fiction, like the Left Behind series…so lines of demarcation are hard to define—and probably very personal. Co-direction and co-adaptation are by Jeffrey Fiske.

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