KILLING AN EVENING WITH EDGAR ALLAN POE: MURDER AT THE MERCHANT’S HOUSE
Merchant’s House Museum
29 East Fourth St. between Lafayette St. and the Bowery
October 12-31, $18
Purely by coincidence, I saw three one-man shows this week, on three successive nights, and all three have strong reasons for me to recommend them. On Tuesday, I was at the historic Merchant’s House Museum on East Fourth St. to see John Kevin Jones in Killing an Evening with Edgar Allan Poe: Murder at the Merchant’s House. Jones has a kind of cult fan club for his annual one-man version of A Christmas Carol at the museum, a home built in 1831-32 that was occupied continuously by the Tredwell family from 1835 to 1933. The nineteenth century feels very present in the house, which was one of the first twenty buildings to gain landmark status under the city’s 1965 law and functions as a museum, preserving the Tredwell family’s furnishings as they would have appeared when Poe, coincidentally, lived nearby for a time at 85 West Third St. and later in a cottage in the Bronx. Dressed in nineteenth-century-style jacket, vest, top hat, and ascot, Jones celebrates Edgar Allan Poe with three of his most popular writings, preceded by short introductions about each work and Poe’s career.
Forty people are squeezed into the Tredwells’ candlelit double parlor — with a coffin at one end and a dining table at the other — and Jones walks up and down the narrow space between, where the audience is seated on three sides, boldly delivering two classic Poe tales of treachery and murder, “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” both from memory. His deep, theatrical voice resonates through the room as he catches the eye of audience members, adding yet more chills and thrills to the mystery in the air. He then sits down with a book for the long poem “The Raven,” evoking the great Poe actor Vincent Price. Jones, director Dr. Rhonda Dodd, and stage manager Dan Renkin, the leaders of Summoners Ensemble Theatre, keep the focus on Poe’s remarkable narrative technique; you might be watching one man, but you’ll feel like you’re seeing each of Poe’s characters in vivid detail. The sold-out show continues October 22, 23, and 31; tickets for A Christmas Carol, however, are still available.
Audible Theater at Minetta Lane Theatre
18 Minetta Lane between Sixth Ave. and MacDougal St.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 11, $57-$97
On Wednesday night I headed to the Minetta Lane Theatre, where Audible has been staging one-person shows that are also available as audios. First, Billy Crudup starred in David Cale’s modern noir Harry Clarke, then Carey Mulligan excelled in Dennis Kelly’s intense Girls & Boys, and now Aasif Mandvi has brought back his Obie-winning 1998 show, Sakina’s Restaurant. Born in India and raised in England, Mandvi studied with acting teacher Wynn Handman, whose students have also included solo specialists Eric Bogosian and John Leguizamo. In the slightly revamped autobiographical tale, directed by Kimberly Senior (Disgraced, The Niceties), Mandvi plays six characters, beginning with Agzi, an eager young man who is leaving his small, tight-knit Indian village to go to America, where he will be sponsored by Hakim (his father’s real name) and Farrida, who run Sakina’s Restaurant on, of course, East Sixth St. Before leaving, Agzi promises his mother he will write to her from all across the United States. “I will even write to you from Cleveland! Cleveland, Ma! Home of all the Indians!”
Mandvi (Disgraced, Halal in the Family) creatively slips into each character, adding glasses, a tie, a dress, or a Game Boy to delineate among Hakim, a serious man who wants only the best for his family; Farrida, who desires more out of her mundane life; their high-school-age daughter, Sakina, who has an American boyfriend and wants to immerse herself in Western culture but who has already been promised to an Indian man by their fathers; their younger son, Samir, who doesn’t really care about anything but his immediate enjoyment; Ali, Sakina’s nervous intended in the arranged marriage; and Agzi, who is not having as exciting a time as he imagined in America. Wilson Chin’s set looks just like several Sixth St. Indian restaurants I’ve been to. The story itself occasionally drags and has trouble skirting stereotypes, but Mandvi is superb, warm and likable, particularly when he talks directly to the audience as Agzi, sharing his hopes and dreams.
Irish Repertory Theatre
Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage
132 West 22nd St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tuesday – Sunday through November 4, $50-$70
On Thursday night I was at the Irish Rep to see On Beckett, Bill Irwin’s very personal exploration of the work of Samuel Beckett and, in many ways, a combination of the two previous one-man shows I saw, evoking John Kevin Jones’s mastery of Edgar Allan Poe’s texts and Aasif Mandvi’s expert handling of multiple characters. For eighty-seven minutes, Tony-winning actor and certified clown Irwin delves into his vast enthusiasm for Beckett’s writings without ever becoming professorial or pedantic. “I am not a ‘Beckett scholar’ — nooo. Nor am I a Beckett biographer,” he admits. “Mine is an actor’s relationship with this language. By which I mean the deep knowledge that comes from committing words to memory, and speaking them to audiences.” Irwin (Old Hats, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) performs selections from Beckett’s 1955 collection Texts for Nothing, his 1950s novels The Unnamable and Watt, and the Irish writer’s most famous play, Waiting for Godot, significantly altering his delivery style, voice, and rhythm for each work.
Irwin adds fascinating insight to Beckett and his oeuvre, discussing the Nobel Prize winner’s punctuation and pronoun usage, his identity and heritage, the possible influence of vaudeville on his work, his detailed stage directions, and other intricacies. “Was Beckett a writer of the body, or of the intellect?” Irwin asks. “Smells like a question you could waste a lot of time on, but I think you can say that he was a writer acutely attuned to silhouette.” His appreciation of Beckett echoes that of Jones’s for Poe, while his simple but effective costume changes — switching among numerous bowlers, putting on baggy pants and clown shoes — work like Mandvi’s to distinguish individuals. Irwin spends a significant part of the show on Waiting for Godot, discussing the correct pronunciation of the title character’s name, examining the role of Lucky, and reminiscing about the production he appeared in with Robin Williams, John Goodman, Steve Martin, and Nathan Lane. Charlie Corcoran’s spare black set consists only of a podium and two rectangular boxes that Irwin can rearrange for various purposes. Irwin is a delight to watch, his passion for Beckett infectious. He occasionally goes off topic in comic ways, wrestling with a microphone and toying with the podium, but he eventually gets back on track for an enchanting piece of theater about theater.
The following evening, my string of one-man shows came to an end with the Wheelhouse Theater’s new adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Happy Birthday, Wanda June, opening Tuesday at the Duke. Bringing the theme full circle, Wanda June features a ferocious performance by Jason O’Connell, whom I saw last year in his own solo outing, The Dork Knight, about his lifelong affinity for Batman.
NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts and other NYU locations
566 La Guardia Pl. between Third & Fourth Sts.
October 17-28, free with advance RSVP
This past May, Karl Marx would have turned two hundred years old. The NYU Skirball Center is celebrating his bicentennial with twelve days of special free programming honoring the man who wrote, “The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” Audiences can also determine if they want to contribute to the performances based on supply and demand and their own consciousness; the events are all free with advance RSVP but donations are welcome. The “Karl Marx Festival: On Your Marx” begins October 17 at 7:30 with London-based Bulgarian performance artist Ivo Dimchev’s one-hour show, P Project, in which people from the audience will get paid by agreeing to do spur-of-the-moment things involving words that begin with the letter “P.” For example, Dimchev will present them with tasks that might involve such words as Piano, Pray, Pussy, Poetry, Poppers, etc. On October 18 at 6:00, NYU professors Erin Gray, Arun Kundnani, Michael Ralph, and Nikhil Singh will discuss “Racial Capitalism” at the Tamiment Library. On October 19 at 9:30, DJs AndrewAndrew will spin Marxist discs along with readings by special guests from Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto.
On October 19 and 20 at 7:30, Brooklyn-based Uruguayan dancer and choreographer luciana achugar will present the world premiere of Brujx, which explores ideas of labor. On October 22 at 6:30, Slavoj Žižek will deliver the Skirball Talks lecture “The Fate of the Commons: A Trotskyite View.” On October 23 at 5:30, NYU professors Lisa Daily, Dean Saranillio, and Jerome Whitington will discuss “Futurity & Consumption” at the Department of Social & Cultural Analysis. On October 24 at 4:00, author Sarah Rose will talk about her 2017 book, No Right to Be Idle at the eighth floor commons at 239 Greene St. On October 25 at 5:30, luciana achugar, Julie Tolentino, and Amin Husain will join for the conversation “Labor, Aesthetics, Identity” at the Department of Performance Studies. On October 26 at 7:30, Malik Gaines, Miguel Gutierrez, Latasha N. Nevada Diggs, Ryan McNamara, Seung-Min Lee, and Alison Kizu-Blair will stage “Courtesy the Artists: Popular Revolt,” a live-sourced multimedia work directed by Alexandro Segade and Amy Ruhl. The festival concludes October 28 at 5:00 with Ethan Philbrick’s Choral Marx, a singing adaptation of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s Manifesto for the Communist Party, performed by Benjamin Bath, Gelsey Bell, Sarah Chihaya, Hai-ting Chinn, Tomás Cruz, Amirtha Kidambi, Brian McQueen, Gizelxanath Rodriguez, and Ryan Tracy.
Now that we’re in October, sunset has moved into the 6:30 range, but “civil” twilight is hovering around 7:00. So it is appropriate that from October 3-8, the High Line will be hosting The Mile-Long Opera, a biography of 7 o’clock, beginning each night at seven. The free presentation consists of one thousand singers from across New York, delivering the world premiere of this site-specific event, as the audience makes their way along the elevated park. The words were written by poets Anne Carson (librettist) and Claudia Rankine (essayist), based on interviews conducted with New Yorkers at Abrons Arts Center and the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce in Manhattan, ARTs East NY in Brooklyn, Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement in Queens, the POINTCDC in the Bronx, and Snug Harbor in Staten Island, discussing what seven o’clock means to them. The work was created by composer David Lang and Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the design studio behind the High Line. The Mile-Long Opera is directed by Elizabeth Diller and Lynsey Peisinger, with music direction by Donald Nally, sound by Jody Elff, lighting by John Torres, and costumes by Carlos Soto; wildly inventive, multidisciplinary Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson is the creative adviser. Although advance registration is closed, there will be standby lines beginning at 6:30 each night at Gansevoort & Washington Sts.; since the event is free, you can expect many people who have signed up will not show, so there should be a pretty good chance of getting in. You can also experience the event in 360 degrees via an app that will be available on October 3. So think about it: Just what does 7:00 mean to you?
After delighting audiences with such outstanding indie fare as Blood Simple (1984), Fargo (1996), and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), brothers Joel and Ethan Coen hit a midcareer slump with the mediocre The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), the much-maligned Intolerable Cruelty (2003), and the just plain awful remake of The Ladykillers (2004). It was three years before they released their next film, the Oscar-winning monster hit No Country for Old Men. In 2008 they toned things down again with the slight but entertaining Burn After Reading. John Malkovich is hysterical as Osborne Cox, an angry, bitter, foul-mouthed CIA agent who loses his job and decides to write a tell-all memoir, which bizarrely ends up in the hands of a pair of bumbling idiots, Chad Feldheimer (an extremely funny Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand). Linda really wants to get a whole bunch of plastic surgery done, so she plans on squeezing a lot of money out of old Mr. Cox, who has no patience for anyone other than himself. Throw in a cold-as-ice wife (Tilda Swinton), a philandering G-man (George Clooney), a Russian ambassador named after Severn Darden’s character in The President’s Analyst, a stellar cast that also includes Richard Jenkins, J. K. Simmons, David Rasche, Elizabeth Marvel, and Dermot Mulroney, and some shocking violence and — well, we’ve told you too much already. Burn After Reading might not be grade-A Coen brothers, but it’s still a worthwhile endeavor from two of America’s most ingenious filmmakers. The movie, which asks the question “The Russians? Are you sure?,” is screening at Nitehawk on September 24 as part of the “Booze & Books” series and will be followed by a Q&A with Film Comment contributor and Harpers digital editor Violet Lucca and Adam Nayman, author of the new book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together. In addition, Nitehawk will be serving a special cocktail for the event, the Krapotkin.
Who: Nova Ren Suma, Melissa Albert
What: Book launch of A Room Away from the Wolves (Algonquin Young Readers, $18.95) by Nova Ren Suma
Where: McNally Jackson, 52 Prince St., 212-274-1160
When: Tuesday, September 4, free, 7:00
Why: Seven years ago, Nova Ren Suma gave the first public reading of her debut young adult novel, Imaginary Girls, at This Week in New York’s tenth anniversary party on the Lower East Side. Since then, Suma has become a YA superstar, earning numerous accolades and starred reviews for that book as well as 2013’s 17 & Gone and 2015’s The Walls Around Us, developing a reputation for her unique forays deep into the teen psyche, exploring a slightly twisted reality with more than a touch of the supernatural. For the launch of her fourth YA novel, A Room Away from the Wolves, Suma, who was raised primarily in and around the Hudson Valley and now lives in Philadelphia, will be back in Gotham on September 4 to celebrate the launch of the book at McNally Jackson on Prince St. “Living in New York City was my childhood dream and made my heart full for more than twenty years,” Suma, a former colleague, told me. “The last thing I did before I moved away was finish the final revision of this book, the first novel I ever wrote set in the city I love. I had to come home for the very first event — I couldn’t launch the book anywhere else.” The book itself was partly inspired by Suma’s “possible-maybe ghost sighting” at Yaddo and her use of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes’s writing studio.
Here’s the first paragraph to give you a taste of her immense skill and expert craftsmanship:
When the girl who lived in the room below mine disappeared into the darkness, she gave no warning, she showed no twitch of fear. She had her back to me, but I sensed her eyes were open, the city skyline bristling with attention, five stories above the street. It was how I imagined Catherine de Barra herself once stood at this edge almost a hundred years ago, when the smog was suffocating and the lights much more dim, when only one girl ever slept inside these walls of stacked red brick.
At McNally Jackson, Suma will be joined by BN.com managing editor Melissa Stewart, author of The Hazel Wood (Flatiron, January 2018, $16.99), for a reading, conversation, and signing. “When I read the opening pages of The Hazel Wood, I pretty much swooned,” said Suma, who also leads popular workshops, teaches in the MFA program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and recently started the online YA short-story anthology Foreshadow with Emily X. R. Pan. “The book is fantastically imaginative, gorgeously told, and deliciously dark — everything I love. I can’t wait to talk city fairy tales, mother/daughter stories, and embracing all things weird and wild with Melissa Albert.” If you can’t make it to the event, you can order a personalized, signed copy of A Room Away from the Wolves here.