This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001

THE CRUCIBLE

(photo © Jan Versweyveld)

A group of girls in Salem are accused of witchcraft in THE CRUCIBLE (photo © Jan Versweyveld)

Walter Kerr Theatre
219 West 48th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through July 17, $42-$228.60
www.thecrucibleonbroadway.com

Director-of-the-moment Ivo van Hove follows up his riveting version of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge with a strange, powerful, problematic take on Miller’s Tony-winning 1953 play, The Crucible. Part of the centennial celebration of Miller’s birth that also included last year’s production of Incident at Vichy at the Signature, The Crucible explores the 1692 Salem witch trials through a context informed by the communist witch hunt of the House Un-American Activities Committee led by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1940s and ’50s. Miller based the play on actual events recorded in the seventeenth century, although he changed many of the details of the real-life characters. In Salem, Betty Parris (Elizabeth Teeter) is in a catatonic state following an evening that might have involved magic and witchcraft in the woods with her friends Abigail Williams (Saoirse Ronan), Susanna Walcott (Ashlei Sharpe Chestnut), Mercy Lewis (Erin Wilhelmi), and Mary Warren (Tavi Gevinson). “There be no unnatural cause here,” claims Reverend Samuel Parris (Jason Butler Harner), the local priest and Betty’s uncle, who does not want to believe that this was the devil’s work. He sends for Reverend John Hale (Bill Camp) to back him up. “A precaution only,” Parris says. “He has much experience in all demonic arts.” However, wealthy landowner Thomas Putnam (Thomas Jay Ryan) and his wife, Anna (Tina Benko), who have lost seven babies, are sure that “vengeful spirits” are at work and insist that Parris investigate it as such. Meanwhile, town curmudgeon Giles Corey (Jim Norton) thinks that the Putnams are merely after his land, while Corey’s friend, John Proctor (Ben Whishaw), gets caught in the maelstrom of accusation and emotion, as the otherwise steadfast gentleman may or may not have had an affair with Abigail, his former maid, who was let go by his wife, Elizabeth (Sophie Okonedo). And many eyes turn toward Tituba (Jenny Jules), Parris’s slave from Barbados. “You are God’s instrument put in our hands to discover the Devil’s agents among us,” Hale tells her. When the judge, Deputy Governor Danforth (Ciarán Hinds), arrives, he’s sure that evil is at hand, boasting that four hundred witches are in jail because of him, seventy-two condemned to hang. Even as evidence comes out that supports that there was no witchcraft, Danforth remains determined to force people to name names so he can have them arrested and hanged. “There is a prodigious guilt in the country,” he boldly declares. “Reproach me not with the fear in the country; there is fear in the country because there is a moving plot to topple Christ in the country!”

(photo © Jan Versweyveld)

John Proctor (Ben Whishaw) tries to get the truth out of Mary Warren (Tavi Gevinson) in Ivo van Hove adaptation of Arthur Miller classic (photo © Jan Versweyveld)

Belgian director van Hove is often hit-or-miss with his shows, which in the last few years in New York City have included David Bowie and Enda Walsh’s Lazarus, adaptations of Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers and Scenes from a Marriage, and Sophocles’s Antigone. While A View from the Bridge was innovative and dynamic, Antigone was confusing and surprisingly lifeless; The Crucible falls somewhere in between. The set, by longtime van Hove collaborator Jan Versweyveld, is head-scratchingly odd, an old schoolroom with twentieth-century overhead lighting and a blackboard on which Tal Yarden’s abstract images are projected at one point. Wojciech Dziedzic’s costumes also mix the seventeenth century with the modern era; if the goal is to relate the witch trials to what is going on in the world today, it doesn’t quite work, since those elements are already part of Miller’s words and don’t benefit from such further obscuration. Philip Glass’s music is pleasurable but unnecessary, and the acting is inconsistent; while Ronan (Brooklyn, The Seagull), Camp (Death of a Salesman, Homebody/Kabul), Norton (The Mystery of Edwin Drood, The Seafarer), and Gevinson (This Is Our Youth, Enough Said) excel in their roles, Whishaw (His Dark Materials, In the Heart of the Sea) is rather static, Michael Braun (War Horse, Bad Guys) as Danforth’s right-hand man, Ezekiel Cheever, is too one-note, and Hinds (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Closer) seems lost at times, courtesy of Steven Hoggett’s crowded movement, often speaking with his back or side to the audience, making it hard to hear what he is saying. Fifty-three years after its Broadway debut, in a Tony-winning production starring E. G. Marshall, Beatrice Straight, and Arthur Kennedy, and fourteen years after its Tony-nominated 2002 Broadway revival with Laura Linney, Liam Neeson, and Kristen Bell, The Crucible feels today most relevant in its depiction of the religious nature of evil, with fundamentalists around the world responsible for so much violence and hatred and America in a constant debate over church versus state. Van Hove’s staging muddies various themes, resulting in a somewhat lukewarm rendering of a heated tale.

TWI-NY TALK: SOPHIA ANNE CARUSO

Actress, singer, and dancer Sophia Anne Caruso is taking New York City by storm

Actress, singer, and dancer Sophia Anne Caruso is taking New York City by storm (photo courtesy Sophia Anne Caruso)

Multidimensional actress Sophia Anne Caruso might be just fourteen years old, but she already displays the confidence and demeanor of a seasoned pro — which she essentially is, having acted professionally nonstop for the last five years. Born and raised in Spokane and now living with her parents in New Jersey, Caruso came to New York for a project when she was eleven and decided to stay. In her brief but busy career, she has played Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, in a production directed by Patty Duke, who originated the role on Broadway in 1959; starred as Birgitta in NBC’s The Sound of Music Live! opposite Carrie Underwood, Christian Borle, and Audra McDonald; appeared at the Kennedy Center with Boyd Gaines, Rebecca Luker, and Tiler Peck in the Susan Stroman-directed Little Dancer a musical about Edgar Degas and Marie van Goethem, the ballerina who posed for his famous “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” painting; and played AnnaSophia Robb’s little sister in the Lifetime movie Jack of the Red Hearts.

Here in New York City, she earned a Lucille Lortel nomination as Best Featured Actress in a Play for her performance as a young virtual reality fantasy figure for men in The Nether and a Lortel nod for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Musical and an Outer Critics Circle nomination for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical for Lazarus, playing the Girl in the New York Theatre Workshop world premiere by David Bowie and Enda Walsh, directed by Ivo van Hove. Currently she is on Broadway in a show that cannot be named, as a surprise character not listed in the Playbill and which cannot be mentioned in reviews. Sophia also just teamed with opera singer, ballet dancer, photographer, and musician Kenneth Edwards on a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” in the Elizabeth Street Garden. Homeschooled by her parents, Sophia likes ghost stories, has never been to a concert, and is hypercritical of herself, intent on mastering her craft. She is also charming, thoughtfully positive, and wise beyond her years; as she notes, “I was a morbid little child.” On a recent early weekday evening shortly before her call time, Sophia and I met in a Theater District hotel lounge and talked about vintage clothing, cast albums, stalkers, the freedom her parents give her, and how much she loves what she does.

twi-ny: You were born and raised in Spokane, Washington. Are you still partly based there?

Sophia Anne Caruso: My dad moved out here. He was still living in Spokane in our old house, but he finally sold it and moved here.

twi-ny: That must be great.

SAC: It’s a relief to have everyone together again. Long distance was hard for us, especially for me and my dad, because I’m a daddy’s girl.

twi-ny: What did you think of New York City when you first got here?

SAC: In Spokane, I got bored all the time, and it didn’t quite feel like home. But when I came here, I wasn’t scared, I wasn’t overwhelmed; it felt like home. Broadway, the theater area — the first show that I saw, when I was nine, was Billy Elliot, and I fell in love with theater. That’s when I knew, I want to move to New York and be on Broadway.

twi-ny: Around that time, in Seattle, you played Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, directed by Patty Duke, who just passed away. What did you learn from her?

SAC: She gave me my very first real acting job; that’s when I fell in love with acting and I knew that I wanted to be an actress. Acting is my favorite thing to do, and she helped me realize that. She mentored me a little bit; at the time, I didn’t understand why she was sometimes harsh on me, but now, as an older me, I’m looking back, I’m thinking, that’s why. She taught me that I have to stay consistent, that when you’re doing a professional job, it’s to the centimeter. You have to be exact; it has to be perfect. She taught me that it’s not all fun and games, although a lot of it is. But it’s also my job.

twi-ny: Not to concentrate too much on death, but you were also in Lazarus, and while you were in the midst of the run, David Bowie died. What was that experience like?

SAC: I got to work with him directly; he came into rehearsals often, he gave me notes, we talked. I like to say that I knew him and that I collaborated with him, for sure. I was not aware of his illness; none of the cast was. His death came as a very big surprise to us, and the hard part, but also the good part, of the day after was that we were all together. We were recording our cast album, which was hard because our voices were in shock because of crying and the strain, but being there was bonding. Nothing would have been worse than staying home alone during that day, but we decided to do the cast album. We listened to the recording, and I think that there’s something so special about it.

Sophia Anne Caruso earned several award nominations for her role in LAZARUS opposite Michael C. Hall  (photo by Jan Versweyveld)

Sophia Anne Caruso earned several award nominations for her role in LAZARUS opposite Michael C. Hall (photo by Jan Versweyveld)

twi-ny: In the show you sing “No Plan” and “Life on Mars.”

SAC: It’s an honor to sing his music. I’ve always been inspired by his music, and I’ve always loved it. My mom owned vintage stores, and she always had funky seventies stuff. She was always playing Bowie.

twi-ny: Your parents are clearly bringing you up with a certain amount of freedom to develop your own identity.

SAC: Yes, my family is sort of exceptional. My mom is not religious; she’s very free, she likes to travel. My dad is on the more right-wing side, but he has given me freedom to choose what I want, who hasn’t ever pushed me to go towards religion or anything else. They’ve really let me become who I am, who I want to be. They have let me have a lot of freedom, with my choices and my style. Like, I love vintage fashion, and maybe I don’t choose the most attractive clothes or what they would consider appropriate, but it’s me, and it’s what I love, and they support me. It’s a hard business to get through, and they have been there through everything. Nothing is better than having parents like that.

twi-ny: Regarding your choices, your last three plays in New York City were The Nether, about virtual reality and child abuse; Lazarus, in which you play a very complicated character who is no mere child; and now you’re on Broadway in a heavy play that we cannot mention by name because you play a surprise character. What draws you to those roles? And why do your parents let you do them? A lot of parents would say, “Uh-uh, no way.”

SAC: I personally think blondes make the best victims, in my opinion. [laughs] I have sort of become the go-to girl for those things, so they come to me. I chose to do The Nether because I think it’s a very important topic. I didn’t just do it because it’s edgy. I love that it was edgy and that it was out there, but what was most important to me was getting that message out there. If you look around [referring to other people in the lounge], he’s on a computer, he’s on his phone. There was this revealing moment: I was on the train, underground, and nobody was on their phone. We came aboveground, got service, and everybody got their phone out, and I was, like, “Oh my God, what has this world come to?” And that is what made me leap at The Nether. I was, like, I gotta do this show now.

twi-ny: You also played a scary part on Celebrity Ghost Stories.

SAC: I loved doing that! I thought it was so fun. They put me in these sort of seventies clothes, and they had this old haunted house in this very old neighborhood, and that was really fun for me. I try not to let the work affect me; I don’t think it does. I have a certain anxiety about it. Like with The Nether, a question that I ask myself now is, Did that inspire people to act those things, or did that prevent things? And that’s something that scares me as I get older; I think I didn’t have that problem as much when I was younger.

(photo © Jenny Anderson)

Iris (Sophia Anne Caruso) experiences the dark side of humanity in THE NETHER (photo © Jenny Anderson)

twi-ny: Have there been incidents?

SAC: Yeah, I’ve had stalkers.

twi-ny: Pre-Nether or post?

SAC: Both. I’ve had stalkers after The Sound of Music Live!, because that was very big, and I had a couple of strange stalkers after The Nether, but I ignore it. I just don’t respond to anything creepy and delete it immediately.

twi-ny: Does it affect your decision in what plays to do?

SAC: No, it doesn’t. That’s something that comes with being an actor or somebody who’s in the public eye. People become obsessed with your image, not who you are.

twi-ny: Did it scare you when it first happened?

SAC: I was never a sheltered kid, so it absolutely scared me a little bit. Because sheltered kids, they don’t know what happens, they don’t understand how bad the world is, and I always knew those things; my parents have always informed me on things. I watched the news as a kid, and I was never stupid; I knew how serious stalkers could be. And I now have people who protect me from that.

twi-ny: How does it feel to be making your Broadway debut in a show where you’re not in the main Playbill and you’re not allowed to be mentioned in reviews?

SAC: Does it bug me?

twi-ny: Right. You can’t tell people what you’re doing.

SAC: It doesn’t bother me. I’m part of creating a great piece of art, and that’s all that really matters to me. And the fact that I get to go out on the stage and do something, that I’m in the theater. It’s just when I’m not in the theater that I’m miserable. When I’m not working, I’m miserable. But I’m honored to be working with fantastic actors. All that really matters to me is I’m part of telling an important story.

twi-ny: You posted a very interesting picture on Instagram recently in which you’re holding up a bunch of very adult plays that you were getting ready to read, including Equus, This Is Our Youth, and Killer Joe, and you even mentioned in the comments that Sarah Kane is your favorite playwright. Obviously, you’re drawn to this type of material.

SAC: Yes, I am drawn to it. People say that I have a dark sense of humor and I have deep thoughts, and I do, but I like to challenge my mind too. So Sarah Kane is something . . . At first, it takes me a minute to wrap my mind around it. When I finish reading the play, it’s one of those things where it makes me think as an actor. So I like to read those plays because I think it helps make me become a better actor. I don’t ever use them for auditions, but I do a couple of Sarah Kane monologues. . . . . For me, at least, I go to the theater to feel, not to be entertained all the time.

twi-ny: You did Little Dancer, about Degas, at the Kennedy Center. Did you become interested in his work at all, or is that separate?

SAC: When I was doing it, in the rehearsal room we always had prints of his pictures on the wall, and it really inspired the piece. There would be certain moments in the show where there would be a beat in the music and [director Susan Stroman] would say, “Hit the Degas pose.” So we would look at the dancers [in the paintings] and we would make that exact pose.

twi-ny: You’re fourteen, and you’ve already worked with Audra McDonald, Carrie Underwood, Michael C. Hall, Bernadette Peters, Famke Janssen, David Bowie, Susan Stroman, Ivo van Hove, Karen Ziemba, John Oliver, Anne Kauffman; that’s a pretty impressive list for anyone, but especially for a young teenager.

SAC: Age is just a number. I don’t really see myself as my age. I feel very special to have worked with them, but I think of them as equals; I don’t think of them as stars. I think of them as brilliant minds and things, but I don’t think much of it, to be frank, and I try not to make too much of it because then I psyche myself out and get all weird about it, and I get anxious when I’m around someone like that.

twi-ny: You can’t be a fan; you’re a colleague.

SAC: Yeah. That’s the thing that was hard for me with Michael Hall. I was such a fan, ’cause I watched his work on Dexter and Six Feet Under and I loved that stuff. I had so many questions to ask him, and I was ready to talk, because he inspires me as an actor, but I had to not picture him as Dexter anymore; I had to picture him as [his Lazarus character] Thomas Newton and Michael, my friend. I mean, that wasn’t really a struggle, but it was interesting to navigate through that.

twi-ny: You’re unbelievably busy through the end of the year. Is there anything you can talk about?

SAC: I’m going to London in the fall to do Lazarus, which I’m so excited about. I think it will be very well received there.

twi-ny: What is it like working with van Hove?

SAC: One of my very favorite directors. He taught me this thing that I’ve used from then on, which was, the first day, you go in memorized. It’s so smart, too. Because then you can just focus on the acting and what you want to do. You don’t have to worry about holding a paper or looking down at your notes on the paper. That was one of my bad habits. [In the past] I would have all my notes on the paper and I would look at them. Between every scene I would be like, I have to remember this, I have to remember that. But on the first day of rehearsals [for Lazarus], I had my notes on all my papers, and Ivo goes, “You don’t need this,” and I never got my papers back.

twi-ny: He took them away from you?

SAC: Yeah. I got rid of the papers and he let my instincts fly and that was it.

twi-ny: What else is coming up?

SAC: I’m scheduled to do Runaways by Elizabeth Swados for Encores. I actually was looking through records today and I found this vinyl of the original cast album and I was like, “I need this!”

THE HUMANS ON BROADWAY

(photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

Stephen Karam explores the bright and dark sides of the American dream in beautifully humanistic Broadway drama (photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

Helen Hayes Theatre
240 West 44th St.
Tuesday - Sunday through July 24, $39-$145
www.thehumansonbroadway.com
www.roundabouttheatre.org

The most human off-Broadway show of the season is now the most human on Broadway. The Roundabout production of Pulitzer Prize finalist Stephen Karam’s The Humans, which ran at the Laura Pels from October 25 through January 3, has made a seamless transition to the Great White Way, where it is inhabiting the Helen Hayes Theatre through July 24. Karam has made minimal, virtually undetectable tweaks to the play, which features the same cast and crew and is just as good the second time around. Tony nominee and Drama Desk and Obie Award winner Reed Birney stars as Erik Blake, the patriarch of a Scranton family that is gathering for Thanksgiving in the new Chinatown apartment of younger daughter Brigid (Sarah Steele), which she and boyfriend, Richard (Arian Moayed) have just moved into. Erik and his wife, Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell), have driven into the city with his ailing mother, Momo (Lauren Klein), who requires constant care. They are joined by older daughter Aimee (Cassie Beck), a Philadelphia lawyer who has recently broken up with her longtime girlfriend. Over the course of ninety-five intimate minutes, we learn about each character’s strengths and weaknesses, their hopes and dreams, their successes and their failures, as Scranton native Karam (Speech & Debate, Dark Sisters) and two-time Tony-winning director Joe Mantello (Take Me Out, Assassins) steer clear of clichés and melodramatic sentimentality, even when making direct references to 9/11. The acting, led by New York theater treasures Birney (You Got Older, Circle Mirror Transformation) and Houdyshell (Follies, Well) and rising star Steele (Slowgirl, Speech and Debate), is impeccable, making audience members feel like they’re experiencing their own Thanksgiving. Every moment of The Humans, which takes place on David Zinn’s spectacular two-floor tearaway set, rings true, a gripping, honest depiction of life in the twenty-first century, filled with the typical ups and downs, fears and anxieties, that we all face every day. Although things get very serious, including a touch of the otherworldly, the play is also hysterically funny as it paints a familiar yet frightening portrait of contemporary America, mixing in darkness both literally and figuratively. To find out more about the story and to read a short excerpt from the play, you can read my review of the off-Broadway run here, but by this point all you need to know is that this is a must-see production of a must-see show.

BRIGHT STAR

(photo by Nick Stokes)

Carmen Cusack belts away on moving set in dazzling Broadway debut in BRIGHT STAR (photo by Nick Stokes)

Cort Theatre
138 West 48th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through October 9, $45 - $115
brightstarmusical.com

The opening number of the new Steve Martin and Edie Brickell musical, Bright Star, takes a chance right from the start, putting its cards on the table as Alice Murphy (Carmen Cusack) declares, “If you knew my story / My heaven and hell / If you knew my story / You’d have a good story to tell.” It turns out that Bright Star does have a pretty good story to tell, for the most part, and it does so with an intoxicating homey style and sweet sense of humor. The fairy-tale-like narrative, with its fair share of darkness, shifts between the 1920s and 1940s in North Carolina. In 1945, Billy Cane (AJ Shively) has returned home from the war with a jump in his step but is saddened to learn from his father (Stephen Bogardus) that his mother has recently passed away. Determined to become a writer, Billy has been sending his stories to his childhood friend Margo Crawford (Hannah Elless), who owns the local bookstore. Now grown up, she has taken a more romantic interest in Billy, who is oblivious to her desires; he decides to move to Asheville to try to get his writing published in the prestigious Asheville Southern Journal, which will be no easy feat, as it is run by notoriously difficult editor Alice Murphy and her two gatekeepers, the snarky and sarcastic Daryl Ames (Jeff Blumenkrantz) and the sexy and alluring Lucy Grant (Emily Padgett). When Billy first arrives at the company, Daryl tells him that the New Yorker wanted to steal Miss Murphy away, but Lucy notes that the dour editor wanted to stay in North Carolina. “That’s good!” Billy cries out. “Not for young tadpoles like you,” Daryl says. Lucy adds, “She once made Ernest Hemingway cry. He lay right there, banged his fists on the floor, and sobbed.” Billy asks, “Why?” to which Lucy replies, “He used the word ‘their’ as a singular pronoun.” The story then jumps back to sixteen-year-old Alice (Cusack) in 1923 and her flirtation with twenty-year-old Jimmy Ray Dobbs (Paul Alexander Nolan), the hunky son of Mayor Josiah Dobbs (Michael Mulheren). But the mayor, a big-time businessman of the Old South, has other plans for his son, preparing to marry him off to help the company. However, Jimmy Ray wants to go to college and experience the world outside Zebulon. “You can’t expect the future to be just like the past / You haven’t got a clue, sir, please try to understand,” Jimmy Ray sings. “When I stood tall, side by side with your grandpa / There was just nothing at all we couldn’t do,” his father responds. Soon the two main plots merge, leading to a surprise conclusion that is not quite as shocking as it thinks it is but is heart-wrenching nonetheless.

(photo by Nick Stokes)

Part of band spends entire show in mobile cabin in musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell (photo by Nick Stokes)

Actor, musician, novelist, comedian, and playwright Martin (Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Shopgirl) and folk-rock musician Brickell — billing themselves as the new Steve and Edie — collaborated on the music and story, inspired by an actual event; Martin wrote the book, while Brickell wrote the lyrics. (The musical was initially based on their 2013 album, Love Has Come from You, but went through major changes, leading to their 2015 follow-up, So Familiar, which includes their versions of many of the songs that made the final show.) Director Walter Bobbie (Chicago, Venus in Fur) and choreographer Josh Rhodes (Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, It Shoulda Been You) make fantastic use of Eugene Lee’s (Wicked) rustic set, an open cabin (reminiscent of the one at the start of The Jerk) where four members of the band (Michael Pearce, Bennett Sullivan, Rob Berman, Martha McConnell) play and which gets moved around as the setting changes to the offices of the Asheville Southern Journal, Margo’s bookstore, Mayor Dobbs’s residence, and the Shiny Penny bar. Occasionally a model train passes overhead when a character is traveling. Cusack is sensational in her Broadway debut, going back and forth between the young Alice to the older Miss Murphy with wit and elegance, singing with a vibrant, evocative voice and infectious confidence. The show works best when the music follows more of an Americana roots and bluegrass style, which is especially embraced by Nolan (Jesus Christ Superstar, Doctor Zhivago); his duets with Cusack are the musical highlights of the production. The weak link is the dull subplot about Billy’s desire to be a writer, with Shively (La Cage aux Folles, February House) too straitlaced to keep things interesting, lacking any edge, and Martin can get a little too erudite with his literary barbs. In addition to the musicians in the cabin, there are more up top on either side of the stage; Peter Asher’s music direction and August Eriksmoen’s orchestrations mostly work, although the Shiny Penny scene, featuring the ensemble song “Another Round,” is a disaster in every which way. (And why did they have to use glasses with tops on them, making it look ridiculous when characters apparently take a big drink but the same amount of liquid is still clearly visible in their glass?) Stephen Lee Anderson (The Iceman Cometh, The Kentucky Cycle) does a fine turn as Alice’s Bible-thumping father, and Mulheren (Spider-Man, Kiss Me, Kate) gives the mayor a Big Daddy–like presence. “Should’ve raised you with a firmer hand,” Daddy Murphy sings to his daughter in a strong number. For a show partially about writing, Bright Star would have benefited by being edited with a firmer hand, but it’s still an entertaining musical with supreme moments.

(On April 12, Martin and Brickell will be at the Upper West Side Barnes & Noble at 86th St. & Lexington Ave. for a discussion with Asher and a CD signing of So Familiar; priority seating will be given to attendees who purchase the disc there.)

BLACKBIRD

(photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

Una (Michelle Williams) and Ray (Jeff Daniels) revisit a past traumatic event in very different ways in BLACKBIRD (photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

Belasco Theatre
111 West 44th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Monday - Saturday through June 11, $39 - $145
blackbirdbroadway.com

In 2007, Jeff Daniels starred with Alison Pill in the off-Broadway premiere of David Harrower’s Olivier Award–winning play, Blackbird, directed by Joe Mantello at Manhattan Theatre Club. Nine years later, Daniels is revisiting the incendiary work by digging even deeper into his controversial character in the show’s must-see Broadway debut, running at the Belasco through June 11. Daniels plays Peter, a man suddenly forced to confront his past when Una (Michelle Williams) surprises him at his office late one afternoon. Fifteen years earlier, Peter, then forty years old and known by his given name, Ray, had an inappropriate and illegal relationship with Una, who was twelve at the time. “What cinched the decision to return was that Ray still terrified me,” Daniels wrote in a recent column in the New York Times. “Every actor knows you can’t run from the ones that scare you. It’s not the acting of the character, nor is it the dark imagination it takes to put yourself through all of his guilt, regret, and shame. To truly become someone else, you have to hear him in your head, thinking, justifying, defending, wanting, needing, desiring. The more I looked back at the first production, the more I saw what I hadn’t done, where I hadn’t gone. I’d pulled up short. Found ways around what was necessary. When it came time to truly become Ray, I’d protected myself. He’d hit bottom. I hadn’t.” Daniels indeed hits rock bottom in his remarkable, and terrifying, portrayal of Ray, humanizing a man who committed a horrible crime and tries to escape its consequences and get on with his life, changing his identity and moving away. But as Una, Williams is Daniels’s equal, fully inhabiting the difficult role of a young woman who, on the cusp of adolescence, had her future shut down by Ray’s actions. Tiny, wearing giant heels, and wrapped in a red puffer coat, Williams suggests both a fully adult woman and a sexualized child, delivering a character who never had opportunities to figure out who she is and potentially live a normal life. Their confrontation takes place in a small employee cafeteria in Ray’s office, where he at first denies even knowing who she is, although his head looks like it is about to explode. “This was pointless. Absolutely pointless. Can you see that?” Ray asks her, adding, “You’re a / some kind of ghost / turning up from nowhere to / Go home. / Please. / Leave me alone.” Una responds, “I do feel like a ghost. / I do. / I feel like a ghost. / Everywhere I go. . . . / You made me into a ghost.”

Una (Michelle Williams) considers where life has brought her in BLACKBIRD (photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

Una (Michelle Williams) considers where life has brought her in BLACKBIRD (photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

Williams and Daniels go at it in real time during the play’s ninety minutes, as details of past and present slowly emerge. Their words come in fits and starts, with incomplete sentences and several long monologues that are filled with emotion. While Una is often coy, Ray is angry, afraid not only of Una but of being discovered; as they play a vicious game of cat and mouse, switching between roles of attacker and prey, figures occasionally walk past in the hall or a colleague of Ray’s knocks on the door and asks for him. (These extras are seen only in silhouette through frosted doors and windows.) But even though we know in our hearts that what Ray did to Una was completely wrong, Daniels is able to elicit compassion for Ray, while Williams sometimes makes us feel like Una is taking advantage of the situation in unfair ways. I hated myself for thinking that, but that’s part of the beauty of Harrower’s (Knives in Hens) piercing dialogue and Mantello’s (The Humans, Other Desert Cities) astute, no holds-barred direction. “I am entitled to something. / To live,” Ray says. “I lost more than you ever did,” Una replies. “I lost / because I never had / had time to to to begin.” Scott Pask’s set is cold and unfeeling, almost antiseptic except for the mess of food wrappers and garbage left behind by employees. Trash becomes an integral part of the proceedings. Una tells a story about getting upset when she saw a man drop a can of beer and a cigarette on the sidewalk. “It’s not the litter / it wasn’t the litter / the dirtying,” she says. “It was the man, the person doing that. / Because he hasn’t been, been / schooled / educated / civilized enough / and I thought, / I just thought you are a beast.” She’s of course not talking only about the stranger but about Ray as well. But Ray refuses to see himself as a beast, and Una refuses to regard herself as garbage.

Ray (Jeff Daniels) tries to avoid a meltdown when part of his past comes rushing back in BLACKBIRD (photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

Ray (Jeff Daniels) tries to avoid a meltdown when part of his past comes rushing back in BLACKBIRD (photo by Brigitte Lacombe)

Watching Blackbird is as uneasy and uncomfortable as it is captivating and physically and mentally exhausting. I found myself leaning forward in my seat, mesmerized by every word and every nuance and movement by three-time Oscar nominee Williams (Cabaret, My Week with Marilyn) and Emmy, Drama Desk, and Obie winner Daniels (The Newsroom, The Squid and the Whale) as they worked their magic. They both give dynamic, unrelenting performances that are brave and bold. It’s more than just a battle of wits and power, or an argument about the nature of love, or an exploration of the very different responsibilities of adults and children. The production, which includes excellent sound design by Fitz Patton and lighting by Brian MacDevitt, masterfully challenges the viewer to disregard extremes and do some genuine soul searching of their own. Of course, just by calling the woman “Una” sets herself off by herself, as if she is alone in the world. (The film version, the debut feature by Australian theater director Benedict Andrews, is called Una; Rooney Mara plays Una, with Ben Mendelsohn as Ray.) On the way out of the Belasco, you’re likely to find yourself in a heated discussion with your companion over whether the show was honest and truthful about pedophilia, whether it was more of a glorified rape apology, whether it was a love story, or whether it treated both characters equally. You’re also likely to find yourself wanting a thorough shower.

ECLIPSED

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Danai Gurira’s ECLIPSED follows a group of women just trying to survive during Liberia’s second civil war (photo by Joan Marcus)

Golden Theatre
252 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 19, $45-$149
eclipsedbroadway.com

When Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o was invited to star in a play at the Public by artistic director Oskar Eustis, she immediately chose Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed, and it’s easy to see why. Eclipsed is a searing look at five women trying to find ways to survive during the second Liberian civil war, a memorably written, directed, and acted story filled with surprising dark humor among horrific abuse and violence. The play was initially staged by Woolly Mammoth and then at Yale Rep in 2009, where Nyong’o served as an understudy and never got the opportunity to go on. It was such a success at the Public last fall that it has since transferred to Broadway, where it’s running at the Golden Theatre through June 19. Set in 2003, the play explores the terrifying situation of five women, three of whom live together in a ramshackle cement hut riddled with bullet holes and are sex slaves to a local commanding officer. They are known merely as wife Number One (Saycon Sengbloh), who has been there the longest and manages the household; pregnant wife Number Three (Pascale Armand), who likes to complain and is rather scattershot; and the new girl, wife Number Four (Nyong’o), who is determined to hold on to her identity despite what is happening to her and the others. When Number Four asks Number One about her age and Number One doesn’t seem to care, Number Four says, “Don’t you want to know? I don’ know, I just tink we should know who we are, whot year we got, where we come from. Dis war not forever.” Number One responds, “Dat whot it feel like,” to which Number Four replies, “Ya, but it not. I want to keep doing tings. I fifteen years, I know dat. I want to do sometin’ wit’ myself, be a doctor or member of Parliament or sometin’.”

Despite such dreams, their value as objects rather than humans is made clear; every so often, they suddenly line up in a row as the unseen CO walks by and chooses which one he wants to have sex with. When they return, they go straight to a basin, grab a washcloth, and clean themselves. Soon Number Two (Zainab Jah) returns, a revolutionary carrying a rifle and bringing rice, which Number One refuses. Number Two, who has joined the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) against corrupt President Charles Taylor, wants to recruit Number Four, but Number Four is too immersed in a book she is reading out loud, about a U.S. leader named Bill Clinton. “A white man?” Number One asks. “Ya, he white. He from America,” Number Four answers. “You sho he white? Dere lots of Liberians in America. Maybe he American from Liberia or Liberian from America,” Number Three adds. “No, I tink he American from America,” Number Four, who wears Rugrats and Tweety Bird T-shirts, says. Later, Number Three claims, “He see me, he gon’ forget dat white wife. She betta not let him come ’ere.” In her fantasy of release, she’s still a concubine, only to a white U.S. president rather than a Liberian warlord, perhaps a sly dig at the “liberation” of first-world women. The whole conversation about Bill and Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky is much-needed comic relief as things heat up and Rita (Akosua Busia), a peace worker dressed in white like an angel, comes to the compound to meet with the CO and try to help end the civil war.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Lupita Nyong’o considers joining the fighting at the behest of Zainab Jah (photo by Joan Marcus)

Eclipsed is the second of four plays about Africa and African Americans written by Gurira, a Zimbabwean American who plays zombie killer Michonne on The Walking Dead; she won an Obie for 2005’s In the Continuum, was nominated for an L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award for 2012’s The Convert, and Familiar has been extended at Playwrights Horizon. In her return to the stage — and her Broadway debut — following her Oscar-winning performance in 12 Years a Slave, Mexican Kenyan Nyong’o is mesmerizing as a young woman bright beyond her years, prepared to do whatever it takes to maintain her identity and, ultimately, regain her freedom without sacrificing her humanity, something that the brutal, fierce Number Two no longer worries about. “We gon’ restore Liberia to its rightful people,” Number Two tells Number Four. “You understand, de enemy, de enemy is no longer human being. Okay?” Reprising their roles from the Yale Rep production, Jah (Ruined, The Convert), who was born in England and partly raised in Sierra Leone, fully inhabits her role as the freedom warrior, inspired by real women who took up arms to fight against Taylor’s rule, while Armand (The Trip to Bountiful, An Octoroon), who was born in Brooklyn and whose parents are from Haiti, is charming as a woman who never quite learned how to take care of herself. Sengbloh (Marley, Hurt Village), who is of Liberian heritage, is bold yet tender-hearted as the strong-willed but perhaps misguided ersatz leader of the sex slaves, and Ghanaian Busia (Mule Bone, The Talented Tenth) lends a touching vulnerability to the peace worker who has a personal agenda in her mission. Together they form a kind of alternate family of parents and children attempting to deal with an impossible situation, their performances ringing true with realistic and rhythmic movement and dialogue, beautifully directed by South Africa native Tommy (Ruined, The Good Negro), who has been with the show from the start. The set and costumes by Clint Ramos and music and sound design by Broken Chord add to the mood, which is fraught with danger yet resilient with hope, giving balance to this extraordinary story by and about women and power. Coincidentally, the Playbill front cover features a close-up of Nyong’o’s very serious face, while the back cover shows her bursting with happiness in an elegant advertisement for a high-end makeup company, providing quite a contrast that is, in some ways, metaphorically echoed in this very special production.

DISASTER!

(Jeremy Daniel Photography)

The audience and the cast have a swinging good time in DISASTER! (Jeremy Daniel Photography)

Nederlander Theatre
208 West 41st St. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through July 3, $65-$179
877-250-2929
www.disastermusical.com

There has been many a disaster on Broadway; Disaster! is definitely not one of them. The delightful musical comedy, which began life as a one-night charity benefit in 2011 and then had off-Broadway runs at the Triad Theater in 2012 and St. Luke’s in 2013-14, has made a simply fabulous transition to the Great White Way, where it runs through July 3 at the Nederlander Theatre. The show has kept growing since initially conceived by Seth Rudetsky and Drew Geraci, with bigger and bigger stars and significant changes to the script and music; the Broadway version is by cowriter, music supervisor, song arranger, and costar Rudetsky and his best friend, cowriter and director Jack Plotnick, a longtime character actor in film and television. It’s 1979, and Tony Delvecchio (Roger Bart channeling Jack Black) is celebrating the opening of Barracuda, his floating casino and discotheque moored in New York Harbor. A chintzy showman and businessman, Tony has cut just about every corner possible, worrying journalist Marianne (Kerry Butler) and Professor Ted Schneider (Rudetsky), who is concerned that the ship could not survive a natural disaster, which is likely to occur shortly. Among those on deck are Sister Mary Downy (Jennifer Simard), who is protesting against the casino and its debauchery; Shirley (Faith Prince) and Maury (Kevin Chamberlin), an older couple with a fierce love of life; Levora (Lacretta Nicole), a down-on-her-luck former disco diva who goes everywhere with her beloved dog in her handbag; Chad (Adam Pascal), whom Marianne left at the altar and his now working as a waiter on the ship, and his goofy buddy, Scott (Max Crumm); and elegant but not-too-bright lounge singer Jackie (Rachel York) and her young twins, Ben and Lisa (both played in hilarious fashion by Baylee Littrell). The show pays tribute to the great, and not-so-great, disaster movies of the 1970s, ingeniously coupled with beloved, and not-so-beloved, pop songs from that era.

Jackie (Rachel York) prays for a morning after as Ted (Rudetsky) and Ben (Baylee Littrell) look on (Jeremy Daniel Photography)

Jackie (Rachel York) prays for a morning after as Ted (Rudetsky) and Ben (Baylee Littrell) look on (Jeremy Daniel Photography)

The main target is The Poseidon Adventure, but there are also references galore to the Airport films, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, Rollercoaster, Tidal Wave, Piranha, and even Airplane! Simard’s nun character, speaking in a killer deadpan voice, is pulled directly from Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker’s classic 1980 spoof, while Prince excels in her homage to Shelley Winters in Poseidon. Meanwhile, the melodrama involving Marianne and Chad feels like a terrifically nerdy subplot from The Love Boat. The score features more than three dozen period favorites, delivered with extremely firm tongues-in-cheek, including Mary MacGregor’s “Torn Between Two Lovers,” Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend,” England Dan and John Ford Coley’s “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight,” Orleans’s “Still the One,” Carly Simon’s “Mockingbird,” and Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff,” many of which become riotous set pieces, especially as things start looking more and more bleak and Tobin Obst’s (Newsies, Jekyll & Hyde) set begins falling apart with deliciously low-budget panache. The cast, superbly dressed by William Ivey Long (Chicago, On the Twentieth Century), does an amazing job keeping a straight face while the audience explodes in pure glee over each new reference or song snippet, which Rudetsky and Plotnick nail again and again. Littrell, the son of former Backstreet Boy Brian Littrell, nearly steals the show playing the twin siblings, going back and forth between Ben and Lisa in side-splitting, nearly impossible ways. The fun choreography is by JoAnn M. Hunter (School of Rock, Broadway Bound), who has a blast with the fab soundtrack. No mere jukebox musical, Disaster! is hot stuff indeed, a love letter to a simpler time and place; about the only thing missing is Sensurround.