Who: Michael Zegen, Stephanie Butnick, Golem, Howard and Elyse Butnick and Family
What: Virtual program with music and discussion
Where: Museum of Jewish Heritage, Facebook, YouTube
When: Wednesday, December 2, free (donations accepted), 7:00
Why: The Museum of Jewish Heritage’s annual “L’dor V’dor: Generation to Generation” goes virtual this year, streaming live on Facebook, YouTube, and mjhnyc.org The event, which raises funds and awareness to fight bigotry and anti-Semitism, will feature an interview between third-generation Holocaust survivor and Marvelous Mrs. Maisel star Michael Zegen with Tablet deputy editor and Unorthodox podcast cohost Stephanie Butnick, live music by Klezmer faves Golem, and a tribute to museum trustee and son of Holocaust survivors Howard Butnick and his family. Admission is free, but donations are encouraged. As the museum notes, “History is now.”
Who: Alice Victoria Winslow, Par Parekh, Satoko Ichihara, Tara Ahmadinejad, Yoko Shioya
What: Virtual production and Q&A
Where: Japan Society YouTube channel
When: Through December 2, $15
Why: Since 2005, Japan Society has been presenting its popular “Play Reading Series: Contemporary Japanese Plays in English Translation.” But the fifteenth installment is going virtual, and it is more than just a reading; Satoko Ichihara’s curiously fascinating Underground Fairy has been reimagined for online viewing, performed live by Alice Victoria Winslow and Par Parekh and directed by Tara Ahmadinejad. The story follows a young half-human, half-fairy named Euriaeria (Winslow) who has an obsession with potatoes and not passing gas — a symbol for holding things in because of societal suppression of girls and women. Wearing cute ears and makeshift wings, Euriaeria leads the other (unseen) fairies, is joined by a furry creature (Parekh), gets a massage, plays with dolls, and delivers a love incantation. After the seventy-minute show, Ichihara (Favonia’s Fruitless Fable, The Question of Faeries), Ahmadinejad (Lunch Bunch, Disclaimer), and Japan Society artistic director Yoko Shioya take part in a discussion about the work.
Who: Nicole Atkins, Ray Jacildo, Ancient Cities, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Binky Griptite, Buffalo Hunt, Courtney Marie Andrews, Caleb Elliott, Dancey Jenkins, Davey Horne, Eric D. Johnson, Erin Rae, Hiss Golden Messenger, Jaime Wyatt, John Gallahger Jr., John McCauley, John Paul White, Justin & the Cosmics, Kashena Sampson, Langhorne Slim, Lilly Hiatt, Lola Kirke, the Lone Bellow, Midlake, Oliver Wood, Patrick Sweany, Phil Cook, the Pollies, Raul Malo, Shakey Graves, the Smoking Flowers, Suzanne Santo, the War and Treaty, Van Darien, more
What: Livestream concert re-creating The Last Waltz
Where: Natkins Funhouse online
When: Friday, November 27, $12, 8:00
Why: On Thanksgiving night, November 25, 1976, the Band played its farewell concert, The Last Waltz, at the Winterland in Sand Francisco, joined by an all-star lineup of luminaries that included Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Neil Diamond, Muddy Waters, Van Morrison, and others. Recently, a wide range of musicians have been gathering every other year or so at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester to re-create the show; last November, Warren Haynes, Jamey Johnson, Lukas Nelson, Don Was, Cyril Neville, and John Medeski, among others, joined in the fun. With the pandemic lockdown closing all music venues, singer-songwriter Nicole Atkins has taken the reins and turned it into a virtual event. “I called a bunch of my musician buddies who are all homebound themselves and love the music of The Last Waltz and miss all being together to perform it in a theater, club, or dive bar for sweaty, singing, smiling humans and this, ‘The Last Waltz from Home,’ became our solution,” she posted on Facebook.
On November 27 at 8:00, Atkins and jazz pianist Ray Jacildo will be hosting “The Last Waltz at Home,” an online concert featuring more than two dozen performers going song by song through the remarkable Last Waltz setlist, from Ancient Cities, Binky Griptite, Courtney Marie Andrews, Eric D. Johnson, and Jaime Wyatt to John McCauley, Justin & the Cosmics, Langhorne Slim, Lilly Hiatt, Lola Kirke, Raul Malo, and more. Atkins and Jacildo will share stories and give out prizes, and everyone can take part in the live chat as the bands make their way from “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Shape I’m In” to “I Shall Be Released” and “Baby Don’t You Do It.” Virtual admission is $12; Atkins also noted on Facebook, “All of the money raised from tickets, tipping, and poster sales will go directly to the artists performing. Our industry has taken quite the beating in this pandemic and many of our tours and work has been cancelled. The silver lining in all this has been you, our fans, and your support throughout this time is beyond appreciated.” Last Waltz devotees will also want to check out the online photography exhibit “The Last Waltz: A Commemorative Retrospective” at the Morrison Hotel Gallery here.
Through November 28, $28 for twenty-four-hour stream
In a December 2017 piece for the New York Times entitled “An Antidote to Digital Dehumanization? Live Theater,” Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar wrote, “I recently learned that a group of neuroscientists have discovered that watching live theater can synchronize the heartbeats of an audience. One of the researchers put it this way: ‘Experiencing the live theater performance was extraordinary enough to overcome group differences and produce a common physiological experience.’ The living presence of the audience is what strikes me as so singular about the theater, why I love working in the theater so much, and why I believe in the particular importance of our beloved form right now.” Referring to the actor’s body, Akhtar, who was born in Staten Island and raised in Milwaukee, later pointed out, “A living being before a living audience. Relationship unmediated by the contemporary disembodying screen. Not the appearance of a person, but the reality of one. Not a simulacrum of relationship, but a form of actual relationship. The theater is an art form scaled to the human, and stubbornly so, relying on the absolute necessity of physical audience, a large part of why theater is so difficult to monetize.”
With the pandemic lockdown, the theater community has had to reimagine what it can do without physical spaces where performers and audiences gather together while also figuring out how to monetize virtual productions. Amid shows presented on Zoom, YouTube, Twitch, Facebook Live, and other platforms, SAG-AFTRA, the actors union, is now allowing companies to stage shows in theaters without audiences, following all Covid-19 protocols for the cast and crew, filming the presentations for livestreaming and on-demand viewing for a limited time. I’ve seen San Francisco Playhouse’s excellent version of Yasmina Reza’s ‘Art,’ Chichester Festival Theatre’s thrilling adaptation of Sarah Kane’s Crave (with an audience), and Bill Irwin’s delightful update of On Beckett, recorded at the Irish Rep.
TheaterWorks Hartford was originally scheduled to perform Akhtar’s The Who and the What live onstage this past summer, which of course didn’t happen. But the show has now been filmed in the theater and is being streamed through November 28, featuring sets by Brian Prather, costumes by Mika Eubanks, lighting by Amith Chandrashaker, and sound by S. R. (It feels great to once again mention those critical jobs, which have changed so dramatically in the Zoom era.) The play, which made its world premiere at La Jolla Playhouse in 2014, is about a Pakistani-American family battling religious tradition.
Afzal (Rajesh Bose) is an old-fashioned widower and a successful self-made businessman. His elder daughter, Mahwish (Sanam Laila Hashemi), is a scholarly writer, still carrying a torch for her old boyfriend, a white Christian, while his younger daughter, Zarina (Jessica Jain), is involved in a sexual relationship that she is hiding from her father, who would do more than just disapprove if he knew about it. Eager to marry off his daughters, Afzal creates an online dating profile for Mahwish and interviews a potential match, Eli (Stephen Elrod), a white Muslim convert who eventually hits it off with Mahwish, who is writing a graphic, potentially blasphemous novel about the prophet Muhammad’s seventh wife, Zaynab, and relating it to the current treatment of women in Muslim society. Over the course of a few years, the family must reevaluate who and what they are as relationships are challenged and religious morals are questioned.
Akhtar’s sizzling debut taking on race and identity, Disgraced, earned him the Pulitzer, and he has gone on to write The Invisible Hand, which links capitalism and terrorism, and Junk, a complex tale set in the mid-’80s world of greed and hostile takeovers. The Who and the What was the second play he wrote (and third to be produced in New York), but it has all the earmarks of a first work, an overly fervent family drama about second-generation Americans trying to find their place in a world that is no longer their parents’. (Akhtar’s parents met and married in Pakistan before immigrating to the United States.) Akhtar’s other works, including his novels, American Dervish and Homeland Elegies, are multilayered, sophisticated stories with intriguing characters and situations; the plot of The Who and the What fails to break away from genre clichés, and while the acting is solid, particularly by Hashemi and Elrod, the twists and turns are telegraphed, and the characters are never fully formed.
The production has several powerful moments, and director Aneesha Kudtarkar (Men on Boats, Trouble in Mind) ably guides the cast across actual sets, but the writing borders too much on television dramedy, albeit on a topic we are not used to seeing onstage or onscreen. Perhaps the lack of a physical audience is part of the problem. In a program note, Kudtarkar explains, “Not only is our country visited by deep religious and political divides, but we find ourselves physically divided in new ways as well, forced to breach even longer distances to reach our families. . . . In a year marked by unfamiliar distance, it feels so special to have come together to share this story and to invite you back into the theater.” Yes, it’s exciting to watch actors perform in a theater once again, but in this case, the distance cannot quite be breached.
Who: Jim Brickman, Kelli O’Hara, Matt Doyle, Sierra Boggess, Megan Hilty, Wayne Brady, Shoshana Bean, Santino Fontana, Adrienne Warren, Norm Lewis, Max Von Essen, Jane Lynch
What: Holiday concert benefiting the Actors Fund
When: Saturday, November 28, $20-$200, 8:00
Why: Solo pianist, songwriter, and author Jim Brickman is celebrating the holidays this year with a new album and virtual tour. The just-released Brickman for Broadway Christmas features an all-star lineup singing seasonal favorites, including Santino Fontana’s “Coming Home for Christmas,” Adrienne Warren’s “Hear Me,” Megan Hilty’s “Merry Christmas Darling,” Norm Lewis’s “’Twas The Night Before Christmas,” Shoshana Bean’s “Sending You a Little Christmas,” Sierra Boggess’s “Fa La La,” Max Von Essen’s “Christmas Is,” and Kelli O’Hara’s “O Holy Night.” On November 28 at 8:00, all of those Broadway performers will join Brickman and special guests Wayne Brady and Jane Lynch for a livestreamed interactive concert benefiting the Actors Fund.
“Recording duets with Broadway stars has always been on my career bucket list,” Brickman said in a statement. “The Brickman for Broadway Christmas project to benefit the Actors Fund was a perfect opportunity to record my songs with theater's best and to raise money for such a worthy cause during this challenging time in the world. And to hear such phenomenal singers bring these songs to life was a thrill.” Admission to the show itself is $20; for the $75 Gold Package you can hang out with Brickman and others in a Zoom room and get a stocking of Christmas presents (CD, autographed photo, program, more) delivered to your door; and the $200 Diamond Package adds all of the above along with access to a preshow party. Brickman will also be hosting “Comfort & Joy at Home” concerts with special guests November 29 through January 2, each concert benefiting a different organization and/or theater.
TWO BY WALLACE SHAWN
The New Group
Evening at the Talk House, Aunt Dan and Lemon
Through November 29, $25 ($45 for both plays)
When I sat down at my desktop computer to watch the New Group’s online reunion reading of Wallace Shawn’s Evening at the Talk House, I was most interested in seeing how original director Scott Elliott, the company’s founding artistic director, would deal with the immersive nature of the preshow setup: As the audience entered the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center for its 2017 US premiere, the actors were already onstage, milling about Derek McLane’s comfy, inviting communal room, and we were encouraged to join them, grabbing a drink, sharing snacks, and chatting with them. “The last time I saw you, you were wearing a dress,” I casually said to Larry Pine, referring to his character in Harvey Feinstein’s 2014 Broadway drama, Casa Valentina, about cross-dressing in the Catskills in the 1960s. “Yes you did,” he answered with a smile. I then had gummy worms and marshmallows with Claudia Shear before sitting down and settling in for the play, which begins with a long monologue by Matthew Broderick in which he makes eye contact with just about everyone in the audience. I wasn’t sure how they would replicate that feeling of instant connection in a Zoom reading, and it turns out they chose to not even try, which disappointed me greatly. But I decided to keep watching anyway, and I’m supremely glad I did.
Part of “The New Group Off Stage: Two by Wallace Shawn,” which also includes a reunion reading of Shawn’s Aunt Dan and Lemon, which is worth checking out (through November 29) just for Lili Taylor’s facial gestures during the three-minute countdown to the start of the play, Evening at the Talk House turns out to be an eerily prescient commentary on the state of the country postelection, as if Shawn had written it yesterday, or tomorrow. The play is about a reunion itself, as some of the cast and crew of the Broadway flop Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars have gathered at their old haunt upon the tenth anniversary of the show’s opening night: playwright Robert (Broderick), star Tom (Pine), composer Ted (John Epperson), costume designer Annette (Shear), and producer Bill (Michael Tucker), along with longtime Talk House host Nellie (Jill Eikenberry) and server Jane (Annapurna Sriram), unexpectedly joined by the bedraggled Dick (Shawn).
As I wrote in my original review, early on, Robert, now a hugely successful television writer, says, “At that time, you see . . . theater played a somewhat larger part in the life of our city than it does now. . . . Because what exactly was ‘theater,’ really, when you actually thought about it?” In 2017, I noted how the play prefigured the Trump administration and the many proposed cuts to arts funding, but four years later it could be seen as being about the pandemic lockdown as theaters across the country and around the world find themselves unable to take the stage in front of audiences, relegated to livestreaming and recorded events over Zoom and YouTube at least in part because of the federal government’s profound failure at handling the Covid-19 health crisis.
In addition, there is a twist in the play that deals with targeting human life: In 2017, it had a sci-fi futuristic bent but today evokes the decisions made by the government and its citizens as to who will live and who will die, who is expendable and who is not in order to save the economy, echoing the cries of essential workers as they have to choose who to intubate and who will not be treated, left to die alone in the ICU or a nursing home.
But amid all that bleakness, Evening at the Talk House is a very funny play, a delight to watch both in person and digitally. The acting is some of the best I have seen in Zoom boxes, led by the soft-spoken Broderick, the engaging Sriram, the firmly brash Tucker, and Shawn himself, who can’t help but steal every scene he’s in, even when his character is just nodding off. The immediate future of theater is very much in doubt right now, but nostalgically looking back at the past is not the answer, even as these reunion readings grow in popularity. “I want the old days back! Where are they? Where have they gone?” Dick declares. Onstage, he wore pajamas, like most of us probably are as we watch him online; since we can see only the top half of Shawn in his cluttered home office, we don’t know what kind of bottoms he is wearing. Later, Robert asks Jane, “You don’t get pleasure from reliving the past?” The future might be uncertain, but with well-written, cleverly crafted works such as Evening at the Talk House, which hold up so well during this time of intense, unpredictable change and never-before-conceived-of stagings, theaterlovers still have much to look forward to.
Who: Sierra Boggess, Lilli Cooper, Darius de Haas, Andy Karl, Jose Llana, Jesse Mueller, Orfeh, Paige Price, Kate Rockwell, Doug Sills, Will Swenson, Seth Rudetsky, James Wesley
What: Livestreamed benefit show for the Humane Society of New York
Where: Stars in the House YouTube channel
When: Friday, November 27, pay-what-you-can, 8:00
Why: Dogs and cats and other household pets are scratching their pretty little heads trying to figure out why we’re home with them all day every day since mid-March, never giving them an ounce of freedom. Yes, animals have been impacted by the Covid-19 crisis, in different ways than their people are. On November 27 at 8:00, Stars in the House, the tireless charity site hosted by Seth Rudetsky and James Wesley that features live play readings and cast reunions, will recognize our furry four-legged friends with a benefit event for the Humane Society of New York, which, during the coronavirus pandemic, has been “doing the daily work of helping those that need help; those owners who may need financial support. More and more we are seeing people from all walks of life that have just lost their jobs and their income, and don’t know when they will be employed again. They know that they can turn to us when their pets need medical attention.” The society’s annual Best in Shows gala fundraiser was canceled, so Stars in the House has stepped in to fill part of the void. Rudetsky and Wesley will be joined by an all-star lineup of Broadway actors and their animals, performing together, featuring Sierra Boggess, Lilli Cooper, Darius de Haas, Andy Karl, Jose Llana, Jesse Mueller, Orfeh, Paige Price, Kate Rockwell, Doug Sills, and Will Swenson.