651 Fulton St.
October 15-30, $35-$130
Robert Wilson and Mikhail Baryshnikov, who teamed with Willem Dafoe in 2014 at BAM for The Old Woman, have returned to Brooklyn for another avant-Expressionist multimedia marvel, Letter to a Man. Continuing at the Harvey through October 30, the mostly one-man show is based on the diaries of Russian ballet dancer and choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, who electrified the dance world before his schizophrenia had him in and out of mental institutions from 1919, when he was twenty-nine, until his death in 1950 at the age of sixty-one. Conceived, directed, and designed by Wilson, who has previously dazzled BAM audiences with such consciousness-expanding works as The Blue Rider, Einstein on the Beach, and Woyczeck, Letter to a Man is built around snippets from the diary Nijinsky kept in early 1919, shortly before being hospitalized for the first time. Performed by Baryshnikov, dressed in a sharp tuxedo and white-painted face, and various disembodied voices as if they’re echoing in Nijinsky’s head, the text, adapted by Christian Dumais-Lvowski and filled with references to God, sex, war, and death, features such devastating lines as “I am standing in front of a precipice into which I may fall. I am afraid to fall,” “I will eat everyone I can get hold of. I will stop at nothing,” and “I went in the direction of the abyss.” Baryshnikov moves exquisitely across the stage, with small dance flourishes that are breathtaking, particularly because no footage of Nijinsky performing exists. A. J. Weissbard boldly lights Wilson’s surreal set, with vaudeville-style flashing stage lights in the front, mesmerizing shades of white and blue, and dark shadows as Baryshnikov stands in front of a large window that could be in an asylum or a church. Wilson includes such elements as a burning cross, a fiery red circle that references Nijinsky’s paranoid drawings of eyes in the diaries, and branches that evoke Nijinsky’s only extant choreographic work, Afternoon of a Faun.
The show gets its title from Nijinsky’s fourth notebook, which consists of letters he wrote but never sent; in this case, the “man” in question is Ballets Russes founder and artistic director Sergei Diaghilev, who is never specifically named in the diaries but had a severe falling out with his star dancer and lover after Nijinsky married Romola de Pulszky in September 1913. Although Wilson is treading on familiar territory from a technical standpoint, Letter to a Man is still a mind-blowing tribute to both Nijinsky and Baryshnikov, who along with Rudolf Nureyev redefined ballet in the twentieth century. The music, selected by Hal Willner, ranges from classical to pop, from Arvo Pärt and Henry Mancini to Tom Waits’s “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” and Napoleon XIV’s novelty hit, “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!,” bringing levity to the proceedings as Nijinsky’s battle with mental illness intensifies. The mysterious projections are by Tomek Jeziorski; Jacques Reynaud designed Baryshnikov’s costumes, which include a straitjacket, while choreographer Lucinda Childs collaborated on the movement. As with most of Wilson’s works, there are many striking, memorable images that are likely to stay with you for a long time, from Baryshnikov sitting in a chair up on a wall in an almost blindingly white space to him slowly inching backward on a dark beam, moving away from the aforementioned large window, from him approaching a projection of a battlefield to performing a little soft shoe. It’s a glowing tribute that is fraught with sadness, memorializing a special dancer who was overcome by a debilitating disease.
BAM Fisher, Fishman Space
321 Ashland Pl.
October 26-29, $25, 7:30
Polish companies Laznia Nowa Theater and TR Warszawa (Nosferatu, Festen) have teamed up for Request Concert, a one-character show running at the BAM Fisher October 26-29. Translated by Danuta Żmij-Zielińska from German playwright Franz Xaver Kroetz’s 1971 hyperrealistic play, Request Concert features Danuta Stenka as Fräulein Rasch, an average woman going about her average life, a fifty-year-old stenographer returning home after a day at work. Taking aim at loneliness in modern society, the seventy-five-minute production is directed by Yana Ross, with music by Aśka Grochulska and Tomasz Wyszomirski, lighting by Mats Öhlin, and multimedia set design by Simona Biekšaitė. “Karl Marx defines a time ripe for revolution when the masses are fed up with oppression and the elite is no longer able to control them,” Ross explained shortly before the play’s premiere in Poland. “But what if the financial elite has adapted with the times and worked out a way to keep the masses more or less occupied with consumerism, keeping them busy with enough daily small rewards and pleasures to forget the pain of a senseless cycle of life?” All tickets for the dialogue-free show, being staged in the round at the intimate Fishman Space, are $25, and attendees are encouraged to walk around to experience Fräulein Rasch’s futility from all angles.
It takes a while for Company XIV’s latest decadent Baroque burlesque extravaganza, Paris!, to get cooking, but once it does, it quickly goes from hot, hot, hot to sizzling. Troupe founder and director Austin McCormick, who has previously reimagined such fairy-tales as Cinderella, Pinocchio, and Snow White, revisits the myth of Paris and the golden apple, which Company XIV first tackled in its streamlined 2012 dance-theater-opera, Judge Me Paris. The company goes all out this time in its temporary new space, the Irondale Center in Fort Greene, which they have outfitted in Louis XIV grandeur, with ornate red velvet couches and chairs, numerous chandeliers, and costumed greeters welcoming you to the festivities. Before the show starts, you can walk around the main floor and the balcony, where some of the performers are getting ready and the heady enticements begin. The first act is surprisingly ordinary for Company XIV, offering little that is new as the emcee, the half-man, half-woman Zeus/Fifi (Charlotte Bydwell), introduces the story, in which the mortal shepherd Paris (Jakob Karr) must decide which of three goddesses — Venus (Storm Marrero), Pallas Athena (Marcy Richardson), or Juno (Randall Scotting) — deserves the golden apple. “My lovely goddesses! Your time has come,” Zeus announces. “Tighten your corsets, stuff your bustiers, dot your moles, and present your most delicious selves to our virginal judge. His ears are half-open, his eyes are half-closed, and his skin is untouched. . . . This young man wants much and it’s yours to give.” There’s a beautiful duet by Paris and Mercury (Todd Hanebrink) and a rather naughty sheep orgy, but things really start to hit their stride in the second act, as soprano Richardson dazzles the audience with unique versions of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” and Adele’s “Skyfall” and performing breathtaking feats on the pole. Countertenor Scotting scores big with two songs by Handel and Leonard Cohen’s “I’m Your Man,” a very funny gender-twisting spoof. In the short third act, Marrero brings the house down with stirring renditions of Daughter’s “Youth” and Rihanna’s “Love on the Brain” as Paris makes his choice.
Over the last few years, while searching for a permanent home, Company XIV has performed at such venues as the Minetta Lane Theatre, 428 Lafayette St. across from the Public, and the 303 Bond Street Theatre in an abandoned warehouse in Brooklyn; they have found quite a treasure in the Irondale Center, formerly the auditorium of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, which they have outfitted in regal splendor. Throughout the tale, the ensemble of Nicole von Arx, Nicholas Katen, Mark Osmundsen, Cara Seymour, and Taner Van Kuren, wearing various body-revealing get-ups courtesy of the endlessly inventive Zane Pihlstrom, who also designed the set, dances in ever-changing configurations, mixing comic bits into their sexy numbers and occasionally making their way through the audience, where the patrons can order drinks and snacks all night long. (The actors also provide entertainment during the two intermissions, including a lovely flute and cello duet and a playful pregnancy vignette.) The relatively inconsequential text is by Jeff Takacs (with contributions from Bydwell), with fanciful lighting by Jeanette Yew. The emcee is repetitive and takes up too much time, but the rest of the characters excel as they go from group can-cans to intimate solos, duets, and trios. Director and choreographer McCormick limits the complex acrobatic elements of the troupe, focusing more on dance and song, like Martha Graham gone wild, and it works well here, after a slow start. Paris! runs through November 12 — tickets begin at $25 and go up to $525 for those VIPs who want to party like it’s 1699 — and will be followed by Company XIV’s annual holiday favorite, Nutcracker Rouge.
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 11, $70-$150
Simon Stephens’s Heisenberg, which transferred to Broadway last month shortly after his extraordinary The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time ended a two-year run at the Ethel Barrymore, might reference the quantum theory uncertainty principle that proves the impossibility of precisely measuring position and momentum at the same time, but there’s no uncertainty that the British playwright is an exceptional storyteller bursting with both position and momentum. Stephens’s Tony-winning adaptation of Mark Haddon’s children’s book was turned into a multimedia marvel by Marianne Elliott. Heisenberg explores some of the same territory, the nature of establishing connections and communication between people, but could not otherwise be more different; it’s a spare, minimal tale directed with a graceful simplicity by Mark Brokaw (The Lyons, After Miss Julie). Mary-Louise Parker and Denis Arndt are magnetic as Georgie Burns and Alex Priest, respectively, two loners who meet one afternoon in a London tube station. Georgie is a forty-two-year-old fast-talking American with a tenuous grasp on the truth, while Alex is a seventy-five-year-old Irish butcher who just wants to be left alone. As the play opens, she kisses the back of his neck, mistaking him for someone else, then starts babbling to him. “Why are you talking to me?” he asks sternly. “I’m sorry. I’m really weird. I know. You don’t need to tell me. I’ll go,” she replies. But she can’t leave; she is drawn to him, sharing intimate details of her life that might or might not be true. When she shows up at his shop five days later, tracking him down through Google, he coldly declares, “My privacy has been violated.” She responds, “‘Violated’ is a bit strong. ‘Violated’ is a bit hyperbolic.” “Nice word,” he says. “Thank you. Ha. ‘Nice word.’ Patronizing fucker,” she answers. As these two extremely particular and rather odd strangers get to know each other, they attempt to fill in the missing parts of their lives.
The awe-inspiring technology behind Curious Incident is completely absent in Heisenberg, a streamlined production that relies on basic, almost workshoplike elements. Mark Wendland’s (Next to Normal, The Merchant of Venice) sparse stage features two chairs and two tables that the actors occasionally move around as the scenes change; there is a riser of seats behind the stage, placing the characters in the middle of the audience. Despite the show’s title, Stephens’s script does not delve deeply into physics, although at one point Georgie explains, “If you watch something closely enough you realize you have no possible way of telling where it’s going or how fast it’s getting there. Did you know that? That’s actually the truth. That’s actually scientifically been proven as the truth. By scientists. They all got together and they completely agreed on that. If you pay attention to where it’s going or how fast it’s moving, you stop watching it properly.” Those words also apply to how one can experience theater, including this Manhattan Theatre Club production. There’s no need to pay special attention to where this charming two-actor character sketch is going, or how fast it will get there; just watch it properly, immersed in the moment and the flow, in the lightning-quick pace and dizzying spectacle of Parker’s (Proof, Weeds) splendidly quirky performance or the subtle, sly, sublimely powerful work of Oregon Shakespeare Festival veteran Arndt (The Ballad of Soapy Smith, Basic Instinct) as he almost imperceptibly builds the quietly heartbreaking figure of Alex. “You need to follow it. The melody,” Alex tells Georgie when teaching her how to listen to a Bach sonata. “Try to predict what will happen to it next. It will completely take you by surprise.” The same can be said for this beautifully constructed show.
Ten years ago, British playwright and actress Sarah Jones won a Special Tony Award (and an earlier Obie) for her one-woman show Bridge and Tunnel, in which she played multiple characters, shining a light on New York City’s immigrant population. It took a decade, but she is now back with her follow-up, another one-woman multiple-identity tour de force, Sell/Buy/Date, which revives some characters from her previous works while adding new ones. It’s late-twenty-first-century America, and Dr. Serene Campbell is teaching a class on the sex business, leading her students through a series of BERT modules, bio-empathetic resonant technology that dates back to 2017. Using this imaginary technology like oral histories, she tells her students, “We will be experiencing different bodies, different ages, what were then called ‘races’ or ‘ethnic groups,’ as you’ll remember from Unit One, and along the gender continuum, we’ll be encountering males as well as females — it was quite binary at that time. Remember, these are Personal History modules — the focus today is on feeling each person’s experience, so, before we begin, how many people have your emotional shunts engaged?” She then proceeds to embody seventeen characters interviewed throughout the decades about the commercial sex trade, examining the reaction in the recent past to prostitution, pornography, and exotic dancing. “Chronologically advanced” Jewish bubbe Lorraine L. talks about trying to enhance her sexual relationship with her husband by searching for porn on the internet. Post–Valley Girl Bella, named after feminist activist Bella Abzug, is a “sex work studies major, minoring in social media with a concentration on notable YouTube memes” who cohosts “the biweekly pole-dancing party . . . called ‘Don’t Get All Pole-emical.” Jamaican No Fakin’ is a Caribbean prostitute at a sex workers rally who is carrying an unseen sign that says “No Justice, No Piece.” She defends what she does, noting, “You find me somebody who don’t hate some part of their job. There’s a lotta things I hate about doing this, but the money is not one of them.” And New York Domini-Rican Nereida angrily declares, “It just makes me so sick that we are all supposed to care about the same human rights, at least, that’s why we’re all here for this Feminist Plenary, but I mean, if one more of these so called ‘sex work advocates’ calls me anti-sex, I swear to god. I’m gonna be, like, first of all, I love sex. Sex is amazing. But what you are having is not sex.”
Dr. Campbell also calls up interviews of members of the male species as she walks around Dane Laffrey’s futuristic set, a spare, antiseptic classroom with a podium, a file cabinet, a floor sparsely outlined with lights, and a projection screen at the back. “Yes, of course men were having sex as well, but you’ll remember from the reading, what were male sluts called?” she asks the class. “Very good, they were called ‘men.’” Among the male characters in the show are frat boy and Grand Theft Auto fan Andrew “AV” Vanderbeek, Russian raunchpreneur Sergei Ledinov, Los Angeles pimp Cookie Chris (“Even with what I was doing, you know, exploiting women and whatnot, I had a rep for being real sweet about it”), and Native American comedian Gary (“I’m usually most popular on college campuses, whenever they wanna do their Diversity Day or Hey, We’re Not All White week”). But as much as the treatment of women and sex workers needs to change, not all change turns out to be progress.
Jones, who was born in Baltimore and raised in Boston, DC, and Queens in a multiracial family, has created a fascinating future devoid of organized religion, bachelor parties, unpaid internships, personal security guards, violent video games, a livable New Jersey, and mobile phones, where people can travel freely between countries and there is no discrimination of any kind. “They did not believe one has an automatic right to live equally,” Dr. Campbell says about people from the past. It’s a potent point, especially given the vitriol present in this year’s lurid presidential election campaign. In researching Sell/Buy/Date, Jones met with sex workers around the world, visiting Sweden, Germany, Korea, India, Las Vegas, France, Ireland, Scotland, the Netherlands, and the Dominican Republican, helping her create believable men and women who share a wide range of thoughts about commercial sex. She smartly captures the humanity in the industry, even if it is a bit lighthearted at times for such a serious topic, while Drama Desk–nominated director Carolyn Cantor (Fly by Night) ably uses sound (by Bray Poor) and light (by Eric Southern) to smoothly transition between time periods. However, a subplot involving Dr. Campbell’s mother’s identity as a “survivor” feels like a forced tribute to those who have paved the way for gender equality. Jones, who once declared, “The revolution will not happen between these thighs” (the late Gil Scott-Heron was a family friend), gives a superb performance, instantly taking control of the audience at the intimate and comfortable Studio at Stage II at New York City Center; she has a natural confidence as a teacher that is intoxicating. Part of the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Harold and Mimi Steinberg New Play Series, Sell/Buy/Date offers a lively and timely look at a controversial subject that has continued to raise eyebrows throughout the centuries.
MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre
121 Christopher St. between Bleecker & Hudson Sts.
Tuesday - Sunday through October 23, $69-$125
“What is the weight of a lie?” Faye Johnson (Judith Light) asks at the beginning of Neil LaBute’s All the Ways to Say I Love You, a one-hour, one-character drama that has been extended at the Lucille Lortel through October 23. In her first solo show, Light is extraordinary as Mrs. Johnson, a high school teacher and guidance counselor in the Midwest who is retelling her story about a special relationship she had with a “second-year senior.” LaBute slowly and tantalizingly sprinkles in bits of the truth as Johnson, wearing a maroon cardigan and a wedding ring, moves about her somewhat ordinary office and talks about her somewhat ordinary life. (The suburban-school set design is by Rachel Hauck, the costume by Emily Rebholz.) Like other LaBute characters, Johnson balances between eliciting sympathy and moral outrage. She lights up when she delves into the time she spent with the student, Tommy, as opposed to the more mundane life she has with her husband. Johnson addresses the audience directly, making extensive eye contact, but this is no mere confessional or sympathy-seeking explanation; she is not resentful of her past but wistful and even celebratory.
LaBute (The Mercy Seat, This Is How It Goes) might be covering familiar territory, but he avoids the pratfalls of ripped-from-the-headlines melodrama in favor of a subtle narrative that carefully treads around love and betrayal, abuse and respect. Two-time Obie-winning director Leigh Silverman (In the Wake, Go Back to Where You Are) maintains a carefully modulated but not manipulative pace as various truths emerge in this MCC production, leading to a hard-hitting finale. Light, who has spent much of her stage and television career in supporting roles — the Who’s the Boss? star won two daytime Emmys as Karen Wolek on One Life to Live, has earned two primetime Emmy nominations as Shelly Pfefferman on Transparent, and has won two Tonys for featured roles in Other Desert Cities and The Assembled Parties — here is front and center, on her own, and she revels in it. The sixty-seven-year-old actress imbues Mrs. Johnson with a bursting sexuality and an infectious zest for life, alongside melancholic thoughts of what might have been, turning societal mores inside out to fulfill her desires. It’s a spectacular performance by one of our genuine treasures, a bold and engaging actress who keeps bringing us all to new peaks with every successive play and series. Yes, we do find out what the weight of a lie is, but we discover so much more as well.
254 West 54th St. between Seventh & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday – Sunday through January 15, $47-$167
Sitting in the lobby in any of several theater district Holiday Inn hotels, watching people come and go, is likely to be more pleasurable than sitting in Studio 54, watching the Roundabout production of the Goodspeed musical Holiday Inn. Mark Sandrich’s 1942 movie was nominated for Best Original Score and Best Original Story, but music director-conductor Andy Einhorn and orchestrator Larry Blank sap all of the charm and rhythm from Irving Berlin’s songs, while director Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge’s book makes all the wrong changes to the plot, aside from wisely dropping the infamous “Abraham” minstrel scene. Singer-composer Jim Hardy (Bryce Pinkham), dancer Ted Hanover (Corbin Bleu), and chanteuse Lila Dixon (Megan Sikora) are a moderately successful song-and-dance team seeking their big break. Immediately after Jim proposes to Linda, he proposes that they give up show business and move to the farm he just bought in Midville, Connecticut; their manager, Danny (Lee Wilkof), then scores the trio a major gig in Chicago. Jim is heartbroken when Lila says she’d rather go out on the road with Ted. “But Lila, we promised each other that when the gigs dried up we’d get out of show business and live a normal life,” Jim implores. “I’ve always wanted to be normal. After I’m famous,” Lila replies. Jim sticks to his guns, deciding to go to the farm, where he will wait for Lila to join him after she and Ted finish their shows. Arriving at his new home, Jim meets the downtrodden Linda Mason (Lora Lee Gayer), the previous owner of her family’s farm who had defaulted on the mortgage, allowing Jim to buy it.
It takes about three seconds to figure exactly where the story is going, and lo and behold, that is precisely where it ends up. The songs, which were taken from the film as well as other sources, are staged by Greenberg (Guys and Dolls, Working) and choreographer Denis Jones (Honeymoon in Vegas, Pieces of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story) in either overly silly or melodramatic ways, zapping the spirit from “White Christmas,” “Blue Skies,” “Steppin’ Out with My Baby,” “Heat Wave,” “Cheek to Cheek,” and “Easter Parade,” while the costumes, by Alejo Vietti (Beautiful: The Carol King Musical, Allegiance), are either too mundane or too over-the-top. Pinkham (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, The Heidi Chronicles) and Gayer (Doctor Zhivago, Follies) are pleasant enough in the roles performed in the film by Bing Crosby and Marjorie Reynolds, respectively, but Bleu (High School Musical, Godspell) doesn’t have enough vocal range or pizzazz as Ted, played in the film by Fred Astaire, and Sikora (Under My Skin, Curtains) is miscast in the Virginia Dale part; it’s as if she is in a different show. And Megan Lawrence (The Pajama Game, Urinetown) just plain tries too hard in the thankless role of Louise, who has been added for comic relief but quickly grows tedious, as does Morgan Gao as Charlie Winslow, a ten-year-old Midville banker. (Don’t ask.) Aside from a couple of funny Connecticut jokes, this Holiday Inn is not a place where anyone should stay.