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

QUEEN OF HEARTS

(photo by Mark Shelby Perry)

Alice (LEXXE) is led down the rabbit hole in latest baroque burlesque production from Company XIV (photo by Mark Shelby Perry)

Theatre XIV
383 Troutman St., Bushwick
Thursday - Sunday through November 2, $85 - $435 (VIP Champagne couch for two)
companyxiv.com

Company XIV heats up an already scorching summer with the smokin’ hot Queen of Hearts, continuing at the wildly talented troupe’s new home in Bushwick through November 2. This time company founder Austin McCormick, who previously helmed baroque burlesque adaptations of such fairy tales as Cinderella and Snow White, turns his attention to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in a sexy, immersive production most definitely not suitable for children. The Troutman St. space has been transformed into a posh cabaret with a chandelier tree, an old-fashioned bar, and flashy decorations. Attendees sit in comfy chairs or couches for two, as company members make their way through the crowd, bantering with the audience.

(photo by Mark Shelby Perry)

The Caterpillar blossoms into a Butterfly (Lilin Lace) in raunchy take on Lewis Carroll classic (photo by Mark Shelby Perry)

All Carroll’s characters are here, just not as you’ve ever seen them before, gussied up in spectacularly raunchy, revealing costumes by Zane Pihlstrom, who also designed the set, and with fab makeup by Sarah Cimino: the alluring Alice (LEXXE), the body-rocking White Rabbit (Michael Cunio), the Caterpillar/Butterfly (Lilin Lace), the dashing Mad Hatter (Marcy Richardson), Tweedledee & Tweedledum (Nicholas Katen and Ross Katen), the Dormouse (Nolan McKew), the juggling Flamingo (Jacoby Pruitt), two Cheshire Cats (Jourdan Epstein and Ryan Redmond), and, of course, the Queen of Hearts (Storm Marrero). The cast also features Ashley Dragon on cyr wheel doing “Eat Me,” Làszlò Major on the pole proclaiming, “Drink Me,” and Ian Spring, Sam Urdang, and rehearsal director Allison Schuster rounding out the ensemble.

(photo by twi-ny/mdr)

Nolan McKew and Marcy Richardson dazzle with acrobatic performance above the crowd in Queen of Hearts (photo by twi-ny/mdr)

Conceived, directed, and choreographed with endless flair by McCormick, Queen of Hearts has a glorious, dark, decadent look hearkening to both Weimar cabaret and Aubrey Beardsley–style graphics. The show boasts more than thirty songs, some sung live by the characters, others recordings by familiar artists. LEXXE taunts us with the original “Blue,” Richardson tantalizes with Tears for Fears’ “Mad World,” Cunio belts out Tom Waits’s “Yesterday Is Here,” and Marrero shakes the building to its foundations with several treats, along with classics by Tom Jones, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Rossini, and Tchaikovsky (and Natalia Kills, the Weeknd, Rihanna, Beyoncé, and, of course, Jefferson Airplane). The acrobatics are awesome, particularly a duet by McKew and Richardson, and Jeannette Yew’s lighting is sultry. There is a sly humor throughout, from magic mushrooms and can-can playing cards to a great use of the back curtain and, well, a bunch of male phalluses. The two-and-a-half-hour extravaganza has two intermissions, so you can get more drinks and snacks at the bar or remain in your seats and watch some bonus entertainment. You’re also encouraged to stick around after for further beverages and a chance to mingle with the cast.

MIDSUMMER: A BANQUET

(photo © Chad Batka)

Oberon (Ryan Wuestewald) looks down on his kingdom in unique take on Shakespearean dinner theater (photo © Chad Batka)

Café Fae
829 Broadway between Twelfth & Thirteenth Sts.
Monday - Saturday through September 7, $75-$200
www.foodofloveproductions.com

To twist a Shakespeare phrase, “If food be the music of life, play on.” The Twelfth Night quote applies to Food of Love Productions, which last year scored a hit with Shake & Bake: Love’s Labor’s Lost, an interactive presentation of the Bard comedy that was first staged in an apartment, then in a repurposed vacant storefront on Gansevoort St., where multiple dishes were served during the show. Food of Love has now teamed up with immersive specialists Third Rail Projects, the company behind such innovative shows as Then She Fell and Ghost Light, on Midsummer: A Banquet, a delicious expansion on the idea of dinner theater, taking place in a reinvented space by Union Square Park that has been turned into the lavishly decorated Café Fae. (The name refers to the fairy world in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well as, if you say it fast, a famous twitter word posted by the current president.)

(photo © Chad Batka)

A group of fairies toast Puck (Lauren Walker) in Midsummer: A Banquet (photo © Chad Batka)

The central room evokes an 1890s Paris café, filled with small, round tables, a bar, long banquettes, and tiny half tables that seem to require fairies to hold your food, as they offer almost nowhere to put your feet or plates. (These demi-tables are to be avoided unless being physically uncomfortable for two and a half hours is your thing.) The exuberant cast moves through the narrow space in the middle and on and around white pillars, one transformed into a tree stump. As they relate Shakespeare’s beloved tale of one fantastical summer’s evening, the actors occasionally turn into waitstaff, bringing food to you, including a forest picnic of harvest grains and market vegetables, fairy kebabs of applewood-smoked veggie skewers, and love bundles of fruit. There’s also wine and cheese, Prosecco, crudités, and dessert, but be careful when buying your tickets, because some seats don’t come with everything.

The play has been liberally streamlined by director and choreographer Zach Morris, the co-artistic director of Third Rail, and actress Victoria Rae Sook, the founder of Shake & Bake, focusing on the key moments of love gone wrong amid mistaken identity. “Awake the pert and nimble spirit of mirth,” Theseus (Ryan Wuestewald) tells the Philostrate (Lauren Walker). Theseus, the duke of Athens, is preparing to marry Hippolyta (Sook), queen of the Amazons. Egeus (Charles Osborne) comes to Theseus, insisting that his daughter, Hermia (Caroline Amos), marry Demetrius (Joshua Gonzales), but she wants to wed only her true love, Lysander (Alex J. Gould). And Helena (Adrienne Paquin) is madly in love with Demetrius, who brutally shuns her.

(photo © Chad Batka)

Theseus (Ryan Wuestewald) and Hippolyta (Victoria Rae Sook) are hunting for love in tasty take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream (photo © Chad Batka)

Hermia and Lysander run away into the forest, where fairy king Oberon (Wuestewald) rules with his queen, Titania (Sook). Messing with the power of love, Oberon asks Robin Goodfellow (Walker), better known as Puck, to use magic to make Demetrius love Helena, but things go awry and soon both Demetrius and Lysander are chasing Hermia, and Titania wakes up next to donkey-faced weaver Nick Bottom (Osborne), part of the Rude Mechanicals theater troupe that is putting on the tragicomic Pyramus and Thisbe with the tinker Snout (Gonzales), the bellows mender Flute (Gould), the joiner Snug (Amos), the tailor Robin Starveling (Walker), and the carpenter Peter Quince (Paquin).

As with Shake & Bake: Love’s Labor’s Lost, there is much merriment to be had, and much good food, curated by Emilie Baltz. The quarters are designed by Jason Simms with an Art Nouveau, Alphonse Mucha flair, while Tyler M. Holland’s costumes are sweet and dainty. There is live music by sound designer Sean Hagerty before and during the show, played by several cast members, most prominently Paquin on guitar. The acting can be hit or miss — Amos, Paquin, Wuestewald, and Walker excel, while Osborne chews up scenery faster than the audience munches away — but Midsummer: A Banquet is more about the experience as a whole, and it’s a tasty one to be savored.

THE ROLLING STONE

(photo by Jeremy Daniel)

The Rolling Stone explores the horrific treatment of homosexuals in Uganda (photo by Jeremy Daniel)

Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse
150 West 65th St. between Broadway & Amsterdam Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through August 25, $92
212-362-7600
www.lct.org

“No news is good news,” Joe (James Udom) says near the beginning of Chris Urch’s wrenching drama The Rolling Stone, which continues at the Mitzi E. Newhouse through August 25. The play is named after a short-lived paper in Kampala, Uganda, which in 2010 outed LGBTQ people, identifying them so that they would then be arrested, beaten, and/or murdered. A gutsy James Udom is Joe, a priest waiting to hear if he will be named pastor of his local church, which is filled with gossipers; he lives with his younger siblings, Dembe (Ato Blankson-Wood) and Wummie (Latoya Edwards), who are both preparing for admission exams that will allow them to attend medical school in London. In the wake of their father’s recent death, leaving them orphans, all three must make sacrifices. Joe gets the job, but he is beholden to church leader Mama (Myra Lucretia Taylor), who has her own agenda. Dembe, who has been expected to marry Mama’s daughter, Naome (Adenike Thomas) — who mysteriously hasn’t uttered a sound in six months — is hiding his relationship with Sam (Robert Gilbert), a doctor whose father is Irish and mother Ugandan. And Wummie is forced to work as a cleaning woman when it turns out their father did not leave behind the money they thought and Joe, who is fiercely antigay, decides that only Dembe can go to London. But as news and gossip spread about the gay outings, the siblings clash with one another as well as the church.

(photo by Jeremy Daniel)

Naome (Adenike Thomas) and Dembe (Ato Blankson-Wood) hope for a brighter future in The Rolling Stone at Lincoln Center (photo by Jeremy Daniel)

The horrific treatment of the LGBTQ community in Uganda has been well documented, in such films as Call Me Kuchu and the recent uproar over a fundraising campaign to open the country’s first LGBTQ center, which has been denounced by the government. The Rolling Stone focuses on the relationship between Dembe and Sam, which is problematic in that Blankson-Wood and Gilbert lack the chemistry necessary to lift the drama. The play works much better when director Saheem Ali (Fireflies, Nollywood Dreams) turns his attention on the siblings, especially once Wummie discovers Dembe’s secret, which she knows would turn Joe violently against him. Meanwhile, Naome’s silence is representative of the terror and hypocrisy experienced by Ugandans every day. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set consists of a wavy, weblike curtain in the back and a rectangular gray block that rises from below the stage to serve alternately as a rowboat, a bed, and a bench. “I hear two arrests have already been made,” Mama says, referring to another outing in the newspaper. “Not that I say anything. It’s not my place to say. I just humbly hope and pray. Pray for every living soul need prayer now.” But in a society where people are expected to turn in their brothers and sons, praying that homosexuals be harshly dealt with, there is little hope until systemic changes are made.

THE WAY SHE SPOKE / MOJADA

An undocumented Mexican family faces problems in Queens in Mojada (photo by Joan Marcus)

An undocumented Mexican family faces problems in Queens in Mojada (photo by Joan Marcus)

MOJADA
The Public Theater, LuEsther Hall
425 Lafayette St. by Astor Pl.
Tuesday - Sunday through August 18, $60
212-967-7555
www.publictheater.org

A pair of hard-hitting plays by queer Latinx writers involving crises at the US-Mexico border are currently running in the Village through August 18; Luis Alfaro’s Mojada, a modern-day take on Euripides’s Medea, is at the Public’s LuEsther Hall, while the Audible-produced the way she spoke, by Alfaro’s friend and protégé, Isaac Gomez, is at the Minetta Lane. In Mojada, which translates as “wetback,” Alfaro, who was born in 1963 in Los Angeles, follows a Mexican family as it makes the harrowing journey over the border and into America, finally settling in Queens. Medea (Sabina Zúñiga Varela) works tirelessly as a seamstress, scared to leave the house for fear of being caught as an undocumented immigrant, while Jason (Alex Hernandez) has gotten a promising construction job with a boss, Tita (Socorro Santiago), who has big plans for him. Medea and Jason have a young son, Acan (Benjamin Luis McCracken), and an opinionated housekeeper, Pilar (Ada Maris), who introduces Medea to Luisa (Vanessa Aspillaga), a vibrant, upbeat street vendor. Medea is haunted by the horrible things the family experienced during its escape from Mexico, which are shown in flashbacks. As Jason starts leaving his heritage behind, eager to be more American in order to succeed in business, Medea retreats into a shell, her only release a ritual that calms her.

Mojada takes place in the backyard of a ramshackle home, designed by Arnulfo Maldonado. Director Chay Yew, who previously collaborated with Alfaro on Oedipus El Rey at the Public, seamlessly flows the action between past and present, with the assistance of moody lighting by David Weiner and atmospheric sound design by Mikhail Fiksel. There’s a sharp reality to the story that is halted whenever Medea performs her healing rituals, which involve two large, green guaco leaves. Aspillaga nearly steals the show as the fast-talking, unfiltered Luisa, who asks Medea to alter a dress for her so she can titillate her husband, and Maris adds dark humor as the suspicious Pilar, who doesn’t trust Jason or Tita. MacArthur Genius Award recipient Alfaro (Delano, St. Jude) avoids preaching as he delves into the many obstacles illegal immigrants face as they struggle to make a safe life for themselves in America.

Kate del Castillo plays an actress reading a hard-hitting script in the way she spoke (photo by Joan Marcus)

Kate del Castillo plays an actress reading an emotional script in the way she spoke (photo by Joan Marcus)

the way she spoke
Minetta Lane Theatre
18 Minetta Lane between Sixth Ave. and Macdougal St.
Tuesday - Sunday through August 18, $50
thewayshespokeplay.com
www.minettalanenyc.com

In Gomez’s tense one-woman show the way she spoke: a docu-mythologia, telenovela star Kate del Castillo (La reina del Sur) plays an actress who comes to an empty warehouse to read a new script by a friend of hers, a playwright and former roommate named Isaac Gomez who relishes her opinion. “You’re the only writer I know who actually wants to know what I think,” she says. The pages are waiting for her on a table with a few chairs; as she reads them, she circles words, makes notes, and looks out into the audience, where the unseen playwright watches her. The play is a graphic depiction of ongoing, decades-long femicide that is occurring in Ciudad Juárez in Mexico, just across the border from El Paso, Texas, where Gomez was born and raised. The play follows Gomez as he speaks with various men and women in Juárez to try to understand what is happening, and why so little is being done about it. “I never knew the truth about these women,” del Castillo says as Gomez. “And that embarrassed me. Everybody knew about it but me. And the more I read. The more I researched. The more I became obsessed. I needed to go back to Juárez and see if for myself.”

Del Castillo portrays all the characters: mothers of los desaparecidos (“the disappeared”), menacing men in a bar, a thirtysomething woman who talks about the constant level of fear that pervades the area, a fiftysomething father and activist, an ex-con who blames the police, a newspaper editor who can’t believe that some people want to bury the story, and la virgen, who explains how difficult it is to hear an endless stream of prayers from distraught mothers. “I can’t get to all of them. It’s impossible; there’s too many. And it kills me. It kills me,” she says. Obie-winning director Jo Bonney (Mlima’s Tale, Fucking A) keeps del Castillo active on Riccardo Hernandez’s sparse set; she occasionally gets up to take in the devastating things she is reading. At the center of it all are the women and children who were so brutally murdered, mutilated, and raped; Gomez names several dozen of them and details their deaths in a heartbreaking section that will make you both sad and angry. Gomez, at twenty-eight about half the age of his mentor, Alfaro, displays a sensitivity beyond his years. His other works include The Displaced and La Ruta, which also reveal his commitment to social justice and telling hard truths. Gomez and Alfaro are two playwrights to watch as they continue to bring unique, distressing, but necessary stories to light in their poignant dramas.

SEA WALL / A LIFE

(photo by Richard Hubert Smith)

Alex (Tom Sturridge) deals with tragedy in Simon Stephens one-act at the Hudson Theatre (photo by Richard Hubert Smith)

Hudson Theatre
139-141 West 44th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through September 29, $59 - $315
855-801-5876
seawallalife.com
www.thehudsonbroadway.com

When I first saw Sea Wall / A Life at the Public’s Newman Theater this past March, I was profoundly moved by the deeply affecting show, a pair of thematically related monologues by two superstar writers, performed by two superstar actors. Seeing it again on Broadway, where it opened tonight at the Hudson Theatre, was a surprisingly different experience. There are some minor tweaks, particularly a beautiful coda along with new lighting choices by Guy Hoare and subtle sound design by Daniel Kluger, but it’s essentially the same presentation, still utterly involving and captivating, delicately directed by Carrie Cracknell on Laura Jellinek’s austere set, which features a piano on one side and a ladder leading to a large brick landing in the back on the other. But this time around I was sitting fourth row center, much closer than I did at the Public, and I was mesmerized by the eyes of the two men onstage. I usually do get great seats, but sitting so near the stage, I was awestruck by the way Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal modulated their performances with just their eyes.

Be sure to arrive early, because as the crowd enters, Gyllenhaal sits at the piano, black-framed glasses on, looking out at the audience, making direct eye contact with as many people as he can. Shortly after he leaves, Sturridge wanders onto the stage, grabs a beer and a box of Polaroids, and takes a seat at the top of the ladder. The actors are making a clear, powerful connection that sets up what is to follow.

First is Simon Stephens’s Sea Wall, in which Tony-nominated British actor Sturridge is Alex, a photographer who shares a riveting story about his wife, Helen; their daughter, Lucy; and Helen’s father, Arthur, building up to an incident that occurred three weeks earlier. Much of the tale takes place in the south of France, where Arthur has a house. As Alex talks about how much he loves his family, his penchant for crying, his difficulty putting on a wetsuit, and the hole in the center of his stomach, Sturridge’s eyes move slowly, stopping and pondering, remembering, afraid to forget. Sharp humor is laced with a melancholia that hovers in the tense air as he walks across the stage and atop the landing, as if the brick wall is the sea wall itself, which is supposed to provide protection to humans and ocean life.

(photo by Richard Hubert Smith)

Abe (Jake Gyllenhaal) faces crises as a father and a son in Nick Payne’s A Life on Broadway (photo by Richard Hubert Smith)

Intermission is followed by Nick Payne’s A Life, in which Oscar-nominated American actor Gyllenhaal is Abe, a music producer whose father is ailing and wife is pregnant. He so seamlessly shifts between the two stories, one of impending death, the other of upcoming birth, that it’s sometimes hard to tell which one he is referring to. As each reaches its conclusion, the back-and-forth becomes rapid fire, life and death overlapping as Abe considers his existence as a father and as a son. Gyllenhaal spends nearly the entire fifty-five minutes in a large spotlight, so we are drawn to his expressive face and his eyes, which dart around faster and faster, seeking acknowledgment, encouragement, and understanding from the audience. It’s a bravura performance that I appreciated in a whole new way by sitting so close. That is not at all to say that you won’t be blown away if you are significantly farther away; it is just different, a theatrical experience that is well worth it no matter where you sit.

Gyllenhaal (Sunday in the Park with George, Brokeback Mountain), who was previously in Payne’s If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet and Constellations, and Sturridge (Orphans, 1984), who was in Stephens’s Punk Rock and Wastwater, wanted to work together, and this is the project they decided on. Even though they do not act side-by-side, they form an intimately linked duo, developing a unique relationship with each other and the audience, as if the plays were written as a set piece, which they were not. Getting to the heart of both shows, Abe says, “I remember reading somewhere or maybe someone telling me about this idea that there are three kinds of deaths. . . . The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when we bury the body, or I guess set it on fire. And the third is the moment, sometime way in the future, when our names are said, spoken aloud, for the very last time. I’m thinking to myself but I don’t say it, I wonder who’s gonna say our child’s name for the last time?” Alex and Abe are filled with the joy of life, but it’s the fear of death that can be overwhelming, to the characters as well as the audience as we consider that prophetic pronouncement.

SHAKESPEARE IN THE PARK: CORIOLANUS

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Coriolanus comes to Shakespeare in the Park for the first time in forty years (photo by Joan Marcus)

Central Park
Delacorte Theater
Tuesday - Sunday through August 11, free, 8:00
shakespeareinthepark.org

Jonathan Cake portrays Shakespeare’s brash antihero, Coriolanus, like a mix between superstar New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and Keanu Reeves in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure in Daniel Sullivan’s riveting version, which opened tonight at the Public’s Delacorte Theater. The first Shakespeare in the Park production of the 1607 play since Wilford Leach’s staging in 1979 with Morgan Freeman — James Earl Jones starred as the title character in the only other Delacorte presentation of the work, Gladys Vaughn’s 1965 adaptation — Sullivan sets the play in a contemporary junkyard strewn with old tires, a burned-out car, random detritus, and a rickety steel gate. (The postapocalyptic design is by Tony winner Beowulf Boritt.)

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Martius (Jonathan Cake) gets a talking-to from his mother (Kate Burton) in Daniel Sullivan’s latest Shakespeare adaptation (photo by Joan Marcus)

Caius Martius (Cake) has returned to Rome after singlehandedly defeating the Volscians, who are led by his longtime nemesis, General Tullus Aufidius (Louis Cancelmi). Rechristened Coriolanus after his victory, Martius has nothing but disdain for the common folk, who are starving, scavenging for food on the streets. The conquering hero is soon the centerpiece of a power struggle in pre-imperial Rome, championed by the upper classes as their savior against the rabble. While his patrician supporters, including Senator Menenius Agrippa (Teagle F. Bougere), army commander Cominius (Tom Nelis), and General Titus Lartius (Chris Ghaffari), want him to run for consul to gain political power over the “beastly plebians,” the people’s tribunes Junius Brutus (Enid Graham) and Sicinius Velutus (Jonathan Hadary) are suspicious of him and so attempt to turn the starving mob against him in the upcoming election. Martius, who is married to the pregnant Virgilia (Nneka Okafor), father to Young Martius (Emeka Guindo), and son to the forceful, determined Volumnia (Kate Burton), is a fiery, insolent, and almost monstrously arrogant character, and he can’t keep his mouth shut; all too soon he comes up with a dangerous plan of revenge that threatens everything, and everyone, he loves.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Martius (Jonathan Cake) and Menenius (Teagle F. Bougere) have a tense moment in Shakespeare in the Park presentation (photo by Joan Marcus)

At more than two and a half hours (with intermission), Coriolanus is long and drawn out, with a compelling main storyline but mundane, barely there subplots, perhaps because this tale is entirely fictional, not based on actual historical events. The play has never been brought to Broadway, and it is rarely revived; Michael Sexton’s 2016 Red Bull production found a way in by setting it during the Occupy movement and placing the audience in the center of the action. However, on a more conventional stage, it can prove significantly problematic, although Sullivan does a good job navigating through the bumps. The acting is inconsistent, although Public Theater mainstay Bougere (Cymbeline, Is God Is) is excellent as Martius’s right-hand man, Nelis (Girl from the North Country, Indecent) is a fine Cominius, and three-time Tony nominee Burton (The Elephant Man, The Constant Wife) is brilliant as Martius’s strong-willed mother. Tony winner Sullivan (Proof, The Comedy of Errors) makes the most of Volumnia’s line about her son being a man-child; the warrior Martius often turns into a little boy when speaking to his mommy, eliciting major laughs. It’s a stark counterpoint to his bravery in battle and his burgeoning frenemy bromance with Aufidius. It’s also a keen look at the voting process, particularly now that election season is under way in the United States, as the people and the pundits debate over who’s worthy and who’s not, who’s genuine and who is a power-hungry, mean-spirited liar.

SUMMER SHORTS

(photo by Carol Rosegg)

Blake DeLong and Christine Spang star in Sharr White’s Lucky at 59E59 (photo by Carol Rosegg)

THE FESTIVAL OF NEW AMERICAN SHORT PLAYS
59E59 Theaters
59 East 59th St. between Park & Madison Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through August 31, $35
212-279-4200
www.summershortsfestival.com
www.59e59.org

Summer Shorts is a breath of fresh air every summer at 59E59, presenting works by established and emerging writers, from Tina Howe, Robert O’Hara, Terence McNally, and William Inge to Lucas Hnath, Keith Reddin, Alan Zweibel, and Paul Weitz. The thirteenth annual event consists of two programs: Series A, comprising Interior by Nick Payne, The Bridge Play by Danielle Trzcinski, and Here I Lie by Courtney Baron, opened July 28; series B, which I saw, opened this afternoon and continues through August 31. Series B is a trio of compelling works with small casts, featuring sets by Rebecca Lord-Surratt and costumes by Amy Sutton. The triple bill begins with Sharr White’s Lucky, directed by J. J. Kandel. It’s 1949, and Meredith (Christine Spang) has not heard from her husband in six years, since he left to fight in WWII. But Phil (Blake DeLong) suddenly shows up at a hotel, a dour, fiercely private man who refuses to tell Meredith where he’s been, whether he’s sticking around, or even how he feels about her. “I don’t know,” he says over and over. As frustrating as it is for Meredith, it’s even more frustrating for the audience, who are too slowly fed tiny morsels of information until the big reveal, which is not much of a surprise. But Spang is outstanding as the estranged wife who needs to know what the future holds for her in this play by the writer of The Other Place and The True and a writer and producer of the cable shows The Affair and Sweetbitter.

(photo by Carol Rosegg)

Pauly (Nathan Wallace) seeks marital advice from Renee (Blair Lewin) and Michael (Jake Robinson) in Nancy Bleemer’s Providence (photo by Carol Rosegg)

In Nancy Bleemer’s comedy Providence, directed by Ivey Lowe, Jake Robinson’s feet take center stage. Robinson is Michael, who has returned to his childhood home with his wife, Renee (Blair Lewin), for his sister Gina’s wedding. The tall Michael is trying to get to sleep, but his feet stick out from the covers and over the end of the bed. Meanwhile, Renee thinks she is about to get her period and doesn’t have any Tampax. It’s three o’clock in the morning, and they are interrupted by Pauly (Nathan Wallace), who will be marrying Gina later that day. Pauly wants marital advice from them, but it’s not exactly the right time to ask them anything, whether it’s about capons, Bobby Orr, or how you know you are making the right decision when it comes to love. A finalist in HBO’s New Playwrights Festival and made into a 2015 short film, Providence is a little charmer, with solid performances.

(photo by Carol Rosegg)

Frank (Ro Boddie) and Joe (Jack Mikesell) go on a contentious picnic in Neil LaBute’s Appomattox (photo by Carol Rosegg)

The best is saved for last with regular Summer Shorts participant LaBute’s provocative Appomattox, directed by Duane Boutté. LaBute is drawn to controversial topics; his New Theater Festival earlier this year included a play about a Hitler supporter, a second about a first date between a white woman and a black man, and a third dealing with a mass shooting. This play is named after one of the final battles of the Civil War, Appomattox; in an epigraph in the script, LaBute quotes Confederate general Robert E. Lee, from an 1856 letter to his wife: “The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race.” LaBute also quotes singer Nina Simone: “Slavery has never been abolished from America’s way of thinking.”

The play takes place on a lovely summer day, with the black Frank (Ro Boddie) and the white Joe (Jack Mikesell) having a bro picnic, tossing around a football. Joe is excited that students at a university have decided to add $27.20 to their bill every semester as reparations for the school’s ties to slavery. Frank, however, is not impressed by the gesture, and the two friends get into a heated discussion about the reparations issue; Frank wants to end the conversation, but Joe keeps pushing it, which proves to be a not-very-wise decision. Boddie and Mikesell are excellent as racial figureheads, the former taut and handsome, quick to anger, the latter flabby and doofy, with far more boyish earnestness than adult self-awareness. Playwright, screenwriter, and director LaBute (In the Company of Men, reasons to be pretty) loves pushing buttons, and he keeps his finger down here well past any easy way out. Reparations is not a comfortable topic, especially for whites, who make up the vast majority of the Summer Shorts audience (and New York City audiences in general), so LaBute knows exactly who he’s speaking to.