416 West 42nd St. between Ninth & Tenth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through October 14, $59-$99
Craig Lucas’s I Was Most Alive with You serves up a Thanksgiving setting, but it’s not a genuine turkey. Rather, it’s a turducken of a play, an overwrought melodrama stuffed with everything but the kitchen sink, as troubles inside troubles inside yet more troubles pile onto the characters in this otherwise well-staged New York premiere. The show, which opened tonight at Playwrights Horizons, was inspired by real tragedies in Lucas’s life as well as the Book of Job. (Lucas also wrote the play specifically for deaf actor Russell Harvard after seeing him in the Paul Thomas Anderson film There Will Be Blood and Nina Raine’s off Broadway play Tribes.) The narrative unfolds in flashback; in California in March 2010, longtime TV writing partners Ash (Michael Gaston) and Astrid (Marianna Bassham) are trying to come up with ideas for their next collaboration, and they decide to tell the story of what happened the previous Thanksgiving, how an accident changed the lives and fortune of friends and family. A recovering alcoholic, the Jewish Ash has a strained relationship with his wife, Pleasant (Lisa Emery), who hopes he is having an affair with Astrid. Their son, Knox (Harvard), a deaf recovering alcoholic and drug addict, is in love with Farhad (Tad Cooley), an angry, hearing-impaired, drug-using Muslim. Ash’s mother, Carla (Lois Smith), a Jewish convert, has been battling cancer, attended to by Mariama (Gameela Wright), a nurse who became a Jehovah’s Witness while recovering from drug addiction and who has a son on death row. The cast is lost amid the narrative mess, overplaying underdeveloped characters we don’t care about, speaking in sermonettes and platitudes, many straight out of the recovery playbook. For example, at Thanksgiving dinner, Knox says he is grateful “for two, no, three things I used to think weren’t gifts at all: Deafness. . . . Being gay. . . . Addiction. . . . They are gifts. . . . Each brought me to great clarity.”
The play examines how we communicate with one another — and how we don’t — in person, electronically, verbally, and nonverbally. Most of the characters are at least partially deaf, either involving the actual ability to hear or to listen to what people are telling them, and most also have at least some knowledge of sign language. (Sabrina Dennison serves as director of artistic sign language.) Words that are signed but not spoken are projected onto Arnulfo Maldonado’s effective, if workmanlike, set. Taking a page from Michael Arden’s outstanding Broadway revival of Spring Awakening with Deaf West Theatre, in which each speaking actor was shadowed by someone signing, in I Was Most Alive with You the shadows are on the second level, shadowing their characters from above. The shadow cast consists of Beth Applebaum (Astrid), Harold Foxx (Knox), Seth Gore (Ash), Amelia Hensley (Pleasant), Christina Marie (Carla), Anthony Natale (Farhad), and Alexandria Wailes (Mariama). Unfortunately, occasionally one of the shadows emits sounds while signing, which might be inevitable but is distracting. Two-time Tony nominee Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss, The Light in the Piazza) throws in so much dizzying conflict that director Tyne Rafaeli (The Rape of the Sabine Women, Actually) never has a chance to navigate through the confusion. Not even God would have made Job suffer through I Was Most Alive with You. Playwrights Horizons’ next production is the world premiere of Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play; hopefully turducken will not be on the menu.
MY PARSIFAL CONDUCTOR: A WAGNERIAN COMEDY
Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater at the West Side YMCA
10 West 64th Street
Tuesday - Sunday, September 25 - November 3, $67
The debates over whether German composer Richard Wagner was anti-Semitic have raged for more than a century, particularly since Adolf Hitler and the Nazis incorporated his music into their march for power. (Wagner died in 1883 at the age of sixty-nine.) One of his works that generates complaints of anti-Semitism is his final opera, 1880’s Parsifal, about the search for the Holy Grail. Writer, director, and producer Allan Leicht, who won a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Writing for Ryan’s Hope and was nominated for a Primetime Emmy for the TV movie Adam, explores the topic in My Parsifal Conductor: A Wagnerian Comedy, which was inspired by the real-life situation in which King Ludwig II of Bavaria commanded that German Jew Hermann Levi, the son of a rabbi, will conduct the inaugural performance of Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival in 1882. The cast features Eddie Korbich as Wagner, Claire Brownwell as Cosima, his wife, Geoffrey Cantor as Levi, Carlo Bosticco as King Ludwig II, Logan James Hall as Friedrich Nietzsche, Alison Cimmet as Dora, and Jazmin Gorsline as Carrie and Sophie. My Parsifal Conductor is directed by Robert Kalfin (Happy End, Yentl) and produced by Ted Snowdon (The Elephant Man, My Name Is Asher Lev).
TICKET GIVEAWAY: My Parsifal Conductor runs September 25 through November 3 (with an October 11 opening) at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater at the West Side YMCA, and twi-ny has two pairs of tickets to give away for free. Just send your name, daytime phone number, and favorite play involving opera to email@example.com by Friday, September 28, at 3:00 pm to be eligible. All entrants must be twenty-one years of age or older; two winners will be selected at random.
Performance Space New York
122CC Second Floor Theater
150 First Ave. at East Ninth St.
Tuesday - Sunday through October 14, $35-$45
Heroic Russian journalist and activist Anna Politkovskaya dedicated her life to reporting the truth about what was going on in Russia and in particular Chechnya. In writing Intractable Woman: A Theatrical Memo on Anna Politkovskaya, Italian playwright Stefano Massini explains, “I wrote this text to go against the plan of those that decided to silence and muffle her voice.” Translated into English by Paula Wing, the 2008 play is now being given its US premiere by PlayCo, opening tonight at the 122CC Second Floor Theater at Performance Space New York in the East Village. The eighty-minute work features a cast of three women, Nadine Malouf, Nicole Shalhoub, and Stacey Yen, dressed in the same black pants, white collared shirt, and black jacket as if they are state officials or investigators (the costume designer is Junghyun Georgia Lee), portraying multiple characters, including Politkovskaya and various subjects she interviewed. In the prologue, the three women directly address the audience, interchanging lines as they share something that senior Kremlin official Vladimir Surkov wrote in an internal memo. “Enemies of the state are divided into two categories: the kind you can reeducate and the intractables. Discussion is not possible with the second kind and this makes reeducation impossible. The State requires us to clear our territory of these intractables.” Politkovskaya was considered an intractable.
The show consists of nineteen episodes of Politkovskaya’s reporting, involving a decapitated head put on public display; a nineteen-year-old soldier suffering from hunger who enlisted in the military, where he kills Chechens in “human bundles”; the Beslan massacre; a typical journalist’s day in Grozny, where citizens “get used to the idea of death”; and Ramzan Kadyrov, the corrupt thirty-year-old prime minister of Chechnya, installed by his father. “I find the behavior of this journalist unacceptable,” he says a day after the interview is published. “Doesn’t she know it’s the interviewer’s job to make the interviewee look good? What right did she have to publish my responses exactly as I gave them? Clearly this woman doesn’t want to be one of us.”
Indeed, Politkovskaya never wanted to be one of “them.” Instead, she fearlessly wrote about hate crimes, imprisonment and torture, widespread rape, mass graves, and other degradations of humanity, risking her job and her life with her husband and two children. Marsha Ginsberg’s pristine press-room set contains carefully arranged rows of red chairs facing a table with microphones. A portrait of Vladimir Putin hangs on a wall. One of the most frightening aspects of Intractable Woman — which marks Massini’s US debut, to be followed in March with The Lehman Trilogy at the Park Avenue Armory — is how Politkovskaya and other reporters are considered propagandists and enemies of the state, echoing President Trump’s views of the free press. “Journalists like you write lies,” a colonel in command of an airborne unit tells Politkovskaya. “What should I write?” she asks him. He replies, “That we’re fighting for the motherland. Against enemies of the people and traitors.”
Director Lee Sunday Evans (Dance Nation, HOME) does a superb job preventing the play from becoming didactic, pedantic, or just plain boring; the dialogue interplay among the three equally excellent actresses, who move chairs around in various scenes, keeps things proceeding at a fluid pace. The text does not necessarily quote Politkovskaya exactly; Massini, a novelist and the artistic director of the Piccolo Teatro of Milano, rewrote her words for dramatic impact, although the facts themselves are true. After the show is over, a curtain is opened at the back of the stage and the audience is invited to look inside, at a shelf of such items as Politkovskaya’s books, family photographs, and, most tellingly, a picture of a room of the same red chairs used in the production, on each one a photo of a murdered Russian journalist. The lobby is filled with posters of quotes from Politkovskaya, along with photographs. “I never write commentary, or speculation, or opinions. I have always believed – and I continue to believe – that it is not up to us to make judgements,” she wrote. “I am a journalist, not a court of law or a magistrate. I limit myself to reporting the facts. The facts: As they stand, as they are. It seems like the easiest thing, but here it’s the most difficult. And it exacts the highest price.”
The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between between Ninth & Tenth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through October 28, $30-$125
Obie-winning playwright Sharr White and director Scott Elliott manage to make a story about the 1977 mayoral election in Albany, New York, tense and exciting in The True, a world premiere from the New Group that opened tonight at the Pershing Square Signature Center. A fictionalized version of real events, the vastly entertaining play opens as Erastus Corning II (Michael McKean), who has been mayor of the capital of New York State since 1941, is facing a serious challenge to his long reign following the death of Democratic party leader Dan O’Connell. State senator Howard C. Nolan (Glenn Fitzgerald) is taking on Corning, with the support of Charlie Ryan (John Pankow), who wants to be the new party boss. But tough-talking fixer Dorothea “Polly” Noonan (Edie Falco) isn’t about to let that happen. Noonan, a foul-mouthed firebrand, pulls a lot of strings behind the scenes, and her down-and-dirty, no-holds-barred style gets things done as her calm, easygoing husband, Peter (Peter Scolari), stays out of it all. “I don't hate politics, by the way. I just want nothing to do with it,” he says, even when confronted with rumors that Erastus, who is married to the mysterious Betty (Tracy Shayne), and Polly are longtime lovers. Desperate for Erastus to beat Nolan, who is leading big in the polls, Polly taps young Bill McCormick (Austin Cauldwell) to be named committeeman and support Erastus within the party machine. “Fuck that fucking Charlie Ryan,” she says. But when Erastus starts questioning whether he still wants Polly on his team, she practically explodes, while also hurting inside, since she has devoted her life to him and the Democrats.
Falco (Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, Side Man) is exceptional as Noonan, a kind of cross between Carmela Soprano from The Sopranos and Jackie Peyton from Nurse Jackie, two roles that earned her Emmys. (In fact, much of the cast and creative team have major television ties: Scolari starred on Bosom Buddies, The Bob Newhart Show, and Girls, McKean was on Laverne & Shirley and SNL and is currently on Better Call Saul, Pankow is a veteran of Mad About You and The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, and White is a writer and producer for The Affair and Sweetbitter.) Falco plays Noonan with a brawling charm, whether she’s sitting at her sewing machine making a culotte or going face-to-face with her political enemies. Obie winner White (The Other Place, Annapurna) gets right to the heart of the matter, showing how politics has changed over the decades, implying why the Democrats have been losing power in recent years. “Regular people,” Noonan tells Erastus. “They don’t give a shit what you do behind closed doors so long as their lives are working. But their lives aren’t working anymore. Committeeman. Used to know every. Single. Voter. In his district. Every single one. That voter had a problem, they told the committeeman, the committeeman went to the ward leader, the ward leader either solved it? Or went to Dan. And you know what happened at the end of the day? . . . It got taken care of.” Brief but telling references to shifting demographics, race, and women in politics reveal much as Noonan also makes clear that women are not treated the same as men in the political arena. “What I do for Erastus is no different than what you did for Dan. And yet I’m ostracized for it,” she tells Ryan.
McKean (The Little Foxes, Accomplice) and Scolari (The Foreigner, Hairspray) are both terrific, portraying best friends who try to keep politics — and Polly — from tearing them apart. New Group artistic director Elliott (Evening at the Talk House, Mercury Fur) expertly balances the humor amid powerful dramatic moments, never letting things go awry on Derek McLane’s elegant set, where small changes make dramatic differences. And watch out for a surprise, hilarious late scene that brings the house down — something that does not appear in the script. Kudos are also due Falco’s hair stylist and costume designer Clint Ramos, who capture 1977 in fabulous ways. Noonan represents a different time in the treatment of women, both personally and professionally; she might cook and sew, but she also curses and never backs down from a challenge, particularly from a man. It’s fascinating to imagine what Noonan, who died in November 2003 at the age of eighty-eight, would think of what’s going on in the political arena today, in Albany and the country itself; she would certainly be proud of her granddaughter, New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who calls her “my greatest political hero” and is keeping her grandmother’s legacy alive.
46 Walker St.
Tuesday - Sunday through September 23, $45
Irish playwright Jaki McCarrick makes her New York debut with the world premiere of The Naturalists, an intimate, involving drama that is having too short a run at Walkerspace, where it continues through September 23. It’s 2010, and brothers Francis Xavier (John Keating) and Billy Sloane (Tim Ruddy) are living together in a cluttered mobile home in a rural hamlet in County Monaghan. Francis is a tall, thin, calm man who engages with nature and tries to give people the benefit of the doubt. Billy is a paunchy, brooding brute who sits around watching soap operas and guzzling beer while spread over the couch, always leaving a mess behind. While Francis carefully takes off his boots and places them outside the door, Billy trudges into the house and kicks them off, spreading around whatever he stepped in. “Do ya not know how to live?” Francis asks. “Don’t do the easy thing. The drink, the telly. And couldn’t we leave the door open for a change and listen to the birds like we used ta? Oh, it’s a beautiful night — and so warm, Billy . . . and the tall trees, the darkness of them against the still bright sky. Aren’t we lucky in Ireland we have the long nights in May? We could be watchin’ somethin’ real, Billy, and not that oul shite.” To which a grumbling Billy replies, “What I want to be watchin’ the trees for? What am I? A bird? Haven’t we fecked our lives away on them long enough? I have anyway.”
Weary of the stasis and mess of two bachelors living together, Francis hires a part-time housekeeper, young Josie Larmer (Sarah Street), an airy, Honda 50-riding vegan who needs to make some money and doesn’t mind looking after the brothers, whose mother disappeared long ago. Francis is virtually obsessed with the natural world, and slowly it becomes clear why — a former IRA member, he spent twelve years in prison for having masterminded the 1979 Narrow Water bombing, which killed eighteen British soldiers. (Although the characters in the play are fictional, the bombing was real, but the perpetrators were never identified. Coincidentally, there was an attack on the Narrow Water memorial just this past weekend that is being treated by police as a hate crime.) Both Francis and Billy take a liking to Josie, who doesn’t mind the attention, but when an old IRA compatriot of Francis’s, John-Joe Doherty (Michael Mellamphy), aka Joey the Lip, unexpectedly shows up, the past threatens to overwhelm and destroy both Sloane brothers.
A presentation of the Pond Theatre Company, The Naturalists is warmly directed by Pond cofounders Colleen Clinton and Lily Dorment. (Street is the third cofounder; Clinton and Dorment have acted in the company’s previous shows, 2016’s Abigail’s Party and 2017’s Muswell Hill.) Chika Shimizu’s inviting set is wide open; a few scenes even take place on the floor, only a few feet away from the audience, as if everyone in the theater is taking part. It might be 2010, but the brothers seem trapped in time. They have an old TV console, a ratty record player with LPs strewn about, and no microwave. Cellphones are nowhere to be seen; it’s as if they are lost in Henry David Thoreau’s legacy. Music is integral to the show; while songs by Tom Waits play a major role, particularly “Martha,” Steely Dan’s “Josie” is a bit too obvious. All four actors are excellent, but Keating, whose long credits include many works at the Irish Rep, TFANA, and Irish Arts, is a standout; he gives a sweet, gentle humanity to Francis, who is essentially a mass murderer, yet we genuinely feel for him. There are minor structural issues, but those are mere quibbles; McCarrick’s (em>Belfast Girls, Leopoldville) play deals with ideas of atonement and solace in delicate, graceful ways, with a sly touch of trademark Irish black humor that seems as inescapable as that country’s troubled past.
Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Pl. between Lafayette Ave. & Fulton St.
Tuesday - Sunday through September 30, $90-$115
The inestimable Kathryn Hunter is extraordinary as eleven characters subservient to Haile Selassie in the U.S. premiere of The Emperor, which opened tonight at Theatre for a New Audience, where it continues through September 30. The seventy-minute play was adapted by Colin Teevan from Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński’s 1978 book, which detailed the fall of the Ethiopian emperor as witnessed by those around him. The hoarse-throated Hunter portrays such figures as L.M., the emperor’s valet de chamber; F., the wiper of the emperor’s lapdog’s urine; Y.M., the keeper of the emperor’s private zoo; G.S.-D., the emperor’s pillow bearer; and Z.S.-K., the emperor’s minister of information. For each character, Hunter takes a different position onstage, uses a different voice and movement style, and makes small costume and prop changes, adding a hat, a cane, or epaulettes. Onstage with her is Ethiopian musician Temesgen Zeleke, who plays the krar, a multi-stringed bowl-shaped lyre, as well as taking a few parts himself: a rebel general and two students, one the son of G.S.-D. “Only memories / That is all that remains,” L.M. says. The subjects, who were all interviewed by Kapuściński, discuss how Selassie, who ruled Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, slept, met with spies, fed the animals in his zoo, dealt with men he considered traitors, and prayed: “Lord save me from those who crawling on their knees, / Hide the knife that they would stick into my back.” T.K.B., the emperor’s chauffeur, recalls how he would drive Selassie in a Rolls, Lincoln, or Mercedes to the palace gate, where poor people would be seeking help, along with “dignitaries and officials, / Each burning with one desire; / To be noticed.”
Together the brief monologues form a telling look at what life under the “King of Kings” and “Elect of God” was like for the general populace, his cabinet, and his numerous subordinates, who handled even his most bizarre and absurd proclivities with respect in order to protect their job — and their life. Ministry of the Pen recording clerk T.L. explains, “Everyone waited to see / What the Emperor would do next, / Everyone was ashamed of letting / This conspiracy occur. Everyone was fearful of His Majesty’s wrath.” Kapuściński found similarities between Selassie and the corruption occurring in his native Poland; forty years later, comparisons can be made to so many other autocrats and despots — including President Trump, who has shown a fondness for several dictators. After describing how Selassie was able to turn perception around following a peasant revolt, Z.S.-K. declares, “That is the art of governing!” But Selassie started losing control after Jonathan Dimbleby’s documentary, Ethiopia: The Unknown Famine, was seen around the world, revealing how the emperor was really taking care of his people, even as Z.S.-K. defended his boss.
A joint presentation of Young Vic, HOME, and Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg, The Emperor is directed by Walter Meierjohann, who previously collaborated with Hunter and Teevan on Young Vic’s Kafka’s Monkey. The play works well when Hunter is moving about Ti Green’s spare stage (Green also designed the costumes), expertly lit by Mike Gunning, and Zeleke sits in the corner, playing and singing. But when he gets up and interacts with Hunter, the pacing grows awkward; perhaps part of the problem is that we are so focused on Hunter (Fragments, The Valley of Astonishment) that we don’t want her dazzling performance to be interrupted for any reason, whether she’s just talking, doing calisthenics, or diving across the floor with a royal pillow. It’s even a treat to watch the way she runs offstage at the end of the show. But the message about power, corruption, and dictatorships still comes across loud and clear, especially at a time in America when an administration appears to be at war with itself and many citizens believe the emperor has no clothes.
A LOVELY SUNDAY FOR CREVE COEUR
Theatre at St. Clement’s
423 West 46th St. between Ninth & Tenth Aves.
Wednesday - Sunday through October 21, $55-$85 (use code LOVELYRED for discount)
In a 2007 interview with The Tennessee Williams Annual Review, actress Charlotte Moore recounts the chaotic beginnings of Williams’s 1978 play, A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, a companion piece with his 1970 one-act, The Demolition Downtown. She describes director Keith Hack fighting with Williams over rewrites, Williams talking distractingly in the audience during performances, and a cast change on opening night. “The opening night was nothing like the closing night at Spoleto. By the time it was over, it was pretty good!” she remembers. “Tennessee loved Creve Coeur. ‘It’s a bijou,’ he would say, ‘a bijou.’ A small jewel.” The rarely revived play, about four women trying to get by in Depression-era St. Louis, was one of six major works Williams wrote in the last four years of his life; it is now being brought back by La Femme Theatre Productions, running at the Theatre at St. Clement’s through October 21. (Opening night, which should be less hectic than the one at the Spoleto Festival nearly forty years ago, is September 23.) The impressive cast — the original featured Moore, Shirley Knight, and Jane Alexander — consists of Kristine Nielsen, Annette O’Toole, Jean Lichty, and Polly McKie, with the ubiquitous Austin Pendleton directing. “I think that A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur is one of the gentlest, funniest, loveliest, and most moving of Tennessee’s later plays, actually of all his plays,” Pendleton said in a statement. “And they could not be better served than by our brilliant cast. These women know all about acting, about Tennessee, about life, and the idea of all four of them together makes me tingle.”
TICKET GIVEAWAY: A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur runs through October 21 at the Theatre at St. Clement’s, and twi-ny has three pairs of tickets to give away for free. Just send your name, daytime phone number, and favorite Tennessee Williams play to firstname.lastname@example.org by Friday, September 21, at 3:00 pm to be eligible. All entrants must be twenty-one years of age or older; three winners will be selected at random.