Having spent some time the past several summers in a house on Cape Cod rented by my in-laws, I was looking forward to Melissa Ross’s new play, Of Good Stock, which takes place on the popular peninsula. Entering the theater at City Center, I could practically smell the fresh saltwater air as soon as I saw Santo Loquasto’s open stage of beach grass and dune. And once the play started and the revolving set rotated to that all-too-familiar, overly comfy style of Cape Cod house, and then two of the characters went out to pick up something from Marion’s Pie Shop in Chatham, well, it was like I’d been transported to Massachusetts, where I will not be going this summer. Fortunately, however — or, perhaps, unfortunately — I had little cathartic identification with the fictional Stockton clan, a dysfunctional family of three sisters and their significant others, that who did not remind me of any real people I know but instead felt like escapees from worlds created by Wendy Wasserstein (The Sisters Rosensweig), Tracy Letts (August: Osage County), Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart), and, of course, Anton Chekhov (Three Sisters), among others. Oldest sister Jess (Jennifer Mudge), middle sister Amy (Alicia Silverstone), and youngest sister Celia (Heather Lind) arrive at the Cape Cod house where they spent their childhood summers, seeking to take stock of their lives. The daughters of the late famous writer and master philanderer Micah Stockton, they each have relationship and daddy issues. Jess, the stalwart leader of the group who is battling cancer, married the much older, very dependable Fred (Kelly AuCoin), who used to work for Micah. Amy, a flighty drama queen given to histrionics and whining, is engaged to the already henpecked Josh (Greg Keller) and is obsessed with planning their destination wedding in Tahiti. And neurotic free spirit Celia has brought a new beau, Hunter (Nate Miller), a hirsute thirtysomething hipster from Montana who has still not finished college. While the men basically sit back and watch, the three women rehash old stories, purposefully push one another’s buttons, and argue over just about everything. But their problems are nothing to the easygoing, up-front Hunter, who says, “I’ve got twelve siblings. No offense to you guys but y’all are amateurs.”
Mudge (Into the Woods, Reckless) and AuCoin (The Wayside Motor Inn, House of Cards) are an excellent team as Jess and Fred, the heart and soul of the play, keeping it from teetering over the edge, bringing empathy and depth to every situation. AuCoin is particularly effective in a terrific scene with Keller (Wit, The Who and the What) as Fred and Josh discuss “manly men things.” Lind (Turn: Washington’s Spies, The Merchant of Venice) and Miller (Love and Information, Peter and the Starcatcher) are fun to watch, she a whirling dervish of energy, he an easygoing, content dude who prefers the truth to secrets. Silverstone (Clueless, The Graduate) isn’t given a whole lot to do with Amy except annoy, complain, and rush off in tears, which grows tiresome rather quickly. Directed by Lynne Meadow, Of Good Stock can get a bit too manic depressive, and its characters and plot twists offer little new on family dysfunction. Ross, whose Nice Girl was recently warmly received at LCT3, favors overlapping dialogue that sometimes gets confusing, and the narrative too often heads toward sitcom territory. The play, which premiered earlier this year in a different production at South Coast Repertory in California, was a late substitute after Manhattan Theater Club announced that Richard Greenberg’s previously scheduled The Swing of the Sea was being postponed “in order to give these artists more time to work on the production of the play.” Of Good Stock could probably have benefited from more tweaking as well. But it’s still a nice place to visit, even if you wouldn’t want to live there.
Laura Pels Theatre
Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
111 West 46th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through August 16, $79
Rising playwright Joshua Harmon has followed up his terrific Roundabout debut, Bad Jews, with Significant Other, an utterly engaging and delightfully bittersweet look at four close friends seeking love in modern-day New York. Inspired by Wendy Wasserstein’s Isn’t It Romantic, Significant Other is like an alternate version of Sex and the City, as twenty-seven-year-old college friends Kiki (Sas Goldberg), Vanessa (Carra Patterson), Laura (Lindsay Mendez), and Jordan (Gideon Glick) seek Mr. Right, one at a time. Kiki is the kooky one who is marrying the boring Conrad (John Behlmann) in Kentucky, Vanessa is the sexy, more adventurous viper who says that “death cannot come soon enough” when Kiki insists on setting her up with one of Conrad’s buddies at the wedding, Laura is a teacher who Kiki calls a school marm, and Jordan is a dreamer who obsesses over everything while trying to find true love. “I know life is supposed to be this great mystery, but I actually think it’s pretty simple,” Jordan says. “Find someone to go through it with. That’s it. That’s the, whatever, the secret.” “You make it sound so easy,” Laura responds, to which Jordan adds, “No, that’s the hardest part. Walking around knowing what the point is, but not being able to live it, and not knowing how to get it, or if I ever even will. . . .” As Kiki, Vanessa, and Laura find the one who might or might not be their respective soul mates (all played by either Behlmann or Luke Smith), Jordan falls hard for hot hunk Will (Behlmann), especially when he sees him in a bathing suit at the company pool party, an incident retold in a hysterically horny soliloquy describing nearly every inch of the Adonis’s bod. But Jordan can’t hide or control his feelings, a tendency that often leaves him hanging out with his grandmother (Barbara Barrie), who enjoys looking at old family photos and considering ways to kill herself. The possibilities of love and death keep cropping up as Jordan pines for his own significant other.
Glick (Spring Awakening, The Few) fully embraces Jordan, an endearing character who represents all of our fears and worries about putting ourselves out there for love, about taking a chance, ready to face the consequences, whatever they may be. His tenderhearted vulnerability is something we can all relate to, particularly when he composes an embarrassingly confessional e-mail to Will that his friends warn him not to send, while his finger hovers over his laptop, prepared to expose himself even though he knows better. (It reminded me of a time in high school when I kept dialing the first six digits of a high school classmate’s telephone number, wanting to ask her out on a date but terrified of hitting that final number and actually having to take that plunge.) Goldberg (Stunning, The Best of Everything), Mendez (Dogfight, Wicked), and Patterson (Little Children Dream of God, Luck of the Irish) are a hoot as Jordan’s besties, giving him advice and sharing personal details of their own lives while also representing parts of him that he keeps bottled up. Mark Wendland’s vertical set features different spaces on multiple levels, with Japhy Weideman’s inventive lighting cleverly announcing scene changes. Director Trip Cullman’s (Punk Rock, Murder Ballad) seamless staging maintains a sharp focus on the characters’ psyches while involving the audience with such playful touches as occasionally having blinking colored lights emanate throughout the audience, flashing on heads, hands, and clothing. As he showed in Bad Jews, Harmon has a sharp ear for dialogue and an infectious joy in his storytelling that pulls you in from the very start. “Do you think I’m dead inside?” Vanessa asks Jordan at one point. Significant Other, the second of three works by Harmon commissioned by Roundabout, is bursting with the joy of life, even as it contemplates some hard realities about loneliness.
Atlantic Stage 2
330 West 16th St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Through June 28, $20-$55
“What powers exist?” a supposed clairvoyant asks in David Mamet’s The Shawl, the second of two one-act revivals that are being presented in tandem at Atlantic Stage 2 as part of the double feature Ghost Stories. First paired for the 1985 reopening of the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, Prairie du Chien, which was written as a radio play in 1979, and The Shawl, which debuted in 1985 at the Goodman Theatre, explore the very nature of narrative and performance while posing philosophical questions about the existence of something beyond earthly reality. The evening begins with Prairie du Chien, set in a railroad parlor car (splendidly designed by Lauren Helpern) on its way to Wisconsin in 1910. It’s three in the morning, and on the left side of the stage, a man, simply identified as Storyteller (Jordan Lage), is in the midst of sharing a supernatural tale about ghosts and murder with Listener (Jason Ritter), whose young son (Henry Kelemen) is sleeping beside him. Meanwhile, next to them, two men are playing gin, the dealer (Nate Dendy) on a winning streak against an older gentleman (Jim Frangione). The tension builds concurrently in the overlapping vignettes as Storyteller approaches his fantastical finale and Gin Player suspects Card Dealer of cheating. The Shawl opens with psychic medium John (Arliss Howard) giving a reading to Miss A (Mary McCann), who is seeking information about whether she should contest her recently deceased mother’s will. In between sessions, John shares his secrets with his young apprentice/lover, Charles (Ritter), explaining precisely how he is defrauding Miss A to finance a more extravagant lifestyle for him and Charles. But every time John establishes himself as a phony, he does something that makes Charles and Miss A — and the audience — wonder whether he just might be legitimate after all.
Written by Mamet and directed by Scott Zigler, two of the cofounders of the Atlantic (along with Lage), Ghost Stories is an appropriate conclusion to the company’s thirtieth anniversary season, celebrating the magic of theater. In each play, the main characters, Storyteller and John, speak in slow, calm, meditative tones that offer a stark counterpoint to the loud, aggressive, curse-filled dialogue Mamet is famous for in such works as American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross. (Each play also contains a plot twist involving a red piece of clothing.) Mamet and Zigler are forcing the audience to pay close attention, to listen carefully to every word, just as Storyteller and John are doing to their respective listeners. Lage and Howard are mesmerizing in their roles, their determined, even-keeled speech reeling everyone in. Mamet, who has displayed his mastery of the con in such works as The Spanish Prisoner and House of Games, keeps the audience on edge in each play, balancing suspicion and skepticism with wonder and fascination, whether today or a hundred years ago, an otherworldly quest or a game of gin. Just as Miss A wants to believe in John, and Listener wants to believe in Storyteller, we want to believe in Mamet and Zigler, in the power of theater to transport us to another world, yet one that helps explain the one we’re in. Individually, The Shawl and Prairie du Chien might be lesser, though entertaining, genre exercises by Mamet, but seen together, they skillfully offer insight into why we’re all in this dark room in the first place.
As you enter the small, intimate Cherry Lane Studio Theatre to see New Country, a flat-screen in the hotel-room set is playing climactic clips from such classic Westerns as High Noon, Once Upon a Time in the West, Pale Rider, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as well as the recent needless remake of 3:10 to Yuma. About two-thirds of the way through the viciously funny seventy-five-minute play, Uncle Jim (Roberts) says, “See, I like old country. Everything new is shit,” which just about sums up the world view of television veteran Roberts, a former stand-up comic who created, executive-produced, and wrote Mike and Molly for three seasons, was the head writer and executive producer for Two and a Half Men for seven years, was an executive consultant for The Big Bang Theory for three seasons, and has appeared on such shows as Friends and Seinfeld. He is now carving out quite a career for himself on the stage as a playwright and actor. Employing a sharp cynicism and wicked sense of humor from his years in Hollywood, Roberts went behind the scenes at a television network in The Gyre: Enter at Forest Lawn and examined the darker side of human nature in the brilliant black comedy Rantoul and Die, both for the adventurous Amoralists company and featuring the ultra-talented Sarah Lemp, who appeared in each of those productions, opposite Roberts in the former. In New Country, David Lind plays the aptly named Justin Spears, a self-obsessed country music superstar partying in Nashville on the eve of his wedding. He is being watched closely by his longtime handlers, the all-business Paul (Malcolm Madera) and his sidekick, the roly-poly Chuck (Jared Culverhouse), who are also dealing with the jealous and nervous fiancée via cell phone. Justin has let his fame go to his head, ordering around everyone, making them cater to his every whim, including Uncle Jim, a grizzled old coot who is the only relative Justin claims to care about. Meanwhile, Ollie (Stephen Sheffer), the hotel bellboy and wannabe country singer, is trying to get his demo to Justin. Things really kick into high gear when Sharon, Justin’s former fiancée, arrives like a house on fire, metaphorical six-guns blazing as she attempts to claim her just deserts. Evoking a screwball drawing-room comedy, albeit with quite a cynical bite, New Country skewers such high-falutin’ concepts as love, loyalty, and creativity as everyone states their case for why they matter — or why they don’t.
The centerpiece of New Country is a marvelous scene between Sharon, a bitter, leather-clad, motorcycle-riding cop, and Uncle Jim, a hippie Walter Brennan who mumbles hysterical asides while guzzling alcohol and hanging out with his companion, a blow-up doll named Wanda June Whitmore who “is up for anything and everything.” Lemp gives what might be her best performance yet as Sharon, a whirlwind of energy and bile, while Roberts has a ball as Uncle Jim, who’s never met a vice he isn’t willing to try. But neither of them is happy with the hands they’ve been dealt. “Live in your own little world, don’t you, pal?” Sharon says to him at one point. “Well. Beats the one they give us,” he responds, to which she adds, “True enough. Everything sure looked better in the catalogue.” Madera and Culverhouse are like a modern-day Abbott and Costello as Paul and Chuck, who are not about to let their golden goose flit away. Lind is excellent as the smug, oily Justin, hiding more than a few secrets that could ruin him, while Sheffer is sweetly likable as Ollie, who is no mere swishy bellboy. Director and set designer David Harwell sustains the craziness with just the right balance of anarchy and order, giving plenty of room for Roberts’s acidic, incisive dialogue to shine. There might not be a violent shootout à la Clint Eastwood and Gary Cooper at the end, but the sharpshooting Roberts hits his many targets over and over, leaving behind a metaphorical, and hilarious, bloodbath of winners and losers.
Through July 5, free, 8:00
In the brief synopsis of The Tempest in the program for the Public Theater’s latest Shakespeare in the Park presentation, which opened at the Delacorte on June 16, it says in bold caps, “The play opens with a storm. . . . The storm isn’t natural.” But the night I saw it, real blasts of thunder accompanied the beginning, a striking depiction of the sudden squall that deposits a group of noblemen on a remote island. The elements are always part of the fun in these Public Theater productions, so the darkening clouds and threatening rain — which never came — added to the drama, which at times needed a little help. The island is occupied by the gray-bearded, professorly magician Prospero (Sam Waterston), his fifteen-year-old daughter, Miranda (Francesca Carpanini), and his two slaves, the playful sprite Ariel (Chris Perfetti) and the brooding, deformed Caliban (Louis Cancelmi). Formerly the duke of Milan, Prospero was exiled twelve years earlier when his brother, Antonio (Cotter Smith), usurped his title, and Prospero has been planning his revenge ever since; it is no coincidence that the shipwrecked boat was carrying Antonio, along with Alonso, the king of Milan (Charles Parnell), his brother, Sebastian (Frank Harts), and Ferdinand, the son of the king of Naples (Rodney Richardson), along with several others, including the honest councilor Gonzalo (Bernard White), Alonso’s jester, Trinculo (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), and the drunken butler Stephano (Danny Mastrogiorgio). Promising him freedom, Prospero sends out Ariel to do his dirty work, turning the men against one another so he can regain his title, while also playing matchmaker to Miranda and Ferdinand, who take an instant liking to each other.
“Your tale, sir, would cure deafness,” Miranda says to her father when he is filling her in about their past, but unfortunately, Waterston (Law & Order, Grace and Frankie), wearing what appears to be a kind of tallit (Jewish prayer shawl), is marble-mouthed as Prospero, hesitant and uneasy in his line readings, particularly in the first act, making it hard to understand him as he strains to find a rhythm. This is his tenth Shakespeare in the Park appearance, an illustrious resume that dates back to his starring role in Hamlet back in 1975, so his performance is somewhat confounding, although he does settle down significantly in the second act. Perfetti’s (Sons of the Prophet) Ariel, clad in a mildly S&M body harness, is also questionable and ill-defined. But the rest of the cast is strong and engaging; current Juilliard student Carpanini and Richardson (Pulse) have infectious chemistry as the potential lovers, Ferguson (Modern Family, The Comedy of Errors) and Mastrogiorgio (Lucky Guy, Golden Boy) provide necessary comic relief, and Cancelmi (Father Comes Home from the Wars, The Hallway Trilogy) is excellent as the native “monster,” a character who evokes colonialism, bigotry, and fear of the other. Through it all, Arthur Solari’s percussion, played from his own booth at the corner of the stage, is filled with emotion itself as it goes from anger and ire to passion and love. Director Michael Greif (Next to Normal, Our Lady of Kibeho,), who helmed the well-received 2007 Shakespeare in the Park production of Romeo and Juliet with Lauren Ambrose and Oscar Isaac, never quite finds his own rhythm, the three story lines bumpy until all coming together in the end on Riccardo Hernandez’s scaffold-based set. And speaking of the end, when Waterston stood alone onstage to deliver the epilogue, asking for applause to help him return to Milan, a goose flew overhead as if on cue, honking like a warped metronome, the outdoor elements once again becoming part of the show. This brave goose might not have laid a golden egg, but it did recall Mercutio telling Romeo, “Nay, if thy wits run the wild-goose chase, I have done, for thou hast more of the wild-goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five: was I with you there for the goose?”
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM
47th Street Theatre
304 West 47th St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 28, $19-$65
It’s hard to get New Yorkers to pay to see Shakespeare in the summer, what with so many free productions in parks, parking lots, and other outdoor spaces around the city. (You can check out an updated day-by-day list here.) But the Masterworks Theater Company is defying the odds, staging the Bard favorite A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the 47th St. Theatre. Clocking in at a breezy ninety minutes, this version, which features a lot of music and pop-culture references, stars Nick Cearley as Puck, Warren Jackson as Bottom, Jenny Strassburg as Hippolyta/Titania, Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte as Theseus/Oberon, Sheria Irving as Hermia, Becca Ballenger as Helena, Reynaldo Piniella as Lysander, Emilio Paul Tirado as Demetrius, and Jack Herholdt as Snout and Wall. Tamilla Woodard directs, with choreography by Shannon Stowe. The show is set in a modern-day playground designed by Raul Abrego.
TICKET GIVEAWAY: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is running through June 28 at the 47th St. Theatre, and twi-ny has three pairs of tickets to give away for free. Just send your name, daytime phone number, and favorite Midsummer Night’s Dream production (film or theater) to firstname.lastname@example.org by Wednesday, June 17, at 12 noon to be eligible. All entrants must be twenty-one years of age or older; three winners will be selected at random.
The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 28, $75-$95
In the second act of Jesse Eisenberg’s third play, The Spoils, Eisenberg, as the deeply troubled and extremely obnoxious Ben, says, “Did you think she was too mean? I’m struggling to figure out who our protagonist is. You can’t have a mean protagonist, but if they’re too perfect then they have nowhere to go. You know?” Yes, we know; Ben is referring to a woman in a documentary he is purportedly making, but he just as easily could be talking about himself, a nasty, confused, and confusing character who dishes out streams of sharp barbs and insensitive jokes. It is the third consecutive unlikable part that Eisenberg has written for himself for the stage, following Asuncion and The Revisionist. (He’s more likable in his film work: He was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network and has also starred in such underrated films as Adventureland and The Double.) Ben is a pot-smoking, jobless New Jersey Jew living in a New York City apartment with his roommate, Nepalese business student Kalyan (The Big Bang’s Kunal Nayyar). An all-around nice guy and good friend to Ben, Kalyan is dating Reshma (Annapurna Sriram), an Indian American doing her med school residency — and who can’t stand Ben. (Kalyan is based on a real-life Nepalese friend of Eisenberg’s who was in Indonesia during the recent earthquake and returned home to help with the disaster.) Ben’s slacker-like existence, supported by his parents’ money, turns when he bumps into an old grade school acquaintance, Ted (Michael Zegen of Boardwalk Empire and Rescue Me), a banker engaged to Ben’s first crush, the sweet, kind, and innocent Sarah (Erin Darke). Suddenly infused with a purpose in his life, Ben sets out to steal Sarah from Ted, but he is unaware of just how pathetic and unpleasant he really is.
The Spoils opens with Kalyan showing Reshma a PowerPoint presentation he has created called “American Football: An Introduction to the Ballet of Brutality,” asking the questions “Is it appropriate to withhold knowledge from someone even if you think it might hurt them? Is it ethical to deny someone information, even if disclosing that information might hurt them?” Eisenberg’s play is also a ballet of brutality centered around the vitriolic Ben, who is haunted by dreams and memories that he can’t hold within himself. Eisenberg gives a whirling, energetic performance as Ben, words flowing out of him like Barry Sanders racing toward the goal line. Nayyar is much more calm and subdued as Kalyan, whose nature is to find the good in all people, including Ben. The New Group world premiere, in the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at the Signature Center, is ably directed by Scott Elliott, making good use of Derek McLane’s traditional living room/kitchen apartment set with a balcony; one nice touch is that Ben and Kalyan use a print of Jasper Johns’s “White Flag” as a screen for their PowerPoint and video projections, a very subtle reference to both surrender and the whitewashing of the American Dream. At one point in the play, the five characters are drinking Nepalese beer, and Ben calls for a special toast. We gotta say ‘Cheers’ in Nepali!” he proclaims. “I don’t think I ever said anything that would be an equivalent to ‘Cheers,’” Kalyan says. “I guess when we’re drinking, we don’t really feel a need to congratulate each other.” Ben ultimately decides that they “should apologize to the world. Because they’re toiling away while we get to sit here and drink. . . . A Nepalese Cheers: To all the pathetic f---s breaking their back while we drink this beautiful beer: I’m sorry!” It’s a funny moment that perhaps best represents the bubble they are all living in. But The Spoils still has a hard time getting past just how contentious and ill-natured Ben is, even when he begins to reveal his true self. He’s just not someone you’ll ever want to share a beer with.