In January, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in Paris, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared, “This week, a special team of ministers will convene to advance steps to increase immigration from France and other countries in Europe that are suffering from terrible anti-Semitism.” His bold and controversial proclamation couldn’t help but remind one of the decisions European Jews had to make in the 1930s, faced with the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. To stay or to go during that unhappy time is what Bibi’s younger brother, Iddo, author and part-time radiologist, explores in A Happy End, a compelling if unsubtle play making its New York premiere by the Abingdon Theatre Company. (Iddo and Bibi’s eldest brother, Yoni, was the only Israeli soldier killed in the 1976 raid on Entebbe.) Originally commissioned in Italy in 2008 for European Holocaust Memorial Day, the play takes place over four months in 1932-33 Berlin, as Hitler is amassing power, a situation dismissed by erudite physicist Mark Erdmann (Curzon Dobell). His wife, Leah (Carmit Levité), is having an affair with his lab colleague, Dieter Kraft (Joel Ripka), a non-Jew who recognizes the increasing level of anti-Semitism in the country and tries to convince his boss that he needs to leave Germany before it is too late. But Mark and Leah, who have a talented son, Hans (Phil Gillen), refuse to abandon the only home they’ve ever known. “They’re on the decline,” Mark says about the Nazis. “Politicians can’t dictate how we should live our lives,” Leah adds. But despite the play’s title, it’s doubtful things will work out well.
Numerous minor set changes help move the action more than Alex Dmitriev’s rather plain direction, as there is a lot of just sitting and standing around. Levité, a South African-Israeli actress, overplays Leah at first before eventually settling into the role of a glamorous woman who wants it all, a young lover in addition to a wise, successful husband (and fabulous clothes designed by Laura Crow). Dobell is rock-solid as an intellectual who is focused more on his work than the strong emotions swirling around him; when a waiter in a café turns on the radio to listen to a Hitler speech, Mark asks him to turn it off, as if that will make the potential next chancellor just go away. Lori Gardner adds doses of humor as Anna, Mark’s assistant, although repeated borrowings of his pen get tired. (Perhaps this is a reference to the pen being mightier than the sword, or, as a real stretch, even Jean-Marie Le Pen, the longtime leader of France’s right-wing National Front, but either way, it grows old quickly.) Ripka is earnest as the sincere Dieter, wanting the Erdmanns to be safe even though their leaving would impact him both personally and professionally. A Happy End is a thought-provoking work that handles its familiar subject matter with great care, a tale that will have you wondering what you would do in a similar situation. Sadly, there are many people around the world, especially in Europe right now, faced with that very real decision.
“There’s something about a train that’s magic,” Richie Havens sang in a series of Amtrak commercials in the 1980s. There’s more than just a little magic in the first revival of Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Cy Coleman’s 1978 screwball musical comedy, On the 20th Century, which has pulled into the American Airlines Theatre, brought back to glorious life by director Scott Ellis in this celebratory Roundabout production. It’s 1932, and suddenly bankrupt theatrical impresario Oscar Jaffee (Peter Gallagher), trying to recover from a series of failures, has boarded the glamorous Twentieth Century Limited with his musketeer henchmen, Oliver Webb (Mark Linn Baker) and Owen O’Malley (Michael McGrath), in order to convince his former leading lady, Lily Garland (Kristin Chenoweth), to put aside the Academy Award (aka the Oscar, of course) she’s just won and return to Broadway in his new show. But her new lover and frequent onscreen costar, Bruce Granit (Andy Karl), is jealous, and Lily herself is suspicious of the scheming Oscar, who discovered her when she was shlumpy Mildred Plotka and turned her into a star. Also on board the train is a little old lady, Mrs. Letitia Peabody Primrose (Mary Louise Wilson), a religious zealot secretly slapping up signs demanding that all of these heathens “Repent!” while also considering financing Oscar’s next show. As the train continues its overnight journey from Chicago to New York, Oscar grows more and more desperate, resulting in ever-wackier high jinks. “New York in sixteen hours / Anything can happen in those sixteen hours / On that might-y / Ride-the-night-ly / Miracle of engineering brains . . . / On the Twentieth Century / On the luxury liner of locomotive trains,” conductor Flanagan (Jim Walton) proclaims, and indeed, anything can and does occur.
The show has a storied history, adapted from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1932 play, Twentieth Century (itself based on Charles Bruce Millholland’s unproduced Napoleon of Broadway) and Howard Hawks’s 1934 film, 20th Century, which starred John Barrymore as Oscar and Carole Lombard as Lily. (Various other versions and iterations have featured Fredric March, John Cullum, Rock Hudson, Orson Welles, José Ferrer, and Alec Baldwin as Oscar and Madeline Kahn, Judy Kaye, Anne Heche, Lily Palmer, Constance Bennett, Gloria Swanson, and Betty Grable as Lily.) Tony nominee Gallagher (Guys and Dolls, Long Day’s Journey into Night) has just the right amount of smarm and charm as Oscar, even if his singing voice is not quite virtuosic (although he is dealing with an illness that has forced him to miss several performances and delayed the official opening by a week), but Tony winner Chenoweth (Wicked, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown) more than makes up for that in a role that she fully inhabits, giving a rafters-rattling performance that will knock your socks off, as if this were the role she was born to play. (In fact, in 2000, Green told Chenoweth, “You know what part you’re born to play?” To which Comden replied, “Lily Garland.”) When Oscar says about Mildred, “It was there. The pixie . . . the eternal woman . . . the fire . . . the passion . . . and the singing voice of a lost child heard by its mother echoing from beyond a corner,” it could just as well be Gallagher talking about Chenoweth. It’s a spectacular display that actually includes fireworks. The operetta-like score is not particularly memorable, overloaded with repetition and redundancy, but three-time Tony nominee David Rockwell’s Art Deco sets are, along with six-time Tony nominee Ellis’s (The Elephant Man, 1776) gleefully chaotic staging and Tony winner Warren Carlyle’s (After Midnight) glittering choreography. Tony winner McGrath (Nice Work If You Can Get It, Spamalot) and Linn-Baker (You Can’t Take It with You, Perfect Strangers) are a kind of Harpo and Chico to Gallagher’s Groucho, while Tony nominee Karl (Rocky, The Mystery of Edwin Drood) chews up the scenery as the narcissistic Granit. It all makes for one joyous journey, even when things get too silly, but the show’s self-deprecating humor, knowing nods and winks, and endless magic make you overlook its shortcomings (while reveling in the irony that the show that takes place on board a train is playing in a theater named for an airline and is produced by a company whose title can refer to a circular intersection cars drive around). Throughout the show, characters keep knocking on Oscar’s door, waving their scripts in his face. “It’s all about life on a train / I call it ‘Life on a Train,’ Flanagan sings, continuing, “I put it down just as it happened / Oh, the things I’ve seen!” I can happily say the same thing about On the 20th Century, itself: Oh, the things I’ve seen!
In The Audience, now on Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, Helen Mirren transforms into Queen Elizabeth II, making the crowd gasp as she seems to become Her Royal Highness right before our eyes. In Ronald Keaton’s one-man show, SoloChicago’s production of Churchill at New World Stages, Keaton never quite fully embodies the larger-than-life political figure — who is played in The Audience by Dakin Matthews — and the audience never forgets it is seeing a staged performance, but he still does hit all the right notes as he relates the life of one of the most important figures of the twentieth century. But whereas the text of The Audience is complete fiction, imagined by writer Peter Morgan, in Churchill Keaton, who both adapted and stars in the play, uses the writings and speeches of Sir Winston to give a clear and concise history of the man and his influence on world politics, focusing on the two world wars while including plenty of classic Churchill quips. It’s 1946, and Churchill has arrived in the United States to meet with President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Speaking directly to the audience, Churchill shares the details of critical moments in his life, beginning with his premature birth on November 30, 1874, the son of a British duke and an American woman: “So I am myself a kind of English-speaking union,” he says. “I came miraculously into the world with a certain amount of impatience and a good deal of energy.” Churchill discusses his schooling, his embarrassing lisp and stutter, his relationship with his loving mother and stiff-upper-lipped father (“You want to know how many conversations I had with my father over a lifetime? Maybe five.”), his marriage to Clementine Hozier (“In our first meeting at a social gathering, I took note of her personal grace and beauty. The second meeting convinced me that this was a woman of great character and intelligence, and I fell almost instantly.”), and his joining the military, which changed the course of his future, as he became a war hero, a bestselling author, and a savvy politician with an unrivaled talent for witty repartee and sharp comebacks. (“A female acquaintance of mine, one of those plutocrats who claimed to love the working man —indeed, they love to see him work — said to me, ‘Mr. Churchill, I care for neither your politics nor your mustache.’ I said, ‘Don’t distress yourself, dear lady, you’re not very likely to come in contact with either.’”)
The second act begins as England enters WWII on September 1, 1939, with Churchill becoming first lord of the admiralty (“‘Sir! You’re scuttling the traditions of the Royal Navy!’ ‘Admiral, have you ever considered what the traditions of the Royal Navy really are? I can tell you in three words: rum, sodomy, and the lash!’”) and, on May 10, 1940, prime minister for the first time. (“But at last, I had been given complete authority over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been preparation for this hour, this trial.”) Churchill speaks humbly yet proudly of his own vast accomplishments (“I’ve derived continued benefit from criticism in my life and never known any time when I was short of it.”) and fondly of his relationship with FDR. (“Meeting President Roosevelt was like opening your first bottle of champagne. And knowing him was like drinking it. He was the best friend England ever had.”) Director Kurt Johns has Keaton wander rather randomly across Jason Epperson’s somewhat cramped set, which includes an easel where the British Bulldog paints, two chairs, a desk, and a window on which Paul Deziel projects Churchill family photographs, the Union Jack, Churchill canvases, and other images. I attended the show with a Churchill aficionado, someone so enamored with the man that his daughter was even born on Winnie’s birthday, and he gave the show high marks for its historical accuracy and ability to encapsulate Churchill’s life and career in less than two hours (with intermission). I can’t be quite so generous with the staging itself, but Churchill, part of Churchill 2015, a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the eminent statesman’s death, is still a heartfelt look at an inspiring figure who changed the course of history. (On June 19, Keaton will be at the 92nd St. Y for the special talk “Behind the Scenes of Off-Broadway’s Churchill” with Tricia McDermott.)
CLINTON THE MUSICAL
New World Stages
340 West 50 St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Wednesday - Monday, March 25 - September 6 (opens April 9), $75–$95
There’ve been endless books, movies, documentaries, and SNL skits about William Jefferson Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, so it’s about time there was a musical as well. But given the cast of characters, don’t expect Billary to be making this a campaign stop (if she’s running for president, of course). Paul and Michael Hodge have taken the story of an Arkansas hick and a Chicago-born suburbanite and turned it into Clinton the Musical, starring Tony nominee Kerry Butler as Hillary Clinton, Tom Galantich as WJ Clinton, Duke Lafoon as Billy Clinton, Emmy winner Judy Gold as Eleanor Roosevelt, John Treacy Egan as Newt Gingrich, Veronica Kuehn as Monica Lewinsky, and Kevin Zak as Kenneth Starr. A hit at the 2014 New York Musical Theatre Festival, Clinton the Musical has two actors portray the forty-second president of the United States, splitting the polarizing figure into separate parts, both of which ignite controversy, albeit in different ways. The show is directed and choreographed by Tony nominee Dan Knechtges (Tail! Spin!, Lysistrata Jones, Xanadu), with sets by Tony winner Beowulf Boritt and costumes by Tony nominee David Woolard, so it has quite a pedigree. To find out more, you can follow the show’s rehearsal breaks here.
TICKET GIVEAWAY: Clinton the Musical begins previews March 25 prior to an April 9 opening, and twi-ny has three pairs of tickets to give away for free. Just send your name, daytime phone number, and favorite show about politics to firstname.lastname@example.org by Friday, March 27, at 3:00 to be eligible. All entrants must be twenty-one years of age or older; three winners will be selected at random.
511 West 54th St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Monday - Saturday through April 11, $35, 7:00 or 8:00
Silence turns out to indeed be golden in Bess Wohl’s charming, inventive Small Mouth Sounds, having its world premiere at Ars Nova. The hundred-minute play takes place at a silent meditation retreat, where six people have come seeking enlightenment, or at least a respite from the pain life has brought them. Jan (Erik Lochtefeld) is a doe-eyed middle-aged man with a soft, kind heart, carrying around with him a picture of a child. Rodney (Babak Tafti) is a yoga practitioner and meditator who knows all the right moves and poses. Alicia (Jessica Almasy) is a chaotic, emotional young woman, perpetually late and overly dramatic. Ned (Brad Heberlee) is a troubled, hapless soul who has experienced more than his fair share of suffering. And Joan (Marcia DeBonis) and Judy (Sakina Jaffrey) are a couple dealing with illness as their love is tested. The six people have come to an unnamed location — the show was inspired by a silent spiritual retreat Wohl attended at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck — for five days of vegan eating, inward searching, and no talking, led by a teacher (Jojo Gonzalez) who turns out to have some problems of his own. “Think of this retreat as a vacation from your habits. Your routines. Yourself,” the unseen teacher says in a slow, choppy disembodied voice heard through a speaker. “It is the best kind. Of vacation. Because after this. You don’t ever have to go back. To who you were.” Over the course of the five days, they all find out a little more about who they are, and they don’t always like what they see.
Set designer Laura Jellinek (The Nether) has transformed Ars Nova into a long, narrow space, with two rows of seats on either side of the stage. At one end are six chairs for the characters, who sit there when listening to the teacher, whose voice comes from the opposite end, echoing through the room. The center, horizontal area serves primarily as the retreaters’ sleeping quarters, with Ned paired with Rodney, Joan with Judy, and Alicia mistakenly situated with Jan, which doesn’t make her happy, although he is serenely unperturbed by it. Director Rachel Chavkin, who delighted audiences with the smash hit Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, which played at Ars Nova in 2012, keeps things much simpler this time around, showing that action speaks louder than words, incorporating silent-movie tropes and clever, recognizable gestures to reveal the characters’ traits, from their failings to their hopes and dreams, from needing a pencil to fighting off bears and mosquitoes. Video projections of nature by Andrew Schneider surround the upper panels of the room, placing everyone in the great outdoors, enhanced by Stowe Nelson’s terrific sound design, from the pitter-patter of rain to the teacher’s not-quite-godlike voice. Lighting designer Mike Inwood rarely lets it get too dark, so the audience is well aware of themselves, almost as if they are also on the retreat and observing such rules as silence and no eating, since any whisper or unwrapping of candy would be seen and heard by everyone. There might not be a lot of dialogue — although there is some, as numerous rules are broken by the students and the teacher — but Wohl (Pretty Filthy) has plenty to say about impermanence, communication, connection, intention, and interdependence as relationships unfold at a calm, dare we say meditative, pace. The title refers to those guttural sounds — grunts, moans, sighs, chuckles — we all make when words won’t suffice, or aren’t allowed. In Small Mouth Sounds, Wohl, Chavkin, and the splendid cast prove that silence can speak volumes.
Jennifer Haley’s The Nether is one of the most intellectually stimulating shows of the season, a dark, brilliant journey into a futuristic realm where people can experience “life without consequence.” Sharing the same name as a hellish dimension in the online game Minecraft, The Nether begins in a dank, dungeon-like room where Detective Morris (Merritt Wever) is grilling Sims (Frank Wood), a creepy, well-dressed entrepreneur who has made a fortune creating the Hideaway, an online portal where men can become avatars who do bad things to avatars of young girls. Sims — whose name is a direct reference to the Sims, the immensely popular and groundbreaking virtual reality video game series — is known as Papa in the Hideaway, serving as a kind of father-pimp figure to such creations as nine-year-old Iris (thirteen-year-old Sophia Anne Caruso), his current favorite. Morris is also questioning Doyle (Peter Friedman), a sixty-five-year-old teacher and theoretician who is obsessed with the Hideaway. Meanwhile, a dapper fellow named Woodnut (Ben Rosenfield) has entered the illusional realm, breaking the rules as he explores a relationship with Iris that he knows is wrong. The various subplots come together in an explosive conclusion that is nothing short of mind blowing.
Winner of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, The Nether is an intensely gripping thriller that takes online gaming and virtual reality to the next level while posing stirring, provocative inquiries into the nature of god, creativity, imagination, and technology, all packed into seventy-five heart-stopping minutes. Emmy nominee Wever (Nurse Jackie, Hater) is outstanding as Morris, a woman with her own secrets who refuses to see the Hideaway as anything but evil, while Tony winner Wood (Side Man, Clybourne Park) plays Sims with just the right touch of sympathetic depth and repellent charm. Rosenfield (Boardwalk Empire, Through a Glass Darkly) is a kind of avatar for the audience, intrigued by what is happening in the Hideaway, frightened of participating yet captivated by the allure, while Friedman (The Open House, The Hatmaker’s Wife) excels as a man who has risked everything to exist in Sims’s world. Most impressive, however, is Caruso (Ruthless! The Musical, Secondhand Lions), who is simply superb in a role that is most likely as difficult to play as it is to watch, walking a very fine line between theatricality and child abuse; she is completely in command of the part, but that doesn’t mean you don’t feel shocked as she interacts with grown men in rather adult ways. Laura Jellinek’s set is a bleak, claustrophobic gray room that opens up inventively to alternate realities bursting with life and bright color. Obie-winning director Anne Kauffman (Smokefall, Belleville) orchestrates it all with finesse as the action moves from a powerful police procedural to a disturbing unreal Eden that celebrates molestation and murder. With The Nether, Haley (Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom, They Call Her Froggy) has written a taut, highly original investigation into how people relate to one another in these fast-changing times. “This communication — the experience of each other — is the root of consciousness,” Doyle says. Such statements get right to the soul of this magical, terrifying show.
In his latest play, simply titled The Evening, experimental writer-director Richard Maxwell, head of the New York City Players, takes apart and rebuilds the way experience is structured as theatrical presentation. When The Evening had its world premiere in January as the opening selection of the Walker Art Center’s “Out There” festival, it began with Maxwell (Isolde, Netural Hero) sitting down at a table and reading a story about the recent death of his father, who had passed away while Maxwell was well into writing and rehearsing his new work. But in its New York premiere, a coproduction of the Kitchen and Performance Space 122 at the former’s black-box theater in Chelsea, the show starts with Cammisa Buerhaus reading Maxwell’s personal tale, in a straightforward, somewhat impersonal and direct voice. When she is finished, she becomes Beatrice, a bartender in a drinking establishment that couldn’t be more plain. Her only customers this night are Cosmo (Jim Fletcher), a balding, middle-aged fight manager dressed in a blue-gray velour tracksuit, and Asi (Brian Mendes), a low-level mixed-martial-arts fighter with a heavily bruised face. The easygoing Cosmo just wants to hang out, drink beer and Jell-O shots, smoke pot, and eat pizza, explaining, “I like this place, I’m not going to lie. Can’t really think of any better place to be.” Asi is determined to get back in the cage and keep fighting despite his middling career. And Beatrice is tired of it all, ready to run away to Istanbul by herself. Cosmo, who flirts with Beatrice, thinks she should go, but Asi, who might or might not be her boyfriend, is insistent that she stay. Meanwhile, a band arrives, consisting of two men (guitarist James Moore, drummer David Zuckerman) and one woman (bassist Andie Springer), mirroring the barfly love triangle, and starts playing moody indie songs (written by Maxwell). When Beatrice makes a surprise, unexpected move, all three of them suddenly have to face who they are and what they want out of this mundane, virtually hopeless life.
The Evening takes place in a “lonely corner of the universe,” where archetypal characters speak in actorly voices on a stage that reveals itself as an artificial theatrical construct; set designer Sascha van Riel also keeps the lights on throughout the show, a constant reminder to the audience that what they are watching is not real. As things get a bit crazy between Cosmo, Asi, and Beatrice, the band keeps playing, looking at the action but not the slightest bit worried that it will affect them, even as danger lurks. There’s a shock when Beatrice pulls out a gun and puts it down heavily on the bar, the sharp, loud sound echoing throughout the theater, forcing a kind of reality back into the fold. (The only other purely real elements are the pizza Cosmo is eating and the SEC college football game that is playing on a flat-screen television.) Melding Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author and O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh with Brecht and Beckett, Maxwell explores the differences between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, form and function, real people and stage performers, then tears it all down and reconstructs it in a dazzling existential finale. “We live in this garbagey void,” Asi says to Beatrice, “of all the old tropes of standing still and forgotten dreams.” The first in a trilogy inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, The Evening packs a whole lot to think about in its brief sixty-five minutes, reinterpreting old tropes and investigating the human condition as it fades out into a memorable, elegiac landscape of hazy hopes and dreams.