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

SIDE SHOW

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Terry Connor (Ryan Silverman) and Buddy Foster (Matthew Hydzik) try to convince conjoined twins Daisy (Emily Padgett) and Violet (Erin Davie) to leave their Texas freak show for vaudeville stardom in SIDE SHOW (photo by Joan Marcus)

St. James Theatre
246 West 44th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through April 26, $49 - $145
www.sideshowbroadway.com

Oscar-winning writer-director Bill Condon makes a rousing Broadway debut with Side Show, a wonderful revival of the Tony-nominated 1997 musical about real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. In Depression-era Texas, the daring, outgoing Daisy (Emily Padgett) and the shy, reserved Violet (Erin Davie) are the stars of a freak show run by a controlling ringmaster they call Sir (Robert Joy), who considers them his daughters while also overseeing the rest of his wild menagerie, which includes the 3 Legged Man (Brandon Bieber), the Geek (Matthew Patrick Davis), Venus di Milo (Lauren Elder), Dog Boy (Javier Ignacio), Reptile Man (Don Richard), the Half Man/ Half Woman (Kelvin Moon Loh), the Bearded Lady (Blair Ross), the Fortune Teller (Charity Angel Dawson), and the small Cossack Male (Josh Walker) and Cossack Woman (Jordanna James). When talent agent Terry Connor (Ryan Silverman) sees the twins, who are joined at the hip, he instantly visualizes them becoming stars on the vaudeville circuit. He has his partner, Buddy Foster (Matthew Hydzik), teach them song-and-dance routines, but when they’re at last ready and willing to leave the side show, the dastardly Sir stands in their way, and a thrilling tabloid-tale court battle ensues, also involving Sir’s right-hand man, Jake (David St. Louis), who serves as the twins’ protector. After the court’s decision, Buddy is soon falling for Violet, who Jake also deeply admires, while Daisy sets her sights on Terry. The romantic pentagon comes to a climax at an extravagant New Year’s Eve celebration that has the talented twins wondering if they might just be better off living separately, risking all on a potentially deadly operation.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Jake (David St. Louis) tells Daisy (Emily Padgett) and Violet (Erin Davie) that the devil they know might be better than the devil they don’t in stirring revival (photo by Joan Marcus)

Padgett (Rock of Ages, Legally Blonde) and Davie (Grey Gardens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood) are terrific as Daisy and Violet, respectively, beautifully displaying the characters’ emotional hopes and fears as a new world opens up to them that threatens their unique relationship. Joy (The Nerd, Hay Fever) is deliciously dastardly as Sir, while Silverman (Passion) and Hydzik (West Side Story) make a fine duo, the former full of smooth-talking charm, the latter sweet melancholy. St. Louis (Rent, Jesus Christ Superstar) brings down the house early on with a powerful rendition of “The Devil You Know” that shakes the rafters. Bill Russell’s lyrics and Henry Krieger’s (Dreamgirls, The Tap Dance Kid) music flow nearly imperceptibly from the exemplary book, which was written by Russell with new material by Condon, wisely never overdoing the idea that’s it’s okay to be different. The score, which contains additions and subtractions from the original production, features such moving numbers as “Cut Them Apart / I Will Never Leave You,” “Stuck with You / Leave Me Alone,” and the gorgeous “Who Will Love Me as I Am?” while such words as “connected,” “ties,” “bind,” “join,” “glue,” etc., become sly nods to the conjoined-twins aspect of the tale. David Rockwell’s eye-catching set has a sweet Gothic touch, while Paul Tazewell’s costumes, from the Hilton sisters’ gowns to the freaks’ general appearance, are simply fab. Condon and choreographer Anthony Van Laast do a marvelous job of keeping the twins together through most of the show, except for one breathtaking, memorable moment. If you want to find out more about the Hilton sisters after seeing the show, seek out Leslie Zemeckis’s 2012 documentary, Bound by Flesh, which includes plenty of archival photographs and film footage.

THE RIVER

The Man (Hugh Jackman) and the Woman (Cush Jumbo) discuss life over dinner in THE RIVER (photo © 2014 Richard Termine)

The Man (Hugh Jackman) and the Woman (Cush Jumbo) discuss life and love in THE RIVER (photo © 2014 Richard Termine)

Circle in the Square Theatre
1633 Broadway at 50th St.
Tuesday - Sunday through February 8, $35 - $175
www.theriveronbroadway.com

British playwright Jez Butterworth has followed up his brilliant, Tony-nominated Broadway hit, Jerusalem, with The River, a perplexing, comparatively slight tale in both length and scope. Hugh Jackman is superb as the Man, who has brought the Woman (Cush Jumbo) to his family’s fishing cabin on a cliff above a river stuffed to the gills with trout. On ULTZ’s rustic set that cuts through the audience, the Man and the Woman discuss fishing, poetry, sunsets, and interior design. She sings W. B. Yeats’s “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” and he removes a splinter from her using a rather large knife. She disappears during a nighttime fishing excursion and he desperately calls the police until she finally shows up, this time as the Other Woman (Laura Donnelly), both she and the Man acting as if nothing has changed, picking up the narrative as easily as a stream progresses down a mountain. Over the course of a lean eighty-five minutes (Jerusalem clocked in at three hours), the Woman and the Other Woman keep replacing each other as they individually explore the meaning of their relationship with the Man, who may or may not be a true romantic. But there is no doubt that, above all else, he is indeed a man, proud of his fishing heritage, swilling whiskey, and having fun with sharp objects.

The Man (Hugh Jackman) and the Other Woman (Laura Donnelly) discuss life and love in THE RIVER (photo © 2014 Richard Termine)

The Man (Hugh Jackman) and the Other Woman (Laura Donnelly) discuss life and love in THE RIVER (photo © 2014 Richard Termine)

Originally performed in London’s tiny Royal Court upstairs theater with Dominic West (The Wire, The Affair) as the Man, Miranda Raison as the Woman, and Donnelly as the Other Woman, The River is more like a Raymond Carver-esque short story filtered through the labyrinthine mind of Jorge Luis Borges than a fully realized theatrical production. That said, what there is of it is, for the most part, intimate and entertaining, until things get out of control in the last twenty minutes, resulting in too much obfuscation, confusion, and mystery in an attempt at philosophical grandeur. The Australian Jackman could barely be any more manly as the Man, waxing poetic over the art of fishing in long soliloquies while wearing thigh-high Wellingtons, a smartly nuanced performance worthy of his ever-growing stature. The English Jumbo (Josephine and I) and the Irish Donnelly, (Judgment Day; Philadelphia, Here I Come!) are fine foils for Jackman, going head-to-head and toe-to-toe with him as various truths come out — or remain hidden. Butterworth, who has also written such plays as The Winterling and The Night Heron and is an in-demand screenwriter as well (Edge of Tomorrow, Get On Up), has cast his line far into the water, but he doesn’t reel in quite the catch he could have. The night we went, there was an extra bonus, as after the play, Jackman auctioned off his shirts and a trip to the backstage bedroom for Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS, raising more than ten thousand dollars as he thoroughly enraptured the adoring crowd with his natural elegance and charming sense of humor.

MONSANTO IS THE DEVIL

Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater
425 Lafayette St. at Astor Pl.
Sunday, November 23, 30, and December 7, 14, 21, $15, 2:00
212-967-7555
www.publictheater.org
www.revbilly.com

Over the past year, anti-consumerist activists Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir have been battling against corporations’ role in climate change. “The activism is content for the play,” they explain on their website, using cash register exorcisms, retail interventions, cell phone operas, live performances, and protest marches to help save the world from imminent destruction, taking inspiration from the opening scene of John Huston’s The Night of the Iguana. They’ve been fighting for Earth Justice for fifteen years, and that journey continues with their latest show, Monsanto Is the Devil, running Sunday afternoons at Joe’s Pub from November 23 through December 21, led by director Savitri D. and musical director Nehemiah Luckett and joined by the Not Buying It Band. The eco-televangelist will also be leading his minions on a march on Monsanto’s St. Louis headquarters as they enjoy an organic Thanksgiving dinner on the company’s lawn, after which they will spend Black Friday in Ferguson, Missouri. “Monsanto is a right-wing apocalyptic fundamentalist religion; all the big corporations, all the big nature-hating corporations, are. That’s something we have to understand,” Reverend Billy preaches, adding, “When you deal with Monsanto, we can’t be polite.” The reverend and his choir, which protested the state of the honeybee in The HoneyBeeLujah Show earlier this year at Joe’s Pub, are unlikely to be polite as they take on the self-described Sustainable Agriculture Company’s use of pesticides, GMO crops, and other controversial methods and dealings. The Shopocalypse continues….

STRAIGHT WHITE MEN

(photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Ed (Austin Pendleton), Jake (Gary Wilmes), Drew (Pete Simpson), and Matt (James Stanley) enjoy some traditional Christmas Eve Chinese food in STRAIGHT WHITE MEN (photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Martinson Hall, the Public Theater
425 Lafayette St. at Astor P.
Through December 7, $35-$45
212-539-8500
www.publictheater.org
www.youngjeanlee.org

There’s nothing subtle about the work of Young Jean Lee, which includes the highly praised Untitled Feminist Show, and We’re Gonna Die. In one of her earliest works, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, she examines her own Korean heritage with such characters as Korean 1, Korean 2, White Person 1, White Person 2, and Korean American. “You know what’s awesome?” White Person 2 says to White Person 1. “Being white.” To which White Person 1 says, “I guess I never thought of it. And when I do think of it I feel like an asshole.” In many ways, that exchange can be seen as the starting point for Lee’s latest work, Straight White Men, which opened last night at the Public Theater. As the audience enters Martinson Hall, they are bombarded by thumping, extremely sexually graphic hip-hop songs by black women, mixed DJ style by Chris Giarmo. The ninety-five-minute show, which is broken into three acts without intermission, is set in a typical Midwest living room on Christmas Eve. Gathering together are the widowed patriarch, Ed (Austin Pendleton), his stay-at-home oldest son, Matt (James Stanley), his recently divorced middle boy, financial whiz Jake (Gary Wilmes), and his youngest, Drew (Pete Simpson), a teacher and novelist. The three sons revert to juvenile action as they fight over the quality of the tree, needle each other with old stories from their childhood, drink eggnog, eat Chinese food, and play Privilege, an alternate version of Monopoly designed by their apparently radical dead mother. At one point, Jake lands on Excuses and draws a card that he reads out loud: “‘What I said wasn’t sexist / racist / homophobic because I was joking. Pay fifty dollars to the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center.’” Social consciousness is central to the Nortons, so much so that Matt is living at home, taking care of his aging father, and working as a temp for a community organization, something that infuriates his brothers, who expect so much more from him. “Matt was always trying to save the world,” Ed says.

Attention is focused on the oldest son as Young Jean Lee play gets serious (photo by Julieta Cervantes)

Attention is focused on the oldest son as Young Jean Lee play gets serious (photo by Julieta Cervantes)

For the first two acts, Lee is at the top of her estimable game, constructing, then deconstructing, this carefully built world of white people celebrating Christmas as she subtly takes on race, religion, social and environmental responsibility, “cowardly macho bullshit,” materialism, checkbook activism, and Broadway show tunes. (The boys’ rendition of “Oklahoma!” is a riot: “OOOO-klahoma / Where the wind comes sweepin’ down the pain / Where we sure look sweet, in white bed sheets / With our pointy masks upon our heads!”) The lighthearted patter and playful sibling rivalries play out as stereotypically as they can in a white family; Ed even sneaks white tube socks and candy canes into his sons’ Christmas stockings hanging on the mantel. Lee directs the show with a generous hand, allowing for broad comedy choreographed with panache by regular collaborator and fellow Guggenheim Fellow Faye Driscoll. Lee is also commenting on theater itself; in between acts, Public Theater personnel silently clean up the set with the lights on, emphasizing the fiction that is under way onstage. But the story takes a decidedly different turn in the third act, as Ed, Jake, and Drew try to discover what happened to Matt’s long-gone ambitions. The last scenes feel overly workshopped, extended with with role-playing and arguments that feel out of character with the world Lee has established to that point. It’s not merely the mean-spiritedness that’s confusing or that Lee’s usually penetrating insight is so uncomfortable as much as she has boiled the story down to a central issue that goes nowhere, even if that is her point. But that doesn’t take anything away from her outstanding cast. Wilmes (Chinglish, Red Light Winter) channels Otter from Animal House as Jake, who believes in tough love; Simpson is edgy and unpredictable as Drew; Stanley, evoking Peter Fonda, is calm and sensitive as the troubled Matt; and the ubiquitous Pendleton, a theater mainstay as writer, director, and actor ever since his portrayal of the tailor Motel Kamzoil in the original Broadway version of Fiddler on the Roof, is tender and gentle as the concerned father.

OUR LADY OF KIBEHO

Alphonsine Mumureke (Nneka Okafor) is in a trance as she believes she is seeing the Virgin Mary in Katori Hall’s OUR LADY OF KIBEHO (photo © 2014 by Joan Marcus)

Alphonsine Mumureke (Nneka Okafor) is in a trance as she believes she is seeing the Virgin Mary in Katori Hall’s OUR LADY OF KIBEHO (photo © 2014 by Joan Marcus)

The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Irene Diamond Stage
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 7, $25
212-244-7529
www.signaturetheatre.org

Inspired by several trips to Rwanda, Memphis-born playwright Katori Hall approaches the horror of the 1994 genocide from a different perspective in Our Lady of Kibeho, the second play of her three-work Signature Theatre residency and the follow-up to Hurt Village. Based on actual events, the play, set in 1981-82, tells the story of sixteen-year-old Alphonsine Mumureke (Nneka Okafor), a student at an all-girls Catholic school in the small village of Kibeho in Rwanda. As a choir sings a religious hymn in the Kinyarwanda language, the mean Sister Evangelique (Starla Benford) and the handsome headmaster Father Tuyishime (Owiso Odera) are arguing over what to do with Alphonsine, who claims to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary, known as Our Lady of Kibeho. While the sister wants to severely punish the girl for telling such obvious lies, the father wants to first find out more about what happened. “I am not lying. I promise. I only speak the truth,” Alphonsine says, desperate for everyone to believe her, for she needs to spread the message Our Lady is imparting to her. Sister Evangelique and student leader Marie-Clare Mukangango (Joaquina Kalukango) conspire to prove Alphonsine wrong, but when more girls begin to see the visions, soon Father Flavia (T. Ryder Smith) arrives from the Vatican to attempt to validate the claim.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

A Vatican priest arrives in a small Rwandan village to validate a vision of the Virgin Mary in OUR LADY OF KIBEHO (photo © 2014 by Joan Marcus)

Our Lady of Kibeho takes place on the Signature’s Irene Diamond Stage, with three video projections by Peter Nigrini of the Rwandan mountains around Kibeho set high on the walls; combined with Rachel Hauck’s village set, Emily Rebholz’s costumes, and Michael McElroy’s African music, the design places the audience right in the middle of the action, especially as director Michael Greif (Next to Normal, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide…) has members of the cast literally walk through the crowd. It’s as if the audience is being asked to believe just as much as the characters are, especially during a fantastic, otherworldly scene that closes the first act. But Hall (The Mountaintop, Children of Killers) never proselytizes, incorporating the ethnic battle between Hutu and Tutsi as the girls fight among themselves, their relationships changing as more of them believe what Alphonsine is telling them, a call for prayer to prevent a frightening prophecy of Rwanda’s future. The fine cast is led by Okafor, Benford, Odera, and Mandi Masden as Anathalie Mukamazimpaka, the second disciple. Our Lady of Kibeho is a moving, powerful, terrifically staged play about innocence and faith, about prejudice and belief, an involving tale no matter what religion, if any, you might be. (As with all Signature productions, the wall outside the theater is filled with information about the play and the real story, but it’s better to read it all afterward so as not to spoil the narrative surprises as the drama unfolds.)

STICKS AND BONES

STICKS AND BONES

The all-American Nelson clan has to reevaluate their once-perfect life in David Rabe’s STICKS AND BONES (photo by Monique Carboni)

The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 14, $75-$95
212-244-7529
www.thenewgroup.org
www.signaturetheatre.org

In 1969, Michael J. Arlen wrote Living-Room War, a seminal book that examined how the Vietnam War was beamed into the homes of American families over the television. “I do know,” he surmised, “that the cumulative effect of all these three- and five-minute film clips . . . is bound to provide these millions of people with an excessively simple, emotional, and military-oriented view of what is, at best, a mighty unsimple situation.” Indeed, there was nothing simple about the Vietnam War, and there’s nothing simple about David Rabe’s 1971 play, Sticks and Bones, which is in the midst of an unsettling, unnerving, yet mesmerizing revival by the New Group in its new home at the Signature Center. Part of Rabe’s war quartet, which also includes The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel, Streamers, and The Orphan, Sticks and Bones is set in the living room of that most American of families, the lily-white Nelsons from The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, who are living in an absurdist alternate reality, cut off from the rest of society, as neither their telephone nor, ironically enough, their rabbit-ear television works very well. Their only connection with the outside world comes in the form of their priest, Father Donald (a smooth and steady Richard Chamberlain), who regularly blesses Harriet (a delightfully madcap Holly Hunter) during his visits, and a hulking black army sergeant major (a commanding Morocco Omari) who delivers their son, David (a bold Ben Schnetzer), who lost his eyesight while fighting in Southeast Asia, back home to them, not quite what he used to be.

Father Donald (Richard Chamberlain) fends off David Nelson () in New Group revival of STICKS AND BONES (photo by Monique Carboni)

Father Donald (Richard Chamberlain) fends off David Nelson (Ben Schnetzer) in New Group revival of STICKS AND BONES (photo by Monique Carboni)

Gruff and direct, the sergeant major stays just a few minutes, as he has a convoy of other deliveries, returning more broken bodies and souls to confused parents and siblings. At first the blind David resists his homecoming, arguing that these people are not his family, but eventually everyone tries to make it work, with limited success. The fidgety, wholly uncomfortable Ozzie (a sensational Bill Pullman, his energy at times recalling Robin Williams’s) mutters about his past, a tightly wound Harriet bakes and cleans, confusedly trying to reach her wounded veteran son, and younger son Ricky (a very funny Raviv Ullman) drinks soda, eats fudge, and plays his ever-present guitar, willfully maintaining the fiction that nothing of consequence is going on around them while David hides out in his room with a vision of Zung (the mysterious Nadia Gan), the Vietnamese lover he left behind. Rabe, who served in Vietnam himself, and director Scott Elliott maintain a quirky, disconcerting tension throughout the play’s nearly three hours on Derek McLane’s wonderfully quaint 1960s sitcomlike living-room set, complete with swinging kitchen door and upstairs bedroom where we can see David, no longer a child, sleeping in a room meant for a boy. America had a whole lot of growing up to do during the Vietnam era, and Sticks and Bones depicts just how difficult the change was, rending the social fabric of a country still trying to get over the assassination of a beloved president. Pullman embodies all of that fear and desire, his every motion off-putting and unbalanced as he portrays a man terrified of seeing what’s right in front of him, his sometimes cosmic reflections serving as commentary on the history of twentieth-century American manhood. Hunter is a marvelous bundle of energy as Harriet, flitting about the house, flirting with the priest, and truly believing there are easy answers to every dilemma. Sticks and Bones debuted in 1971 at the Public Theater and won the 1972 Tony for Best Play in a Broadway production that starred David Selby, Tom Aldredge, Elizabeth Wilson, Cliff DeYoung, and Charles Siebert; it was also made into a television movie by Robert Downey Sr. in 1973. The New Group, which previously staged a 2005 revival of Rabe’s Hurlyburly and premiered his An Early History of Fire in 2012, gets to the heart of the matter with Sticks and Bones, even though it’s too long, it’s extremely exacting to watch, and it feels a bit out-of-date, as Americans now experience war, and treat returning soldiers, in very different ways. But it still makes for a gripping and unusual theatrical experience, that more powerful the night we saw it, on Veterans Day.

NEGATIVE IS POSITIVE

(photo by Magali Charron)

David (Joshua Zirger) and Simone (Karen Eilbacher) deal with a surprise medical diagnosis in Christy Smith-Sloman’s NEGATIVE IS POSITIVE (photo by Magali Charron)

Theater for the New City
155 First Ave. between Ninth & Tenth Sts.
Thursday - Sunday through November 30, $15
212-254-1109
www.negativeispositivetheplay.com
www.theaterforthenewcity.net

It’s rarely a good sign when you go to the theater and there are as many people in the audience as there are actors in the cast. It doesn’t help when the stage is surrounded by sheets of plastic that make it look like it is still under construction, not ready for the public yet. And then you have to sit through an opening scene that is so dreadful you’re looking for the emergency exits, wondering how you can sneak out without being noticed. (You can’t.) But then something happens, and you remember why you love going to the theater in the first place. In this case, it’s the entrance of Joshua Zirger, who commands his role with such a genuineness that you’re willing to forgive many of the shortcomings of Negative Is Positive, a new work by Christy Smith-Sloman, directed by Andreas Robertz, running at the Theater for the New City through November 30. The play is set in 2010, with Simone (Karen Eilbacher) getting diagnosed with HIV by a dentist (Fulton C. Hodges) using a rather questionable experimental procedure. Instead of seeking a second opinion — a serious flaw in the story — Simone rails against her husband, David (Zirger), accusing him of cheating and attacking him unmercifully, reevaluating their life together no matter how much he swears he’s innocent and that he loves her. When their best friends, Brianna (Vivienne Jurado) and George (David M. Farrington), arrive for dinner, Simone gets in an even fouler mood, with fireworks flying that get only more intense in the second act.

Negative Is Positive made headlines recently when former New York Rangers forward, Vogue intern, and model Sean Avery, who was originally supposed to play George, abruptly quit the show amid an argument over pizza. Smith-Sloman, who is also a journalist, and Robertz, the artistic director of OneHeart Productions, have, dare we say, turned a negative into a positive with Avery’s last-minute replacement, Farrington, who displays a natural ease in the role and clearly works well with others. Eilbacher is at her best when she unleashes several massive screams, but it’s Zirger who’s the one to watch here, even during the last moments of intermission, as his character examines his board of notes — David’s taken a year off from his sports job to write a screenplay — trying to decide what comes next. For Zirger, hopefully it’s bigger and better things onstage.