Kate Hamill strips down Louisa May Alcott’s classic semiautobiographical children’s book, Little Women, to its bare essentials in her self-described “radical adaptation,” a Primary Stages production continuing at the Cherry Lane through June 29. Hamill, who previously wrote and starred in dynamic versions of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice and William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, explores gender identity and traditional male and female roles as it relates to both the mid-to-late nineteenth century and today. The story zooms in on Jo March (Kristolyn Lloyd), a tomboy who wants to break out of her family’s small world by going to college, becoming a writer, and traveling through Europe. She lives with her mother, known as Marmie (usually Maria Elena Ramirez, although I saw Mary Bacon, who also plays Aunt March), who understands the significant differences among her children; the oldest sister, Meg (Kate Hamill), already a spinster at sixteen; the sweet but sickly thirteen-year-old Beth (Paola Sanchez Abreu); the youngest, twelve-year-old Amy (Carmen Zilles), who is determined to find her Prince Charming; and their maid, Hannah (Ellen Harvey, who also portrays Mrs. Mingott), who is pitching in more than ever while the family patriarch, Robert March (John Lenartz), is off fighting for the Union in the Civil War.
Fifteen-year-old Jo develops an intimate friendship with their new neighbor, Laurie (Nate Mann), an effeminate piano-playing orphan who lives on a large estate with his wealthy grandfather, Mr. Laurence (Lenartz), and is being tutored by John Brooks (Michael Crane, who also plays the nasty parrot). The tutor is preparing Laurie for upper-middle-class manhood: college followed by heading up the family business, which he is loathe to do. “I’m not very good at being a, you know, a ‘lady,’” Jo, who shortened her name from the more feminine Josephine, says to Laurie, who prefers being called that instead of his more masculine given name of Theodore. “I’m not very good at being a ‘gentleman.’ So perhaps we should — be ourselves,” he says. They are mirror images of each other, both wanting to further their education and travel overseas while just being their not-so-cisgender selves, an option open to them in 2019 but not in the 1860s.
Hamill has excised many supporting characters and changed several key plot points in order to focus more on the family dynamic and the individual sisters’ relationships. “You’re all growing up so fast,” Marmie says. In fact, the word “grow” is used extensively throughout the play. “In this story, they never grow up. They just stay the same, and it lasts forever,” Jo tells Beth when she’s about to read her one of her tales. “Nothing lasts forever,” Jo responds. “We all grow up, eventually,” Laurie says later with a tinge of sadness. “One isn’t better than the other. They just need different things to grow,” Marmie says about flowers but referring to her children as well. Meanwhile, Hannah explains, “Took care of all of you since you were babies. Each one of you growing different than the other.” In Hamill’s view, as kids head toward adulthood, they don’t have to follow societal norms and do what’s expected of them; they can make their own choices, follow their dreams.
Purists shouldn’t be worried; this is still Alcott’s Little Women, even as it’s reclaimed by Hamill, whose mother first gave her the book when Kate was reaching puberty. She is not reinventing or reimagining it so much as bringing a contemporary perspective that is refreshing while still remaining true to the heart of the novel. The play, which, even with its changes, sticks more to the original story than Hamill’s previous works, is briskly directed by Sarna Lapine on Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams’s two-level set, the upstairs containing Jo’s writing desk and Beth’s bed, the main floor serving as multiple locations with very minor adjustments. Lloyd (Dear Evan Hansen, Paradise Blue) is superb as Jo, prancing about with a fake mustache, wearing men’s clothes (the fine period costumes are by Valérie Thérèse Bart), and determined to make something of herself, but as a person, not specifically as a woman. In his New York debut, Mann, a recent Juilliard grad, is wonderful; he and Jo practically melt into each other. And Hamill is a cool Meg, giving her more weight in this adaptation. The play also features a lovely piano score by Deborah Abramson, which works its way into the narrative. We can’t get enough of Hamill’s ingenuity and can’t wait to see which classic she tackles next.
I knew there was a problem the moment I walked into the theater where the Mint is staging the American premiere of Micheál mac Liammóir’s controversial 1948 play, The Mountains Look Different. The company, which specializes in resurrecting long-forgotten works by little-known writers, is justly celebrated for its exquisitely rendered period sets, which often elicit gasps of joy from the audience. But the set for this production, continuing at Theatre Row through July 14, is standard and ordinary, a small farmhouse with painted backdrops of mountains and sky. (The set designer is Vicki R. Davis, who has previously wowed us with her sets for such previous Mint shows as Katie Roche, Women without Men, and The Price of Thomas Scott.) Unfortunately, the play can be described as plain and ordinary as well, a rarity for Jonathan Bank’s supremely talented and otherwise consistently dependable Mint.
It’s St. John’s Eve in the west of Ireland, and miller Matthew Conroy (Paul O’Brien) has arrived at the home of Martin Grealish (Con Horgan) to greet his niece, Bairbre (Brenda Meaney), and her new husband, Tom (Jesse Pennington), Martin’s son, who are coming back from London, where Bairbre toiled for thirteen years. While the happy and positive Matthew is excited by the marriage, the dour, bedraggled Martin is suspicious, and he grows even more leery when the couple shows up: He doesn’t trust that the modern, elegant Bairbre can possibly be in love with his odd and awkward son. And when he thinks he recognizes Bairbre, matters get even worse.
St. John’s Eve is a night of bonfires, but The Mountains Look Different, which was inspired by Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, never ignites. It is a one-note morality play, lacking depth and nuance, directed with overly straightforward precision by actor Aidan Redmond. The acting is fine; the cast also includes Daniel Marconi as farm handyman Bartley, Liam Forde as addled tin whistler Batty Wallace, and Cynthia Mace as an old woman named Máire, who declares, “Oh, isn’t it a glorious thing a lone woman to have a man around the place the way he could be putting in a word for her or be striking a blow for her, and she not able to make a stir for herself with the dint of the weakness does be on all female women, God help us!” However, the story surrounding the play is more intriguing than the play itself: There were religious protests over immorality when the show first opened at the Gate, and Gate cofounder mac Liammóir (The Importance of Being Oscar, Where Stars Walk) — who portrayed Tom — was, twelve years after his death in 1978, revealed to not be Irish at all but an Englishman named Alfred Willmore.
Laura Pels Theatre
Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
111 West 46th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through August 11, $79-99
April Matthis steps up to the plate and delivers big-time as the title character in Lydia Diamond’s Toni Stone, which opened tonight at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre. Mathis is utterly engaging as Toni Stone, the first woman to play in the otherwise all-male Negro Leagues. Born Marcenia Lyle Stone in West Virginia in 1921, Stone was a tomboy growing up, with a special affection — and talent — for baseball. “This is what I need. What I’m good at. What I do better than anybody. What I know better than anybody,” she tells the audience at the start of the play. She also explains, “I’m not a big talker. I talk a lot, but I don’t talk big. I have pride, but I wouldn’t say I’m proud. I don’t put more in a story than is really there. And I don’t like it when other people do. So don’t think I’m bragging when I tell you that I do the things I do well, better’n anybody.” That admission is what makes the play work so well, a guideline that Diamond and Tony-winning director Pam MacKinnon follow like a rulebook; the show is not an overwrought melodrama about a woman succeeding where only men had before, or a cliched tale of a superstar lady attempting to balance sports with her home life, or a worshipful celebration of a heroic athlete fighting the status quo and leading her team to a championship. It’s just about Toni Stone, a relatively ordinary woman who was so good at playing baseball that she decided that’s all she wanted to do, just play the game without any of the meta that comes with being black and a woman during the Jim Crow era.
Riccardo Hernandez’s set resembles parts of a ball field, with stadium lighting, three rows of rafters, and dugout benches. Most of the cast, primarily consisting of Stone’s teammates, are always in their uniforms, hanging out in the background like a Greek chorus, taking practice swings, and razzing each other, occasionally joining Stone in the spotlight. (The period costumes are by Dede Ayite, with lighting design by Allen Lee Hughes and choreography by Camille A. Brown.) Stone broke into the Negro Leagues in 1953 with the Indianapolis Clowns, represented here by catcher Willie “Stretch” Gaines (Eric Berryman), chief clown Richard “King Tut” King (Phillip James Brannon), the short, brainy, well-hung Spec Bebop (Daniel J. Bryant), ladies’ man Elzie Marshall (Jonathan Burke), the flashy but not-too bright Jimmy Wilkes (Toney Goins), Woody Bush (Ezra Knight), utility man Rufus McNeal, and the hard-drinking Willie Brown. (King Tut and Spec were real players while the others are fictional composites.) Diamond (Stick Fly, Smart People), who admittedly does not know much about sports, was approached to write the play by independent producer Samantha Barrie and baseball fanatic Mackinnon (Clybourne Park, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), who had optioned the 2010 book Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone by Martha Ackmann.
Their collaboration results in a well-balanced narrative that avoids banal genre tropes even as the story deals with racism, misogyny, homophobia, and exploitation. Stone, who replaced Hank Aaron on the team, refuses to be turned into a novelty; when she is first signed by Clowns owner Sydney Pollack — “He’s white. He’s the owner of the Clowns,” she says, even though he’s played by a black man — he tells her that he is going to have the pitchers from the other clubs take it easy on her, which enrages her. She just wants to be treated like any other player, a second baseman doing her job. She works so hard at baseball that she doesn’t have the time, or desire, for much of a social life, although she is aggressively courted by politically connected entrepreneur Auralious Alberga (Harvy Blanks). And she confides in an elegant prostitute named Millie (Kenn E. Head), a character inspired by the many madams Stone got to know while barnstorming through the South who would let her stay in the brothels when segregated hotels shut their doors on the Clowns.
Matthis (Measure for Measure, Signature Plays: Funnyhouse of a Negro) hits a home run as Stone, giving a gem of a performance, instantly developing an easygoing, casual rapport with the audience. Just as Stone was the only woman on the Clowns, Matthis is the only woman in the cast, as men take on the other female roles. Mackinnon gets the sports right, which is not always the case in theater, which can sacrifice crucial little details in favor of artistic license. In addition, you don’t need to know anything about sports to get sucked into the innate charm of Toni Stone, which at its core is about the erasing — one could say whitewashing — of women, especially black women, from history. Prior to Ackmann’s book and Diamond’s play, Stone was barely a footnote in the history of baseball and the Negro Leagues, but her legacy is now sealed, without being glorified, which is key, especially because, as it turns out, she was a solid if unspectacular player, albeit a groundbreaker. Toni Stone continues at the Laura Pels through August 11; starting June 21, the Roundabout will have ballpark-style giveaway nights for the first twenty-five ticket holders to check in at the merch booth.
Black Box Theatre
Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre
111 West 46th St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 30, $30
Kathryn Erbe is riveting as a mother obsessed with scrubbing away all remnants of a horrible crime in Something Clean, Selina Fillinger’s fierce yet sensitive new drama continuing at the Roundabout Underground’s Black Box Theatre through June 30. Erbe is Charlotte, a married mother of a son who is in prison for committing a despicable, if unexpected, crime. Charlotte spends much of the play cleaning — she carries around yellow gloves, Neosporin, and Band-Aids, at the ready to wipe away the recent past and protect any wounds; she also meticulously vacuums and does the dishes and the laundry over the course of ninety minutes. In fact, the play opens with her explaining, “I can clean toilets. Bathrooms, storage rooms, clothing, whatever you need. I’m really good at tackling stains, any stains.” Charlotte is volunteering at the local Center for Sexual Assault Prevention and Intervention, where she meets Joey (Christopher Livingston), a survivor who runs the place and befriends her, although she does not tell him her full name or who her son is. She also does not tell her husband, Doug (Daniel Jenkins), that she is working there as the previously happy couple deals with the traumatic strain their family is going through, each handling things their own private way.
As she grows more distant to Doug, who travels often for business and is worried about Charlotte’s state of mind, she becomes much closer to Joey, treating him almost like a son. She desperately tries to keep the two parts of her life separate; Joey calls her Charly, while Doug calls her Lottie, intimately and uniquely cutting her name in half. Reid Thompson’s set highlights that difference: The audience sits on the two horizontal sides of the stage, which features a storage room at the center on one side and Doug and Charlotte’s bedroom and kitchen on the other. In the middle is a round table that exists in both worlds, a shared space destined to bring it all together. Margot Bordelon’s (Eddie and Dave, Too Heavy for Your Pocket) astute direction and Jiyoun Chang’s deeply expressive lighting help guide the audience as they watch the play unfold in the style of a tennis match as the action goes back and forth between the two locations, in addition to a gaspworthy surprise.
Erbe (The Grapes of Wrath, The Father), Jenkins (Oslo, Big River), and Livingston (Wilder Gone, Party People) are terrific in what is essentially a series of poignant duets, but it’s Fillinger’s (Faceless, The Armor Plays: Cinched/Strapped) writing that stands out. The Chicago-based actress and playwright, who graduated from Northwestern only three years ago, shows a remarkably perceptive understanding of human nature, especially regarding marriage and parenthood, for someone so young. A scene late in the play when Doug and Charlotte take a stark look at their life is so beautifully written, so insightful and observant, that it brought tears to my eyes. Something Clean takes on several hot-button issues and approaches them with touching grace and intelligent humor, elevating it above so many social justice plays, making it about so much more than wiping up a mess or sweeping problems under the carpet.
The High Line
Spur at Thirtieth St. & Tenth Ave.
June 19-20, July 17-18, August 14-15, free with advance RSVP, 8:00
One of the best places to see live performances in the city is one of the best places in the city itself, the High Line. The nonprofit organization continues its fourth annual monthly summer “Out of Line” series June 19 and 20 with Puerto Rican dancer Antonio Ramos’s No Agenda Genda, a sci-fi interactive piece honoring the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots of June 1969. Come prepared to participate in unexpected ways. On July 17 and 18, “Out of Line” presents new experimental group Mooncake Collective’s Twice the Moon, a site-specific dive into resistance and rebellion, incorporating shadow puppetry, Chinese opera, and fireside storytelling to relate the tale of a pair of queer Chinese friends. And on August 14 and 15, A.R.M.’s (Alexandro Segade, Robert Acklen, and Malik Gaines) Blood Fountain explores HIV/AIDS through ritual, pageantry, and improvisation. All shows are at 8:00, and admission is free with advance RSVP; reservations are open for No Agenda Genda and begin for Twice the Moon on June 21 and Blood Fountain on July 19.
Irish Repertory Theatre, Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage
132 West 22nd St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Through June 22, $50-$70
The Irish Rep concludes its outstanding “O’Casey Cycle” with the third play in Sean O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy, The Plough and the Stars. The controversial 1926 work, the follow-up to 1923’s The Shadow of a Gunman and 1924’s Juno and the Paycock, the semiautobiographical The Plough and the Stars is the earliest of the stories, taking place in 1915-16 around the Easter Rising, when the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army battled the British army and Dublin Fusiliers, Catholics against Protestants in a violent rebellion. Charlie Corcoran’s immersive set, which extends up the sides of the theater and down the hall, changes from a tenement apartment to a pub and the street outside as a close-knit collection of intriguing characters prepare for a fight.
The play begins in November 1915 in the living room of Jack Clitheroe (Adam Petherbridge), a bricklayer, and his wife, Nora (Clare O’Malley), an elegant woman who wants more out of life; he’s a bit disappointed as well, dismayed that he had been passed over for a promotion to captain in the ICA. Carpenter Fluther Good (Michael Mellamphy) is attempting to get rid of the squeak in the front door as nosy charwoman Mrs. Grogan (Úna Clancy) accepts a package for Nora and opens it to find a fancy hat. “Such notions of upper-osity she’s getting’,” she declares. “Oh, swank, what!” Nora comes home to find her uncle, the daffy Peter Flynn (Robert Langdon Lloyd), and Fluther having words with the Young Covey (James Russell), a wisecracking atheist and socialist who enjoys riling people with his progressive beliefs.
Fruit vendor and Protestant loyalist Bessie Burgess (Maryann Plunkett) stops by to heap disdain on Nora, calling her a “little over-dressed trollope.” After everyone else leaves, Capt. Brennan (John Keating) arrives to tell Jack that he is the new commander of the eighth battalion of the ICA and must lead a reconnaissance attack, which upsets Nora, who wants him to stay home with her. Jack storms out with Capt. Brennan, and a distraught Nora is then visited by Mollser (Meg Hennessy), Mrs. Gogan’s sickly fifteen-year-old daughter who dreams of having the life Nora does. “I often envy you, Mrs. Clitheroe, seein’ th’ health you have, an’ th’ lovely place you have here, an’ wondherin’ if I’ll ever be sthrong enough to be keepin’ a home together for a man,” Mollser says. As a regiment passes by on its way to the front, Bessie sticks her head in to condemn the soldiers. It’s a brilliant first act, firmly establishing the characters, mixing in humor with dread as darkness awaits. “Is there anybody goin’, Mrs. Clitheroe, with a titther o’ sense?” Mollser asks.
The next three acts build on that extensive framework, with the addition of prostitute Rosie Redmond (Sarah Street), a barman (Harry Smith), a woman from Rathmines (Terry Donnelly) who is terrified of what is going on outside, and Jack’s flag-waving compatriots Lt. Langon (Ed Malone) and Sgt. Tinley (Smith). Director Charlotte Moore, the cofounder of the Irish Rep with Ciarán O’Reilly, knows the play well; she previously helmed the company’s 1988 production, its first show ever, as well as its 1997 revival. In honor of the Irish Rep’s thirtieth anniversary season, O’Reilly again is the voice of the speaker, as he was in 1988, spouting rhetoric to the assembled masses based on the words of Irish activist Padraig Pearse. The cast, most of whom also appear in The Shadow of a Gunman and Juno and the Paycock, is exemplary, creating a wholly believable fictional world.
During the first week of the premiere of The Plough and the Stars at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin in 1926, there were protesters and demonstrators angry with O’Casey’s treatment of Irish nationalism and religion, leading to a riot in which actor Barry Fitzgerald punched out a man who had climbed onstage, knocking him into the orchestra pit. “You have disgraced yourselves again,” senator and Abbey director W. B. Yeats said to the crowd. “Is this going to be an ever-recurring celebration of the arrival of Irish genius?” The 2019 iteration of the play might not pack the same kind of wallop, but it is a potent portrayal of civil strife and the power religious and political disagreement has to tear apart friends and neighbors, something we know all too well given the current climate in America.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 22, free, 8:00
Danielle Brooks gives a powerhouse comedic performance as Beatrice in Kenny Leon’s jaunty, rollicking adaptation of William Shakespeare’s ever-charming romantic comedy Much Ado About Nothing, which opened Tuesday night at the Public’s open-air Delacorte Theater in Central Park, where it continues through June 22. Leon has moved the proceedings to modern-day Atlanta, complete with cell phones, contemporary music, and an impressive car that pulls up at the back of Beowulf Boritt’s welcoming set — the large, grassy courtyard and four-story estate belonging to Gov. Leonato (Chuck Cooper), boasting a pair of red, white, and blue political banners declaring, “Abrams 2020,” referring to former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams (who recently was in the audience). The show opens with Beatrice singing Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” soon joined by Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Margaret Odette), and her ladies-in-waiting, Ursula (Tiffany Denise Hobbs) and Margaret (Olivia Washington), singing “America the Beautiful,” a stark contrast highlighting the polarized state of our nation as the songs overlap. Following a brief protest march with signs condemning hate, the dapper Don Pedro (Billy Eugene Jones) arrives with his contingent after a military victory, including his close friend Count Claudio (Jeremie Harris), his guitar-strumming attendant, Balthasar (Daniel Croix Henderson), and the don’s brother, the bastard Don John (Hubert Point-Du Jour).
Claudio immediately falls for Hero while Beatrice, Leonato’s niece, and Benedick (Grantham Coleman), a lord who fought alongside Don Pedro, throw sharp barbs at each other, neither in the market for a spouse. (The first time Beatrice says his name, she emphasizes the last syllable.) But Don John, who is no Don Juan, has decided that since he is miserable, no one else is to be happy, so he calls upon his henchmen, Borachio (Jaime Lincoln Smith) and Conrade (Khiry Walker), to stir up trouble and cast would-be lovers against one another. “I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace,” Don Pedro says. “Though I cannot be said to be a flattering honest man, it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain. I am trusted with a muzzle and enfranchised with a clog; therefore I have decreed not to sing in my cage. If I had my mouth, I would bite; if I had my liberty, I would do my liking. In the meantime, let me be that I am, and seek not to alter me.” Mistaken identity, misunderstandings, a masquerade ball, spying, lying, and private letters all come into play in one of the Bard’s most beloved comedies.
Tony nominee Brooks (The Color Purple, Orange Is the New Black) is phenomenal as Beatrice, taking full advantage of her size, her vocal talents, and her expert timing. She moves and grooves across the stage, reciting her lines with an easygoing, conversational flow and rhythm, an innate sense of humor, and a magical command of the language that breathes new life into the Bard’s words. “I pray you, how many hath he killed and eaten in these wars? But how many hath he killed? For indeed I promised to eat all of his killing,” she proclaims early on. It’s all Coleman (Buzzer) can do to not get swept up in the hurricane that is Brooks; on the rainy night I went, he even took a hard spill on the wet ground, wiping out on his back but getting up quickly, able to joke about the nasty fall. (It reminded me of a special moment I saw in the previous Shakespeare in the Park production of the play five years ago, when John Glover, as Leonato, pulled off an unforgettable, far less dangerous maneuver after a storm.)
Tony winner and longtime Atlanta resident Leon (American Son, A Raisin in the Sun) has the women take charge in this version, the men relegated to the back seat in the all-person-of-color cast. He even has a woman, Lateefah Holder, portray Constable Dogberry, although her shtick becomes too repetitive (but is very funny at first). Among the males, the always dependable Cooper (Choir Boy, The Piano Lesson) stands out, steady and forthright, while Odette (The Convent, Sign Me) is a sweetly innocent Hero. The fresh choreography is by Camille A. Brown, with snappy costumes by Emilio Sosa and original music by Jason Michael Webb. But at the center of it all is Brooks, who is in full command as a Beatrice for the ages.
(In addition to waiting on line at the Delacorte and the Public to get free tickets, you can also enter the daily virtual ticketing lottery online here. The play is almost never canceled because of bad weather, so going on a rainy day is a great idea, as a lot of seats become available due to no-shows.)