Slots are filling up fast for PopUP Theatrics’ latest immersive theatrical production, Inside, which investigates perception, alternate realities, and unique interpretation. Previously staged in a Madrid hotel and a Bucharest train station, Inside now moves to the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, where two guests at a time will be led on an adventure through nonpublic areas in and around the historic space, seeing the same things but being fed different information. The monthly five-night runs begin March 14, with pairs taking off on their seventy-minute adventure every twenty minutes from 5:40 to 9:00. The show was devised by PopUP Theatrics partners Tamilla Woodard, Ana Margineau, and Peca Stefan, examining the question “How much of what you experience is affected by the voices in your head, being those media, social media, or family-inherited beliefs?” Collaborating with PopUP on Inside, which is directed by Margineau, are playwrights Zhu Yi and Troy Deutsch, director France Damian, and choreographer Joya Powell, with production design by Deb O. In a statement, Woodard explains, “With this immersive, our intention is to make it plain that you can be in the same place at the same time and have your perspective manipulated, so much so that you can begin to ignore the reality in front of you.” In these challenging times, there’s something to be said for ignoring the reality right in front of you, and what better place to do it than one of New York City’s most beautiful treasures.
The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between between Ninth & Tenth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 12, $100-$120
“We need more plays!” Nellie (Jill Eikenberry) cries out in the New Group’s marvelous production of Evening at the Talk House, making its U.S. premiere at the Signature Center through March 12. That sentiment couldn’t be more true, especially if they’re such works as Wallace Shawn’s utterly delightful, deliciously wicked black comedy, one of the most gregarious shows you’re ever likely to see, despite its dark undertones. The audience enters the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre directly onto Derek McLane’s inviting set, where the all-star cast is mingling in the main meeting room of the Talk House, a club where New York’s literati partied once upon a time. The audience sits on rising rows on two sides of the stage, but before taking your seat, you can mix with the actors, enjoy gummy worms and marshmallow hors d’oeuvres, and sip colored sparkling water from plastic cups. A group of colleagues has gathered at their old hot spot, the Talk House, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the opening night of Midnight in a Clearing with Moon and Stars, a fondly recalled critical and popular failure by playwright Robert (Matthew Broderick), now a successful TV writer. He is joined by star Tom (Larry Pine), composer Ted (John Epperson), costume designer Annette (Claudia Shear), and producer Bill (Michael Tucker), along with longtime Talk House host Nellie and server Jane (Annapurna Sriram), who regularly took great care of them ten years before. There is also an unexpected guest, Dick (director and playwright Shawn), a sad, bedraggled shell of a man who thought he should have gotten the Midnight part that ultimately went to Tom. The show begins with an extraordinary, and lengthy, monologue by Robert, making direct eye contact with nearly everyone in the audience as he fills in the details of who everyone is (and was) as well as what has become of the theater in this ostensibly realistic yet unsettling somewhat parallel universe. “At that time, you see . . . theater played a somewhat larger part in the life of our city than it does now,” he says. “A decline in the theater-going impulse could in a way be seen as a small price to pay for the rather substantial benefit derived from entering into an era that quite a few people would describe as much more tranquil and much more agreeable that the one that preceded it. . . . Because what exactly was ‘theater,’ really, when you actually thought about it?” It isn’t long before Robert discovers that this new era is not quite as tranquil and agreeable as he thought, as Shawn slyly injects some frightening twists that go by all too smoothly, highlighting how increasingly easy it is to accept monstrous horrors in our everyday life. Is this our world? Or a wryly distorted funhouse mirror of it?
Evening at the Talk House unfolds in a kind of near-future alternate reality where the “walls have ears.” In describing the setting of Midnight, Robert explains that it took place “in a sort of imaginary kingdom that predated history altogether or stood to one side of it, at any rate.” Although Shawn wrote Talk House several years ago, it prefigures the Trump era, as the president threatens to cut arts funding and fiercely battles a free press. “I want the old days back! Where are they? Where have they gone?” Dick, wearing pajamas, his face battered and beaten, says. “The old days were wonderful days! And they were better for me — I mean, personally, you see, they were much better for me.” There’s no room anymore for nostalgia in this world, which has changed so drastically even if not so overtly. Both the old days and the new days seem good for Shawn, who has written such previous plays as Aunt Dan and Lemon and The Designated Mourner, cowrote and costarred in Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre, and has memorably appeared in such films as Heaven Help Us, The Princess Bride, and Radio Days. In Evening, Shawn’s writing, acting, and direction are impeccable; the play is like a poignant short story come to life, with well-developed characters and sharply unpredictable dialogue. The acting is excellent all around, a mostly veteran cast clearly having a grand old time, glorying in their love of theater even as their characters have experienced its downfall. Audiences can rejoice as well; with shows such as Evening at the Talk House, the theater is far from a thing of the past.
651 Fulton St.
February 15-26, $30-$90
Award-winning British playwright Caryl Churchill artfully reproduces the random textures and intricate rise and fall, and the complicated rhythms of our banal daily conversations in the glorious Escaped Alone, which continues at BAM through February 26. But under those chats, lurking in the interstices and bubbling just underneath the surface, are horrors that are exposed in dystopian apocalyptic interludes. Churchill masterfully captures the zeitgeist of life in the twenty-first century through the gossiping of a quartet of women just passing the time. Mrs. Jarrett (Linda Bassett) is walking along the street when she hears three acquaintances chattering away behind a fence. She steps through a gate to join Sally (Deborah Findlay), Lena (Kika Markham), and Vi (June Watson) in Vi’s grassy and sunny suburban backyard where, over the course of an hour, the women discuss children, television programs, cooking, jokes, and how things change as they get older. “It all goes by,” Sally says wistfully early on. Every so often Mrs. J steps out of the scene as red neon lights flash around the proscenium (evoking the special lighting effects employed in Churchill’s recent Love and Information) and proceeds to deliver deadly funny details of various devastating global catastrophes, including floods, mass hunger, and killer viruses, as if she is a lone witness. She then returns to her chair like nothing happened. Meanwhile, Sally, Lena, and Vi each give a personal monologue of their own, the lights dimming on the other three and zeroing in on the speaker as one by one the women share their inner fears in a matter-of-fact manner.
The play takes its name from a quote from the Book of Jonah that was also used by Herman Melville in Moby-Dick: “I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” Sally, who has a cat problem, Lena, who wants to be invisible, and Vi, who had a rather unfortunate incident with her husband, might still be trying to escape while Mrs. J faces it in her own way, ending her first monologue by saying, “Survivors were now solitary and went insane at different rates.” The characters regularly fly off on tangents, speaking in partial sentences that combine to form a kind of fluid, abstract stream-of-consciousness poetry that is absolutely lovely to listen to. Peter Mumford’s lighting is virtually a character in itself, making the most of Miriam Buether’s bright, charming set, which recalls the famous Robert Frost quote “Good fences make good neighbors.” (The fence also evokes Donald Trump’s wall, except this one offers free entry and exit.) The four women, who were all in the original Royal Court Theatre production, are extraordinary, their words ricocheting off one another like a championship doubles match at Wimbledon. Longtime Churchill collaborator James Macdonald (Cloud Nine, A Number) oversees it all with a deft hand, keeping every little bit utterly captivating. Now seventy-eight, multiple Obie winner Churchill (Top Girls, Serious Money) has written yet another stunning work, cutting into the contemporary mind like a surgeon, exposing the mystifying stories we tell ourselves to get through our days.
The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Irene Diamond Stage
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday-Sunday through March 19, $30 through March 12, $40 after
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s endlessly inventive Everybody is a magical, mysterious theatrical experience that is a must-see for adventurous theatergoers who relish being challenged over and over again. Rising stars Jacobs-Jenkins (An Octoroon, War, Gloria) and director Lila Neugebauer (The Wayside Motor Inn, The Wolves) explore love and death, dreams and reality, the fear of G-d, the human need for companionship, and the value of each individual life in the ninety-minute play, which opened last night at the Signature Theater’s Irene Diamond Stage for an extended run through March 19. The less you know about Everybody, the more surprises are in store, and the Signature is helping out in several ways. The wall outside the theater, which is usually bedecked with wide-ranging information about whatever play is being performed inside, putting it into sociohistorical context, only contains reproductions of paintings about death by such artists as Rubens and Breugel the Elder, and the audience doesn’t receive a program until the show is over. What we do know and can say, without giving anything away, is that Everybody is an adaptation of the late-fifteenth-century morality/mortality play Everyman, which was an English translation of the Dutch Elckerlijc, which was inspired by a Buddhist fable. At each performance, five members of the cast — Brooke Bloom, Michael Braun, Louis Cancelmi, David Patrick Kelly, and Lakisha Michelle May — line up to find out which abstract, conceptual character they will play, so each show is very different. The wonderfully cheeky Marylouise Burke is always Death, while the terrifically energetic Jocelyn Bioh is always G-d. (The excellent cast also includes Lilyana Tiare Cornell and Chris Perfetti.) “How can it be / that of all my productions, / it is you who have deteriorated / so severely, so vastly disappointing? / And don’t you hear the remainder of my creation, / the wonder that is everything, / crying out for justice against you?” G-d declares early on. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the world is indeed a stage, and we men, women, and children are merely players, with only so much time to justify our existence and get our things in order.
Laura Jellinek’s set is just about as basic as it comes, although with a major twist, consisting of eighteen chairs, the same kind that ticket holders sit in, lined up on a narrow section of the stage in front of a dark wall, blurring the line between audience and performer. Every so often Matt Frey’s lighting goes pitch black and Brandon Wolcott’s sound design takes over as voices are heard throughout the theater; keep your eyes and ears ready, because just about anything can happen anywhere and with anyone as the surprises keep mounting. The second of three works that will make up Jacobs-Jenkins’s Residency Five stay at the Signature (following 2014’s Appropriate), Everybody is an ingenious piece of theater that is involving from the moment you step inside the Irene Diamond. Incorporating splashes of Brecht and Beckett, Jacobs-Jenkins delves into topics that will have you taking a good, long look at yourself, regardless of whether you believe in G-d and the afterlife. You’re also likely to want to go back and see the allegorical show again; there are 120 variations of actors and roles, and the emotional resonance is sure to be very different depending on who gets cast as whom; on any night the main character may be a young woman or an old man. Regardless, just keep your faith in Jacobs-Jenkins and Neugebauer, who take you on quite an existential journey; when the play’s over, facing its own demise, it will of course rise again, living on in more performances and in the memories of those who have experienced it. The Signature has scheduled numerous special events in conjunction with Everybody, including talkbacks with members of the cast and crew after the February 23, 28, and March 7 performances, a Backstage Pass talk with Jellinek before the March 2 show, and a book club gathering on March 16 discussing Paul Kalanithi’s memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, which asks the question, “What makes human life meaningful?”
1564 Broadway at 47th St.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 25, $79-$199
In 1995, Sunset Boulevard was nominated for eleven Tony Awards, winning seven, including Best Musical, Best Original Score (Andrew Lloyd Webber), Best Book (Don Black and Christopher Hampton), and Best Leading Actress (Glenn Close). Two decades later, Close, now sixty-nine, is back in Lonny Price’s mediocre revival of the musical based on Billy Wilder’s classic 1950 film noir, which was nominated for eleven Oscars, winning three. Despite this glorious history, it’s worth remembering that 1995 was an extremely weak year for Broadway musicals; no other show was up for score and book, while only Smokey Joe’s Café was also in the running for Best Musical, and Close’s only competition was Rebecca Luker for Show Boat. The night we attended this new revival, running at the Palace through June 25, much of the crowd was distracted by the presence of a radiant Hillary Clinton, but they were still familiar with the story: Trying to evade a pair of tough repo men, struggling Hollywood writer Joe Gillis (Michael Xavier) pulls into a hidden-away, fading mansion, where he meets bald manservant Max von Meyerling (Fred Johanson) and former silent-screen superstar Norma Desmond (Close), an aging, delusional woman who still moves and speaks like a silent-movie queen. Plotting a return to glory via Cecil B. DeMille (Paul Schoeffler), she takes on Gillis as cowriter and boy toy; meanwhile, smart, bespectacled studio script editor Betty Schaeffer (Siobhan Dillon), the fiancée of Gillis’s friend and colleague, Artie Green (Preston Truman Boyd), shows an interest in more than Gillis’s writing. It all leads to one of the greatest closing lines in film and theater history.
This updated version of the 1995 hit features a record-breaking forty-piece orchestra, conducted by Kristen Blodgette, taking up most of the center of the stage; the action occurs in the narrow space in front of it and on a series of ladders and platforms above and around it, rendering Stephen Mear’s choreography nearly nonexistent. While it’s lovely to hear and see such a grand orchestra, the audience is constantly looking around to find where the actors are, and David Cullen and Lloyd Webber’s orchestrations and arrangements are so mundane that a smaller band might have sufficed. Close (The Real Thing, The Singular Life of Albert Nobbs), playing the role made famous in the film by the glorious Gloria Swanson (and also played onstage by Rita Moreno, Betty Buckley, Patti LuPone, Diahann Carroll, and Petula Clark), is fine as Norma but sometimes gets caught between playing it serious and camping it up; however, her costumes, again by Anthony Powell, are spectacular. Xavier (Love Story, Into the Woods), who is rather hunky in a bathing suit, plays the William Holden part with a sly grin, while Johanson (Aladdin, Jesus Christ Superstar) excels in the role performed in the film by Erich von Stroheim. The book by Black (Aspects of Love) and Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons), who later collaborated on Frank Wildhorn’s Dracula, the Musical, follows the film almost too closely without much stagecraft, save for having a car onstage, which can so often be tacky, and black-and-white projections. The catchphrase of the music and text, extolling Hollywood as a place that creates “new ways to dream,” is repeated ad nauseam. The show opens with a life-size dummy of the deceased Gillis lifted out of an unseen pool (the story is told by the character in flashback), but for some reason it is left hanging above the stage the entire night, like a creepy ghost watching over everything, much as the ghost of the classic film hovers over the proceedings onstage, hoping the musical will get better, but except for too few shining moments, it never does.
BAM Howard Gilman Opera House
30 Lafayette Ave. between Ashland Pl. & St. Felix St.
February 15-19, $24-$80
The second time South African writer Jonny Steinberg met Asad Abdullahi, he observed how the Somali refugee became wistful after snapping a twig and smelling its sap. “I felt a whim rising. A man who can break a twig and take me with him to another world, I thought, is a man about whom I ought to write a book,” Steinberg explains in a program note about A Man of Good Hope, a musical drama based on his 2015 book making its U.S. premiere at BAM February 15-19. Presented by London’s Young Vic and Cape Town’s Isango Ensemble, A Man of Good Hope follows Asad from his early childhood in Mogadishu, where his mother (Zanele Mbatha) is shot in cold blood right in front of him, to his attempts to settle in Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and South Africa while dreaming of escaping all the hardships and living in America. Asad is played by Siposethu Juta or Phielo Makitle, Zoleka Mpotsha, Luvo Tamba, and Ayanda Tikolo as he grows into a man, constantly encountering a stream of new people, both friends and enemies, and struggling to survive, always looking over his shoulder, aware of ever-present danger. Many of the people he meets disappear from his life; his acquaintances and relatives end up brutally murdered, and relationships are as evanescent as the cash in his hand. However, despite the serious nature of his story, A Man of Good Hope is filled with humor and joy. “His fear crossed a boundary right then and inhabited me,” Jonny (composer and conductor Mandisi Dyantyis) says early on about Asad. “I saw what he saw and felt what he felt. It was a gift. In that moment he gave me the ink with which I have written this book.”
The set consists of a central angled wooden platform with two small stairs at the back for entries and exits; along both sides are seven marimbas, played by various members of the twenty-three-person troupe. When they’re not on the platform, the cast watches from the right and left, occasionally chiming in like a Greek chorus. The dialogue is mostly in English with some lines in African languages; in addition, the characters occasionally speak in operatic tones or break into full-fledged songs featuring traditional melodies and movement (by Lungelo Ngamlana). Director Mark Dornford-May uses freestanding doorways to depict border crossings on the characters’ journeys, or attempted journeys, to other countries, evoking the current refugee crisis and xenophobia so prevalent around the world as well as, serendipitously, the new American president’s desire to build a wall between Mexico and the U.S.A. Dornford-May, the cofounder and artistic director of Isango, also employs creative ways to show travel by car and the transformation of Asad as he ages. And the costumes, so colorful in the first half, make a very specific shift after intermission. The fine, barefoot cast also includes Dyantyis as Steinberg and the conductor, music director and Isango cofounder Pauline Malefane as Yindy and Sadicya, Sindiswa Sityata as Yindy’s mother, Ayanda Eleki as Yindy’s father, Khanya Sakube as Tube, Zamile Gantana as Rooda, Busiswe Ngehame as Foosiya (just wait till you hear her ring tone), Luvo Rasemeni as Zena, Sonwabo Ntshata as Kaafi, Cikizwa Ndamase as Zulfa, Sifiso Lupuzi as Madoda, and Thobile Dyasi as Abdi. (We saw Juta as the eight-year-old Asad, and he was exceptional, reaching emotional levels far beyond his years.) The ambiguous ending is followed by exuberant curtain calls, everyone dancing and smiling, a testament to the stubborn persistence of the human capacity for happiness amid the harsh and heartbreaking conditions we continually create for each other and ourselves.
“I will try my best not to be sinful,” the frumpy Rosemary (Rosemary Allen) sings at the beginning of experimental theater director Richard Maxwell’s revival of his absurdist black comedy Good Samaritans, which opened last night at Abrons Arts Center. Originally produced by Maxwell’s New York City Players in 2004 and earning an Obie for Allen, the ninety-minute play features five songs written by Maxwell; his trademark odd dialogue delivered in a dry, stylized manner that highlights its theatricality; and an existential plot that is delightfully mysterious. Rosemary, who is in her seventies, runs an urban rehabilitation center where the bedraggled Kevin (Kevin Hurley), a man in his fifties, suddenly shows up one evening, in desperate need of a bathroom. “I will make it my business to make your business my business,” the straightforward Rosemary tells him. “I don’t want you here. You don’t want to be here. That’s what we have in common. In a couple six months, we’ll see what you’re made of. . . . The twelve-step program, faith-teaching, and work therapy are to help the client reenter mainstream society.” Rosemary, who’s been working at the center for thirty-five years, is sure she can help him, because that is what she does. “You came to me. And I’m telling you. I’m the answer, the only answer you need,” she assures him. Soon they’re helping each other, in a rather unexpected way.
Maxwell (Isolde, The Evening) was looking through his previous work (he’s written twenty plays since 1997) when he decided to bring back Good Samaritans, the first time he has revived one of his plays. He believed that it “feels even more resonant in 2017,” and he has a point, with Americans more obsessed than ever with self-identity. “Where is your house? Where is your ID? You know? Why are you here?” Rosemary asks, but Kevin never reveals why he has been placed in the facility, allowing the audience not only to wonder but also to consider what sins of their own might be in need of rehabilitation. The superb acting relies on the intentionally emotionless delivery of lines, but the relationship between the two protagonists is actually filled with a passion that sucks you into their curious tale, which becomes even stranger whenever the characters break out into song, accompanied by guitarist James Moore and pianist David Louis Zuckerman. At the center of it all is a deep need for human connection of almost any kind, and when Rosemary and Kevin do connect, it’s both wildly unanticipated and gently touching. Original designer Stephanie Nelson’s set is brightly cold and antiseptic, a cinder-block cafeteria with long tables and one small window that is hard for the characters to look out of, as if they’re trapped in a kind of way station. (Nelson also designed the lighting and the costumes.) A longtime nurse, Allen seems born to play Rosemary, embodying the intake counselor with an offbeat glee that seems to hover right beneath the surface; meanwhile, Hurley (Sea Plays, Bad Boy Nietzsche!) is affecting as a man in search of meaning. Together they face love and fear, loneliness and desire in ninety captivating minutes. Maxwell (People without History, Neutral Hero), a Guggenheim Fellow who with the New York City Players has won five Obies, has a unique way of interpreting the world we live in, and he is thankfully being a Good Samaritan himself by giving us all another opportunity to see this splendid work.