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.
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.
The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Irene Diamond Stage
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 7, $25
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.
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.)
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
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.
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.
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.
One of the best new plays of the fall season, David Auburn’s Lost Lake is a relatively simple yet compelling drama about two flawed souls trapped in worlds they can’t break out of. Veronica (Tracie Thoms) is a single mother looking to rent a cabin upstate for a week for her, her children, and one of their friends. Veronica goes up early to check out the cabin, which turns out to be as shoddy and ramshackle as its owner, Hogan (John Hawkes), a gaunt, grizzled, but well-meaning man who can’t seem to do anything right in his life. Both are repairers of a sort; Veronica is a nurse practitioner with aspirations to perhaps become a doctor, while Hogan purports to be a handyman who can fix just about anything, including the rotting swimming dock out on the lake behind the cabin. But neither can patch the gaping holes in their lives. As her supposed vacation progresses, Veronica gets caught up in Hogan’s family drama, as he lurks around the property, telling her about his problems with his ex-wife, his daughter, his brother, and, mostly, his despised sister-in-law, no matter how much Veronica just wants him to leave. But various events, both major and minor, keep bringing these two very different people together during a complicated period in which each is forced to take a long, hard look at the choices they’ve made while dealing with the hands they’ve been given.
Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner Auburn reteams with his Proof director, Daniel Sullivan, for this moving slice-of-life tale, which is highlighted by two superb performances. Thoms (Cold Case, Stick Fly) is careful and deliberate as Veronica, a troubled woman who does not like to let her wounds show. The Oscar-nominated Hawkes (Winter’s Bone, The Sessions) is riveting as Hogan, all herky-jerky and unpredictable as a man seemingly uncomfortable in his own skin. The back-and-forth banter between them is enhanced by the piercing yet vulnerable looks in their eyes, neither character happy with their lot in life but not sure how to turn things around. The script cleverly touches on such issues as race, the economic crisis, class, elitism, and gender roles while efficiently dismissing the one place you really don’t want it to go. J. Michael Griggs’s set is appropriately broken-down and dilapidated, echoing the protagonists’ inner demons. The ninety-minute Manhattan Theatre Club production follows the play’s debut earlier this year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with Jake Weber and Opal Alladin as part of the Sullivan Project, a residency led by artistic director Daniel Sullivan, who has also helmed such shows as Rabbit Hole, Orphans, The Heidi Chronicles, and many Shakespeare in the Park presentations. Lost in the Lake is a fine fit for the intimate Stage I at City Center, where it is scheduled to run through December 21.
Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse
150 West 65th St. between Broadway & Amsterdam Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 28, $87
Inspired by a true story told to her by her children’s Tibetan babysitter, playwright Sarah Ruhl explores motherhood, Buddhism, and monastic tradition in The Oldest Boy. Three-time Tony nominee Celia Keenan-Bolger (The Glass Menagerie, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) stars as a Cincinnati-born mother who is surprised when a monk (Jon Norman Schneider) and a lama (James Saito) arrive at her home (in an unnamed American city), claiming that her three-year-old son is the living reincarnation of the monk’s beloved teacher. Both she and her husband (James Yaegashi) — a Buddhist owner of a Tibetan restaurant who was born and raised in India, where the Dalai Lama and many Tibetans have lived in exile since the Chinese army crushed the 1959 Tibetan uprising — are honored that their child might be a tulku, or reincarnated Rinpoche. However, they face a dilemma, for the monk and the lama have come to take the boy to be enthroned in Dharamsala, where he will study in a monastery and become a Rinpoche himself, the teacher now being taught by his student in the endless circle of life. While the thought of giving up her son is shocking to the mother, the father is much more accepting of the situation, as it is part of his family’s culture.
The Oldest Boy is set on a round wooden floor that evokes a mandala. Two-time Pulitzer finalist Ruhl (The Clean House, In the Next Room, or the vibrator play) and director Rebecca Taichman (Ruhl’s Stage Kiss and Orlando) open up the back wall of the Mitzi Newhouse, where performers enact symbolic rituals that highlight Tibetan culture but detract from the central narrative, more David Henry Hwang than Sarah Ruhl. Keenan-Bolger and Schneider are both excellent, their difficult relationship wholly believable. The boy is portrayed by a wooden puppet operated by Takemi Kitamura, Nami Yamamoto, and Ernest Abuba, with Abuba providing the speaking voice. It’s a conceit that is odd and uncomfortable at first but ends up working rather well. Also influenced by such documentaries as Unmistaken Child and My Reincarnation, The Oldest Boy is a moving, if uneven, portrait of faith and family, of the value of belief and tradition in the modern world.