Who: Bobby Cannavale, Josh Hamilton, Ethan Hawke, Parker Posey, Wallace Shawn, Scott Elliott
What: Benefit reading for the New Group
Where: The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center, the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, 480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves., 212-244-3380 x308
When: Sunday, April 26, $50-$250, 6:00
Why: As part of its twentieth anniversary celebration, the New Group will be holding a one-night-only benefit reading of David Rabe’s Hurlyburly, reuniting the original cast and director Scott Elliott. The reading will take place in the New Group’s new home at the Signature Center, with Bobby Cannavale as Phil, Josh Hamilton as Mickey, Ethan Hawke as Eddie, Parker Posey as Darlene, and Wallace Shawn as Artie; the parts of Bonnie and Donna are yet to be finalized. The 2005 production was nominated for five Lucille Lortel Awards, with Posey winning as Best Featured Actress. This past fall, the New Group mounted a successful revival of Rabe’s Sticks and Bones, with Elliott at the helm. The New Group is also holding a bonus fundraiser in which the highest bidder will get to be onstage and read the stage directions, in addition to meeting the cast and crew and attending the VIP reception with a guest following the performance. The current bid is $3,000, but it can be all yours for ten grand right now.
Martinson Hall, the Public Theater
425 Lafayette St. at Astor Pl.
Tuesday - Sunday through April 26, $55-$65
Tracey Scott Wilson’s Buzzer is a sizzling drama about gentrification, class, race, and white privilege. In modern-day Brooklyn, rising young black lawyer Jackson (Grantham Coleman) is moving back to his old neighborhood, purchasing a large, impressive apartment across the street from a corner populated by drug dealers and crack whores. “The wave is sweeping through here, and before they build another coffee shop, before they build another gym, before the wave swallows up another person here, I want in,” he says to an unseen Realtor. “I know this neighborhood. I know what it’s worth and I know what it can be.” Next he has to convince his girlfriend, Suzy (Tessa Ferrer), a white teacher, to move in with him. Suzy is being disciplined at her job for yelling at one of her students, telling him to “put the mother-fracking book down.” But Suzy and Jackson’s love is severely tested when his longtime best friend, Don (Michael Stahl-David), a white screw-up who has been in and out of rehab for years, comes to stay with them as he tries to get his life back together. “I’m horny, broke, and nearly homeless,” he says at an AA meeting, “so if I just had a job, a woman, and a house, Popsicle beer would not be so appealing.” The apartment might be big, with two hallways, a pair of walk-in closets, and a vast central living space, but it’s tight quarters for the three of them, especially after Suzy is harassed by some of the guys on the corner, a confrontation that Don and Jackson want to handle in very different ways, sparking trouble that threatens the relationships among the three of them.
Despite garnering good notices since Buzzer premiered at the Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis in 2012 and went on to the Guthrie and then the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, Wilson (The Good Negro, The Story) has tweaked it significantly for its New York run at the Public, cutting about a half hour out, streamlining it down to a fast-moving ninety minutes without intermission. Like the spacious apartment, the play is uncluttered, and Wilson avoids getting preachy or clichéd in a play that evokes such recent Broadway successes as Clybourne Park and Disgraced. The cast is uniformly excellent, each of their characters introduced with a soliloquy while facing the audience directly, an intimate conceit. Coleman is stalwart as Jackson, who does not want to become the “Magical Negro”; Ferrer is a whirling dervish of powerful emotions as the complicated, unpredictable Suzy; and Stahl-David is quirky and compelling as the uneasy, desperate Don. Obie-winning director Anne Kauffman (The Nether, Detroit) keeps everything going at a swift but determined pace as scenes morph into one another seamlessly. Laura Jellinek’s set is open and dark on one side, while the other is populated by a maze of sparkling white walls and a kitchen; the back holds a surprise as the ending nears. The title refers to the apartment’s buzzer; the intercom system doesn’t work, so whenever the buzzer is pushed, the residents have to go downstairs to see who’s at the door. It’s fraught with danger; every time the buzzer sounds, the tension grows thicker while providing a clever sonic alternative to Jackson’s unusual ring tone, which keeps going off. Jackson, who grew up in Newark and later moved to a gentrifying neighborhood in Crown Heights, where she was living when she wrote the play, has a sharp ear for realistic dialogue and creates well-drawn characters caught up in believable situations, despite one ultimately forgivable misstep. Buzzer, which continues at Martinson Hall through April 26, is not afraid to push buttons, resulting in a taut, gripping experience.
Theater for the New City, Community Space
155 First Ave. between Ninth & Tenth Sts.
Wednesday - Sunday through April 12, $20
Tom Diriwachter captures the zeitgeist of the borough that never changes, Staten Island, in his involving new play, Great Kills, making its world premiere at Theater for the New City in the East Village. When you first encounter Mark Marcante’s set, you’re likely to think the story takes place in the 1970s, as the appliances in the kitchen are old, the décor static, with books stacked all over the floor, issues of National Geographic strewn about, and an ancient television front and center. But as soon as the TV is turned on and a sportscaster (voiced by director Jonathan Weber, who runs the New York Mets blog The Ballclub) announces that Mets pitcher Jason deGrom is facing Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto, it becomes apparent that the time is the present, as characters reach into their past to prepare for the future. Robert Homeyer stars as Tim, a tall, awkward, bearded forty-year-old former adjunct professor now working at a local B&N. An angry and desperate ne’er-do-well, Tim lives with his father, Mr. G (Joey Pantoliano), a gruff, grizzled drunk who’s been a painter at the Meadowbrook state institution for thirty-seven years, but the facility will be closing following a series of investigative reports that depicted it as a “horror show.” (That part of the plot was inspired by Geraldo Rivera’s real-life reporting on Staten Island’s Willowbrook facility.) When Tim finds out that Meadowbrook has apparently discarded a huge amount of cabinets, he decides to take them off their hands and make a fortune reselling them, claiming he’s seen similar items going for eighteen hundred bucks in the Village. So he calls in his childhood friend Robert (Peter Welch), a successful restaurateur, to help with the scheme. Wearing a sharp suit, Robert is suspicious of Tim and the plan, but he’s willing to listen, for reasons that eventually become apparent. And through it all, Mr. G just keeps on drinking and grumbling.
Great Kills is built around a suspect, questionable premise, and although it all makes sense in the end, it works best as a character study of three very different men. The way they interact with one another — Robert with Tim, Tim with Mr. G, Mr. G with Robert — is what drives the play, which features dark humor and gritty, rapid-fire dialogue with clever wordplay from lifelong Staten Islander Diriwachter. Robert: “We’re friends.” Tim: “We are friends.” Robert: “We’ve been friends a long time.” Tim: “We used to ride bikes together.” Robert: “I’d take a bullet for you.” Tim: “I’d . . . wrestle a bear for you.” Robert: “I don’t know why you’d ever have to do that.” Tim: “I’m just saying.” Robert: “But business is business.” Robert is cool and self-confident, Tim edgy and unnerving, Mr. G a grunting widower who serves as comic relief, but each one has surprises in store as the plot unfolds in real time. The Hoboken-born Pantoliano, who won an Emmy for his role as Ralphie Cifaretto on The Sopranos, starred with Rosie Perez on Broadway in Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, and has appeared in such other films as Memento, The Matrix, and Risky Business, is a hoot as Mr. G, just wanting to be left to his baseball and booze. He is practically one with his comfy chair, getting up only to grab another beer or a shot. Indie film actor, writer, and director Welch, who is also a fine art photographer, gives just the right edge to Robert, who keeps hanging around even as the plan gets more complicated. And Theater for the New City regular Homeyer plays Tim as a man uncomfortable in his own skin, believing that the world owes him a whole lot more. It might be Mamet-lite, but this tale of losers, idealists, and never-will-bes is an engrossing look at modern men and the American dream, with a sharp Staten Island tang.
Peculiar Works Project
Merchants Square Building
40 Worth St. between Church St. & West Broadway
Wednesday - Saturday through April 11, $12-$18, 7:00
When you think of the revolutionary art movement known as Dada, West Texas is not generally one of the first things that comes to mind. But in the early 1990s, playwright Barry Rowell was driving to Lubbock when he saw a sign for the small town of Floydada, Texas, and decided right then and there that he was going to write a play that involved Dadaism. The result is Floydada, a two-character show running through April 11 in a large, empty storefront in the Merchants Square Building on Worth St. The premise is a bit thin, as well as somewhat random — which, of course, is a key element of Dada. But you don’t have to know anything about Dada — the experimental movement, based on readymade objects and chance, that developed from a disgust with the death and destruction of WWI — to understand the play; after all, “Dada does not mean anything,” Tristan Tzara wrote in his 1918 manifesto. It’s March 1927, and Dalia (Nomi Tichman) is ill, so she has returned home to be with her sister, Ada (Catherine Porter), in the small town of Floydada. Dalia has spent the last several decades primarily in New York, Berlin, and Paris — France, not Texas — writing poetry, giving performances, and hanging out with the cultural elite, including the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, a close friend with whom she continues to exchange letters. Elsa has also given Dalia one of her most famous sculptures, “Portrait of Marcel Duchamp,” an avant-garde work that mystifies Ada almost as much as her sister’s activities do. Over the course of ten months, the sisters reconnect, the city girl and the country girl learning from each other and even performing together, turning the family’s dry goods store into a cabaret where they sing and recite poetry for the close-knit local community.
When Dalia first suggests that they perform, she tells Ada, “All we need is an empty space.” The same can be said for Peculiar Works Project, the Obie-winning company, cofounded by Porter, Rowell, and Ralph Lewis in 1993, that specializes in experimental productions in unusual spaces. In 2013, they presented Rowell’s Manna-Hatta in multiple rooms upstairs in the James A. Farley Post Office. Floydada takes place on the ground floor of the Merchants Square Building, which was built in 1928, right around the time in which the play is set. One side of the long, horizontal room, which boasts large pillars, a cement floor, and an open ceiling revealing pipes, wires, and insulation, has been filled with new Dada-inspired art by Carlo Adinolfi, Michelle Beshaw, Myrel Chernick, Norman Chernick-Zeitlin, Anna Kiraly, Ray Neufeld, and Francesco Vizzini. A makeshift box-office area features a urinal tip jar and a slideshow of Dada artists. The play itself unfolds in an open area with some furniture, as the two actors wander from living room to outside road to dry goods store, using sound to indicate their coming and going. Porter and Tichman portray Ada and Dalia with an oddball eccentricity that is reminiscent of the mother and daughter Bouvier Beales from Grey Gardens, though not nearly as off the wall. “People think you’re strange, you know,” Ada says, to which Dalia replies, “I am.” Director David Vining (Cracked, The Blue Puppies Cycle) makes creative use of the space, though a lot of the movement grows repetitive; at times you’ll just wish the characters just stayed put for a few moments instead of constantly getting up and down and moving back and forth on Casey McLain’s set. Yoonmi Lee adds fine piano and percussion, while Lianne Arnold’s projections and Leila Ghaznavi’s live manipulations (and sound effects) are colorful but confusing. The overall aesthetic has a sweetly innocent DIY charm, as well as plenty of strangeness, but it’s probably about twenty minutes too long, which, in its own way, is rather Dada itself. It’s also extremely cold in the space, with no heating, so be prepared to leave your coat and hat on if the weather remains so bitter. Floydada runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays through April 11; there will be a “Dada (Re)Creation” benefit on April 6 with dance, music, art, and poetry, and the April 9-11 shows will be followed by a DadaDialogue with Pratt professor Dr. Dorothea Dietrich and other panelists.
Music Box Theatre
239 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through August 9, $40 - $139
“I wrote this play because I had this image of a woman standing up at a women’s meeting saying, ‘I’ve never been so unhappy in my life,’” Wendy Wasserstein told Time magazine in a 1989 interview about The Heidi Chronicles. “Talking to friends, I knew there was this feeling around, in me and in others, and I thought it should be expressed theatrically. But it wasn’t. The more angry it made me that these feelings weren’t being expressed, the more anger I put into that play.” Twenty-six years later, The Heidi Chronicles is being revived on Broadway for the first time, in a production directed by Tony winner Pam MacKinnon (A Delicate Balance, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) that opened at the Music Box Theatre on March 19. But little of that anger is evident in what turns out to be a kind of tepid time-capsule experience that lacks energy and fervor; instead, it feels like an outdated story that is past its prime. Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss stars as Heidi Holland, a smart woman who is considering having it all — both a career and a family — as she comes of age in the 1960s and ’70s and then has to reconfigure her hopes and dreams through the 1980s. In the first act, Wasserstein (The Sisters Rosensweig, An American Daughter) follows Heidi as she attends a high school dance in Chicago in 1965, meets the aggressive Scoop Rosenbaum (Jason Biggs) at a 1968 rally for Eugene McCarthy, goes to a women’s meeting in Ann Arbor in 1970, and protests the paucity of women artists in a 1974 exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago as she searches for her purpose in life. In the second act, all of which takes place in New York in the 1980s, she goes to a baby shower, appears on a morning TV show, and has a confab at the Plaza as she tries to come to grips with the decisions she’s made as she approaches forty without a husband, children, or a real home base.
Each act begins with Heidi at a podium, delivering a lecture in 1989 on such overlooked women artists as Sofonisba Anguissola, Artemisia Gentileschi, Clara Peeters, and Lilly Martin Spencer. Those scenes show Heidi as a strong, intelligent, confident, and funny woman, more than comfortable in her own skin. However, in the flashbacks, she is lost and uncertain, most often an observer who doesn’t take action, allowing others — primarily but not exclusively men — to take control. Heidi is more of a humanist than a feminist, as is the play itself, but in 2015, with more opportunities than ever before for women — although there’s obviously still a long, long way to go — the conflicts Heidi faces don’t seem as dramatic as they might have been in 1989, and her diffidence or sometimes seeming paralysis denies the narrative some necessary conflict. We never quite understand why she is best friends with Susan (Ali Ahn), who is far more concerned with appearances than real depth; why she is drawn so much to the egocentric Scoop, even after he’s married; and what she truly gets out of her long friendship with Peter Patrone (Bryce Pinkham). All three supporting roles are played as caricatures who don’t seem to fit in with Heidi’s life. and the songs Wasserstein uses for each scene have become clichéd, from Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” and Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” to John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Janis Joplin’s “Take a Piece of My Heart,” all of which today are overkill, substituting for what we don’t see in Heidi. Like the character she portrays, Moss is at her best when delivering the illustrated lectures, relaxed and charming, someone you want to spend time with, but in the memory scenes, she is as understated and frustrating as Heidi. Rising star Tracee Chimo steals the show, playing four very different characters, Fran, Molly, Betsy, and April, making the most memorable statement of the evening when she declares, “Either you shave your legs or you don’t.” Heidi, and Moss, falls somewhere in the middle, and even if that’s the point, it doesn’t make for gripping theater. In 1989, The Heidi Chronicles earned Wasserstein the Pulitzer Prize, and she became the first solo woman to win a Tony for Best Play. But it feels very different all these years later.
In January, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in Paris, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared, “This week, a special team of ministers will convene to advance steps to increase immigration from France and other countries in Europe that are suffering from terrible anti-Semitism.” His bold and controversial proclamation couldn’t help but remind one of the decisions European Jews had to make in the 1930s, faced with the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. To stay or to go during that unhappy time is what Bibi’s younger brother, Iddo, author and part-time radiologist, explores in A Happy End, a compelling if unsubtle play making its New York premiere by the Abingdon Theatre Company. (Iddo and Bibi’s eldest brother, Yoni, was the only Israeli soldier killed in the 1976 raid on Entebbe.) Originally commissioned in Italy in 2008 for European Holocaust Memorial Day, the play takes place over four months in 1932-33 Berlin, as Hitler is amassing power, a situation dismissed by erudite physicist Mark Erdmann (Curzon Dobell). His wife, Leah (Carmit Levité), is having an affair with his lab colleague, Dieter Kraft (Joel Ripka), a non-Jew who recognizes the increasing level of anti-Semitism in the country and tries to convince his boss that he needs to leave Germany before it is too late. But Mark and Leah, who have a talented son, Hans (Phil Gillen), refuse to abandon the only home they’ve ever known. “They’re on the decline,” Mark says about the Nazis. “Politicians can’t dictate how we should live our lives,” Leah adds. But despite the play’s title, it’s doubtful things will work out well.
Numerous minor set changes help move the action more than Alex Dmitriev’s rather plain direction, as there is a lot of just sitting and standing around. Levité, a South African-Israeli actress, overplays Leah at first before eventually settling into the role of a glamorous woman who wants it all, a young lover in addition to a wise, successful husband (and fabulous clothes designed by Laura Crow). Dobell is rock-solid as an intellectual who is focused more on his work than the strong emotions swirling around him; when a waiter in a café turns on the radio to listen to a Hitler speech, Mark asks him to turn it off, as if that will make the potential next chancellor just go away. Lori Gardner adds doses of humor as Anna, Mark’s assistant, although repeated borrowings of his pen get tired. (Perhaps this is a reference to the pen being mightier than the sword, or, as a real stretch, even Jean-Marie Le Pen, the longtime leader of France’s right-wing National Front, but either way, it grows old quickly.) Ripka is earnest as the sincere Dieter, wanting the Erdmanns to be safe even though their leaving would impact him both personally and professionally. A Happy End is a thought-provoking work that handles its familiar subject matter with great care, a tale that will have you wondering what you would do in a similar situation. Sadly, there are many people around the world, especially in Europe right now, faced with that very real decision.
“There’s something about a train that’s magic,” Richie Havens sang in a series of Amtrak commercials in the 1980s. There’s more than just a little magic in the first revival of Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Cy Coleman’s 1978 screwball musical comedy, On the 20th Century, which has pulled into the American Airlines Theatre, brought back to glorious life by director Scott Ellis in this celebratory Roundabout production. It’s 1932, and suddenly bankrupt theatrical impresario Oscar Jaffee (Peter Gallagher), trying to recover from a series of failures, has boarded the glamorous Twentieth Century Limited with his musketeer henchmen, Oliver Webb (Mark Linn Baker) and Owen O’Malley (Michael McGrath), in order to convince his former leading lady, Lily Garland (Kristin Chenoweth), to put aside the Academy Award (aka the Oscar, of course) she’s just won and return to Broadway in his new show. But her new lover and frequent onscreen costar, Bruce Granit (Andy Karl), is jealous, and Lily herself is suspicious of the scheming Oscar, who discovered her when she was shlumpy Mildred Plotka and turned her into a star. Also on board the train is a little old lady, Mrs. Letitia Peabody Primrose (Mary Louise Wilson), a religious zealot secretly slapping up signs demanding that all of these heathens “Repent!” while also considering financing Oscar’s next show. As the train continues its overnight journey from Chicago to New York, Oscar grows more and more desperate, resulting in ever-wackier high jinks. “New York in sixteen hours / Anything can happen in those sixteen hours / On that might-y / Ride-the-night-ly / Miracle of engineering brains . . . / On the Twentieth Century / On the luxury liner of locomotive trains,” conductor Flanagan (Jim Walton) proclaims, and indeed, anything can and does occur.
The show has a storied history, adapted from Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1932 play, Twentieth Century (itself based on Charles Bruce Millholland’s unproduced Napoleon of Broadway) and Howard Hawks’s 1934 film, 20th Century, which starred John Barrymore as Oscar and Carole Lombard as Lily. (Various other versions and iterations have featured Fredric March, John Cullum, Rock Hudson, Orson Welles, José Ferrer, and Alec Baldwin as Oscar and Madeline Kahn, Judy Kaye, Anne Heche, Lily Palmer, Constance Bennett, Gloria Swanson, and Betty Grable as Lily.) Tony nominee Gallagher (Guys and Dolls, Long Day’s Journey into Night) has just the right amount of smarm and charm as Oscar, even if his singing voice is not quite virtuosic (although he is dealing with an illness that has forced him to miss several performances and delayed the official opening by a week), but Tony winner Chenoweth (Wicked, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown) more than makes up for that in a role that she fully inhabits, giving a rafters-rattling performance that will knock your socks off, as if this were the role she was born to play. (In fact, in 2000, Green told Chenoweth, “You know what part you’re born to play?” To which Comden replied, “Lily Garland.”) When Oscar says about Mildred, “It was there. The pixie . . . the eternal woman . . . the fire . . . the passion . . . and the singing voice of a lost child heard by its mother echoing from beyond a corner,” it could just as well be Gallagher talking about Chenoweth. It’s a spectacular display that actually includes fireworks. The operetta-like score is not particularly memorable, overloaded with repetition and redundancy, but three-time Tony nominee David Rockwell’s Art Deco sets are, along with six-time Tony nominee Ellis’s (The Elephant Man, 1776) gleefully chaotic staging and Tony winner Warren Carlyle’s (After Midnight) glittering choreography. Tony winner McGrath (Nice Work If You Can Get It, Spamalot) and Linn-Baker (You Can’t Take It with You, Perfect Strangers) are a kind of Harpo and Chico to Gallagher’s Groucho, while Tony nominee Karl (Rocky, The Mystery of Edwin Drood) chews up the scenery as the narcissistic Granit. It all makes for one joyous journey, even when things get too silly, but the show’s self-deprecating humor, knowing nods and winks, and endless magic make you overlook its shortcomings (while reveling in the irony that the show that takes place on board a train is playing in a theater named for an airline and is produced by a company whose title can refer to a circular intersection cars drive around). Throughout the show, characters keep knocking on Oscar’s door, waving their scripts in his face. “It’s all about life on a train / I call it ‘Life on a Train,’ Flanagan sings, continuing, “I put it down just as it happened / Oh, the things I’ve seen!” I can happily say the same thing about On the 20th Century, itself: Oh, the things I’ve seen!