The Playwrights Realm
The Duke on 42nd St.
Wednesday - Monday through December 24, $65-$85
Sarah DeLappe’s sharply incisive debut play about a girls soccer team, The Wolves, is back for an encore engagement at the Duke on 42nd St., making a playoff run after a superb regular season in September. The Playwrights Realm production is set in the present in an unnamed middle America town, where the team is making a championship run of its own. The action takes place on Laura Jellinek’s rectangular AstroTurf set, with the audience seated bleacher-style on the two longer sides of the central green field. Over the course of ninety minutes and a handful of Saturday game warm-ups, the nine girls discuss menstruation, their perpetually hung-over coach, social media, religion, exercise, parents, abortion, political correctness, and making a difference in the world while stretching, jogging in formation, and kicking the ball around in predetermined practice routines (including the awesome spider). The sixteen- and seventeen-year-old students are more than a bit fascinated with aging and death; the play opens with a debate about whether ninety-year-old former Khmer Rouge leader Nuon Chea should be imprisoned or executed for horrific crimes he committed in the 1970s. When a few of the girls admit they don’t know anything about the Khmer Rouge, one says, “We don’t do genocide till senior year.” When they argue about the success of various types of feminine hygiene products, the same girl declares, “Score on me with my own baby blood? I think not!” The Wolves regularly passes the Bechdel test, as very few of the discussions have anything to do with boys. In addition, nearly everyone involved with the play is female; the only male listed in the program is one of the sound designers.
The Realm’s Page One Playwright, DeLappe, and director Lila Neugebauer (Signature Plays: The Sandbox, The Wayside Motor Inn) — both of whom played soccer and made playing the sport with the actors part of the audition process — serve up rapid-fire dialogue like a ball being passed around during a game, with multiple conversations going on at the same time, the audience swerving their heads back and forth to keep up with the fast pace and flow. After a victory, many an athlete has attributed success to that mundane sports cliché, Total Team Effort, but that is exactly what makes The Wolves such a winner; the nine young actors are individually excellent and even better as a unit, although they are later joined by a soccer mom (Kate Arrington) in a heartfelt but unnecessary coda. DeLappe’s clever writing prevents the girls from turning into stereotypes; in fact, for most of the play they are referred to by their numbers, not their names. (We don’t even learn everyone’s given appellation.) They all wear Ásta Bennie Hostetter’s blue uniform costumes except for the goalie, #00 (Lizzy Jutila), who dresses in yellow and purposely mismatched sneakers; she barely speaks but pays close attention to what the rest of the girls are saying. The team is led by #25 (Lauren Patten), the captain, who has learned various motivation techniques from her father. The rest of the cast, each of whom deserves kudos, features Sarah Mezzanotte as the skinny #2; Brenna Coates as the bold and brash striker, #7; Midori Francis as the childlike and innocent #8; Susannah Perkins as the elitist and morbid #11; Jenna Dioguardi as the wacky, filter-less #13; Samia Finnerty as the serious #14, who is best friends with #7; and Tedra Millan as the mysterious #46, an odd new girl who, according to #13, lives with her mother in a “yogurt.” (It’s actually a yurt.) All of their interactions feel honest and genuine, fully immersing the audience in their very believable private and public dramas. The play, which shared the inaugural Relentless Award (with Clare Barron’s Dance Nation), presented by the American Playwriting Foundation in honor of Philip Seymour Hoffman, makes us eager to see more from DeLappe. A wonderful and unique theatrical experience, The Wolves continues at the Duke through December 24, but it deserves a whole lot more extra time before that final whistle blows.
333 East 47th St. at First Ave.
Saturday, December 10, 7:30, and Sunday, December 11, 2:30, $28
Japan Society is hosting the North American premiere this weekend of a rather unique retelling of the favorite mukashi banashi folktale Hanasaka Jiisan (The Old Man Who Made Flowers Bloom), a wild and wacky version by Ryohei Kondo and his all-male Condors dance company. In the story, a childless couple’s dog finds treasure in their backyard, but things go awry when a greedy neighbor then borrows the pooch so it can dig up treasure on his land as well. Currently celebrating its twentieth anniversary, the twelve-member Condors troupe has previously performed such shows as Nezumi no Sumo (Rats’ Sumo), Apollo, Conquest of the Galaxy: Mars, and 2012 Angry Men, an adaptation of 12 Angry Men. The Tokyo-born, South America-raised Kondo, who brought Goats Block the Road, Part III: Goat Stampede to Japan Society in January 2011, has a talent for creating works that combine silliness and unpredictability with a strong social conscience, sharing Japanese culture while avoiding preaching. (He has also choreographed Takashi Miike’s crazy The Happiness of the Katakuris and Yatterman.) Performed by Michihiko Kamakura, Yoshihiro Fujita, Kojiro Yamamoto, and Kondo, Hanasaka Jiisan features playful props and costumes (by Hiroko Takamatsu) on Hanako Murayama’s ever-changing set. It will be preceded by Tokyo-born, Brooklyn-based Maiko Kikuchi’s Pink Bunny, a parade consisting of puppets and unusual objects marching across the stage in short vignettes. In November 2015, the Pratt graduate’s No Need for a Night Light on a Light Night Like Tonight had its world premiere at La MaMa; Pink Bunny premiered in 2014 as part of St. Ann’s Labapalooza! Answering the question “What do you want to be?,” the piece will be performed by Maiko Kikuchi, Shun Kikuchi, Monica Lerch, David Commander, and Zac Pless.
249 West 45th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through September 3, $59-$189
Hamilton, watch out; there’s a new historical musical in town, dueling it out for the designation of best show on Broadway. In his epic 1869 novel War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy wrote of his protagonist, Count Pierre Bezukhov, “At the entrance to the Arbat Square an immense expanse of dark starry sky presented itself to his eyes. Almost in the center of it, above the Prechistenka Boulevard, surrounded and sprinkled on all sides by stars but distinguished from them all by its nearness to the earth, its white light, and its long uplifted tail, shone the enormous and brilliant comet of 1812 — the comet which was said to portend all kinds of woes and the end of the world.” And there are all kinds of woes indeed in Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, Dave Malloy’s smashing electro-pop opera adapted from a 70-page section of Tolstoy’s classic tale, which has been magnificently transported to Broadway’s reconfigured Imperial Theatre. The little show that could began life in 2012 at 87-seat Ars Nova, where it ran for 39 performances. The next year it moved to the 199-seat tented Kazino cabaret in the Meatpacking District, and now it’s on Broadway, appropriately enough at the 1,200-seat Imperial, which set designer Mimi Lien (John, An Octoroon) has turned into an immersive wonderland, with ramps snaking from the stage throughout the theater and the audience seated in conventional chairs in the balcony and tavern-like chairs on the stage as well as in slightly sunken pits. The large cast of more than 40 actors and musicians emerge from every nook and cranny, every corner, even occasionally taking a seat right next to you and clinking glasses for a toast. You will be served a potato pierogi early on, and later a percussive egg to shake during some merriment. You might even get a page of War and Peace dropped in your lap. During intermission, you can roam anywhere, getting up close and personal with hundreds of paintings (many of Napoleon) that line the walls.
Set during the Napoleonic Wars, Natasha is a delightfully soapy story of love and betrayal in 1812 Moscow. The fabulous prologue introduces the major characters: brave Prince Andrey Bolkonsky (Nicholas Belton), who is away at war; “bewildered and awkward” Pierre Bezukhov (Josh Groban), a drunken cuckold who has given up on life; “young” Countess Natalya Ilyinichna Rostova, Andrey’s beautiful fiancée, called Natasha (Denée Benton); “hot” Anatole Kuragin (Lucas Steele), an immoral ladies’ man; “slut” Countess Hélène Bezukhova (Amber Gray), Anatole’s devious sister, who is married to Pierre; “good” Sofia Alexandrovna Rostova, Natasha’s trusted cousin, who goes by Sonya (Brittain Ashford); “crazy” Old Prince Bolkonsky (Belton), Andrey’s doddering father; “plain” Princess Mary Bolkonskaya (Gelsey Bell), Andrey’s sister; “old school” Marya Dmitryevna Akhrosimova (Grace McLean), Natasha’s godmother; “fierce” Fedya Dolokhov (Nick Choksi), a good friend of Anatole’s; and “fun” Balaga (Paul Pinto), a carefree troika driver. Don’t worry if it all doesn’t soak in immediately; there is a family tree in the program, which the cast suggests you refer to when necessary. After the prologue, a chorus declares, “Oh Pierre! Our merry feasting crank / Our most dear, most kind, most smart and eccentric / A warm-hearted Russian of the old school / His purse is always empty / Cuz it’s open to all / Oh Pierre / Just one of a hundred sad old men / Living out their final days in Moscow.” The downtrodden Pierre readily admits, “I never thought that I’d end up like this / I used to be better.” Attending an opera, Natasha sees Anatole and is instantly smitten with him, so the swaggering Anatole swoops down on her, soon proclaiming his undying love. Scandal ensues as there’s a duel, a costume ball, and various deceptions, leading to a deeply intimate and emotional conclusion.
“We are speaking of most ordinary things,” Anatole says at one point, but there is nothing ordinary about Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812. Director Rachel Chavkin (The Royale, Small Mouth Sounds), who has been with the show from the start, finds endlessly inventive ways to bring this epic to life, as characters weave in and among the audience, the ensemble is always on the move, and the pace never lags for even a second. As Bradley King’s lights go down after one number, anticipation builds as to where the next song will begin. Choreographer Sam Pinkleton (Machinal, Significant Other) makes full use of the space, further involving the audience in the cast’s movements. The gorgeous costumes, by Paloma Young (Peter and the Starcatcher), range from elegant and fashionable to sexy and steam-punk. The ensemble is uniformly outstanding, from the wandering accordion players to the opera dancers (Reed Luplau and Ani Taj) to the larger roles, many of which are performed by the original Ars Nova actors, including Steele, Gray, Ashford (her “Sonya Alone” solo is stunning), Bell, Choksi, and Pinto. In her Broadway debut, Benton is both alluring and delicate as the torn Natasha, but the biggest surprise was Scott Stangland, who was subbing for an ill Josh Groban the night I went.
In an 1858 letter to the editor comparing the comets of 1811 and 1858, British admiral and astronomer William Henry Smyth wrote, “In re the magnificent comet [of 1858], I have been closely attending to its fine figure; and am asked on various sides, as I had the advantage of having closely watched both, which I thought the most splendid in appearance, this, or that of 1811? Now, to my memory, which is very distinct, the palm must be given to the latter. As a mere sight-object, the branched tail was of greater interest, the nucleus with its ‘head-veil’ was more distinct, and its circumpolarity was a fortunate incident for gazers.” I feel very fortunate to have experienced the splendidly fine figure of Stangland, who played Pierre in the pre-Broadway American Repertory Theater production at Harvard in December 2015/January 2016 and who is absolutely magnificent at the Imperial, embodying Pierre as if he were born for the part. With his stout frame and bushy facial hair, he commands the audience’s attention whether taking center stage or playing the accordion or the piano in a pit. I was floored by the original presentation at Ars Nova, in which show creator Malloy, who wrote the music, lyrics, and book and did the orchestrations, played Pierre with an innate charm, and now I’ve been blown away by Stangland, who gives a profound performance that will break your heart — and left me playfully thinking, “Josh and Lin-Manuel who?”
Walter Kerr Theatre
219 West 48th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 8, $42-$149
I saw Falsettos, James Lapine’s new revival of his and William Finn’s beloved musical, during the Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS curtain-call appeal season, when cast members across the Great White Way ask audiences to donate to the nonprofit organization that has been helping those with HIV/AIDS for nearly thirty years. Andrew Rannells made the heartfelt announcement, and people gave money as they left the Walter Kerr Theatre. Although it’s always a poignant moment, it was especially powerful after this show, which came together in the 1980s and 1990s, featuring a heartbreaking plot in which Rannells’s character, Whizzer, contracts a mysterious, deadly disease in 1981. The first act, March of the Falsettos, debuted in 1981 and takes place two years earlier, when the “gay plague” was just beginning; the second act, Falsettoland, premiered in 1990 and is set in 1981. The acts merged into Falsettos in 1992, earning seven Tony nominations and winning two awards, for Best Book and Best Original Score. (There was also an earlier one-act musical about some of the same characters, Trousers, that ran in 1979 and then was revamped in 1985.) So this Lincoln Center revival of Falsettos arrived on Broadway with quite a history; you could feel the excitement before the show started, as the theater was abuzz with friends hugging and chatting so much that the ushers had a hard time convincing everyone to take their seat. At last it got under way, with Marvin (Christian Borle), Whizzer, Jason (Anthony Rosenthal), Mendel (Brandon Uranowitz), and Trina (Stephanie J. Block) singing “Four Jews in a Room Bitching.” And from that moment on, the legend of Falsettos escaped me.
Directed by Lapine (Act One, Finn’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), who wrote the book with composer and lyricist Finn, Falsettos is a groundbreaking show about a new kind of extended, dysfunctional family. Marvin has left his wife, Trina, and their eleven-year-old son, Jason, for his new love, Whizzer, but he still thinks everyone can be together. “I want a tight-knit family / I want a group that harmonizes / I want my wife and kid and friend / To pretend / Time will mend / Our pain,” Marvin sings. Trina has a session with Marvin’s psychiatrist, Mendel, who instantly falls in love with her. “It’s so upsetting when I found / That what’s rectangular is round / I mean, it stinks / I mean, he’s queer / And me, I’m just a freak,” Trina explains in “I’m Breaking Down,” a showstopping number by Block that brings down the house. Two years later, lesbian couple Charlotte (Tracie Thoms) and Cordelia (Betsy Wolfe) have moved in next door and Jason is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, beset by adolescent worries about girls and more. “Would they come, though, / If they were invited, / And not laugh / At my Hebrew / And not laugh / At my father and his friends,” he opines while displaying poor baseball skills. But when Whizzer gets sick, the characters all take a new look at their lives. “Something bad is happening / Something very bad is happening / Something stinks, something immoral / Something so bad that words have lost their meaning,” Charlotte, a doctor, declares. “Rumors fly and tales abound / Stories echo underground! / Something bad / Is spreading, spreading, spreading / ’Round!”
For most of the show, David Rockwell’s set consists of a gray Rubik’s Cube-like square that the cast can take apart and put back together, creating all kinds of furniture and objects, a clever metaphor for the makeshift family they form. The music was revolutionary for its time, with unexpected starts and stops, rises and falls, and multiple pitch changes as various characters chime in and conversationally sing on top of one another (the complex orchestrations are by Michael Starobin); the lyrics, however, are now dated, and the subplot of Jason’s Bar Mitzvah is an awkward device leading to the teary conclusion. Tony nominee Block (The Mystery of Edwin Drood, 9 to 5: The Musical) is sensational, giving a don’t-miss performance as a strong woman whose life is turned upside down and inside out. Tony nominee Rannells (The Book of Mormon, Girls) is superb as the beautifully sly and sweetly vain Whizzer; together Block and Rannells overwhelm two-time Tony winner Borle (Peter and the Starcatcher, Something Rotten!). Tony nominee Uranowitz (An American in Paris) and Rosenthal (Newsies, A Christmas Story) provide fine support. Falsettos is a uniquely situated coming-of-age story as characters try to find their place in a difficult life, and in an extended family that was unusual for its time. Even if it’s not quite as earth-shaking today, the show’s emotional landscape remains sadly relevant.
For five years, Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More has been taking audiences all around the mysterious McKittrick Hotel, five floors of immersive theatrics inspired by Macbeth. Now the National Theatre of Scotland is coming to the Chelsea building, where it will present The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart in the Heath, the hotel’s bar and music venue, which has been transformed into a Scottish pub. Previews have started, with the opening set for December 13, but December tickets, which range from $65 to $125, are going fast; the show, which has elements of the supernatural amid academia, is scheduled to run through January 29. Strange Undoing was written by David Greig, who appropriately enough wrote Dunsinane, a sequel to Macbeth; he also penned the book for the musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which is due on Broadway next spring. The director is Wils Wilson (Wind Resistance, Praxis Makes Perfect), with set design by Georgia McGuinness (Midsummer, Arabian Nights) and music (inspired by Border Ballads) performed live by composer Alasdair Macrae and Annie Grace; the cast features Melody Grove, Peter Hannah, and Paul McCole.
In early 2011, Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) staged Nick Dear’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at the National Theatre, starring Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch alternating in the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature. If you couldn’t make it to London to see the show, you can now catch it as part of the National Theatre Live series, which screens theatrical productions in movie theaters across the country. Both versions of Frankenstein will be shown at IFC Center, with Miller (Elemental, The Flying Scotsman) playing the Creature on December 4 at 11:00 am and Cumberbatch (Sherlock, The Imitation Game) as Frankenstein’s monster on December 5 at 7:00. The Daily Mail called Frankenstein “a memorable production and will doubtless be spoken of for years to come,” while the Guardian declared it “a humane, intelligent retelling of the original story in which much of the focus is on the plight of the obsessive scientist’s sad creation, who becomes his alter ego and his nemesis: it’s rather like seeing The Tempest rewritten from Caliban’s point of view.” The two-hour show, which earned both Miller and Cumberbatch the Olivier Award as Best Actor, also features Naomie Harris, Karl Johnson, Ella Smith, George Harris, and Andreea Paduraru, with music by Underworld, set design by Mark Tildesley (28 Days Later, 24-Hour Party People), and costumes by Suttirat Larlarb (Slumdog Millionaire, Sunshine).
Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Pl. between Lafayette Ave. & Fulton St.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 4, $85
“For nitwits are we all,” the cast declares early on in Theatre for a New Audience’s wacky version of Carlo Goldoni’s eighteenth-century commedia dell’arte classic, The Servant of Two Masters, only the second time the show has ever been presented in English in New York City. The strange and crazy antics, involving lots of nitwits and numbskulls, take place over one very long day in Venezia, as the masked Truffaldino Batocchio from Bergamo (Steven Epp) serves up chaos while secretly serving two masters. The very hungry Truffaldino’s predicament derives from a typically byzantine plot: the supposed death of Federigo Rasponi from Torino is followed by the appearance of Federigo’s sister, Beatrice (Liz Wisan) — disguised as her brother in order to marry his betrothed, Clarice (Adina Verson), the daughter of his business partner, Pantalone (Allen Gilmore), and collect a promised dowry. Truffaldino immediately signs on to serve Federigo/Beatrice. Meanwhile, Clarice wants to marry her true love, Silvio (Eugene Ma), the pampered and overly twee progeny of Dr. Lombardi (Andy Grotelueschen). Later, when the valiant Florindo Aretusi (Orlando Pabotoy) shows up, Truffaldino accepts a position with him as well after Florindo’s aging porter (Liam Craig) proves inadequate. But even though Florindo and Beatrice are madly in love, neither knows the other is in town, and Truffaldino, who has become smitten with Smeraldina (Emily Young), Clarice’s maidservant, struggles to keep it that way so they won’t discover that he’s serving both of them. Over the course of two and a half hours (with intermission), there is masked mayhem, mistaken identity, slapstick comedy, devious deception, satirical songs (with onstage music by Christopher Curtis and Aaron Halva), and improvisation galore, some that works, and some that doesn’t.
In 2011, playwright Richard Bean and director Nicholas Hytner transformed The Servant of Two Masters into the hit Broadway comedy One Man, Two Guvnors, which earned James Corden a Tony for Best Actor. At TFANA’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center, director Christopher Bayes (This Ridiculous Dreaming, The 39 Steps) and star Epp (Tartuffe, Figaro), veterans of Theatre de la Jeune Lune, have gone back to Goldoni’s more improvisational original, further adapting Constance Congdon’s version of Christina Sibul’s translation, eschewing a more structured narrative for large amounts of ad libbing. Thus, the play is different every night; right now it is rife with references to the presidential election that can range from wickedly funny to random and repetitive, along with nods to current commercial jingles that get chuckles but feel out of place. Valérie Thérèse Bart’s period costumes are a hoot, colorful and dankly elegant, while Katherine Akiko Day’s set is centered by a curtain through which the characters enter and exit, with a trompe l’oeil sky in the background in front of which are miniature houses. The cast, many of whom have worked together before either at Yale Rep or Juilliard, displays an infectious camaraderie and a willingness to try just about anything; Epp is a terrific physical comedian, harkening back to the days of vaudeville, while Pabotoy, Gilmore, and Fiasco Theater’s Grotelueschen and Young are stand-out commedia dell’arte practitioners. The play is probably about a half hour too long, and the anti-Trump jokes were often too easy and obvious, detracting from the overall atmosphere of chaotic fun. In the beginning, Truffaldino asks several times, “When’s the play going to start?” Near the conclusion, he declares, “This play’s never gonna end!” Of course, it does end, and you’ll leave the theater in a gleeful mood, if not completely satiated.