This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001

BrandoCapote

(photo by Miguel Aviles)

BrandoCapote takes place in a Kyoto hotel that doubles as purgatory (photo by Miguel Aviles)

The Tank
312 West 36th St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 24, $25
thetanknyc.org

In 1957, thirty-two-year-old writer and journalist Truman Capote was sent to Kyoto by the New Yorker to do a story on thirty-three-year-old actor Marlon Brando, who was in Japan making Sayonara, Joshua Logan’s movie based on James Michener’s novel about an air force pilot who falls in love with a Japanese dancer during the Korean War. Husband-and-wife team Reid and Sara Farrington use the resulting article, “The Duke in His Domain: Marlon Brando, on Location,” as the jumping-off point for the multimedia production BrandoCapote, continuing at the Tank through November 24. The seventy-minute show, set in the hotel where Capote is interviewing Brando, also incorporates elements of Capote’s 1965 nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood, an investigation into the senseless murder of the Clutter family in Kansas by Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, as well as the tragic circumstances surrounding Brando’s son Christian, daughter Cheyenne, and Cheyenne’s boyfriend, Drag Drollet.

As they have done in such previous dazzling works as The Passion Project, CasablancaBox, Gin & “It,” and A Christmas Carol, the Farringtons use film clips to propel the narrative, projected with pinpoint precision onto Japanese fans and umbrellas that the five-person cast open up and turn toward the audience. For example, a clip of Brando as Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now asking, “Are you an assassin?” is followed by Capote answering, “No no no, I’m a journalist!” The dialogue is a compelling, sometimes confusing patchwork, with some lines spoken live by the actors onstage — Rafael Jordan as Brando, Jennifer McClinton as Capote, Lynn R Guerra as Brando’s mother, Dodie, Laura K Nicoll as Cheyenne, and Cooper Howell as Christian — some from the film clips, and others prerecorded audio snippets (with Sara Farrington and Akiyo Komatsu delivering different vocal impressions of Capote), in which case it is sometimes lip-synced, causing a panoply of beguiling chaos. “He paused, seemed to listen, as though his statement had been tape-recorded and he were now playing it back,” Capote writes of Brando in the article.

(photo by Miguel Aviles)

Clips from Marlon Brando movies are projected onto such objects as umbrellas to propel the plot of multidisciplinary work at the Tank (photo by Miguel Aviles)

Dressed in colorful kimono designed by Andre Joyner and constructed by Kelvin Gordon-El, the actors move to intricate choreography by Nicoll based on Japanese noh, bunraku, and kabuki traditions that repeats continually throughout the show, as if the director is yelling “Cut!” and the scene is being done over. “Sorry, sorry. Lemme start over. I’m gonna get this right,” Brando says after re-creating a violent scene from A Streetcar Named Desire. There are also excerpts from On the Waterfront, Mutiny on the Bounty, Julius Caesar, Last Tango in Paris, The Missouri Breaks, Sayonara, The Godfather, and other Brando films, many of which deal with childhood and the relationship between parents and children. “The son becomes the father, and the father the son,” Brando as Kal-El says to his infant son in a clip from Superman. “You are all my children,” Brando as Dr. Moreau tells his hideous creations in The Island of Doctor Moreau. Meanwhile, Brando threatens to kill his father if he ever beats his mother, a wanna-be actress, again. And after being called a “sissy” by other kids, Capote says of the bullies, “Buttoned up, boring, faceless nobodies — the kind of son my mother always wanted.”

(photo by Miguel Aviles)

The set is continually destroyed and resurrrected in Reid and Sara Farrington’s BrandoCapote (photo by Miguel Aviles)

Chairs and tables are overturned, carried offstage, then brought back on as the characters fold up and then ritualistically unfurl long black-and-white or red obi sashes, placing them carefully across the floor. Someone calls out, “Let’s get back to the interview,” and a sound glitch takes the action back to Capote in the hotel, which doubles as purgatory. It all comes off like clockwork, which is fascinating to experience. It is also repetitive in an abstract way, which can be both titillating and aggravating. But it’s always stimulating, both aurally and visually. “I’m not an actor,” Brando says self-effacingly. “I’m a mimic. Everyone is. And I’m not successful.” However, BrandoCapote is, in part by not merely mimicking its two famous celebrities but taking their story to another level.

BAM NEXT WAVE FESTIVAL: USER NOT FOUND

(photo by Rebecca Smeyne)

Terry O’Donovan plays a man experiencing grief in public in intimate User Not Found (photo by Rebecca Smeyne)

Greene Grape Annex
753 Fulton St.
November 9-16, $65
www.bam.org
danteordie.com

BAM’s Next Wave festival of debuts under new artistic director David Binder has another first, a show taking place not in the Harvey, the Howard Gilman Opera House, or the Fisher but up Fulton St. at a nearby café. London-based site-specific-performance purveyors Dante or Die is staging its poignant User Not Found in the cozy Greene Grape Annex, where the small audience sits at shared tables or on benches or stools. It’s an intimate and clever exploration of grief and one’s digital legacy in the age of social media that will have you thinking about your own online footprint.

Each audience member is given a headset and a cellphone. After some Norah Jones music concludes, a man starts talking; it takes a minute or so to realize he is sitting at one of the tables, getting ready to share his tale as it unfolds in real time. We see and hear exactly what he sees and hears on his phone, from text messages and relaxing apps to photos and videos that bring up memories. (The music and sound design is by Yaniv Fridel, with video design by Preference Studio and creative technology by Marmelo.) Identifying himself as Terry (Terry O’Donovan), he is just finding out that his ex-lover Luka has died and that he is the executor of his digital profile via a company called Fidelis, which means “always faithful”: It is his responsibility to determine whether to keep or delete Luka’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tinder, etc., pages. Having been unceremoniously dumped by Luka in a brutal breakup, he has no interest in the job, yet he begins searching through Luka’s data to see what he has been doing since he left him as well as remembering some of the good times. Terry walks all around the café (the lighting and set design is by Zia Bergin-Holly), seeking out eye contact and making connections, and at one point he does an interpretive dance across the floor. (The production is copresented with BAM neighbor the Mark Morris Dance Group.)

(photo by Rebecca Smeyne)

User Not Found takes place in Greene Grape Annex café near BAM (photo by Rebecca Smeyne)

Written by Chris Goode and created by O’Donovan and Daphna Attias and inspired by a 2015 Guardian article by Caroline Twigg entitled “What happens to my late husband’s digital life now he’s gone?,” User Not Found is a very human and deeply cathartic look at grief and how it’s shared in our current world of continual contact through technology. The point is, of course, that Terry could be any of us; as you glance around at the other people in the audience, you might wonder if they’ve been through anything like Terry has, since each one of us has our stories that we choose to share or not. Director Attias carefully balances our communal and individual experiences as Terry reaches into his heart while mourning right in front of us, going through some of the five stages of loss in a swiftly moving ninety minutes. Once you leave the café, it’s highly unlikely that you won’t be considering who you would make your digital executor while also pondering what is still on your MySpace page.

(User Not Found runs through November 16; in addition, Dante or Die will host the artist workshop “Site-Specific Theater-Making” at the Mark Morris Dance Center on November 13 at 2:00 as part of BAM’s Artist Lab program.)

FIRES IN THE MIRROR

(photo © 2019 Joan Marcus)

Michael Benjamin Washington plays multiple roles in Signature revival of Fires in the Mirror (photo © 2019 Joan Marcus)

The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 15, $40 - $75
212-244-7529
www.signaturetheatre.org

On August 19, 1991, seven-year-old Gavin Cato was struck and killed by a car driven by Yosef Lifsh in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The next day, riots broke out that pitted the black community against Orthodox Jews in a bloody battle that resulted in the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum, a visiting student from Australia. A year later, Baltimore-born actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith staged Fires in the Mirror at the Public, a one-person show that explored the incendiary situation from multiple angles, consisting of verbatim dialogue taken from a series of interviews Smith conducted with more than one hundred people. With race still such a heated topic more than a quarter century later, the time is ripe for a revival; as part of her residency at the Signature, Smith has brought back the play, passing the torch to Michael Benjamin Washington, who will be performing the show, which opened tonight at the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, through December 15. Washington is heart-wrenching as he spends 110 uninterrupted minutes switching among more than two dozen men and women as racial issues, biases, anti-Semitism, and social justice take center stage and the events of August 19-21, 1991, unfold.

(photo © 2019 Joan Marcus)

Michael Benjamin Washington portrays Al Sharpton and many others with ties to the Crown Heights riots in Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror (photo © 2019 Joan Marcus)

Washington portrays such public figures as writer Ntozake Shange, theater director George C. Wolfe, the Reverend Al Sharpton, activists Angela Davis and Sonny Carson, and author Letty Cottin Pogrebin as well as various rabbis and ministers, Crown Heights residents, and relatives of both Cato and Rosenbaum. He makes subtle costume changes to indicate each character, adding a bowtie or a necklace, putting on a jacket, or taking off a shirt. (The costumes are by Dede M. Ayite.) Similarly understated are his shifts in accent to identify different individual monologues, all of which sing with their own poetry. Each character is introduced by Hannah Wasileski’s projections, which bounce off the floor and onto the long mirror at the back of the stage. Each interview is titled: an anonymous Lubavitcher woman’s segment is called “Static” because she is trying to get a non-Jew to turn off her radio on Shabbos; Wolfe’s is “101 Dalmatians” because as a child he could not go to the movies to see the animated film because the theater was segregated; Rivkah Siegal’s is “Wigs” because she describes the rules for Orthodox wives’ hairstyles; and an anonymous young man’s is “Bad Boy” since he doesn’t believe that sixteen-year-old Lemrick Nelson could have killed Yankel Rosenbaum because Nelson was an athlete and thus cannot be bad.

Accusations are made, prejudices are revealed (on all sides), the mayor and the police are blamed, and belief systems are challenged and defended. In addition to tables, cabinets, and chairs, Arnulfo Maldonado’s set is backed by a large mirror in which the audience can see itself, implicating all of us in the conflict. Fluidly directed by Saheem Ali (Kill Move Paradise, Passage) to prevent narrative gaps, Fires in the Mirror offers a provocative look at who we were then and who we are now, anchored by a bravura performance by Washington (The Boys in the Band, La Cage aux Folles). Among her other one-person shows, Smith documented and dramatized the 1992 LA riots in Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (which the Signature is remounting in spring 2020), took on the health-care crisis in Let Me Down Easy, and examined the school-to-prison pipeline in Notes from the Field. As this revival of Fires in the Mirror reveals yet again, Smith is a master at verbatim theater and at taking the nation’s temperature, while Ali and Washington prove the timeless universality of Smith’s work.

TAITEN: NOH & KYOGEN

taiten

Noritoshi Yamamoto (right) and members of his prestigious family will perform Kagyu (The Snail) at Japan Society November 14-16 (photo © Yoshiaki Kanda)

Japan Society
333 East 47th St. at First Ave.
November 14-16, $97, 7:30
www.japansociety.org

Japan Society’s Emperor Series, celebrating the ascension of Emperor Naruhito to the Chrysanthemum Throne in May, concludes with a special program that includes a noh play created for Emperor Taishō’s ascension to the throne in 1912. In honor of the era turning from Heisei to Reiwa, Kurouemon Katayama X will stage Taiten, portraying the god Amatsukami, wearing a Mikazuki mask as he descends from the heavens for a ritual dance. The work is rarely performed; in mounting the Reiwa version, Kurouemon X was influenced by notes left by his father and grandfather from the 1912 original commission. In addition, Noritoshi Yamamoto and members of his family will perform the comedic kyogen play Kagyu (The Snail), in which a servant is sent to gather up snails but collects a traveling priest instead, thinking it is the shelled gastropod.

The show runs November 14-16, at the same time the succession rites, known as the Daijosai, or the Great Thanksgiving Ceremony, are taking place at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. The November 14 performance will be followed by a soirée, and Japan Society will host a noh workshop with actors from the Kyoto Kanze Association on November 15 at 1:00 ($60) and a kyogen workshop with members of the Yamamoto Tojiro Family of the Okura School of Kyogen on November 16 at 1:00 ($60). This is a rare chance to experience these works, so tickets are going fast despite their relatively high cost for a Japan Society event.

THE ROSE TATTOO

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Marisa Tomei is fiery and passionate as Serafina in Roundabout revival of Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo (photo by Joan Marcus)

American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 8, $59-$299
212-719-1300
www.roundabouttheatre.org

Following the disappointing reaction to his third major play, Summer and Smoke, a Broadway failure in 1948 after the runaway successes of 1944’s The Glass Menagerie and 1947’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Mississippi-born playwright Tennessee Williams headed to Sicily with the love of his life, Frank Merlo. The trip reenergized Williams and inspired him to write The Rose Tattoo, which won four Tonys in 1951, including Best Play, Best Supporting Actor (Eli Wallach), and Best Supporting Actress (Maureen Stapleton). “The Rose Tattoo was my love-play to the world,” he wrote in Memoirs. “It was permeated with the happy young love for Frankie and I dedicated the book to him, saying: ‘To Frankie in return for Sicily.’” Roundabout’s revival of the play at the American Airlines Theatre, its ninth Williams show since 1975, is a fiery, passionate affair imbued with broad comedy, along with muddling confusion.

The play is set in 1950 in a Gulf Coast village populated by Sicilian immigrants. Serafina Delle Rose (Marisa Tomei) is eagerly awaiting the return of her truck-driver husband, who she calls the Baron. “The clock is a fool. I don’t listen to it. My clock is my heart and my heart don’t say tick-tick, it says love-love!” she tells Assunta (Carolyn Mignini), an elderly fattuchiere. But the Baron never makes it home, leaving Serafina a young widow raising a daughter, Rosa (Ella Rubin), by herself. Regularly surrounded by a Greek chorus of women in black (Andréa Burns as Peppina, Susan Cella as Giuseppina, Jennifer Sánchez as Mariella, and Ellyn Marie Marsh as Violetta) and with the Strega (Constance Shulman) ever lurking about, the young widow mourns intensely for three years, praying to her very special statue of the Virgin Mary at a shrine at stage front and to the urn that holds her husband’s ashes. Serafina, a seamstress having trouble sewing her life back together, swears to be faithful to the Baron’s memory while she tries to protect Rosa’s virginity as Rosa strenuously tries to lose it to Jack (Burke Swanson), an eighteen-year-old sailor in the throes of young love. But when she overhears Bessie (Paige Gilbert) and Flora (Portia) gossiping about how the Baron cheated on her with the fancy Estelle Hoehengarten (Tina Benko), Rose has to rethink her life, especially when she meets another truck driver, Alvaro Mangiacavallo (Emun Elliott), as he’s being harassed by a racist traveling salesman (Greg Hildreth). Alvaro reminds her of the Baron, lighting a fire inside her she hasn’t felt for a long time.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Serafina Delle Rose (Marisa Tomei) and Alvaro Mangiacavallo (Emun Elliott) find common ground in The Rose Tattoo at the American Airlines Theatre (photo by Joan Marcus)

Obie-wining director Trip Cullman zeroes in on the comic aspects of Williams’s story; if you’ve seen the 1955 movie starring Anna Magnani, who won an Oscar as Serafina, a role Williams wrote for her, you might be surprised at just how funny it is, including a bizarre moment with condoms that led to an arrest in a 1957 Irish production. Meanwhile, a scene involving Bessie and Portia coming to Serafina to pick up clothing she made for them is so racist it’s hard not to wonder why it’s done in that style in this day and age. Many of Cullman’s plays have unique and unusual sets that offer complex ways to look at the work, from Lobby Hero and Significant Other to Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow and The Pain of My Belligerence. But Mark Wendland’s stage for The Rose Tattoo is confounding. It’s a combination of indoor and outdoor spaces, with a wooden walkway over sand, a living room, a window, a flock of pink flamingos at the back, and Lucy Mackinnon’s projections of the tide rolling in on the shore on three sides. Characters enter and exit inconsistently in too many different ways so it’s hard to tell where everything leads to and from. Tomei (The Realistic Joneses, How to Transcend a Happy Marriage), whose maternal grandmother was Sicilian, is steamy and, appropriately, ardent — Serafina means “ardent” in Italian — as the zealous widow, imbuing her with a fierce sexuality, leaving Elliott (Black Watch, Red Velvet), in his Broadway debut, to play catch-up. (The pair was played by Stapleton and Wallach in the 1951 original, Magnani and Burt Lancaster in the 1955 film, Stapleton and Harry Guardino in the 1966 Broadway revival, and Mercedes Ruehl and Anthony LaPaglia in the 1995 Broadway adaptation.) Rubin is a force as Rosa, representing the next generation of Italian Americans who are not about to do things the way their parents did. Jonathan Linden contributes country-folk blues off stage right, enhancing the period setting.

“During the past two years I have been, for the first time in my life, happy and at home with someone and I think of this play as a monument to that happiness, a house built of images and words for that happiness to live in,” Williams wrote to Elia Kazan in June 1950 when asking him to direct the show. “But in that happiness there is the long, inescapable heritage of the painful and the perplexed like the dark corners of a big room.” Williams even threw in a nod to Merlo, the man responsible for his happiness and whom he called the Little Horse, by giving Alvaro the last name Mangiacavallo, which means “eat a horse.” This latest Broadway revival of The Rose Tattoo also manages to find happiness amid the painful and the perplexed.

CYRANO

(photo by Monique Carboni)

Peter Dinklage struts his stuff in wife’s musical adaptation of Cyrano story (photo by Monique Carboni)

The New Group at the Daryl Roth Theatre
103 East 15th St. between Irving Pl. & Park Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through December 22, $107-$252
thenewgroup.org

You don’t need me to tell you that Peter Dinklage is an extraordinary actor. You can see for yourself in the New Group’s world premiere production of Cyrano, Erica Schmidt’s musical retelling of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 novel Cyrano de Bergerac, which opened last night at the Daryl Roth Theatre. Dinklage, who soared above his castmates in winning four Emmys as the wise, debauched Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones, commands the stage from the very start of the play; his eyes and body are so emotive, you cannot take your eyes off him. As opposed to many other stars who have portrayed Cyrano onstage and onscreen — Ralph Richardson, Derek Jacobi, Richard Chamberlain, Christopher Plummer, Gérard Depardieu, Steve Martin, and Kevin Kline among them — Dinklage does not wear a prosthetic nose; he is just himself, as he is. When Cyrano says early on, “I am living proof that God has a sick sense of humor,” it takes on additional meaning, given Dinklage’s achondroplasia. When he’s not onstage, you search for him, whether it’s when you hear his voice booming from the side of the audience or as he waits in the wings, watching the action in character, partially hidden by hanging ropes. Alas, if only the rest of the show were up to the same standards.

Cyrano is a brave, feared member of a company of guards; he is a man of both the pen and the sword, as expert with a blade as he is with a pencil. He is madly, desperately in love; the object of his affection is his childhood friend Roxanne (Hamilton’s Jasmine Cephas Jones), but the object of her affection is the novice guard Christian (Blake Jenner), a handsome man with not much upstairs. “I’m so stupid. It’s shameful,” he acknowledges. Roxanne is also desired by the wealthy and powerful Duke De Guiche (Ritchie Coster), who is charge of the company; he is determined to have Roxanne as his wife. Roxanne is love-starved as well: She sings, “I’d give anything for someone to say / That they can’t live without me and they’ll be there forever / I’d give anything for someone to say to me / That no matter how bad it gets they won’t turn away from me.” She falls for Christian at first sight, but he’s such a dull, dense beauty that he has no idea how to woo her, so Cyrano, who cannot bear to see Roxanne disappointed, starts ghostwriting love letters for Christian and feeding him romantic lines to say to her. It all comes to a head when Cyrano, Christian, and De Guiche are in a fierce battle on the front lines of the war.

(photo by Monique Carboni)

Christian (Blake Jenner) makes his case to Roxanne (Jasmine Cephas Jones) with Cyrano’s (Peter Dinklage) help in new musical (photo by Monique Carboni)

Adapted and directed by Schmidt (All the Fine Boys), who is married to Dinklage, Cyrano is all about the poetry and power of words. Cyrano lives to write letters. When his friend Ragueneau (Nehal Joshi), a pastry chef, is being threatened by one hundred men coming to kill him, Ragueneau explains it’s because of a political poem he wrote. When De Guiche is intrigued by Cyrano’s nose but can’t bring himself to be direct about it, Cyrano says, “You seem at a loss for words and, good sir, you are staring.” But Cyrano doesn’t believe his way with words or a sword (oddly, the two words are anagrams of each other) will capture his true love’s heart. Dinklage (The Station Agent, A Month in the Country) sings in his affecting, compelling low register, “Roxanne, what am I supposed to say? / Words are only glass on a string. / The more I arrange them and line up and change them / The more they mean the same thing.” When he makes the deal with Christian, he says, “I am a poet. My words are wasted now — they need to be — to be spoken aloud. I will make you eloquent and you, you will make me handsome.” The battle scene is particularly poetic, beautifully directed by Schmidt and choreographed by Jeff and Rick Kuperman, with snow falling down as the men and women soldiers say farewell to loved ones, perhaps for the last time.

(photo by Monique Carboni)

Christian (Blake Jenner) and Cyrano (Peter Dinklage) face off in New Group world premiere (photo by Monique Carboni)

The supporting cast is solid, led by Josh A. Dawson as Cyrano’s trusted right-hand man, Le Bret; Nehal Joshi as pastry chef and political poet Ragueneau; Grace McLean as Roxanne’s constant chaperone, Marie; Scott Stangland as the actor Montgomery and the cadet Carbon; Christopher Gurr as theater owner Jodelet and the priest; and Hillary Fisher as Orange Girl. Christine Jones and Amy Rubin’s narrow set features a long horizontal wall with sections that open up to reveal a room of chefs baking, a door, and a balcony where Roxanne calls out to Christian, who is coached by Cyrano in his replies. Words cover the wall like it’s a large blackboard; among the only legible phrases is the heartbreaking “And she loved me back,” which also pops up in one of the songs. The music, by twin brothers Bryce and Aaron Dessner of the National, and the lyrics, by the National lead singer Matt Berninger and his wife, Carin Besser (who cowrites lyrics for the band), are not as inventive as one might expect from a group with members who specialize in nontraditional melodies and experimentation, whether on an album, in an art installation, or even for an avant-garde opera.

For the show, which was workshopped in 2018 by Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut, to really grab your heart and soul, the audience has to fall in love with Roxanne in order to understand why the Duke, Christian, and Cyrano do. But that never happens. As played by Cephas Jones, there’s nothing that sets Roxanne apart; she seems to be a nice young woman but not a heartthrob that makes men desire her on sight. And by the treacly ending, you’ll be wondering why the brilliant Cyrano ever wanted her in the first place. However, Dinklage’s gripping, poignant performance rises above everything else, making Cyrano well worth seeing despite its flaws.

DR. RIDE’S AMERICAN BEACH HOUSE

(photo by Ben Arons Photography)

Meg (Marga Gomez), Matilda (Erin Markey), and Harriet (Kristen Sieh) hang out on a roof in Liza Birkenmeier’s Dr. Ride’s American Beach House (photo by Ben Arons Photography)

Ars Nova at Greenwich House
27 Barrow St. at Seventh Ave. South
Monday - Saturday through November 23, $35-$65
arsnovanyc.com

Liza Birkenmeier’s Dr. Ride’s American Beach House lands at a rather fortuitous moment in time. On October 18, astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir completed the first all-woman spacewalk in history. The play, which opened tonight at Ars Nova at Greenwich House, takes place on June 17, 1983, the night before astronaut and physicist Dr. Sally Ride becomes the first American woman in space, aboard the Challenger shuttle. Dr. Ride was not initially part of the narrative; Birkenmeier originally intended to make a grand epic disproving the scientific method but instead concentrated on one scene, set on June 17, 1983, and only discovered later, after the work was already under way, that it had the connection to Dr. Ride, altering the plot significantly.

Best friends Matilda (Erin Markey) and Harriet (Kristen Sieh) are drinking, smoking, and gossiping on the roof of Harriet’s apartment building in St. Louis, supposedly a meeting of the Two Serious Ladies Book Club, which has nothing to do with literature but is just an excuse for the two of them to hang out. Matilda, who occasionally breaks into song, is married to Arthur and has two children, while Harriet, who writes poetry, is living with her boyfriend, Luke. Their main rule is to never discuss men while on the roof, but they can’t help themselves, especially since Harriet has an incredible story to tell about a one-night stand she just had with a biker, something she has never done before. “I don’t want to break the rule, but let’s talk about this through my perspective,” Harriet explains. “He is an object and I am the subject. He is the, the, commodity and I’m the . . .” It might not pass the Bechdel test, but it still keeps the women in charge.

(photo by Ben Arons Photography)

Norma (Susan Blommaert) finds something to complain about to Harriet (Kristen Sieh) in Ars Nova premiere (photo by Ben Arons Photography)

They are soon joined on the roof — superbly designed with a cool slant and little in the way of safety by Kimie Nishikawa — by Matilda’s friend Meg (Marga Gomez), a butch, stout lesbian in boots, a baseball cap, and a Motörhead T-shirt. “Do you have a husband?” an oblivious Harriet asks Meg, who replies definitively, “Of course not.” Meg is bold and direct, open and honest. “Do you hate men?” Harriet asks, referring to a comment Meg makes regarding her job as a nurse. “No no, I don’t hate men; they only make me homicidal. I’ll be fine,” Meg answers. Meanwhile, hovering about is the persnickety Norma (Susan Blommaert), who is making sure that the building is run as efficiently as possible. As the long countdown begins for Dr. Ride’s journey into space — she is spending the night in NASA’s historic Florida beach house, where the astronauts have a barbecue before blasting off the planet — the four women continue to chatter away as Meg suspects that Harriet and Matilda don’t even realize that they are in love with each other.

Smartly directed by Katie Brook (How to Get into Buildings, She Is King) with a keen sense of humor and suggestive sexuality, Dr. Ride’s American Beach House incorporates the scientific method through exploration, observation, and testing. The all-woman cast and crew have a firm grasp of the material, which subtly takes on gender roles, societal expectations, sex, love, and power. It’s no coincidence that the two main characters are named after heroic female figures from children’s literature, Harriet the Spy and Roald Dahl’s magical Matilda. The two women are obviously in love with each other — Matilda calls Harriet “cupcake” and “pookie” — but are unable to understand what that even means, as they are stuck in traditional modes of thought involving the battle of the sexes, despite all that’s happening around them. Harriet uses binoculars while up on the roof — evoking Dr. Ride out in space, using a telescope — but while she peers longingly at a fashionable kitchen across the way, Meg sees a hapless man trying to kill a bug in his bedroom, criticizing his lack of skills in bed. In a reverse Samson and Delilah, Harriet decides to give up her firm control over the biker after he shaves off his facial hair; as opposed to him losing strength, she loses interest.

(photo by Ben Arons Photography)

Besties Harriet (Kristen Sieh) and Matilda (Erin Markey) are rooting for Dr. Sally Ride in Liza Birkenmeier’s new play (photo by Ben Arons Photography)

Despite how funny the ninety-minute play is — and it’s very funny — a bittersweet edge hangs in the air. Dr. Ride died of pancreatic cancer in 2012 at the age of sixty-one, and her relationship first with Molly Tyson in the early 1980s and then with her longtime partner, Tam O’Shaugnessy, only came to light after her death, in her obituary; she was unable to come out during her lifetime. And less than three years after her trip into space, the very same Challenger space shuttle she flew in broke apart in the air, killing all seven people on board, including thirty-seven-year-old high school teacher Christa McAuliffe. But Birkenmeier’s (littleghost, The Way Out West) poetic yet realistic dialogue — the actors frequently hesitate, repeat words, and speak in incomplete sentences — and the engaging performances by Gomez (Latin Standards, Pound), Sieh (RoosevElvis, The Band’s Visit), and Markey (Singlet, A Ride on the Irish Cream) make this more than just another theatrical ride through the contemporary female psyche, in space and on a St. Louis rooftop.