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


Brian Greene will moderate a discussion on black holes at World Science Festival

Brian Greene will moderate a discussion on black holes at World Science Festival

Multiple venues
May 29 - June 3
Most events free - $100

The eleventh annual World Science Festival is another foray into the future, an inner exploration of the mind as well as an outer adventure into space. There will be lectures, panel discussions, workshops, labs, film screenings, readings, and more, at such locations as NYU, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Ace Hotel. Below are only some of the highlights.

Tuesday, May 29
Gala celebrating Marie Curie, Alice Ball, Rosalind Franklin, Vera Rubin, and Maryam Mirzakhani, with performances by Carolee Carmello, Hannah Elless, Rosemary Loar, Ingrid Michaelson, Alice Ripley, Michelle Wilson, and others, Jazz at Lincoln Center, $1,000+, 6:00 – 10:30

Wednesday, May 30
Cheers to Science: The Absence of Absinthe, Distilling the Science of the “Green Fairy,” with Kevin Herson and others, moderated by Shannon Odell, Liberty Hall at Ace Hotel, $40 (twenty-one and older only), 7:00

Bump: The Magic, Mystery, and Mechanics of Pregnancy, new play (Bump) by Chiara Atik, directed by Claudia Weil, performance followed by talkback, with Catherine Birndorf, Linsay Firman, and others, moderated by Lynn Sherr, Ensemble Studio Theatre, $25-$40, 7:00

Thursday, May 31
Planting the Seeds, Seeding the Plants: Can CRISPR Save the World?, with Dave Jackson, Carolyn Neuhaus, Yiping Qi, Friedrich Soltau, and Matthew R. Willmann, moderated by Brooke Borel, NYU Global Center, Grand Hall, $15-$25, 4:00

A Merger in Space: Black Holes and Neutron Stars, with Duncan Brown, Vicky Kalogera, Frans Pretorius, and Jocelyn Read, moderated by Mario Livio, NYU Global Center, Grand Hall, $15-$25, 6:00

World Science Festival includes special Lab Tours for Girls

World Science Festival includes special Lab Tours for Girls

Deep Dive Live: Trivia Night at the American Museum of Natural History, hosted by Faith Salie, $45-$100, 6:00 (includes special exhibition access)

Friday, June 1
World Science U, with Andrea Ghez, Sara Walker, and others, NYU Global Center, Grand Hall, free with advance registration, 10:30

Carl Zimmer: She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, with Carl Zimmer, moderated by Maria Konnikova, NYU Global Center, Grand Hall, $15-$25, 6:00

The Matter of Antimatter: Answering the Cosmic Riddle of Existence, with Marcela Carena, Janet Conrad, Michael Doser, Hitoshi Murayama, and Neil Turok, moderated by Brian Greene, Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, $20-$100, 8:00

Saturday, June 2
Great Fish Count: 1 Fish, 2 Fish, I Fish, You Fish, Great Fish Count Sites, free (advance registration suggested), 9:00 am – 6:30 pm

Cook-off will pit human against machine at World Science Festival

Cook-off will pit human against machine at World Science Festival

Science and Story Cafe: The Story of Science, One Book at a Time, with Lisa Barrett, Michael Benson, Susana Martinez-Conde, Oren Harman, Janice Kaplan, Stephen Macknik, Barnaby Marsh, Ken Miller, and Andrew Revkin, moderated by Budd Mishkin and Richard Panek, NYU Kimmel Center, free (advance registration suggested), 10:00 am – 6:00 pm

Notes on the Folds: Why Music Makes Us Shiver, with Meagan Curtis, Mari Kimura, Edward Large, Psyche Loui, and others, moderated by John Schaefer, NYU Global Center, Grand Hall, $15-$25, 11:00

Backyard Wilderness, 3D film and postscreening BioBlitz,Lefrak Theater, the American Museum of Natural History, 2:30

To Be or Not to Be Bionic: On Immortality and Superhumanism, with Jessica Brillhart, S. Matthew Liao, Hod Lipson, and Max Tegmark, moderated by Mariette DiChristina, NYU Global Center, Grand Hall, $15-$25, 4:00

Saturday Night Lights: Stargazing in Brooklyn Bridge Park, with Ken Blackburn, Steve Howell, Kent Kirshenbaum, Steve Liddell, Hod Lipson, Scott M. Smith, Nicole Stott, Jennifer Swanson, and Bill Yosses, Pier 1, free (advance registration suggested), 7:00 – 11:00

World Science Festival features free stargazing in Brooklyn Bridge Park

World Science Festival features free stargazing in Brooklyn Bridge Park

Sunday, June 3
Science and Storytime: Science Books Come to Life, with Helaine Becker, Ken Blackburn, Lynn Brunelle, “Science Bob” Pflugfelder, Jennifer Swanson, and Mike Vago, moderated by Jana Grcevich and Olivia Koski, NYU Kimmel Center, free (advance registration suggested), 11:00 am – 5:00 pm

Alien Contact: What Happens Next?, with Kathryn Denning, David Kipping, Karen Lewis, and Marcelo Magnasco, moderated by Wendy Zukerman, NYU Global Center, Grand Hall, $15-$25, 11:00

Flame Challenge: “What Is Climate?,” with Michael Bronski, Cyndy Desjardins, Soumyadeep Mukherjee, and Bernadette Woods Placky, moderated by Alan Alda, NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, $15-$100, 1:30


(photo by Richard Termine)

Sir Richard Eyre’s intimate staging of Eugene O’Neill classic continues at BAM through May 27 (photo by Richard Termine)

Brooklyn Academy of Music
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton St.
through May 27, $25-$150, 7:30

The walls are closing in on the Tyrone family and there’s not much anyone can do about it in Sir Richard Eyre’s deeply intimate staging of Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey into Night, a work so personal that O’Neill never wanted it to be performed. Eyre initially brought the show to the Bristol Old Vic as part of the venerable institution’s 250th anniversary in 2016, with Oscar, Emmy, and Tony winner Jeremy Irons as James Tyrone and Olivier winner and Oscar nominee Lesley Manville as his wife, Mary; the Bristol was where Eyre saw his first play and where Irons trained. A stunning, slightly amended production is now running at the BAM Harvey through May 27 before heading out to California. Rob Howell’s set is staggeringly breathtaking, a large living room with sharply angled glass walls and ceilings that seem to both threaten and expose James and Mary as well as their sons, the sickly Edmund (Matthew Beard) and the ne’er-do-well Jamie (Rory Keenan), along with the maid, Cathleen (Jessica Regan). James is a famous actor who, emotionally crippled by childhood poverty, chose the easy way out, a financially successful career touring his big hit, The Count of Monte Cristo, rather than pursuing artistic challenges. Despite his money, he remains fearful and miserly, and his family has been scarred by it. While James, Jamie, and Edmund drink heartily, Mary is addicted to painkillers, claiming they are for the rheumatism that is crippling her hands. She has recently returned from yet another stay in a sanitarium, and the men are keeping a close eye on her, particularly when she goes upstairs and spends time in the extra bedroom, where she loses herself in her morphine-addled world. James desperately wants to keep the truth about Edmund’s illness from Mary, but he no longer has the tight grip on his family that he might have once had.

(photo by Richard Termine)

James Tyrone (Jeremy Irons) and Mary (Lesley Manville) fight many demons in Long Day’s Journey into Night (photo by Richard Termine)

It all takes place on a foggy August day in 1912, but the show feels as relevant as ever, given the current opioid crisis that is devastating America, and O’Neill’s knowing depiction of functional alcoholism is as sharp as ever. Former National Theatre director Eyre (Ghosts at BAM, The Crucible on Broadway) focuses on conversations between two characters, making it feel like we are invading their privacy, intruding on this dysfunctional family, whether we’re watching a sweet, romantic moment between James and Mary, a warm bonding between James and Edmund, or a lovely little talk between Mary and Cathleen. The cast is exceptional, led by a brilliant performance by Manville (The Phantom Thread, Ghosts); she plays Mary with more of a firm grounding than usual, as if Mary has a legitimate fighting chance to beat her addiction. (Previous portrayers of Mary include Tony winners Florence Eldridge, Vanessa Redgrave, and Jessica Lange as well as Geraldine Fitzgerald, Zoe Caldwell, Bibi Andersson, Laurie Metcalf, Liv Ullmann, and Colleen Dewhurst.) In one scene she starts to go upstairs several times but turns back, which tortures her husband and sons and teases the audience, even though we know where she will eventually end up. Irons (Reversal of Fortune, The Real Thing) is classy and erudite as James, his long legs spread apart magnificently when he’s smoking his cigar and reading the paper at the table; he looks at Mary with real tenderness, recalling a love he might never recapture. (The role has earned Tonys for Fredric March and Brian Dennehy and nominations for Jack Lemmon and Gabriel Byrne; other portrayers include Laurence Olivier, James Cromwell, Robert Ryan, Alfred Molina, and David Suchet.)

(photo by Richard Termine)

The Tyrone family can’t look away from their troubled existence in Bristol Old Vic production at BAM (photo by Richard Termine)

Tony nominee Beard (Skylight, And When Did You Last See Your Father?) has an amiability not always associated with Edmund, while Keenan (Liola, The Kitchen) is brash and determined as Jamie, who has given up on any kind of reputable future. Regan (Doctors, Liola) makes the most of the small but important role of Cathleen. Peter Mumford’s lighting often results in characters’ being reflected in the windows, like ghostly apparitions of their troubled souls. As dark as the play is, Eyre holds out just enough hope that this time things will turn around for the Tyrones, that maybe Jamie will get a real job, Edmund will beat consumption, Mary will kick morphine, and James will go back to the stage. But as Mary says, “None of us can help the things life has done to us. They’re done before you realize it, and once they’re done they make you do other things until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever.” Written seventy-five years ago, O’Neill’s words still ring true, providing yet more sparks to this American classic.


(photo by Monique  Carboni)

Victor (John Procaccino) and Balthazar (Joey Auzenne) wonder what’s wrong with the world in Our Lady of 121st Street (photo by Monique Carboni)

The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Irene Diamond Stage
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 10, $30

The Signature Theatre follows its blistering production of Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train with a wickedly funny adaptation of Guirgis’s Our Lady of 121st Street. Originally presented in 2002 at the LAByrinth Theater and directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, the two-hour play takes place in and around the Ortiz Funeral Home in Harlem, where the body of the dearly departed, much beloved Sister Rose has gone missing. A group of her former students and various other relatives and parishioners are gathering to pay their respects to the nun, an alcoholic who tragically died in the street. Victor (John Procaccino), a middle-aged man in a pair of boxer shorts, stands over the empty coffin and cries out, “What kinda fuckin’ world is this?!” adding, “What did she ever do anyway, huh?! What did Rose ever do till the day she died but to be a fuckin’ living saint on this earth to deserve this . . . this sacrilege!” Local detective Balthazar (Joey Auzenne) affirms, “Sister Rose was a good woman.” People start filtering in, many who have not seen one another in a long time. The mourners include Rooftop (Hill Harper), a flashy, successful morning radio host; the sharp-tongued, even-sharper-dressed Inez (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), Rooftop’s ex-wife; the tough-talking Norca (Paola Lázaro), who apparently has slept around a bit and doesn’t give a shit about anyone; Flip (Jimonn Cole), now known as Robert and living with Gail (Kevin Isola), a male actor, in Wisconsin; Edwin (Erick Betancourt), who has dedicated his life to caring for his younger brother, Pinky (Maki Borden), who is slow because of a head injury; Marcia (Stephanie Kurtzuba), a relative of Sister Rose’s; and Sonia (Dierdre Friel), a friend of Marcia’s.

(photo by Monique  Carboni)

Inez (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) and Norca (Paola Lázaro) reconnect after some bad blood (photo by Monique Carboni)

Walt Spangler’s set features the Ortiz Funeral Home sign (an inside joke for LAByrinth cofounder John Ortiz?) above the empty coffin, a bench that also serves as a bar, and a black structure that rotates from a confessional to a small café table; Keith Parham’s effective lighting helps navigate the action, which unfolds across ten scenes in two acts that cover a little less than twenty-four hours. Over that time, Rooftop decides to confess his myriad sins to Father Lux (John Doman), Flip is desperate to hide his homosexuality from his old crew, Inez attempts to avoid Rooftop but confronts Norca, Edwin sends Pinky out for some Yodels, and Marcia takes an interest in Edwin, all while Balthazar, nipping at his small bottle of booze, tries to figure out what happened to Sister Rose’s body.

(photo by Monique  Carboni)

Rooftop (Hill Harper) has plenty to confess to Father Lux (John Doman) in Stephen Adly Guirgis play at the Signature (photo by Monique Carboni)

Our Lady of 121st Street is superbly directed by Phylicia Rashad (Gem of the Ocean, Immediate Family), who gives ample space to each actor to establish their character and deliver Guirgis’s incisive dialogue, which sizzles like street poetry. This is the third production of the play I’ve seen, including the 2003 version at the Union Square Theatre (starring Ortiz, David Zayas, Ron Cephas Jones, Portia, Russell G. Jones, and others), and what shines through most brightly each time is the writing itself; Guirgis, who won the Pulitzer for Between Riverside and Crazy and earned a Tony nomination for The Motherfucker with the Hat, writes with the rhythm, energy, and honesty of real people living real lives, black, white, Latinx, male, female, whatever. In the case of Our Lady, Guirgis actually had tremendous difficulty coming up with the second act and ultimately finished the play in an overnight fury after Hoffman broke down in tears, afraid that they would have to cancel the show.

(photo by Monique  Carboni)

Edwin (Erick Betancourt) and Pinky (Maki Borden) display a little brotherly love in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Our Lady of 121st Street (photo by Monique Carboni)

Each of the twelve men and women in Our Lady is damaged in some way, either psychologically, emotionally, and/or physically, whether they realize it or not, as they deal with regrets that bubble up to the surface as they reflect on Sister Rose’s demise. “This is, in fact, a confessional, sir. A confessional — not a ‘conversational.’ Do you understand that distinction?” Father Lux tells Rooftop, who has a little trouble getting to the point, hesitant to own up to the specific things he has done. “Pick a commandment, any commandment,” Rooftop says, not necessarily proudly. The idea of the confessional/conversational can be applied to nearly every scene as the twelve characters, Sister Rose’s disciples, take stock of who they’ve become, perhaps remembering what they once wanted to be. The cast is exceptional, an outstanding ensemble that hits all the right notes. Born and raised on the Upper West Side, Guirgis was in Hollywood on 9/11, writing for episodic television. He decided right then that he was through writing about things that did not matter, so as soon as the show was canceled, he returned to the theater. His first play after that was Our Lady of 121st Street, a ferociously funny tale about realistic people facing tragedy in realistic ways.


(photo by Maria Baranova)

Tennessee Williams (Juan Francisco Villa) and William Inge (Daniel K. Isaac) loosen up in The Gentleman Caller (photo by Maria Baranova)

Abingdon Theatre Company
Cherry Lane Mainstage Theatre
38 Commerce St.
Monday - Saturday through May 26, $67 (use code GC45 for $45 tickets)

In the fall of 1944, St. Louis Star-Times arts critic William Inge invited up-and-coming playwright Tom “Tennessee” Williams to his garden apartment to interview him about his latest work, The Gentleman Caller, which was scheduled to open right after Christmas in Chicago (where it would be retitled The Glass Menagerie). Although the two men became friends — Williams referred to their “long association” in a personal homage he wrote for the New York Times in 1973 following Inge’s death — it has never been firmly established how close they actually were and whether they indeed may have been lovers. Playwright Philip Dawkins makes that jump in a big way in The Gentleman Caller, which is having its New York premiere at the Cherry Lane Theatre through May 26. The two-character, two-hour, two-act Abingdon Theatre Company production is like a piece of fan fiction; although Dawkins did extensive research in writing the play, he still uses creative license as he relates what might have happened when the thirty-three-year-old Williams and the thirty-one-year-old Inge met, first on November 10, 1944, in Inge’s apartment and again that New Year’s Eve in a Chicago hotel room. Sara C. Walsh’s dramatic set features approximately a dozen lamps of all different heights, each constructed of stacks of typed manuscript pages; there are also pages scattered across the corners and back of the stage. At the center is a couch, with a chair to the right, a rolling wet bar to the left, and a record player in the right corner. In the second act, the couch turns into a bed but most everything else remains the same.

William Inge (Daniel K. Isaac) and Tennessee Williams (Juan Francisco Villa) get close at the Cherry Lane Theatre (photo by Maria Baranova)

William Inge (Daniel K. Isaac) and Tennessee Williams (Juan Francisco Villa) get close at the Cherry Lane Theatre (photo by Maria Baranova)

Williams (Juan Francisco Villa) serves as the narrator of the work, reminiscent of Tom in The Glass Menagerie, as if he’s looking back at the past, occasionally making side comments in an affected southern drawl to the audience. The snarky, swishy, no-holds-barred, extremely self-aware Williams is the opposite of Inge (Daniel K. Isaac), a stiff, rigid, overly serious, and unimaginative introvert. Within minutes, the deeply closeted Inge is climbing on top of Williams, then is horribly embarrassed by his actions. A few moments later, Williams, discussing where he goes to be with men, says, “Hotels are wonderful inventions, especially for inveterate homosexuals like ourselves.” Inge quickly responds, “I’m not a homosexual,” to which Williams replies, “And my name’s not Tennessee, but we all gotta answer to something’. Drink up. You’ll need it. ’Specially if you’re not a homosexual.” The two men drink a lot — while it affects Williams, Inge barely changes — as they discuss the theater, sex, suicide, isolation, sin, secrets, truth, and fantasy. Williams gets particularly excited when he discovers that Inge has written a play as well. All along the way, Tennessee makes such grand statements as “Mmm, one ought never to trust a playwright”; “Confess your sins to a priest, and he tells you privately what to do to save yourself. Confess your sins on stage and they crucify you in the town square”; and “A sanctuary is a prison to those that cannot leave it.”

the gentleman caller

“Ignite me,” Williams says to Inge, asking him to light his cigarette. However, the play never really catches fire. Most critically, there is no sense of connection between the Mississippi-born Williams and Kansas native Inge, or Villa and Isaac. There are some charming moments — Villa gets a well-deserved round of applause for using his feet in a most unusual sexual way — but it’s all just a little bit too quaint and calculated. And the ethnic-blind casting doesn’t help matters; Villa is of Colombian descent, while Isaac is Korean American, causing confusion. Plays about what went on behind closed doors between two well-known figures are always a gamble, running the gamut from Frost/Nixon and The Audience, both by Peter Morgan, to Mike Bencivenga’s Billy & Ray, about the Hollywood collaboration between Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler, and Gino DiIorio’s Sam and Dede, or My Dinner with Andre the Giant, which turns a real meeting between Samuel Beckett and the adolescent Andre the Giant into a lifelong friendship. (In addition, Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout’s Billy and Me, also about Williams and Inge, opened in Palm Beach in December.) But Dawkins (Charm, The Burn) and director Tony Speciale (The Dork Knight, Unnatural Acts) are unable to balance the truth with poetic license, resulting in a choppy narrative with questionable plot developments, although Zach Blane’s lighting is exceptional. “Accuracy is overrated, don’t you think? I’m much more fascinated by honesty,” Williams says. “Is there a difference?” Inge responds. Williams (The Rose Tattoo, The Night of the Iguana) would go on to win two Pulitzer Prizes, for A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, while Inge (Bus Stop; Come Back, Little Sheba) would win a Pulitzer for Picnic. However deliriously fun a bit of “what if” speculation about theater giants may be, The Gentleman Caller doesn’t add much insight into how the relationship between these two great playwrights might have influenced their lives and careers.


A Letter to Harvey Milk

Retired kosher butcher Harry Weinberg (Adam Heller) remembers an old friend in A Letter to Harvey Milk (photo by Russ Rowland)

The Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row
410 West 42nd St. between Ninth & Tenth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 30, $79

On May 22, Harvey Milk would have turned eighty-eight. Instead, the San Francisco city supervisor and outspoken gay activist was assassinated on November 27, 1978, at the age of forty-eight. His moving life story has been turned into a nonfiction book (Randy Shilts’s The Mayor of Castro Street), an Oscar-winning documentary (Rob Epstein’s The Times of Harvey Milk), an opera (Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie’s Harvey Milk), a two-time Oscar-winning film (Gus Van Sant’s Milk, starring Sean Penn), a cantata by Jack Curtis Dubowsky, and several children’s books. And now comes A Letter to Harvey Milk, a stage musical about Milk’s legacy. It’s 1986, and Harry, a retired kosher butcher, has been given an assignment by Barbara, his senior center writing teacher: He has to write a letter to a deceased person from his past, and he chooses Harvey Milk. Based on the short story by Lesléa Newman, A Letter to Harvey Milk features a book by Jerry James, Cheryl Stern, the late Ellen M. Schwartz, and Laura I. Kramer, with music by Kramer, lyrics by Schwartz, and additional lyrics by Stern. Adam Heller stars as kosher butcher Harry Weinberg, Stern is his deceased wife, Julia Knitel plays Barbara, Michael Bartoli is Milk, and Jeremy Greenbaum, Aury Krebs, and CJ Pawlikowski play multiple ensemble roles. The ninety-minute show is directed by Evan Pappas, with sets by David Arsenault, costumes by Debbi Hobson, lighting by Christopher Akerlind, sound by David M. Lawson, and music direction by Jeffrey Lodin.

A Letter to Harvey Milk

A Letter to Harvey Milk honors the legacy of the San Francisco city supervisor and outspoken gay activist (photo by Russ Rowland)

TICKET GIVEAWAY: A Letter to Harvey Milk runs through June 30 at the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row, and twi-ny has three pairs of tickets to give away for free for performances June 1-23. Just send your name, daytime phone number, and favorite play or movie about an activist to by Tuesday, May 22, at 3:00 pm to be eligible. All entrants must be twenty-one years of age or older; three winners will be selected at random.


(photo by Joan Marcus)

A diverse six-person cast performs Caryl Churchill’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire at New York Theatre Workshop (photo by Joan Marcus)

New York Theatre Workshop
79 East Fourth St. between Second & Third Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through June 3, $69

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is the first play that New York Theatre Workshop has ever done twice, and initially it’s easy to see why. The 1976 play, written by the mighty Caryl Churchill, made its New York premiere at NYTW in 1991 and is now being revived there through June 3, in a new production directed by the sizzling hot Rachel Chavkin, the mastermind behind Hadestown, Small Mouth Sounds, Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, and other uniquely inventive shows. A talented, diverse cast of six performs multiple roles each, without regard to age, race, gender, or physical ability. The subject is the English Civil Wars of the seventeenth century, focusing on the rebellion involving the Diggers, the Levellers, and the Ranters, which in many ways parallels what is happening, or might happen, in the United States today. So what went wrong with this dream team?

In a production note, Churchill explains, “The audience should not have to worry exactly which character they are seeing. Each scene can be taken as a separate event rather than part of a story. This seems to reflect better the reality of large events like war and revolution where many people share the same kind of experience.” Unfortunately, only part of that concept works. Vinie Burrows, Rob Campbell, Matthew Jeffers, Mikéah Ernest Jennings, Gregg Mozgala, and Evelyn Spahr easily shift between characters on Riccardo Hernández’s spare set, a wooden platform on which various chairs and tables are moved around and taken away. But there are continuity issues; you don’t always know who someone is or what they’re doing. In other works, Churchill has magnificently shown that narrative flow is not always crucial; for example, the stunning Love and Information consists of very short scenes played by unidentified characters who arrive and depart in the blink of a strobe light. And in Cloud Nine, actors switch roles between acts, lending another level of depth to an already deep play.

Matthew Jeffers, Gregg Mozgala, and Rob Campbell in Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (photo by Joan Marcus)

Matthew Jeffers, Gregg Mozgala, and Rob Campbell in Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (photo by Joan Marcus)

To add to the tumult, in the first act the actors use handheld microphones, which perhaps was meant to bring the centuries-old story into the present but instead makes it look like any one of the characters might break into song or a comedy routine at any moment. (In fact, the play begins with a musical version of a biblical passage.) In the second act, the microphones are gone but the period costumes have been traded in for contemporary dress. (The costume design is by Toni-Leslie James.) Also, the entire show is open captioned on a small digital monitor near the back center of the stage. While it is admirable that four-time Obie winner and Olivier Award winner Churchill and three-time Obie winner and Tony nominee Chavkin want to make every word accessible to audience members with hearing difficulty, as well as emphasizing the idea of equality for all, its location is endlessly distracting. As the dialogue moves across the monitor in red LED lights, it’s hard not to look at it even if you can hear the words, your eyes caught by the movement; the monitor also displays the title of each scene — “The Vicar Talks to His Servant,” “Two Women Look in a Mirror,” “A Butcher Talks to His Customers,” for example — information that is not available elsewhere and is often necessary in order to know which characters are onstage. I’ve seen other productions that use open captioning at the side of the stage or in supertitles above, where it is far less distracting, so its positioning here is more than curious.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Caryl Churchill’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is first play New York Theatre Workshop has tackled for a second time (photo by Joan Marcus)

And it’s a shame, because there are many wonderful lines — particularly dealing with sin — that get lost in the theatrical commotion. “What is worst, I am not praying to you about the worst sin. I sin in my fear of praying about that sin, I sin in denying my fear,” Cobbe (based on Abiezer Coppe) bemoans in an opening monologue. “I have come to see that there is no sin but what man thinks is sin,” says Claxton (loosely based on Laurence Clarkson), who continues, “So we can’t be free from sin till we can commit it purely, as if it were no sin. Sometimes I lie or steal to show myself there is no lie or theft but in the mind.” Then there’s this gem, offered by a preacher: “It is no sin to take up arms against the king. It is no sin if we fight singing praises to God, if we fight to bind an unjust king with chains.” In writing the play, Churchill used such sources as Walt Whitman, a Levellers newspaper and letter, a Ranters pamphlet, and excerpts from the Putney Debates of 1647, which involved Col. Thomas Rainborough, private soldier Edward Sexby, Col. Nathaniel Rich, civilian John Wildman, Commissary General Henry Ireton, and eventual Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. The different styles of language don’t always meld together; while some scenes are exceptional, others fall flat.

In many ways, the Public Theater’s recent production of Bruce Norris’s brilliant The Low Road, inspired by Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and taking place shortly before the American Revolution, covered much more successfully some of the same conceptual territory: slavery, property, capitalism, politics, religion, war, poverty, and independence, and there was even a roundtable discussion using contemporary technology. In the debates, Cromwell, speaking on a proposal regarding representation in government, asks, “But how do we know another company of men shall not put out a paper as plausible as this? And not only another, and another, but many of this kind. And what do you think the consequence of that would be? Would it not be confusion? Would it not be utter confusion? As well as the consequences we must consider the ways and means: whether the people are prepared to go along with it and whether the great difficulties in our way are likely to be overcome.” The same can be asked of this production of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, in which a more-than-plausible script results in utter confusion, and judging from the number of people who left at intermission when I saw it, not everyone was prepared to go along with it.


(photo by Joan Marcus)

P-Sam (Francois Battiste) has some harsh words for Blue (J. Alphonse Nicholson) as Corn (Keith Randolph Smith) and Pumpkin (Kristolyn Lloyd) look on in Dominique Morisseau’s Paradise Blue (photo by Joan Marcus)

The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Extended through June 10, $30 through June 3, $65 after

Paradise Blue, which opened tonight at the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center, celebrates and extends the great tradition of exceptional sociopolitical American plays established by August Wilson. In 2013, actress, poet, and playwright Dominique Morisseau began “The Detroit Projects,” a three-play series centered on her Michigan hometown, inspired by Wilson’s “Century Cycle,” ten works set in each decade of the twentieth century in his native Pittsburgh. Paradise Blue, which comes after 2013’s Detroit ’67 and before 2016’s Skeleton Crew, takes place in the primarily black neighborhood of Black Bottom in Paradise Valley in 1949, on the eve of an urban renewal push. (Coincidentally, Wilson’s second Pittsburgh play was Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.) The tortured Blue (J. Alphonse Nicholson) is a trumpet player who owns the Paradise Club, following in the footsteps of his father. He has just fired the bassist, leaving his bandmates, ornery drummer P-Sam (Francois Battiste) and thoughtful, considerate pianist Corn (Keith Randolph Smith), in the lurch as he prepares a solo that is proving difficult for him and arranging for the sweet and innocent Pumpkin (Kristolyn Lloyd), his lover who works at the club, to sing a number in public for the first time.

Amid rumors that Blue is going to sell the club as part of Detroit mayor Albert Cobo’s gentrification plan for Black Bottom — “Ain’t nobody pullin’ no more favors outta me. I been pullin’ favors up to my ears and I’m goin’ tone deaf,” Blue explains — the mysterious Silver (Simone Missick) struts in, renting a room at the Paradise for an extended period of time, paying cash up front. “If it’s somewhere that Colored folks is doing more than sharecroppin’ and reapin’ White folks’ harvest . . . I ought to be there,” she says. Silver is the opposite of Pumpkin, wearing silky, revealing black clothing, instantly commanding the attention of every man in any room she enters. “Spiderwoman. That’s what they call her,” P-Sam says. “She go walkin’ like that. . . . some kinda sexy spider . . . lurin’ fellas into her web. And then just when you get close to her . . . she stick into you and lay her poison.” As the night of the show approaches, P-Sam questions Blue’s loyalties, Corn and Pumpkin are both getting close to Silver, and Blue has to face some deep, dark demons.

(photo by Joan Marcus)

Blue (J. Alphonse Nicholson) takes hold of Pumpkin (Kristolyn Lloyd) in New York premiere at the Signature (photo by Joan Marcus)

Paradise Blue keeps the spirit of August Wilson alive while further confirming Morrisseau (Pipeline, Blood at the Root) as a rising star in her own right. The play is smoothly directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, like a bandleader orchestrating a jazz number, albeit more of a nocturne than swing or bebop. A close friend of Wilson’s, Santiago-Hudson is the co-artistic director of a New York Public Radio project that is recording all ten plays in Wilson’s American Century Cycle; he won a Tony for Best Featured Actor for his performance in Seven Guitars, earned another Tony for directing Jitney last year, and took home an Obie for directing The Piano Lesson at the Signature in 2013. (He also portrayed the writer in Wilson’s one-man show, How I Learned What I Learned, at the Signature.) Neil Patel’s two-part set features Silver’s bedroom in one corner and the interior of the nightclub on the rest of the stage; the audience sits in rising rows on the horizontal sides. Above it all is a rusty marquee that spells out the club’s name in lights. The facade separating the floor from the balcony is plastered with concert posters of icons who supposedly played the Paradise, from Muddy Waters, Billie Holiday, and Duke Ellington to Jimmie Lunceford, Howlin’ Wolf, and Louis Jordan.

Rui Rita’s sensitive lighting focuses between the two rooms as well as, occasionally, on Blue’s horn, which resides on a trumpet stand on the club stage, as if it’s his soul haunting him, while Darron L West’s fine sound design lets the music soar. Wilson regular Smith (Jitney, Fences, King Hedley II) is superb as the gentle, caring Corn; Smith has such a calming presence that watching him onstage, no matter what he’s doing, is warm and comforting. Obie winner Battiste (Head of Passes, The Good Negro) portrays the suspicious P-Sam with a fire in his belly; Lloyd (Dear Evan Hansen, Invisible Thread) is adorable as the vulnerable Pumpkin, a wide-eyed young woman in love with poetry but frightened of taking charge of her life; and Missick (Misty Knight in Luke Cage and The Defenders) is sexy and alluring as Silver, who is no mere femme fatale. However, Nicholson (Seven Guitars, Caleb Calypso and the Midnight Marauders) can only do so much as Blue (a role originated at the 2015 Williamstown Theatre Festival by Blair Underwood), who is not as fully drawn and fleshed out as the other characters, his motivations not as evident throughout the play. But that turns out to be a minor quibble in what otherwise is an exciting and captivating work that evolves with the rhythm of the blues as it explores race, class, and family legacy. Paradise Blue is the first of three Morrisseau plays that the Signature will present during her five-year residency; I’m already hungering for the next one.