59 East 59th St. between Park & Madison Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through October 20, $75.50
The Big Chill meets Cocoon and the Friends episode “The One Where Ross and Rachel Take a Break” in Michael Tucker’s wonderfully spry Fern Hill, which opened last night at 59E59 in its New York City premiere. The play takes place at a farmhouse called Fern Hill, owned by Sunny (Jill Eikenberry) and Jer (Mark Blum). They have invited two other couples, longtime friends Billy (Mark Linn-Baker) and Michiko (Jodi Long) and Vincent (John Glover) and Darla (Ellen Parker), to celebrate the men’s milestone birthdays and also discuss the possibility of all six of them living together at the farmhouse, enjoying life and caring for one another as they face the inevitable: old age, sickness, and death. Jer, a philosopher and writer, is seventy that day; Billy, who is in a semi-successful classic rock band, will turn sixty the following week; and painter Vincent will hit the big eight-oh in a few months. The usually stoned Billy, always quick with a joke, refers to the three of them as “the father, the son, and the holy shit.” The six musketeers talk about wine, clam sauce, drugs, music, new hips, bourbon, art, and sex — they have a lot to say about sex, as the three couples are still getting busy in bed, apparently on a near-nightly basis. “What do you say, darling? Shall I bend you over the plow for a few minutes before we start dinner?” Jer asks Sunny.
One of the central questions is whether they will refer to their new living arrangements as an orphanage or a commune, almost as if they were children or young adults again. As Dylan Thomas wrote in his 1945 memory poem “Fern Hill,” which was published in his book Deaths and Entrances: “And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns / About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home, / In the sun that is young once only, / Time let me play and be / Golden in the mercy of his means.” It’s all fun and games until an affair comes to light; the sexual betrayal has an immediate impact not only on that couple but on the future of all six of them. “How is it that we could be married for all these years and had sex — what? — fifty thousand times? — and still be so fucking dumb about it?” Sunny declares at the end of the first act.
It’s genuinely refreshing to watch six older, mature men and women discuss sex, sharing how often they get it and how good — or not so good — it can be. Not everyone is comfortable delving into the gory details, but these friends have long ago decided not to keep any secrets from one another, even about what’s going on under the covers, especially if they’re going to be spending their golden years together, living side-by-side-by-side. Jessica Parks’s kitchen set is charming and welcoming, and director Nadia Tass (Malcolm, e-baby) provides just the right gentle touches to Tucker’s (The M Spot, Living in a Foreign Language: A Memoir of Food, Wine, and Love in Italy) sharp dialogue. What could have been pompous and doctrinaire — listening to seemingly well-off drunk and high people theorize on how great their lives are — could have been torture, but instead it’s illuminating and insightful.
The chemistry among the stellar cast is superb, starting with Obie and Emmy winner Eikenberry (Lemon Sky, The Kid), Tucker’s wife and LA Law costar, whose vulnerability is the key to the drama, and she displays it beautifully, her youthful spirit intoxicating; a terrific Linn-Baker (Perfect Strangers, On the Twentieth Century) offers the comic relief, Obie winner Blum (Mozart in the Jungle, Gus and Al) is the dour naysayer, Long (Flower Drum Song, Long Story Short) is smart and alluring, Tony winner Glover (Smallville, Love! Valour! Compassion!) is as ineffable as ever, and Parker (The Heidi Chronicles, 20th Century Blues) is as steady as they come. It often feels like they’re six real friends hanging out, not six actors performing a fictional work to an audience. The ending is liable to lead to arguments about which characters are right, which are wrong, who gets off easy, and what will happen next; a few days after having seen the show, I’m still debating with the person I went with. And when theater can have that kind of an effect on you while also being vastly entertaining, it has more than done its job.
NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
566 La Guardia Pl.
September 20-22, $55-$65
I first encountered the endlessly inventive, unpredictable work of Daniel Fish four years ago with A (radically condensed and expanded) Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, a brilliantly devised piece that combined a tennis-ball machine with actors performing lines spoken by author David Foster Wallace from audiobooks, interviews, and speeches. The New Jersey–born, New York City–based creator also involves film and classic theater in his avant-garde oeuvre, which includes adaptations of Molière’s The Misanthrope, Clifford Odets’s Paradise Lost, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant of Venice, Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life, a piece titled Tom Ryan Thinks He’s James Mason Starring in a Movie by Nicholas Ray in Which a Man’s Illness Provides an Escape from the Pain, Pressure, and Loneliness of Trying to Be the Ultimate American Father, Only to Drive Him Further into the More Thrilling Though Possibly Lonelier Roles of Addict and Misunderstood Visionary. More recently, his Tony-winning revival of Oklahoma! is dividing audiences and critics at Circle in the Square.
Fish now has turned his attention to consumerism run rampant as depicted in one of the best American novels of the second half of the twentieth century, Don DeLillo’s National Book Award–winning White Noise. Initially staged last year by Theater Freiburg and Ruhrfestspiele Recklingshausen in Germany, the seventy-minute multimedia work, running September 20-22 at NYU’S Skirball Center, focuses on DeLillo’s extensive use of lists within his narrative. For example: “The ashram is located on the outskirts of the former copper-smelting town of Tubb, Montana, now called Dharamsalapur. The usual rumors abound of sexual freedom, sexual slavery, drugs, nudity, mind control, poor hygiene, tax evasion, monkey-worship, torture, prolonged and hideous death.” And: “You know how I am. I think everything is correctible. Given the right attitude and the proper effort, a person can change a harmful condition by reducing it to its simplest parts. You can make lists, invent categories, devise charts and graphs. This is how I am able to teach my students how to stand, sit and walk, even though I know you think these subjects are too obvious and nebulous and generalized to be reduced to component parts. I’m not a very ingenious person but I know how to break things down, how to separate and classify. We can analyze posture, we can analyze eating, drinking and even breathing. How else do you understand the world, is my way of looking at it.” White Noise: Freely Inspired by the Novel by Don DeLillo is performed by Bruce McKenzie as Hitler Studies professor Jack Gladney, with live music by composer and percussionist Bobby Previte. The bold projections are by Jim Findlay (including an appearance on video by nineteen German teenagers), with sets by Andrew Leiberman and costumes by Doey Lüthi. I could make a long list of reasons why you should see this, but it’s not really necessary. Just go if you want to experience another unusual theatrical adventure by the amazing Mr. Fish.
244 West 54th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Through November 2, $75 (plus $25 beverage/food minimum per guest)
On October 7, 1849, short story master and poet extraordinaire Edgar Allan Poe died a mysterious death at the age of forty. In conjunction with the 170th anniversary of his demise, Poseidon Theatre Company has brought back a revamped version of The Cooping Theory 1969: Who Killed Edgar Allan Poe?, which the Manhattan-based troupe calls “An Immersive Paranormal.” The show, previously presented two years ago in a Brooklyn speakeasy in a somewhat different form, takes place in a series of rooms in RPM Underground, a funky karaoke bar on West Fifty-Fourth St. filled with old-time memorabilia, from typewriters and gas signs to radios and a dentist chair. It’s 1969, and the Poe Society is holding a séance to try to contact Poe so he can tell them how he died, whether from drink, natural causes, murder, or, as many believe, the nineteenth-century practice called cooping, in which men were kidnapped and tortured in order to force them to vote for a political candidate multiple times.
Every night, an audience of no more than sixty adults is sworn in as new members of the society by wealthy, budding psychologist Tom Turner (Aaron Latta-Morissette), upbeat actress Anna Carver (Makaela Shealy), the heart-on-his-sleeve Jimmy Harder (Johnny Pozzi), and the ever-dependable Gina Standen (Samantha Lacey Johnson), along with WASPy pledge twins Crispin (Brian Alford) and Cordelia Carlyle (Estelle Olivia), who have hired Madam Harlow (Dara Kramer) to lead the proceedings. (The names of the characters were inspired by Poe’s real life and writings: for example, he was born on Carver St. in Boston; MGM once claimed that Jean Harlow was a direct descendant of Poe, who had no children; he would have been named Cordelia if he were born a girl — his mother had recently portrayed the king’s youngest daughter in Lear; he publicly decried the work of Thomas Carlyle; and he used to find respite on a rocky knoll he named Mount Tom along the Hudson River.)
The evening begins with a cocktail hour during which the audience can mingle with the characters, having one-on-one conversations that can be both entertaining and informative; I learned a lot while talking to Anna and Cordelia and catching Jimmy playing a haunting ballad on his guitar. Then Madam Harlow enters and the show really takes off; audience members are free to stay in one space, follow specific characters for extended periods of time, or just go with the flow. You will not be touched or asked to do anything you don’t want to; the rules and recommendations are supplied early on by director Aaron Salazar, who conceived the fab project. You can navigate at your own pace, although the narrative grows more and more frantic and exciting as it nears the grand finale, so be sure to wear comfortable shoes and not settle in anywhere for too long a stretch. The dialogue — the aptly named Nate Raven, formerly known as Nate Suggs before he married Rick Raven, is credited with writing the book — is chock full of direct and indirect references to Poe’s work, from such popular stories as The Fall of the House of Usher, The Tell Tale Heart, The Cask of Amontillado, The Tomb of Ligeia, The Masque of the Red Death, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, Berenice, and Eleonora to such poems as The Raven, Annabel Lee, Spirits of the Dead, and The Conqueror Worm. Knowledge of Poe’s work is not a prerequisite, but it is a bonus.
The cast is delightfully energetic and extremely careful not to bowl anyone over as they race down hallways and close doors for more private moments. You don’t have to be a Poe fan or believe in the spiritual world in order to have a great time at The Cooping Theory 1969, but the more you invest of yourself, the more thrilling it all is. “It’s gotten a bit freaky, hasn’t it?” Anna says at one point. It sure has, but only in the best way. (Poe addicts will also want to check out John Kevin Jones’s one-man performance piece Killing an Evening with Edgar Allan Poe at the Merchant’s House Museum from September 24 to November 3.)
French Institute Alliance Française, Florence Gould Hall
55 East 59th St. between Madison & Park Aves.
Festival continues through October 12
After the audience has settled in at FIAF’s Florence Gould Hall for Cyril Teste’s multimedia adaptation of John Cassavetes’s 1977 film Opening Night, there appears to be confusion on the stage, as a man in headphones converses in French with an unseen tech crew, their words not translated on the supertitles screen. It’s a disorienting moment, especially if you don’t understand French, and a terrific introduction to one of the themes of the play, the pull between fact and fiction, fantasy and reality inherent in theater and cinema. The man in the headphones is the play-within-a-play’s director, Manny (Morgan Lloyd Sicard), who is helming a melodrama featuring famous actress Myrtle Gordon (five-time César winner Isabelle Adjani) and her stoic costar, Maurice (Frédéric Pierrot); in the original film, itself based on a play by John Cromwell, Gena Rowlands was Myrtle, her real-life husband, Cassavetes, was Maurice, and one of their closest friends, Ben Gazzara, was Manny, their personal relationships further blurring the lines of reality.
With opening night a day away, Myrtle is having trouble with her lines and her physical presence, particularly in a scene that involves Maurice slapping her. She’s becoming emotionally unhinged, having a nervous breakdown, spurred by the earlier accidental death of a seventeen-year-old fan seeking an autograph and Myrtle’s inability — or overt unwillingness — to relate to her character, who is all too much like her, as if she is unable to face her own fate. Throughout the play’s eighty-five minutes, there is an additional figure onstage, cameraman Nicolas Doremus, who follows the characters as they move about Ramy Fischler’s elegant living-room set, which features a couch, a table, knickknacks on shelves, a visible backstage area with Agnès b.’s costumes, and, at the very center, a large screen where Doremus’s footage streams live, offering viewers a different angle on what’s happening. At one point, Doremus zooms in close on Manny and Myrtle, who might be about to kiss, the cameraman completing a kind of love triangle between life and artifice; at another, Doremus films other characters behind stage sharing their concerns as Myrtle is alone on the couch, drinking away her pain. Everyone is dressed in dark colors, mostly black, signaling potential doom.
Teste (Patio, Nobody) based his script on Cassavetes’s screenplay more than the final film itself, although he did use the director’s longtime friend and cinematographer, Al Ruban, who shot Opening Night, as a consultant. Teste encourages improvisation and changes stage directions every night, ensuring that each performance is unique in a way a film can never be yet still capturing the essence of the movie. “While Cassavetes’s other great films are models of immediacy — gut-level attempts to devise a cinematic syntax that accounts for and responds to the quantum flux of moment-to-moment experience — the doubly framed and multiply mirrored Opening Night operates at a remove,” Dennis Lim notes in his Criterion essay, which is appropriately titled “The Play’s the Thing.” He continues, “The filmmaker’s habitual insistence on the inseparability of actor and character (and of art and life) reverberates here within the haunted corridors of a backstage melodrama.” Adjani (The Story of Adele H, Queen Margot) is ravishing in her New York theatrical debut, her regal stage demeanor working hand-in-hand with her total command of the screen; we get to see both facets of her immense talent at the same time, which is both a treat and disconcerting; non-French speakers will lose a little as they avert their eyes to the supertitles while also deciding whether to look at the activity onstage, backstage, or onscreen. Sicard is superb as the director, and Pierrot is hardy as the skeptical Maurice, but Doremus stands out by not standing out even as he is right in the middle of the action. Opening Night opens FIAF’s monthlong Crossing the Line Festival and is supplemented by “Magnetic Gaze: Isabelle Adjani on Screen,” consisting of ten of her films shown on Tuesdays through October 29.
Crossing the Line Festival
French Institute Alliance Française and other venues
September 12 - October 12
FIAF’s thirteenth annual Crossing the Line Festival, one of the city’s best multidisciplinary events, opens appropriately enough with the US premiere of French director Cyril Teste’s Opening Night, a multimedia adaptation of John Cassavetes’s 1977 film. The seventy-five-minute presentation, running September 12-14, stars the legendary Isabelle Adjani, along with Morgan Lloyd Sicard and Frédéric Pierrot; the actors will receive new stage directions at each performance, so anything can happen. (In conjunction with Opening Night, FIAF will be hosting the CinéSalon series “Magnetic Gaze: Isabelle Adjani on Screen,” consisting of ten films starring Adjani, including The Story of Adele H, Queen Margot, and Possession, on Tuesdays through October 29.) Also on September 12, Paris-born, New York–based visual artist Pierre Huyghe will unveil his free video installation The Host and the Cloud, a two-hour film exploring the nature of human ritual, set in a former ethnographic museum; the 2009-10 film will be shown on a loop in the FIAF Gallery Monday to Saturday through the end of the festival, October 12. Another major highlight of CTL 2019 is the US premiere of Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne’s Why? Running September 21 through October 6 at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, the seventy-five-minute show delves into the very existence of theater itself. The festival also features dance, music, and other live performances by an impressive range of creators; below is the full schedule. Numerous shows will be followed by Q&As with the writers, directors, and/or performers.
Thursday, September 12
Saturday, September 14
Opening Night, directed by Cyril Teste, starring Isabelle Adjani, Morgan Lloyd Sicard, and Frédéric Pierrot, FIAF Florence Gould Hall, $45-$55, 7:30
Thursday, September 12
Saturday, October 12
The Host and the Cloud, directed by Pierre Huyghe, FIAF Gallery, free
Friday, September 13
Sunday, September 15
Manmade Earth, by 600 HIGHWAYMEN, the Invisible Dog Art Center, $15 suggested donation
Tuesday, September 17
Wednesday, September 18
The Disorder of Discourse, Fanny de Chaillé’s restaging of a lecture by Michel Foucault, with Guillaume Bailliart, the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, free with RSVP, 8:00
Saturday, September 21
Sunday, October 6
Why?, by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne, Polonsky Shakespeare Center, Theatre for a New Audience, $90-$115
Wednesday, September 25
Isadora Duncan, by Jérôme Bel, CTL commission, with Catherine Gallant, FIAF Florence Gould Hall, $35, 7:30
Thursday, September 26
Saturday, September 28
Somewhere at the Beginning, created and performed by Mikaël Serre, choreographed by Germaine Acogny, set to music by Fabrice Bouillon, La MaMa, $25, 7:00
Wednesday, October 2
Radio Live, with Aurélie Charon, Caroline Gillet, and Amélie Bonnin, based on narratives by young change makers from around the world, FIAF Florence Gould Hall, $15-$35
Thursday, October 3
Sunday, October 6
Look Who’s Coming to Dinner, world premiere choreographed by Stefanie Batten Bland, with music by Paul Damien Hogan, inspired by 1967 Stanley Kramer film, La MaMa, $21-$26
Friday, October 4
Saturday, October 5
The Sun Too Close to the Earth, world premiere by Rhys Chatham for nine-piece ensemble, inspired by climate change, along with Le Possédé bass flute solo and On, Suzanne featuring harpist Zeena Parkins and drummer Jonathan Kane, ISSUE Project Room, $25, 8:00
Thursday, October 10
When Birds Refused to Fly, conceived, directed, and choreographed by Olivier Tarpaga, featuring Salamata Kobré, Jean Robert Kiki Koudogbo, Stéphane Michael Nana, and Abdoul Aziz Zoundi, with music by Super Volta and others, FIAF Florence Gould Hall, $15-$35, 7:30
Friday, October 11
Saturday, October 12
Дyми Moï — Dumy Moyi, solo performance by François Chaignaud, the Invisible Dog Art Center, free with RSVP
Following its 2016 Manhattan Theater Club presentation, Sarah Jones’s Sell/Buy/Date is back in the city for an encore engagement at New York Live Arts. Below is an update of twi-ny’s original review, with relevant information added.
In 2006, British playwright and actress Sarah Jones won a Special Tony Award (and an earlier Obie) for her one-woman show Bridge and Tunnel, in which she played multiple characters, shining a light on New York City’s immigrant population. It took a decade, but she returned three years ago with her follow-up, another one-woman multiple-identity tour de force, Sell/Buy/Date, which revives some characters from her previous works while adding new ones; the production is now back by popular demand, running at New York Live Arts September 12-15 and 18-21. It’s late-twenty-first-century America, and Dr. Serene Campbell is teaching a class on the sex business, leading her students through a series of BERT modules, bio-empathetic resonant technology that dates back to 2017. Using this imaginary technology like oral histories, she tells her students, “We will be experiencing different bodies, different ages, what were then called ‘races’ or ‘ethnic groups,’ as you’ll remember from Unit One, and along the gender continuum, we’ll be encountering males as well as females — it was quite binary at that time. Remember, these are Personal History modules — the focus today is on feeling each person’s experience, so, before we begin, how many people have your emotional shunts engaged?”
She then proceeds to embody seventeen characters interviewed throughout the decades about the commercial sex trade, examining the reaction in the recent past to prostitution, pornography, and exotic dancing. “Chronologically advanced” Jewish bubbe Lorraine L. talks about trying to enhance her sexual relationship with her husband by searching for porn on the internet. Post–Valley Girl Bella, named after feminist activist Bella Abzug, is a “sex work studies major, minoring in social media with a concentration on notable YouTube memes” who cohosts “the biweekly pole-dancing party . . . called ‘Don’t Get All Pole-emical.” Jamaican No Fakin’ is a Caribbean prostitute at a sex workers rally who is carrying an unseen sign that says “No Justice, No Piece.” She defends what she does, noting, “You find me somebody who don’t hate some part of their job. There’s a lotta things I hate about doing this, but the money is not one of them.” And New York Domini-Rican Nereida angrily declares, “It just makes me so sick that we are all supposed to care about the same human rights, at least, that’s why we’re all here for this Feminist Plenary, but I mean, if one more of these so called ‘sex work advocates’ calls me anti-sex, I swear to god. I’m gonna be, like, first of all, I love sex. Sex is amazing. But what you are having is not sex.”
Dr. Campbell also calls up interviews of members of the male species as she walks around Dane Laffrey’s futuristic set, a spare, antiseptic classroom with a podium, a file cabinet, a floor sparsely outlined with lights, and a projection screen at the back. “Yes, of course men were having sex as well, but you’ll remember from the reading, what were male sluts called?” she asks the class. “Very good, they were called ‘men.’” Among the male characters in the show are frat boy and Grand Theft Auto fan Andrew “AV” Vanderbeek, Russian raunchpreneur Sergei Ledinov, Los Angeles pimp Cookie Chris (“Even with what I was doing, you know, exploiting women and whatnot, I had a rep for being real sweet about it”), and Native American comedian Gary (“I’m usually most popular on college campuses, whenever they wanna do their Diversity Day or Hey, We’re Not All White week”). But as much as the treatment of women and sex workers needs to change, not all change turns out to be progress.
Jones (The Foundation, Surface Transit), who was born in Baltimore and raised in Boston, DC, and Queens in a multiracial family, has created a fascinating future devoid of organized religion, bachelor parties, unpaid internships, personal security guards, violent video games, a livable New Jersey, and mobile phones, where people can travel freely between countries and there is no discrimination of any kind. “They did not believe one has an automatic right to live equally,” Dr. Campbell says about people from the past. It’s a potent point, especially given the vitriol present in this year’s lurid presidential election campaign. In researching Sell/Buy/Date, Jones met with sex workers around the world, visiting Sweden, Germany, Korea, India, Las Vegas, France, Ireland, Scotland, the Netherlands, and the Dominican Republican, helping her create believable men and women who share a wide range of thoughts about commercial sex. She smartly captures the humanity in the industry, even if it is a bit lighthearted at times for such a serious topic, while Drama Desk–nominated director Carolyn Cantor (Fly by Night, Indian Summer) ably uses sound (by Bray Poor) and light (by Eric Southern) to smoothly transition between time periods. However, a subplot involving Dr. Campbell’s mother’s identity as a “survivor” feels like a forced tribute to those who have paved the way for gender equality. Jones, who once declared, “The revolution will not happen between these thighs” (the late Gil Scott-Heron was a family friend), gives a superb performance, instantly taking control of the audience; she has a natural confidence as a teacher that is intoxicating. Sell/Buy/Date offers a lively and timely look at a controversial subject that has continued to raise eyebrows throughout the centuries.