Ellen Stewart Theatre, La MaMa
66 East Fourth St. between Bowery & Second Ave.
Thursday - Saturday through March 26
In 2015, New York City native Stephen Adly Guirgis won the Pulitzer Prize for his off-Broadway hit Between Riverside and Crazy. In January, he was named a Residency One Playwright at the Signature Theatre, for which he will produce a series of old and new plays for the 2018-19 season. So the time is ripe for a look back at some of his earlier work, beginning with his time as coartistic director of the LAByrinth Theater Company. As part of its “Theatre and Social Justice” series, the Actors Studio, in conjunction with La MaMa, is presenting a rare revival of Guirgis’s The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, which debuted in 2005 at the Public Theater, where it was directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman and starred Eric Bogosian as Satan, Stephen McKinley Henderson as Pontius Pilate, John Ortiz as Jesus of Nazareth, Deborah Rush as Henrietta Iscariot, and Sam Rockwell as Judas. The cast of the revival, made up of members of the Actors Studio, might not be quite so well known, but Oscar winner Estelle Parsons directs this new version with a dynamic unpredictability and an intimate edge as Judas’s lawyer appeals his conviction for betraying Jesus and being sentenced to Hell.
“No parent should have to bury a child . . . No mother should have to bury a son,” Henrietta Iscariot (JoAnna Rhinehart) says in the prologue, standing under an umbrella, the sound of rain cascading through the Ellen Stewart Theatre. “I buried my son. In a potter’s field. In a field of Blood. In empty, acrid silence. There was no funeral. There were no mourners,” she adds, immediately humanizing a figure who has been considered the worst of all villains through the centuries. The stage then becomes a makeshift courtroom (the set is by Peter Larkin) in a place called Hope in downtown Purgatory ruled over by cynical judge Frank Littlefield (Jay Johnston), who has little patience for his young bailiff, Julius of Outer Mongolia (Liana Jackson), or with the proceedings in general. Defense attorney Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (Suzanne DiDonna) seeks mercy and forgiveness for Judas (Gabriel Furman), who is catatonic, unable to speak for himself. The prosecutor is butt-kissing blowhard shyster Yusef Akbar Azziz Al-Nassar Gamel El-Fayoumy (Daniel Grimaldi), who, when given permission to approach the bench, declares, “It is a lovely bench! Splendid and sturdy like the great derriere that rests upon it!” Among the witnesses called to testify are Pontius Pilate (Leland Gantt), Caiaphas the Elder (Count Stovall), Simon the Zealot (Gabe Fazio), Mother Teresa (Bob Adrian), Sigmund Freud (Timothy Doyle), and Satan (Javier Molina) as the jury looks on, headed by foreman Butch Honeywell (Stephen Dexter). Saints such as Matthias of Galilee (Lash Dooley) and Peter (Con Horgan) chime in from the rafters, while Jesus (Michael Billingsley) wanders around seriously but quietly, carefully observing the trial.
Despite its nearly three-hour length (with intermission), the play flies by, anchored by several stirring monologues, including a sensational bit by Delissa Reynolds as Saint Monica, speaking in hip-hop, who proclaims, “I was axed to look into the case of Judas Iscariot by this Irish gypsy lawyer bitch in Purgatory named Cunningham. She wanted me to do some naggin’ to God on Judas’ behalf, and, quite frankly, I was impressed by her nagging abilities — cuz that bitch nagged my ass day and night for forty days . . . But I don’t nag for juss anybody, and I definitely don’t nag for no mothafuckah I don’t know, so I went down to check out Judas for my own self — he looked fuckin’ retarded.” The night we saw the play, two of the main actors stumbled over too many lines, but in general the cast, which also features Burnadair Lipscomb-Hunt as Mary Magdalene, Richarda Abrams as Gloria, and Beth Manspeizer as Loretta, a young woman on life support, is strong; many of them will also appear in the next Guirgis revival, Our Lady of 121st Street, as the Actors Studio plans to remount most of his plays. In The Last Days, Guirgis explores blasphemy, faith, selling out, abortion, anti-Semitism, a New York City overrun by “violent devil-worshipping cannibals,” the crucifixion, justice, and personal responsibility that is addressed in a long, heartfelt, and melodramatic monologue by Honeywell about remorse and regret. The play examines why, at least in theory, Jesus offered forgiveness to everyone except Judas, his onetime bestie, while also holding out hope that he will indeed grant atonement to us all.
59 East 59th St. between Park & Madison Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through April 1, $25
In 1958, in a small town in France, fifty-two-year-old Samuel Beckett drove twelve-year-old André René Roussimoff to school in a truck as a favor for the boy’s father. It’s one of the most bizarre confluences of all time: The playwright who had already written such groundbreaking works asEndgame, Waiting for Godot, and Act without Words I & II meeting the rather large adolescent who would later become known as wrestling icon and Princess Bride star Andre the Giant. Gino DiIorio re-creates that fact-based scene and imagines several others in the delightfully odd Sam and Dede, or My Dinner with Andre the Giant, which opened last night at 59E59. “I don’t fit anywhere,” Andre (Brendan Averett), who asks to be called Dede (pronounced “day-day”), says to Sam (Dave Sikula), referring not only to his size — he’s already over six feet tall and nearly 250 pounds — but to his place in the world. The man and the boy discuss farming, teaching, cricket, bullying, and playwriting. Curious about one of Sam’s plays, Dede asks, “What’s it about?” Sam responds, “I’m not certain.” Dede: “You wrote the play and you don’t know what it’s about?” Sam: “Well, it’s hard to say.” Dede: “It has to be about something.” Sam: “No. A play isn’t about something. A play is something.” Five years later, Dede, who calls Sam “Boss,” attends a performance of Endgame in Paris, where Dede talks about the play and his new career in professional wrestling. “The trouble is, we don’t always finish the way we want to finish,” he says. “And we don’t know where the finish is!” Meanwhile, Sam self-effacingly admits, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” The men next meet in 1975, when Sam comes to see Dede in a wrestling match. They are drinking in Dede’s hotel room, Sam as elusive as ever, but Dede has grown into an intelligent adult with a lust for life, reevaluating his place in the world and offering to show Sam what a pile driver is. It’s a wonderful scene, as the two men realize they are not as different as they once were, both entertainers in their own way.
Erik Ladue’s somewhat claustrophobic set consists of stonelike blocks that Sam rearranges for each scene, creating car seats, chairs, a table, and carefully thought out abstract shapes. Occasionally he wistfully points up at one wall and a projection of the moon appears, an awkward reference to Waiting for Godot (“It’s about a tree and the moon,” Sam says) and a poem Dede makes up later in the play. Director Leah S. Abrams, cofounder and executive director of Custom Made Theatre Co., has helmed numerous Beckett shorts, and she brings that understanding of Beckett and his work to Sam and Dede, adding humor and occasional sweet moments of uncomfortability, along with an inspiringly staged conclusion. Shakespeare veteran Averett (The Killer, Massacre: Sing to Your Children) and Sikula (Grey Gardens, Superior Donuts) have an infectious camaraderie; neither actor attempts to do an impression of their characters — Sikula completely foregoes an Irish accent, and Averett speaks more clearly than Andre did in real life — but they lovingly capture the essence of each unique individual. Plays that imagine scenarios that never happened are often problematic and untrustworthy, but Abrams and DiIorio (Crib, The Jag) manage to avoid that dilemma, creating an entertaining and thoughtful absurdist bromance that one can only wish were really true.
145 Sixth Ave. at Dominick St.
March 15-25, $15
HERE’s annual multidisciplinary festival, CultureMart, starts tonight, featuring workshop performances that often defy easy categorization. Things kick off March 15-16 with Purva Bedi, Kristin Marting, and Mariana Newhard’s Assembled Identity, a multimedia duet between Bedi and Newhard that explores just what makes us human, on a shared bill with Trey Lyford’s kinetic solo show The Accountant, about how we can lose our humanity at the office. On March 18-19, Gisela Cardenas + Milica Paranosic and InTandem Lab’s Hybrid Suite No. 2: The Carmen Variations tells the story of fictional archaeologist Elizabeth Sherman, paired with Leah Coloff’s autobiographical song cycle ThisTree. The double bill for March 21-22 consists of Rob Roth’s cinematic hybrid Soundstage, linking the screen goddess with the adoring gay male fan, and Chris Green’s American Weather, an interactive piece performed by Quince Marcum, Katie Melby, and Yasmin Reshamwala. On March 25-26, Zoey Martinson and Smoke & Mirrors Collaborative lead audiences into The Black History Museum . . . According to the United States of America, examining the criminal justice system, while a birthday party turns into much more in Jeremy Bloom and Brian Rady’s Ding Dong It’s the Ocean. CultureMart concludes March 26 with a reading of HERE playwright in residence and downtown legend Taylor Mac’s The Bourgeois Oligarch, the third section of his four-part Dionysia Festival, this one involving a ballet and a philanthropist. With tickets only $15, CultureMart is always a great way to check out new and up-and-coming talent presenting works in progress at one of our favorite spaces.
The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through April 2, $30-$75
Will Eno completes his three-play Residency Five program at the Signature Theatre with Wakey, Wakey, a very funny, deeply touching, and unique exploration of humanity and the life cycle. Partially inspired by his friendship with Signature founder James Houghton, who passed away in August 2016 at the age of fifty-seven from stomach cancer, Wakey, Wakey is about all the little pieces of basic daily existence that make us who we are, from birth to death. Michael Emerson returns to the stage as a character referred to in the script only as Guy, who as the play opens is lying on the floor, facedown. “Is it now?” he asks. “I thought I had more time.” For the next seventy minutes, Guy shares details from his life, plays word games, philosophizes about the world, shows home movies and YouTube videos, and is cared for by home health worker Lisa (a gentle and sweet January LaVoy). He also self-reflexively critiques what is happening in the theater. “Sorry, I don’t know exactly what to say to you,” he admits. “I wonder how you hear that, how that strikes you? What do you make of the fact that this event, painstakingly scripted, rehearsed, designed, and directed, features someone saying, ‘I don’t know exactly what to say to you.’ I hope you’ll receive that in the humble and hopeful spirit it was offered in.” Writer-director Eno, whose previous Signature works were Title and Deed and The Open House and who was represented on Broadway by The Realistic Joneses in 2014, has fun with the very clever staging; for example, noises that initially seem to be coming from the street or the audience are actually part of the sound design, and he uses physical objects in creative ways as well.
Following a video of screaming wildlife, Guy delves into the nature of pleasure and enjoyment, questioning where such feelings go once the moment is past. He also discusses how one’s life can be divided into two parts, one before watching the video, and one after it ends, in much the same way the play itself can serve as a dividing line, especially as it deals so intimately with life and death and how things don’t always go quite as planned. Christine Jones’s set consists of a free-standing door, a large wall with a calendar on it, and packing boxes, as if someone is moving in — or moving out. David Lander’s lighting, Nevin Steinberg’s sound, and Peter Nigrini’s projections all contribute to the play’s inventive originality. Two-time Emmy winner Emerson (Lost, Person of Interest), whose previous stage credits include playing Oscar Wilde in 1997–98’s Gross Indecency at the Minetta Lane as well as three Broadway roles, gives a rousing performance, tender and humane, mostly from a wheelchair, making the most of his expressive puppy-dog eyes and small body movements, the slightest pause or glance filled with charm and humble mischief, then pain as Guy takes a turn for the worse. The play certainly has a message, but it’s not quite as syrupy and sentimental as it could have been. “Yes, we’re here to say good-bye and maybe hopefully also get better at saying hello,” Guy explains. “To celebrate Life, if that doesn’t sound too passive-aggressive.” But even when you think it’s over, Eno has yet more surprises in store, both inside the theater and outside in the lobby, as you kick off the next phase of your life.
Irish Repertory Theatre, Francis Greenburger Mainstage
132 West 22nd St. between Sixth & Seventh Aves.
Tuesday – Sunday through April 23, $50-$70
In the fall of 2009, the Irish Rep presented Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 play, The Emperor Jones, during President Barack Obama’s first year in office, a positive time of hope and change that also saw a rise in hate speech in what was most definitely not a postracial America. Irish Rep producing director Ciaran O’Reilly’s award-winning production is now back, returning on the heels of Donald Trump’s election to the White House, also a time of rising hate crimes and political correctness across a deeply divided country. Inspired by stories about Haitian president Vilbrun Guillaume Sam as well as German Expressionism and Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella, Heart of Darkness, O’Neill sets The Emperor Jones in an unnamed Caribbean nation, where Brutus Jones (Obi Abili) has declared himself dictator after escaping from a U.S. prison. Wearing a military uniform reminiscent of Marcus Garvey’s, Jones says to brash British colonialist Henry Smithers (Andy Murray), “Talk polite, white man! Talk polite, you heah me! I’m boss heah now, is you fergettin’?” A moment later, Jones brags to Smithers, “Ain’t r de Emperor? De laws don’t go for him. You heah what I tells you, Smithers. Dere’s little stealin’ like you does, and dere’s big stealin’ like I does. For de little stealin’ dey gits you in jail soon or late. For de big stealin’ dey makes you Emperor and puts you in de Hall o’ Fame when you croaks. If dey’s one thing I learns in ten years on de Pullman ca’s listenin’ to de white quality talk, it’s dat same fact.” Smithers warns Jones that a revolt against him is under way, which the emperor first dismisses but then believes, sending him off on a hallucinatory journey through the Great Forest, where, in the spirit of Macbeth, he encounters his checkered past and faces his ultimate fate, all the while a tom-tom beating in the distance like the pumping aorta in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart.”
The role of Jones was originated by Charles S. Gilpin at the Provincetown Playhouse and then on Broadway, but it was later made famous onstage and onscreen by Paul Robeson. Controversy has surrounded the play from the very beginning because of its use of stereotypes, speech, and rampant use of the N-word by both Jones and Smithers. However, in a 1924 article in Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, Robeson wrote, “And what a great part is ‘Brutus Jones.’ His is the exultant tragedy of the disintegration of a human soul. How we suffer as we see him in the depths of the forest re-living all the sins of his past — experiencing all the woes and wrongs of his people — throwing off one by one the layers of civilization until he returns to the primitive soil from which he (racially) came.” The debate over whether the work itself is racist or an exploration of racist oppression, especially now, following the recent expurgation of the N-word from a new edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, continues; however, O’Neill doesn’t do himself any favors by describing one character in the script as “a heavy-set, ape-faced old savage of the extreme African type, dressed only in a loin cloth.”
Regardless of where you find yourself on the racist controversy, it’s hard to deny the sheer power of the play, which is both uncomfortable to watch and utterly captivating in this intense and intimate production. Following in the footsteps of John Douglas Thompson at the Irish Rep (in addition to such other Jones portrayers as Ossie Davis, Albie Woodington, Paterson Joseph, and Kate Valk in blackface), Abili (Six Degrees of Separation, Titus Andronicus) fully embodies the role, his fear palpable as he encounters moving trees, masked figures, and puppets acting out scenes from his past as he gets lost in the forest and starts doubting his mind. Murray (War Horse) makes Smithers a fine foil for Jones, as ready to cut him down as to cower at his feet. Everyone involved deserves kudos: The haunting set design is by Charlie Corcoran, with regional costumes by Antonia Ford-Roberts and Whitney Locher, evocative lighting by Brian Nason, eerie choreography by Barry McNabb, affecting music by Christian Frederickson, stirring sound design by Ryan Rumery and M. Florian Staab, Caribbean puppets and masks by Bob Flanagan, and cool props by Deirdre Brennan. The ensemble also includes William Bellamy, Carl Hendrick Louis, Sinclair Mitchell, Angel Moore, and Reggie Talley. It might have been written nearly a century ago, but The Emperor Jones can still shock, providing no easy outs, particularly in this poignant version that bookends the Obama years.
Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Pl. between Lafayette Ave. & Fulton St.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 19, $60-$110
For the uninitiated, Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, running in an exhilarating revival at Theatre for a New Audience through March 19, may come as quite a shock, a complex, unpredictable, boundary-shattering exploration of the human experience over millennia from the man most famous for Our Town. “The remarkable thing is how we forget, again and again. We forget Wilder’s vision and voice; in our memory we assign his works to a nostalgic theater of our youth, encountered first in high school, in community theater, in assigned work judged to be inoffensive enough to constitute the canon for young readers,” Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel explains in the foreword to the 2003 Perennial Classics edition of the play. “And then we encounter him on stage as he is and will remain through the ages: tough-minded, exacting, facing the darkness in human existence without apology.” Professor, novelist, actor, and screenwriter Wilder won the last of his three Pulitzer Prizes — he won the fiction award for the novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey in 1928 and his first drama prize in 1938, for Our Town — for The Skin of Our Teeth, the wild and wacky story of the Antrobus clan as it survives the Ice Age, the biblical flood, and a world war. Wilder wrote the play during WWII, worried about the possible outcome but showing faith and hope in humanity’s natural will to survive; in fact, the Antrobuses, who live in Excelsior, New Jersey, are named after “anthropos,” the Greek word for “human.”
Mr. George Antrobus (David Rasche) is the inventor of the alphabet, the multiplication table, and the wheel; he’s been married for five thousand years to Mrs. Maggie Antrobus (Kecia Lewis), and they have two children, Gladys (Kimber Monroe) and Henry (Reynaldo Piniella). They also have a loud, sexy maid, Lily Sabina (Mary Wiseman), who regularly quits when things don’t go her way, and a pair of prehistoric pets, a dinosaur (Fred Epstein) and a mammoth (Eric Farber). The family makes its way through a series of global crises, an Atlantic City beauty contest, a refugee invasion, a doom-preaching fortune-teller (Mary Lou Rosato), and even Homer (Andrew R. Butler) and Moses (Robert Langdon Lloyd), all the while breaking character and speaking directly to the audience, sometimes as the actor playing the actor playing the role. The show begins with Sabina alone onstage, delivering a monologue about the life and times of the Antrobuses while cleaning up; however, she has to repeat a line about the depression several times as it becomes apparent that another actor has missed their cue, breaking that fourth wall immediately. Out of sight, the stage manager, Mr. Fitzpatrick (William Youmans), tells her, “Make up something! Invent something!” Instead, as Miss Somerset, the actress playing Sabina, she boldly proclaims, “I hate this play and every word in it. As for me, I don’t understand a single word of it, anyway.” For the next two and a half hours, the actors, the actors they’re playing, and the characters they’re playing continually go “off script” to one another and to the audience, including a riotous scene in which Mr. Fitzpatrick must suddenly recast a handful of roles because of illness, needing bodies to recite philosophical musings by Aristotle, Plato, and Spinoza as the planets. Of course, every deviation from the standard, traditional nature of storytelling is carefully choreographed by Wilder and director Arin Arbus.
The Skin of Our Teeth debuted on Broadway in 1942, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Fredric March as Mr. Antrobus, Florence Eldridge as Mrs. Antrobus, Montgomery Clift as Henry, Frances Heflin as Gladys, Tallulah Bankhead as Sabina, E. G. Marshall as Mr. Fitzpatrick, and Dickie Van Patten as the telegraph boy. Wilder was inspired and influenced by the works of Bertolt Brecht, Luigi Pirandello, Gertrude Stein, the German Expressionists, and, primarily, James Joyce and Finnegan’s Wake. The play contains a nearly endless stream of references, particularly biblical (George and Maggie as Adam and Eve, Sabina as Lilith, Henry as Cain), while also attacking subjects that are as relevant today as they were seventy-four years ago, including climate change, war, education, religion, and the refugee crisis. As Vogel also writes, “Regardless of how his characters speak, it is what his characters say that remains timeless.” TFANA associate artistic director Arbus (A Doll’s House, The Father) takes full advantage of the theater, as the cast of nearly three dozen makes its way through the audience and the upper balcony. Riccardo Hernandez’s phenomenal set is centered by two side walls and a roof gable that forms the Antrobus’s open house, which goes through a dazzling change later in the show. César Alvarez’s original music includes a song near the end that is one of the only elements that feels out of place. The play itself has its problems, but this splendid production sweeps most of them aside. “The theatric invention must tirelessly transform every fragment of dialogue into a stylization surprising, comic, violent, or picturesque,” Wilder wrote about the play in his 1940 notebook. This revival of The Skin of Our Teeth does all that and more.
Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20th St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 26, $65
David Mamet has been having a tough time these past few years, earning less-than-stellar reviews for his last three Broadway plays, The Anarchist, China Doll, and a revival of Glengarry Glen Ross. Meanwhile, in a March 11, 2008, piece for the Village Voice entitled, “Why I Am No Longer a ‘Brain-Dead Liberal,’” he publicly proclaimed, “I took the liberal view for many decades, but I believe I have changed my mind.” It appears that no one’s mind is going to be changed by his latest show, The Penitent, continuing through March 26 at the Atlantic Theater, the company that he cofounded with William H. Macy in 1985. Chris Bauer (True Blood, Mamet’s Race) stars as Charles, a psychiatrist thrust into the public eye after a patient he refers to as “the boy” commits a heinous act. A newspaper article about the crime cites the boy’s anger at Charles for calling homosexuality an “aberration,” but Charles insists to his wife, Kath (Rebecca Pidgeon), and his lawyer, Richard (Jordan Lage), that the word he used in his published paper was “adaptation,” a typo that is now threatening his reputation and career. Charles is unwilling to accept the paper’s offer of a small retraction, so he decides to fight for the truth, despite the misgivings of Kath, Richard, and a Bible-quoting deposition lawyer (Lawrence Gilliard Jr. channeling Samuel L. Jackson).
The drama unfolds over a series of two-character scenes around the same desk and chairs, which are rearranged to indicate various locations in Tim Mackabee’s sparse set. Bauer is steadfast as Charles, seemingly a stand-in for Mamet himself, as Bauer sports the playwright’s trademark glasses and even his style of facial hair; in addition, Charles’s wife is portrayed by Mamet’s wife, Pidgeon, who speaks in an overly clear and precise manner, emphasizing her “t”s and “d”s, for example, in an annoying way. The dialogue is sharp if not as fast-paced or brutal as in so many Mamet works, and director Neil Pepe’s pacing is rather lazy as revelation after revelation comes to light, including a twist ending. The crucial fact involved really should have been revealed earlier but becomes merely an excuse to end the ninety-minute show, which also has an intermission. There are several very strong moments in The Penitent, primarily early on as Charles battles for his rights, but as the character finds himself more and more up against the wall and turning to religion for solace, the play devolves and is then just over, leaving too many unanswered questions. Mamet’s return to the Atlantic might not be quite the welcome homecoming the playwright and the audience were expecting.