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


(photo by Richard Termine 2017)

Atalanta Lagana (Sherie Rene Scott) and Mrs. Dragonetti (Mary Testa) are at odds throughout John Patrick Shanley’s The Portuguese Kid (photo by Richard Termine 2017)

Manhattan Theatre Club
MTC at New York City Center – Stage I
Tuesday - Sunday through December 3, $95-$112.50

Tony, Oscar, and Pulitzer Prize winner John Patrick Shanley was feeling down in the dumps about the state of the world, so he decided it was time for an old-fashioned Neil Simon-style romantic farce; the result is the hilarious, if bumpy, comedy The Portuguese Kid, which opened last night at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage I at City Center. Grieving widow Atalanta Lagana (Sherie Rene Scott) is in the Providence, Rhode Island, home office of her lawyer and childhood friend, Barry Dragonetti (Jason Alexander), reviewing the estate of her recently deceased second husband, Vinny, “a passive aggressive fascist” foot surgeon who voted for Donald J. Trump. ESP-obsessed Atalanta is wearing a sexy black mourning dress and sunglasses, pummeling Barry, who seems to have forced himself into a too-tight, too-blue business suit, with a barrage of brutal one-liners. They’ve been at odds for forty years, ever since ten-year-old Atalanta saved fifteen-year-old Barry when he was mugged by a Portuguese kid, leading to his lifelong horror of anything Portuguese. Atalanta slyly reveals that she’s now seeing Freddy Imbrossi (Pico Alexander), a twenty-nine-year-old carefree would-be poet and real estate agent — and the former passionate lover of Patty (Aimee Carrero), Barry's hot, sexy, and sensitive young Puerto Rican wife. “What is it? You got a problem with Freddy?” Atalanta says to a disgruntled Barry, who responds, “You got a problem. Freddy Imbrossi? You’d be better off with Lyme disease!” Atalanta then explains that she's been calling out Barry's name during sex for years (with both her deceased husbands), which confuses Barry but infuriates his nine-toed mother (Mary Testa), who has been listening in by the door. Barry recuses himself from Atalanta’s case, which fills Mrs. Dragonetti with glee. “I pray to God I never have to violate these eyes with the sight of you again,” she says to the two-time widow.

Clever, witty, and, sometimes a little roughly, the next three scenes in this intermissionless one-act move from Atalanta’s corny but lush bedroom to Barry’s well-appointed backyard, where Patty and Mrs. Dragonetti go at it next, no holds barred, leaving Barry torn between his fiery young wife, who remembers fondly how they met and fell in love, and his hotheaded, nasty mother, who thinks no one is good enough for her baby. The final scene takes place in Atalanta’s garden, where all of the characters gather for a lunch they’ll never forget.

Everyone gathers for a frenetic feast in Manhattan Theatre Club world premiere (photo by Richard Termine 2017)

Everyone gathers for a frenetic feast in Manhattan Theatre Club world premiere (photo by Richard Termine 2017)

The Bronx-born Shanley (Doubt, Moonstruck, Prodigal Son,) wrote and directed The Portuguese Kid, making changes to the second and fourth scenes up to the very last minute during previews, and it unfortunately shows; those scenes are more chaotic and unformed than the fabulous first and third scenes, in which the characters are well developed, the actors get to strut their stuff, and the plot thickens in wonderfully acerbic ways. Alexander (Seinfeld, Merrily We Roll Along) excels in a role written with him in mind, all pent-up anger waiting to explode, while three-time Tony nominee Scott (Everyday Rapture, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) is simply fab as the unpredictable, tough-talking Atalanta (loosely inspired by the virgin huntress in Greek mythology), who regularly admits to having “a darkness.” And there’s little left of the scenery after Drama Desk Award winner Testa (First Daughter Suite, Queen of the Mist) gets through with it; her physical presence is the center of gravity around which her galactic verbal barrages fly. Alexander (Punk Rock, What I Did Last Summer) and Carrero (Young & Hungry, What Rhymes with America) have their moments, but their roles are not as fully fleshed out as Jason Alexander’s and Scott’s; in some ways, the quartet evokes Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The snazzy production features a movable set by John Lee Beatty, fun, colorful costumes by William Ivey Long (Scott’s dresses are too die for), and original music and sound by MTC stalwart Obadiah Eaves. “You underestimate women,” Atalanta tells Barry, who answers, “I’m glad you think so.” In The Portuguese Kid, Shanley most certainly does not underestimate women — or his audience.


(photo by Paula Court)

Lemmy Caution (Jim Fletcher) and Natacha Von Braun (Elizabeth Carena) get caught up in mysterious intrigue in Why Why Always (photo by Paula Court)

Abrons Arts Center, Underground Theater
466 Grand St. at Pitt St.
Wednesday - Sunday through October 29, $25

Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville meets the ASMR phenomenon in Shaun Irons and Lauren Petty’s multimedia futuristic sci-fi noir, Why Why Always, continuing at Abrons Arts Center’s Underground Theater through October 29. The prescient 1965 man vs. machine film starred Eddie Constantine as secret agent Lemmy Caution, who leaves the Outerlands and enters Alphaville posing as reporter Ivan Johnson in order to find out what happened to fellow agent Henry Dickson and to track down mysterious scientist Professor Von Braun. Irons and Petty reimagine the story using multiple monitors and cameras, live feeds and prerecorded scenes, overlapping dialogue, disembodied voices, mirrors and scrims, and more, in black-and-white and color. Longtime New York City Players member Jim Fletcher (Isolde, The Evening) stars as Caution, driving through darkness and moving through Alphaville in his trench coat, gun at the ready. Natacha (Elizabeth Carena), the professor’s daughter, is assigned to accompany him, making sure he doesn’t break any of Alpha 60’s rules, while a pair of seductresses (Laura Bartczak and Marion Spencer) hover around to take care of his more private needs. Wooster Group and Elevator Repair Service veteran Scott Shepherd (who currently can be seen in Measure for Measure at the Public) appears with Madeline Best on video, and Irons and Petty (Keep Your Electric Eye on Me, Standing By: Gatz Backstage) handle the technological aspects and live processing, including going onstage to reposition the cameras as necessary.

Meanwhile, Carena, Bartczak, and Spencer occasionally break out of character and engage in ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response), slow, repetitive movements that have little to do with the plot but create both calm and stimulating atmospheres. Christina Campanella does the narration, with voiceovers by Olivier Conan and Irons, additional music by the Chocolate Factory’s Brian Rogers, costumes and props by Amy Mascena (clothing changes are made at front stage right, visible to some of the audience), complex sound design by Irons and Petty and implemented by Ian Douglas-Moore, and moody lighting courtesy of Jon Harper, referencing Raoul Coutard’s cinematography from the film. The production style of Why Why Always evokes such works as Reid and Sara Farrington’s Casablancabox and Big Dance Theater’s Comme Toujours Here I Stand, tech-heavy, complicated re-creations of Casablanca and Cléo from 5 to 7, respectively. What does it all mean? “That’s always how it is,” Caution says. “You never understand anything. And in the end, it kills you.” It won’t kill you, but it will keep you calmly stimulated and entertained throughout its ninety-minute running time.


(photo © 2017 Joan Marcus)

Prison guard Valdez (Ricardo Chavira, center) calmly reads as Angel Cruz (Sean Carvajal, left) and Lucius Jenkins (Edi Gathegi, right) consider their fate in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train (photo © 2017 Joan Marcus)

The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Irene Diamond Stage
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 19, $30 through November 12, $45 after

With the U.S. incarceration system under increasing scrutiny and as talk of closing down the infamous Rikers Island jail grows, the time is ripe for the first New York City revival of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s 2000 play, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, and a blistering version opened last night at the Irene Diamond Stage at the Signature Theatre. The play is not an activist exposé of the penal system as much as a searing journey into the battle for the soul of humanity, set in Rikers, pitting good vs. evil, light vs. dark, God vs. the Devil, and guard vs. inmate. Edi Gathegi is electrifying as Lucius Jenkins, a serial killer whom we see only during his one outdoor hour a day, caged in the prison yard, where the sun beats down on him as he madly exercises and spouts off like a man in heat, with an opinion about everything, from television to cookies to the surgeon general. But soon friendly, sympathetic guard Charlie D’Amico (Erick Betancourt) is replaced by the more vicious and condescending Valdez (Ricardo Chavira), and Lucius gets a new neighbor.

“People think everything is replaceable. Everything is not replaceable,” Valdez explains. “People believe they go through life accumulating things. That is incorrect. People go through life discarding things, tangible and intangible, replaceable and priceless. What people do not understand is that once they have discarded an irreplaceable item, it is lost forever.” Joining Lucius for the daily sixty minutes away from their twenty-three-hour lockdown is Angel Cruz (Sean Carvajal), a thirty-year-old man arrested for shooting the Reverend Kim in the butt; he believes the minister is a cult leader who kidnapped and brainwashed his best friend. Angel is not initially cool with his court-appointed public defender, Mary Jane Hanrahan (Stephanie DiMaggio), but she takes an interest in his case even after he admits to her that he did it, setting up a potential serious ethical violation. With Angel’s trial and Lucius’s extradition to execution-happy Florida looming, the characters discuss faith, the existence of God, the law, and time, which is running out on both of them.

(photo © 2017 Joan Marcus)

Lucius Jenkins (Edi Gathegi) gets an earful from prison guard Valdez (Ricardo Chavira) in Stephen Adly Guirgis revival at the Signature (photo © 2017 Joan Marcus)

Without getting pedantic or simplistic, Pulitzer Prize winner Guirgis (Between Riverside and Crazy, The Little Flower of East Orange) explores many basic dichotomies in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, from the names of the two men in prison, Angel (a celestial being) and Lucius (the son of the devil), to a brief discussion of two kinds of Oreos, chocolate fudge and vanilla fudge. (Also, while Lucius worships the sun, Angel shot a man based on the Reverend Sun Myung Moon where the sun don’t shine.) Obie winner Mark Brokaw (Heisenberg, The Lyons) directs with a strong but understanding hand, giving room for the actors to intersect with Guirgis’s sharp language. Riccardo Hernandez’s set, boldly lit by Scott Zielinski, features a pair of cells a few feet apart, surrounded by concrete blocks, the cages open at the front not only to give the audience a clearer view inside but to imply that anyone can end up there. In his off-Broadway debut, Gathegi (Two Trains Running, Superior Donuts), stepping in for the originally announced Reg E. Cathey, is a whirlwind of energy as Lucius, constantly on the move, exercising, climbing up the cage, lifting his arms defiantly, and throwing matches and cigarettes over to Angel; he doesn’t just speak his lines but he lives every word. Carvajal (Seven Spots on the Sun, Tell Hector I Miss Him), who took over for Victor Rasuk just before previews began, still needs to find his sea legs as Angel, who spends much of his time sitting in a chair or on a bucket or kneeling in prayer; his emotional shifts from scared to brazen jump around too much, as if he is playing two different characters, but when he hits the right stride, he nails it.

Chavira (A Streetcar Named Desire, Guirgis’s The Motherf**ker with the Hat) portrays Valdez with just the right amount of high-minded privilege because he’s not the one behind bars. When Lucius starts talking about the vibe of these daily workout sessions, Valdez responds, “Oh . . . well, let me, if I may, tell you now about my vibe, my feel. My ‘vibe’ is: Step away from that cage before I come in there and club you to death.” Chavira delivers the lines in a way that makes everyone in the audience lean back in their seat and take notice. DiMaggio (A Free Man of Color, Exile) and Betancourt (Julius Caesar, Guirgis’s The Last Days of Judas Iscariot) each gets to deliver a soliloquy at opposite sides off the stage, their characters the only ones not tied down to Rikers. Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, which was originally directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2000 with a cast consisting of Elizabeth Canavan, Salvatore Inzerillo, Ron Cephas Jones, John Ortiz, and David Zayas, is an exciting beginning to Guirgis’s Signature Residency, which continues next May with his 2002 play, Our Lady of 121st Street, directed by Anne Kauffman, followed in 2018-19 by a new work.


(photo by Richard Termine)

Shakespeare’s words fly by in a fury in Elevator Repair Service’s frenetic Measure for Measure (photo by Richard Termine)

The Public Theater, LuEsther Hall
425 Lafayette St. by Astor Pl.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 12, $75

There’s a frenetic, anarchic pace to Elevator Repair Service’s Indy 500 version of Measure for Measure, running at the Public Theater’s LuEsther Hall through November 12. It’s like Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday on speed, the dialogue whizzing by, in sound and images, as the characters, in a bizarre array of costumes ranging from contemporary suits to hippy outfits to strange fake underpants worn over clothing, engage in corny but funny slapstick and often converse using antique Candlestick telephones even when they are sitting right across the H-shaped table from one another. The play includes every single word of Shakespeare’s script, which is occasionally projected in large letters all across the stage, but it still scrolls past so quickly there is not enough time to read it all. To maintain the verbal madness, which slows down only for one key scene, there is a Teleprompter behind the audience that guides the actors primarily for speed, employing software designed by ERS member Scott Shepherd, who also plays the Duke. (Shepherd and ERS founding artistic director John Collins, the director of Measure for Measure, are veterans of the Wooster Group, which also incorporates unique visuals using monitors in their shows.) You might not clearly understand everything everyone says, but you’ll be able to follow the general shenanigans as the Bard takes on sex, mortality, morality, fidelity, virtue, virginity, marriage, religion, pregnancy, prison, and capital punishment. In Vienna, the Duke is about to head out of town for a while, leaving his deputy, Angelo (Pete Simpson), in charge. However, the Duke hovers around, disguised as a friar, as the story unfolds, involving Juliet (Lindsay Hockaday), who is having a child with Claudio (Greig Sargeant); brothel manager Mistress Overdone (Susie Sokol); Claudio’s sister, Isabella (Rinne Groff), a religious novice; the nun Mariana (April Matthis); the young nobleman and lowlife Lucio (Mike Iveson); the Provost (Maggie Hoffman), who runs the prison; aged adviser Escalus (Vin Knight); constable Elbow (Gavin Price, who also is the sound designer); and various other characters of ill and not-so-ill repute. The plot centers on Angelo’s arrest of Claudio for impregnating Juliet out of wedlock and the deputy’s offer to release him from prison only if Isabella will sleep with him. It’s quite a moral dilemma — especially as more and more men in positions of power in America today are discovered to be sexual predators — and one that is not resolved very easily. “Death is a fearful thing,” Claudio tells Isabella, who responds, “And shamed life a hateful.”

(photo by Richard Termine)

Brothel manager Mistress Overdone (Susie Sokol) has something to say in ERS adaptation of Measure for Measure (photo by Richard Termine)

At a talkback following the October 18 performance, the audience was asked if it was anyone’s first time at the Public, and no hands went up. They were next asked if it was anyone’s first time seeing Shakespeare, and a few hands went up. They were then asked if it was anyone’s first time seeing Measure for Measure, and more than half the hands went up. It is also ERS’s first time doing the Bard, following well-received, original adaptations of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (Gatz), William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (The Select), among other presentations. Founded in 1991 by artistic director John Collins, ERS leans heavily toward the experimental over the traditional, and that is as evident as ever in this exciting version of one of Shakespeare’s seldom-performed problem plays. Director Collins and ERS have chosen to make the ribald shenanigans take a backseat to the staging, which is filled with delightful contradictions and decisions that go from the sublime to the ridiculous. “I’ve come to appreciate that Shakespeare’s densely layered metaphors and dizzying grammatical constructions can’t possibly be thoroughly understood and processed in real-time by any but the Elizabethan scholar. But maybe that doesn’t matter,” Collins writes in a program note. It might have been very different if he had chosen to do a more familiar Shakespeare play, in which much of the audience might already know the main aspects of the plot, so selecting Measure for Measure, which zooms by in an intermissionless 135 minutes, is a curious decision. Of course, opera is not exactly plot-friendly to those who don’t know the story either. In preparing for the show, Collins had the cast and crew watch Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday along with Hands on a Hardbody and the Marx Brothers, elements of which help propel this version to another level that Shakespeare purists might wag a finger at but more adventurous theatergoers will end up clapping wildly at.


(photo by Joan Marcus)

Sherry (Liza Colón-Zayas) and Mary Jane (Carrie Coon) check Alex’s meds in moving, bittersweet drama (photo by Joan Marcus)

New York Theatre Workshop
79 East Fourth St. between Second & Third Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through October 29, $79

The audience never gets a good look at Alex, a seriously ill child, in Amy Herzog’s heart-wrenching and bittersweet Mary Jane. That’s because he’s more than just a chronically sick boy; in the beautifully rendered play, running at New York Theatre Workshop through October 29, he’s representative of the many fears, real and imagined, that haunt us all. Carrie Coon is extraordinary as Mary Jane, a thirtysomething single mother living in a small apartment in Queens with her two-and-a-half-year-old son, Alex, who was born prematurely and requires machines and full-time supervision to keep him alive. A former teacher, Mary Jane works as an administrative assistant for a real estate developer to get health insurance, but the demands of caring for Alex constantly jeopardize that job. As the play opens, the building super, Ruthie (Brenda Wehle), is trying to fix a clog in the sink when she notices that Mary Jane has removed the window guard, which is against the law. “It’s just that he loves looking out the windows, especially when he’s sick and I can’t take him outside?” Mary Jane says. “And it seems like such a small thing but the bars actually do bother him.” We don’t know whether they really bother Alex or not, or whether Mary Jane is projecting her feelings of entrapment in the immensely difficult situation. Alex has several at-home nurses, but the most dedicated is Sherry (Liza Colón-Zayas), who has practically become part of the family; one afternoon she brings over her niece, college student Amelia (Danaya Esperanza), who wants to meet Alex but is taken aback when he doesn’t even seem aware of her presence. A naturally upbeat and helpful person, Mary Jane is also guiding Brianne (Susan Pourfar), a friend of a friend who has a child with similar health issues as Alex. Mary Jane wants to keep Alex out of the hospital, but she has no choice after he suffers a bad seizure and deteriorates. At the hospital, she speaks with the abrupt and direct Dr. Toros (Colón-Zayas); Chaya (Pourfar), a Hasidic woman with a daughter in the same room as Alex; and Tenkei (Wehle), a former teacher and newly ordained Buddhist monk. Meanwhile, she’s on the lookout for Kat (Esperanza), the mysterious music therapist. “There is no more normal,” Sherry tells Mary Jane early on. No, nothing is normal, anywhere, in this brilliantly realized world created by Pulitzer Prize finalist Herzog and two-time Obie-winning director Anne Kauffman.

Amy Herzog and Anne Kaufman

Amy Herzog and Anne Kaufman have teamed up on the beautiful, heart-wrenching Mary Jane at NYTW

Mary Jane is primarily about a single mother caring for her seriously ill child, yet it is also about so much more, particularly fear and faith. Alex spends nearly the entire play unseen by the audience while Laura Jellinek’s (The Nether, The Wolves) set magically morphs from apartment to hospital before our very eyes. The clever setup takes a cue from her recent Broadway design for Marvin’s Room, in which the aging, ill Marvin is onstage for much of the show but is also essentially unseen, in bed in the back, only occasionally visible in silhouette. It’s a key choice in Mary Jane, as Alex is more than just one specific sick boy; instead, he’s symbolic of the personal crises and potential disasters so many of us face every day. In fact, the word “disaster” is used numerous times throughout the show; Brianne works in disaster management, Mary Jane blames an indecipherable note on her phone as an “autocorrect disaster,” Chaya speaks of the need not to get too overwhelmed by disaster, and Amelia mentions having recently visited the 9/11 Museum with her aunt. Meanwhile, faith becomes a critical topic. “Does my faith make it easier?” Chaya, whose name means “life” in Hebrew, asks Mary Jane, continuing, “I don’t think having a sick child is less painful for me than for people without religion, I don’t think so.” Mary Jane is also very much about women in contemporary society and the problematic health-care system. It’s an all-female cast, and the crew is predominantly made up of women as well. Tony nominee Coon (The Leftovers, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) plays Mary Jane with an intoxicating warmth, an everywoman desperately trying to keep on a happy face in extremely difficult times, while the rest of the excellent actors each take on two roles that cleverly relate to each other: Wehle as the philosophical Queens super and the philosophical monk, Colón-Zayas as a nurse and a doctor, Esperanza as a college student and a music therapist, and Pourfar as two very different mothers. “Everybody has stuff,” Mary Jane tells Chaya, who replies, “That’s not true. Some people don’t have stuff. I know a lot of people, in fact, without any stuff at all.” In Mary Jane, there’s certainly a lot of “stuff”: the stuff of life, the stuff of death, and the pain in-between.



Alison Fraser spends all ninety-five minutes of Squeamish in her shrink’s comfy armchair (photo by Maria Baranova)

The Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row
410 West 42nd St. between Ninth & Tenth Aves.
Monday - Saturday through November 11, $52.25

Writer-director Aaron Mark has quickly established himself as one of New York City’s premier purveyors of intense, haunting one-person dramas, and his latest showcases Alison Fraser in the psychological horror tale Squeamish, which opened last night at the Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row. In 2013, Mark shocked audiences with the sensational Another Medea, boasting a bravado performance by Tom Hewitt, followed in 2015 by Daphne Rubin-Vega in Empanada Loca; now two-time Tony nominee Fraser is creepily good in his latest production as Sharon, a fiftysomething single therapist who is more than a bit on edge. The show begins as Sharon has unexpectedly dropped in on her longtime psychiatrist, whom she has not seen since she went off her meds five months earlier. She starts talking nonstop, revealing that she’s now the same age as her mother was when she committed suicide — “an emotionally abusive quasi-religious world-class narcissist alcoholic chain-smoker who completely drains your soul and yet somehow remains one of the smartest, most compelling people on the planet” — and that she’s just returned from her hometown of Lubbock, Texas, where her nephew, Eddie, has also just killed himself. “I need you to know, I would never — never in a million years would I just descend on you at home, in the middle of the night like this, unannounced, if I hadn’t been — absolutely desperate. And — scared. Genuinely scared. That I’d . . . I really might’ve done something. To myself. Or to . . . someone. I don’t know,” Sharon says, wriggling in a comfortable, old-fashioned armchair, occasionally sipping from a black coffee mug, the lamp on a small nightstand next to her providing the only light on Sarah Johnston’s dark, eerie set.


Alison Fraser is mesmerizing as a single woman afraid of needles in Squeamish (photo by Maria Baranova)

Over the course of ninety-five gripping minutes, Sharon tells her bizarre story, which involves delving into her addictions and sobriety, exploring her recurring nightmares about needles, commenting on the sorry state of the world, and regularly referencing blood, in all its many forms and meanings. “I can’t take the sight of blood,” she admits. “I’m so squeamish, I’ll throw up, or pass out, or both, but I can’t look away.” The audience can’t look away either as Fraser (The Secret Garden, Romance/Romance), in a sexy black outfit, gracefully shifts in the big chair, crossing and uncrossing her legs, leaning forward, then pushing herself into a corner, with just enough movement to avoid any boredom, on her or our part, words pouring out of her with rhythmic starts and stops, almost like, well, blood splurting. Fraser seamlessly transitions from Sharon to her sister, Becky; Becky’s husband, Burt; Eddie’s girlfriend, Cara; Cara’s friends, Joanie and Dante; and a dominatrix, Betty, cleverly using voice and limited motion to define each character’s uniqueness. There is a shocking surprise about midway through the play that is genuinely scary, and things build from there. Although there is no blood onstage, Mark and Fraser do an exquisite job of intricately describing scenes that might lead some audience members to experience bloody nightmares, but that’s a small price to pay for witnessing this engrossing piece of theater. (Mark wrote the part specifically for Fraser; he also wrote and directed the 2012 film Commentary, starring Fraser and Hewitt.) A production of All for One Theater, Squeamish lives up to its name, offering plenty of squeamish moments, highlighted by a superbly nuanced performance by Fraser, who seems to be enjoying every bloody minute of it, along with us.


(photo by Ben Arons)

The girls of Special K struts their stuff in immersive KPOP (photo by Ben Arons)

A.R.T./New York
502 West 53rd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Through October 21, $25-$75

The fictional JTM Entertainment and Crossover Productions have teamed up to bring their roster of popular South Korean singing stars to Manhattan in an effort to capture the American audience, and they need your help. That is the setup for the immensely entertaining immersive show KPOP, continuing at A.R.T. through October 21. An inventive collaboration between Ars Nova (Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812), Woodshed Collective (Empire Travel Agency), and Ma-Yi Theater (The Romance of Magno Rubio), KPOP ostensibly invites people behind the scenes of a music factory, with the audience becoming small focus groups that are led through numerous rooms as they follow how stars are made. “This is my Korea / This is my story-ya,” JTM’s roster belts out at the beginning, setting the stage for cultural arguments about sacrificing Korean heritage in order to make it big in the States, a discussion built around Crossover head Jerry (James Seol), a master marketer who was born in America and knows little about Korea. JTM is led by the elegant and proper Jae Tak Moon (James Saito) and his wife, Ruby (Vanessa Kai), a former superstar singer who now likes to spout odd Korean sayings, such as “When you’re eating kimchi, don’t lick the sauce first.” Each focus group’s experience is slightly different, but it doesn’t matter which you are part of, as you’ll eventually meet Dr. Park (David Shih), who is ready to take his scalpel to every face to craft it into something even more beautiful; vocal coach Yazmeen (Amanda Morton); strict dance teacher Jenn (Ebony Williams), who makes sure the performers know all the right moves; girl group Special K, consisting of Sonoma (Julia Abueva), Tiny D (Katie Lee Hill), Mina (Susannah Kim), Callie (Sun Hye Park), and XO (Deborah Kim); boy band F8, featuring Timmy X (Joomin Hwang), Oracle (Jinwoo Jung), Lex (Jiho Kang), Bobo (John Yi), and Epic (Jason Tam); and label diva MwE (Marina Kondo).

Boy band F8 gives it their all in KPOP (photo by Ben Arons)

Boy band F8 gives it their all in awesomely phenomenal KPOP (photo by Ben Arons)

Unfortunately, not everything is going according to plan. Not happy with Special K’s rehearsal, Jenn shouts, “Do y’all understand why you’re here? This is where the sausage is made. When they [the audience members] leave, they should want the sausages. Right now, no one wants the sausages.” Moon adds, “I love all of you like my own children. Why do you continue to break my heart?” Meanwhile, MwE, who has a rather luxurious private chamber, is worried that Sonoma, aka Jessica, is going to supplant her as the label’s centerpiece; Epic wants to take F8 in a new direction, which angers Bobo; and there’s a mysterious building tension between Timmy X and Callie. But at the heart of it all is the concept of trying to maintain one’s cultural heritage and become international pop icons. “If you are Korean, why don’t you speak Korean?” Callie asks Jerry, who replies, “Who says I have to speak Korean to be Korean?” Callie answers, “Don’t you care where you’re from?” to which Jerry responds, “I’m from San Diego. . . . You could be a real sensation here. If you could just lose the accent.” The book by Korean-born New Yorker Jason Kim is superb, wonderfully weaving through clichés and melodrama as the individual characters burst forth and the story takes shape, while the music, lyrics, and orchestrations, by Helen Park and Max Vernon, have just the right pop flourishes, from “Wind Up Doll” and “Shopaholic” to “So in Love” and “All I Wanna Do,” from “Dizzy” and “Hahahaha” to “Phoenix” and “Amerika (Checkmate).” Music director Sujin Kim-Ramsey nails the various styles, with genre-licious choreography by Jennifer Weber, flashy costumes by Tricia Barsamian, projections by Phillip Gulley, and splashy lighting by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew. Director Teddy Bergman keeps everything flowing beautifully as the audience marches through the numerous sets, designed by Woodshed Collective cofounder Gabriel Hainer Evansohn, including a doctor’s office, a sound booth, a lounge with multiple platforms, a mirrored dance rehearsal space, and several surprises. In order to enjoy immersive theater, you have to be willing to fully immerse yourself in it, and there’s plenty to get involved in with KPOP, an awesome journey into music making, promotion, assimilation, the desire for fame, and more. Early on, Jerry explains that the mission of his agency “is to launch rockets into American markets.” With a sly sense of humor and charm to spare, KPOP accomplishes that mission, in explosive, provocative ways.