Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater, the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space
511 West 52nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through March 17
MCC inaugurates its cozy new one-hundred-seat Susan & Ronald Frankel Theater at the Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space on West Fifty-Second St. with the New York premiere of Loy A. Webb’s The Light, a slow-building incendiary drama that opened last night and continues through March 17. Rashad (McKinley Belcher III) and Genesis (Mandi Masden) are celebrating a special evening, exchanging gifts and getting frisky in her beautiful Hyde Park condo, which features two skylights, a long marble kitchen island, a large window looking out on a small garden, and several paintings and photographs by African American artists, including one from Carrie Mae Weems’s highly influential Kitchen Table series. (The impressive set, surrounded on three sides by the audience, is by Kimie Nishikawa.) Rashad is a hunk of a fireman with a young daughter; Genesis is a teacher at an all-black charter school. “You’ve been a tremendous blessing in both our lives, baby,” Rashad says to Genesis, who is curious at his sudden honesty and eloquence. He adds, “Specially mine. It used to get me down thinking about all the failed relationships I had before you. But I realized that wasn’t nothing but life pruning me. Just as it would a tree. Cutting out all the old, damaged, and diseased branches that didn’t belong. Making room for the one that did . . . you.” She laughs, and he responds, “Really? I’m trying to have a serious moment and you laugh?” To which she replies, “This is so suspect, Shad. You were one Drake lyric away from singing.” What starts out as a romantic occasion becomes something very different when he presents her with a surprise gift that dredges up painful memories.
Webb’s full-length debut is a potent look at the fragility of love in a #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter world fraught with ever-evolving complications as people walk tenderly around matters of race, sexuality, abuse, and power exemplified by such controversial public cases as the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings and the accusations against such celebrities as R. Kelly and Chris Brown. Over the course of seventy-five minutes, Rashad and Genesis’s relationship, so inspired at the beginning, goes through a series of challenges that tests their future as each one opens up their heart, moving through joy, pain, and redemption. “Please, don’t nobody want you. And the only reason I do is because my biological clock is ticking and I’m desperate,” she teases him, but when she sees he is hurt, she says, “I’m joking, baby.” Drama Desk Award winner Belcher III (The Royale, Ozark) and Masden (Saint Joan, Our Lady of Kibeho) are a formidable duo, each one balancing strength with vulnerability as some deep truths emerge. Webb and director Logan Vaughn (The Agitators) focus on the actors’ electric chemistry, which only intensifies as the friction increases; Ben Stanton’s lighting design keeps the full space partially illuminated so we can see our fellow attendees while also feeling implicated in the characters’ actions, wondering how we would react to the questions Rashad and Genesis ask each other. The play falters somewhat as the end approaches and Webb throws in too many late twists, but the finale hits the mark. Originally developed at the New Colony in Chicago (with Jeffery Owen Freelon Jr. and Tiffany Oglesby, directed by Toma Langston), The Light will leave you gasping for breath — and examining your own meaningful relationships, trying to stay away from the darkness.
Who: Bill T. Jones and Oskar Eustis
What: Bill Chats
Where: New York Live Arts, 219 West 19th St. between Seventh & Eighth Aves., 212-924-0077
When: Monday, February 11, $8-$10, 7:00
Why: New York Live Arts artistic director Bill T. Jones sits down with Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis for the next edition of his “Bill Chats” series, taking place February 11 at 7:00. Jones, an award-winning choreographer — among his many prizes are the Tony, the Obie, the 2013 National Medal of Arts, the 2010 Kennedy Center Honors, and the 1994 MacArthur Genius Award — and Eustis, who directed the controversial 2017 Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar that turned the Roman leader into Donald Trump, will discuss the current sociopolitical climate and how it impacts their decisions as artistic directors.
Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through February 24, $79-$169
Oscar-winning screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Broadway debut, Choir Boy, offers a new twist on a classic dramatic trope: life at an all-male boarding school. But Charles R. Drew Prep School is not quite like the schools depicted in such well-regarded films as Rushmore, Dead Poets Society, Tom Brown’s School Days, Heaven Help Us, or If… The students and the teachers at Drew are all men of color. “My daddy say they used to let you get away with a lil bit because they know how hard it is to be a black man out there,” student Bobby Marrow (J. Quinton Johnson) tells fellow student David Heard (Caleb Eberhardt). “Now, everything got to be watched, gotta be careful, gotta be cordial. Don’t say nothing, don’t say that word, don’t look like that, this shit Pandemic.” Bobby, whose uncle is Headmaster Marrow (Chuck Cooper), is one of several young men in the school’s prestigious choir, along with Pharus Jonathan Young (Jeremy Pope), Junior Davis (Nicholas L. Ashe), Anthony Justin “AJ” James (John Clay III), and David. The show opens with Pharus singing the school song, a much-coveted opportunity, but he takes an unfortunate pause when he is secretly harassed by Bobby, who questions Pharus’s sexual orientation. Afterward, in explaining why he stopped but without snitching on Bobby, Pharus asks the headmaster, “Would you rather be feared or respected?” which becomes an underlying theme of the play as the boys deal with issues of race, gender, homophobia, family, class, and education.
The play suffers dramatically upon the arrival of Mr. Pendleton, a former teacher at the school who has been brought back by the headmaster for inexplicable reasons, unless it is merely to force racial conflict, as Pendleton is white and, oddly, played by the ubiquitous Austin Pendleton, blurring the line between theater and real life in an obtrusive way. The scenes with Mr. Pendleton, who uses racist cracks to supposedly educate the kids, bring the show to a screeching halt and are best forgotten as the story proceeds. Fortunately, there is much to enjoy in the rest of the Manhattan Theater Club production, which has been extended at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through February 24.
Pope (Ain’t Too Proud, Invisible Thread) makes a dazzling Broadway debut as Pharus, a proud, flawed, young gay man who refuses to muzzle himself while often disregarding the feelings of others; it’s an electrifying performance of a role given complex subtleties by McCraney, who cowrote the Oscar-winning Moonlight with Barry Jenkins. The supporting cast portraying the other teens are terrific as well, including Clay III (Encores’ Grand Hotel) as AJ, Pharus’s roommate, who is sensitive to his friend’s situation; Johnson (Hamilton) as the troubled Bobby, who is dealing with his mother’s death; Eberhardt (Is God Is) as David, who is hiding his own secrets; and Ashe (Kill Floor) as Junior, a follower who makes questionable decisions. They might have their share of disagreements, but when they sing such spirituals as “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” and “Rockin in Jerusalem” they show just what they can accomplish together. (Alas, “There’s a Rainbow ’round My Shoulder” feels a bit too obvious and heavy-handed.) Tony winner Cooper (The Life) is splendidly august as the headmaster, who only gets involved when truly necessary, understanding that the students grow when they figure things out for themselves, even if that’s sometimes painful. Thoughtfully directed by Trip Cullman (Lobby Hero, Six Degrees of Separation), Choir Boy is ultimately about tolerance, about the basic human dignity everyone deserves, while for the most part steering clear of grand statements and politically correct sentimentality.
Atlantic Stage 2
330 West 16th St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through February 17, $56.50
I have a difficult confession to make: I have never been a fan of Van Halen, the 1970s/’80s hard rockers with such hits as “Jump,” “Jaimie’s Cryin’,” “Hot for Teacher,” and “Runnin’ with the Devil.” But I am a big fan of Eddie and Dave, first-time playwright Amy Staats’s very funny show about the on-again, off-again relationship between the band’s songwriters, guitarist and composer Eddie Van Halen and lyricist and lead singer David Lee Roth — which has been extended at Atlantic’s Stage 2 through February 17. The story is told in flashback by a former MTV VJ based somewhat on Kurt Loder (“This is my memory play,” she says), centering on the group’s very brief reunion at the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards, when Eddie; his brother, drummer Alex Van Halen; bassist Michael Anthony; and Roth got together for the first time in more than a decade to present a prize. At the podium, Alex leans over and whispers something to Dave; what was said is the mystery behind the play and a solid-enough excuse to dig into the band’s strange and bizarre history. But Staats pulls an outrageous gender switch in her casting: She plays Eddie, Megan Hill is Dave, Adina Verson is Alex, Omer Abbas Salem is Valerie Bertinelli (Eddie’s eventual wife), and Vanessa Aspillaga is the VJ, a roadie, the Van Halens’ father, Quincy Jones, and other minor male characters. Anthony is portrayed by a framed photograph.
Scenic designer Reid Thompson has filled the theater with posters and flyers advertising such other 1970s/’80s groups as Pantera, Misfits, Iron Maiden, Dead Kennedys, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and the Ramones; as the audience enters the space, music by Journey, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, and Aerosmith is likely to have attendees of a certain age singing along and playing air guitar. Montana Levi Blanco’s costumes are send-ups of what the band really wore, including Eddie’s overalls and flannel shirt and Diamond Dave’s flashy over-the-top style. Cookie Jordan is responsible for the fab hair and wigs, featuring some damn fine mullets. Whether because of rights issues or as an artistic (financial?) choice, there is no actual Van Halen music in the show, only instrumental snippets (by Michael Thurber) heard here and there or seen in Shawn Boyle’s projections; in fact, no original Van Halen songs or albums are even mentioned by name except for their 2012 comeback record, A Different Kind of Truth.
None of the actors attempts to impersonate the famous people they portray, instead turning them into eccentric characters who say and do a lot of dumb but endearing stuff, the key word being “dumb.” Thus, Anthony comes off as the most intelligent member of the group, since he never speaks. (“We can’t talk about him; there’s not enough time,” the VJ explains.) Gleefully directed by Margot Bordelon, Eddie and Dave is a highly original mini-soap-rock opera that would delight Wayne and Garth (“Wayne’s World! Excellent!”), a fun and snarky account of a group of grown-up men, and one woman, who are not the brightest bulbs in the chandelier but managed to carve out some pretty successful careers. I’m still not a Van Halen fan, but I definitely have a newfound admiration for their wild and wacky tale.
Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center
262 Ashland Pl. between Lafayette Ave. & Fulton St.
Tuesday - Sunday through February 3, $90-$115
Calvin Trillin brings to life his inspiring relationship with his wife, Alice Stewart, in the heartfelt, beautifully rendered About Alice, continuing through February 3 at Theatre for a New Audience’s intimate Polonsky Shakespeare Center. The eighty-three-year-old Kansas City–born, New York City–based memoirist and humorist’s first full-length play is a love letter to, well, true love, based on his 2006 book, also called About Alice. The story is told in flashback, as Calvin (Jeffrey Bean) shares details of his life with Alice (Carrie Paff), re-creating important and mundane moments; she also corrects him when necessary and takes playful shots at him. Speaking of their meeting at a party in 1963, she says, “I thought you were very funny. I thought you’d be an interesting person to have to dinner after my boyfriend and I were married. At least, that’s what I told myself . . . You have never again been as funny as you were that night.” He responds, “You mean I peaked in December of 1963?” With a smile, she answers, “I’m afraid so.”
Looking out at the audience, they discuss their careers — his as a journalist, food writer, poet, novelist, and popular talk-show guest, hers as an educator, author, film producer, and muse — as well as their families, their upbringing, and their friends. Their repartee is warm and funny, even as they turn to the cancer that would eventually take her life. But she also understood the seriousness of her plight. “For a long time after I found out that I had cancer, I loved hearing stories about people who had simply decided that they would not be sick,” she says. “The thought that my children might grow up without me was ridiculous. I simply had to be there. Not being there was unacceptable. But I also knew that some unacceptable things happen.”
Their relationship was a love affair for the ages, each of them complementing the other with a natural grace, his wry sense of humor a great match for her bubbly enthusiasm for living. At one point Calvin says they were compared to Burns and Allen, although she was George and he was Gracie. David C. Woolard’s costumes are a key part of who they are; while Calvin wears the same ordinary light shirt, brown pants, and dark sports jacket throughout the seventy-five-minute show, which is charmingly directed by Leonard Foglia (Notes from the Field, Master Class), Alice changes myriad times, sometimes in a magically short time, revealing a keen, elegant fashion sense, even when her fancy dresses are put aside for a hospital robe. Riccardo Hernandez’s set consists of a center table with two chairs and two walls with doors, one leading to the back, the other to Alice’s closet. Bean (The Thanksgiving Play, Bells Are Ringing) is terrific as Calvin, calm and easygoing, his eyes aglow with his deep love for his wife. And Paff (Ideation, Stage Kiss) is luminous as an extraordinary, multifaceted woman with a passion for everything she did; it won’t take long before you fall in love with her too. Alice was often a character in Calvin’s writing, but she becomes so much more in this moving tribute to a lovely human being. We should all be so lucky to find someone so special in our lives, no matter how long we have them for.
(Note: Trillin will participate in postshow TFANA Talks following the 2:00 matinees on February 2 and 3, moderated by Budd Mishkin and Alisa Solomon, respectively. In addition, there are printouts in the lobby of two major articles Alice wrote, one for the New Yorker, the other for the New England Journal of Medicine.)
Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20th St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Through January 27, $86.50
Marin Ireland sizzles as a high school English teacher with anger management issues in Abby Rosebrock’s Blue Ridge, which continues through January 27 at the Atlantic’s Linda Gross Theater. Ireland is Alison, a single woman who has been sentenced to six months at St. John’s Service House, a faith-based halfway home in western North Carolina, for having taken an ax to her principal’s car. The facility is run by Pastor Hern (Chris Stack) and his assistant, Grace (Nicole Lewis), who hold daily sessions in which either they or the residents read a Bible passage of their own choosing and then relate it to their life and addiction. Also living at the house is Cherie (Kristolyn Lloyd), another teacher; Wade (Kyle Beltran), a wannabe guitarist and songwriter; and the newly arrived Cole (Peter Mark Kendall), a young man who appears to be a bit addled. Alison has lost her license and been told she will never teach again, but she is determined to get a second chance and has opted for St. John’s because “the Yelp review said, ‘Best in Appalachia.’” Each of the characters has their own problems to solve, and Alison can’t help but get in the middle of most of them, unable to control her passion for what she considers the right thing to do, turning everything upside down as her inner rage threatens to bust out again.
Blue Ridge takes place in a quaint living room with a back window looking out at the woods behind the house, where freedom awaits. (The set design is by Adam Rigg.) Rosebrock (Dido of Idaho, Different Animals) creates well-drawn characters, each with their own touch of mystery, and she avoids being condescending to them, although it occasionally comes close. Cole’s game of “Tree or Stalin,” in which people have to guess an object in a twist on “Twenty Questions” (“Is it bigger than a breadbox?”), is odd and confusing, and one of the main conflicts seems forced, but Obie-winning director Taibi Magar (Is God Is, The Great Leap) wisely keeps the focus on Ireland. You can’t take your eyes off her; she’s constantly making small gestures and scrunching up her malleable face in extraordinary ways, each movement adding insight to her character, and you won’t want to miss a second of it. Ireland, who has won an Obie (Cyclone) and been nominated for a Tony (reasons to be pretty), two Drama Desk Awards (On the Exhale, Ironbound), and an Independent Spirit Award (Glass Chin), is one of New York’s finest actors; she makes anything she’s in worth seeing, and makes it better merely by her glowing presence.
In the world premiere of Jessica Dickey’s The Convent, which opened last night at A.R.T./New York Theatres, six nondenominational spiritual seekers, all women, go on a weeklong retreat to find out who they are and what they want in life. In the world premiere of Coral Cohen’s Between the Threads, which opened tonight at HERE, five Jewish women talk about the limitations of growing up female in a religious tradition that limits their freedom to determine their own identity. There are numerous intriguing similarities between the two superb plays, from the very outset. In Between the Threads, the women are informally chatting with one another as the audience enters the space, the stage dotted with knitted dreamcatcher-like objects referencing weaving, which is traditionally considered women’s work, while in The Convent, one of the women is sweeping up leaves as the audience comes in; she then sits down and starts to sew. Both works also examine matriarchal lineages and the relationship among daughters, mothers, and grandmothers.
“I remember when I first climbed those stairs. I was penniless, lost, exhausted, but more than that — I was spiritually bankrupt,” Mother Abbess (Wendy vanden Heuvel) says after a new group of women enter the courtyard of the Convent. “No matter what has brought you, what you sacrificed to get here — no matter your past, your beliefs, if you’re rich or broke, thanks to the support of a generous few — you are welcome here.” Jill (Margaret Odette), Wilma (Lisa Ramirez), Tina (Brittany Anikka Liu), and Patti (Samantha Soule) have joined Dimlin (Annabel Capper) and Bertie (Amy Berryman) in the south of France, seeking insight into their lives. They all don similar long blue robes and share intimate details about themselves, filtering them through the nomen card they each select from a deck of female saints. (Nomen is Latin for “name,” but it also can be read as “no men.”) For example, Jill picks Teresa of Avila, Patti chooses Mechthild of Magdeburg, and Dimlin gets Catherine of Siena.
Each day is filled with chores and rituals, prayers and discussion sessions. While some of the characters are free and open, others are more tightly wound and self-protective; there is also a fierce tension between Patti and Mother Abbess. “You’re trespassing, you are not welcome at this retreat,” Mother Abbess tells the snarky Patti, who responds, “Now where’s the fun in that?” Mother Abbess strongly retorts, “I will do it. They’ll drag you cuffed and screaming. Don’t you dare fuck this up for this group of women.” They might be in a convent praying regularly to God, but this is no typical house of worship. In fact, Mother Abbess surprisingly declares, “I never liked church. I hated being told what to say, I hated being talked to through the words ‘he’ and ‘mankind.’ I felt like spirituality was this little peephole I was allowed to look through, into this room that other people got to be in. But spirituality is exactly what I was seeking. Sovereignty. True sovereignty.” Of course, not everyone gets what they were seeking.
Evoking Small Mouth Sounds, in which a diverse group of people join a silent retreat, The Convent takes place in the middle of the theater, the audience sitting on either side of Raul Abrego’s long, narrow, horizontal stage, which features medieval-style architecture and several plantings. The cast, wearing Tristan Raines’s costumes, often carries chairs on and off the concrete patio during prayers and discussions; Katherine Freer’s projections depict flowers blowing in the wind outside as well as Middle Ages paintings. Soule has the meatiest part, and she tackles it with relish as her character chortles, rolls her eyes, flirts with others, and often stands alone. Odette is excellent as Jill, a married woman with deep wounds, and vanden Heuvel (the artistic director of Weathervane Theater, which is presenting the play with Rattlestick) nails Mother Abbess, who harbors some dark secrets of her own. Dickey’s dialogue crackles with truth while Daniel Talbott’s direction is both warm and energetic.
Truth is also central to Between the Threads (Jewish Women Project), in which co-creators Hannah Goldman, Lea Kalisch, Luisa Muhr, Daniella Seidl, and Laura Lassy Townsend essentially play themselves, telling their personal stories about the impact the Jewish religion has had on who they are and who they want to be. Hailing from the Ashkenazi, Sephardic, and Mizrahi traditions, they are joined by klezmer musician Zoë Aqua, who sits in a far corner playing the violin. “It’s not fair that people grow up. It’s not fair that you suddenly have to have your bat mitzvah and suddenly become a woman now and suddenly you can’t play with us,” Daniella says to Laura, adding, “Eventually, we will join your side for a lifetime of suffering. We too will become women.” The five women wear similar types of white or off-white clothing, either a skirt, a dress, or pants, and all are barefoot. (The costumes are by Johanna Pan, with set design by Lauren Barber.) The women prance about the stage fancifully, move about chairs to sit or stand on, and occasionally sing and dance as they relate the feminine aspects of their heritage, even including snippets of their mothers and grandparents talking.
The young women discuss immigration, rituals, weddings, funerals, the Torah, Christmas, and the mechitza, the partition that separates the men from the women in Orthodox synagogues. “I dream of a world without barriers. Where everyone has space. Where everyone has freedom,” Hannah says, while Lea explains, “I love the mechitza — it makes me feel more woman.” Lea, who previously described herself as a rebel, also says, “I am a twenty-first-century woman / I am in charge. . . . I’m yearning to be where the men are / as a man / Yearning for a dream / Is that what it means to be a Jewish woman? / I want to be where the men are / Want to feel like they feel,” getting right to the heart of the conflict within each of them. Throughout the seventy-five-minute show, the women make direct eye contact with the audience, reaching out for catharsis, and it’s easy to respond to them as they lay their feelings bare with humor and intelligence. In some ways they recall Tevye’s daughters from Fiddler on the Roof, trying to find their place in Judaism and the world outside. It’s no simple task; it might be a matrilineal religion, but it’s still the men who call the shots in the more fundamentalist branches.
The Convent and Between the Threads are both in harmony and counterpoints to each other. (They are also both general admission seating and performed without an intermission.) Each focuses on women’s identity in contemporary society and how faith and family impact that. Each show includes singing — in The Convent it’s a Madonna song, of course — as well as same-sex relationships. They also look at the concept of God and the power of motherhood; specific men are rarely mentioned. In Between the Threads, Luisa says, “My religion is culture, is art. I found Judaism through music. My mother found Judaism through music. You can’t silence music and you can’t silence the voices that sing it. We break down the bars. We break down the walls. And yes, we break the male gaze.” In The Convent, Mother Abbess explains, “Women cannot follow men. They can learn from them, they can partner with them, but they cannot follow them. . . . A woman can only follow herself. Which means a woman must lead herself. Which means a woman must always strive to be both — the one who is following, and the one who is leading.” The primary difference between the two shows is that in The Convent, the characters are hurt and angry, severely disappointed with their lives, but in Between the Threads the women are joyous and happy even as they grapple with disturbing aspects of their religion. The women in Between the Threads are not in need of a spiritual retreat, nor would the women in The Convent likely find the answers they are seeking in Judaism.