Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th St. between Broadway & Eighth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 24, $79-$169
Eileen Atkins and Jonathan Pryce are more than reason enough to see Florian Zeller’s latest intricate family drama, The Height of the Storm, although the play doesn’t quite live up to its lofty ambitions. The follow-up to Zeller’s trilogy of The Father, The Mother, and The Son, this new work shares themes with its predecessors, particularly The Father; as in that story, an elderly man named André (Pryce) with two daughters, Anne (Amanda Drew) and Élise (Lisa O’Hare), is having trouble with his memory. But in this case, there has been a death, but it’s not clear whether it’s André, an extremely successful writer, or his wife, Madeleine (Atkins). References to a recent bereavement are many, yet the two elderly married characters appear in scenes together that do not seem to be flashbacks. “There’s nothing to understand. People who try to understand things are morons,” an ornery André says, which is good advice to the audience as well, who shouldn’t try to think too hard to figure out what’s happening, whether we’re watching the present, the past, or the meanderings of a man suffering from dementia.
Anne is going through her father’s papers at the request of his editor to find more material to publish. Élise and her latest boyfriend, real estate agent Paul (James Hiller), are in from Paris, about to rush back for an important meeting. Madeleine is much calmer, walking through their vegetable garden and making her husband’s favorite mushroom dish. (The play takes place in Anthony Ward’s cozy, high-ceilinged kitchen set.) But when a woman (Lucy Coho) arrives claiming to be an old friend of André’s, his memory is tested yet again. “I had a life. I don’t deny it. But in the end, what’s left?” André opines. “A few faces? A few names lost in the fog? Here and there . . . Not much more. May as well forget everything.”
Pryce (Comedians, Miss Saigon), who has won two Tonys and two Olivier Awards, and three-time Olivier Award winner Atkins (Honour, A Room of One’s Own) are impeccable, delivering meticulous performances anchored by the fear that after fifty years of marriage, either André or Madeleine must go first, leaving the other one alone. Drew (Three Days in the Country, Enron), who played Anne in James Macdonald’s production of The Father at the Duke of York’s Theatre in 2016, is staunchly resolute as the daughter trying to keep everything from falling apart. The ninety-minute play features profound lighting by Hugh Vanstone, particularly as it relates to Pryce, who is sometimes cast in darkness while the others remain lit and talking. But director Jonathan Kent (Plenty, Naked) and translator Christopher Hampton (who did the same for the previous three related works) don’t always maneuver fluidly through the narrative; part of the intent is to set the viewer off balance, but too much manipulative confusion is not ideal, especially when accompanied by a clichéd twist. “What is my position? What is my position here? What is my position? My position! What is my position here? My position. Here. What is it? My position . . . what is it?” André frantically demands at one point. The audience is often not sure, which can be both hypnotic and aggravating.
133 Greenwich St.
Tuesday - Sunday through November 3, $45-$50
I loved the grand finale of I Can’t See, the latest immersive frightfest from Timothy Haskell and Paul Smithyman of Psycho Clan, the masterminds behind such other surreal events as Full Bunny Contact, Santastical, and This Is Real. Unfortunately, much of what came before left me uncomfortable and unimpressed. I Can’t See is a forty-five-minute guided journey in complete darkness; after signing in, visitors are double-blindfolded and given headphones through which they receive instructions and follow the narrative, which is based on “The Toll-House,” the classic 1909 British ghost story by W. W. Jacobs about a group of friends who decide to spend the night in a possibly haunted mansion. The setup is that you, identified as Sam, are taking part in an experiment by Optecs Corp about fear. “You’ve often mocked the poor decisions of others who are in situations of peril. Confident that you would do better,” a voice says. “Now you have that chance. You will be in peril. You will make decisions. Decisions that will reflect your character. . . . It is better that you know that you are not a hero than to think you could be one if only you had the chance. That is also freeing. Free to be the coward you have been too afraid to admit you are.”
But those instructions, which conclude with a demonic voice threatening, “You’re going to die,” are disingenuous. For most of the presentation, you are led around by hands and bodies that push, prod, jostle, and shift you as you make your way through various scenarios. You must follow the unseen path by holding on to “umbilicals,” either rope, a banister, or another material, to help position you. I found myself regularly bumping into what I believed to be one of the other two people I was going through with, detracting from my experience while, I hoped, not negatively affecting theirs. These regular occurrences also took me out of the story, which I was fully prepared to invest myself in.
You might not be able to see, but you will get to use your senses of touch, smell, taste, and hearing, some of which is fun and some of which is not. There are also several mentions of a bright blue light, which made me think of the Tribute in Light that is projected every year on 9/11 where the Twin Towers once stood; I Can’t See takes place in a space on Greenwich St. in the shadows of the former World Trade Center.
But then comes the exciting ending, in which you are by yourself. (I would have much preferred to go through the whole thing alone.) At last, you get to make your own decisions, and in my case, I survived. The two people who were with me, alas, suffered a far worse fate. Early on in I Can’t See, after an escape artist has serious difficulties, the MC announces, “Terribly sorry, folks. That did not go as planned. We will work out the kinks and bring you another show tomorrow.” The same might be said for I Can’t See itself.
Who: Ed Kranepool, Art Shamsky, Ron Swoboda
What: Fiftieth anniversary celebration of the Mets’ 1969 world championship
Where: Cradle of Aviation Museum, Charles Lindbergh Blvd., Garden City, 516-572-4111
When: Wednesday, October 16, $50-$100, 7:00
Why: Something remarkable shocked the world in the summer and fall of 1969. No, I’m not talking about the lunar landing or Woodstock but something even more amazing: The New York Mets made a seemingly impossible run in August and September to capture the National League pennant and go on to the World Series, where, on October 16, they won Game Five to defeat the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles and become world champions. On Wednesday, October 16, three of the Amazin’s improbable stars, Art Shamsky, Ed Kranepool, and Ron Swoboda, will be in the Cradle of Aviation Museum’s Dome Theater in Garden City to talk about that unlikely victory by a group of misfits based in Queens. General admission is $50; VIP entry of $100 comes with up-front seating and a photo and autograph session.
The front of the program of Ruth Stage’s intimate, streamlined production of The Glass Menagerie, which opened last week for a woefully limited engagement at the Wild Project, is a film-noir-like image of the cast, with Wingfield matriarch Amanda (Ginger Grace), son Tom (Matt de Rogatis), and daughter Laura (Alexandra Rose) dressed in black, staring out at the viewer; Amanda stands far left, stern and tall over the others; kneeling in front of her is Tom, who looks like a cat burglar with a black knit hat pulled tight on his head. He holds a cigarette, at the very center of the photo, that points at Laura, far right, in a sexy shoulder-baring dress with a few sequins, looking as vulnerable as the small, fragile glass animal she is balancing in her hand. In between the siblings sits the gentleman caller (Spencer Scott), in a gray suit and white shirt, peering at Laura. It’s a compelling portrait, and one that gets to the heart of this dark adaptation even though it is fantasy; not only is the scene not in the play, but the three Wingfields never wear those costumes, and the smoking is done with imaginary cigarettes. It’s like a misconstructed memory, a skewed reality. “I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion,” Tom says directly to the audience in the opening monologue. “The play is memory. Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.” In the hands of codirectors Austin Pendleton and Peter Bloch, it is also bold, powerful, and exquisitely rendered.
Williams’s semiautobiographical 1944 play is about a domineering mother, a physically disabled daughter, and a desperate son who can’t find his place. But Pendleton and Block, who previously collaborated on Ruth Stage’s epic Wars of the Roses also with de Rogatis, offer a very different take in this intimate version of a dysfunctional family. Jessie Bonaventure’s set is cramped and claustrophobic, with a round kitchen table, a sofa, part of a fire escape, and an alley off to one side. Hovering over it all is a large photo of Amanda’s husband and Tom and Laura’s father, a telephone man who ran off years before and has not been heard from since, although his presence is felt in everything they do. Steve Wolf’s lighting, Jesse Meckl’s sound design, Sean Hagerty’s score, and Arlene’s costumes maintain the eerie mood.
The tale is narrated by Tom, with de Rogatis, in a homey southern accent, making eye contact with all eighty-nine members of the audience, as if each of us is getting our own private telling. Instead of portraying Amanda as strict and manipulative, Grace plays her with a soft tenderness that is heartbreaking, reminiscent of Mary Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. And Rose, in her professional theater debut, is beguiling as Laura, who is not quite as fragile as usual; Rose uses no limp to depict her character’s physical impairment. This is Tom’s memory, after all, his remembrance of what happened once upon a time in 1939 St. Louis, and Pendleton and Bloch have replaced the homoerotic subtext that is often evident in the relationship between Tom and his work acquaintance, gentleman caller Jim O’Connor (sharply played by Scott), with incestuous undertones; when Tom lurks in the background, watching Jim and Laura, he appears jealous and unhappy, leaving when they kiss as if a spurned lover. He does not recall Laura as a physically damaged little girl but as a beautiful young woman who deserves more.
There have been two major Broadway revivals of The Glass Menagerie in the last six years, first by John Tiffany, starring Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinto, Celia Keenan-Bolger, and Brian J. Smith at the Booth in 2013, then by Sam Gold, with Sally Field, Joe Mantello, Madison Ferris, and Finn Wittrock at the Belasco in 2017. Pendleton and Bloch’s production might not have big names and a big budget, but its grim, haunting take is a must-see. Here’s hoping it gets extended past its October 20 closing date so more can partake of its ingenuity and inventiveness.
Two years ago, Kara Walker’s site-specific Katastwóf Karavan nearly didn’t make it to New Orleans’ Prospect.4 Triennial: The Lotus in Spite of the Swamp because of disagreements over shipping costs. But it ultimately took its place on Algiers Point, and now the completely fabricated wagon will be pulling into the Pamella and Daniel DeVos Family Largo outside the Whitney, where it will perform for free from 1:00 to 6:30 on Saturday. The California-born, New York-based artist was inspired to construct the wagon after reading an insufficient, small historical plaque (see below) at Algiers Point identifying the location where enslaved Africans were “held before being ferried across the river to the Slave Auctions” as well as after hearing calliope music coming from the Natchez riverboat, a steamboat reminiscent of the kind used to transport the slaves. The four-wheeled, four-ton circus-style wagon features Walker’s trademark silhouette figures of slaves being abused by masters on all four sides in water-cut steel, with a loud, thirty-eight-note steam-powered calliope inside, custom made by Kenneth Griffard. The presentation is taking place in conjunction with jazz musician Jason Moran’s solo show at the Whitney, which continues through January 5; Texas native Moran will play the calliope at 6:00 on Saturday.
In the Prospect.4 performance handout, Walker, whose My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love ran at the Whitney in 2007-8, explained, “I was thinking a lot about music as the bearer of our emotional history, and about the way Jazz and gospel and African American Music are testaments to survival of our culture in the face of unrelenting, nihilistic ‘Progress’ and how it’s regarded as a monument in American History etc. But also thinking about how the Industrial Revolution, the Steam Engine and Cotton Gin were pivotal in usurping and grinding up the bodies of laborers and how much of that action, John Henry style, occurs today, with Humans fighting uphill battles to prove themselves against the latest technology. Steam engines are quaint things of the past, but industry presses on without us. The Machines have changed, but the action stays the same. How would it be if the old steam engines that ate us, swallowed too, our songs and pain, and what if, when its time was done, and slated for the scrapheap, the Steam Engine sang out in solidarity?”
Incorporating the Haitian Creole word for “catastrophe” in its name, Katastwóf Karavan — “We simply say ‘Slavery’ as if that were a legitimate job instead of what it was, a Catastrophe for millions,” Walker explains — will also play such civil-rights-era, celebratory, and protest songs as “We Shall Overcome,” Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” Walker, whose Fons Americanus is currently wowing visitors at the Tate Modern and whose Domino Sugar Factory installation A Subtlety caused a sensation in New York five years ago, holds nothing back in her work, confronting racial prejudice and inadequate histories head-on. “Forgetting is preferable to remembering, as remembering stirs action,” she writes in the handout.
NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts
566 La Guardia Pl.
October 11-12, $35-$45, 7:30
“I like to move people. That’s my job, to move people. I’m not an entertainer; I’m an engager,” performance artist extraordinaire John Kelly told me in a phone interview earlier this week as he was hunkered down, preparing his latest show, Underneath the Skin, for its world premiere October 11-12 at NYU’s Skirball Center. For four decades, Kelly has been creating shows in which he takes on the persona of other artists, including Egon Schiele in Pass the Blutwurst, Bitte, Caravaggio in The Escape Artist, Joni Mitchell in Paved Paradise, and Antonin Artaud in Life of Cruelty. In the multimedia Underneath the Skin, Kelly, who is also a visual artist, filmmaker, dancer-choreographer, vocalist, songwriter, and author, explores the life and career of poet, professor, tattoo artist, novelist, diarist, and “sexual renegade” Samuel Steward. The Ohio-born Steward, who died in Berkeley in 1993 at the age of eighty-four, left behind a highly influential legacy despite constant systemic roadblocks because of his sexuality.
“Misfortune to a degree followed him, but maybe misfortune followed every gay man in those days,” said Kelly, who did extensive research for the show, which he wrote, directed, choreographed, produced, scored, designed the set and costumes for, and did the video editing. The piece, which is completely constructed of Steward’s words, also features Chris Harder, Alvaro Gonzalez, and Hucklefaery (ne’ Ken Mechler). “Every hour at this point is crucial,” Kelly noted, but he was still very generous with his time as we spoke about Steward, the AIDS epidemic, cultural amnesia, recalibration, and autobiography. Kelly will also be appearing at the Neue Galerie’s Café Sabarsky on November 26 in a cabaret concert of original music as well as songs by Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Charles Aznavour, Danny Elfman, and others.
twi-ny: Since the mid-1980s, you’ve been taking on the persona of other artists. What initially attracted you to do these kinds of character studies? As a child, were you doing impersonations, or were you drawn to artists?
John Kelly: I grew up assuming I’d be a visual artist. I could draw — I got that gift from my father. But then I switched to dance and ballet training, and modern when I was about seventeen. I came upon Schiele in art school and he became one of my early inspirations. So my performance work about him was a way of merging my dance background with my visual art practice, literally to embody an artist onstage, to see what that would look like.
The thing about the niche in my career focusing on the character of artists — my work has been fifty-fifty autobiographical or semiautobiographical or metaphorical, and then fifty percent focusing on actual characters from history, whether it was a real person or a mythological character like Orpheus. And I guess the reason with that is that when I do the autobiographical or metaphorical or semiautobiographical works, there’s an urgency in me that is wanting to get out. And then when I focus on an existing character, there’s something in their life story and work that speaks to me, and I’m able to embody them to some degree and also satisfy my need to express certain parts of myself and what I’m going through at any given moment.
twi-ny: When you were doing the autobiographical Time No Line, did you learn anything about yourself that you hadn’t realized before?
jk: I’ve been keeping journals since 1977, and I started scanning them because I wanted to get another copy, with an eye to an eventual memoir. But one of the things that fueled Time No Line was that I’m a survivor of my generation. My generation was pretty much wiped out by the AIDS epidemic, and I’m watching a couple of things: I’m watching the absence of my tribe in the world and the absence of those voices and the absence of our intergenerational dialogue between my generation and younger generations, and also I’m seeing my generation’s history being written by younger people who weren’t there and who probably had no way of really getting it.
I imagine they’re highly educated and well-intended — I just hope they get it right because they’re accessing the dead heroes, like David Wojnarowicz and Marsha P. Johnson; they’re not accessing the live heroes or the last survivors necessarily. With the world the way it is right now, there is a focus on activism in the kind of street sense of activism, but I embody a different kind of activism. I decided my place was on the stage, not on the streets, and that said, I made many pieces directly or tangentially about the AIDS epidemic and issues of survival and grief and all that.
It’s exacerbated by digital technology, it’s exacerbated by short attention spans, it’s exacerbated by a culture of narcissism and entitlement. Half the youth generally doesn’t really care to look back; they just assume that the ground they are standing on is solid and has always been there.
twi-ny: And they can like something on Facebook or post an article and then they’re done.
jk: Exactly. So it’s an uphill battle, and I do what I can to connect the dots. . . . But the upside of technology is that you can be on a platform like Facebook and connect and have dialogue and be reminded that our lives are still valid.
twi-ny: That leads us right into Underneath the Skin, about Samuel Steward, who, like you, was a diarist. What inspired you to take on his persona?
jk: I had read Justin Springs’s book [Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade] about four years ago and I really loved it. Then Jay Wegman, who runs Skirball, said, “I want to commission you to make a piece about him,” and I was like, “Whoa. Hey, let me think about this.” So then I went to Steward’s actual writings and drawings and the rest, and I avoided Springs’s amazing take on Steward because I had to formulate my own relationship to this man and his work. And also to witness it in context; probably the most profound aspect of his whole thing is that he prevailed and he took enormous chances at a time when literally if you went to a gay bar, you couldn’t even face the person next to you; you had to face front, and there were police outside waiting to arrest you if you didn’t have payola. And if you were arrested, your name and address were put in the newspaper. Those were the decades in which he was functioning and flourishing, albeit behind closed doors.
twi-ny: A lot of people still don’t know about the cops waiting to arrest gay people, in bars right around where Skirball is now.
jk: Exactly. That’s cultural amnesia; it’s a sad history to be reminded of.
twi-ny: What do you think Steward would have thought about what’s going on today?
jk: From his vantage point between 1950 and 1984, he was already speaking to younger audiences and saying you have no idea what it was like. So to imagine him now, and maybe if he had survived the AIDS epidemic — he died December 31, 1993, at the height of the epidemic — I imagine he’d by joyful in the advancements that have occurred.
twi-ny: Do you think he would have taken quickly to the internet, which could have provided a forum for his different kind of works?
jk: The thing is, he wanted to write authentically and he couldn’t. I mean, he did, but he eventually maybe wrote most authentically when he wrote as Phil Andros for his erotic literature. I don’t call it pornography; I call it erotic literature because it’s beautifully written.
He wrote a novel, Angels on the Bough, in 1936, and he got fired from a teaching job for it because he had a positive presentation of a prostitute. He couldn’t be out. I think he might have a low tolerance for the minutiae of policing ourselves and the immediate vilification of any wavering from abject correctness, even with people who are coming from two generations earlier. He might have a hard time navigating that, or maybe he would endorse it. There’s no way of knowing. He was a smart man.
twi-ny: I don’t know if you’ve seen Dave Chappelle’s latest comedy special, but he does a bit about the LGBTQ community and how it overpolices itself, and some people find it very funny and others think it’s highly offensive.
jk: Basically, the whole planet is recalibrating; the whole culture is recalibrating. And we’re in the process of recalibrating what really wants to happen and what does not want to happen anymore. And it’s a learning curve. . . . Especially on the internet, where there’s maybe no real consequence attached to a response, which could have a ripple effect and have enormous consequences.
twi-ny: Do you see anybody today continuing his legacy?
jk: When I think of Samuel Steward, I think of a gentle soul who had to put a hardened shell around himself because he wasn’t able to — he lived life freely, but he couldn’t live his life completely freely. . . . His greatest contribution was that he kept all this stuff, and it comes down to us, and that the ephemera and the archives are what speak to a life pretty fully lived in a time when it was illegal to do any number of the things that he did.