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“Mushroom Cure”

Susan Granger’s review of “Mushroom Cure” (Off-Broadway at Theater 80 St. Marks)

 

Inspired by a scientific study showing that hallucinogenic mushrooms may cure obsessive-compulsive disorders, performer/writer Adam Strauss decided to devote himself to a program of what he calls “vigilante psychopharmacology.”

Riffing somewhat endlessly on the difference between an IPod and an IRiver, he obviously finds making a choice of players more difficult than most consumers. Even deciding what side of the street to walk on often presents a debilitating conundrum.

Women present even more of a problem. When he falls for Grace, a visiting student from Kansas, whom he encounters while working as a show barker in Times Square, he invites her to watch him perform at a comedy club. As a romantic relationship develops, she becomes involved in his clinical condition – which eventually leads her to question whether they have a future together.

Over the course of 90 minutes, Strauss reveals perhaps more than anyone ever wanted to know about obtaining drugs, including psychedelic cacti which requires circuitous preparation before ingesting, and dealing with an unorthodox community of chemists, including Slo, who works at a sloth’s pace.

As a result, Strauss’s more banal ramblings caused a couple of audience members to nod off.

Having achieved widespread accolades at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, this unique show made its debut at the New York International Fringe Festival, where it won the Overall Excellence Award for Solo Performances.  In the summer of 2016, it played at The Cherry Lane Theater, followed by an 11-week run at San Francisco’s Marsh Theater.

It’s astutely directed by Jonathan Libman, who is currently writing and directing for Amy Schumer’s ensemble company The Collective.

And on Sunday, Dec. 16, there was a fascinating talkback with Adam Strauss and Ingmar Gorman, one of the foremost experts on psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD. They discussed the promises and pitfalls of using these drugs for conditions like depression, OCD and PTSD, referring to clinical trials, including the FDA trials for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD that Gorman is currently leading in New York.

“Mushroom Cure” runs through January 7, 2018. Shows are Wednesday thru Saturday at 7:30 pm with added performances on Dec. 26 at 7:30 pm, Dec. 29 & 30 at 10 pm, and January 7th at 5 pm.

Tickets are $35 and available from Ovation Tix at 212-352-3101 or www.TheMushroomCure.com

“Believe in Magic: Jason Bishop”

Susan Granger’s review of “Believe in Magic: Jason Bishop” (New Victory Theater)

Looking for enchantment? Jason Bishop delivers an astonishing introduction to magic – and while his show perfect for children – with booster seats distributed by ushers – adults will also be enthralled.

Back by popular demand after a sold-out run last year, this internationally touring magician immediately develops a firm connection with his audience, engaging eager young volunteers, handling them with gentle professionality.

Bishop’s illusions include swords and levitations, most involving his graceful assistant, Kim Hess. At the beginning of the show, Kim gamely climbs into one of Bishop’s many ‘boxes’ and, seemingly, evades piercing by sabers. Later, she twirls glowing batons and, eventually, levitates, along with Bishop.

During a brief interlude of cards and coin tricks (viewed on a large screen via Go-Pro video), Bishop confides that he was raised by foster families in rural Pennsylvania. He taught himself magic from books in the public library, quickly becoming the youngest person ever to win the Magician’s Alliance of Eastern States Stage Award.

After the intermission, Bishop briefly interacts with the audience in the mezzanine and introduces his adorable Yorkshire terrier, named Gizmo, wearing a red holiday sweater. Amazingly, Gizmo appears and disappears as Bishop teleports him from place to place.

There’s an intriguing, interactive game, devised with a program insert showing holiday icons, including Santa, a Dreidel, a Menorah, a gingerbread man, and a Kinara.

Shrieks of delight continue as a mass of shredded wet paper causes snow to fall on the audience, and Bishop – with the help of a hefty security guard – manages to make a million dollars disappear into thin air– poof! –before those $100 ‘bills’ (augmented by photos of Gizmo) descend from the ceiling.

Kudos to illusion designer Jim Steinmeyer, technical director Ellen Schmoyer, and lighting designers Herrick Goldman and Susan Nicholson.

For wondrous, family-friendly entertainment during this holiday season, catch Jason Bishop at the New Victory Theater on 42nd Street – through December 30th. For tickets, call 646-223-3010 or visit http://www.newvictory.org.

“Derren Brown: Secret”

Susan Granger’s review of “Derren Brown: Secret” (Atlantic Theater Co./Linda Gross Theater)

 

For several months, British magician Derren Brown, who sells out 1,700-seat Palace Theater in London’s West End and has been awarded two Olivier Awards and one BAFTA (the British equivalent of an Oscar), has been performing, at the 200-seat Linda Gross Theater, part of Manhattan’s Atlantic Theater Company.

Brown’s particular brand of magic is called mentalism, or mind-reading, and his shows are centered on the audience, not on him. What he creates are illusions and he throws Frisbees into the audience to choose volunteers.

Derren Brown doesn’t want any information regarding the specifics of his show to be shared, which makes ‘reviewing’ daunting. But good critics never reveal ‘whodunit’ or the twist at the end of the movie, right?

Having said that, Brown’s show begins with a series of questions whose answers are determined by subtle physical cues. And he doesn’t always get them all right, which only serves to up his ‘likeability’ quotient.

“We are all trapped inside our own minds,” Brown tells the audience, adding that the stories we tell ourselves are precisely what limit our perceptions. These tales, which impose logic on confusion, serve to simplify the complexities of real life.

“It’s all fiction,” he concludes.

The one ‘secret’ Brown, a former Roman Catholic schoolboy, does reveal is that he’s gay, an admission which sets the tone for a climate of confessions from members of the audience.

Brown shares writing credit with Andy Nyman and Andrew O’Connor, his co-directors, who indulge in subtle details. Like: listen carefully to the choice of songs that play before the show and during intermission; the music eventually becomes relevant.

Obviously, Derren Brown’s future is headed for Broadway, so catch him now – while you still can.

“The Band’s Visit”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Band’s Visit” (Barrymore Theater)

 

Adapted from a small, independent 2007 Israeli film and an ingratiating run last year at the Atlantic Theater Company’s intimate Linda Gross Theater, “The Band’s Visit” has landed on Broadway, courtesy of witty playwright Itamar Moses, composer/lyricist David Yazbek and director David Cromer.

It begins with: “Once not long ago, a group of musicians came to Israel from Egypt. You probably didn’t hear about it. It wasn’t so very important.”

When the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra reaches Tel Aviv, they’re supposed to be met by a representative of the Arab Cultural Center. Since no one greets them, they inadvertently purchase bus tickets to Bet Hatikva, instead of Petah Tikvah, where they’re scheduled to play a concert. If you don’t speak Hebrew, the names of the towns sound almost identical.

Problem is: desolate Bet Hatikva is, as the song goes, “Nowhere.”

“Stick a pin in a map of the desert/

Build a road to middle of the desert/

Pour cement on the spot in the desert/

That’s Bet Hatikva.”

Wearing their crisp, powder-blue uniforms (courtesy of Sarah Laux) and carrying instruments (which they play), they disembark, only to discover that another bus isn’t scheduled until the next morning.

Tony Shalhoub plays the band’s staid, protocol-conscious leader who is befriended by Katrina Lenk as a sultry, disillusioned woman who runs the local café/bar; they share a love of Omar Sharif and Egyptian movies.

Ari’el Stachel is a flirtatious young trumpeter; Alok Tewari is a career-blocked composer/clarinetist. Etai Benson is a shy, insecure teen. Andrew Polk is a loquacious grandpa with Kirsten Sieh as his resentful daughter and John Cariani as her out-of-work husband. And Adam Kantor as the lonely guy who waits by the public telephone, hoping to hear from his girlfriend.

“Very soon, very soon,” he sings, as his sentiment us echoed by the ensemble.

Inevitably, the evening leads to curious confusion, a bit of chaos and a large measure of compassion.

Scott Pask’s minimalist set cleverly utilizes a rotating stage, astutely lit by Tyler Micoleau, evoking the Negev desert at night….and there is no intermission.

“The Band’s Visit” is wistfully droll and charming, subtly incorporating various Middle Eastern influences, and should delight theater aficionados who enjoyed David Yazbek’s previous shows: “The Full Monty,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” and “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.”

 

“Seder”

Susan Granger’s review of “Seder” (Hartford Stage)

 

Not since “Judgment at Nuremberg” have I seen a play as powerful and persuasive about how much guilt and responsibility an individual must bear for crimes committed or condoned by her.

Set in 2002 in Budapest, Hungary, it begins with elderly Erzsike (Mia Dillon) touring the House of Terror, a museum of war atrocities, and spotting her own photograph prominently displayed on the Wall of Murderers.

That night, Erzsike’s younger daughter, Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest), has invited an American friend, David (Steven Rattzii), to their apartment to show them how to celebrate the Jewish Seder, or Passover.

Years ago, Erzsike rejected her Jewish heritage but she’s agreed to this uneasy family gathering in hopes of reuniting with her long-estranged older daughter Judit (Brigit Huppuch).

The Seder ceremony recalls the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. As the dinner ritual unfolds, sinister family secrets are spilled, revolving around Judit’s outrage over Erzsike’s involvement while working as a typist for the AVO (Hungary’s KGB).

“I did the best I could,” Erzsike says, defensively. “I just did what I was told.”

“A good person stands up for humanity,” self-righteous Judit retorts in a fiery exchange.

Heading the superb acting ensemble, Mia Dillon delivers a disturbingly textured portrait, miraculously transforming into her younger self in flashbacks, relating how she risked exposure by altering records of innocent prisoners and why she sexually succumbed to her predatory boss Attila (Jeremy Webb), who arranged her marriage to the late Tamas (Liam Craig).

Playwright Sarah Gancher, collaborating with director Elizabeth Williamson, illuminates this true story with intensity, vision and imagination. The authenticity is amplified by Nick Vaughan’s evocative set, Ilona Somogyi’s costumes, Marcus Dilliard’s lighting and Jane Shaw’s sound.

In addition, the Hartford Stage provides fascinating information about post-WWII Hungarian history in the playbill and on wall displays.

“Seder” has just received The Edgerton Foundation’s New Play Award – and it’s richly deserved.

“Seder” runs through November 12 at the Hartford Stage. For tickets, call the box-office at 860-527-5151 or visit www.hartfordstage.org.

“Fireflies”

Susan Granger’s review of “Fireflies” (Long Wharf Theater)

 

What a captivating way to open Long Wharf’s Mainstage 2017-2018 season!

The world premiere of Matthew Barber’s compassionate romantic dramedy brings back two great actresses, Jane Alexander and Judith Ivey, plus Dennis Arndt, last year’s Tony nominee for “Heisenberg.”

Set in the mid-1990s in Groverdell, a small town in central Texas, the plot revolves around Miss Eleanor Bannister (Alexander), a steadfast, 70ish spinster. A retired schoolteacher, she’s aware that there’s something missing in her life but she’s not sure what.

It’s summertime – and the air conditioning isn’t working, as her nosy-yet-good-hearted neighbor Grace (Ivey) points out when they’re chatting in Eleanor’s spacious kitchen as she sorts canning jars for the preserves she’s about to make.

The primary topic of their conversation is the curious arrival in town of Abel Brown (Arndt), a “drifter” who has parked his trailer nearby and expressed interest in renting Eleanor’s empty guest house – called the “honeymoon cottage” – in back. That’s the exposition.

Drama crackles when Abel enters. He’s a strong, silent handyman, ready to repair Eleanor’s roof, charging half of what any other carpenter would charge. And he’s mowed her lawn – gratis. His charm is irresistible, particularly when he recalls his first glimpse of Eleanor, barefoot, outside in her nightgown.

But Grace suspects he’s not what he seems, and wary Eleanor, who finds herself romantically drawn to Abel’s companionship, is determined to find out.

When Act II opens, Abel’s abruptly left town with Eleanor’s cash, according to the report she’s filing the local cop (Christopher Michael McFarland). So the tension crackles.

Loosely based on Annette Sanford’s 2003 novel, “Eleanor and Abel,” Matthew Barber (“Enchanted April”) has condensed the narrative, perhaps a bit too much. A transitional scene seem to be missing because Eleanor all too quickly opens her heart and kitchen, discarding the entire contents of her closet along the way. But that’s a minor quibble.

Cleverly utilizing Alexander Dodge’s evocative set, director Gordon Edelstein, who has a great flair for gentle, heartfelt comedy, obviously relishes the concept of love that arrives later in life. His superb acting ensemble packs such a subtle wallop that I wouldn’t be surprised if “Fireflies” moves right onto another venue in Manhattan. So see it here while you can.

“Fireflies” plays on the Mainstage at Long Wharf through November 5. For tickets, call the box-office at 203-787-4282 or online at longwharf.org.

 

 

 

 

“Time and the Conways”

Susan Granger’s review of “Time and the Conways” (Roundabout/American Airlines Theater)

 

Although Elizabeth McGovern spent the last six years playing the gracious American heiress, Lady Cora, Countess of Grantham, on the BBC’s “Downtown Abbey,” she slips artfully into the role of the arrogant, affluent, egocentric widow in J.B. Priestley’s dramedy about wealth, class and the illusion of linear time.

Set in Yorkshire in 1919, the play opens like the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, as Mrs. Conway’s ebullient daughters chatter like chirping canaries in affected British accents. It’s Kay’s 21st birthday, which means donning costumes, playing charades and gossiping about the guests assembled in the adjoining room.

There’s aspiring novelist Kay (Charlotte Parry), sweetly optimistic Carol (Anna Baryshnikov), ardent Socialist Madge (Brooke Bloom), and flighty, flirtatious Hazel (Anna Camp), plus underachieving Alan (Gabriel Ebert) and dashing soldier Robin (Matthew James Thomas), home from the Great War.

Then 19 years pass – and it’s 1937.  The disillusioned Conway family faces a difficult dilemma, namely Mrs. Conway’s loss of income. In addition, Carol has died, along with many of their hopes and dreams.

Sensitive Kay is working for a London newspaper, embittered Madge has become a schoolmarm, and embittered Hazel is unhappily married to a social-climbing bully (Steven Boyer). While Alan slyly remains humble, Robin has become a drunken reprobate who cannot support his wife and children.

Then, it’s 1919 again. The Conways’ youthful exuberance is restored, but now the perspective is different, as one can see how the insidious seeds of the Conways’ psychological demise were planted.

Impressively transitioning from the BBC to Broadway, 56 year-old Elizabeth McGovern adroitly moves from being a warm, nurturing mother to a carping matriarch who ruins the lives of all six of her children by projecting her ambitions onto each of them, rather than accepting them for who they are.

Despite the inconsistent direction of Tony Award-winning Rebecca Taichman (“Indecent”), this insightful, time-jumping play has a fine ensemble that includes Alfred Narciso and Cara Ricketts. Credit Neil Patel’s dual sets for achieving continuity, along with Christopher Akerlind’s lighting, Matt Hubbs’ evocative sound and Paloma Young’s idiosyncratic costumes.

FYI: If the name sounds familiar, yes, Anna Baryshnikov is dancer Mikhail’s daughter.

Under the auspices of the Roundabout Theatre Company, “Time and the Conways” is playing a limited engagement through Nov. 26 at the American Airlines Theatre.

“Curvy Widow”

Susan Granger’s review of “Curvy Widow” (Westside Theatre/Upstairs)

 

Since – many years ago – I, too, was a curvy widow, I could relate to this bereavement dilemma.

When – after a 23- year marriage – Bobby (Nancy Opel) loses her husband, Oscar-winning screenwriter/playwright/novelist James Goldman (Ken Land), who wrote “The Lion in Winter” and “Follies,” she faces the all-to-familiar quandary for middle-aged women: how to find male companionship.

Following the advice of her husband’s therapist, she adopts the moniker ‘Curvy Woman’ to meet men in chat rooms and on dating sites like Match.com. When that doesn’t work out, she turns to a website for married men who just want sex. But that still leaves her alone on holidays – and embarrassed to buy condoms at Rite-Aid.

As “a world-class chef, interior designer, contractor and boxer,” affluent Bobby’s got a lot to offer. And she’s comforted throughout these adventures by her three loyal women friends (Andrea Bianchi, Elizabeth Ward Land, Aisha de Haas) who live vicariously through her.

After kissing a lot of frogs, Bobby meets a “Prince Charming,” but then she begins to question her own motives. Moving from her uptown Manhattan apartment to a downtown loft, Bobby is fearlessly honest.

Following her perambulations is an ever-present guilt, embodied in the dressing gown-clad ghost of her late husband, who hasn’t lost any of his earthly possessiveness. How different her reactions might have been if he, like my late husband, selflessly encouraged her to move on with her life. But that’s another story.

Autobiographically written as a one-act musical comedy by Ms. Goldman, whose husband died at age 71 in 1998, the non-linear book is funny, witty and clever, punctuated by Drew Brody’s somewhat generic songs, simplistically `directed by Peter Flynn and choreographed by Marcos Santana on Rob Bissinger’s chic set. Costumer Brian Hemeseth augments Nancy Opel’s basic black with colorful jackets, displayed on the set’s capacious closet.

Energetic Tony Award-nominee Ms. Opel (“Honeymoon in Vegas,” “Urinetown: The Toxic Avenger”) is supported by Ken Land, Alan Muraoka and Christopher Shyer, playing the various male roles.

Running 90 minutes without an intermission, “Curvy Widow” plays through December 31 on 43rd Street at the Westside Theatre/Upstairs – and a Thursday matinee has been recently added.

 

“Desperate Measures”

Susan Granger’s review of “Desperate Measures” (York Theatre at St. Peter’s Church)

 

Set on America’s Western prairie in 1890 and inspired by Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure,” this world-premiere production of an imaginatively spirited new musical begins on a dire note.

Hot-tempered cowboy Johnny Blood (Conor Ryan) is incarcerated at the End-of-the-Trail Jail, ready to be hanged for killing a man in self-defense in a bar fight. After conversing with sympathetic Sheriff Green (Peter Saide), Johnny realizes that only hope rests on his demure sister Susanna (Emma Degerstedt), a novice nun at the nearby Our Lady of the Tumbleweeds Mission.

If sweet Susanna can persuade smarmy Governor von Richterhenkenpflichtgetruber (Nick Wyman) to spare his life, perhaps Johnny can marry the woman he loves, voluptuous saloon stripper Bella Rose (Lauren Molina). But the lecherous Governor will only grant Susanna’s request if she agrees to surrender her chastity to him.

That unexpected complication leads to Shakespeare’s oft-used “bed trick,” in which a gullible clod is duped into thinking he’s bedding one woman, only to discover it’s another, followed by a bride-switch, presided over by a perpetually inebriated, Nietzsche-quoting priest (Gary Marachek).

Working from Peter Kellogg’s slyly conceived book and lyrics – that cleverly utilize contemporary language in iambic-pentameter – set to David Friedman’s catchy, cheerful, country music, director/choreographer Bill Castellino keeps the comedy clipping along at a fast pace.

Darting about James Morgan’s barn-siding set, the six-member ensemble is enchanting and their singing soars, one melody after another. Kudos also to Nicole Wee’s period costumes, Paul Miller’s lighting, and Julian Evans’ sound design. David Hancock Turner’s backstage band combines guitar, banjo, mandolin, double bass and piano music.

If you’re looking for fresh, exuberant fun, head over to the York Theatre on Lexington Avenue for this rollicking romp!

 

Sex with Strangers”

Susan Granger’s review of “Sex with Strangers” (Westport Country Playhouse)

 

There’s a pervasive sadness that dominates Laura Eason’s timely observations in her contemporary dramedy about how a serious novelist and a sex-obsessed blogger cope with ambition and passion in the internet age of social media.

At a tiny bed-and-breakfast in rural Michigan, Olivia (Jessica Love), a gifted but discouraged novelist in her late 30s, meets Ethan (Chris Ghaffari), a brash, 28 year-old blogger who arrives unexpectedly late one evening during a snowstorm.

To his chagrin, he quickly discovers that there’s no phone service or Wi-Fi, wailing, “I can’t get online? People will think I’m dead!”

Although Olivia knows nothing about him, he’s read her ill-fated first novel and is eager to see her latest manuscript, although she now describes herself as a “hobbyist,” admitting she’d rather die in obscurity than subject herself to “anonymous strangers staying horrible, misspelled things about my work.”

Flattered after he heaps effusive praise on her talent, she’s besotted by his confident, rakish charm. Soon they’re impetuously locked in a torrid embrace. The next day, her natural reticence is once again overcome by his exuberant male energy.

As it turns out, Ethan is an erotica star, chronicling his casual sexual conquests in a blog: Sex With Strangers. Using his internet connections, he introduces Olivia to his agent, helping her get published once again. But complications arise, revolving around printed books versus e-books and the inevitability of jealousy when she achieves more literary respect than he ever will.

Curiously, love never enters the equation, since she – quite rightly – distrusts him from the getgo. They never establish an intimate friendship, let alone a viable relationship, which inevitably leads to loneliness. Torrid lust between the dust-jackets turns out to be an anti-romantic comedy.

Astutely directed by Katherine M. Carter, both Jessica Love and Chris Ghaffari deliver creditable performances, aided by Edward T. Morris’ spacious set, Caitlin Cisek’s authentic costumes, Alan Edwards’ evocative lighting, and Beth Lake’s sound design.

Since its premiere in 2011 at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, “Sex with Strangers” has been produced more than 50 times with companies in New York, London, Sydney, and Buenos Aires. And playwright Laura Eason is perhaps best known as a writer on TV’s “House of Cards.”

“Sex with Strangers” runs through Oct. 14 at the Westport Country Playhouse. For tickets, call 203-227-4177 or visit westportplayhouse.org.