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“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.

 

“The Rape of the Sabine Women by Grace B. Mathias”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Rape of the Sabine Women by Grace B. Matthias” (The Duke on 42nd Street/Off-Broadway)

 

According to Roman mythology, the Rape of the Sabine Women refers to a time when the men of ancient Rome committed a mass abduction of young women from surrounding areas during the festival of Neptune Equester.

During the Renaissance and afterwards, it became a popular subject for painters, particularly Jacques-Louis David’s “The Intervention of the Sabine Women.”

Now, playwright Michael Yates Crowley transforms it into a darkly satirical indictment of American rape culture, revolving around a 15 year-old Springfield high school student, Grace B. Matthias (Susannah Perkins), dressed in a baggy sweater, who recounts her sexual assault to a Lawyer (Jeff Biehl).

Grace’s rapist Jeff (Doug Harris) is a not the star football player on the team known as the Romans. Instead, he’s the shy sidekick of the quarterback Bobby (Alex Breaux), and Grace’s tortured ambivalence is obvious, since she says she’d like to forgive him, just like the Sabine woman ‘forgave’ their captors by marrying them.

But those around her have differing viewpoints. Her callous cheerleader pal Monica (Jeena Yi) urges her to keep quiet, noting “Boys don’t like smart.” A misogynistic newsman (Chas Carey) focuses on the potential damage to the Romans’ season. The guidance counselor (Eva Kaminsky) is emotionally conflicted. And the townsfolk fall back on the classic re-victimizing “Did she asked for it?” scenario.

Sensitively directed by Tyne Rafaeli, Arnulfo Maldonado’s set reveals a high-school gymnasium with lighting by Barbara Samuels, and Asta Bennie Hostetter’s costumes.

The exciting, innovative concept – with its inherent complications – was inspired by the 2012 Steubenville, Ohio, case which involved the rape of an intoxicated teenage girl by two football players.

And it’s particularly timely since President Donald Trump is trying to dismantle the Obama administrations 2011 guidelines that require schools to investigate all complaints of sexual assault.

FYI: In 1954, the short story “The Sobbin Women” by Stephen Vincent Benet, was adapted into a M.G.M. musical “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” which subsequently became a stage musical.

This Playwrights Realm production, which is presented without an intermission, is at The Duke on 42nd Street thru Sept. 23. For tickets, call 212-223-3010 or go to www.dukeon42.org.

“If Only…a Love Story”

Susan Granger’s review of “If Only… a Love Story” (Cherry Lane Theatre/Off-Broadway)

 

Set in 1901, Thomas Klingenstein’s historical drama riffs on the “What If” supposition, pivoting on what might have happened if Abraham Lincoln had not been assassinated.

Ann Astorcott (Melissa Gilbert) met Samuel Johnson (Mark Kenneth Smaltz) 36 years earlier, when she was a Manhattan socialite and he was a well-educated former slave.

During the Civil War, young Ann, who was an acquaintance of Abraham Lincoln, worked as a nurse. When she begged Lincoln for fresh milk for the soldiers, he arranged it. In return, the President asked her to visit Samuel, a wounded Union soldier from the 54th Massachusetts Voluntary Infantry, known as the ‘first colored Infantry.’

That’s how they met, but it was an era when any sort of romantic relationship between them was unthinkable.

“Mr. Abraham Lincoln was our match-maker,” Samuel recalls, when they see each other again.

What follows is an 80-minute conversation between them, delving not only into how their respective lives might have been different if Lincoln had lived but also how the country might have changed.

Ann’s wealthy businessman husband Henry (Richmond Hoxie) has gone out for the evening, leaving Ann with Sophie (Korinne Tetlow), their adopted six year-old who has been mute since she saw her parents killed by a runaway horse-and-carriage. The play is bookended by Ann reading to Sophie.

Like his previous work, “Douglass,” revolving around the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, playwright Thomas Klingenstein evokes the era of slavery, abolitionists and racial privilege. The characters are fictitious, although Lincoln did have a black valet, William H. Johnson.

Although she’s still best-known for TV’s “Little House on the Prairie,” Melissa Gilbert has done a creditable amount of stage work and knows how to use her voice to manipulate an audience. Complementing her, Mark Kenneth Smaltz has a captivating presence.

But Christopher McElroen’s sedentary staging stultifies, rather than enliven, the conversation between Ann and Samuel. By placing them in armchairs facing each other, McEloen forces the audience to watch them in profile, and it’s not much help when he has them exchange seats.

William Boles’ Victorian parlor design, Becca Jefford’s gaslight lighting and Kimberly Manning’s period costumes add authenticity.

“If Only…a Love Story” plays through Sept. 17, 2017, at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street in Manhattan. For tickets, call 212-989-2020 or www.cherrylanetheatre.org

 

 

 

“Appropriate”

Susan Granger’s review of “Appropriate” (Westport Country Playhouse)

 

Talk about timely! The plot points of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ dysfunctional family drama pivot on anti-Semitism and white supremacy, evoking Biblical themes.

When the Lafayette family gathers at their recently deceased father’s dilapidated Arkansas plantation house, memories are revived as shameful secrets are revealed by the discovery of a scrapbook containing explicitly horrifying photographs of lynching and mason jars containing pickled body parts.

Having dutifully cared for their father, the eldest sibling, embittered Toni (Betsy Aidem), expects the most from the upcoming Estate sale and auction; recently divorced, she’s had a rough year, and her troubled, slacker son Rhys (Nick Selting) is moving in with his father.

Her brother Bo (David Aaron Baker) and his Jewish wife, Rachael (Diane Davis), arrive from New York with their children: rambunctious pre-teen Ainsley (Christian Michael Camporin) and teenage daughter, Cassie (Allison Winn), who has a crush on her cousin Rhys.

The angst-riddled youngest brother Franz (Shawn Fagan), the prodigal son once known as Frank, appears unexpectedly with his sensible, New Age girl-friend, River (Anna Crivelli), insisting he wants to make amends for past misbehavior, including alcoholism, substance abuse and child-molestation.

Setting up the conflict, the first act is provocative and revelatory. But the second and third act meander, making it seem endless – and exhausting. They’re combined in this production by director David Kennedy and punctuated by the deafening, incessant chirp of cicadas; credit sound designer Fitz Patton.

After each family member indulges in a long, explanatory soliloquy, anger erupts and chaos reigns, epitomized by the rotting decay and eventual deconstruction of scenic designer Andrew Boyce’s cluttered set.

FYI: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins won the 2014-15 Obie Award for this as Best New American Play.

Containing mature themes and crude language, “Appropriate” is at the Westport Country Playhouse until September 2. For more information, call the box-office at 203-227-4177 or visit www.westportplayhouse.org.

“Grounded”

Susan Granger’s review of “Grounded” (Westport Country Playhouse)

 

Talk about timely! George Brant’s provocative theatrical monologue revolves around a cocky U.S. Air Force Pilot (Elizabeth Stahlmann) who revels in her job, feeling exhilarated “up in the blue,” dropping missiles on desert fortresses in Iraq.

As she tells it, her beloved F-16 is out of there even before the explosion happens. Afterwards, she unwinds with other “Top Gun” boys, downing drinks at the bar.

While on leave at home in Wyoming, she meets Eric, who works in a hardware store. “Most guys don’t like what I do,” she notes with a macho swagger. “Feel they’re less of a guy around me. I take the guy spot, and they don’t know where they belong.”

Seeing her in a flight suit, Eric’s turned on. Soon she’s pregnant, which means she has to take a desk job. “I want the sky. I want the blue, but I can’t kill her,” she wails plaintively.

After her daughter is born, she reports back for active duty, only to discover that she’s been re-assigned to the “Chair Force.” Her new job is to pilot an $11-million unmanned drone, sitting in front of a video monitor in an air-conditioned trailer on a base outside of Las Vegas, Nevada – for 12 hours each day.

She’s devastated but her commander assures her, “In one year, the drone will be king.”

The evocative lighting (Solomon Weisbard), sound (Kate Marvin) and cinematic projections (Yana Birykova) convey the harrowing reality and immediacy of long-distance combat. A drone pilot not only sees the faces of the ‘enemy’ close-up but also bears witness to the destruction when her missiles hit the ground.

Although Eric gets a job as a blackjack dealer in a casino and does his best to try to understand the pressure she’s under, the Pilot eventually suffers PTSD or, according to the latest lingo, “a moral injury.”

Carrying this intense performance piece on her slim shoulders is Elizabeth Stahlmann, a recent graduate of the Yale School of Drama. Under the direction of the Yale Rep’s Liz Diamond with a metal chair as her only prop – she establishes an easygoing rapport with the audience, which intensifies their empathy as she becomes mired in conflicting emotions, steeped in the psychological side-effects of remote warfare.

FYI: Anne Hathaway, who played the Pilot in Julie Taymor’s 2015 Off-Broadway production, immediately optioned the property and it’s in development as a major motion picture.

“Grounded” plays at the Westport Country Playhouse thru July 29. For tickets and more information, call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org