We are in for a bracing year of serious-minded theater in New York City if the first two offerings of the 2017-2018 season at the Signature and Atlantic theater companies are any indication.
The searing Fucking A, by Suzan-Lori Parks at the Signature, one of two “riffs” by Parks on The Scarlet Letter, dates to 2001. [The second of these “Red Letter Plays,” In the Blood, is also at the Signature; will see that later this month.] The “scarlet letter” of the play is an “A” for abortionist; the setting is anywhere/anytime and universal.
Simon Stephens’s tie-your-stomach-in-knots On the Shore of the Wide World at the Atlantic was first produced in London in 2005. The play traces three generations of a grief-stricken family in what would seem to be genetically-induced emotional turmoil.
Both plays resonate with the graceful language of classics.
The casts are excellent, as is the direction (Jo Bonney, Fucking A; Neil Pepe, On the Shore). On the Shore could use trimming and refining in the second act, and several of the American actors would do well to tone down the British accents, but that shouldn’t stop you. In both cases, be prepared. In your gut.
Marie & Rosetta is a stirring and often rousing musical biography of the life of gospel popularizer (and rock and roll predecessor) Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The work focuses on Tharpe’s relationship with her protégé Marie Knight, who Tharpe pulled from Mahalia Jackson’s backup choir and with whom she performed for three years. Kecia Lewis and Rebecca Naomi Jones as Tharpe and Knight, respectively, belt out the music true to its origins. Playwright George Brant struggled to find an ending, and it’s a little distracting the way the two stars have to mime playing their piano and guitar to (admittedly excellent) off-stage accompaniment, but those few awkward minutes do nothing to diminish the impact of the songs or the story. Directed by Neil Pepe. Runs through October 2 at the Atlantic Theater Company’s W. 20th Street house, NYC.
Dying For It
Atlantic Theater Company – Linda Gross Theater
Through January 18, 2015
Every Brilliant Thing
Barrow Street Theater
Through March 29, 2015
The common thread here is suicide, with both pieces evidence humor and great empathy.
“Dying For It” is a more conventional play, and a true ensemble-driven farce about suicide, at that. Playwright Moira Buffini’s adaptation of Nikolai Erdman’s “The Suicide,” which was banned in Russia when it was written in 1928 and not performed there until the 1980s, is the tale of a man so bereft of reasons to live under the Stalinist regime that he announces he will kill himself at an appointed hour. The townspeople seek to leverage his death as political statement, as representative of the failure of religion, and as a money-making proposition. There is music! There is comedy! There is love (and resentment)! This isn’t the greatest long-lost play of the century, but it works. The cast, with Joey Slotnick in the central role of would-be suicide Semyon Smyonovich Podeskalnikov, is particularly apt with a maniacal, frenzied performance. Directed by the Atlantic artistic director Neil Pepe. (Seen January 6, 2015.)
“Every Brilliant Thing” falls into the looser category of “performance piece,” but is no less dramatic for it. This is the story of a son, played by Jonny Donahoe, whose mother first attempts suicide when the boy is 7. With an uncommunicative father, the boy’s response is to start a list of all the things worth living for — a 7-year-old’s view, of course. The son adds to the list over the years, as the mother attempts suicide repeatedly, and in response to other life events. That the mother will succeed is never in question. That the son will go through the worry of whether he is prone to suicide, and that his mother’s story (and their relationship) will cast shadows over his life, are also never in question. Donahoe takes a ringmaster’s approach to his material, incorporating the audience brilliantly (this is NOT “audience participation” in any usual sense), and weaves sweetness through the pain without diminishing the drama. Written by Duncan Macmillan and Donahoe; directed by George Perrin. See it. (Seen January 11, 2015.)
Great writing, excellent acting, and highly unpleasant to sit through (intentionally so, which I suppose makes that a compliment). Famous playwright father David (Reed Birney) and aspiring actress daughter Ella (Betty Gilpin) tear each other apart while drinking, snorting, and waiting for the reviews of Ella’s first off-Broadway performance. The two characters in Halley Feiffer’s “I’m Gonna Pray For You So Hard” are neither likable nor sympathetic, nor is the father’s late-in-the-play attempt at reconciliation easy to believe.
It’s hard to imagine any father-daughter in such an astringent relationship (if that’s what it is), even allowing for dramatic license of condensing a lot of lifelong pain into 90 minutes. Feiffer is cartoonist/playwright Jules Feiffer’s daughter; I can only hope this isn’t autobiographical.
That said, Feiffer knows how to write, how to build tension, how to create star turns. I haven’t seen her film, “He’s Way More Famous Than You,” which she both wrote and stars in, but in answer to Ella’s question to an interviewer in this play, “Did I move you?” Feiffer moved me to want to take a look at that film and to see her next play.
Mention also to Trip Cullman, whose direction puts Birney and Gilpin in a nonstop pas-de-deux through their own discomfort. Cullman’s work on Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s “Choir Boy” had a similarly memorable choreographic fluidity. (Seen January 13, 2015.)