Category Archives: Theatre Reviews


(Claire Allfree’s article appeared in the Telegraph, 2/25.)

If there were any doubt that Sheridan Smith is the closest we have to a musical theatre superstar, then take a look at the UK dates for Funny Girl. Smith has just played three sold out nights as Fanny Brice at the 2,000 seater Manchester Palace Theatre, while the show will visit a further 21 similarly sized venues over the next six months. Smith will play 12; the remainder will star Natasha J Barnes, who ably stepped in during the London run when Smith briefly withdrew suffering from exhaustion. It’s an actor’s equivalent of a stadium tour.

Smith has already received accolades galore for her performance as Vaudeville sensation Brice, the role one used to describe as immortalised by Barbra Streisand in the 1968 movie before Smith came along. It’s worth giving her a few more though because, frankly, she’s extraordinary. She’s been rightly highly praised for her recent TV appearance in the BBC’s Shannon Matthews kidnap drama The Moorside but, as even her early performance in the 2010 West End hit Legally Blonde attested, it’s in the greasepaint and glamour of live theatre where this instinctive comedian truly dazzles.

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Richard Maxwell:GOOD SAMARIANS
mit: Rosemary Allen, Kevin Hurley

By Bob Shuman

Nothing’s invisible or spiritual in Richard Maxwell’s plays.  He only ascertains what’s lumpish, material, and corporeal. Then he so overemphasizes them that they seem like a downtown arts insider’s cool, coercive manipulation.  The insistence on flatness, awkwardness, and mendacity defines a Brutalist vision of an industrial, institutional, and overly socialized worldview, which only Maxwell and his odd artist or misfit can survive.  The vision is so promulgated that it comes across as a tic or fetish—it’s not so much an indictment of society but a sealed truth.  Fortunately, characters and actors can get away from a creator, as Ingrid Bergman does in Bergman’s Autumn Sonata–she had trouble empathizing with the recriminations of her frumpy daughter (Liv Ullmann). Although Ingmar Bergman had written the script to show the “bad” parent, finally, the issue remained unresolved.

Finding the characters who don’t accept their sentences can make work more compelling, because they contradict the dramatist’s universe—and, they can give it more complexity, and, especially in Maxwell’s case, more accessibility. His troublemaker is Rosemary (Rosemary Allen), a hulking coordinator for the homeless in Good Samaritans, which is just ending a short run at Abrons Arts Center on February 25.  She’s interesting because she can survive in a dumbed-down, utilitarian, proto-Orwellian world—as well as breach the rules, like a Sixties anti-hero.  Her disregard would drive others—such as her new resident, the vagrant, Kevin (Kevin Hurley)–out of the system. He can’t sing (she can’t either), and he has problems telling the truth.  Lacking sincerity, without polish to the point of amateurness–which is part of the postmodernism—the play wants to tell a love story for the unindividualized masses, under fluorescent lights.  

Rosemary is like the tough, great-hearted big Catholic women who somehow survive in nursing or teaching, serving the poor with bad pay—O’Neill’s Josie is a relative.  That such a character should find physical gratification—because that’s about all she’s allowed–is the trajectory of Good Samaritans. Maxwell, with such a clinical interest in documenting the species, cannot make her into a complete slab of meat, though.   Allen won an Obie, in 2004 for her role in the original production—her performance is an artistic triumph and Maxwell’s opposition between romance and the mundane is made believable. His solution to being gouged and flattened by impersonal, undifferentiated society is not protest, not finding meaning through work, but delinquency.  The audience may feel frighteningly fat and old by the time they get out of the theater—Maxwell and his company have transmitted his vision, to be worn and lived in. Fortunately, it will wear off after a few days.

Visit Abons Arts Center:

Abrons Arts Center and New York City Players present

Good Samaritans

Written, directed and with songs by Richard Maxwell

Set, lights and costume design by Stephanie Nelson

Starring Rosemary Allen and Kevin Hurley

Musicians: James Moore and David Zuckerman

Press: John Wyszniewski/Blake Zidell

Photo: New York City Players.

© 2017 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.  



(Ben Brantley’s article appeared in The New York Times, 2/16; via Pam Green.)

Fear festers, burrows and blooms in Caryl Churchill’s “Escaped Alone,” a short and wondrous play that plumbs the depths of 21st-century terrors, large and small. These range from the eccentrically personal (as in being uncomfortable around cats) to the sweepingly historic — as in, well, the end of the world as we know it.

Now if you yourself are in an apprehensive state of mind these days (and I’d wager, somehow, that you are), you might think a show about what scares people would be the last thing you’d want as entertainment. Yet this British import, which runs through Feb. 26 at the Harvey Theater of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, has the effect of a restorative tonic, and you may find a new bounce in your step as you leave it.

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(Mark Fisher’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/15.)

John Michie’s Leontes has a bad case of confirmation bias. In his personal echo chamber, he hears only what he wants to hear. Sporting a clean-cut suit and golden tie, this avuncular figure sees himself as the reasonable type; used to having his own way, yes, but genial with it. So if he says his wife, Hermione, has been having it off with his best friend, Polixenes – well, he’s obviously in the right and everyone else must be deluded.

It’s hard to know whether the feeble smile that crosses his lips whenever he is challenged is a sign of patronising indulgence or a mark of vulnerability. When he shoves his hands into his pockets and lollops casually about the stage, is he displaying smug self-confidence or concealing his doubts? The degree to which it is the latter makes the first-half tragedy and second-half reconciliation all the more moving.

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By Bob Shuman

Hi-Fi | Wi-Fi | Sci-Fi, Predictions Past Present and Future, is an evening of five short plays by Robert Patrick, now in a run at La MaMa’s Downstairs (66 E. 4 St. , NYC).  In the early 1990s, Patrick moved to Los Angeles–you’ll get glimpses of Hollywood screenwriting in the first segment on the current program—but downtown New Yorkers will remember him for numerous works, including the internationally acclaimed Kennedy’s Children in 1974, My Cup Ranneth Over (for Marlo Thomas) in 1976, T-Shirts in 1979, starring the adult-rated film star Jack Wrangler, Blue Is for Boys, and The Trial of Socrates. They’ll also acknowledge him as out, in the era before AIDs and in it, and, as such, he is part of the vanguard of twentieth century gay playwrights.

Whether or not Patrick believed that being homosexual would become accepted in the U.S. during his New York writing career—or whether he thinks it has–we do see a call for humanity in “All in the Mind” (1981), probably Hi-Fi | Wi-Fi | Sci-Fi’ s central piece, a work of science fiction on the subject of telepathy (the show is directed by Billy Clark and Jason Trucco, in association with the Seoul Institute of the Arts).  Despite the use of hard technology, huge live-action flat screen video monitors, and strobe lights, the section—followed by  “Simultaneous Transmissions,” a brief play about war–speaks of other values, amid today’s corporate insatiability.  Patrick’s messaging shows how hopeful the era really was and may remind of the Oscar Hammerstein of “A Hundred Million Miracles,” as well as mid-century sentiments like “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” or “We’re all connected.”  Focusing on a baby becoming enmeshed in a natural worldwide Web, this one-act, without the technology, may have been of more interest to those in the twentieth century rather than people now.

Then, the idea of one world, one mind, was sound idealism, supported by the human potential movement: “every birth is your birth.”  On a larger, political stage during the time, “precognition” was being studied by the American government, as tensions and competitiveness with the Soviet Union escalated during the Cold War.  Coincidentally, one of the pre-eminent researchers on the subject, Ingo Swan, lived up the street from La MaMa (he also absconded to California, but returned, and continued working as a writer, sometimes in science fiction, too, and as a painter, often of gay themes (La MaMa exhibited his work last fall).  Today, the government program he helped create has been rebuffed, despite the fact that it warranted funding from the ‘70s to the ‘90s and was part of 26,000 missions.  That was part of how investigators saw the potential of the human mind, during the era.  Today, analogous spy programs may be the NSA—and the human potential movement is probably dead.

People think in terms of the potential of machines, not humans, now.  Workers think about how much longer their job will last until it is taken over by robots.  No one talks much about the fact that most of the tasks that they do are accompanied by machines.  This is why Patrick’s most accessible piece, “Camera Obscura,”  in Hi-Fi | Wi-Fi | Sci-Fi, is about human love and a machine that hasn’t been perfected—the huge video screens work with delayed reception, as if the characters are talking to someone on Facetime.

One way to describe the production, as a whole, is to talk about the emphasis on flow and evolution of ideas, as in Beckett monologues, rather than in terms of plots.  Theatregoers might also call the work a gathering, instead of a “ticket”—we view the scenes in the way one might come to theatre if it weren’t so expensive and if there weren’t so many other entertainment opportunities.   Most of the audience is standing up most of the time, and move through three rooms. After an experiment like this, one feels more creative and human.  Like humans, too,  plays breathe, unlike drones and rigidly well-made dramas.  Technology, as conceptualized by Erwin Piscator, is an asset to the stage—but let’s stop producers before casts are replaced by digital actors.  Much better to see Robert Patrick himself, with a twinkle in his eye, watching the performance among us and singing a ditty, as he does as a finale. Despite the pony-tailed hipster behind glasses in this show, mesmerized by virtual reality, theatre constantly reminds us that we are in one—probably a last outpost and enclosure  where we can, among others,  still judge for ourselves.

Hi-Fi | Wi-Fi | Sci-Fi
Predictions Past Present and Future

In association with the Seoul Institute of the Arts

Written by Robert Patrick
Directed by Billy Clark and Jason Trucco

The cast includes John Guttieriez, Yeena Sung and downtown veterans Valois Mikens and Agosto Machado.

Visit La Mama:

Press: Sam Rudy, Miguel Mendiola, Joe Trentacosta

Photos: La MaMa.



(Hedy Weiss’s article appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, 1/19.)

Time and space. The abstraction and reality of mathematics. The complexity of patterns. Universal connectivity. Creativity. Cultural dissonance. Immortality. Infinity.

How’s that for a list of some of the biggest ideas to bedevil the human mind?

Now imagine this: A brilliant theatrical venture that not only illuminates each and every one of these notions in the most rigorous yet accessible way, but does so by unspooling a superbly multi-layered, deeply human story laced with immense emotional depth, great bursts of humor, a magical infusion of musical and choreographic accents, and such compelling performances that you have no doubt the actors could pass the most challenging exams even without the aid of their scripts.

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(Ben Brantley’s article appeared in the New York Times, 1/19.)

Conversation sings and swings, bends and bounces and hits heaven smack in the clouds, in the glorious new production of August Wilson’s “Jitney,” which opened on Thursday night at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater. In Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s vital revival of a 1982 play only now making its Broadway debut, words take on the shimmer of molten-gold notes from the trumpets of Louis and Miles.

How sweet the sound. And how sorrowful and jubilant, as life in a storefront taxi company in an African-American neighborhood in Pittsburgh comes to feel like a free-form urban concerto, shaped by the quick-witted, improvisatory spirit that makes jazz soar.

Acted by an impeccably tuned ensemble, this early work from an American master makes you realize how much the New York theater has missed the voice of Wilson, who died in 2005. And it feels somehow fitting that this play — part of one of the great cycles of modern drama — should open on the eve of Donald J. Trump’s inauguration.

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(Susannah Clapp’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/22.)

When Joan Lindsay wrote Picnic at Hanging Rock in 1967, she created a myth. A foreword encouraged readers to believe that her story about schoolgirls disappearing on a trip to a volcanic Australian landmark might be based on documentary evidence. It was not – it was fiction – but the plot is so resonant with actual anxieties that people continue to think it fact. Set on St Valentine’s Day, 1900, it conjures up uncertainty and dissolving boundaries. A century of Victorian propriety about to give way to a less corseted age. Girls, transfixed by romance, on the brink of becoming sexual beings. Nature about to erupt. Time in a trance. Fascination.

Tom Wright’s adaptation, for Australia’s Malthouse theatre and Black Swan State Theatre Company, hints at much of this. The emphasis is utterly different from Peter Weir’s swoony 1975 movie, with the girls dressed in rippable white muslin. Much more apparent here is a country squirming under colonial shackles, and a series of narrators trying to piece a story together.

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(Hedy Weiss’s article appeared in the Chicago Sun-Time, 1/18.)

“What of the Night?,” Maria Irene Fornes’ raw, blistering tale of love, loss, betrayal, sacrifice, isolation, violence, poverty, the currency of sex, and the power of language, is not for the meek.

The Cuban-American playwright (now 86, and a victim of Alzheimer’s for many years), was a major figure on the Off Off Broadway scene from the 1960s to the early 1990s. During that time she wrote more than 40 plays, many of them experimental in form, of which only a handful are produced on any regular basis. Watching the brave, immensely ambitious and profoundly disturbing revival of “What of the Night?” — a rarely seen 1989 work now receiving a riveting co-production by Cor Theatre and Stage Left Theatre — you understand just how difficult it can be to perform this weave of four interconnected one-act plays titled “Nadine,” “Springtime,” “Lust” and “Hunger.”

Not only does its nearly three-hour chain of storytelling demand actors willing to bare their souls, conjure an intense sense of intimacy, and suggest deep wells of pain. But they also must be able to play with words that are at once poetic and oddly offbeat, and strung together in the manner of a masterful writer for whom English will always be marked by signs that it is a second language. (A simple riff on the word “impeccable” might just be one of the play’s most beguiling moments.) Fornes’ play, boldly directed and skillfully directed by Carlos Murillo, is one of those pieces that leave you wondering how its cast of 11 actors can emotionally gear up to repeat their performances for weeks on end.

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(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/19.)

The timing is perfect. With Ukip eagerly endorsing Theresa May’s Brexit strategy and Donald Trump about to be inaugurated as US president, along comes a transfixing play by Roland Schimmelpfennig about the historic danger of extremism. Translated by David Tushingham, the play addresses specific German concerns; yet what gives it universal relevance is its portrait of liberal impotence in the face of unvanquished certitude.

The work is deeply radical in form: spoken dialogue is mixed with scene-setting and description of characters’ thoughts as if it were a mix of play, film and novel. Five people, in Ramin Gray’s superb Actors Touring Company production, sit round what might be a cluttered rehearsal-room table. We learn that it is Christmas Eve in a bourgeois, intellectual household. Albert, a writer, is engaged in a ferocious spat with Bettina, a film-maker, over the arrival of the latter’s mother, Corinna. But it is Corinna who sparks the dramatic crisis by inviting a man she met on the train, Rudolph, to stay with the family. Rudolph is urbane, civilised, polite and entertains everyone by playing Chopin and Bach on the piano, but when he reveals that he is a doctor with Paraguayan connections, we realise that he is the silken embodiment of a past Germany has long thought buried.

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Photo: Deutsches Theater Berlin