Monday, July 21, 2008

A Theater Weekend

Catherine and I had three very different plays to see this weekend: one Off-Off Broadway and two Off Broadway. Actually, the final number will be four-in-a-row, because we're seeing [title of show] tonight on Broadway, but I don't want this post to be absurdly long. It was interesting seeing these three in rapid succession because, apart from reviewers and a few hard-core theater people, I can't imagine anyone choosing to spend a weekend with a traditional American comedy, an absurdist political comedy, and an all-vocal jazz/pop musical—an eclectic mix, to say the least.

Friday was Frank Blocker's play Suite Atlanta at 78th Street Theater Lab. Frank is an incredibly talented actor and writer who has appeared in several PWP productions. He always gives a first-rate performance and this production is no exception: he and his partner, Sidney Stone, do a great job here playing very different characters of both genders (a little drag always livens up an evening!). The play consists of a series of vignettes that take place in a single Atlanta hotel room, similar to Neil Simon's plays Plaza Suite and California Suite. Frank has made the play feel more like a single piece by weaving through the evening a political sex scandal which occurred in the room and the inevitable film project that it inspires. He's also avoided making the play just one-joke-after-another by focusing each scene on the personal stories of the various characters who inhabit this room—one of his strengths as a playwright. Some vignettes work better than others—I especially liked the one with two elderly sisters from New York and another one involving the casting director for the film—but it's a clever piece that I hope he continues to develop.

If you can't get to this production, Frank will also be performing his hilarious solo piece, Southern Gothic Novel, monthly at Stage Left Studio beginning August 4. Catherine and I saw it there earlier this summer—our second time—and it's a treat. If you're in NYC or going to be visiting this fall, go see it.

Saturday night found us at the Barrow Street Theater for the Chicago-based Theater Oobleck's The Strangerer. I've never read any Albert Camus, but the summary of his similarly titled novel (which was on George W. Bush's "vacation reading list" a few years ago) makes me think it would not have added anything to my enjoyment of this production. The context for the piece is the first 2004 presidential debate between Bush and John Kerry, moderated by Jim Lehrer; and, for the first 7-8 minutes—including a couple of minutes where Lehrer addresses "the debate audience" (us) before the cameras start rolling—it's exactly what I remember from the broadcast... right up until President Bush pulls a knife and stabs Lehrer during Kerry's first answer. After that, it gets strangerer and strangerer. The performances are all strong, especially Colm O'Reilly, even though he's far younger and doesn't resemble Lehrer much at all: his actions, manners and speaking style are dead on. Because Mickle Maher's script follows the debate format fairly closely—question, answer and rebuttal—it's talky and there were a few times where I thought the speeches went on a little too long; it's a 90-minute piece that could have been trimmed to 75. In spite of this, it's a highly-inventive and cleverly-realized production—which is all the more remarkable because Theatre Oobleck never works with a director.

Finally, last night, we saw Expatriate at the Culture Project. It's a two-character play that follows the lives of two American friends from childhood through their rise to pop stardom in Paris. Playwright/actor Lennelle Moïse has a gift for poetry—both in her lyrics and her dialogue—and has created two interesting, full characters for this play. The "all-vocal" music she creates with the remarkably talented Karla Mosley, using electronic loop machines to sample their own voices for the accompaniments, is richly layered and quite beautiful. Director, Tamilla Woodward, and her design team have created an intriguing production that I thoroughly enjoyed watching. The story was ultimately the only part of the production that left me wanting: the characters seem more appropriate for a simpler story than the grand melodrama they inhabit. I also think it might be better served with a different title: it's a piece about the difficult relationship between these two women; their lives abroad are merely a plot point. Granted, one might say that Moïse's character distances herself from Mosley's (and other, unseen people) but that strains the metaphor for me and doesn't really say much about the play we ultimately see onstage. That said, Moïse is an extremely talented playwright and musician, and I definitely plan to see her next production.

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