Tag Archives: New York Theatre Workshop

Mary Jane Has Soul

I hate plays and films about people with incurable diseases. There is only one narrative trajectory they can possibly have. The protagonist has little agency and is often a victim. The messages of such productions is often maudlin or saccharine or a combination of the two. They are designed to make you cry etc. I say all of this just to demonstrate what Mary Jane had to work against with me as audience- member. That I not only liked it but thought it was an incredibly compelling piece of theatre indicates the achievement of the playwright, director, and actors. It is a great play and production. And, yes, it did make me cry (a little).

First, playwright Amy Herzog wisely focuses her attention not on the patient (a never-seen three-year-old child) but on his primary caregiver. the titular Mary Jane. Second, Herzog dramatizes the struggles Mary Jane has both concerning the care of the child but also issues surrounding that care (trying to maintain a job, navigating the bureaucracies of the medical establishment and the city). Finally, the playwright carefully deconstructs how this loving, smart, and competent woman is slowly overwhelmed with the enormity of the task ahead of her. She never whines nor laments. She keeps trying to maintain her resilience and, yes, her cheerful disposition, but that slowly breaks down (as her son moves from home care to the ICU).

In this, Herzog has found a gifted collaborator in director Anne Kauffman, who maintains a laser-like focus on the journey of Mary Jane. While we feel her travails throughout, she is never a victim. She always maintains some small agency.

And, of course, the play rests on the shoulders of its incredible cast. Carrie Coon, who was the best thing in the might Leftovers cast, invests her portrayal of Mary Jane with subtlety and nuance throughout. Exhausted but never defeated, she fully expresses the brutal struggles of her character and yet we never sense anything less than full love for her son. She is ably supported by an all-female ensemble. Liza Colon-Zayas embodies two medical professionals who are grounded and dedicated, supportive and realistic. The deep subtext of Colon-Zayas conversation with Coons in the hospital is streaked through with both hope and fatalism. Equally poignant is Susan Pourfar as another mother, Chaya (from the Orthodox Jewish community), who has a child with similar disabilities. It is a fascinating scene where Mary Jane discover what they share and what is distinct for each of them. Actresses for years on end will be employing this scene in their workshop classes. Finally, Brenda Wehle as a Buddhist nun shares the stage with Coons for the play’s elegiac conclusion. Herzog quietly but persistently has crafted a story of faith and inquiry, wondering aloud about our place in the world and the purpose behind our bonds to another. That she never telegraphs her inquiry but we realize slowly that this is what we as the audience are being asked to contemplate is a masterful turn of writing.

If it may be said that a work of art has a soul, then this is such a work. Mary Jane only has a few more performances. Catch it while you can.

Geoff Sobelle = Charlie Chaplin + Spalding Gray

I run hot and cold on performance art, but I found The Object Lesson — Geoff Sobelle’s art installation piece currently playing at New York Theatre Workshop — to be delightful, mostly. The   end result is more a meditation on the place of things in our lives rather than a piece with a clear linear narrative arc.

Which is fine. Different can be good. The audience walks into NYTW’s space — which has had a distinctive look each of the last five times I have visited — and is confronted by what could be best described as Miss Havisham’s attic on steroids. With no clear center as to what the playing area might be, the audience is left to wander and roam a seemingly endless array of boxes, some of which prompt conversation with one’s fellow patrons. Chairs and couches are mixed in with yoga matts and stools. What is perhaps refreshing about Sobelle’s approach is that he does value some objects; this is not an all out attack on material culture. Some items become tokens of memory, of something significant from the past, of something shared.

Sobelle reminded me of two notable, if very different, past performers. On the one hand, when he broke into monologue, he reminded me very much of Spalding Gray. I cannot really say why this should be so. There was nothing Gray-esque necessarily about his focus, but nonetheless, the tone struck a chord that reminded me of that much-missed monologist. On the other hand, there was something clearly Chaplin-esque about the performance. Like his predecessor, Sobelle imbued the inanimate objects about him with life, personality, character. Like Chaplin, Sobelle was confounded and confused by anything representing a technological advance. And like Chaplin, his physicality was extraordinary. His training at École Jacques Lecoq in Paris was very much on display, and it served the performer and his construct well.

Highlights of the performance included two vignettes that make use of circular phone conversations, a monologue about a visit to the French countryside, and a a bit with ice skates and salad (which really has to be experienced rather than described). The ending, however, was something of a let down. The final vignette really did not provide a satisfying coda for all that had transpired up until that point. What was needed was perhaps not some sort of Aristotelian sense of narrative closure — because that is not what The Object Lesson is about — but rather some sort of emotional epiphany that would have made the end of the journey more pointed.

That point of criticism aside, The Object Lesson is very much a worthwhile evening of theatre. If anything, for those of who were there, it brings up fond memories of the kind of work that used to be a staple of the downtown theatre scene. Perhaps it’s time for a large-scale return to that kind of experimentation.

Shakespeare and the 2016 Election

Time to do a little catch-up work. The 2016 election was — to put it mildly — a clusterfuck of epic proportions. There were two Shakespeare productions that were playing in New York City at the end of the year, however, that really went quite far in encapsulating where we are as a global society.

The first was Red Bull Theater’s Coriolanus. The play is ready made for our current moment. The tension between autocratic rulers and a restless and mercurial population speaks volumes about a disillusioned people who simply want to blow things up. Director Martin Sexton was both true to his source and true to the world outside the theater’s doors with his depiction of the titular hero soliciting for votes in Rome. Perhaps most prophetically about the work is that Coriolanus finds more in common with Aufidius, the leader of Rome’s enemy, rather than with his own people. Patrick Page, who is fast becoming one of my favorite New York actors (his work in Hadestown and Deaf West’s Spring Awakening was vital), was excellent in the role of Menenius.

The other production that captivated me was, of course, New York Theater Workshop’s rendering of Othello. Of course, stars Daniel Craig (Iago) and David Oyelowo (Othello) garnered most of the attention, but they were just two components in an superlative and successful ensemble. (I can’t remember the last time I so enjoyed a Roderigo — thanks to Matthew Maher.) Director Sam Gold moved the play forward to a modern military barracks somewhere overseas. While there was nothing particularly new about this choice — the National in London had made a similar choice a couple of years ago — the exploration of character is what truly marked this Othello as one for the ages.

The over-arching question of the play is the why. Why does Iago go after Othello with such a blind fury of revenge? Iago offers a few red herrings along the way, but none of those are particularly believable. For the aforementioned National production, Rory Kinnear presented an Iago who was just a bloke simply bored out of his mind.

Craig’s choice was far more active. His Iago was one of white entitlement and resentment. Not only did that crystallize the production but sent it screaming through the night like a runaway freight train (in a good way). The caveat here is resounding. That white resentment, let loose, will destroy everything before it — even the whole wide world.

For any who don’t think Shakespeare is relevant (I’m looking at your Ira Glass), these two productions more than prove them wrong.

Not Even Chlorine Can Clean Away This Corruption

Lucas Hnath has written the best play David Mamet didn’t. That assessment may initially appear to be damning with faint praise. Yet, Hnath has exceeded the reach of his predecessor in several key elements.

Currently coming to the end of it’s run at New York Theatre Workshop, Hnath’s Red Speedo details the late career hopes of professional swimmer Ray (played with off-kilter intensity by Alex Breaux). The plot revolves around whether or not he took performance-enhancing drugs to aid him for his Olympic trials. The moral quagmire encompasses Ray, his brother/manager Peter (Lucas Caleb Rooney), his coach (Peter Jay Fernandez), and ex-girlfriend Lydia (Zoë Walters). Hnath shares Mamet’s ability to bring his drama alive with staccato lines spat out like frantic machine-gun fire from Apocalypse Now. He also dramatizes the moral rot that can pervade an institution and how the appearance of propriety often becomes more important than actual propriety.

Hnath excels in some compelling ways. First, in Lydia, Hnath has created a fully realized female character. Lydia is not an idea or caricature or plot device. As embodied by Walters, Lydia — even though she appears in a single scene — is fully a part of the tapestry of the world. Her reach — the effect that she has on the narrative outcome — far greater than her stage time might at first indicate. Morally damaged like the other characters, Zoë is the one who tries to find a path — stumbling in the dark as she does — to something more ethical, something that allows her to leave her past behind.

Second, the playwright carefully weaves the personal and the professional together. Choices flow organically from character, from damaged pasts, from desperation. If a character chooses a morally questionable path, the drive emanates as much from the pains of failures, the fear of abandonment and loss, and the desire to escape errors. Greed is not so much a motive as fear. That makes them more understandable, more relatable. We can bring them closer to us, rather than judging them from the distance. Of course, once we have brought Ray into our hearts — when we think he is a jerky, somewhat stupid, somewhat deluded guy — then Hnath brings down the hammer and we are confronted by the monstrosity of Ray’s actions.

And that, finally, leads to Hnath’s greatest playwriting strength: the ability to surprise. None of the salesmen of Glengarry Glen Ross are particularly likable. We see them for what they are from the start. And when they fall upon one another in the second act, it is entertaining to be sure, but the audience is kept at a distance from them; we can happily feel morally superior to them because we are removed from them. Not so with Ray. Hnath sets his drama so that we believe Peter to be the fast-talking lawyer with the ethics of a deranged squirrel while Ray has just been along for the ride but is ultimately a sweet kid, redeemable. As the play unfolds, we see different shades of both that reveal complexity and nuance to both. The playwright carefully reveals details that leave us, at the end, with the judgment of Ray that is starkly different, starkly darker than where we started.

Director Lileanna Blain-Cruz stages the drama brilliantly, and the transformation of the New York Theatre Workshop space into the side of a swimming pool serves the work admirably. Fernandez excels as the Coach, and he lays bare the contradictions of his character as he must navigate the shoals of which moral compromises to make and which to avoid.