Review: And I and Silence

CAM00716Let’s get right into this, because I didn’t much care for And I and Silence at the Signature. It’s a new play from Signature playwright-in-residence Naomi Wallace. A 1997 New York Times article pegged her as largely unknown in America. I’m sure that’s changed by this point, but she was still unknown to me until last night. (Frequently the case with playwrights, as you may have noticed. How am I supposed to keep track of all these people?) The play itself is a harrowing and sad prison drama. Dee (Emily Skeggs) and Jamie (Trae Harris) make friends as young girls in a 1950s prison and vow to live better lives; meanwhile we see just how difficult it is for them years later when they’re actually trying to make it out there in the real world. The adult Dee and Jamie are played by Samantha Soule and Rachel Nicks, respectively. They’re both parlormaids in the postwar South, and have to deal with racism, leery bosses, and perennial poverty. Jamie (who is black) and Dee (who is white) have an extraordinarily close relationship, and it seems even in prison it was based to some degree on attraction.

And I and Silence is an endlessly bleak play: it doesn’t offer you much in the way of laughs or a hopeful ending, that’s for sure. Now, bleak doesn’t necessarily turn me off. No, the bigger problem is that this show feels muddled. The characters spend too much time talking about what doesn’t feel terribly important, and not enough time on major motivations and plot points. I felt distanced and confused throughout much of the play. A show that seems to want to be a searing portrait of poverty and loneliness is instead a heavy, draggy show about misery.

And it may just have been where I was sitting, but I also found some of it hard to understand. All four actresses speak in thick Southern accents and frequently face away from you (because the theater is set up in traverse, with the audience facing each other on either side of the stage). At the end of the show, I heard lots of fellow audience members say the same thing. But then to be fair these people were older, and old audience members are usually grumpy about acoustics.

My Grade: C-
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Ticket price: $25
Worth it: No, but it was worth a shot at that price point
Standing Ovation Watch: No

Review: The Wayside Motor Inn

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I don’t think I’ve seen or read very many of A.R. Gurney’s plays. So I didn’t know quite what to expect with The Wayside Motor Inn, currently onstage at the Signature. Let me just say that I flipping love the Signature because of their $25 tickets and their fantastic space. I mean, come on! They have a huge bar and a great bookstore plus several theaters! I didn’t order a beer last night, but I wouldn’t have felt guilty even if I did, because the ticket was so affordable. Not to mention the terrific shows they often put on over there. This year A.R. Gurney is one of the playwrights in residence at the Signature, and this play is a pretty good indication of why people like him so much.

It takes place in a bland hotel room in Boston in 1978. Ten characters walk in and spend the next few hours talking, arguing, trying to please each other, getting feelings hurt, forgiving each other. You get the picture. What makes The Wayside Motor Inn especially interesting is that these ten people are actually in five different rooms. Essentially, this show is five plays rolled into one, all taking place simultaneously. Many of the characters are onstage throughout: salesman Ray, for example, eats his dinner in front of the TV while a pair of college students try to connect physically, a divorcing couple split up their belongings, or a father and son clash about Harvard.

To be honest I’m a total sucker for this kind of theatrical trick. (“They’re in the same space, except they’re not! Theater is so cool!”) But The Wayside Motor Inn is also a very easy play to like. The stories are accessible, since they deal with fairly universal themes. You get several stages of couplehood: young love, divorce, old age. And a few parent-child conflicts as well. I wouldn’t say all the stories are equally interesting: college students Phil and Sally, for example, are a bit unsatisfying as characters and never all that dramatically compelling. And I could have done without the pat endings to some of the stories. But I did really like the older couple’s struggles (wonderfully portrayed by Jon DeVries and Lizbeth Mackay). And Jenn Lyon as the loopy waitress Sharon was just hilarious.

In any case, this very strong production definitely has me interested to see the remaining productions in A.R. Gurney’s residency. And I couldn’t stop myself from buying a ticket to another one of the Signature’s shows next week. (For just $25!) You just keep doing what you’re doing, Siggy.

My Grade: B
Running Time: 2 hours
Ticket price: $32 ($25 plus fees)
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: I can’t remember! But I don’t think so.

Review: Queen of the Night

I wouldn’t say I was struck with terror. But it’s fair to say I felt nervous about seeing The Queen of the Night. It’s another immersive piece from Randy Weiner, the producer behind Sleep No More. It’s a hit, I believe, though not on the level of Sleep No More (tickets are currently on sale through September but they hope to keep it around until the end of the year or so). It does seem to be the show of the moment. Loads of friends keep asking me about it, or going to see it themselves. So why would it make me nervous?

  • From what I understood, this show was even more immersive than Sleep No More. This one has a Dionysian, sexualized theme and involves actors rubbing up against you! Kissing your neck! Or something like that. Isherwood’s review makes the whole thing sound totally intrusive. I am not huge on this sort of thing. (In fact I’ve been accused of liking theater so much because it lets me observe life at a safe distance.) Were they going to make me take off items of clothing? Surely not. But how on earth would I pretend to be comfortable with strangers coming after me?
  • Your ticket also includes a very meaty dinner. (I’m a vegan.)

On the other hand:

  • I really liked Sleep No More, and have heard very good things about Queen of the Night, as well.
  • Several drinks are included in the ticket price. As the wise and hilarious podcasters of Joes at Shows have said, any theatrical event that provides you with alcohol is already off to a good start.
  • The show takes place at the Diamond Horseshoe, a newly renovated performance space below the Paramount Hotel. Previously it had been a 1940s hotspot. I love these kinds of spaces and was anxious to see this one.

So when I was offered a free ticket through Jada (who continues to be awesome and is one of this blog’s best supporters) I quashed my fears and jumped on the opportunity. As advertised, upon arrival you’re immediately presented with a specialty cocktail, and encouraged to wander around awhile (and interact with the performers) before the main performance begins.

So what’s this show about? Well, the storyline is a bit nebulous. It can be summed up as “a young girl’s initiation into womanhood.” I’m not familiar with The Magic Flute, but Queen of the Night is apparently based on its story: Pamina is the daughter of the Queen, and has to decide between two suitors. We see many carnivalesque celebrations of Pamina’s transition to adulthood: magic tricks, aerial silk performers, tumbling, knife-throwing, juggling, clowning, and so on. Queen of the Night is essentially a circus with dinner and drinks.

And it works! That’s primarily because of the outstanding cast: “Oh my gosh I love dancers,” as I kept telling my table during the show. These performers (Jada recognized several of them from Traces) are acrobatic, compelling, talented, fit, sexy. The older I get, the more I find myself simply amazed at the things dancers can do, and these ones do it very, very well. With no playbill, I can’t name names, but I was particularly impressed with the juggler and the Queen. It also fits incredibly well into the venue, which is essentially an enormous supper club with old fashioned, gold-plated detail as well as modern touches (lighting in test tubes, for example, at the bar.)

Fortunately, Queen of the Night is less in-your-face than I had feared: if you aren’t entirely comfortable with one-on-one interactions, I don’t think you will have to worry about it too much. At our table, the performers mostly just cozied up to the nearest audience member; since I was seated against the wall, I got to watch the show untouched. Good thing, too, because I actually found the immersive stuff to be far less interesting than the circus happening onstage. I don’t think everyone would feel this way. People all around seemed to really enjoy interacting with the actors. (One performer admitted after the show that he likes working at the show, but is a bit sick of being groped by drunk people. No surprise there.) I sat with a group of very nice and convivial new friends, which was ideal: we commented on the acts, enjoyed a good meal, shared plates, and had an all around lovely time. This show might not stand out as great theater, but it’s fun, it’s lively, and can make for a fantastic shared experience with friends. Don’t go by yourself, though. It wouldn’t be nearly as fun.

As for the food: it actually was quite good and there were veggie-friendly options*. I had eaten a little something before the performance so I wasn’t starving anyway, but the kale salad tasted great and there was a cauliflower dish as well as a mushroom risotto. (I mostly just stuck with the salad.) They also gave us fruit, nuts, bread and olives for the table. Speaking of the food, I have to mention my least favorite part of the show: At the end of dinner everyone tosses their metal plates complete with leftovers — and there were lots of leftovers at our table — into a huge vat. I was completely taken out of the moment, because this felt so incredibly wasteful. I’d have been delighted to have the kale salad for lunch the next few days, but that was minor compared to all the beef, pork and lobster that were tossed into the bin. Maybe they compost?

My grade: B+
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (though we arrived a bit late, so it was closer to 2½)
Ticket price: Free
Worth it: Well, yes, obviously, since I didn’t pay for the ticket. I believe the regular ticket price is $140 or so, and I actually think that’s fair. You get a lot for your money.
Standing Ovation Watch: Not exactly. But we were encouraged to get up and dance at the end.

*Fellow vegans: 99% of the time at restaurants, I ask if there are animal products in the salad dressing or whatever. I didn’t last night, so you’ll have to double check yourself.

Review: Sex With Strangers

2014-08-03 18.58.14You know you’re in a summer theater swoon when you think “Eh, I don’t want to go all the way up to the Upper West Side” even if the show in question has been rated a New York Times Critic’s Pick AND is available on TDF for just $27 AND was directed by David Schwimmer. (It’s gorgeous out! I can’t spend all day on the subway!) But then I realized that Sex With Strangers is at the midtown Second Stage location, rather than the uptown one, and that was enough to rouse me out of my lazy stupor.

Sex With Strangers is a two-character play about Ethan (Billy Magnussen), a Tucker Max-like blogger (who chronicles his conquests online on his “Sex With Strangers” blog) and Olivia (Anna Gunn), a fortyish unsuccessful-but-talented novelist. When Ethan arrives at a remote B&B, this brash, crass twentysomething makes it his mission to win Olivia’s heart and to revive her flagging career. The central conflict of the play concerns their opposing viewpoints about both sex and writing. She fears criticism of her work; he is an unapologetic Internet lightning rod; he wants artistic acclaim in addition to his commercial success; she’s (rightfully) concerned about his attitude toward women.

There were lots of racy bits, which is no surprise given the play’s title. To honest, however, the love scenes felt extraneous. Olivia and Ethan’s conflicts aren’t physical: rather, they are  intellectual and emotional. So there was no real need for a sexual release, as far as I was concerned. But then both of these actors are fairly gorgeous so I suppose most of the audience didn’t mind too much. I do wonder why David Schwimmer felt the need to emphasize the love scenes to this extent. Perhaps with a title like this one, he had no choice? Give the people what they want, right?

As for the cast: I’m of two minds about Billy Magnussen. His performance can be described in a single word: Hammy. Sure, he’s believable as the jokey frat guy sex blogger, but the character is supposed to possess deeper layers, which were nowhere in evidence. It was hard to fathom why the thoughtful Olivia would be so attracted to this blowhard. On the other hand, he’s very funny and those laughs give Sex With Strangers a lot of its appeal. Anna Gunn, on the other hand, doesn’t need any debate: she’s honest, and funny, and likable, and very smart.

The playwright, Laura Eason, has an even-handed perspective that I really appreciated: Ethan may have a disgusting, oversimplified view of women, but he also wants to be a nice guy who is supportive of Olivia’s career. (Well, up to a point.) You’re never really sure where he stands, and that’s a good thing. Sex With Strangers has really nice moments of humor, interesting ideas about what can and should be put online, and vivid characters. Plus I liked that these people live in Chicago. (It seems like it’s always New York City in these relationship plays, doesn’t it?) There’s a lot to like here. However it seems like Ms. Eason is most at ease with dialogue, and less so with plot, because the big second act plot twist doesn’t even make sense logically. And the play’s final scene is a bizarre, exposition-laden epilogue that really felt tacked on.

Ultimately, I wish this was the kind of show that really needed sex scenes, if that makes sense.  I wish the conflict was a little more visceral, and we had a chance to witness the explosive collision between two smart and passionate people with very different perspectives. The actual fight at the end is based on that ridiculous plot twist, and was therefore a lot less interesting than it could have been. As it is, I think Sex With Strangers feels a little more like a romantic comedy than it really wants to.

My Grade: B
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (including intermission)
Ticket Price: $27 (TDF)
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: 50/50