Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill

Indie Artists on New Plays #79  comments on Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill 

Anyone who has had the pleasure of living with me has come home, more than once, to find me on the couch with a bottle of wine, fully immersed in a Billie Holiday record. What can I say? Sometimes darkness needs embracing.  And Billie Holiday – Lady Day as she was known – was something else.

 

Lady Day’s voice plumbs the soul’s depths and rises in dismay, beauty, resignation, and ultimately joy. Her words tell the story of a seemingly impossible life of a woman of color and grapple with the consequences of generational and lifelong trauma. They come together to form music that echoes the song of her ancestry and the reality of her present: haunted melodies that tell us what it was to exist as the entirety of herself.

 

Clearly, I have feelings about Billie Holiday. So what was I to expect from Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill at the Circle on the Square theatre? A (yikes) Broadway revue? How does one do justice to such an iconic sound?

 

My concern dissipated as five-time Tony winner Audra McDonald hit the stage. McDonald’s performance as Lady Day exceeded any expectation. Her first breath takes the air out of the space. The notes that follow replace it and take us along for the ride.  We are Lady Day’s guests in the only home she’s really known: the stage of a boozy, smoky club.

 

McDonald does not ‘channel’ Billie Holiday. Even better, she plays her. She crawls inside Lady Day, playing her as a woman and performer in steadfast honor of an ancestor, using her vocal style and powerful personality as tools to tell her story. McDonald nearly vanishes in the process.  In most moments, she is only separate from the character in appearance, and toward the end not even that. With eyes closed they were nearly indistinguishable, a nod to Dialect Coach Deborah Hecht, and I would imagine a fantastic Vocal Coach, however uncredited.

 

Rather than a linear biography, the script consists of stories immersed in a set at Philadelphia nightclub, Emerson’s Bar and Grill. The stories move as Lady Day wants them to, in and out of the music. Thankfully, she does not hold back.

 

She recalls moving, often violent accounts of the many phases in her short life – multiple arrests, prostitution, abject racism, and extreme drug and alcohol use. Lady does not strictly sing the blues this evening, though – she is a riot. McDonald’s joyful portrayal invites us to see past the poppy vinyl and sentimental biopics, and into the entirety of this person.

 

Behind Lady Day and her band, ghostly objects and photos of individuals emerge and fade throughout the piece as they’re referenced. This is the only thing that detracts from McDonald’s performance. I imagine the concept is to provide historical reference and information, ultimately comforting the predominantly white Broadway audience.

 

It’s a shame that the audience isn’t encouraged by playwright Lanie Robertson and director Lonny Price to fully immerse themselves in the story and performance in front of them. Audiences can be trusted to know or have the ability to research this history. 

 

But what I find most disappointing is its museum-like quality. It evokes the feeling of an exhibit, suggesting the audience should lightly peruse the story, swoon for the music, and then collectively put it all behind glass – romanticizing a history that has been overcome.  Billie Holiday’s legacy, Audra McDonald’s performance, and the histories from which they emerge belong right in front of each of us, so that we may learn from and be moved by these incredible women performers existing as the entirety of themselves.

Play for Today: The Way Out

The Way OutOn Sunday, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter passed away at the age of 76.

One of the plays in Indie Theater Now’s FringeNYC collection is about Carter and his fight for justice after being wrongfully imprisoned for murders he did not commit. I’m talking about The Way Out by Timothy Nolan, which premiered at FringeNYC in 2002 in a production directed by Vincent Marano, starring Sheik Mahmud-Bey as the famed prizefighter. (Sheik won a FringeNYC Excellence Award for his performance.)

I asked Tim about the genesis of this play, and what type of research and preparation he did. Here’s what he told me:

I remember calling one of Rubin Carter’s reps back in 2000 asking about rights to his autobiography The 16th Round, and being told point blank, “you’re too late. It’s going to be a movie with Denzel Washington.” But we (Shiek Mahmud-Bey, who played Rubin, Vincent Marano, who directed, and I) decided to forge ahead anyway. And actually, it was that conversation that ended up giving the play its focus.

We decided to dispense with the straight bio format (which rarely works well in a play, anyway) and focus on the minutes, the seconds, when Rubin first stands before a Federal judge, knowing he is making what has to be by law the last plea for his freedom. Going to the Federal courts was an all or nothing bet. And he had every reason to believe the system would screw him.

But Rubin’s also got his own stuff going on. He’s a man who thought he could con or punch his way out of any situation, and that was only getting him in more trouble. But he couldn’t help himself. And yet here he had to try. It’s a struggle. So I went from there.

Obviously I had to stay away from The 16th Round, but I did do a lot of research on his life and the case. James S. Hirsch’s biography Hurricane was invaluable, but I also did a lot of primary source research. It was the first time I realized I could use this Internet thing. I was most interested in the racial environment of Paterson, NJ (where the killings took place) to try to understand the motivations of everyone involved… Rubin, the actual killers, the prosecutors, the cops, etc.

Given that we were aware of our legal restraints, I never tried to contact Rubin while I was writing the play. But the last time we staged the play (in 2009 at the National Arts Club) the producers at that time thought it would be a good idea to reach out to Rubin, and some of his people did attend. They assured me that Rubin had read the play and really enjoyed it. That meant a lot. Because it’s not a wholly flattering portrait, though I think it’s an honest one. The fact that he agreed validated all we had done, and told me something about what kind of man he’d become as well.

I have to say that in The Way Out Tim has crafted an appropriate legacy for Mr. Carter, who we hope is resting in peace. Learn more about The Way Out on Indie Theater Now.

 

Annapurna

Indie Artists on New Plays #78 Judith Jarosz comments on Annapurna at the Acorn Theater

scene from play

Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally | Monique Carboni

When I heard that two artists whose talent and comic timing I have admired were coming to Off Broadway, I was excited. Both Megan Mullally and Nick Offerman have gained fame in television roles. Mullally is best known as the acerbic Karen Walker on “Will & Grace,” a role which garnered her two Emmys and four SAG Awards, as well as five Golden Globe nominations, and Offerman as the dry, stoic, Ronald Ulysses Swanson on “Parks and Recreation.” They even made appearances on each others shows. Although not an avid TV patron, I have caught both of them on their respective shows in reruns, and like many, am delighted by their talent and comic timing. It’s been my experience that those that can tap in to the heart of comedy, are often just as deeply in touch with the tragic tones of life and art. Add to the mix that they each have extensive live theater credits and are married to each other in “real” life, and it would seem a possible dream scenario for them to appear together in a two person show.

Annapurna, by Sharr White is a tightly written, well balanced play with a beautiful balance of comedy and tragedy, which keeps propelling forward to a touching conclusion. At 90 minutes with no intermission, the time flies by, with no small credit going to the nuanced performances that both actors bring to their roles. Without revealing too much, the piece features a reunion of a married couple who haven’t seen each other in 20 years. Turns out Ulysses (Offerman) an ex-Cowboy/Professor of English/Poet currently living in a dilapidated trailer (in which the entire play takes place) in Paonia, Colorado “Otherwise known as the ass-crack of the Rockies,” had a bit of a raging drinking problem back in the day and can’t recall, or has blocked, certain memories pertaining to the breakup of their marriage. Meanwhile Emma, who took their five year old son Sammy with her when she left, has moved on to a new life and marriage, which doesn’t seem to be working out either, and after finding out that “Ully” is very ill, has decided to surprise him with a visit with some news about his son. The fact that he has no phone helps prompt the surprise aspect.

What we get here is an emotional dance filled with love, hate, tears and laughs, between two people who still have volcanic connections. The writing is great and never allows the action to stagnate for a moment as we zigzag through a roller coaster of sarcastic comments mixed with angst ridden pain. And yet somehow the whole thing is quietly touching at the same time, slowly unfolding like a dusty rose until some harsh facts about their life and their choices are revealed. It is so much fun to watch too really talented well trained pros be thrown a literary steak this juicy and watch them feast! Bart DeLorenzo directs with a sure hand, making us feel part of the action (right down to the smell of sausage which is actually cooking) but never intrusive. The set by Thomas A. Walsh feels realistic without being too claustrophobic. The costumes by Ann Closs-Farley and lighting by Michael Gend serve the piece well and I also really like the sound design by John Ballinger, which captures the realism and the humor of the piece. And what is Annapurna? A mountain located in Nepal, which is among the world’s most dangerous to climb. So ugly-beautiful…like life.

Isolde

Indie Artists on New Plays #77 Mitchell Conway looks at Isolde playing at Abrons Arts Center

scene from show

Tory Vazquez, Jim Fletcher | David Pym

“……..your turn……. say it……….say the words.” 

Isolde by Richard Maxwell was one of the most brilliant and devastating pieces of theatre I’ve seen. A subtle and hilarious text performed by four expert actors, this play pierces with its listlessness.

Patrick and Isolde are going to have their fourth house built. This will be Isolde’s dream house. Patrick wants her to be happy. She has found an architect named Massimo to design it. She and Massimo have an affair. This seemingly simple story creeps between almost-naturalism and back into absurdism seamlessly.

Through most of the play there are no light shifts and no music. Transitioning between scenes, actors just stop and move to their next. Scenographer Sascha van Riel has put a bland brown, almost cardboard-looking, series of walls, with different white plastic chairs, and a table full of liquor in the back.

There are too many instances of genius dialogue to name. Massimo asks, “Do you have water?” Patrick replies, “I think we might.” Massimo adds, “Seltzer.” This prosaic exchange is loaded with absurdity. What suburban home could possibly lack a faucet for water? How could Patrick be unsure whether he has water in his house or not? Isn’t having Seltzer less likely than water, so it should obviously be specified initially?

Near the beginning of the play, Patrick invites Massimo over to some plastic white porch chairs. After they sit for a moment, he says “this is where the men go.” Isolde stands watching their entire scene. Often, characters not ‘present’ in a scene will be standing off to the side watching it. As Isolde and Massimo get naked, Patrick is on the other side of the space, holding a whiskey and watching TV in their direction.

Jim Fletcher as Patrick speaks almost like someone with down-syndrome. When asked about what he does for his job as a contractor he replies, “I write the checks,” while waving his arm in big writing motion. Fletcher’s performance is nothing short of exquisite; it is a biting commentary on a certain type of man who is all too recognizable.

Patrick’s sleepy sadness only occasionally broken by moments like his hilarious accented sing-song-ing of a wine brand or taking out and shaking his stomach to indicate his weight.

Isolde says, “Massimo is an award winning architect. We’re lucky to have him.”

Patrick replies, “that’s pretty good!” Massimo, played by Gary Wilmes with delightful swagger and pretention, is referred to as a ‘cliché’ by Patrick. He never gives direct responses to questions; he rambles artisty nonsense about beauty, creative process, and not expecting to be understood. After he and Isolde sleep together he comments, “terrifying pleasure, all the damage.”

Isolde forgets her lines. On stage and in life. Tory Vazquez is masterful in this role: riddled with cold terror she speaks of “the evil un-feeling.” I could feel the blankness of her blinking. I was scared of her and she was me. As the three men watch the football game, Isolde enters and they all look to her. She stands there and stares back at them. After a moment, Massimo says, “your turn.” Pause. “Say it.” Pause. “Say the words.” The strength of this was for me partially in looking at how we take turns talking and speak when we ought to. We go when we are supposed to. But also I felt her inability to speak. The dramatic action indicated that if she entered, she should have a reason, and she would speak. But she didn’t speak. Soon she left.

Patrick and Uncle Jerry are looking blankly at Massimo’s architectural plan. Jerry, played by Brian Mendes, takes out his phone and plays The Band’s ‘The Weight,’ which the duo moderately bop along to and occasionally hum or mildly intone. In response to art they could not understand, they cope relishing what’s familiar. Suddenly Isolde bursts into tears and demands they leave.

This is my first exposure to Richard Maxwell’s work. I was totally thrown by the stark, penetrating world he created.

Patrick says to Isolde, “let’s hold each other.” He and Isolde stand for a while, on opposite sides of the room, staring out.

Your Mother’s Copy of the Kama Sutra

Indie Artists on New Plays #76  Sarah M. Chichester looks at Your Mother’s Copy of the Kama Sutra, playing at Playwrights’ Horizons’ Peter J. Sharp Theatre

Scene from scho

Chris Stack, Zoë Sophia Garcia | Jeremy Daniel

In Kirk Lynn’s comedy Your Mother’s Copy of the Kama Sutra, set in the mid 90’s, Reggie (Chris Stack) asks his girlfriend Carla (Zoe Sophia Garcia) to marry him, to which she agrees on one condition: if they reenact all the major experiences from both of their sexual pasts with each other so both of them can truly understand one another thoroughly by experiencing it with them. Years later (2012), Carla and Reggie’s teenage daughter, Bernie (Ismania Mendes), experiences her own trauma that leads to their experiences being discussed and confronted a second time, bringing about unexpected hope for them to be able to repair the damage brought on by others.

As a play that focuses on what are the boundaries to intimacy, we see these events unfold before our eyes by feeling the trauma within the characters, as they struggle to deal with what has happened to them. We experience their reactions to these events before, during, and after so we get a full experience of what they are going through.

Usually in a production that involves a topic  that’s rather deep and intense, one might feel rather overwhelmed by watching and experiencing it. However, this play never once leads the audience to dwell on any difficult feelings as the play has many comedic moments (which the actors portrayed beautifully) keeping it softer yet still delicately on topic. Along with that, it never once made the material it focused on come off as cheapened or offensive through the comedy.

Anne Kauffman’s direction is particularly strong. The production has a light quick tempo, seamless transitions, and a simplistic yet tasteful and effective vision that makes the story easy to follow and experience.  The performance of the ensemble of actors (which also includes Rebecca Henderson, Maxx Brawer, and Will Pullen) is overall strong. Stack and Henderson both being in the two time periods this play takes place in, transition very well and perform both ages quite effectively. (One thing about Stack is that while he acted as a father well, he didn’t look like a father in appearance.)

Two elements of this production that added to the overall effect was the set (designed by Laura Jellinek) – the stage was painted white and made to look like a living room for most of the play but was easy to imagine being elsewhere when the characters weren’t in a home — and the lighting (designed by Ben Stanton), almost all done with practical overhead lamps which was cohesive to the set,  using front light to see their faces.

Play for Today: NY/XY

NY/XYThe seventh annual Left Out Festival enters it final week at Stage Left Studio today. I saw my second show at the festival a couple of days (and you can read about it here on the blog) — that show featured new work by Alex Beck and William LoCasto, who collaborated at Stage Left five years ago on the provocative play NY/XY. So to celebrate their new work, our Play for Today is NY/XY.

This is a very unusual piece. Here’s what I wrote about it when I reviewed it back in 2009:

William LoCasto’s provocative new play NY/XY promises “two young men, an anonymous voice, and a lot of questions about sex in New York City”—and indeed, when we enter StageLeft Studio, the two young men are already on stage, clad only in their underwear, apparently asleep. And when the lights go down, an unseen male voice starts asking these men—whose names are Michael and Danny—about their sex lives. Lots of very frank talk about gay sex ensues.

But don’t let the obvious trappings fool you. NY/XY may look like a typical “gay boys in their underwear play” on the surface, and in some places it delivers some of the soft-porn-like sexiness of that fading genre. However, as the play progresses, it becomes clear that LoCasto has something more serious on his mind, something actually quite timely in the wake of Proposition 8.

When I saw Bill on Friday night he said he was hoping to bring NY/XY back, and I think that’s a tremendous idea! Not to mention, the monologues that he has written for Michael and Danny are great material for young actors to work on — I hope folks will check this out on Indie Theater Now.

More East Side Stories at Metropolitan Playhouse

Over at Metropolitan Playhouse through May 4th they’re presenting East Side Stories, a new installment of an annual event wherein this excellent indie theater company celebrates its neighborhood and its neighbors by commissioning artists to create original short plays about the history and people of the East Village/Alphabet City/Lower East Side.

Half of the plays in this series are solo works created by their performers from interviews they conducted with actual, living East Village residents. I caught a program of three of these short plays, entitled “Movers,” and featuring Sari Caine as Crystal Field, Lenore Wolf as April March, and Chris Harcum as Larry Schulz, all directed by Yvonne Conybeare.

Now I have to admit that not only do I know two of the performer/writers (Sari and Chris are both playwrights featured on Indie Theater Now); I’ve actually also met one of the subjects of these pieces, Crystal Field, the artistic director of the venerable East Side institution Theater for the New City. So it’s probably not surprising that I had a great time at “Movers.”

Sari really captures the essence of Crystal Field in her piece, Crystal. The splendidly detailed, chaotic set evokes TNC with wit and economy, and Sari’s passionate, detached, unfocused, even frazzled portrayal of the lady who — along with Ellen Stewart of La MaMa and Ellie Covan of Dixon Place — really created and defined a theater neighborhood and community over the past several decades is tremendously evocative. Sari seems to have asked the right questions when she interviewed Crystal, and she reveals for us a woman of enormous talent, vitality, dedication, and all the concomitant regret and loss that naturally goes with all that. It’s a fitting tribute to an important indie theater figure. (Why is there no Wikipedia page about Crystal Field?)

The second piece on the bill features Lenore Wolf as performance artist April March. Wolf has created a solo work that constantly surprises and engages, recreating her own meeting with Ms. March, who alternates between modulated delight in being asked to be part of the project and skepticism bordering on fear as she contemplates her own personal failings. The piece, which is marvelously acted by Wolf, made me hungry to learn more about Ms. March.

The final personality we encounter in “Movers” is Larry Schulz, in Chris Harcum’s The Preservationist. Schulz served as business manager of the Sandra Cameron Dance Studio and before that was a journalist specializing in dance. He shares anecdotes with Chris/us in a clear-eyed, unfussy style; this is a man who knows his business and is determined to see it appropriately notated and remembered. Some fascinating slides accompany this show, illustrating the work of some of the dancers Schulz encountered during the course of his career. This is a fascinating examination of a man’s relationship to a small but significant corner of the NYC art community, and Chris seems to have captured his subject with real felicity.

These portraits of three lesser-known but important contributors to the life of the Lower East Side/East Village make for extremely interesting oral history — this project initiated by Metropolitan’s artistic director Alex Roe 11 years ago lies at the intersection of theater and documentary and counts as one of the landmark projects of this excellent company. Check out “Movers” or its companion program “Shakers,” or one of the two programs of original plays in the “East Village Chronicles” series, and dip your toes in the rich history of one of NYC’s most diverse and vital neighborhoods.

Bullets Over Broadway

Playwrights on New Plays #64 Sergei Burbank shares his thoughts on Bullets Over Broadway playing at the St. James Theatre

production photo

Scene from Bullets Over Broadway | Paul Kolnik

In 1920s New York, Gangster Nick Valenti (Vincent Pastore) needs a show that features his chorus girl girlfriend, Olive (Heléne Yorke), as she is convinced she can be a star. Enter David Shayne (Zach Braff), an obscure and idealistic playwright whose new play fits the bill. Unfortunately, Olive can’t act, so Shayne and his agent, Julian (Lenny Wolpe), surround her with veteran performers Warner Purcell and Eden Brent (Brooks Ashmanskas and Karen Ziemba), as well as Broadway legend Helen Sinclair (Marin Mazzie). Shayne then finds himself at the center of a never-ending struggle: with Olive, who wants more lines even though she doesn’t understand the ones she has; with Sinclair, who wants rewrites to her character to cater to her own vanity; and with Cheech (Nick Cordero), a thug sent by Valenti to guard Olive who instead becomes Shayne’s ghostwriter, increasingly perturbed by Olive’s mangling of “his” work. There are romantic shenanigans galore, with affairs blossoming between Olive and Warner and between David and Helen — to the detriment of David’s relationship with his girlfriend, the long-suffering Ellen (Betsy Wolfe).

That’s the plot, but the plot — in Woody Allen’s adaptation of his 1994 film — is really beside the point. The show is a celebration of jazz music and the spectacle of a grand Broadway musical. It rejects at every opportunity the contemporary internal musical embodied, funnily enough, in shows like Next to Normal — which starred none other than Ms. Mazzie, who absolutely owns her role as the out-of-touch, un-self-aware, lighter-fluid-ingesting Helen Sinclair. To a person the characters state what they want and then seek it out, clambering over one another to get it — with the exception of Shayne, whose attempts to compromise paint him into an increasingly tiny corner. The humor is gleefully unsubtle, and the musical / dance numbers extravagant: this is a world where characters frequently break into song and dance not because they’re overcome by emotion, but because it’s fun to sing and dance (even if you’re a gun-for-hire for the mob).

Susan Stroman’s choreography evinces this joy: there are many standout moments — a tap sequence by Cheech and the gangsters deserves honorable mention — that argue for not seeing the forest for the trees and enjoying the show from moment to moment. But the plot ends about twenty minutes before the show does, and that enthusiasm can only get the production so far (especially when its running time is two and a half hours).

scene from production

Marin Mazzie | Paul Kolnik

There is, moreover, an interesting overlap between the show-within-the-show and Bullets Over Broadway as a whole: there is definitely an uneven division of labor between the stage veterans (in particular Ashmanskas, Mazzie, and Wolfe), and screen stars — namely Braff and Pastore. As Shayne, Braff embodies something akin to naturalistic vaudeville: he attempts to make the joke and be in on the joke at the same time — which is hard to do, as Shayne is supposed to be the joke. Braff can definitely sing, but when paired with a powerhouse like Wolfe, it is clear that we are dealing with performers working at completely different wattage levels. Ashmanskas steals his scenes with an abandon and zeal that is pitch-perfect for the tone of this production, and it is clear that it leans on efforts like this to get past the finish line.

Santo Loquasto’s scenic design is impressive, and an example of the magic that is possible when a show has considerable resources behind it. When given the use of the more gifted performers of the cast, the musical arrangements by Doug Besterman and Andy Einhorn are wonderful, if not particularly memorable.

The element that makes this show worth the trip is the trio of Mazzie, Wolfe, and Yorke: they are dynamic performers who own this show from its very first moment, and are three exhibits of the best of what live theater can offer. Each performer brings the roof down at least once, and each time they are worthy of the eruption.

Fans of the original film will no doubt enjoy a return to this madcap comedy, as will those who love a broad Broadway show. While impeccably assembled, it is an assemblage of ill-fitting — and probably too many — pieces. In the end, it is yet another example of what happens to a Broadway show when the names behind it attract lots of money, but there is no one above them powerful enough to say “no.”

Selected Short Subjects at the Left Out Festival

Joe Hutcheson | photo by Cheryl King

Joe Hutcheson | photo by Cheryl King

Three veterans of previous editions of the Left Out Festival are spotlighted in this year’s edition, in an evening of short plays that are bittersweet, touching, and funny. Billed as “Selected Short Subjects,” the program is comprised of “Yesterday Was Dramatic” by Alex Beck, “Old Man in Sorrow” by William LoCasto, and “Sherilynn Fenn at the Hamburger Hamlet” by Joe Hutcheson. There’s one more performance at Stage Left Studio on April 23, and I highly recommend it!

“Yesterday Was Dramatic,” performed by its author, is set on the NYC subway, on a series of evenings/late nights that chart a new relationship in the life of our 27-year-old narrator with another young man named Peter. Beck delivers the piece with a guileless sort of charm; the writing is witty and introspective, as Beck’s character navigates the uncertainties of romance and the bitter truths he discovers when he looks at himself in the metaphorical mirror.

“Old Man in Sorrow” is performed by two expert indie theater actors, Desmond Dutcher and KC Weakley. It tells the story of Gregory and Jeffrey, a longtime couple who are embarking on a road trip to visit Gregory’s father, who is ill and nearing the end of his life. LoCasto’s piece roams the same kind of territory as Beck’s–love, insecurity, our feelings of inadequacy and mortality–but from the perspective of men who are much more experienced and mature than Beck’s protagonist. In its contemplation of the aloneness that necessarily accompanies aging, the play is incisive and perhaps a bit unusual.

“Sherilynn Fenn at the Hamburger Hamlet” is another chapter in Joe Hutcheson’s autobiography–which he’s charted in other solo performances like Son of a Hutch and The Geography of a Nervous Breakdown, both of which were seen in previous Left Out festivals. Fans of Joe’s work (I am one!) will not be disappointed in this piece, which is loaded with his characteristic insouciance, humor, self-awareness, and depth. The title tells you much of what you need to know: Joe worked as a waiter at a Hamburger Hamlet in Sherman Oaks, California; and he was a Sherilynn Fenn fan-boy; and she came to dinner at the restaurant. Enough said.

Joe’s play is directed by Cheryl King and Alex Beck’s by Cassandra Sandberg; LoCasto directed his piece himself. Great work all around.

Little Mac, Little Mac, You’re the Very Man!

A scene from LITTLE MAC, LITTLE MAC, YOU'RE THE VERY MAN!

A scene from LITTLE MAC, LITTLE MAC, YOU’RE THE VERY MAN!

Little Mac, Little Mac, You’re the Very Man! is the newest play from Less Than Rent, which is one of America’s smartest, most interesting, and most ambitious young theater companies. Little Mac is the work of James Presson and Sean Patrick Monahan, who are each in their early twenties yet have about two decades of theater experience between them. That experience shows in this remarkable play, which is inspired by John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (and its offshoot, Brecht’s Threepenny Opera), but is in fact an epic exploration of American capitalism and popular culture in the shape of a postmodern mashup of the kind you’d expect from a company like Buran Theater or Les Freres Corbusier.

The Little Mac of the title is an outlaw in the Old American West, sort of a Jesse James type, but more guileless and actually something of a blank slate, upon which James and Sean Patrick will paint a variety of pictures illustrating aspects of the American Dream. Sean Patrick told me that Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels was another inspiration for the piece, and like Gulliver, Little Mac finds himself repeatedly cast ashore amongst archetypal folk, whom he learns lessons from. So in the many episodes of Little Mac, our hero becomes a farmer, an entrepreneur, a gangster, an inventor, a baseball player, a Hollywood celebrity–even, for a time (in one of the play’s most ingenious and pointed sections), a black man.

The people Little Mac mixes with are drawn from American history, legend, pop culture iconography, and fiction: Old MacDonald (he who had the farm) is in one scene, along with McDonald’s of the Golden Arches; others, more or less randomly remembered by me right now, include Lucille Ball, Ronald Reagan, Karl Rove, Jessica Rabbit, Al Capone, William Howard Taft, Bill Gates, Michelle Kwan, Nancy Pelosi, Joe DiMaggio, and the Marx Brothers, Groucho and Karl. (James and Sean Patrick say there are about 84 characters in all.) The play’s gigantic cast of characters has been chosen cannily and they are presented in circumstances that are almost always unexpected but have an underlying sense. And the things they’ve been given to do in the piece, as they teach Mac and us about how to get ahead (i.e., how to make money, usually at the expense of others), that are delicious and clever without ever being precious or smug.

One example: Little Mac is initiated into the world of the ’20s gangsters by Jay Gatsby, in a scene that includes a Guys and Dolls takeoff along with a gangsta rap song. The leap from gangster to gangsta kind of took my breath away, as did many of the other leaps that this play takes.

And I should mention here, by the way, that Little Mac is a play with quite a bit of music in it, most written by Alexander Sage Oyen, who also plays keyboards throughout the show (he’s billed as “Jonathan Swift”; his bandmate, on guitar and vocals, is “Taylor Swift,” played by the ebullient and charming Sarah Daniels.

Twelve other actors bring this cavalcade to life, taking multiple roles regardless of sex, ethnicity, appearance, or age. Their names are: Tom Sanchez, Ashley Denise Robinson, Rachel B. Joyce, Ben Diserens, Jillian Rorrer, Cory Asinofsky, Alex Kramer, Anthony Vaughn Merchant, Matthew George, Eugenio Vargas, Joe Flynn, and Lance Lemon. They are terrific.

The color/gender-blind casting is a conscious choice by James, Sean Patrick and Little Mac‘s director, Charlie Polinger, and it provides a visceral representation of what I took to be the key theme of the piece, which is that regardless of whatever idealized American Dream you may believe in, the fact of the American Way of Living is that you can re-invent yourself in whatever skin you choose. And as a result, we’ve got to stay on our toes to make sure we aren’t being taken in by some stranger wearing a mask that looks really good.

Little Mac is very smart, very well-crafted, and admittedly a lot to take in in a single sitting. I love its audacity and sophistication–though I wasn’t a bit surprised by them, given what I know about LTR. I can’t wait for what they do next, obviously; and I hope Little Mac gets a long life after its run at the Kraine ends next week. (Go to LTR’s website for more details about the production.)

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