REVIEWS: "The Amateurs", "At Home at the Zoo", and "Relevance"
“The Amateurs” (New Play, Vineyard Theatre): this striking and highly theatrical examination of the idea of self and evolution of character in drama takes the audience on a trip to 14th century Europe, plagued by, well, the plague, which killed an estimated 75-200 million people, and centers around a not-so-merry band of beleaguered pageant wagon players roaming the land haunted by death and disease while performing their limited canon of Biblical salvation plays. A fourth-wall-breaking switch half-way through the show brings its themes into higher relief, contextualizing playwright Jordan Harrison (“Marjorie Prime”)’s interesting, insightful, and relevant ideas about life, death, and drama, and lending a richer resonance to the balance of the play. Staged with abounding wit by director Oliver Butler (“The Open House”) and imaginatively crafted by the design team (David Zinn, Jessica Pabst, Jen Schriever, Bray Poor, and Raphael Mishler), this dark comedy poses (literally) important questions about the role and purpose of art in a time of crisis, while highlighting overlooked world history and resurrecting old theatrical traditions. Refreshing in its structure and narrative creativity, and brought to life by an outstanding ensemble cast, “The Amateurs”—making its world premiere—is the smartest socially conscious play I’ve seen yet in the Trump era. Opened February 27th; runs through March 18th at the Vineyard Theatre.
“Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo: Homelife &The Zoo Story” (Revival Play, Signature Theatre): Celebrated playwright Edward Albee (1928-2016) (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”) wrote his first play, “The Zoo Story”, in 1959. A two-hander about a strange and unsettling interaction in Central Park between Peter (Robert Sean Leonard, “The Invention of Love”), an intellectual reading a book on his usual bench, and Jerry (Paul Sparks, “House of Cards”), a charismatic and talkative drifter who has just come from the zoo, Albee wrote a first act for the story, “Homelife”, in 2004, which features a seemingly ordinary, Sunday morning domestic conversation between Peter and his wife, Ann (Katie Finneran, “Promises, Promises”), earlier that same day. The two plays, written 45 years apart, are now performed together, styled (legally) as “Edward Albee's At Home at the Zoo”, offering audiences a chance to see, in real time, the brilliance of a great American writer evolve across decades. Coursing with his characteristic sexuality, from the explicit—a graphic conversation between Peter and Ann about anal sex in act one—to the implicit—a tickle fight between Peter and Jerry in act two—the play as composite offers a compelling exploration of the disconnection between people as seen through mundane, performative interactions between husband and wife, and man and stranger. Thoroughly captivating, tour-de-force performances by the cast under the exquisite direction of Lila Neugebauer (“The Wolves”) make this vibrant, wonderfully dense play a must see of the spring season. Opened February 11th; runs through March 25th at Signature Theatre (all tickets just $30).
“Relevance” (New Play, MCC Theater): in this world premiere play by JC Lee (“Luce”) directed by Liesel Tommy (“Eclipsed”), two women engage in a fight, not about a man or necessarily each other, but about an idea. Acclaimed, middle-aged white feminist author Theresa Hanneck (Jayne Houdyshell, “The Humans”) meets her match in Msemaji Ukweli (Pascale Armand, “Eclipsed”), a young, African American feminist critic who speaks for a generation of feminists seeking liberation from “righteous victimhood” and pushing for diversity in thought and representation within the movement. In the stuffy, generic hotel suites and halls playing host to the fictional “American Conference for Letters and Culture” (sets by Clint Ramos), the battle for Theresa’s relevance as she receives a lifetime achievement award plays out in speech, debate, and colloquy—proving that power politics are universally unseemly and, for the most part, uninteresting. The contours of Theresa and Msemaji’s intricate debate are not clearly defined enough for the audience to engage in their fight, let alone hold interest, leaving the personal motivations of these flawed, tainted, and unlikable characters unmoored. Crisper articulation of the big idea at the heart of the play would strengthen this otherwise flat and superficial dramatization that seeks to demystify a perceived monolith of modern feminism as being the province of elite, white women—a task that is in fact more relevant than ever, but not achieved here. Opened February 20th; runs through March 11th at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.