REVIEWS: “Bobbie Clearly”, “Miss You Like Hell”, and “Transfers”
“Bobbie Clearly” (New Play, Roundabout Theatre): in this world premiere play by Alex Lubischer, part of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Underground series for emerging new voices, a fourteen year old boy named Bobbie Clearly shoots and kills a fellow corn detasseler in a field outside the fictional, small town of Milton, Nebraska. Devised as a piece of faux documentary theatre presented as a series of interviews, residents of Milton grapple with the tragedy ten years later, as Bobbie is released from prison to live among them, plans for the annual “Milton’s Got Talent” fundraiser get underway, and things spiral and fall apart. The voice of this darkly funny play is too often fractured, oscillating between sincere exploration of important questions of faith and forgiveness and silly vignettes, often musical, that poke fun at small town life. That tension—documentary vs. mockumentary—is never resolved. It is unclear if Mr. Lubischer, a Nebraska native, has set out to satirize his characters or give them voice; his approach, with director Will Davis, is inconsistent though engrossing. That’s thanks to a battery of fantastic performances by the 11 person ensemble. Constance Shulman (“Orange is the New Black”) is a particular, heartbreaking standout as Milton’s only police officer who befriends Bobbie and facilitates his integration back into society, while Talene Monahon (“The Government Inspector”) is mesmerizingly funny as a performatively mourning friend of the victim, and JD Taylor gives a highly textured performance as Bobbie’s “Big Brother”. At 2 hours and 20 minutes, spanning multiple genres and loaded with devices, I get the sense Mr. Lubischer, a graduate student at the Yale School of Drama, wrote this play as if he’d never get another chance; fortunately, he will, and I look forward to seeing what he writes next. Opened April 3rd; runs through May 6th in the Black Box at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre.
“Miss You Like Hell” (New Musical, The Public Theater): following six years of development and wholly in line with The Public Theater’s mission to highlight new voices and champion diversity, “Miss You Like Hell” is a new musical unlike few I’ve seen: by women and about women of color. With book and lyrics by Quiara Alegría Hudes (“In the Heights”) and music and lyrics by genre-hopping singer-songwriter Erin McKeown, the original and unfortunately timely story follows Beatriz, an undocumented Mexican immigrant (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and Olivia, her estranged and rebellious bi-racial teenage daughter (Gizel Jiménez), as they road trip across the country from Philadelphia to Los Angeles for a deportation hearing Olivia doesn’t know about until the journey is under way. Despite the heavy stakes, the tone is light and the politics secondary to the thicket of the mother-daughter relationship refreshingly given room to breathe onstage in a musical. Ms. Jiménez holds her own beside the titanically talented Ms. Rubin-Vega, and the fellow travelers Olivia and Beatriz meet along the way, all minorities themselves, make memorable impressions; pointedly, no straight white men appear as characters, though the excellent eight-member ensemble remains underutilized. While the music is enjoyable and beautifully orchestrated, and both the staging by Lear deBessonet and design are smart, the overall show feels too muted and diffuse. Fair enough, Jose Solis sheds light on some points that white people might miss, but I wanted to feel more about these characters and their predicament, and there is great power in the showing. This admirable musical could use some more tuning, and future life beyond the Public, because it is a story about real characters we need to see and hear from onstage. Opened April 10th; runs through May 13th at the Public’s Newman Theatre.
“Transfers” (New Play, MCC Theater): a warning: if you wear socks while seeing “Transfers”, prepare to have them knocked off. The third new play this season about race, opportunity, and higher education (following “Pipeline” and “Admissions”), “Transfers” by Lucy Thurber paints a captivating portrait of two young men from the South Bronx as they vie for their one shot to transfer from community college to an elite, ivy-clad university in Massachusetts. Clarence (Ato Blankson-Wood, "The Total Bent"), a gay African American bookworm, and Cristofer (Juan Castano, "Oedipus El Rey"), a Latino wrestling prodigy, have worked hard to escape personal struggles and cycles of crime and violence plaguing their streets only to face a life-changing opportunity for which neither is prepared. Non-profit do-gooder David (Glenn Davis), does his best in the few hours he has to prep the boys for their interviews in a crowded motel room the night before, revealing past secrets and scars each carries with him. Ms. Thurber, who teaches playwrighting at The New School, displays her mastery at plot, dialogue, and character development so that when these young men face their interviews and the admissions committee debates their fate, we get to be in the room knowing who they truly are. Mr. Blankson-Wood and Mr. Castano deliver rich, breakout performances under director Jackson Gay, and while the transforming set by Donyale Werle can be cumbersome, the clarity and power of Ms. Thurber’s words are triumphant. Each character in the play is shown to be so much more than who we think they are, constantly challenging the audience to grapple with their assumptions and question their loyalties. Painful, nerve-wracking, sad, and difficult, “Transfers” is intensely ravishing and excruciatingly relevant—an urgent and important play, easily among the best of the season. Opened April 23rd; runs through May 20th at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.