REVIEWS: “Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow”, “The Rolling Stone”, and “Toni Stone”
Three new plays opened at three of Off-Broadways best non-profit theatre companies over the course of the last month. Below I take a brief look at “Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow” at MCC Theater, “The Rolling Stone” at Lincoln Center Theater, and “Toni Stone” at the Roundabout Theatre Company—all three of which are critic’s picks!
“Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow” (New Play, MCC Theater) (critic’s pick!): playwright Halley Feiffer’s irreverent new contemporary adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” (1900) drips with irony, meta-theatricality, and anachronistic language—making for an hilarious and unexpectedly poignant re-telling of a classic play.
Per production publicity, Chekhov’s iconic trio of sisters Olga (Rebecca Henderson), Masha (Chris Perfetti), and Irina (Tavi Gevinson) are “NOT super thrilled to be stuck in rural Russia circa 1900 (laaame)”. Awash in their own solipsistic existence, the sisters are joined by their ennui-struck brother Andrey (Greg Hildreth), his “whore” wife Natasha (Sas Goldberg), and Masha’s obliviously cloying husband Kulygin (Ryan Spahn) as this proto-dysfunctional family trudges across several years of life, love, and loss while yearning for the elusive Moscow of their childhood. Along the way of the story’s unfolding, the Prozorova clan visits with Irina’s suitor, the “kinda gay” Tuzenbach (Steven Boyer), their drunken neighbor, Chebutykin (Ray Anthony Thomas), a hapless bureaucrat, Ferapont (Gene Jones), the bombastic loner Solyony (Matthew Jeffers), an intriguing visitor, Vershinin (Alfredo Narciso)—who never stops speaking of his suicidal wife and two daughters while having an affair with Masha—and the aging family maid, Anfisa (Ako), who is most concerned with the tea.
Ms. Feiffer’s millennial-voiced take on the angst of Chekhov’s century-plus-old play closely follows the original story while updating its syntax and sensibility for modern audiences, obliterating subtext and finding humor amid all the despair; while her punchy and witty approach can lose steam at times, it also slyly covers for the drama simmering underneath. As with the best comedies, Ms. Feiffer’s characters are living in a drama, each deadly serious, which only serves to heighten the humor. A masterclass in the theatrical alchemy of good writing, directing, acting, and design, all the elements of this production combine to create a whole that is superior to the sum of its parts. Director Trip Cullman’s measured hand keeps the tone finely balanced throughout—no easy feat—making for moments of unbridled hilarity and surprising gut-punches of pathos. You aren’t likely to find a funnier and better acted comedy on any New York stage right now. Opened July 18th; runs through August 17th at The Robert W. Wilson MCC Theater Space at MCC Theater. Discount Tickets.
“The Rolling Stone” (New Play, Lincoln Center Theater) (critic’s pick!): Chris Urch’s devastating and economical new play dramatizes the intimate, family-level impact of anti-LGBTQ persecution in modern day Uganda. The play’s title is a reference to The Rolling Stone newspaper, a weekly tabloid published in Kampala for four months in 2010 with the explicit purpose of making public the names, photographs, and addresses of known or suspected homosexuals, which led to the murder of at least two individuals so-named. While the paper was shut down by Uganda’s high court, it is emblematic of the way anti-LGBTQ bigotry has been sown worldwide by the scourge of right-wing Christian evangelists from the United States.
The story follows Dembe (Ato Blankson-Wood—simply radiant), a young student preparing for medical school who has a secret romance with Sam (Robert Gilbert), an Irish-Ugandan doctor visiting from Northern Ireland to do some good. Dembe’s brother, Joe (James Udom), has just secured a prominent church pastor position with the aid of neighborhood mother-figure Mama (Myra Lucretia Taylor), whose mute daughter, Naome (Adenike Thomas), has suffered an unspoken trauma. When Dembe’s twin-sister, Wummie (Latoya Edwards), discovers his true sexual orientation, the trio of orphaned siblings are forced to reconcile their love and support for each other with fidelity to their church—a lifeblood source of community and financial sustenance.
Discussion of civil and human rights can too often and too easily exist in the abstract. In “The Rolling Stone”, Mr. Urch grounds the discussion of LGBTQ equality in the frightening and violent context of true events in which gay people were outed, their families marked, and their lives threatened—a modern day version of “The Crucible”. The aura of fear permeating a story that is ultimately about love kept a knot in my stomach throughout. Beautifully rendered, heart wrenching, and human, this play incisively unpacks a host of contemporary issues in just under two hours thanks to the economy of its writing and the keen direction of Saheem Ali. Would it were the subject matter a distant episode of history, instead of an all-too-painful present day reality. Opened July 15th; runs through August 25th at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center Theater. Discount Tickets.
“Toni Stone” (New Play, Roundabout Theatre Company) (critic’s pick!): never heard of Toni Stone (1921-1996)? I hadn’t either. Like too many women, and women of color in particular, her story and achievement has been largely relegated to the sidelines of history. Fortunately, and not a moment too soon, Lydia R. Diamond’s new play tells the unheralded story of its eponymous trailblazer who was the first woman to play professional baseball in the Negro Leagues back in the 1940s and 1950s.
As directed by Pam MacKinnon, with vivid and evocative movement by choreographer Camille A. Brown, this impressionistic account of an unlikely hero is a sweet and uplifting story that celebrates one quirky woman’s determination to live her life on her own terms amid the sweeping backdrop of the African American fight for civil and human rights in the 20th century. Based on a 2010 book by Martha Ackman, the play follows Toni’s evolution from discovering her love for baseball and her remarkable talent to navigating her way into a professional sport where she is the only woman on the team, making her first female friend—a prostitute named Millie—and finding love with Alberga, a man nearly 40 years her senior.
As Toni, actor April Matthis gives a tour de force performance, embodying a woman whose charming naiveté, sheer drive, and unvarnished uniqueness make for a fascinating and intriguing character study. Toni has pride but isn’t proud. She’s not a talker so much as she is a doer. She lacks sophistication and is quite literal, but boasts a natural talent on par with or exceeding that of men. Ms. Matthis is supported by an all-male, all-black ensemble who play a range of characters, both male and female, black and white. The play operates in amorphous montage, which is effective at capturing the energy and physicality of the game central to the plot but often leaves the audience critically unsure of time and place—a frustrating feeling while watching a biographical story build, especially an obscure one where time and place are so essential. Still, the force of Ms. Matthis’s performance overcomes this flaw, and the history itself is a home run. Opened June 20th; runs through August 11th at the Roundabout Theatre Company’s Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre. Discount Tickets.