First Nighter: Five Worthies From Alan Ayckbourn, Eugene O'Neill, The Marx Brothers, Philip Ridley and God

Confusions, at 59E59 Theatres - As the author of 79--count 'em, 79--plays, Alan Ayckbourn rarely falls below a certain laugh level. Many of his rib-tickling jokes--and the situations from which he derives them--involve rancorous marrieds. That's the case with two of the five one-acts stuffing this jolly evening. In "Mother Figure," Lucy, from whom Rosemary and Terry appear to have let rooms, is a frumpy but dictatorial type who's intent on keeping people in line. And does. In "Between Mouthfuls," bickering Martin and Polly and bickering Mr. and Mrs. Pearce are seated at adjacent restaurant tables. The connection between them--Martin works for Mr. Pearce--leads to an amusing finish. In the other three plays, desperate Harry tries to put the moves on Bernice and Paula to no avail over hotel-bar cocktails ("Drinking Companion"), several stalwarts as a village fund-raiser attempt to overcome severe weather conditions with hilarious physicality ("Gosforth's Fete"), and five people on park benches irritate each other with relentless chatter ("A Talk in the Park." Ayckbourn, a rare playwright who knows exactly how to direct his own work, does just that with endlessly skilled actors Stephen Billington, Elizabeth Boag, Russell Dixon, Charlotte Harwood and Richard Stacey. Playing in repertory with Hero's Welcome.
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O'Neill (Unexpected), at Metropolitan Playhouse - Unexpected to be sure, these two one-acts, directed by company artistic director Alex Roe with sly bemusement, were written some time before the playwright won the first Pulitzer Price for Beyond the Horizon in 1920. The longer entry dates from1916 and is unexpected not only because so much of the early feeling-his-way O'Neill is rarely revived but because it's--guess what!--a comedy. That's right, those of you who've grown up believing that Ah, Wilderness! Is the man's only comedy. In this early "Now I Ask You!" he's mocking the pretentious youth of the day in the figure of Lucy Ashleigh (the stunning Emily Bennett), who marries Tom Drayton (the handsome Terrell Wheeler) but decides she's bored with him and their wealth and prefers the company of silly poet Gabriel Adams (Eric R. Williams). The latter has been spending much time with painter Leonora Barnes (Dylan Brown), a gadabout making a play for Tom. Subtly manipulating them all is Lucy's wise mom (Kim Yancy-Moore). The further fun of the snappy piece is O'Neill's inserted send-up of Henrik Ibsen, who's termed "old-fashioned." Remember: This is 1916. Lucy, by the way, has seen and been impressed by Hedda Gabler, that title character being an ultimate suicide, of course. The clever curtain raiser is the 1913 "Recklessness," a melodrama, which, like "Now I Ask You!," includes a gunshot.
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I'll Say She Is, at the Connelly - This one is billed as "the lost Marx Brothers musical," and that's almost literally true. Noah Diamond, who adapted, directed and slapped on a thick, black mustache to cavort as Groucho, worked from Will B. Johnstone's 1923 rehearsal typescript. This remnant of the instant 1924 click is apparently no more nor less than a 30-page outline. It's enough, however, to indicate that the meager storyline featured society debutante Beauty (Melody Jane) seeking "a thrill" in various New York City locales. Skimpy at best, her search provided the opportunity for revue-like numbers, and Diamond has made the most of them with Johnstone's (original?) lyrics and music by Tom Johnstone and Alexander Johnstone. It's instantly obvious that Adam has thrown himself into the project because he loves the four sophisticated nitwits and believes himself a sufficient Groucho lookalike. The other lookalikes corralled are Matt Roper as Chico, Seth Shelden as Harpo and Matt Walters as Zeppo. If we can't have the originals, this quartet more than suffices. Certainly, Shelden on the harp and Roper at the piano fare exceedingly well. A bevy of dancing lovelies, choreographed by Shea Sullivan, abound. Okay, under Amanda Sisk's direction, an aura of the amateur prevails, but somehow that makes the sort-of-revival all the more entertaining.
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Radiant Vermin, at 59E59 Theatres - Granted the title isn't instantly alluring, but hold on. Before the play is over, Philip Ridley makes sure he's explained the moniker. He's telling a horror story about a pact that young, strapped Jill (Scarlett Alice Johnson) and Ollie (Sean Michael Verey) make with the mysterious Miss Dee (Debra Baker) when they respond to her offer of a no-obligations dream home to house them and their newborn son. Needless to say, there's a catch, but Jill and Ollie only discover it when they slowly turn into the equivalent, if not more, of the calculating Macbeths. The method they discover for decorating the rooms of the unfurnished dream abode runs into action combining elements of Arsenic and Old Lace, Sweeney Todd and Rosemary's Baby--not a bad triumvirate. In order to go along with the mounting macabre proceedings, patrons have to believe that the two homemakers are extremely gullible when Miss Dee first appears, but maybe that's easily enough done. It's pretty much easily enough done to accept the highly energetic performances Johnson and Verey give, under David Mercatali's direction. During a lengthy prior-to-closing sequence, the actors play all the neighbors who show up for their offspring's first birthday party. It's a tour de force with an emphasis on the force.
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An Act of God, at the Booth - No act of God is responsible for bringing David Javerbaum's yuk-a-minute comedy back to Broadway so soon after Jim Parsons spent a few 2015 summer months inhabiting but hardly inhibiting it. The reason for its return has to be the producers' believing the revenues to be wrung from it have yet to be fully realized and, furthermore, that adored Sean Hayes would be a likely candidate to help them glide towards their goals. Javerbaum's conceit here is that as a lark God has chosen to appear in the body of an unsuspecting celebrity. Last year it was Parsons; this year it's Hayes. (Who's up in 2017? George Clooney? Anthony Weiner?) Sitting on a white divan for most of the 90 minutes, this God introduces 10 new commandments (no, wait, he retains two originals), while aided by archangels Michael (David Josefson) and Gabriel (James Russell). The beauty of the script, directed by ubiquitous Joe Mantello, is not only that every single one-line gag lands solidly but also that Javerbaum has wrapped a commendable religious philosophy in a comic package. Amen to him.