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First Nighter: The Lobbyists' Wavy 'SeaWife', HorizonTheatreRep's Mixed 'Araberlin', Pan-Asian's Weak 'Sayonara'

In this day of 90-minute productions, many of which might have been expanded to make their point(s) more effectively, there remain productions of greater length that could have stood judicious red-penciling.
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In this day of 90-minute productions, many of which might have been expanded to make their point(s) more effectively, there remain productions of greater length that could have stood judicious red-penciling. Two of the following three enterprises are among their number:

SeaWife, at the South Street Seaport Museum, is in the right place. Enhanced with authentic-sounding sea shanties by the acting and writing troupe The Lobbyists and worth the admission price, it tells the story of Percy, who's played by a sympathetic puppet, then by Tommy Crawford and then by Will Turner as a character called Gravesight. When young puppet Percy lost his mother to the sea and subsequently his grieving father to wherever, he's traumatized by water and its potential for grievous occurrences.

Grown into a young adult, he encounters standoffish barmaid (Eloise Bonnet), woos and wins her but all too soon loses her to the sea. Yes, a pattern is emerging in which the sea becomes not a symbol of birth (as it often is) but a symbol of death. Beaten by the events, Percy transforms into the drifter Gravesight, who still hopes to recover his lost love from the eddies that swept her away.

And thereby results the protraction spectators have to experience while knowing that the tale being told will only resolve with the character's somehow coming to terms with the sea one way or another. The resolution comes after a much longer wait than is necessary and even then isn't particularly surprising.

Until it does, however, The Lobbyists, who are directed with verve and mystery by developer Liz Carlson (working with playwright Seth Moore), assume various roles and play various instruments (including hot fiddle and boisterous accordion) on the long but narrow stage. They're greatly aided by set designer Jason Sherwood and lighting designer Jake DeGroot. In addition to Crawford, Turner and Bonnet, the seaworthy are Alex Grubbs, Tony Vo, Douglas Waterbury-Tieman and Raymond Sicam III. Among them, there's enough stamina to keep several oceans roaring. N. B.: Some audience participation is asked but not forced.


Rafael De Mussa, who directs and acts in HorizonTheatreRep's mashup-titled Araberlin and who also greets patrons at the door, says in a program statement that he first commissioned a translation (from David Looseley) of Jalila Baccar's perhaps autobiographical work a decade earlier.

That's a commission of some astounding prescience, since the subject matter is so eye-widening topical right now: young people, radicalized by Muslim terrorists, who leave home for fighting in the Middle East or, in the instance of many young women, depart to marry fighters already there.

The play focuses--much of the time anyway--on what happens to the family of a man called Mokhtar (Gabriel Diaz DeSalas), who quits his Arab family living in Berlin to disappear behind that terrorist curtain. In a series of scenes Baccar shows the slow disintegration that affects Mokhtar's sister Aida (Lisa LaMattina), her husband Ulrich (De Mussa), her son Kais (Diaz DeSalas) and Katarina (Elena Rusconi), the young woman Mokhtar had been courting. All four of them come under suspicion of being sympathizers and have their lives otherwise disrupted.

Where the drawn-out stage time comes into play is in Baccar's depiction of the incremental unraveling of Mokhtar's family and girlfriend. The problem is that the playwright does it by so many semi-incremental sequences that patrons have too much time to understand that until some word of Mokhtar's situation--whether substantial info or not--arrives, the final fade-out won't occur.

There's a further aspect to the play that affects its ultimate outcome. Slotted between the Mokhtar family scenes are projected actual reports from disparate news outlets on families who've lost a loved one to the dangerous and seductive cause. As these segments mount, it's increasingly apparent that the true stories are more moving than the central one, its perhaps autobiographical origin notwithstanding.

Incidentally, all cast members, as directed by De Mussa, enter from the audience wearing nametags specifying the characters they're portraying. Since four of the six players--Malin Barr and Scott Mandel round out the troupe--double and triple on De Mussa's set, which is meant to look like a lounge, the nametag notion may be intended to minimize confusion. Really, they're more distracting than anything else.


There are no real quarrels with the length of Sayonara, the Pan Asian production at the Clurman, which is a musical adaptation by bookwriter William Luce, composer George Fischoff and lyricist Hy Gilbert of James A. Michener's novel

The problem here is with quality. Few tuner lovers have to be reminded that Michener's Tales From the South Pacific is the source for the immortal South Pacific. On the evidence of Sayonara, the takeaway is that if Michener's Sayonara--an abiding theme of his being the clash between races--is to be decorated with songs, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II better be providing them.

Sayonara, which was filmed in 1957 and won Oscars for Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki as one pair of mixed race lovers, is about two pairs of mixed race lovers. The principal couple consists of Major Lloyd "Ace" Gruver (Morgan McCann) and aloof lead Tararazuka performer Hana-Ogi (Ya Han Chang). The secondary couple is Private Joe Kelly (Edward Tolve, in the Buttons role) and Katsumi (Natsuko Hirano, in the Umeki role).

Since military rules in the Pacific during that part of the post-war period forbade fraternization with Japanese women, both love affairs are under stress. The Ace-Hana-Ogi coupling is further complicated by his supposed engagement to Eileen Webster (Jennifer Piacenti), the daughter of Ace's commanding general, Mark Webster (Scott Klavan), and his intolerant wife Miriam (Sandy York).

With everything stacked against the two pairs, it would seem evident that love songs of, say, the "I Have Dreamed" and "We Kiss in a Shadow" and "This Nearly Was Mine" caliber are called for. The primary Sayonara disappointment is that Gilbert and Fischoff supply songs for the clandestine lovers that simply don't measure up.

Although all principals sing well--McCann, Kelly and, as Captain Mike Bailey, Justin McEllroy--none of the players is especially well served by the awkward production values. There's no question that the Pan-Asian budget was understandably small, but surely director Tisa Chang could have figured out a more theatrical way to make the most of what was available to her. There's a certain amount of choreography included to jolt the livelier numbers, and choreographer Rumi Oyama has figured out a way to handle those.

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