New York City—The following quick reviews of new theater entries you ought to know about:
People, Places, Things at St. Ann’s Warehouse—(When I saw this at London’s National last year, I wrote what you’re about to read. Nothing has really changed in the crossing other than the length of Denise Gough’s hair). Actress Emma (Denise Gough giving nothing less than a brilliant performance) falls apart from excessive drinking and drugging during a performance of Anton Chekhov’s play, The Seagull. Calling herself Nina (an ironic reference to the Chekhov role), she checks into a rehab center where she proceeds to defy her doctor and her therapist (Barbara Marten in both parts) as well as the members of the group in which she’s meant to find recovery.
That’s the first time she checks in. The second time she arrives at the center in Duncan Macmillan’s harrowing drama—that does include the occasionally surprising funny line—she makes better progress. Guided by new friend Mark (Nathaniel Martello-White), she “graduates” to return to living with her mother (Marten) and father (Kevin McMonagle, who earlier plays a patient gone mad).
The scene during which she confronts her parents is perhaps MacMillan’s most effective—after a series of extremely effective play-long sequences directed by Jeremy Herrin for his Headlong company. Macmillan lets no one off the hook in a work that makes a case for the undeniable benefits of rehabilitation, although on Bunny Christie’s institutionally white-tiled set (with the audience on both sides) he may be overlooking a crucial aspect of treatment.
It’s clear that Emma, who eventually admits to being not Nina but Sarah (that, too, may be untrue), is clinically depressed. She never receives individual attention for depression, even though it seems called for. The lapse is eventually minor in a work where Emma/Sarah’s distress is further rubbed in by James Farncombe’s combustible lighting and Tom Gibbons’s aggressive sound.
C. S. Lewis’s may be most famous for his Narnia tales, but it was his religious writing that he truly took seriously. In those tomes, he pondered spirituality as profoundly as he knew how. Of course, the Narnia stories also are undeniably spiritual.
Contending that this life—as opposed to the next one—meant existing in the shadow, Lewis tackled, among other concerns, the huge question having to do with God and suffering: How to reconcile suffering with a kind deity.
He wrestled his answer to the ground when he met American soon-to-be divorcée Joy Gresham with whom he fell in love, then married and suffered along with her and the terminal case of bone cancer.
Eventually, he wrote Surprised by Joy to commemorate his love for her and his learning from their shared ordeal. But he isn’t alone in deriving literature from the romantic alliance. William Nicholson’s Shadowlands, now at the Acorn in a Fellowship for the Performing Arts revival, is another look at his illuminating experience.
In it bachelor Oxford don Lewis (Daniel Gerroll), calling himself Jack and not Clive, lives comfortably with older brother Warnie (John C. Vennema) amid companion dons. Apparently, he feels no need for more in his comfy scholar’s set-up. That’s when plain-speaking Joy (Robin Abramson), a letter-writing C. S. Lewis fan, arrives with 9-year old son Douglas (Jack McCarthy or Jacob Morrell) to change things radically.
Though Joy alienates almost all Jack’s chums, she charms the man himself. As he becomes more and more attracted to her—experiencing love as he never previously has—and as she takes up residence in Oxford, she shows the first signs of the cancer that will kill her.
It’s through the ordeal that Lewis is led to develop his belief that suffering is actually a gift from God enabling humankind to understand that life encompasses both joy and suffering and is only profitable when the combination is accepted and cherished. His conclusions, needless to say, may not be accepted by everyone.
Shadowlands, which begins and ends with Lewis lecturing the audience as congregation, is a heartfelt sermon. Beautifully acted by Gerroll, Abramson and the entire cast and directed with quiet sympathy by Christa Scott-Reed, the production has the effect of a prayer delivered tenderly and even humorously.
Zoe Kazan’s After the Blast , at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow, takes place after a nuclear calamity has frozen the earth’s surface and the globe’s inhabitants are forced to live under ground—with only projections on their windows of bucolic scenes to remind them of what they’re missing and lull them into some semblance of a former way of life (projections by Lucy Mackinnon.
Anna (Cristin Milioti) and Oliver (William Jackson Harper) are trying to make the most of their marriage, but her depression at not returning aboveground soon, if ever, is jeopardizing their contentment. Their inability to have children is another serious detriment to marital bliss.
Into their otherwise comfortable home (set by Daniel Zimmerman) comes a robot they call Artie (Will Connolly’s voice), whom Oliver informs Anna she has been chosen to train, to socialize. Think of it as a mobile, three-foot-high Alexa.
Initially, Anna balks at the assignment, but after not that long a time, she bonds with Artie (the name derived from R2D2), and it looks as if Kazan is offering a cute sit-com along Mork and Mindy lines. And Artie is a darlin’ presence as he glides around beeping, et cetera. (Noah Meese is credited with everything Artie-involved.) Which means that patrons are as charmed by the round-ish bot as Anna is.
That’s when Kazan pulls a fast one on Anna and the ticket buyers. The exact nature of this turn won’t be revealed here. Just say that she changes the tone from sitcom to a more dramatic consideration of to what men and women might resort do for saving a troubled marriage.
The scripted head butting of cuteness and cuteless might appeal to some but not to others—this reviewer among the latter group. It’s clear that Kazan is after the miscommunications that can accrue between two people who love each other trying to solve problems, but she doesn’t quite get there—even though Milioti and Harper and the five other supporting players, directed by the busy Lila Neugebauer are fine.
That there’s only the slim hint of a premature resolution also doesn’t help. Oh, well, there’s always the scene-stealing Artie.