On the Culture Front: Red-Eye to Havre de Grace, The Few and more

Broadway is having a banner year, and for the first time in a while, new American plays are a significant part of the lineup. If you let it wash through you, this surreal and satisfying one act has more to say about modern existence than could ever be conveyed simply with plot.
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Broadway is having a banner year, and for the first time in a while, new American plays are a significant part of the lineup. Will Eno's The Realistic Joneses is a great example. Following in the footsteps of his mentor, Edward Albee, Eno uses stylized language to explore how we relate (or don't) to each other. He never draws straight lines between his ideas but rather gives us just enough information for us to understand his characters through our own life experiences. Many critics have focused on one particular plot revelation, but to do so, I feel reduces the play's scope. If you let it wash through you, this surreal and satisfying one act has more to say about modern existence than could ever be conveyed simply with plot.

Robert Schenkkan's fiery political masterpiece All the Way focuses on the months leading up to the Civil Rights Act. It's a fascinating glimpse into all the wrangling that goes into passing a law -- think Lincoln but with a much better script -- as well as a philosophical dialogue on whether the ends justify the means. There's also Bryan Cranston who is the great living actor hands down.

Neil Patrick Harris is turning in the performance of a lifetime in Hedwig and the Angry Inch over at the Belasco Theatre where according to the show's book, Hurt Locker: The Musical opened the night before and "closed at intermission." Poor Hedwig has been called on to fill the space and does so completely. Unlike the TONY's, I consider Hedwig to be an original musical because of the extensive book revisions that John Cameron Mitchell made. It's because of these that we never question why Hedwig would be on Broadway. Every one of Stephen Trask's songs is a show stopper, and Harris brings them to life with pathos and a welcome levity that makes the story all the more profound.

While he was snubbed for a Tony nom, Daniel Radcliffe delivers a moving and nuanced performance that drives Michael Grandage's revival of Martin McDonagh's dark coming-of-age-in-a-small-seaside-village play, The Cripple of Inishmaan, that deftly brings to life the suffocating nature of small communities as well as the comfort they can provide.

Walter Lee Younger feels the walls of his too-small apartment closing in on him in Kenny Leon's solid if a bit staid revival of Lorriane Hansberry's landmark play, A Raisin in the Sun. Denzel Washington movingly portrays how rootless ambition can undo a man as profoundly as institutionalized racism, but Anika Noni Rose is the reason to see this production. As Younger's brilliant sister, Rose embodies the passion, naiveté, and boundless courage of a woman set to change a world that isn't ready for her. It's too bad Clybourne Park isn't playing anymore, these two would be a wallop of a double header on the progression of race relations in the US.

James Lapine's adaptation of Moss Hart's autobiography, Act One, is a must for anyone who's ever had artistic dreams and ambitions. The well-structured if a bit long two act play does a fantastic job of showing all the ups-and-downs and wrangling there is to be done on the way to the Great White Way. Even more impressive is how Lapine brings to life Hart's recollections of the many revisions Once in a Lifetime went through, illustrating the very fine line between success and disaster. Tony Shalhoub transforms himself seamlessly from an older Moss Hart to his father and then father figure and collaborator George S. Kaufman.

Woody Allen has done a bang-up job transforming one of his strongest films, Bullets Over Broadway, into a love letter to old-time showbiz while simultaneously lampooning the industry and the mystical nature of creativity. The well-curated list of well-known and more obscure songs include, "The Hot Dog Song," which provides the perfect vehicle for one of Susan Stroman's most hysterically salacious numbers. Stroman also deserves high praise for a masterfully staged climax.

The climax in Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's If/Then is a contrived mess but there's much to like about the show. Yorkey ambitiously explores the idea of parallel universes and how our lives take form based on the choices we make. The problem is he tries to cram too much in, causing the show to implode on itself. Kitt's music is alternately trite and deeply moving. There is a hell of a lot of substance and terrific writing buried inside a mess of contrivances. With another draft, it could undergo a Once in a Lifetime transformation and become the hit it deserves to be.

The same cannot be said about Jeanine Tesori and Brian Crawley's painfully simplistic musical, Violet, which charts the journey of a young disfigured woman set to remake her image. Early on there's an interesting scene that touches on racism in the '60s southern towns where the show is set, but this theme is quickly abandoned for a more superficial storyline. Tesori's music is equally bland pastiche that manages to suck the soul out of soul music save for the rousing "Let it Sing," which is brought to life by Joshua Henry.

Conversely, David Byrne and Fatboy Slim's score for Here Lies Love harnesses the energy of disco and uses it to propel a compelling personal story about Imelda Marcos ascent to the throne while telling a more universal cautionary tale of how fascism breeds. Alex Timbers stages the show in a nightclub where you move to the action, which pops up on various platforms in the Public Theater space. Dancing is encouraged (and hard to resist), but it's also a distraction from what's brewing underneath. The ending packs a chilling punch, much like Cabaret when the wall comes up to reveal the concentration camp.

Seeing the revival of Cabaret at Studio 54 (or more aptly the revival of the Sam Mendes' 1998 Roundabout revival inspired by his 1993 staging at the Donmar Warehouse) solidly reconfirmed for me that the Kander and Ebb classic is possibly the greatest musical ever written. It manages not only to craft show-stopping numbers and poignant scenes with meaty dialogue, but uses each meticulous bit to plant a rich and mounting subtext that beautifully foreshadows the climax. It's intensely political but without a soapbox in sight.

Simple props like a wooden chair and door are used inventively to create a rich tapestry of the last days of poet Edgar Allen Poe in Red-Eye to Havre de Grace. The show features many of his late-career poems set to music by David and Jeremy Wilhelm. Darkness and levity dance hand-in-hand through their melodies, and with co-creator Thaddeus Phillips' inventive staging, create a dreamlike vision of horror and wonder as the show (and Poe) grapple with mortality, what it means to exist and not. What it means to feel that existence slipping away and being powerless to stop it. The show could be bleak but is oddly comforting in its honesty and communal feeling.

An undeniable communal feeling courses through the world premiere of Ed Sylvanus Iskandar's, The Mysteries, an epic six-hour journey through the greatest hits of the bible, written by 48 established and emerging playwrights. Brought to life by 54 of the Flea Theater's talented resident acting company, the Bats, it would be an understatement to simply call it large-scale. It's biblical proportions underscore the profound impact these stories have had on countless people throughout time while highlighting the personal struggles of Jesus, Mary, and even Judas. Iskandar weaves all 48 playwrights voices (including Craig Lucas, David Henry Hwang, Ellen McLauglin, and Dael Orlandersmith) seamlessly together to create a resounding narrative where the devil is a woman you can relate to and God is a bit of a spiteful prick.

Kiran Rikhye and Sean Cronin's well-shaken "play in three cocktails", Potion, is an engaging if slight musical on the intoxication of love and other spirits that explores the idea that identity is malleable especially in the presence of potent potions. Cronin's music is pleasing homespun folk while Rikhye's book has a playful heightened edge. The mixologist Marlo Gamora receives top-billing and turns out three cocktails (Curiosity, On Pins and Needles, and Love Potion no. 10) that audience members sip from their seats at the intimate People Lounge. Like an evening out drinking, it's intensely entertaining even if the experience fades quickly the morning after.

Samuel D. Hunter's The Few quietly resonates as a rich portrait of loneliness and a sly comment on the economics of journalism. Its title gets its name from a local paper that was founded to give truck drivers a sense of community through carefully crafted stories but has devolved into personals ads when its founder Bryan (Michael Laurence) flees. The lights come up on a small cluttered trailer as he returns four years later and the next 90 minutes is a riveting and enlightening journey of man struggling to put a life back together that he's thoroughly dismantled.

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