Lucy Prebble's "The Effect" asks both playfully and pointedly, "what's the difference between an emotion we feel organically and one that can be produced chemically?" Set in the clinical atmosphere of a new drug trial and focused on two of the participants, the structure feels very deliberate and focused. Under the direction of David Cromer, scenes bleed into one another as wall projections note a dose increase. Prebble's dialogue is cutting and saturated in sly humor, delivered acutely by Susannah Flood and Carter Hudson as their flirtation sparks. The question about manufactured emotions (principally in treating depression) becomes thornier as we get into the second act. A doctor remarks that we will transplant a liver without thinking but not a brain because that controls our thoughts. But what if our thoughts are poisoning us or just preventing us from being happy - and how do you measure happiness anyway?
Sometimes the lines that distinguish Broadway from Off-Broadway blur so convincingly that it just becomes an exciting night of theater. That's how I felt watching "Hughie," Michael Grandage's nuanced and moody revival of Eugene O'Neill's rarely-performed one-act play. Most actors would request "Long Day's Journey Into Night" but Forest Whitaker chose this slice-of-life examination of faded dreams, routines, and loss. Structured almost solely as a monologue, it can appear like little is happening but if you look a little deeper there is plenty of inner-conflict. It often masquerades as showmanship or knowing acceptance, but it pulses insistently. Christopher Oram's set beautifully evokes the art deco era, and it's grandness heightens feelings of loneliness and insignificance amidst the vastness of the universe. In a way, it feels like Beckett's "Krapp's Last Tape," deceptively static and repetitive to the casual viewer. I was sad to learn that it's closing at the end of the month - wouldn't Broadway be a better place if there was space for revivals of shows you haven't seen a dozen times?
"She Loves Me" hits a happy medium between obscurity and classic. Written by the team behind "Fiddler on the Roof," it's known to musical theater geeks but not performed to the point of exhaustion. Scott Ellis' revival anchored by David Rockwell's applause-worthy sets and a superb cast is the epitome of easy Broadway entertainment: effortlessly witty, full of tuneful songs and pairs well with a pre-theater nosh. It's funny to me that the show is set in Budapest but feels more like anywhere America. There's hardly any mention of Hungarian culture, but I guess that was a trope of musicals from the early 60s. It's plot of two people who fall in love through the anonymity of personal ads while despising each other in their day-to-day lives was adapted from an old play and later again for the movie "You've Got Mail." Its universal themes remain as relevant today even as lines about gender roles feel dated.
I wanted to like Stephen Karam's "The Humans," more than I did. It's a solid family drama about the strained bonds that get unearthed as kids become adults and the parents prove human and flawed. Both struggle with notions of success and the widening gap of where they are vs. where they should be. Set in a basement apartment in Chinatown that, despite being a duplex, is anything but spacious; the sense that the walls are closing in is real and present. Karam has a knack for sharp dialogue that comes out in effortless spurts as the Blake family sits down for Thanksgiving dinner, but the play feels stuck in the first act and never quite escalates in a satisfying way. A major reveal is brushed over and the introduction of the supernatural feels forced, but it's still a privilege to spend 90 minutes with these well-drawn and deeply conflicted humans.
Lucas Hnath is quickly ascending to be one of the greatest writers who tackles topical issues. I was deeply moved by "The Christians," his exploration of the mega church culture. It would be wrong to call it a scathing takedown or indictment as the power lies in the desire to understand rather than accuse. "Red Speedo" is focused on performance enhancing drugs in sports much in the same way. It would be easy to view it as simply cheating, but Hnath is after something much grander. He weaves in vulnerabilities where they are least expected and often in the middle of a furious barrage of dialogue, structured to rhythmic perfection. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz in her New York Theatre Workshop debut handles these long waves of words with aplomb along with the action that erupts around the swimming pool set. The intermission-less play has such a furious momentum that weaves humor and horror together in equal measures that left me breathless by the end, admiring not only the tremendous skill on display - Alex Breaux and Lucas Caleb Rooney bring a Cain and Abel ferocity - but the emotional wallop it produces on the level of a Greek tragedy. With all the plays transferring to Broadway, I wouldn't be surprised if this were next.
Perhaps the most "Broadway" show I've seen in recent years is the bombastically joyful "Disaster" which spoofs the conventions of both disaster movies of the 70s and the Great White Way. This jukebox mashup by Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick of disco era pop songs opens with the ill-fated launch of a garish cruise ship designed by an unscrupulous Trump-like businessman named Tony, played with sublime sliminess by Roger Bart. It would be pointless to detail all the antics here, so I'll just say that Plotnick's perfectly timed production squeezes an insane amount of fun out of falling columns, blood-thirty piranhas, and of course the most fiery creature of all: fading divas fighting for an extra moment in the spotlight.
Radiolovefest at BAM couldn't be more different, simultaneously low-key and cathartic. The Moth's show structured around the theme "into the deep" featured unadorned stories of people launched into unfamiliar and challenging situations. One of my favorite stories was by novelist Matthew Dicks. He talked about a desire to do enough with his life that his deathbed won't be filled with regret, which we learned was born out of series of horrific experiences that shaped him as a teenager. There's a raw feeling you get during a good Moth show that turns off your critical eye and opens up your heart. That's also true of Anna Sale's "Death, Sex, and Money" podcast. The show I witnessed was bookended by her concerns as a future mother and featured three sets of interviews. My favorite was with Hari Kondabolu and his mother Uma. He remarked that it was weird having his mother on stage with him and it was. That's what was so great: this uncomfortable yet wholesome moment in which he confesses his parents are still working because he chose to be a comedian instead of a doctor.
It's hard to imagine Lead Belly as anything but a musician. His guttural blues hammered out on a twelve string guitar in just as many bars influenced countless people from Woody Guthrie to the Beatles, so it's only fitting that Carnegie Hall hosted a tribute to him last month. The concert was nearly four hours but even as it ended I kind of wanted more. Buddy Guy blazed through solos as he was born to do, and Eric Burdon of the Animals belted a chilling rendition of "House of the Rising Sun" like he was singing it for the first time. The musician that stays in my mind though is Dom Flemons who took the stage early on and silenced the audience with nothing more than a acoustic guitar and stool, much like Lead Belly probably did when he made his final performance here in 1949.
The new immersive theater show, "The Grand Paradise," can feel slight on first encounter as you walk through the Bushwick warehouse-turned-late-70s-tropical-resort. There are mild swinging vibes that waft through the arid atmosphere but it doesn't make a full impression until you relive it in your dreams. Drinks with a leather-clad bartender, rope-tying lessons from a seaman in a treehouse-like space, emerging from your own coffin amidst soothing voices. Did it all happen? This latest production by Third Rail Projects blends the conscious and unconscious together so fully that what you experience is as much what they put in front of you as your collected life experiences.
"The Wildness" seeks to be an immersive experience from the moment you walk into the transformed Ars Nova space that oozes ramshackle glamour. There are no seats only sections assigned by the color blindfold you receive - you will need it later, so don't misplace it. A runway-like strip of stage divides the room and places audience members on both sides facing each other, this doesn't seem an accident as confessions by the cast and audience members alike are met with the ritualistic response: "You are not alone." Kyle Jarrow's songs are catchy but lack the resonance of "Hedwig" or "Rocky Horror." The story-within-a-story written with his wife Lauren Worsham is where the show falls apart. The fairy tale they fashion feels generic and takes away from the show's core about dealing with the unexpected loss of a friend and even larger uncertainty that their lives are going to amount to anything significant. The show opens during an annual event where the characters purge their doubts and let go of their inhibitions. Unfortunately, it gets bogged down with the artifice of princesses and distant lands and misses opportunities to engage with the demons that lurk closer to home.
The Dead Rabbit marked its third anniversary last month by changing out its leather-bound book of drinks for a slimmer one clad in the guise of a racy graphic novel. Highlights from the new menu include the Lady Killer, a potent blend of Hibiki Harmony Japanese whiskey and Power's Gold Label Irish whiskey with sesame, honey, gentian, lemon, orange and a touch of champagne. Humble Pie combines applejack, rye and Remy 1738 cognac and Point Blank melds honeydew melon and Blanc vermouth with Botanist gin, distilled in the idyllic scotch-saturated Islay. The names of these drinks are as pointed as the concoctions themselves, making it easy to linger over one in the bar's richly appointed parlor and taproom.
The Mingus Big Band has long been a mainstay at the Jazz Standard. They play the complex brassy arrangements of legendary jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus. The fourteen-piece band barely fits on the intimate basement stage and the presence of each instrument can be felt as they play. For a special Valentine's Day show, a slew of budding teenage musicians cycled in throughout the set, causing saxophonists and others to fill the narrow passageways between stage and kitchen. The set list was filled with many Mingus classics but my favorite by far was "Moanin'," which features perhaps the dirtiest melodic line ever written.
If you're looking for more traditional standards and want a little space to sprawl out, you'd be hard-pressed to do better than Friday nights at The Regency Bar and Grill, where Jumaane Smith's in residency this month. Best known as Michael Buble's trumpet player, the charismatic musician also sings as he runs through a set of usual suspects like "What a Wonderful World" along with the Beatles' "Yesterday." Tables are generously spaced and booths provide a cozy enclave to enjoy decadent dishes like seared foie gras with huckleberry and barrel-aged cider. There's an extensive wine list but I stuck to Peekskill Brewery's Eastern Standard IPA (a rare find on tap) and an excellent cocktail with Ardbeg. Save room for the cookies and cream cheesecake, a sphere of perfect balance between subtlety and decadence.