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Off-Broadway Review—Stephen Rea in “Cyprus Avenue”

Cyprus Avenue

Written by David Ireland; directed by Vicky Featherstone

Performances through July 29, 2018

Stephen Rea in Cyprus Avenue (photo: Ros Kavanagh)

The term hangdog was invented for Stephen Rea. The great Irish actor, whom most people know from his Oscar-nominated performance in The Crying Game, has been a brilliant and, most importantly, relatable perfomer for decades now; his face has jowls that droop so much he could be Droopy Dog in a live-action movie. His melancholy expression is the most memorable aspect of Cyprus Avenue, David Ireland’s bitterly (and blatantly) ironic allegory about bigotry.


The lout Rea plays—Eric, a British loyalist whose irrational hatred of the IRA and Irish Catholics in general, whom he calls Fenians, has twisted his sanity and turned him into a raving maniac—is an ignorant xenophobe, whose specific malady (the play opens with him asking Bridget, a psychiatrist, why she’s an “n” word) is a casual racism that Ireland hopes initially shocks us, but that’s nothing compared to what he gives us next. It’s not giving anything away to say that Eric decides that his newborn granddaughter Mary May—whom his wife Bernie and daughter Julie dote on—looks exactly like bearded, bespectacled Gerry Adams, former head of Sinn Fein.


That’s not a joke; it’s the unfunny truth. As Eric’s actions get more frenzied and paranoid, one wonders why nobody calls the loony bin before it’s too late, especially after Julie finds her daughter sporting Adams-like glasses and a drawn-on beard that Eric did himself. Some of this is amusing in a superficial, “is he really going there?” sort of way, but once it’s obvious where Cyprus Avenue is heading, it becomes quite enervating to watch someone so cartoonishly realized for our superior amusement (if not bemusement).


That negative reaction comes in spite of Rea’s splendid performance. There may be no other actor who could play this ludicrous character and make him watchable and even (almost) sympathetic, but Rea does it with effortless charm, even in a long, desultory back-and-forth between Eric and a loyalist paramilitary who first thinks our protagonist might be Fenian. Preceding that scene, Rea transfixes us in an amazing if muddled and drawn-out monologue about the Troubles (“But then came Riverdance and Liam Neeson and U2. And now it’s all grand to be Irish, it’s all fine”).


The other performers are fine, Vicky Featherstone’s direction is as focused as can be expected of such dramatic dead weight dropped on our toes (although she can do nothing to make the bloody—and bloody pointless—finale provide much more than a cheap shock effect, or two, or three), and Ireland has a way with a funny line or rant. But Cyprus Avenue, even with Rea’s expert guidance, ends up at a dead end. 



Cyprus Avenue

Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY

Off-Broadway Musical Review—“Carmen Jones” with Anika Noni Rose

Carmen Jones

Book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; music by Georges Bizet

Directed by John Doyle; choreographed by Bill T. Jones

Performances through August 19, 2018


Anika Noni Rose in Carmen Jones (photo: Joan Marcus)

When lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II took the music of Georges Bizet’s classic opera Carmen and wrote a new book and lyrics, setting it among black workers in a small WWII parachute factory town, it became a sensation onstage (in 1943) and onscreen (in 1954), when Otto Preminger’s film starred Dorothy Dandridge (and Marilyn Horne’s vocals!). 


But Carmen Jones has fallen into disrepute due to the now wince-inducing Amos’n’Andy vernacular Hammerstein gave his characters (although in many other ways Hammerstein made them supremely sympathetic). But the strength of both the music and tragic romance are enough to motor John Doyle’s typically stripped-down staging—the first in New York since its 1943 Broadway bow—especially when it’s studded with muscular singers and powerhouse performers.


Carmen is a force of nature, a sensual dynamo with untrammeled power over men, particularly soldier Joe, who desperately wants a nice, dull life with hometown sweetheart Cindy Lou, but who cannot escape Carmen’s clutches. Luckily for Doyle, Anika Noni Rose fills Carmen’s form-fitting clothes (the adroit costumes are by Ann Hould-Ward) to perfection. An equally smoldering Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway a decade ago, Rose is spectacular as she seductively prowls the small stage, singing in a lusciously creamy voice that alternately caresses and attacks Joe and the other men in her life: Joe’s superior Sergeant Brown and boxer Husky Miller.


Although Rose’s star turn is Carmen Jones’s obvious asset, the other performers complement her superbly. Clifton Duncan’s Joe, Tramell Tillman’s Brown and David Aron Damane’s Husky make a trio of formidable rivals for Carmen’s attention. As Cindy Lou, Lindsay Roberts is all beguiling sweetness and innocence, and Soara-Joye Ross joyously leads the ensemble’s majestic singalong “Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum,” a song that—as its title shows—could easily have become a sore spot.


Doyle smartly allows his cast to roam the Classic Stage Company’s tiny space with authority, Bill T. Jones’ graceful and athletic choreography—often subtle in its movements, particularly in the final, fatal embrace between Carmen and Joe—makes the tragedy visceral as well as emotional, and a tight six-piece ensemble plays Bizet’s well-known score as passionately as the remarkable Rose and the rest of the cast sing it.



Carmen Jones

Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street, New York, NY

Off-Broadway Review—Carey Mulligan in “Girls & Boys”

Girls & Boys

Written by Dennis Kelly; directed by Lyndsey Turner

Performances through July 22, 2018


Carey Mulligan in Girls & Boys (photo: Marc Brenner)

That Carey Mulligan is astonishing in Dennis Kelly’s one-woman play Girls & Boys is no surprise. For the past decade, Mulligan has given full-throttle portrayals in movies as varied as An Education (her Oscar-nominated breakthrough), Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, Shame, Suffragette and Far from the Madding Crowd. Onstage she’s distinguished herself on Broadway in The Seagull and David Hare’s Skylight (for which she received a Tony nomination) and off-Broadway in a failed adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly, in which she shone above the moribund goings-on around her.


What Mulligan does in Girls & Boys—a monologue by a wife and mother who has undergone a traumatizing, devastating event—is to consistently rivet us with an alternately hilarious and emotionally shattering performance, despite the shopworn material Kelly gives to her. For much of the play, this nameless woman describes her life since meeting her husband (cutely, of course, while queuing to board a flight) in a monologue that has humorous asides, as when hubby-to-be deals with a pair of gorgeous models trying to cut the queue. 


Scattered amid her conversations are scenes showing her miming everyday dealings with her two (invisible) children, in a room that—in designer Es Devlin’s clever hands—looks like a sterile dream state, everything in it a kind of cool blue that occasionally bursts into colorful vibrancy. This woman’s life moves along parallel tracks: she’s doing brilliantly at making documentaries, and she, her husband and kids make up a lovely family. Until….


When Woman describes—in exceedingly and unnecessarily explicit detail—how her idyllic life is destroyed, Kelly’s writing can’t hope to keep up with the devastating direction he wants to take to kill his protagonist’s happiness. There’s something schematic about the way her life is ripped apart, as if Kelly simply wanted to give her (and us) the most shocking thing he could think of. Even Lyndsey Turner’s initially solid direction turns soggy, as if she couldn’t figure out a plausible way to get past it. 


Whatever emotional power is wrested out of this exercise in dramatic shortcuts is due to Mulligan’s thoroughly charming, persuasive and incisive portrayal of an ordinary woman living a full life (kids, marriage, job) that’s suddenly torn from her. Mulligan gives the early light-hearted parts sardonic bite, balanced by her increasingly harried interactions with the children; when unspeakable tragedy finally rears its head, Mulligan maintains her composure and does the heavy lifting that keeps us captivated even when the writing lets her down.




Girls & Boys

Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, New York, NY

Off-Broadway Review—“Log Cabin”

Log Cabin

Written by Jordan Harrison; directed by Pam MacKinnon

Performances through July 15, 2018

Ian Harvie, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Cindy Cheung in Log Cabin (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Log Cabin, Jordan Harrison’s bumpy but funny play about gays and lesbians coming to terms with their unexpected new status as “elites,” makes pertinent points while painting with a broad brush how much—or how little—the country’s attitudes toward gender and sexuality have changed in the past few years. 


We first meet two couples that are close friends: Ezra and Chris, recently married after the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to legalize same-sex marriage; and Pam and Jules, in whose well-appointed Brooklyn apartment (with a balcony!) the play is set. Pam and Jules decide to have a baby, and the baby monitor never gives anyone peace when the men come to visit. One day, Henry, a friend of Ezra (they went to the high school prom together when Henry was female), comes over with his girlfriend Myna—what a terrible name to give to someone!—in tow. 


Henry’s arrival discombobulates everyone, since the two couples have finally won their equal rights but Henry reminds them that the fight is far from over for others like him: will they help out trans people or be content with their own gains?


Harrison’s script—filled with zingers flying in all directions, like Ezra being uncomfortable with the term “cis” because “it sounds like sissy”—is basically out of a sitcom, where the characters are mainly differentiated by how quickly they can hurl the next witticism at the others. But Harrison also tosses in a surrealistic curve ball when the women’s baby, Hartley, in his bedroom, is played by one of the actors. (Later, when another in the group gives birth, we get two adult actors playing infants, to fairly unilluminating returns.) 


Despite contrivances involving overheard conversations from the baby monitor and the convoluted family dynamics among the group following a second pregnancy, Log Cabin—whose title evokes the gay Republican organization founded in 1977—manages to be entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time. Pam MacKinnon directs adroitly on Allen Moyer’s handsome apartment set, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Ezra), Phillip James Brannon (Chris), Cindy Cheung (Pam), Dolly Wells (Jules) and Ian Harvie (Henry) make up a first-rate comic cast. 

Log Cabin

Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, New York, NY


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