Death of a Salesman
The Latvian Society

When a small theater company does Death of a Salesman, you can’t expect it to present a superstar in the lead role. Instead, and quite naturally, you hope to see a fresh approach in its staging.

Steve Cohen
L'Hotel
Pittsburgh Public Theater - O'Reilly Theater

L’Hotel joins the ranks of interesting plays about characters being dead and not knowing it: Outward Bound, where a group of seven passengers meet in the lounge of an ocean liner and have no idea where they are bound. And Anne Meara’s After Play,where two couples arrive at a trendy Manhattan restaurant having just come from an evening at the theater.

 

Cross-pollinate this with the assembling of famous people from the past, as in Steve Allen’s “Meeting of the Minds” and Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile.

Steve Cohen
Both Your Houses
Florida State Uuniversity Center for the Performing Arts - Mertz Theater

The third year of Asolo Rep’s exploration of the American Character focuses on money, power, and sex. Both Your Houses concentrates on the first two in a play that won author Maxwell Anderson a 1933 Pulitzer Prize and is just as pertinent today.

The title comes from curses made on Romeo and Juliet’s two fighting families, with images here of the U. S. Congress, especially a House of Representatives shown to represent its own interests above those of the country.

Marie J. Kilker
7 Easy Pieces

(see reviews under Seven Easy Pieces)

Seven Easy Pieces
Greenway Court Theater

That venerable theatrical organization Actors Studio has long been doing its work in private. Its acting, directing and writing units have been active on both coasts, but always behind the lines, far removed from the production battlefield. This was a conscious decision on the part of the Studio, whose emphasis has always been on “the work,” not the result.

Willard Manus
Airline Highway
Steppenwolf Theater

The most inconsequential encounters can suddenly assume an aura of high adventure when they occur in certain cities that continue to cast a romantic spell on American imaginations. San Francisco, Las Vegas and New Orleans all share images largely based in visitors' impressions, but though Lisa D'Amour purports to flout the Crescent City's reputation as a sodom-and-gomorrah fantasyland in Airline Highway, her invocation of the nostalgie de la boue long-associated therewith inadvertently winds up affirming it.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Goose
Raven Theater

It's Christmas day in 1890, and the London police have apprehended a suspect in the theft of a precious brooch from a guest in a Mayfair hotel. The stolen property falls into the hands of Sherlock Holmes when it is discovered stuffed down the craw of a goose destined for the dinner table, sending the detective and his colleague Dr. Watson on a search for the real culprit—a chase leading them from scholarly watering-holes in Bloomsbury to cottage-industry livestock farms in Brixton.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them
Flatiron Center

The Tolentino family is not what is usually defined by that term. Doctor Mom died of cancer after divorcing Doctor Dad, who now lives with his girl friend, periodically depositing money in a bank account to cover the household expenses of 16-year-old son Kenny and 12-year-old Edith—the latter of whom considers herself guardian of the homestead, and will show you her BB gun to prove it. So successfully have the siblings adapted to this arrangement that they now regard adult interference as an unwelcome nuisance.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Keys of the Kingdom
Theater Wit

What we know for sure is that while in New York City for a book signing, high-profile preacher Ed Newell was shown a painting that the common citizens of Lower Manhattan worshipped as a shrine. Upon returning to his 400-member congregation, he commences hiring the artist to furnish his megachurch offices with a ceiling mural, despite Irene Hoff's status as an avowed lesbian atheist. This meets with the disapproval of assistant pastor Arthur Garrett, but as work proceeds on the project, the dissenter finds himself in need of an organ transplant.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Constellations
Samuel J. Friedman Theater

I’m recommending Constellations to every actor and acting teacher I know. This is the scene-study class taken to its highest level. Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson accomplish the nearly impossible task of keeping us fascinated while repeating the same scene over and over. For the most part, these are mundane encounters featuring a man and a woman meeting and ultimately ending up together. Along the way, they encounter the kind of pain and tragedy which is the stuff both of life and of drama. The premise is so simple, we find ourselves surprised to be solidly invested.

Michall Jeffers
Honeymoon in Vegas
Nederlander Theater

In Honeymoon in Vegas, once again, we have a heroine who desperately wants to get married (Guys and Dolls). Her screwed-up fiancé is in the clutches of his guilt-spewing mother (Bye Bye Birdie)who, it turns out, is long dead. Unfortunately, that doesn’t keep her from popping up in the most unlikely places, and the worst possible time, to remind sonny that she told him never to marry. Although she’s been disappointed many times, Betsy hangs in there, waiting for Jack to finally grow up and do the right thing. The question is…why?

Michall Jeffers
Beautiful Music All Around Us, The
Milwaukee Repertory Theater - Stackner Cabaret

It takes more than two hours for musician, author and performer Steven Wade to persuade audiences that the roots of American music are as much a part of our collective history as the written word. The Beautiful Music All Around Usis a one-man show based on Wade’s recent book of the same name. Researching and writing the book has consumed a good chunk of Wade’s professional life, and one guesses he could easily go on for another two hours once he’s onstage.

Anne Siegel
Forbidden Broadway
Manatee Center for the Performing Arts - Stone Hall

Though Gerard Alessandrini stopped doing a yearly version of Forbidden Broadway, we now get to see “Greatest Hits” of the past along with satirical takes on current shows and stars. Rather than stretch their considerable talents to present mostly numbers that often employed a dozen acting/singing dancers, the cast of four emphasize solo performers. So even if people haven’t seen all the musicals satirized, they can recognize by whom and how cleverly.

Marie J. Kilker
Bye Bye Liver
The Public House

Just as any two coinciding activities can be turned into a competition—e.g., penny pitching, centipede racing—almost any fixed text can serve as the basis for synchronized consumption of intoxicating beverages. In 2006, Byron Hatfield's comedy troupe, finding their late-nite audiences at Gorilla Tango to be dominated by Bucktown hipsters coming off pub crawls, began incorporating drinking rituals into their sketches. Eight years and three locations later, the interactive revue dubbed Bye, Bye, Liver continues to draw crowds of thirsty pilgrims.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Kiss Kiss Cabaret
The Uptown Underground

A licensing delay postponed the opening of this latest addition to Chicago's historical "speakeasy" district at Broadway and Lawrence Avenue—recently targeted by Mayor Emanuel for rejuvenation—but the Kiss Kiss Cabaret forged ahead with a "press rehearsal" in the newly-furbished Uptown Underground, a basement hideaway (rumored to have been Al Capone's annex to the Green Mill across the intersection) snuggled into a 1926 Walter Ahlschlager building just north of the El tracks.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Foursome, The
Manatee Performing Arts Center - Kiwanis Theater

The actors all fit their roles so well physically and emotively in The Foursome that it’s a shame they have to sustain a long, drawn-out version of a reunion of college best friends. During 18--count ‘em 18--scenes that begin and end on the holes of a golf course, each person’s shots laboriously frame the really important conversations that occur among those waiting to move on.

Marie J. Kilker
Revival
Acting Artists Theater

Carla Neuss’s Revival, now in a world-premiere run in West Hollywood, is an odd, whimsical play about the patrons of a snobbish bar (handsomely designed by Yuri Okahana) that has an other-worldly feel to it. More sanctuary than saloon, as one of patrons insists, the place operates under some strict rules. First, no vodka can be served (because it has no flavor); second, men must not speak to women unless invited by the latter; third, you must tell a story if you wish to get served.

Willard Manua
Queen of Colors, The
Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

The Queen of Colors, based on the renowned children’s book by Jutta Bauer, uses ingenious puppetry to weave a simple story about kindness and originality. The Court Painter (accompanied by a Court Musician) creates vivid backdrops for the feisty little puppet queen who ventures into her kingdom to experience the personalities of each color of the rainbow. However, while fun comes in all colors, too much of a good thing can turn into a grey mess.

Mavis Manus
Serrano
Matrix Theater

The theatrical antecedents of Serrano are many: there’s Cyrano for starters, followed by Pygmalion, “The Godfather” and Guys and Dolls (with “The Sopranos” bringing up the rear). When you add such spicy ingredients as bawdy humor, political incorrectness and a big dose of transvestism to the pot–not to speak of two dozen terrific songs–well, what you end up with is one helluva crazy, mixed-up, hilarious musical comedy.

Willard Manus
Good People
Florida State University Center for the Performing Arts - Mertz Theater

Exploring class and its effects on people’s opportunities and personas has been powerful in British drama, especially since playwright John Osborne looked back in anger. Good People brings the exploration, much subdued since Odets’s plays were popular, to contemporary America. Realistically serious yet not without humor, David Lindsay-Abaire questions whether chance and a person’s circumstances in life influence the direction it takes, as much as or more than character.

Marie J. Kilker
Holiday Inn
Goodspeed Opera House

In October 2014, Goodspeed Musicals and Universal Pictures collaborated on producing a stage musical based on the legendary Irving Berlin film from 1942, Holiday Inn. The saga of how this developed is fascinating.

Steve Cohen
Delicate Balance, A
John Golden Theater

Examined through Edward Albee's ironic mindset, marriage and life are a balance of friends and family, morals and manners, neatly sidestepping messy complications. Under the nuanced helm of director Pam McKinnon (director of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?),\ the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Delicate Balance is currently in revival at Broadway’s John Golden Theater.

Elizabeth Ahlfors
By the Way, Meet Vera Stark
Venice Theater Stage II

Hollywood 1933 isn’t a place where Negro actors thrived. As Lynn Nottage points out, Vera Stark typically works as maid to Gloria Mitchell, a Mary Pickford-like “Sweetheart” who privately drinks, smokes, and has to work up to posing for her public. She’s also working on a prominent director to make her the star of a Selznick-type epic, “The Belle of New Orleans.” Vera wants to play her maid, one of the few roles open to a black woman, but that can be made more than the popular stereotype.

Marie J. Kilker
Knock Me a Kiss
Westcoast Black Theater Troupe Theater

Knock Me a Kiss, a fictionalized account of what happened before and after the spectacular wedding of W. E. B. Du Bois’s daughter and Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen focuses on the former. But the frame of the picture is her father’s major role in the Civil Rights Movement and his desire for integration.

Marie J. Kilker
Life Upon the Wicked Stage
The Studio at 620

“Life Upon the Wicked Stage” according to the song “ain’t nothing like a girl supposes.” In Jo Morello and Jack Gilhooley’s same-titled ensemble of one-acts, it ain’t always what actors and especially playwrights would like to experience. Yet it certainly holds its shares of laughs for audiences.

Marie J. Kilker
Blonde Poison
Theater Forty - Reuben Cordova Theater

The desperate fight to survive is what powers Gail Louw’s Blonde Poison along the dramatic rails. Louw, a British playwright who lost her grandparents in the Holocaust, won prizes when her play premiered two years ago in the U.K. Now Theater 40 has mounted the U.S. premiere of her solo drama about a German-Jewish woman, Stella Goldschlag (1922-1994), who survived the Holocaust by becoming a Greifer, an informant for the Gestapo.

Willard Manus
Matchmaker, The
Asolo Repertory Theater

How does playwright Thornton Wilder make philosophy entertaining?
Answer: When he embodies it in widow Dolly Levi’s confidences to us about the relationship between money and happiness, about how spreading the first to the young can bring about growth of the second, and about how both can be intertwined with success in romance and love.

Wilder’s Dolly the Matchmaker puts her actions where her philosophizing is, and Horace Vandergelder--his fortune, and everyone connected with him and it--will never be the same. What fun for us to watch and learn!

Marie J. Kilker
Anything Goes
Marcus Center for the Performing Arts

For a musical written in 1934, Anything Goes still has a lot going for it. The national tour, based on the show’s 1987 revival, proves why it was such a hit on Broadway and beyond. Director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall wisely trimmed the script (which was never this musical’s strong suit). The revival focuses instead on the fabulous songs, which include: “It’s Delovely,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and “All Through the Night.” Act I closes with a rousing production number of “Anything Goes.” It builds and builds to become the evening’s first of several showstoppers.

Anne Siegel
Second City, The
Piper's Alley

Unlike such niche-market troupes as Annoyance, the Public House, the Cornservatory, Gorilla Tango and the Cupid Players, Second City's international status attracts patrons of all demographics, reflecting cultural backgrounds ranging from urban neighborhoods and nearby suburbs to faraway countries. Faced with the task of finding comedy appealing to such a diverse audience, it's as easy to err on the side of dumb as on the side of smart in selecting material.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Cupid Has a Heart On
Stage 773

There's no shortage of you're-all-losers sketch comedy, but from its inception in 2000 (under the title “Cupid Misfires His Eros”), the mission of "Chicago's longest-running musical comedy" has been to declare us all losers. Instead of extolling giddy infatuation or resigned contentment, Brian Posen and his ensemble have made it their goal to assure us that we are not alone in our insecurities or imperfections.

Mary Shen Barnidge
As You Like It
Florida State University Center for the Performing Arts - Cook Theater

There’s something for everyone to not only like but love in Florida State University/Asolo Conservatory’s production of As You Like It. Set mainly in a magical Arden, a forest of colorful aerial silk trees, story themes blend in a three-ring circus. The political situation of the ducal court gets tamed; peasants and old servants are applauded; love swings to its proper targets. Winter changes to spring, and romance and righteousness will reign in all the land.

Marie J. Kilker
Can-Can
Paper Mill Playhouse

When Can-Can premiered, way back in 1953, it was not much loved by the more rigorous critics, some of whom regarded this Montmartre musical as a kind of convenient catchall for some great Cole Porter songs. The principal problem was Abe Burrows’s book, which didn’t give the principal players any interesting backstories (that is, to speak of or to sing about).

Glenn Loney
Train to Zakopane
Edgemar Center for the Arts

The distinguished indie filmmaker Henry Jaglom (“A Safe Place,” “Festival in Cannes”) has, in recent years, also made his mark as a playwright.

Willard Manus
Elf
Paper Mill Playhouse

Tired of Charles Dickens’s “Christmas Carol?” How about a singing/dancing Elf up in Central Park? Those folks who loved Will Farrell in the movie treatment of “Elf” may think James Moye is, perhaps, trying too hard to re-Farrellize in the current, colorful Paper Mill Playhouse revival. Fortunately, Moye’s energetic, even manic, overgrown Elf—called Buddy—is just what is needed to make this manufactured Santa Story come to life.

Glenn Loney
Santaland Diaries, The
WaterTower Theater

Joe Mantello's stage adaptation of David Sedaris' hilarious tale of his Christmas season stint as an elf in Macy's Santaland, first produced in New York on November 7, 1996, has lost none of its zing. Enacted with precision and rib-tickling--make that side-splitting hi-jinks--provides one hour of non-stop laughter by Garrett Storms channeling Sedaris.

Rita Faye Smith
Wicked
Hollywood Pantages

Wicked is back, and L.A. loves it! The Broadway musical, which first played here nine years ago and then returned for a record-breaking run two years later, has checked into the Pantages yet again. This time, the cast is headed by Chandra Lee Schwartz (as Glinda) and Emma Raver-Lampman (as Elphaba). Note: Lampman is the standby for Emma Hunter, but she played the role on opening night.

Willard Manus
Elephant Man, The
Booth Theater

This is star casting, for sure. Bradley Cooper, called by People magazine "the sexiest man alive," stepped into the role of one of theater's most grossly deformed characters, the Elephant Man, at Broadway Booth Theater. Surprising many, is how Cooper forcefully drives his interpretation into the heart with sensitivity and humor. It is a performance to be remembered in a play that is often cumbersome.

Elizabeth Ahlfors
Who Killed Santa? / Neil's Dirty Shorts
Soulstice Theater

For a deliciously funny show that lampoons traditional holiday characters, it would be difficult to beat Who Killed Santa?

Anne Siegel
Blithe Spirit
Ahmanson Theater

It’s a one-joke play that hinges on a supreme improbability–the ghost of a man’s first wife showing up to rattle the underpinnings of his second marriage–but thanks to the superb comedic gifts of its seven-person cast, Blithe Spirit manages to light up the Ahmanson stage in its West Coast premiere.

Starring is Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati, the eccentric spiritualist who helped conjure up Elvira the ghost. Lansbury, the old theater dog, digs her teeth into the role and gleefully chomps on it like a rag doll.

Willard Manus
Elephant Man, The
Booth Theater

Fans of Bradley Cooper may well be amazed by his performance as John Merrick in The Elephant Man; many hardened theater critics will be, too. As the abused, tormented man cruelly twisted by deformity and fate, Cooper is simply superb. He allows us to see his vaunted chiseled face and obviously well-cared-for body contort into the grotesque creature who sends a nurse running from the room. No makeup, no costuming is necessary for the transformation.

Michall Jeffers

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