Category Archives: 2017-18 New York Theater Season

John Lithgow’s “Stories By Heart” Is Acting at Its Best

John Lithgow Stories By Heart, photo by Joan Marcus_61.jpg

Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 John Lithgow is one of America’s outstanding actors. He’s created numerous roles and won multiple awards, most recently an Emmy for playing Winston Churchill on “The Crown.”

His wide ranging talent is on display at Roundabout’s American Airlines Theater where his one-man play, Stories by Heart is until March 4.

Go see it.

As an audience member said, “I could listen to him read his laundry list.”

A small part of the show is about his father, Arthur Lithgow who was an actor, director, artistic director and founder of various theater groups mainly in the Midwest. He founded the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival (which continues to this day), worked with a group of actors who became well known, but always managed to have it end in disaster – feuds with boards of directors, financial difficulties, and more. But the family would pull up stakes, move on and start over.

Yet Stories by Heart is really Lithgow presenting two short stories to us.  The first is by Ring Lardner, “Haircut.” It is essential the thoughts and words of a small town barber, circa 1925 talking to his customer who sits silently in the chair. With no props, Lithgow recreates the old-time barbershop experience from the hot towels, to the stropping of the blade, the lather and more. He even creates wonderful sound effects. But the story which begins as a pleasant tale of small town America and one of the men of the town, slowly turns into something more. Before our eyes, we begin to realize that while the barber tells the story of this man who liked to play practical and cruel jokes on women and weaker men, rather than feeling disgust at his antics, sees nothing wrong in them. It becoming chilling to realize that he is complicit in the casual cruelty.

Lithgow gets it all right – the body language, the accent and more. He seems transformed; I began to picture him as this round-faced, medium sized, bald man with the white jacket. That is talent.

In the second half, he talks about his father’s last years and how, when his father was recovering from surgery and seemed to have given up, Lithgow stayed with his parents for several months, caring for them. He tells of finding the thick book of short stories from which his father had read to him and siblings, and his decision to reverse it: he would read to his parents.

It was with delight that he found parents chose the same light story that he and his siblings had loved: P. G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By”. This silly comic story about a man whose uncle (Fred) always gets them into various pickles is a laugh fest. Here Lithgow gives us multiple characters from Uncle Fred, to the nephew, to the nephew’s friend and others.

Again he is marvelous. He does so much with his voice, his eyes, his gestures his posture. We see the characters and we laugh at the ridiculous situations they find themselves in, all due to Uncle Fred.

This two hour production is delight for anyone who enjoys seeing talented actors demonstrate their skills.

For tickets, visit Roundabout Theatre.Lithgow poster.jpg


“The Parisian Woman” – Elegant Play of Political Manipulation

Parisian Woman 3 by Matthew Murphy

Josh Lucas and Uma Thurman. Photo by Matthew Murphy

By Karen Isaacs

 Sometimes when I start to write my review, I feel torn. I know the work wasn’t that good or that some of the performances could have been better BUT I really enjoyed the show.

That’s the case with The Parisian Woman which marks Uma Thurman’s Broadway debut. The play won’t stand the test of time and her performance won’t go down in the history of Broadway greats.

YET….I am very glad I saw it.

The plot is familiar; a wife who will do almost anything to help her husband gain a position of prestige and power. In this case, it is Chloe (Uma Thurman) whose husband is being considered for a judgeship on the Court of Appeals, but things are not progressing as quickly or surely as both would hope.

In a series of scenes we see Chloe operate behind the scenes to ensure the appointment. From using charm (and more?) on a wealthy admirer to talking up an influential woman at a party to engaging in some not-so-subtle blackmail.

The play is by Beau Willimon, not only a playwright but the creator of the popular Netflix series “House of Cards.” It is loosely based on a French play la Parisenne by Henri Becque first produced in 1885. The play scandalized Paris.

So, if the plot isn’t really new, what makes it modern? First of all there is a twist which I don’t want to reveal about Chloe’s private life. Let’s just say it was an “open marriage.”)

But this is a play about politics. The politics of getting what you want and the political situation in the US today. The play is set in the Trump Administration and several of the characters are high powered Republicans who are trying very hard to convince themselves that all will be well.

This leads to lines that will make both supporters and detractors of the administration laugh.

What makes this play enjoyable is seeing a character so confidently and expertly maneuver and manipulate. Thurman may not be a great stage actress, but with gorgeous costumes, beauty and sophistication, it is a pleasure to watch her operate.

Director Pam MacKinnon has surrounded her with a cast of fine actors. Blair Brown is a delight as the woman, Jeannette, who becomes the ultimate target. Brown’s intonations and body language reveal both how uncomfortable she is with the administration but also how she hopes to benefit from it. It is a fine, well defined performance. Marton Csokas has the less interesting role of Chloe’s admirer. Playing a relatively boring businessman/millionaire is challenging; if you make him too interesting you defeat the purpose of the part. Philliipa Soo plays the daughter of Jeannette and the one who provides the “twist.”

Josh Lucas has the difficult job of helping us understand, Tom, the husband. He needs to convince us that the two are in love and couple, while at the same time, convincing us that he is accepting of Chloe’s admirers, many of admirer from very close range. It’s difficult and made more difficult because Thurman seems at times so remote. (Think Grace Kelly). It’s hard to feel that there is any chemistry. Lucas does the best he can with the role.

Derek McLane has given us a variety of sets including the very comfortable living room of Tom and Chloe. It reveals their economic status without being pretentious. Jane Greenwood has had the task of creating the elegant costumes for Thurman – which she wears beautifully – as well as the others.

The Parisian Woman is not a great play and Thurman’s performance is lacking, BUT (and this is a big but), I had a thoroughly enjoyable time seeing it.

It’s running through March 11 at the Hudson Theatre, 141 W 44th Street. Tickets are available through

Parisian Woman 2 by Matthew Murphy_edited

Uma Thurman, Blair Brown and Phillipa Soo. Photo by Matthew Murphy

“Once on This Island” Immerses You in the Caribbean Culture

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By Karen Isaacs

 No one would blame you if, upon entering Circle in the Square, you had an irresistible urge to kick off you shoes, take off your coat, and order a tropical drink.

That’s the kind of atmosphere that Once on This Island inspires. This revival of the 1990 musical, now at Circle in the Square immediately creates the Caribbean atmosphere. Not the atmosphere of the wealthy residents or the port areas where the cruise ships dock, but the other side of the island, where the residents live. As you walk in you see clothing hung along the walls of the theater, as though they are on clotheslines or trees.

Circle in the Square features a large rectangular playing space with the audience seated all around and above it. Here as you settle into your seat, you see sand everywhere. You are looking down on a village, with various ramshackle buildings, clotheslines and more. Before the show starts, various cast members are on the beach and even a goat makes an appearance. It certainly sets the mood.

Unfortunately what follows is only partially successful. That may be due to the source of this musical – a 1985 novel by Rosa Guy entitled My Love, My Love; or, The Peasant Girl. The plot seems bifurcated. Is it the telling of an island myth? Is it a Romeo & Juliet story? Some have said it draws on Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid.” With so much going on it is easy to get confused.

As a huge storm blows through the island, a small girl is frightened. From there we are cast into another story of a young woman, Ti Moune who falls in love with one of the wealth islanders after saving him from drowning and nursing him back to health. Four gods and goddesses are involved in the story of Ti Moune and Daniel Beauxhomme which, as many myths must, ends both unhappily and yet inspiringly.

The problem for me was that the more I thought about this story, the more confused I became. Was the young frightened girl at the beginning the reincarnation of Ti Moune?  What were the four women Goddesses of? Was one a God? Why did one of them wear a stethoscope at the beginning of the show? What was the point – that we sacrifice ourselves for love?

The score by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens (she also wrote the book), is tuneful and captures the feel of the Caribbean.

Director Michael Arden has used the playing space extremely well. The scenery by Dane Laffrey extends up some of the aisles; Arden uses the aisles extensively for entrances and exits. When we left the theater, evidence of sand was everywhere. This uses of aisles and even some interaction with the audience keeps us involved and brings an intimacy to the piece. You are both spectators but also feel like participants, when performers are singing next to you.

Chris Fenwick, the music director does an outstanding job with this mainly sung-through piece. For a 90+ minute show, there are over 20 songs plus some reprises. It is well sung.

Two other members of the production team did exceptional work.  The costumes by Clint Ramos are spectacular. Plus lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer created wonderful effects on this stage.

It is mainly an ensemble show, with one major exception. Hailey Kilgore as Ti Moune is the central character and she must grab us. Kilgore does. She displays a fine singing voice and the optimistic and romantic nature of the character. She is a new face, that I hope to see in other shows.  The primary “name” performer is Lea Salonga who plays one of the Goddesses. She is more like a Cinderella fairy godmother. But her one solo, “The Human Heart” is lovely.

Two other songs stood out; “Forever Yours” a love song sung by TiMoune and one of the Gods and “Mama Will Provide” which stopped the show the night I saw it. It’s given a rousing performance by Alex Newell.

Isaac Powell as Daniel is fine as a person that is hard to like – he is entitled and snobbish, rejecting true love in order to up-hold family expectations. Powell could bring more strength to the role.

Overall, your reaction to Once on This Island may depend on how you react to this fairy-tale, mythic story that attempts much symbolism. You will either be totally enchanted by the characters and the island or you will walk away with a shrug.

It is at Circle in the Square, 235 W. 50th Street. Tickets are available through Telecharge.


“A Band’s Visit” Is a Wonderful, Gentle Broadway Musical

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By Karen Isaacs

 It’s generated buzz since its debut off-Broadway last fall. Now The Band’s Visit has made it to Broadway and it lives up to all of the hype.

It is a warm story about people learning about themselves and about people they have viewed as very different from them.

The show, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek and book by Itamar Moses, is based on the 2007 Israeli film that won acclaim and prizes throughout the world. The film told the story of the eight member Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra that has been invited to play at the opening of an Arab cultural center in PetahTikva. Due to a language mix up (it isn’t important to understand the how) the group arrives at Beit Harikva in the Negev Desert.

In this small “no wheresville” town, there are no hotels, but a few of the residents take the band members in and provide food, shelter and companionship for one night. Bonds of friendship are formed in the few hours before the band departs on a bus to take them to their correct location.

It’s a gentle story. Yes, there is an occasional brief instances of prejudice by one or two townspeople, but other than that, the dramatic conflict is minimal.

This musical is more about people getting to know each other, than about disagreements and conflict.

Director David Cromer must be given credit for not trying to make this piece more “Broadway” then it should be. He moves the scenes along without rushing them and allows the audience to involve themselves in the characters and the story.

Each of the characters is finely drawn and beautifully performed. Tony Shalhoub plays Tewfiq, the very proper leader of the group. Though he only has one number, “Something Different” which is a duet with Dina, his performance is the backbone of this piece. It’s all in his reserve, his posture, his gestures – it is he who sets the tone and acts as the parent to the others in the orchestra.

If he is the backbone, then Dina, played by Katrina Lenk is the soul of the play. Dina is the owner of the café where the band comes to ask for directions. It is she who organizes the food and accommodations for the night. She is the leader among her group of friends. Lenk, who was brilliant in Indecent last year, is equally brilliant here. She conveys her concern for fellow humans in every way. It is she who sets the tone with the songs, “Welcome to Nowhere” and “It Is What It Is.” And it is she that that breaks through the reserve of Tewfiq.

While many of the other characters begin as “types” – they soon emerge as much more than that type. John Cariani as Itzik begins as the “man-child” who is abdicating responsibility for his wife and child, but by the end has gained new ambition.  Haled, played by Ari’el Stachel is the lothario in the band, but he too becomes much more than that as he spends the evening wondering the town with Papi, played equally well by Etai Benson. Even though some of the band members have few lines, they still create unique characters.

Each of the characters have known loss and disappointment. From the band member who started a concerto only to stop after the first few bars, to the young man who sits waiting for an out-of-service phone (in a phone booth) to ring.

These characters are separated by language, distance, nationality, religion and sometimes politics though that is not the focus on the piece.  Yet they forge human connections and learn about each other while discovering things about themselves.

It is difficult to say too much about the magnificent music and lyrics by David Yazbek. Once again, he has adapted to his environment. This score pulls from the tonal palate of both Arabic and Jewish music while still being totally accessible to American audiences. I can’t wait for the cast CD to be released.

Itamar Moses’ book is smooth and handles the transitions and changes in mood adeptly. It is not obvious but it is important.

Scott Pask has created a turntable set that allows for the multiple locations – the café, the street, Itzik’s home, Dina’s apartment, and more. The set combined with the lighting design by Tyler Micoleau and the costumes by Sarah Laux, immerse in the small town evening/night. Her costumes for the band makes a statement all by themselves. They are humorous, self-important, and yet with their powder blue color, non-threatening. This may be a police orchestra, but you can’t imagine any of them actually being police officers.

The Band’s Visit is a musical that will captivate many. It is gentle, romantic, wistful and regretful. Those who want high energy dancing, chorus numbers and more in their musicals, will be disappointed unless they are willing to accept the quiet depth of this piece.

In some ways it reminds me of Come from Away last year’s surprise hit. Both deal with ensemble casts, both feature the band as much as the singers, both leave us feeling hopeful and optimistic about people. They are different, but they are also both excellent.

A Band’s Visit is a tender, thoughtful musical that is so very worth seeing. It is at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th Street, Tickets are available through Telecharge.



“Shadowlands” about C.S. Lewis Is Getting an Outstanding Revival Off-Broadway

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By Karen Isaacs

 If there is a dry eye at the end of Shadowlands now Off-Broadway at the Acorn Theater, you have never experienced the loss of a loved one.

This fascinating play by William Nicholson is an unlikely love story between C. S. Lewis – specialist in medieval literature, a lay theologian, radio personality and author and an American woman and writer, Joy Gresham.

Many may remember either the original Broadway production starring Jane Alexander and Nigel Hawthorne or the 1993 film with Debra Winger and Anthony Hopkins.

What makes the play so fascinating is watching the middle-aged Lewis – who many know from his Narnia books –slowly let down his barriers to the rather unconventional American.

It’s being produced by the Fellowship for Performing Arts – which describes itself as creating theatre for a Christian worldview but they don’t shy away from controversy.

Immediately when you enter the theater, you notice the set. It looks opulent for a small theater. Dark wood doors immediately set the mood – they are carved and look old and expensive. Two steps help divide the playing area. The furniture fits perfectly in the university setting of the play. Kelly James Tighe is responsible for it. It has the British 1950s style. As you see Lewis and the other faculty members gather, again the costumes by Michael Bevins are absolutely right. Not just tweeds but suits from the period. These are formal men.

When the play begins, you are taken with the blending of the set, costumes and lighting with the expertise of the actors.

Daniel Gerroll could not be more perfect as C. S. Lewis. He’s religious but secular, reserved but questioning. As the play unfolds, Gerroll peels away the layers of Lewis’ protective reserve and shows the heart of the man which has been hidden.

Uniformly the other men are excellent well. Each conveys not only the British academic sensibility but also the different types. Christopher Riley, in a sharp performance by Sean Gormley is the faculty member who is most argumentative and contrary to Lewis’ Christian beliefs. They joust constantly. Others include Dan Kremer as the aging Rev. Harry Harrington, the younger academic Dr. Maurice Oakley, Alan Gregg and John C. Vennema as Lewis’ brother Major Warnie Lewis. He isn’t a member of the faculty but accept by all. He lives with his brother in a house near campus. All are puzzled by the relationship that ensues.

The discussion early on hints at the meaning of the play. Lewis holds that God wants us to be worthy of love or lovable. He also views suffering as a normal part of life.

Into the world of academic men, comes Joy Davidman, played by Robin Abramson. Joy is a contradiction in many ways. She has gone from Jewish to atheist, to now Christian. She is a divorced American woman who has decided to take herself and her son to live in England. She is a poet. As played by Abramson, she is very American and at times very gauche. This may be overdone but it makes the dislike of the other men easier to understand and Lewis’ willingness to continue to interact with her, harder to understand.

How do they know each other? Lewis was a well-known writer and BBC personality. She had written to him and a correspondence had grown. Now that she is in England, she writes that she wants to meet Lewis, so he reluctantly invites her to tea.

For Lewis, who in this play seems to have eschewed romantic relationships, Joy is confounding. She is outspoken and impulsive – very American, while also possessing a very fine mind. Lewis finds conversation with her stimulating as they spar over numerous subjects.

The other faculty members are bewildered by Lewis’ friendship with Joy. They view her as annoying and irritating and a disruption to their quiet lives.

Slowly the two develop a relationship and Joy also develops a relationship with Warnie. For Lewis the annoyance at being disturbed changes as he finds Joy bringing a fresh air into his decades long routine.

I’ll not go into all of the events that occur, but as might be suspected, eventually Lewis acknowledges that he loves her – perhaps loving someone for the first time in his life.

The play uses the son to interject a few Narnia references and some symbolic touches most relating to an open window. It may be a little too obvious.

This play could easily become too talky, too melodramatic or too snobby. Director Christa Scott-Reed has managed to avoid most of these pitfalls. She does not let anyone overplay the elements that are in the script.

What makes this play so worth seeing is not only the overall fine production values, but the excellent acting and direction by Scott-Reed.

Yes, the ending may seem melodramatic but this is play is based on what actually happened. It reminds us that happy endings don’t exist for everyone.

Shadowlands is at the Acorn Theatre, at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street. Tickets are available through Jan. 7 at Telecharge or TheaterRow.



Is It Only the Competition? “The Last Match” Explores How You Keep Going

The Last MatchCast
Wilson Bethel  Tim Alex Mickiewicz  Sergei Natalia Payne  Galina Zoë Winters  Mallory

Anna Ziegler  Playwright Gaye Taylor Upchurch  Director Tim Mackabee  Set Designer Montana Blanco  Costume Designer Bradley King  Lightin

Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

It’s the semifinals of the US Open and the it pits the perennial number one tennis player in the world, the American Tim against a talented younger Russian, Sergei who has had difficulty living up to his potential.

The two know each other well since they are both on the tour. They have played each other with Tim usually winning.

But this match seems different. A rumor is circulating that this tournament will be the last for Tim; he will retire after the Open.

As the match begins – and as it goes on, we see interactions both present and past not only between the players but between each of them and the woman in their life. For Tim, it is his wife Mallory, a former tennis player who left the tour due to injury and now does some coaching. Though he may be the “golden boy” of American tennis, their life has not been always golden. But now they have a young son.

For Sergei, he has struggled on the tour but now he is with Galina, a very determined lady. They aren’t married, but Galina strongly believes in Sergei’s talent and the money that it brings.

The play is structured as tennis sets – and this match goes five sets.  The set designed by Tim Mackabee is a tennis court – we see the sideline, the playing surface and the bank of stadium lights. As they are playing, for the most part the two stand on each side of the stage, facing the audience. On the sides are the players’ boxes and the scoreboard.

At times as the game continues, we have scenes between Tim who is 34 and Sergei, between Tim and Mallory and Sergei and Galina. Through these, playwright Anna Ziegler helps us fill out the characters and their history. Tim and Mallory recall the first time they met, and parts of their life since. Tim and Sergei “banter” or on-up each other over various tennis accomplishments. Tim has been top while Sergei hasn’t made it into the top 10, despite talent.

It would spoil the play to reveal too much of either man’s history, or of how the sets go. Let’s just say it is a closely fought match.

But this play is about more than just tennis. It is about ambition, courage, national attributes and expectations, and gamesmanship by all four. It is about how you continue on when things aren’t going well; how you overcome loss (and not just of matches), and how you determine when to let go. It is also about how you motivate yourself.

For Sergei and Galena there are the interesting, but somewhat predictable comments about the Russian soul, such as (I paraphrase) “for Russians there is the impossibility of happiness.”

Wilson Bethel plays Tim and Alex Mickiewicz plays Sergei. Bethel has been a longtime tennis player (and actually gave tennis lessons) but Mickiewicz looks just as authentic as they serve, return serve and play out the points in the match. Each is excellent. Tim is Tom Brady like while Sergei is any one of a number of volatile, occasionally misbehaving professional athletes. Zoë Winters plays the earnest Mallory while Natalia Payne is the more conniving and volatile Galina.

Neither playwright Anna Ziegler not director Gaye Taylor Upchurch break any new ground in this work. At 90+ minutes, it is interesting and will leave you something to think about afterwards.

The Last Match is at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th Street, NYC through Dec. 24. Tickets are available at Roundabout Theatre.

The Last MatchCast
Wilson Bethel  Tim Alex Mickiewicz  Sergei Natalia Payne  Galina Zoë Winters  Mallory

Anna Ziegler  Playwright Gaye Taylor Upchurch  Director Tim Mackabee  Set Designer Montana Blanco  Costume Designer Bradley King  Lightin

Wilson Bethel and Alex Mickiewicz. Photo by Joan Marcus


Brian Friel’s Last Play Gets Touching Production at The Irish Rep

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Rachel Pickup and Ed Malone. Photo by Carol Rosegg

By Karen Isaacs

 Brian Friel’s The Home Place, now at the Irish Rep through December 17, looks at a period of upheaval in Irish history, 1878. Once more the cause of independence has been rising to the surface with new leaders and movement called “New Departure.” Home rule was the goal.  British landowners are a target and a symbol of British domination of the country.

The play, the last Friel wrote,  takes place during a single day – the day of the funeral of Lord Lifford, an English landlord, hated by the Irish who has been mysteriously murdered. It is set in Friel’s often-used, semi-mythical town of Ballybeg in County Donegal.

Christopher Gore, played touchingly by John Windsor-Cunningham, is an English widower who has lived most of his life on his estate in Ballybeg. Yet he also speaking lovingly of the time he spent in Kent, England and where he went to school. He lives mostly alone in the house with Margaret, the head housekeeper, a youngish local woman whose father is the school master and choirmaster in the town. Christopher’s son, David also lives there, seeing to the land.

On the day of the funeral, Christopher’s nephew, Richard Gore is visiting with his assistant, Perkins. Richard is a scientist, apparently well-known who is there in order to conduct some scientific explorations. He works in the fields of craniology and phrenology, which are the science of the shapes of heads. He believes that by measuring numerous of aspects of the skull, one can determine the ethnic background of an individual and his or her character.

Phrenology and craniology were popular from the later 1700s to the mid-1800s and then were revived in the early part of the 20th century. Today, is a discredited as a “pseudo-science.” But it had many adherents who believed skull shape and size affected brain size and that specific areas of the brain were responsible for character, thoughts and emotions.

Christopher has encouraged his tenants to come to be measured. While Richard thinks the reward should be only the photograph his assistant takes of them, Christopher, who views himself as a benevolent landholder, offers them more. No one disputes that he is benevolent, yet there is a growing group of people who want to reclaim land they view as theirs.

Among these are the maid Sally and her boyfriend, Johnny, who is the local man for the agitator Con who is also there.

The Home Place is a study of contrasts. Richard has little respect for the Irish while Christopher views them as humans towards whom he has warm feelings. After all he basically grew up in  Ballybeg. Christopher who is aging, longs to go back to England which he sometimes refers to as “the home place” – he has spent most of his life in Ireland, so he also feels a connection to it and the people. So which is his “home place?” He also is a contrast to the murdered Lord Lifford who was viewed as harsh and unforgiving.

Other contrasts abound. His son, David seems more a man of the land than the refined Christopher but they are both drawn to Margaret. Just after we see a rendezvous between Margaret and David, Christopher announces his desire to marry her, primarily you think because he is lonely.

A recurrent element of the play is music – Margaret’s father leads a well-respected choir which we sometimes hear. While he may drink excessively, he is also an educated man who teaches school and admires Irish poetry.

The play ends with Christopher siding with his fellow Ballybeg residents over his kin, but with increasing awareness that his time in Ireland is limited.

The Home Place is beautifully directed by Charlotte Moore, the Irish Rep’s Artistic Director. She has a fine cast to work with including Rachel Pickup as Margaret, John Windsor-Cunningham as Christopher and Ed Malone as David.  Christopher Randolph has the job of trying to make the supercilious Richard understandable and Stephen Pilkington provides some comic moments as his assistant Perkins.

The least developed characters are Con and Johnny, played by Johnny Hopkins (Con) and Gordon Tashjian (Johnny).

James Noone has provided a set that features the garden of the house. The lighting by Michael Gottlieb is excellent.

The Home Place is another fascinating play by one of Ireland’s best playwrights.

For tickets visit The Irish Rep or call 212-727-2737.

home place 2

Photo by Carol Rosseg


“Time and The Conways” Is More than a Just a Drawing Room Comedy

time and conway 3_edited

Anna Baryshnikov, Charlotte Parry, Matthew James Thomas, Anna Camp. Photo by Jeremy Daniel

By Karen Isaacs

The curtain rises on the first scene of Time and the Conways now at Roundabout’s American Airlines theater through Nov. 26 and you will assume you are in for a typical ‘20s-‘30s British drawing room comedy.

The set by Neil Patel is a large, well-furnished room with a door to a hallway. Sounds of gaiety emanate from off-stage. Soon four young ladies enter, the four Conway sisters who vary in age from late teens to mid-twenties. The occasion is Kay’s 21st birthday party and they are going through costumes for a charade. But all is not exactly as it seems. It is 1919, a year after WWI ended; their father has died a few earlier in a bizarre accident, and one of their brothers is about to be demobilized from the army.

Though this is a well-to-do family, they are not the “idle rich.”  One sister (Madge) is a school teacher and ardent socialist, Kay is an aspiring writer/novelist, only the oldest sister (Hazel) seems to live a life of ease; her goal is a successful marriage and living in London.  Carol, the youngest is still in her teens. Their elder brother (Alan) works as clerk for the township. It is clear he has the least ambition of them all.

When Mrs. Conway enters (Elizabeth McGovern) she seems almost as young and vivacious as her daughters. By the time the scene has ended, Robin has returned home and quickly decided to marry one of Hazel’s friends (Joan).  A dour young man (Ernest) who is new to town has been introduced brought by another friend, Gerald. Hazel recognizes Ernest as the man she has seen around town and has felt as though he was stalking her.

The scene changes with the help of a set coming down from above and moving forward. It is 1937 but the set looks exactly like the earlier one. Now the entire family has gathered again, well almost of them, the youngest daughter is missing. Life has not necessarily been easy for some of the Conways.

The reason for the gathering?  Mrs. Conway has money troubles and the question is what to do. The house is not worth what was it was (this is still the depression) and she has not necessarily been careful about her funds. We learn what has happened to the siblings in the almost twenty years. Madge is now head of a school and is not only adamant about not helping to support her mother, but seems very angry with her.  Kay is a journalist working on magazines without the illusions or ideals she had as a budding novelist. Alan is still working the town, He’s the one that has been keeping a watch on his mother.

The marriage between Robin and Joan has deteriorated; he drinks and has left her with minimal support for their children. His big dreams have come to naught. Gerald is now Mrs. Conway’s solicitor.

Hazel is trapped in an unhappy marriage to Ernest who is cold and sneering. She may have money but she is dominated by her husband who obviously has little regard for her or the family.

time and conways by jeremy daniel_edited

Elizabeth McGovern, Brooke Bloom, Charlotte Parry.  Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Act two takes us back to the 1919 party, as the guests leave and we see the seeds that will lead to the 1937 situation. Why Madge is so angry with her mother, why Ernest views the family so negatively and why Joan made the wrong choice.

J. B. Priestley is best known for his layered works that examine British society (and all societies) in both a political and philosophical framework. This play which was written in 1937, uses the Conways to illustrate the actions and ideas that led Britain to the situation it found itself. At the same time, he is also discussing the philosophical concept of time.

His theories of how different dimensions link the past, present and future are woven into the plot of this play. The ending, when Kay realizes that Alan is the happiest of them all – and had the least ambition, is fascinating. Alan tells Kay (they are still in 1919) that in the future he could tell her something that would help her.

Tony winner Rebecca Taichman has directed this play keeping it in both the time and style of the period and the drawing room comedy. She allows the audience to slowly explore the depths of Priestley’s play. In this she is aided by the period costumes by Paloma Young and the effective lighting by Christopher Akerlind and sound by Matt Hubbs.

One of the attractions of this production is the return of Elizabeth McGovern to the New York stage. McGovern, who most recently played Lady Cora in Downton Abby, is an experienced stage actress. She handles the role expertly.  Her Mrs. Conway is almost as youthful (dare we say flighty) as her young daughters in the first act and by the time we get to 1937, she is still not truly mature. Her way to deal with difficulties is to ignore them or engage in wishful thinking.

It is hard to fault any of the supporting cast members. Gabriel Ebert has the challenge of imbuing the duller Alan with a sense of longing and quiet desperation. He does this so well, that your eyes are constantly drawn to him. Brooke Bloom as Madge, Charlotte Parry as Kay, Anna Barysknikov as Carol and Anna Camp as Hazel are all excellent. Steven Boyer as Ernest shows the lower class striver with a huge chip on his shoulder. He doesn’t seem to have an ounce of humanity in him.

Time and The Conway is at Roundabout’s American Airline Theatre, 227 W. 42nd Street through November 26. For tickets visit Roundabout Theatre.

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Matthew James Thomas, Alfred Narciso, Steven Boyer, Charlotte Parry. Photo by Jeremy Daniel


TheaterWork’s The Wolves Shows a Society of Teen Girls

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Photo by Lanny Nagler

By Karen Isaacs

 Teenagers are a gold mine for authors – they combine such conflicting elements in their personalities. Half adult and half child. They can be inquiring and well-informed while at the same time woeful ignorant. Emotionally they can leap from joy to despair in a second. The same teen can be kind and generous and in an instant become cruel.

It’s no wonder that playwright Sarah DeLappe looked to a group of teen girls playing soccer for the play The Wolves. The title comes from the team name. Just as William Golding and others have done, adults are missing from this society that the girls have created within their team.

These are very good players. They are playing indoors on a club team and are looking forward to their travel team come spring. For those not involved in youth sports and soccer in particular, this means that college scouts are looking at them as they play various tournaments and college “clinics.” (I have learned a great deal about this process with four granddaughters all of whom were recruited athletes and including two soccer players.)

This group of girls play in the Under 17 classification which means they are 16 or just turning 17. Most are high school juniors which is the year when the recruiting is in earnest and colleges can, under NCAA rules, sign players.

We see the girls before several games. As they warm up and do various drills, competing conversations take place. We only know the girls by their numbers, which can at times be confusing.

During the opening conversations, we learn that #7 is both the loudest, most self-assured and the most “advanced” as she swears often and talks about celebrating her up-coming 17th birthday by going away for the weekend to her dad’s ski lodge where her college-age boyfriend will meet her.  Then there is the “new” girl, #8 who has just joined the team. No one knows much about her, but she seems years younger than #7. The same is true for #46 who is trying desperately to fit in but has a tendency to make comments that don’t quite follow the conversational leads. In addition there is #11 who is the de facto leader of the group and runs the drills and #00, the goalie who is driven to seek perfection.

At times the conversations seem random. They talk about school work, particularly about a course some of them are taking on genocide. It’s interesting to hear them talk about the Khmer Rouge (one can’t pronounce it) and the Armenian genocide (#14 is of Armenian descent). But just as you are thinking how adult they are, the conversation will switch to menstruation and feminine hygiene products, boys and other things.

They are by turns kind to each other and cruel. Secrets emerge during the 90 minute play. One girl has had an abortion, another’s mother has breast cancer, a third girl is embarrassed that her mom is considered “hot”. There’s also talk of the stoner brother of one, and the fact that #00 vomits before every game.

Of course, they talk about the coach is who is apparently off on the sidelines. They view this coach as a “loser” and claim he is often inebriated or hung over; they long for their former coach, Patrick, who left the team to move  back with his mother who is battling cancer.

It all builds to a game at which a college scout (from Texas A&M) is there to scout a girl on the opposing team. But three of the Wolves are called over to speak with him; the others are crushed to be excluded and not considered “good enough”.

The climax of the play is the injury to #7 during a game; she blames the captain for not having them stretch before but it turns out that although her ankle was injured she went skiing during her birthday weekend. Now her ACL is torn, she will need surgery and could easily miss the up-coming season. And, perhaps predictably, there has to be a tragedy that is revealed in the last scene.

Although some of the conversations may be off-putting to some of the audience, you do develop a liking for these girls. You care about them.

Overall the cast is excellent. These young actresses do a terrific job, though a few of them look older than 16. In the case of Olivia Hoffman who plays brassy #7, that’s ok. She does an excellent job with this girl who is obviously rebelling. But Emily Murphy who plays the captain (#25) also seems older than her years in both appearance and manner. She is a “take charge” woman; her new haircut at the end of the play may be a form of “coming out.”

Rachael Caplan is excellent as #14 – she is shy and trying to fit in, but finally is willing to speak up for herself.  She is #7’s willing sidekick.  Karla Gallegos who plays the driven #00 is more off by herself than part of the total group. After all, the goalie does stand alone.  But each of the performers is excellent and it is hard to mention just one or two.

Eric Ort has directed this with a sure hand. The girls perform drills, stretch and job while talking. Mariana Sanchez has created a turf soccer field that slopes up in the back. It is the perfect backdrop for this play.

Overall The Wolves is a fascinating look at teenage girls and sports. Because of the language and some of the subject matter, the play may not be suitable for younger audiences; it is recommended for 14 and up though they may be somewhat embarrassed at times.

The Wolves is at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl Street, Hartford through Nov. 10. For tickets visit TheaterWorks or call 860-527-7838.

This content courtesy of Shore Publishing Weeklies and

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Photo by Lanny Nagler


Prince of Broadway –Looking Back at a Long, Successful Career

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Karen Ziemba, Emily Skinner, Chuck Cooper, Tony Yazbeck. Photo by Matthew Murphy

By Karen Isaacs

Follies, Evita, Sweeney Todd, Phantom of the Opera, West Side Story, Cabaret – the list is endless of shows that Hal Prince either directed or produced or both.

So a Broadway show that includes scenes from all these should be terrific. Right? Unfortunately, while Prince of Broadway has many delightful moments, the sum of its parts doesn’t add up to a hit show.

Why is hard to determine. Certainly the cast of the Manhattan Theater Club production (now at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through Oct 22) includes top notch musical theater talent – Tony Yazbeck, Brandon Uranowitz, Emily Skinner, Karen Ziemba and more.

Yet this evening that uses Prince’s biography to string together scenes from both hit and flop shows, only sometimes catches fire.

The show gets off to a slow start. The overture, arranged by composer Jason Robert Brown lists 17 songs as being included, yet somehow it was hard to identify many of them. It seemed as only phrase or two was included.

Throughout the show, various cast members, each speaking as if he or she were Hal Prince, detail parts of his biography. It opens with some bio and then just a snitch of the first show he was involved in – The Pajama Game.  We hear a few bars of “Hey, There” but we see no-one. From there were are on to a well sung, but somehow lifeless rendition of “Heart” from Damn Yankees.

 The show begins to gather some momentum with West Side Story, the first show Prince produced; at that point chronology goes out the window. Why the remainder of the show is organized the way it is, is a mystery. It seems relatively random.

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Janet Dacal Photo by Matthew Murphy

So what are the highlights?  Each member of the nine person cast has moments that are terrific.  Kaley Ann Voorhees is a luminous Maria in “Tonight” from West Side Story and Janet Dacal is hilarious doing “You’ve Got Possibilities “ from It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman. She’s also a very good Eva Peron and Aurora (Kiss of the Spider Woman). Byronha Marie Parkham does her best work as Amalia in She Loves Me with “Will He Like Me?”

 Tony Yazbeck once again demonstrates not only his exceptional dance talent, but also his strong voice. He’s Tony in West Side Story, Che in Evita, and with a nod to Jason Robert Brown, Leo in Parade. Since I had never seen nor heard the entire show, his rendition of “It’s Not Over Yet” was a highlight for me. It is an exceptionally moving song. But the extended dance number in Follies, while well executed doesn’t seem to have a purpose beyond showing off his skills.

Once again, I was delighted with the performance of Brandon Uranowitz,as the Emcee in Cabaret, George in She Loves Me and Molina in Kiss of the Spider Woman. Chuck Cooper scored with songs from Showboat and as Sweeny Todd, though his Tevye was not as good.

Michael Xavier has followed up his performance as Joe in the recent Sunset Boulevard with some excellent work as the Phantom, Bobby in Company and Fredrik in A Little Night Music.

 The first act closing number, a series of songs from Cabaret was terrific. Not only was Brandon Uranowitz is excellent as the Emcee but Karen Ziemba gave us two characters – the gorilla in “If You Could See Her” and a touching Fraulien Schneider is “So What?” Her performance as Mrs. Lovett in “The Worst Pies in London” was a highlight of the second act. These are two roles I hope some director casts Ziemba in very soon.

Emily Skinner’s best number is“The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company; her rendition of “Send in the Clowns” is very good but not outstanding.

Certainly the production values are excellent. Beowulf Boritt (scenic and production

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Emily Skinner. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

design) and William Ivey Long (costume design) have handled the huge task for recreating moods for these diverse shows in different periods and location with finesse. As has Howell Binnkley with the lighting design.

Susan Stroman is credited as both choreographer and co-director with Prince himself.

Although I just wish that Prince of Broadway had somehow caught fire more than did, it is still a very enjoyable evening in the theater – revisiting favorite musicals or discovering some new ones.

It is at the Manhattan Theater Club, Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street. Tickets are available through Telecharge.

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Tony Yazbeck, Kaley Ann Voorhees. Photo by Matthew Murphy


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