By: David Sheward
While the fall is one of Broadway’s busiest times, Off-Broadway is equally crowded with openings. The current roster includes daring reinterpretations of familiar works, New York premieres of British and American plays from veteran and promising playwrights, and a musical featuring bedbugs and a Celine Dion impersonator (no kidding!)
The Dutch director Ivo Van Hove has delivered some weird deconstructions in his productions for New York Theater Workshop. I’m still recovering from his derailing of A Streetcar Named Desire. But with his current staging of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, he takes the source material and skillfully reimagines it for the stage, delivering something new and exciting while respecting the original. First a six-hour TV mini-series and then a three-hour film, Scenes is a harrowing examination of the dysfunctional union between a professor and a divorce lawyer.
When the audience enters the NYTW, they are ushered into one of three small playing spaces. Three separate couples enact the marriage and breakup of Johan and Marianne at different stages with the playgoers moving from location to location till they’ve watched all of them. The dialogue from each leaks into the others, replicating how buried resentments and events from the past influence present actions. Then after a 30-minute intermission, the playing area is stripped bare and all six performers play the post-divorce sequences in a symphony of passion and anger.
Meanwhile at Roundabout Theatre’s Laura Pels venue, Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink gets a long-delayed New York premiere. In Carey Perloff’s sumptuous and elegant production, love and literature are given equal weight as an English poetess’s Indian sojourn is recounted by her loving sister decades later. As in Stoppard’s Arcadia, the events are played out both in the past and through the lens of academic evaluation and memory for a fascinating double-vision. The regal Rosemary Harris is enchanting as always as the elderly sister, but the play belongs to Romola Garai and Firdous Bamji as the young writer and the Indian painter to whom she is attracted. There are slight resemblances to E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, but the work is much more than to a tribute to that classic. Stoppard constructs an intriguing puzzle on the nature of poetry, colonialism, and mortality well worth your concentration and time.
At Playwrights Horizons, Robert O’Hara tackles equally sensitive issues of race, gender, and sexuality and how theater deals with all of them in his autobiographical collage Bootycandy. At first it seems he’s stringing together a collection of SNL-type sketches on being African-American and LGBT. Some work hilariously well and some don’t-a one-joke scene about a lesbian couple divorcing wears out its welcome quickly-but in the second act, they all come together to tell the difficult coming-of-age story of Sutter, who as a child is molested by an older man and as an adult vents his anger on a stranger. The comedy and tragedy overlap in an intense staging by O’Hara. The five-member ensemble plays many roles with savage wit and compassion. Lance Coadie Williams is particularly funny as a cross-dressing minister and (in drag) as Sutter’s sassy grandma who fakes senility to collect cash and sympathy from her grandson.
Billy Porter, the Tony-winning star of Kinky Boots, tackles similar material in his first play While I Yet Live (Primary Stages at the Duke Theatre). As in Bootycandy, the main character survives sexual assault from a trusted older man and faces rejection from his African-American family and community for his gay identity. But while O’Hara explores this complex theme in unconventional and startling ways, Porter goes for soap opera with melodrama and ghosts everywhere and the characters spouting Oprah-ish adages ("If you believe in nothing, you’ll fall for anything") instead of talking to each other. Fortunately, S. Epatha Merkerson delivers a fiery and heartfelt performance as the protagonist’s disabled mother.
Finally on the musical side, we have an enchanting charmer and an overblown dud. The former is Found at Atlantic Theatre Company and the latter is Bedbugs!!! at the ArcLight. Found is based on the books and magazines created by Davy Rothbart which collect discarded or lost notes, lists, flyers, and letters. The material is bizarre, moving, and funny offering brief, intrguing glimpses into people’s lives. Book-writers Hunter Bell and Lee Overtree (who also directs) frame the ephemera in the reality-based story of Davy’s creation of the magazines and his attempts to turn them into a TV show. There’s the conventional losing-your-soul-in-Hollywood spiel and romantic triangle nonsense, but the authors cleverly punctuate the action with relevant found notes (realized by Darrel Maloney’s marvelous projections) and Eli Bolin’s warmhearted score.
Bedbugs!!! could have been a lot funnier. It’s the kind of outrageous satire that can sometimes work, as in Little Shop of Horrors, Urinetown, and The Toxic Avenger, if there are characters with whom we can sympathize, even if they are caricatures. But conceivers Fred Sauter (book and lyrics) and Paul Leschen (music) and director Deborah Hurwitz opt for total exaggeration with no hint of verisimilitude. That’s fine for a ten-minute sketch, but cannot sustain a two-hour musical. The flimsy plot centers on an invasion of NYC by mutant bedbugs with a Canadian singer not unlike Celine Dion serving as Gotham’s unlucky savior. Brian Charles Rooney in drag and fine voice as the Celine stand-in and Philip Heckman’s ingenious insect costumes are the high points of this otherwise forgettable frolic. Get out the Raid!
**** Scenes from a Marriage: Sept. 22-Oct. 26. New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St., NYC. Tue.-Fri., 7 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m. Running time: three hours hours and 30 minutes including intermission. $30-$75. (212) 279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com
**** Indian Ink: Sept. 28-Nov. 30; Roundabout Theatre Company at the Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St., NYC. Schedule varies. Running time: two hours and 45 mins. including intermission. $89. (212) 719-1300 or www.roundabouttheatre.org.
**** Bootycandy: Sept. 11-Oct. 19; Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., NYC. Fri., Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., Sun., 2:30 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m. Running time: two hours and 20 mins. including intermission. $75. (212) 279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com.
** While I Yet Live: Oct. 12-31. Primary Stages at the Duke on 42nd St., 229 W. 42nd St. Tue.-Thu., 7 p.m.; Fri., Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m. Running time: two hours and 20 mins. including intermission. $70. (646) 223-3010 or www.dukeon42.org.
**** Found: Oct. 14-Nov. 9. Atlantic Theatre Company, 336 W. 20th St., NYC. Schedule varies. Running time: two hours and 20 mins. including intermission. $75. (866) 811-4111 or www.ovationtix.com.
*1/2 Bedbugs!!!: Sept. 14-Nov. 2. ArcLight Theatre, 152 W. 71st St., NYC. Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., Sun., 3 p.m. Running time: two hours and 20 mins. including intermission. $25-$89. (866) 811-4111 or www.ovationtix.com.