By: David Sheward
December 23, 2023: Two Off-Broadway productions meld the past and the present with mixed results. Michael-John LaChiusa’s musical The Gardens of Anuncia at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi Newhouse Theater, is a gentle, fragmented memory piece while Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Manahatta at the Public Theater, somewhat jarringly juxtaposes a contemporary story against an historic one. Both have their satisfactions but ultimately leave you wanting more than their approximately 90-minute running times provide.
Inspired by the childhood and early adult years of choreographer-director Graciela Daniele, Gardens is a sweetly nostalgic ramble with no clear plot or driving storyline. The premise finds 70-ish Anuncia (a luminous Priscilla Lopez) sitting in her garden, reluctant to get ready to accept a lifetime achievement award and reflecting on being raised by her mother, aunt and grandmother in Peron-era Argentina. Anuncia is shy and reserved, her female relatives relate stories of their past, her mother is arrested on suspicion of conspiring against the government, she is later released, Anuncia takes ballet lessons, grows up and leaves home for the US. That’s it. Apart from a brief mention, we hear nothing about Daniele’s stellar career on Broadway. There is not much emotional impact to the stories.
Kalyn West is the charming younger Anuncia. The forceful Mary Testa provides vinegary support as the feisty grandmother, Andrea Burns is sweetly comforting as the aunt, and understudy Francisca Munoz (subbing for Eden Espinosa at the performance attended) lends fire to the strong-willed mother. The males role are well played by Tally Sessions and Enrique Acevedo.
Daniele fluidly directs and co-choreographs along with Alex Sanchez, the masterful lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer provides most of the shifting settings since Mark Wendland’s set is minimal. LaChiusa’s songs and book are pleasant enough, but not exactly memorable. We move from one vignette to the next with an occasional visit from a talking deer (a wry Sessions). Anuncia explains the vocal mammal is there courtesy of magical realism and then pronounces their encounter “weird.” You can say that about the whole show. Weird, diverting enough but slight.
Mary Kathryn Nagle’s Manahatta tries to be more weighty but is equally flimsy. The plot draws parallels between the 2007-08 subprime mortgage crisis and the Dutch colonists’ takeover of what becomes Manhattan Island in the early 17th century. In the modern story, ambitious Jane Snake becomes the first Native American to work on Wall Street, selling derivative mortgages. Meanwhile back in her Oklahoma home town, her mom Bobbie takes out a mortgage in order to pay off her late husband’s astronomical medical bills. Ironic, huh? These scenes alternate with vignettes of Peter Minuet and Dutch settlers muscling out the Native Americans (played by the same actors as in the 21st century story) from the very ground Jane will later work on as a trader.
Nagle makes several valid points about ravenous capitalism and includes lots of interesting information. For example, the tulip market pushed up prices to nose-bleeding levels and forced Dutch merchants to gobble up American land for its furs. But what works as a lesson in history and economics doesn’t necessarily work as effective drama. The parallels are forced and as in Gardens of Anuncia, the emotional impact is nil. When Bobbie’s house falls to foreclosure, she shrugs and launches into a reflective, philosophical monologue on how Native Americans have to keep moving because they are perpetually pushed out by the white man. This may be a truthful social statement, but it does not dramatically resonate. Especially when her daughter writes a check for the full amount owed on the spot. (Bobbie tears the check up because of what, pride?)
The secondary plot of Jane’s sister Debra attempting to set up a school to teach the Lenape language is more potentially powerful, but Bobbie also minimizes the school’s failure, leaving us with little to take away.
Laurie Woolery’s direction smoothly blends the two eras and multiple locales as do Lux Haac’s clever costumes.
Elizabeth Frances as Jane and Rainbow Dickerson as Debra and their 17th century counterparts give as much depth to their dual roles as possible as does Sheila Tousey as the frustratingly noncommittal Bobbie. Enrico Nassi also has moments of fire as Luke and Black Beaver, Jeffrey King is a hissable villain as the mercenary Minuet and his 2007 double. But it’s not enough to make Manahatta more than an intriguing history lesson.
The Gardens of Anuncia **
Nov. 20—Dec. 31. Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission. telecharge.com
Photography: Julieta Cervantes
Dec. 5—23. Anspacher Theater at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., NYC. Running time: one hour and 40 mins. with no intermission.
Photography: Joan Marcus