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stage dive

Theater Reviews: Off Broadway With Tennessee Williams, Brian Friel, William Shakespeare, and Celine Dion’s Dietary Habits

Everett Quinton and Regina Bartkoff in Tennessee Williams's Now the Cats With Jeweled Claws.

Now the Cats With Jewelled Claws
Hey, remember LaMaMa, the old-time epicenter of the Village avant-garde? More to the point, remember the Club at LaMaMa, whose motto might be “More LaMaMa than LaMaMa”? Well, if you need a primer, a refresher course, or just a pick-me-up, slap on your sequined heels, fluff your feather boa, and plunk yourself down at Now the Cats With Jewelled Claws, an unabashedly campy, shoestring cabaret production of Tennessee Williams’s seldom-produced one-act. Mink Stole, muse of John Waters, plays Madge, a mid-century lady of leisure who lunches with neurasthenic Bea (Regina Bartkoff) at a once-chic, now-shabby eatery near their favorite department store, Guffles, whence Bea has barely escaped after a violent shopping-related fray. The restaurant is overseen by a bitter, aging gay gadabout (Everett Quinton) and staffed by a grotesquely pregnant waitress (the always disturbing Erin Markey), her face half beaten in by an offstage beau. Spoiler alert: No happiness awaits any of these ill-starred lovers — in fact, something like hell might be waiting just outside. (At the Club at LaMaMa through November 31.)

Now the Cats is one of Williams’s lyric, late-period purgatorios, where dread is super-textual (an inky-cloaked hunchback played by Charle Schick stands forebodingly outside the window) and the boys are super-sexual: A pair of skinny, disaster-bound young hustlers (Max Steele and Joseph Keckler) enter in matching pink-leather jackets and set the final catastrophe in motion. The three Ss — Stonewall, Seconal, and the sexual revolution — may well have stoppered the greatness of Williams’s art, short-circuiting his sidelong truth-telling and aching operas of repression. But nothing could put a dent in his caustic wit, his verbal overages, his throbbing hyperbole. Director Jonathan Warman encourages everyone to play every syllable big and ripe, with each line delivered straight out to the audience: The kindness of strangers meets the Theater of Cruelty. It’s all beautifully bug-eyed, more self-parody than the provocation Tenn intended in 1969 but no less fierce for it. You’ll come out feeling vaguely tipsy— which, one suspects, is how its author felt, too.

Dancing at Lughnasa
Brian Friel's best-remembered memory play is now twenty years old, and Irish Rep is celebrating with a small jewel of a revival. The highly autobiographical story of five unmarried sisters in Depression-era Ireland, Dancing at Lughnasa is a wistful prelude to a tragedy almost too massive to comprehend: the collapse of both a family and a way of life. Our adult narrator, Michael (Ciaran O’Reilly), steps back into his childhood, playing himself at age 7, when he was the center of a small constellation made up principally of quietly unconventional women. His twentysomething mother Chris (Annabel Hagg) had him out of wedlock with the merrily inconstant Gerry (Kevin Collins), an itinerant Welsh gramophone salesman. Chris is raising him with help from her older sisters: stern professional schoolmarm, breadwinner, and household-head Kate (Orlagh Cassidy), hearty homemaker Maggie (Jo Kinsella), simpleminded Rose (Aedin Moloney), and the inwardly tormented Agnes (Rachel Pickup), who’s also in love with the feckless Gerry. These five women, caught between the ligatures of tradition and the pull of a rapidly accelerating outside world, could be called unconventional if they weren’t so unaffected about it. They’re not revolutionaries, just survivors, shaped by nature and circumstance: Already pushed to the social fringes by Chris’s out-of-wedlock child, the family sees its ties to society further tested by the older brother, Father Jack (the excellent Michael Countryman), who was forcibly ejected from the Ugandan leper colony he ministered to for decades, probably because he’d begun to salt doctrinaire Catholicism with pagan flavorings. He’s a link to Ireland’s own pagan past, and he has help from the futuristic Marconi wireless, which broadcasts traditional Irish dance music and the modern stuff, too. Both set the ladies’ feet alight. It’s the last dance before the end of an age, yet there’s nothing sentimental or nostalgic or hankie-wringing about Charlotte Moore’s direction: no bangs and no whimpers — just people, persisting. Moore’s touch with her actors is light and all the more devastating for it. A fine ensemble in a fine play. There are certainly worse ways, Christian or pagan, to celebrate the End of the World. (At the Irish Repertory Theatre through December 11.)

Milk Like Sugar
For the tense first fifteen minutes of Kirsten Greenidge’s play, the audience’s anxiety is palpable: Are we watching an after-school special? Three teenage African-American friends (Angela Lewis, Cherise Boothe, and Nikiya Mathis) are forging a “pregnancy pact,” fantasizing about the shower gifts they’ll rack up and the bundles of joy they’ll soon flaunt, like flashy accessories, on the hard streets of their nameless New England city. They grade men by their phones (flip-phone being the bottom rung, touchscreen at the top) and look at them mainly as sperm donors. Mainly, these girls — and they’re very much girls, though some are older than they look and some younger than they act — are in it for the biological guarantee of love: A baby, they reason, will adore them unconditionally, in a world of disapproving teachers and absent or apathetic parents. This sounds especially good to Annie (Lewis), a smart girl who tries double-hard not to be and reaches out to a mother (Tonya Pinkins, transformed into a terrifying apparition of barely contained rage) who cannot and will not love her. Milk Like Sugar is a pilgrim’s progress for Annie, who finds herself caught between the intense gravitational pull of her fertility-minded peers, the uptempo idealism of her new maybe-boyfriend Malik (J. Mallory-McCree) — who has his eyes set, literally, on the stars — and the spiritual suasion of a new friend, the evangelical Keera (Adrienne C. Moore), whose promises of prayer-activated wish fulfillment sound a little too good to be true. What will Annie choose? No, not that! Not him! Not now!

This isn’t delicate, diaphanous stuff: It’s just short of melodrama. Milk’s jagged street argot has a distancing effect at first, especially as it's superbly enunciated in the mouths of actors, and Greenidge’s images are hardly subtle; some of her lyric departures feel more like gaudy ornaments than essential architecture. (Director Rebecca Taichman has helpfully underlined a recurring “airplane”/escape motif with the turbine screams of departing jets — thanks for the aural rebus, but I think we’ve got the picture.) Its constituent parts seem simple, but Milk manages to be more than the sum of them. This is thanks in no small part to a tremendously good cast — special nods are due Pinkins, who plays a terrific monster, and Boothe’s bruised, wary scrapper of a group ringleader, Talisha, a child who’s already developed an adult’s dangerous anger and turned it fatally inward.

The play tightens and tightens, a hand around your throat, until we cough up the basic urban anthropology we thought we’d internalized and consider it all over again. Greenidge closes with an accusation aimed, quiet literally, at her audience. It’s a big choice and a big risk, and, like a lot of moments in Milk Like Sugar, it pays off handsomely where it probably shouldn’t. Greenidge, a young writer, will no doubt bring better plays than this one to New York, but I hope she won’t bring smaller, weaker-kneed ones. At her best, she writes with brutality, clarity, and humanity about corners of society most of us would comfortably ignore, and we can’t spare playwrights who still dare such things. (At Playwrights Horizons' Peter Jay Sharp Theater through November 20.)

The Atmosphere of Memory
Hats off to playwright David Bar Katz (Philip Roth in Khartoum) and his abettors at the LAByrinth Theater Company for assembling an astonishing cast, which includes the great Ellen Burstyn, the ever-terrifying John Glover, and Max Casella of Sopranos/Doogie Howser fame. Unfortunately, that roll call of bold- and semi-boldface names is about the best that can be said for The Atmosphere of Memory, a dark comedy that goes dim right quick and then keeps getting dimmer until it enters wavelengths of unimaginable (and unfunny) solipsism not dreamt of in physics or literature.

A matryoshka of interlocking irritations, Atmosphere deploys now-standard meta-theatrical trickery (plays within plays, fourth-wall-smashing audience acknowledgment, actors enlisted to plead the author’s case) to tell a fairly simple, rather scant story: Jon (Casella), a famous playwright, is writing an autobiographical memory play that stars his famous mother, Claire (Burstyn, often funny, strangely muted). Claire is herself a famous actress whose career was effectively ended by the dread onset of family, and whose love-hate relationship with her son verges on the Greek. (Bar Katz, distrustful of his audience’s book-larnin’, bludgeons us with enough unnecessary references to Sophocles, O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and more Tennessee Williams to fill a semester at the Learning Annex.) But Atmosphere quickly sidelines Claire: Jon is far more interested in reconnecting with his demon-father Murray (Glover, ferocious but ultimately grindingly repetitive as the ultimate dad from hell). Murray says and does all sorts of transgressive, uncivil stuff, like talking about his penis (at length) and also talking about that one time he pulled it out in an inappropriate social context. He’s pure poison, but so is almost everyone else in the play, so it’s hard to notice. (The one exception is Jon’s sister Esther, played gracefully by Melissa Ross. When Murray follows a particularly hurtful barb with “I’m just being honest,” she shoots back the best line in the play: “‘I’m just being honest.’ The battle cry of the asshole.”)

But Jon, for reasons as poorly limned as Jon himself, believes his father holds the central mystery of his life (and his art), and so tolerates Murray’s scorched-earth return to the family fold as a kind of extreme artistic experiment. You can feel Atmosphere wanting so badly to be a pitiless evisceration of male mythologizing, with all of its Gen-X-y references to action figures and the fruitless search for originality in a Boomer-eaten world, but the play takes its protagonist far too seriously for that. Bar Katz isn’t bad with the quick barb and occasionally quite good at ramping up a scene, but he cares way more about Jon’s self-knowledge deficit than we’re prepared to. Why should we? Jon’s obviously a lousy, empty poet-manque, a sniveling dilettante. His play, as glimpsed in half-scenes, is a gelatinous mass of lazy references to other plays, films, TV, etc. And Jon himself, despite Casella’s most sincere efforts, is a big bore, an irretrievably selfish person trapped up his own bottomless ass. Atmosphere, like Jon, wallows where it ought to move on, and drags itself past the two-hour mark mostly on the dubious strength of sour sitcom badinage. It’s death by a thousand quips, but the laugh track dies out after the first 400. Given all that, I think a “network note” is not inappropriate here: Some more likable characters, please? (At the Bank Street Theater through November 20.)

Love's Labors Lost
Imagine, if you will, one of those hyperactive, assiduously “contemporary” productions of a Shakespeare comedy — all winks and hip thrusts and Halloween costumes and desperate Top 40 music cues: basically a college Godspell in iambic pentameter. Now imagine a perfectly excellent execution of the same play, starring actors fine enough to trust without a net — without, in other words, all those overdirected, extratextual seat-buzzer moments designed to bully or trick us into being Bardolaters for an evening. Somewhere between these disparate points lies Karin Coonrod’s occasionally overcaffeinated but often gratifying new vision of Love’s Labor’s Lost. (The title has been pointedly and irksomely Americanized, said the grumpy Anglophile.) Playing it out on a square of Astroturf, Coonrod takes the Bard’s harpooning of ivory-tower snobbery and imperious male austerity and turns it into a series of daffy lawn games, many of them spot-on, some swatted wildly into the rough. Hoon Lee (School for Lies) is Ferdinand, King of Navarre, who swears his fratty pals (Nick Westrate, Keith Eric Chappelle, and Jorge Chacon) to an oath to abjure women and pleasure as they embark on three cloistered years of personal enrichment: Navarre will redefine the man cave as ashram. Witty, worldly Berowne (the superb Westrate) is skeptical, especially since a distaff royal delegation (Renee Elise Goldsberry, Rebecca Brooksher, Samira Wiley, and Michelle Beck) is inbound from the French court. As Navarre is flooded with X-chromosomes, the boys change their short pants for grown-up all-weather duds, and various clowns — most notably Robert Stanton’s drawling lawman Dull, Stephanie DiMaggio’s withering Jaquenetta, and, as her suitor, the ridiculous Spanish knight Don Armado, a towering, teetering, bitumen-voiced Reg. E. Cathay — play out their own romantic intrigues, which criss-cross with their betters’. Coonrod opens entire theater to her actors, who make liberal use of the aisles and open seats. Things can get a bit shrill and spittle-y at times, and Coonrod’s choice of spotlit pop-culture references (Beyoncé and New Kids on the Block? Huh?) feels a little random. She also goes way outside the text for a handful of cheap laughs. And despite many a pelvic gyration, there’s no real sex at stake here. (DiMaggio, who barely moves an eyebrow the entire show, is the salient exception.) But this Love’s Labor’s Lost isn’t really making a play for the grown-up market. It’s a giddy masque from end to end, long before the actual dancing starts. Are your kids still tweaking from all that Halloween candy? Now’s a perfect time to introduce them to Shakespeare. (At the Public Theater Lab through November 6.)

Celebrity Autobiography
The night I attended Celebrity Autobiography — a two-drink-minimum cabaret act where famous and semi-famous comic actors hammily read aloud from bigger stars’ drippy tell-alls — Jennifer Tilly narrated Melissa Gilbert’s early-eighties hookup with Rob Lowe, Marsha Mason slipped into Zsa Zsa Gabor’s skin to retell the harrowing tale of her night in a Beverly Hills jail, and Mario Cantone impersonated Barbra Streisand. (I’m fairly certain that last act is always playing somewhere on the Upper West Side, whether it’s on an actual stage, or in the back of a cab, or in line at Duane Reade. Personally, I preferred his reading from the Book of Geraldo.) If you’ve heard the show description, you’ve heard the review: Bull's-eyes don’t come much bigger than celebrity autobiographies, with their false humility, clumsy self-aggrandizement, and what-I-did-last-summer prose. Still, witnessing a giant mash-up of celebrity dietary habits, culled from their books, has its special pleasures. (Jonathan Silverman, it turns out, does a more-than-passable Celine Dion — at least when the subject is leafy greens.) But is this $35 to $45 worth of special? That depends entirely on your desire to be up close and personal with the readers on deck. Certainly there are far cheaper comedy entertainments, some of them equally semi-star-studded, but how many will catalogue the contents of Neil Sedaka’s stomach for you? And can you really afford to take that chance? (At the Triad NYC Theater.)

Photo: Josh Andrus