Without further ado, your Off Broadway review revue! Dancing girls! Singing madmen! Lying journalists! From the must-sees to the halfsies to the merely meh: Let the Cavalcade of Offness begin!
Blood Knot (at the Signature Center through March 11)
Blood Knot, at 50, has just the right sort of squareness about it. Athol Fugard’s 1961 play about two mixed-race, dirt-poor South African brothers — separated by skin color, united in loneliness — is a durable fable of kinship and its twin, alienation. Fugard, now 80, directs his own work for the premiere season of the Signature Center. (Blood Knot is the christening show for the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, the SC’s gorgeous miniaturized opera house.) As the brothers, Zachariah and Morris, the master craftsmen Colman Domingo (The Scottsboro Boys) and Scott Shepherd (Gatz) throw complex racial and emotional signals back and forth: the “white” Shepherd develops a nervous shuck-and-jive, the “black” Domingo, an exhausted, liquid ease that conceals deep pain and rage. (Can you feel a reversal coming on?) The first act is a slow burn, as both play and playwright-director seem to be easing an apartheid-era audience gently into a dramatic situation a 2012 crowd intuits and accepts instantly. But the windup is worth it, as Shepherd and Domingo deliver the hammer blows of the second act with great brutality and even greater humanity: These are, truly, some of the finest actors working. In their hands, and at Fugard’s urging, Blood Knot leaves the literal behind and becomes a kind of African Godot.
And God Created Great Whales (at 45 Bleecker through March 25)
A composer named Nathan (author-composer Rinde Eckert) is losing his memory, his mind, and, along with them, his ability to finish his magnum opus, an opera based on Moby-Dick. “If you are still listening, your disease has progressed,” warns the tape recorder around his neck. So begins this note-for-note revival of Eckert’s now-20-year-old masterpiece, a darkly funny, inside-out meta-opera about obsession, oblivion and release, packed with musical jokes for the initiated and broader, bumpier gags for the opera-illiterate. (That is, Me.) Eckert, pinging us with his cetacean tenor, is a tremendous performer, able to leap nimbly from tone to tone (in both senses). He’s joined by a mental apparition played by the charming siren Nora Coles, who performed the show with Eckert two decades ago (then, as now, under the surehanded direction of David Schweitzer). The accrual of years has, I suspect, only deepened the poignancy of this unique work — a whirlpool of moving seriocomic confusion, with a score that, despite its many inlaid ironies and winks, succeeds in moving opera aficionados and novitiates alike.
CQ/CX (at the Peter J. Norton Space through March 11)
The Jayson Blair affair — one of the uglier catastrophes in the New York Times’ decennis horribilis — is such a gothic tale, it scarcely needs dramatization. Gabe McKinley does it anyway in the thinly-veiled docuplay CQ/CX, with very mixed results. Jay (Kobi Libii, unstable in an unstable role) is a talented African-American reporter who proves a hollow man, a fake and a faker, a purveyor of bespoke realities invented on the fly. In short, he makes up his stories, or steals them. Warped by drugs and delusion, unknown even to those who know him best, he buffaloes both his black supervising editor (a stiffened, wary-looking Peter Jay Fernandez) and the lordly white managing editor, Hal Martin (Arliss Howard, Foghorning it up for our pleasure). Hal, a grandiose Southerner, is a ringer for exiled editor Howell Raines, who famously prized “voice” over shoe leather and created a culture for the Jays of the world to thrive. McKinley writes engagingly, with an avid intelligence; at his best, he shows Sorkinesque flair for exhilarated, slightly cokey workplace naturalism. But at his worst, he works straight from the prosy popular histories on which he bases his research and prioritizes his Post-its of information very strangely. (Where, for instance, is the Internet in all of this?)
Director David Leveaux keeps the Renzo Piano-inspired flats a-flying, but all the fancy architecture in the world can’t conceal the structural problems here. We spend most of the diverting first act pacing around the newsroom, taking our time, soaking up the romanticism of old-time journalism, but then the second act lurches nauseously into plot, the journos turn into scotch-swilling, speechifying stereotypes, and the Jay character essentially vanishes before our eyes. The facts of the case are recounted, sometimes in direct quotations, yet no attempt is made to understand this chaos of a man. (Steve Rosen, shining in the small part of Jay’s fellow-ink-stained-wretch Jacob, fares better than most, and David Pittu plays “Junior,” an avatar of Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., with the gravity of a Shakespearean king.) Like Sorkin, McKinley is more interested in frustrated power than frustrated powerlessness: He’s more at home in Olympus than down in the dirt. Thus, bye-bye Jay. Not knowing the story’s central liar would be just fine — but why’d we spend the first act with him?
The Map of Virtue (at the 4th St. Theater through February 25)
A fascinating Jenga of self-diddling symmetries, overconsecrated idée fixes, and bizarro plot torsions, Erin Courtney’s A Map of Virtue is the best kind of mess. Near as I can figure, it’s a dark comedy about obsession and synchronicity: We are all connected … and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Sarah (Maria Striar) is a suddenly rich hack-artist; Mark (Jon Norman Schneider) is a broken man whose pain Sarah half-knowingly loots for her own spiritual and commercial fulfillment. But it’s not that simple: Halfway in, the play opens a wormhole into utter insanity — torture, kidnapping, a creep in a bird-mask. The characters in Map reach out to each other via exploitation, molestation, domination: All they have are their fixations — most literally embodied by a talking Bird Statue (Birgit Huppuch) — and director Ken Rus Schmoll (Middletown), a master of atmosphere, fixes his unfortunates in empty space, like insects pinned to cork. It’s a nice sharp shiv of an idea, a twist on old pieties, but the point is somewhat blunted by structural fussiness and flights of lyricism that clump up and form an obfuscatory scrim of self consciousness. Sometimes Map, with its characters’ first-world problems and stippled genre flourishes, plays like a particularly abstract Portlandia sketch. I mean this as a compliment.
The Broken Heart (at the Duke on 42nd through March 4)
There’s a lot to admire in Selina Cartwell’s ghostly production of The Broken Heart, the Caroline-era tragi-oddity by John Ford (better known for ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore). But despite a lot of exhaustive dramaturgy and several truly superb actors, the text — which braids the story of a jealous old cuckold-in-waiting, Bassanes (Andrew Weems), and his chaste, unhappily-yoked young wife Penthea (Annika Boras) with a tale of implied-incest, vengeance, and, interestingly, anorexia — just doesn’t “breathe” much in this production. Speaking as a proud Shakechauvinist, I find the Jacobean/Caroline revenger’s tragedies more totally confused than tonally complex: I just don’t enjoy their funky murk. They make great senior theses and lousy performance pieces — and that’s just one man’s admittedly unfair (and openly Bardolatrous) opinion. An even less restrained directorial approach to all the dammed up onstage repression might’ve better served here: Less pensive, more batty. This play, with its coiled kink, is crying out for more directorial abuse. I say, give it the lash it longs for. The most fearlessly self-flagellating performance is supplied by Boras: Nobody does psychosexual squalor quite like she does. And no actress uses her leading-lady beauty against herself quite so effectively.
How I Learned to Drive (at Second Stage through March 11)
Why, exactly, is Second Stage reviving Paula Vogel’s fifteen-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner? Everything about Kate Whoriskey’s production, from the subtle miscasting of Twilight’s Elizabeth Reaser to the cartoonish performance style the actors have been encouraged to pursue, feels like an obligation. Reaser is Li’l Bit, the narrator, whose pubescence was defined by the attentions of her pedophile Uncle Peck (Norbert Leo Butz). Peck teaches Li’l Bit to drive and initiates her sexually, but agrees, unilaterally, to suspend full consummation of their union (and the resumption of his alcoholism) until she’s 18 — at which point he hopes to marry her. Vogel’s rangy investigations into the complex mysteries of sex and sex abuse, freedom and predation, become here a series of broad crayon-sketches. Reaser starts in a vacuum and gets better as the night goes on, but the line between her little-girl-lost and her grown-woman-losing-herself feels shaky in ways that disturb for all the wrong reasons. Is this an immature character or an immature performance? Meanwhile, the chorus indulges itself in a some highly unfortunate Southern drawling. Butz is as solid as he ever is as the ruined and pathetic Peck, but even he occasionally feels like he’s marking time.