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Look Ma, I'm Dancin'!

Reviewed By Robert Windeler

Presented by Musicals Tonight!, at the 14th Street Y, 344 E. 14th St., NYC, March 7-19.

This earnest production solved the mystery of why a money-making 1948 show "conceived" by Jerome Robbins, with songs by Hugh Martin, a book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, and directed by Robbins and George Abbott, virtually never has been revived-nor even talked about much since. "Look Ma, I'm Dancin'!" just wasn't a very good show, and it represented none of its creators' best work-or came anywhere near it.

The only reason for remembering this musical was Nancy Walker, in the leading role of a Milwaukee brewery heiress who buys her way into a touring dance company. Today, 52 years after the musical's Main Stem run, and eight years after Walker's death, a black-and-white photo of her wearing a smirk and a tutu can still evoke a laugh. But Walker, best remembered as Rhoda's mom and McMillan's housekeeper on TV, was sui generis, a comedienne who could wring more humor out of an impromptu "take" than most could with a punchline. (Even the planned movie version with Betty Hutton was wisely scrapped.)

It's nobody's fault that Jennifer Allen, who plays the heiress, isn't Walker. But the material Allen and the rest of the cast have to work with is thin and unmemorable. Only the early first-act novelty number "I'm the First Girl in the Second Row" remains in the broader musical comedy repertoire; and along with its just one joke "Look Ma" offers a completely unsympathetic cast of characters. Martin's music was better before and after (and his interpolations into the current production don't add much). Lawrence and Lee's best work ("Mame," "Inherit the Wind") was yet to come. So, thanks for the history lesson, but some shows just needn't be revived.

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Juilliard Dance Ensemble

Reviewed by Phyllis Goldman

Presented by The Juilliard School, at 60 Lincoln Center Plaza, NYC, Feb. 17-20.

If the dancers seen at the recent Juilliard Dance Ensemble performances are any indication of the new horizon of modern dancers-then New York audiences have a real renaissance in performing quality to look forward to. There was not a weak link in the large contingent of dancers presented in the four pieces; all were beautifully trained, with both ballet and modern technique in place. Would that the level of choreography had fulfilled these dancers' abilities, but other than Mauricio Wainrot's "After Dark" and Adam Hougland's "Beyond," the pieces went on too long, relying on repetition and filler.

"Of Roots and Stone," choreography by Iyun Ashani Harrison, began impressively as the curtain lifted on three simulated stone structures with dancers draped on them in elusive poses. Again the performance level was staggering, but the thread of continuity puzzling. Was the interracial coupling the source of all the angst, or was the choreography symbolic of relationships in general?

Though the audience went ballistic over "Life Forms/Solo Inventions," it was a shade overproduced. There were composers, musicians, singers, slide projections, and choreography by the yard (was I seeing "Lion King?")-head rolls, spinal undulations, stamping the floor, tossing the hair. Much agitation was egged on by the musicians, each in a solo turn (including a headache-provoking trombone variation). Shaking, rattling, and rolling to prolong a piece is more annoying than gratifying, and Reginald Yates, the choreographer, who has fine taste in design, could learn that shorter is better.

The evening began with Adam Hougland's stirring work, "Beyond." A long, white panel covered one-third of the stage, which the dancers seemed forbidden to cross. Yet temptation pulled one, then others, into the territory beyond, and the results were terrifying. Hougland showed a deft hand with movement skills.

When a choreographer knows his craft there is no doubt about it. Melded together with Argentina-born Wainrot's ability to bring his dancers onstage were flawless partnering, purposeful groupings, and skillful use of a difficult Philip Glass score-making "After Dark" a stunning finale. The Juilliard dancers experimenting with choreography could not have had a better text from which to learn.

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District of Columbia

Reviewed by Elias Stimac

Presented by and at The Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 W. 52nd St., NYC, March 6-26.

In a wicked mix of politics, promiscuity, and punk rock, Michael Louis Wells has brought the mixed-up '80s back for one last fling in his latest stage play, "District of Columbia." Being presented by the Ensemble Studio Theatre in an intriguing, invigorating production, Wells' full-length tale focuses on the trials and tribulations of a motley group of housemates in the titular town, and their diverse responses to a shared problem-eviction.

Rock musician and former roommate Teagle (Joseph Lyle Taylor) returns from the road to find his friends down and out, about to lose their home in the wake of renovation. Looking for a place to crash, he reunites with old flame Nan (Miranda Black), good guy Dex (Thomas Lyons), straitlaced Reid (Chris Wight), and off-the-wall Rufus (Brad Bellamy). But when the upper half of the house-represented by domineering Dora (Geneva Carr)-decides to give in to the landlord without a fight, Teagle rallies the troops to hold their ground and keep the place for themselves.

Wells sets up the tenant-landlord confrontation expertly with verbal dueling, emotional interplay, and lots of humor, but switches gears in Act Two and never follows through on the momentum of the first act. However, the course the play takes is ultimately satisfying enough the carry audience empathy through to the final curtain. James Richards' direction is vigorous from pre-show to post-show, maintaining a driving pace throughout, with constant overlapping of lines and plenty of movement. His cast is compelling, and each performer delivers an indelible characterization. In addition to those mentioned above, Janet Zarish makes a lasting impression in a supporting role.

Bruce Goodrich does a bang-up job on the banged-up set, Greg MacPherson cleanly lights the action, and Julie Doyle digs up some cool threads for the crew. Robert Gould's sound design includes some powerful punk tunes, perfectly matching the ferocious fireworks onstage.

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Monster

Reviewed by Elias Stimac

Presented by Dusty Darling Productions, at the Jose Quintero Theatre, 534 W. 42nd St., NYC, Feb. 20-April 16.

"We have nothing to fear but fear itself..." This famous observation is at the mischievous heart of Frank Hertle's comic horror piece "Monster," currently playing at the Jose Quintero Theatre (formerly the Kaufman Theatre).

Originally a one-act, "Monster" has been developed into a full-length play which appeared on the opening program of the Theatre-Studio's Third Annual New York City Playwrights Festival in 1999, and now is enjoying an extended run.

Hertle has adapted his original idea into an eerie account of one family's encounter with a fearful person known as the "Monster." Sitting at home on a quiet night is an all-American family-father Edward (David Copeland), mother Sara (Vanessa), daughter Drew (Haley Graham, alternating with Jessica Faith), and grandmother Rose (Joanna McNeilly).

However, Enrico Fernandez's haunting lights and sound telegraph that something is not quite right, and soon enough, the peaceful home is invaded by a stranger named Smithe (Joe Hoover) and a lingering sense of dread. The family works itself into a tizzy, trying to decide if their visitor is the dangerous "Monster" that they've heard so much about, and then frenetically takes action when their worst fears seem to be realized.

Director David Copeland keeps the tension on simmer throughout most of the play, allowing audience members to constantly keep guessing. An effective audio shock at the end of the play suggests that he could turn the camp meter up even further at times. Copeland has assembled a topnotch cast, and his interplay with Vanessa, Graham, and McNeilly is both amusing and unsettling. Hoover is properly mysterious in dual roles, and Silverio Avellino garners laughs with his over-the-top portrayal of the local law enforcer. Natalie Chernov's homey set design and Kathleen Grady's costumes complete the portrait of this unconventional American family.

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The Waverly Gallery

Reviewed by Irene Backalenick

Presented by Anita Waxman, Elizabeth Williams, and Randall L. Wreghitt, in association with Second Stage Theatre, at the Promenade Theatre, 2162 Broadway, NYC. Opened March 22 for an open run.

Kenneth Lonergan's new play "The Waverly Gallery," is a straightforward tale of one woman's descent into senility. In this step-by-step account, the author has drawn from his own family history, undoubtedly having kept careful notes along the way. Told from a grandson's perspective (stand-in for the author), it is a clear-eyed, unsentimental view of the ravages of aging.

The saving grace of "The Waverly Gallery," which is essentially a case history, is its mix of humor and poignancy, perhaps inevitable in such a situation. As the play opens, Mrs. Green is a woman who still maintains her art gallery in Greenwich Village, though customers never come through the door. In earlier years, she was a lawyer, political activist, loving parent, gracious hostess. But now she has become an irritating old woman with memory and hearing problems. She is intrusive at the dinner table, talking endlessly and repetitively. As she steadily deteriorates, her daughter, son-in-law, and grandson find themselves moving from mild irritation to frenzies of their own. What these decent, loving people are called upon to tolerate is beyond human endurance.

While slow getting off the ground, "The Waverly Gallery" gathers power as Gladys Green's problems accelerate. Lonergan's technique is spiral-like, the mood building steadily in intensity, as the same lines are iterated each time around.

But the great strength of "The Waverly Gallery" is the production itself, with its fine cast and director. The story comes alive under Scott Ellis' direction, as characters talk over each other, interrupting or speaking simultaneously. The splendid Eileen Heckart gives a performance that is all-too-believable and heart-rending. But her fellow actors-Maureen Anderman, Josh Hamilton, Mark Blum, and Anthony Arkin-are equal to the Heckart challenge.

"The Waverly Gallery" is certainly timely and relevant. Who among us in this society where people are living well into old age have not shared something of this experience?

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Imperfect Love

Reviewed By David A. Rosenberg

Presented by Patrick Blake, David Elliott, Andrew McTierrnan, and Beth Schacter at New York Performance Works, 128 Chambers St., NYC, March 4-April 16.

Why must playwrights insist upon directing their own pieces? Take the case of "Imperfect Love" at New York Performance Works' spiffily renovated Ryan Stage. Brandon Cole's comedy about the fine line between art and reality comes across as a repetitious scream-fest without subtlety and, eventually, without much meaning.

The basis for the film "Illuminata," the play presupposes a battle royal between the great Italian actress Eleanora Duse (here Della Rosa) and her lover, playwright Gabrielle D'Annunzio (here Torrisi). At stake is the continuation of Gabrielle's play, which the management has threatened to close unless certain speeches can be fixed by that night. Either that, or else "A Doll's House" by that new hotshot writer, Ibsen, goes in.

The conceit is trying to trick a better ending by setting up phony situations. Perhaps the firebrand words the thin-skinned actress and playwright fling at each other could become the basis for the re-written script. It's a Lunt-Fontanne situation with definite possibilities for comments on actors' egos, lovers' bonds, and the theatre's demands. Yet, as played here, it's a one-level evening of ranting and raving, signifying little. Ego is about all we see, not the comic desperation that underpins the fears and triumphs of temperamental artists. Cole's direction, which is all "what" and no "why," doesn't help.

As Eleanora, Leslie Lyles is a fiery Anna Magnani type, but Duse's unique talents as an actress don't come through. Christopher McCann spits out his lines yet remains a cipher, while John Gould Rubin poses and tosses his hair as a vain leading man. They're good actors but directed to whir around like food in a blender. Easier to take are Peter Dinklage and Ed Hodson as two clowns, perhaps because they're peripheral to the action.

Mark Nayden's set, Robert Williams' lighting, and Mattie Ulrich's costumes are rather in-your-face. But then, that's the evening's tone.

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Sue˜o

Reviewed by Karl Levett

By special arrangement with the Hartford Stage Company, presented by and at MCC Theater, 120 W. 28th St., NYC, March 1-19.

"This tortured soap opera" is how one character describes the events taking place in "Sue˜o," an adaptation by Jos Rivera of Pedro Calderžn de la Barca's Spanish classic "Life Is a Dream." This wondrous antique has been given a modernist deconstruction by playwright Rivera, an attempt to make a 17th-century drama accessible to a contemporary audience.

The results are mixed: At best, Rivera strips away formal layers to expose the play's vital and violent heart; at worst, the play sounds like a fantastic, (expletive) fairytale as told by David Mamet. All the strength of the play still resides in Calderžn's Shakespearean-style story, an examination of honor, redemption, and free will. But a mistrust of the base material, plus a rush for relevance, rules. Consequently, just as the old tale builds up a head of steam, the rug is pulled-and we're back in the 21st century.

Director Lisa Peterson, who has the difficult task of bringing a cohesive form to this divergent material, often abets this undercutting process. Thus there's more parodying of classic style, than the style itself. This facetiousness robs life from what is otherwise an often-imaginative production.

King Basilio (Geno Silva) has imprisoned his son Segismundo (John Ortiz) from birth, fearful of what the stars have foretold of his destiny. While Polish Astolfo (James Urbaniak) and Spanish Estrella (Rebecca Wisocky) eagerly wait to jointly ascend the throne of Spain, the King releases the grown Segismundo, with dire consequences. The secondary plot has disguised Rosaura (Michi Barall), hot from Poland, seeking revenge on ex-lover Astolfo.

Ortiz's Segismundo dominates the production with a passionate performance that bestrides both classic and modern styles. Yusef Bulos' Clotaldo also is able to achieve this, but others demonstrate vocal problems with the classic idiom. Additional major assets: Riccardo Hernandez's blood-red set, Anita Yavich's creative costumes, and Anthony Bez's guitar-playing.

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South of No North

Reviewed by Irene Backalenick

Presented by the 29th Street Rep at 212 West 29th St., NYC, Feb. 24-March 12

Hurrah for the 29th Street Rep! They've done it again. Following a tradition of mounting such visceral plays as "Killer Joe," this gifted company has again produced a gritty, outrageous piece that vibrates with life.

This time it's "South of No North," a collection of playlets based on the Charles Bukowski stories. Bukowski, a California writer, was known for his depiction of a seedy West Coast world-and "South of No North" ably explores that territory. It was a world fueled by liquor and sex, as was Bukowski himself (or so he would have readers believe).

Bukowski (here depicted as Henry Chinoski) is both narrator and chief character, appearing in many of the scenes. Bukowski/Chinoski sits at the small, manual typewriter, pounding away, ashtray next to the typewriter, liquor bottle on the floor. He stops sporadically for a trip to the refrigerator, which houses only six-packs of beer.

These are tales of alcoholics living marginal, transient lives, tales that come off as both hilarious and pathetic. The women are always bursting out of cheap come-on outfits, the dark roots showing through their disheveled blonde hair. The men are always ready for a "quickie," Bukowski/Chinoski included.

Leo Farley and Jonathan Powers have adapted and directed this piece, with brilliant results. The show moves fluidly from story to story, the pace never lagging. Casting is equally impeccable, with the wonderful actor Stephen Payne topping the list. Payne is a thoroughly believable, unsavory Chinoski. But others hold their own. With nine skits, the seven actors change skins frequently. In one wild piece called "The Devil Was Hot," Thomas Wehrle creates a no-holds-barred devil. And Tim Corcoran, as a man in love with a mannequin, gives a poignant portrayal as does Paula Ewin, who answers a personal ad. Others who add to the fun and games are Charles Willey, Pamela Ericson, and Elizabeth Elkins. But it is not so much star performances as the ensemble work that is notable.

What a gem to be found buried away on 29th Street!

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American Buffalo

Reviewed by Elias Stimac

Presented by Atlantic Theater Company, at the Atlantic Theater, 336 West 20th St., NYC, March 16-May 21.

David Mamet's "American Buffalo" is set in a second-hand shop, and designer Kevin Rigdon has done an incredible job of filling the Atlantic Theater with plenty of knick-knacks, curiosities, and just plain junk. Likewise, the three characters in the play are novelties, outcasts from society and rough around the edges.

In this current revival (which played for a month in London at the Donmar Warehouse), the intense slice-of-life drama has some impressive star power in the casting of William H. Macy as Teach. The Oscar-nominated actor originated the character of Bobby in "American Buffalo" 25 years ago. Now he tackles the lead role of Teach, a desperate lowlife who goes to desperate measures to get in on a local heist with the owner of the store, Don, and a young drug addict, Bobby.

While Mamet's action and interaction in the shop is intriguing, in this production directed by Neil Pepe the stakes never seem to be high enough. The playwright's trademark banter is properly paced but seems forced at times, instead of being delivered in a natural tone.

Another disappointment is that, while Macy successfully brings his unique comic talents to the part, Pepe has not required him to be as menacing or dangerous as the character needs to be. Macy's co-stars are also primarily film actors, veteran Philip Baker Hall and newcomer Mark Webber. Both fit their characters well, but again lack the edginess that would intensify the relationship among these three men.

In addition to Rigdon's imposing set, the other design elements are all topnotch, from Howard Werner's lighting to Laura Bauer's costumes. Unfortunately, Rick Sordelet's fight choreography seems a bit restrained in the midst of all the clutter.

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Amy Cox & Dancers

Reviewed by Lisa Jo Sagolla

Self-presented in association with Joyce SoHo, at Joyce SoHo, 155 Mercer St., NYC, Feb. 25-27.

Choreographer Amy Cox makes peculiar dances. Some ensnare, others alienate. Though launched by her terrific opener, the New York premiere of "Creature," Cox's showing of works at Joyce SoHo grew trying as the evening wore on.

First, even before we see the four-bodied "creature," we hear his loud clomping entrance onto the stage space. He wears chiffon and bubble plastic and has drinking cups attached to four of his eight legs. His individual components-a quartet of quirky dancers-stretch and separate as they posture and stare at us. They soon learn to lift, kick, and stomp their legs and configure their arms and hands into bizarre positions. As the creature becomes more animated he spins and prances. When one component is left alone, her fingers try to consume her face; she folds in half, and skitters aimlessly about until reconnecting to the others. As the dance develops Cox continues to surprise us with inventively unnatural maneuvers and unexpected encounters, never losing the sense of oddity nor succumbing to the clich s such a concept piece could prompt.

Cox's apparent reverence for the awkward is less convincing in "Romantico," which projects gracefully moving abstract video images behind the broken, jerking movements of dancers Janet Charleston and Heather Waldon. Though the juxtaposition is meaningful, the choreography proves engaging only when the video images are absent. It's the dancers' commanding performances that keep us interested in the work.

Cox's pronounced strength as a choreographer is her ability to fashion extraordinarily compelling opening moments for her dances. Though her solo "Be Headed," a character study exploring the offbeat sensibility of urban street life, is ultimately off-putting, it begins with a startling depiction of kinetic insanity as Cox's arms, moving at super speed, flail around her face and head with frightening force.

While "Vailala Madness" opens captivatingly-an audibly exhaling dancer pulses her arms up and down as she studies us with one eye closed, microscope style-the work develops disappointingly and closed the evening on a remarkably dull note.

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Barnard Dances

Reviewed by Lisa Jo Sagolla

Presented by Barnard College Department of Dance and Miller Theatre, at Miller Theatre, B'way at W. 116th St., NYC, March 2-4.

"Wherever you go, whatever you do, always remember that you are a Jew," declares a performer in choreographer Neta Pulvermacher's "Goodbye and Good Luck," the most provocative work on the heady program of dances presented by Barnard College Dance Department, at Miller Theatre.

Inspired by her Jewish heritage, Pulvermacher burdens each of her five dancers with a violin and bow and fashions them into eye-catching tableaux that spring to life hopefully and humorously, sometimes guilt-ridden, or propelled by fear. They saw on their fiddles, swing them overhead, or clutch them tightly as they lean on one another for support. Often, they hang their heads and hold the instruments at arm's length, as if shamefully attempting to divorce themselves from their Jewishness. The well-crafted, image-driven movement phrases are punctuated by sardonic text and interrupted by brief freeing sequences in which the performers discard their violins and dance with abandon.

The main event of the evening was the re-staging of Anna Sokolow's 1975 "Ride the Culture Loop," a sly ensemble piece named after a 1970s bus route that passed through New York's different ethnic enclaves. Though the work initially appears to be a youthful commentary on the popular culture of the period, it ends by socking us in the heart with an astounding pas de deux. The deeply moving duet revisits Sokolow's signature moods of urban loneliness and shows how proximity doesn't make for togetherness, but can fertilize an inner solitude.

The evening opened with the premiere of the large group work "Liquid Steel," an impressive demonstration of choreographer Francesca Harper's kinesthetic ingenuity. Harper has managed to find a new movement vocabulary that incorporates the use of the pointe shoe and ballet training, but emanates organically out of a contemporary kinetic that contains no classical overtones.

The program was completed by "Camera Obscura," choreographed by Janet Soares. Though lovely to look at, it smelled of a musty mid-century aesthetic-recycled Doris Humphrey vocabulary, those long swoopy dresses, and a leisurely energy that begged for dynamic contrasts, but was constricted by the lulling sameness of a misguided choice of musical accompaniment.

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The Altruists

Reviewed by David A. Rosenberg

Presented by and at The Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St., NYC, March 6-April 8.

In Nicky Silver's world, characters search assiduously but vainly for partners to complete themselves. In his latest, the rat-a-tat-tat "The Altruists" at the Vineyard Theatre, passion is unearned, betrayal is just round the bend, and loyalties are made of spider's webs. Lusty and antic as the 90-minute, intermissionless work is, even the author's fans might wish he would get around to writing more fully-rounded pieces that go beyond the scope of sketchiness.

Silver's comic creations have varying sexual proclivities. Ronald thinks he's in love with hunky but dim hustler, Lance. Ronald's sister, Sydney, is a strung-out soap opera actress living with Swallow, a laid-back philanderer who arouses her libido yet also sleeps with Cybil, a sometime-lesbian too busy striking attitudes to remember even what principles she's promoting.

All can't get past the self-indulgence and selfishness that prevent their making serious commitments. Pretending to be altruistic, they're deceivers, their supposed devotion to public causes a front for private failings. At the end, they're perfectly willing to sacrifice the most vulnerable among them, the only one willing to change the trajectory of his life.

David Warren directs at breakneck speed, overlapping time and space to tear away at the characters' self-deceptions. As Sydney, Veanne Cox is a non-stop panic attack, her neuroses terrifying to behold. Joey Slotnick's Ronald is forlorn but not sentimental, while Eddie Cahill finds Lance's appealing soft spot. As Cybil, Kali Rocha seems to be channeling another planet. As Swallow, Sam Robards balances stalwart with craven.

Neil Patel's set and Kenneth Posner's lighting smartly distinguish among three apartments. Teresa Snider-Stein's witty costumes reach their pinnacle in Sydney's hot-pink suit. For his teasing sound design, John Gromada uses "pings" between scenes, reinforcing both Silver's humor and his tendency to move quickly away from an evolving penetration of his characters' psyches.

Shirley Herz Associates

165 W. 46th St., NY 10036

Tel: 221-8466

Fax: 921-8023

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African Masala

Reviewed by Elias Stimac

Presented by Africa Arts Theater Company, at Raw Space, 529 W. 42nd St., NYC, March 3-19.

"African Masala" is the umbrella title for two diverse one-acts now being presented by African Arts Theater Company at Raw Space. The pieces offer interesting insights into cultural issues and dilemmas that speak to a universal audience.

The first play, "Oluronbi," by Ade Ademola, is a premiere of a mythical retelling of an ancient Nigerian myth. Written in the style of Greek tragedies, the short work has all the classic elements of the genre-a tragic heroine, a wise mentor, a messenger and chorus, and, above all, a life-and-death decision to be made. In this case, the title character, Oluronbi (de'Adre aziza), must choose whether or not to take the life of her young infant, with whom she was blessed after bartering with the gods. Actress aziza sensitively portrays the character's intense emotional struggle, and is ably supported by the ensemble, which includes E. Jeannelle Henderson, Gary McNeill, Billie James, Sheaquan M. Datts, and Monica P. Hall. Director Shela Xoregos has adeptly staged the proceedings.

The second play takes a look at old-fashioned racial prejudices that linger in contemporary times. "With Strings," by Kuldip Sondhi, tells the story of a young interracial couple (Rob Khakh and D l ) and the chaos that results from their love. Director Passion has struck just the right chords in Sondhi's script, which, despite a few breaks in logic, succeeds in making us care about both the young lovers and their tradition-minded parents. Khakh and D l play moments of intimacy and agitation with equal strength, and Arthur French, Rashmi, and Ramesh Shah are excellent as the conflicted older generation.

Both shows benefit from the creative assistance of lighting designer Brad Nelson, soundman Kenn Dovel, and especially costume designer Carla Gant, who has gathered a vibrant rainbow of traditional outfits for the pair of one-acts.

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The Country Boy

Reviewed by Irene Backalenick

Presented by and at the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 W. 22nd St., NYC, March 31-April 2.

Humor (admittedly black humor) has been the saving grace of the Irish (in the arts as well as reality). That is why we happily swallow whatever they have to offer onstage. But John Murphy's drama at the Irish Repertory Theatre never achieves its potential for humor. Thus the wordiness and repetition we might otherwise accept become irritants.

Not that there aren't plusses. No one in this family is quite what he seems to be, which gives a nice twist to the tale. "Country Boy" deals with a man who returns with his American wife to the family farm in County Mayo. There he finds his younger brother, battling with a difficult, imperious father, eager to join him on the return trip.

But there are problems. Most of the action (births, deaths, courtships, parties) takes place offstage, leaving the characters to discuss what has happened, what will happen. And despite the earnest tone of "The Country Boy," abetted by fine direction and performances, the story is unconvincing and has a contrived feeling. With its carefully charted plot, every appropriate pawn is in place. Not surprisingly, the younger brother is about to repeat exactly what his older brother did-leave the girl he loves behind, as he heads for America.

Furthermore, one key character, the American wife, takes an improbable turnabout midway through the play. Presented initially as vulgar and dimwitted, with no appreciation for the solid country values, in Act Two, she suddenly exhibits a new depth, feeling, and sensitivity. Valorie Hubbard, fine actress that she is, does well with this puzzling assignment, though she seems to be playing a different role in each act.

In short, the play has its problems, but not so the production, which is directed with zest by Charlotte Moore and features a fine cast of six. Performers, besides Hubbard, are Dara Coleman, Aideen O'Kelly, Heather O'Neill, Ciarán O'Reilly, and James A. Stephens. Particularly notable is O'Reilly as the Irish migr .

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Waste

Reviewed by Victor Gluck

Presented by Theatre for A New Audience, at the American Place Theatre, 111 W. 46th St., NYC, March 12-April 2.

In this election year, Harley Granville Barker's long-forgotten political tragedy "Waste," concerning such controversial issues as abortion, sexual impropriety of elected politicians, and separation of church and state could not be more pertinent. Not surprisingly, this play (only now having its American premiere) was banned in Britain from 1907 until 1936.

Barlett Sher's nearly perfect production cannot disguise the lack of irony and humor contained in Granville Barker's more famous "The Voysey Inheritance" recently mounted at the Mint Theater. However, when the second act reveals the death of the heroine due to misadventure, "Waste" turns into a tragedy as powerful as any major O'Neill play.

At its center is Member of Parliament Henry Trebell, (played with great subtlety by Byron Jennings), an idealist and independent who has lived for his work, avoiding all emotional entanglements. While working on a bill for the disestablishment of the Church of England, he is seduced at a political house party by Amy O'Connell, a beautiful young woman separated from her Irish husband. How the consequences lead to decisions in the new cabinet of Prime Minister Cyril Horsham and to the human waste of the title is the story of this moving drama.

Sher's entire cast is first rate. As the female catalyst to the action, Kristin Flanders shimmers with vitality and charm. Pamela Nyberg is a very suave political hostess. As the hero's sister, Brenda Wehle is a woman of great perspicacity and integrity. Outstanding among the politicos are Jordan Charney as the oily Blackborough, Richard Easton as the pedantic Cantilupe, Ross Bickell as the urbane prime minister, and Bill Buell as the bumbling Farrant. The London interiors are handsomely designed by John Arnone and are complemented by Christopher Akerlind's moody lighting. Martin Pakledinaz has dressed the cast in elegant Edwardian finery.

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Big Dance Theater: Another Telepathic Thing

Reviewed by Lisa Jo Sagolla

Presented by and at Dance Theater Workshop, 219 W. 19th St., NYC, Feb. 17-20, 24-27, March 2-5.

If "Another Telepathic Thing" were actually a film-rather than a theatrical work that satirizes Hollywood types while depicting their making of a movie based on a bitterly poignant Mark Twain story-each of its celluloid frames would be a visual masterpiece. Directed by Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson, and choreographed by Parson in collaboration with the performers, this artfully staged play, presented at Dance Theater Workshop, offers a continuous flow of ravishingly composed stage pictures that brilliantly blend bodies, text, props, and music.

The smartly constructed script (by Scott Renderer and the company, Big Dance Theater) deftly weaves the comic conversations of actors and directors into a dramatization of "The Mysterious Stranger," Twain's powerful tale of money, faith, and falsehood. The linguistic juxtaposition of the hip and the poetic proves piquant.

While the production's most salient features are the consistently striking overall impressions cast by each cohesively orchestrated moment, the fine contributions of individual artists are evident. Molly Hickok, as an insufferably affected film director, exudes annoyingly nasal tones and a cloying demeanor that are astutely droll. Cynthia Hopkins narrates the work with an alluring imperturbability and sings with a transfixing, unadorned vocal technique, while Stacy Dawson brings a perfectly confusing, androgynous sensibility to her character, an angel named Satan. Looking particularly handsome at the outset, the dynamic downtown dance phenomenon David Neumann undergoes a grotesque onstage transformation into a bloated Elvis that's both disturbing and beguiling.

Though it is all too easy to wallow in the beauty and intrigue of this exemplary ensemble effort, those unfamiliar with the plot and themes of Twain's narrative may have difficulty following the action. Disparate elements need connecting, and meanings must be excavated. One suspects this work requires more than a single viewing in order to be fully appreciated.

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Fly-by-Night Dance Theater

Reviewed by Lisa Jo Sagolla

Self-presented at Context Studios, 28 Avenue A, NYC, March 9-12.

Fly-by-Night Dance Theater and the musical combo Guanabana created a relaxed, kid-friendly atmosphere for their late-afternoon performance of songs and low-flying trapeze-dance at Context Studios. Upon arrival, we were all given paper and crayons with which to draw our responses to the show. While the audience (average age: 10) assembled, the boys in the band mingled amongst the crowd, squatting down to introduce themselves and their buddies, or lifting littler ones onto their laps to converse about family members, Snow White, or other topics of mutual interest.

Smartly choreographed by Julie Ludwick, the program's dance offerings blend acrobatic maneuvers on low-hung trapezes with à terre modern dancing. The result is remarkably un-circus-like. Ludwick uses the trapeze to organically extend the drama of her dancers' movements-spins become more dazzling, spatial statements more pronounced, comedy broader, and relationships riskier. As Michael Moschen has done with juggling, Ludwick has married modern-dance sensibilities to a conventionally trick-oriented entertainment form and created an affecting new dance genre.

Her comic trio "Birds of a Feather" is particularly notable as an exemplary collaboration between choreographer and composer. Paul Uhry Newman's absorbingly atmospheric score of bird-inspired sounds fits so tightly with the physical actions that it's impossible to imagine one element existing without the other.

Though Ludwick's pieces are impressive treats for the eyes and ears of audiences of all ages, the emotional underpinnings of her choreography are sometimes too sophisticated for younger viewers. For instance, the program highlight, Ludwick's sultry solo, "Summer," evokes a "nobody-knows-the trouble-I've seen" mood as she oozes lazily through the swinging shapes of a body singing the blues, strung out and hopelessly distraught. While some of the young spectators exhibited restlessness during this number and less-than-ideal theatregoing etiquette throughout, they can hardly be blamed, in light of their parental role models. Two motor-mouthed moms behind us had to practically holler during the delicious, Latin-flavored musical interludes in order for their conversation to be heard over the sounds emanating from the singer, drummer, and pianist. Fie on those irksome musicians!

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Chekhov Vaudeville Festival

Reviewed by Elias Stimac

Presented by Pure Pop 2000, at Nada Show World, 671 Eighth Ave., 2nd fl., NYC. Opened Feb. 29 for an open run.

Gaudy backdrops, lighted mirrors, a striptease pole-and Anton Chekhov? Nowhere in New York City will you find a more outrageous theatrical experience than at Nada Show World, atop the now City-regulated adult emporium. With its unconventional setting and clever stage conventions, The Chekhov Vaudeville Festival is a surreal treat for playgoers and novelty-seekers alike.

Using new translations by Carol Rocamora, the festival gets off to a fresh start with three Chekhovian nuggets: "The Bear," "The Proposal," and "The Dangers of Tobacco." The latter is presented as a pre-show lecture, with a nerve-racked speaker-and an admitted smoker-divulging more than just the ill-effects of cigarettes. Director James Elliott and performer Charles Tocantins team up to give this comic monologue a humorous rendering.

Next is "The Bear," one of the good doctor's best, and splendidly acted by a hilarious cast featuring Veronika Korvin, Mark Greenfield, Nick Micozzi, and Aaron Beall. The love-hate story of a weeping widow and a gruff debt collector gets full farcical treatment from Beall, who directs the show with a nonstop barrage of very funny physical and verbal shtick.

"The Proposal" also gets its full comic due from director David Pincus and a versatile ensemble comprising Bob Manus, Ellen Reif, and C. Richard Cranwell. Another mismatched pair of lovers butts heads in this piece, and it's up to the girl's befuddled father to sort out the crazy confrontations between young people.

The designers-Enya Gonkova, costumes; Lisa Szymanski, sound; and Michael Romo, "design"-provide wonderful support for all three plays. The festival continues seven days a week with various pairings and multiple versions, and goes all day on weekends (including Fridays and Saturdays till midnight). For anyone who thinks that the great playwright's pieces might deserve a more dignified or austere presentation: Rest assured-Chekhov himself would be rolling (with laughter) in his grave.

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True West

Reviewed by Eric Grode

Presented by Ron Kastner, at Circle in the Square, 50th Street, west of Broadway. Opened Feb. 29 for an open run.

Until its still-harrowing final scene, the dispiriting "True West" revival at Circle in the Square revels in moderation. It's hard to imagine any Sam Shepard play feeling like a museum piece, let alone this notoriously cantankerous work. But in the hands of director Matthew Warchus, Shepard's deconstruction of filial rage congeals into an awkward, safe hybrid of by-the-numbers surrealism and undercooked psychodrama.

Much of the attention thus far has been directed toward this production's potentially gimmicky casting: John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman alternate in the roles of Austin and Lee, the two brothers who goad one another into new levels of drunken delusion and desperation. The performance I attended seemed to have the more logical casting: Hoffman's contained, slightly nervous energy is perfectly suited to the bookish screenwriter Austin, while Reilly's imposing frame and skill at playing obtuseness would seem to make him a natural for Lee, Austin's renegade, blustery brother.

I can't vouch for the alternate casting, but only Hoffman seems comfortable in the pairing I saw, navigating Austin's degeneration with the perfect shadings of fear and clamor. By contrast, Reilly plays Lee as a loutish, pathetic galoot.

He often appears to be mocking rather than inhabiting his character, and his outbursts are completely free of menace. (Hoffman seems far more dangerous as his impotent rage begins to build.) Until the final two or three scenes, Reilly gives Hoffman shockingly little to work with.

Celia Weston underplays beautifully in the small but crucial role of the brothers' surprisingly sane mother. Robert LuPone, however, is completely one-note as the film producer who instigates most of their troubles.

Rob Howell's sets and costumes are suitably dreary and understated, while Jim van Bergen contributes a nonstop stream of evocative sound cues. Lighting designer Brian MacDevitt and Warchus, however, sacrifice an alarming amount of the actors? facial nuances by setting well over half of the action in a murky half-light.

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Hamlet

Reviewed by Irene Backalenick

Presented by Ellen Beckerman and Company, at HERE, 145 Avenue of the Americas, NYC, March 19-April 2

This is downtown theatre at its best-"Hamlet" as you've never seen it! Director Ellen Beckerman has shaped this company of eight young actors, who intersperse dance and movement with the text.

The result is a unique, highly physical interpretation, as much Beckerman as Shakespeare. Though she prunes the text, she remains true to the language, using key dialogues to tell the story. But it is body language, with background music that ranges from Mozart to heavy metal, which enhances the drama. Often the actors move in silence, but the very silence is telling. Michael O'Connor's lighting (with performers lit from the side, leaving them in partial darkness) further serves to create the feeling of menace.

It is a dark and gritty "Hamlet," with scenes raised to new levels of intensity. Actors contort their bodies into remarkable shapes, as the need arises. The spastic movements of Hamlet's ghost (Josh Conklin) suggest a tortured soul returned from the grave. Eruptions between Ophelia (Margot Ebling) and Hamlet (James Saidy) suggest a violent sexual relationship, already consummated.

If there is one criticism to be made, it is that this "Hamlet" remains at the same unvarying level of intensity. The story opens at such a high pitch, Hamlet twisted in agony as the others are frozen in horror, that there are no further emotional heights to scale.

Yet Beckerman's inventiveness and skills never falter, with surprise upon surprise as she puts her actors through their paces. Featured in the cast are: C. Andrew Bauer, Taylor Bowyer, Josh Conklin, Margot Ebling, Shawn Fagan, Sheri Graubert, Elliott Kennerson, and James M. Saidy. Though each character comes to life (Fagan as Claudius is particularly affecting), it is ultimately the ensemble work that matters. Each scene is a revelation, as we discover "Hamlet" (and Hamlet) anew.

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Las Horas de Belen-A Book of Hours

Reviewed by Irene Backalenick

Presented by Mabou Mines, at P.S.122, 150 First Avenue, NYC, March 9-26.

The fiercely intense Las Horas de Belen is, fortunately, only 70 minutes in length. One could hardly survive more of this piece that rips into the heart of things and leaves the viewer shattered. It gets the feminist message across more clearly and powerfully than all the diatribes of recent time.

Initially "Last Horas" seems to be a makeshift effort on the P.S.122 stage, with a few nondescript chairs and what appear to be bedspreads as backdrops. But, when Jesusa Rodriguez comes onstage and begins to work jerkily, silently, and wearily at an ironing board, one quickly realizes that this is no amateurish effort. This is innovative theatre of the highest order.

Though this bicultural work focuses on a women's prison in Mexico, it has far wider resonance-and in fact deals with the historic oppression of women throughout the world. But it takes its cue from the story of Belen, a 17th-century Roman Catholic "sanctuary" for indigent women, which was, in truth, a harsh prison. Belen would later become one of the most infamous prisons of Mexico City.

Mabou Mines has joined forces with Mexican artists to create this remarkable work, under Ruth Maleczech's inspired direction. With only three performers-singer, dancer, actress-the tale is told through a blending of poetry, song, dance, and visuals.

Jesusa Rodriguez offers a series of portrayals-maid, prostitute, housewife, mother, prisoner, among them-all without a word. There is nothing gentle or graceful about her performance. Her sharp, angular, spasmodic movements create a new choreographic language, as the tale is torn from her body. The husky, rasping voice of composer-singer Liliana Felipe augments that story, as does the poetry of Catherine Sasanov, performed by Monica Dionne and also projected on overhead screens. English and Spanish intersperse, explain, and abet each other.

"Las Horas" is a memorable ensemble effort, which manages to cross borders of language, time, and place, bonding women everywhere.

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An Empty Plate in the Caf du Grand Boeuf

Reviewed by Karl Levett

Presented by Primary Stages in association with Roy Gabay and Jeff Ash, at Primary Stages, 354 W. 45th St., NYC, March 8-25.

Michael Hollinger's imaginative comedy celebrates artifice-both culinary and literary. The artifice begins most promisingly. The staff of the caf -headwaiter Claude (Jonathan Freeman), his wife Mimi (Annie Golden), the chef Gaston (Michael McCormick), and the new waiter-in-training Antoine (Matt Stinton)-await "Monsieur." Monsieur is revealed as Victor (George Wendt), an eccentric American millionaire, who keeps this private restaurant for his occasional dining with "Mademoiselle."

Victor, who has a Hemingway fixation, has experienced a romantic death-in-the-afternoon at a bullfight in Spain and now wishes to embark on a suicidal hunger strike. His loyal staff tempts him with a seven-course meal, extravagantly described-but served on empty plates. The meal is emotionally spiced with Hemingway-style longing in a world where "apparently the sun also sets."

The difficulty is to keep such bubbles of artifice afloat. In the play's approximately 90 intermissionless minutes, the bubbles hit the floor at regular intervals. Blame both the playwright and director John Rando, who is unable to establish a cohesive style of playing for his cast. This particularly applies to Wendt, whose Everyman persona includes a naturalistic delivery that seems consistently at odds with the fanciful arias he has to impart. It also puts him in stark contrast with most of the cast, especially Jonathan Freeman's elaborately styled and very effective Claude. Such a contrast may have even been actively sought, but in this culinary comedy the ingredients just don't mix. Solid support is given by McCormick and Golden with Stinton's tuba-playing novice being surprisingly touching. And there are no reservations about Rob Odorisio's authentic bistro set, cleverly lit by Brian Nason.

Playwright Hollinger regroups nicely at the play's finale. With the entrance of the lovely Nance Williamson as Mademoiselle and a truly soupy sentimental ending in view, Hollinger provides a stylish last-minute twist that brings back the bubbles.

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