The Absolution of Willie Mae

Reviewed by Karl Levett

Presented by the Negro Ensemble Company, at the Kaufman Theatre, 534 W. 42nd St., NYC, Nov. 13-Dec. 19.

The title character, Willie Mae (Gabrielle Lee), in Joseph A. Walker's new play at the Negro Ensemble Company enters with a black eye. This is thanks to her longtime love, Bubba (O.L. Duke), who is married to a wealthy white woman on Long Island. Her son Larry (Sean Rector) is leaving because he can't stay around any longer and watch his mother be abused by Bubba, who, incidentally, is Larry's father. Observing all this abuse is another son, Corey (Gregory Marlowe), who seems mentally retarded and whom Willie Mae treats unkindly. But it is Willie Mae's daughter, Tina (Meka Lawrence), she of the hot pants and the singing lessons, who best sums up Willie Mae's 20-year acceptance of Bubba's abuse when she yells, "Momma, you're crazy!" At the performance we attended, an audience member on hearing this cried out, "You got that right, Honey!"

Enter Jeff Williams (Michael Wright), English professor, the room-renter and good man who will eventually provide Willie Mae's absolution. This, however, does not take place before there's an off-stage rape, a birthday party, gun and knife shenanigans, the selling of term papers, poetry, prostitution, and a miracle cure for retardation.

It's hard to believe that Joseph A. Walker is the same playwright who gave us "The River Niger" in 1972. This new play would seem to have been taken from some dusty and dated drawer. While the central theme might be a legitimate one, Walker has stuffed the play with overwritten, overwrought clich s. The result is a contemporary Victorian melodrama where the audience cheers virtue and hisses the big, bad Bubba.

On the cramped Kaufman stage, the actors, under Susan Watson Turner's direction, do not have an easy time. Lee's Willie Mae needs more variety, while Wright's Jeff ranges from inaudible to barking shout. Best are Rector in a double role and Joyce Sylvester as Willie Mae's sluttish sister. Given the Negro Ensemble's prestigious past, this welcomed resurrection proves, at best, disappointing.

Savannah Bay

Reviewed by Irene Backalenick

Presented by the Theater for the New City and Joyce H. Johnson, at Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave., NYC, Nov. 22-Dec. 12.

Activities on stage take many forms, but not every offering is dramatic. "Savannah Bay" falls into the category of a poetry reading. As such, this piece by French author Marguerite Duras (translated by Barbara Bray) has a haunting quality, but little dramatic interaction.

But even as poetry, the material has its problems. It is often obscure, repetitious, and bewildering. And, like the grandmother in "Savannah Bay," we have difficulty sorting out the facts. The story, it seems, deals with a woman who drowned after giving birth to a daughter. Has the woman deliberately killed herself? Did her husband also drown? Did he meet his mother-in-law years later?

Yet there are moments of compelling poetic images, as Duras imbues the story with an intense love affair and a sense of the sea. The image of a young girl in a black bathing suit on a flat white rock, surrounded by sea, is striking.

It is left to the two actresses to make something of this piece. India Blake and Peg Small give gentle, subtle performances as the daughter and the mother, respectively, of the drowned woman. As they move about the stage, the granddaughter reaching out to the older woman, they seem to bond, communicating across vast silences. The grandmother floats in and out of reality, rejecting both past and present, blocked by painful memories (or the aging process). But the granddaughter lovingly pulls her back to reality.

Both actresses contribute to the strange, mysterious mood of the piece, as does the design team. Beowulf Boritt's set, with its aging elegance, Jeff Croiter's seductive lighting, and Jim Van Bergen's sound effects take us into a French colonial tropical world, a world of another era.

God of Vengeance

Reviewed by Irene Backalenick

Presented by Todo Con Nada, at the Show World Theatre, 303 W. 42nd St., NYC, Dec. 1-Jan. 2

How appropriate that the current production of "God of Vengeance," is housed at Show World, a former peep show venue! This Yiddish classic, written by Sholom Asch at the turn of the century, is the story of brothels, pimps, whores, and lesbians. A contemporary of Ibsen and Chekhov, Asch was part of theatre's new realism, and in his commentary on society, he points out that everything is up for sale-not only sex, but religion, marriage, and respectability.

This version of "God of Vengeance," staged by Aaron Beall, is most authentic in feeling, more so than many past productions. The new, careful translation by Caraid O'Brien, resonates with Yiddish ambience. It's the story of Yankl the brothelkeeper's desire for respectability, which he hopes to attain through his daughter Rivkele. He purchases a Torah scroll and offers a substantial dowry, hoping to marry her into a respectable family. But plans go awry when Rivkele falls in love with Mankeh, a prostitute in his own brothel.

Beall has recruited a solid cast. Among them, Mark Greenfield as Yankl and Andrea Darriau as his wife Soreh maintain an uneasy tension-moving in a flash from prim behavior to the coarseness that reveals their background. Tanya Krohn (who played Rivkeleh the day we attended) was properly demure and innocent, but her love scenes with the dazzling Elizabeth Gondek, as Mankeh, were moving. The scene in which Mankeh seductively calls to Rivkeleh, urging her to share the rain outside, is pure magic.

Technical limitations of this shoestring operation slow up the play, as does the less exciting and more repetitious dialogue of the second act. But, all the same, Beall manages to create an innovative show, staging scenes on all sides of the room, and remaining true to Asch's vision.

If Memory Serves

Reviewed By David Sheward

Presented by Charles H. Duggan, Ostar Enterprises, and Jennifer Manocherian at the Promenade Theatre, 2162 B'way, NYC. Opened Dec. 12 and closed Sun. Dec. 26.

Playwright Jonathan Tolins doesn't seem to know what he wants with "If Memory Serves," his new mishmash comedy-drama at the Promenade Theatre. Half the time, it's a campy satire on the national obsession with celebrity and scandal; and the other half, it's a soapy melodrama we're expected to take seriously. You can't have it both ways.

Trading in on the children-of-stars-whining-about-their-awful-parents syndrome, Tolins offers us Diane Barrow (a radiant Elizabeth Ashley), a former sitcom star desperately attempting to salvage her waning career. Her melancholy son Russell (a hangdog, but game, Sam Trammell) uncovers vague memories of Diane sexually molesting him and turns them into bad performance art. One thing leads to another and we soon have a full-blown media circus. The dramatist artificially ratchets up the action by keeping the veracity of Russell's accusations in constant doubt. We're not even told the complete truth by the final fade-out. He peppers his dialogue with TV-level jokes, arcane pop-culture references, and feel-good psychobabble. The supporting cast is straight from Central Casting-Diane's alcoholic ex-husband and hunky current boy-toy; smarmy agent; prim gossip columnist; and Russell's Oprah-like therapist and arty ex-girlfriend.

The bottom line is we don't come to care for either Diane or Russell, since Tolins never makes a convincing case that either is emotionally scarred. Besides, they've got fame, adoration, and wealth. Boo-hoo for them.

Marilyn Sokol doubling as the agent and columnist transcends this thin material with impeccable comic timing and clever use of props. Leonard Foglia's staging is workmanlike, but not above the level of the mediocre script. Michael McGarty's simple set has attractive hardwood floors, but not much else. Lighting designer Russell H. Champa makes some bizarre choices such as having two intersecting bars of light suggest a Crucifix when we're in Diana's home. Is he or the playwright suggesting she's a martyr to mass-media hysteria? Neither the character nor the play merits such pretensions.


Reviewed by Irene Backalenick

Presented by Naked Angels, at the Blue Heron Theatre, 123 E. 24th St., Dec. 6-19.

Bryan Goluboff's "Shyster," at the Blue Heron Theatre, proves to be a real sleeper, an unexpected punch in the gut. This provocative drama about the troubled relationships within one family has a great deal going on, both above and beneath the surface. Each character's particular set of demons from the past emerges as the story unfolds, but does not impede the action or lessen the tension. While Goluboff does not have the distinctive voice one looks for in a playwright (no Tennessee Williams here), he does know how to put together a play.

As to the story, the most important character never appears at all, though he permeates every moment. It is the father, who died two weeks before the play opens. The son arrives home too late for the funeral-on the last day of mourning. Having missed the ceremony, he is persona non grata with the whole family. But Harry is a hustler, a con man (a shyster, as the playwright sees him). Lightly dismissing his own late arrival, he assumes command, wreaking havoc as he does so. Their house, their tenants, their father's business are all grist for Harry's mill. Among his questionable plans is a scheme to evict a black woman and her son, his father's tenants of many years.

The production, under Dante Albertie's sure-handed direction, has a dazzling cast. Two fine film actors-Fisher Stevens and Annabella Sciorra-create sharply delineated portrayals of brother and sister. The inestimable Phyllis Newman plays the role of Jewish mother as no stereotype but as a complex human being. Saundra McClain is radiant as the strong, loving black mother, and Charles Malik Whitfield gives dignity and strength to the character of her son. No one disappoints in this ensemble. Nor does the design work, with Beowulf Boritt's clever set, Russell H. Champa's effective lighting, and Richard Shawn Dudley's appropriate costumes.

Adam Baum and the Jew Movie

Reviewed by David A. Rosenberg

Presented by the Blue Light Theater Co., at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre, 2162 B'way, NYC, Dec. 12-Jan. 2.

In "Adam Baum and the Jew Movie" at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre, author Daniel Goldfarb contrasts Hollywood-as-dream-factory with real-life cruelties. That he hasn't coalesced these truths is a damaging but not mortal blow to a play that is often biting, incisive, funny, and filled with insider sensitivity.

Ron Leibman is Samuel Baum, who, like Samuel Goldwyn, was one of the pioneers who helped found the movie studio system. Goldfarb paints a portrait of a man obsessed as much with making pictures as with his own mishegoss. Having hired a screenwriter with the impossibly WASP-y name of Garfield Hampson, Jr. to write a film about anti-Semitism, Baum proceeds to bombard him with his own ideas, mainly that the Jews in the script are too religious, the prejudiced gentiles too upper-class.

Working to beat a rival picture on the same subject, the producer invites Hampson to his son Adam's bar mitzvah, a garish affair. Here, the play's threads unravel as subject and tone shift downwards. Samuel's Jewishness is examined, act one arguments are repeated, Hampson's left-leanings are hinted at but unexplored, and the ending is sentimental.

Leibman towers over the evening, making Samuel a snarling, barking, maddening creature, boasting of his Egyptian cotton shirts, and alternating between hard-nosed business and frantic love of family. As Hampson, Christopher Evan Welch, an actor sometimes given to excess, is admirably restrained until his final, not unexpected, justifiable blowup. As Adam, Adam Lamberg meshes the toughness of his father with the puzzlement of a kid entangled in adult quarrels.

Director Brian Kulick varies crescendos and diminuendos with a true ear. The physical production suggests wealth and power, thanks to Walt Spangler's creamy sets, Kevin Adams' lighting, Elizabeth Hope Clancy's costumes, and the amusing sound design by Aural Fixation.

True History and Real Adventures

Reviewed by David Rosenberg

Presented by and at the Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St., NYC, Dec. 19-Jan. 2.

Taking the outline of an old-fashioned olio, "True History and Real Adventures" at the Vineyard Theatre is an inventive attempt to mesh one woman's search for self with the legends of America at the turn of the century. Sybille Pearson's intricate Pirandellian romp is a vaudeville, shoot-'em-up, melodrama, love story, quest for truth, and cautionary tale about the similarities of prejudice then and now. By turns lighthearted and serious, it's also meandering, overloaded, and lacking in urgency.

At the center is Margaret Mackenzie, a Scots lassie living in Ontario. Struck by the corny 19th-century histrionics of a play about Calamity Jane, she hooks up with the melodrama's actors, determined to find the real sharpshooter. Setting off west, they find troubles as well as excitement. But soon the melting pot group soon begins to dissolve, dropping off one by one.

Interspersing song with story, director Michael Mayer distances the audience-though he also gives the proceedings a certain period charm. But we get neither enough of the characters' history nor a Mark Twain-ish humor to leaven the picaresque tale.

Kathleen Chalfant is a hoot as the drunken bag that Calamity Jane has become. She's also a German man and a madam, among other delightful characters. Angela Goethals is a smashing Margaret, her progression from na™ve groupie to brave stagecoach robber handled with warmth and skill. Donovan Patton and Daniel Bess are chin-up stalwart, Damon Gupton is sympathetic, and Adrienne Carter particularly impresses as the French-born Sylvie De Vionnet.

Also essaying multiple roles are Wally Dunn, John Michael Gilbert, and Aleta Mitchell. Adding pleasure to the evening is pianist David Alan Bunn, playing the jaunty music of Mel Marvin. G. W. Mercier's sets and costumes, Kevin Adams' lights, and Bruce Ellman's sound design bathe the enterprise in a nostalgic glow. Rob Ashford is credited with the choreography.


Reviewed by David Sheward

Presented by Marc Routh, Richard Frankel, Steven Baruch, Tom Viertel, Lorie Cowen Levy/Stanley Shopkorn, and Jujamcyn Theatres, at the St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St. Opened Dec. 9 for an open run.

The overall concept of "Swing!" is rather loose and vague, and it's never really clear if we're in the '40s or the present, but so what? This is a joyful, fun, scat-singin', jitter-buggin', hip-poppin' show that audiences will eagerly eat up with the proverbial spoon.

Lynne Taylor-Corbett is listed as director-choreographer, while Jerry Zaks is credited as production supervisor. That makes it difficult to figure out who contributed what. In addition, several of the dancers are credited in the program with creating their own choreography. But the total package is a joy.

The evening begins with Casey MacGill leading his band, The Gotham City Gates, in "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)." MacGill, who possesses the sensuous moves and hopped-up energy of Cab Callaway, sets the tone-relax, cats, and get ready for some high steppin'. Then a troop of dancers bound onto the stage and athletically twist around each other like licorice. The dancing is exciting and explosive, but the singing packs just as strong a punch.

Ann Hampton Callaway, one of the leading ladies of the cabaret world, makes her impressive Broadway debut here as what they used to call "the girl singer." Her solid wailing on "Blues in the Night" and sophisticated crooning on "Stompin' at the Savoy" are the aural equivalent of eating a rich dessert-creamy and delicious. She provides the highlight of the show in a witty scat duet of Ellington's "Bli-Blip" with her equally enjoyable co-star Everett Bradley. Laura Benanti and Michael Gruber display solid pipes too.

There are also imaginative numbers involving a trombone and a cello, country-western hoe-downs, dream ballets, and a USO show, flashy William Ivey Long costumes, elegant Thomas Lynch sets, and poetic Kenneth Posner lighting. This "Swing!" should keep Broadway hoofers employed for some time.

Home of the Brave

Reviewed by Irene Backalenick

Presented by The Jewish Repertory Theatre, at Playhouse 91, 316 E. 91st St., NYC, Dec. 12-26.

While the Jewish Repertory Theatre's new production of Arthur Laurents' "Home of the Brave" is staged with imagination and skill, the play itself has not weathered the years well. This revival of a 1945 drama about anti-Semitism in the military now seems superficial and na™ve, with solutions that are too pat. Taking place at an American army base in the South Pacific (during World War II), the play has two focuses: (1) how a young Jewish soldier, Peter Coen, deals with slurs; and (2) how the army psychiatrist deals with Peter's mental problems-neither of which is examined in depth. Peter's exposure to anti-Semitism is confined to the wisecracks of one red-necked soldier, and his mental health is restored in record time.

After Peter's army buddy is killed while they are on a dangerous mission, he feels such guilt that he finds he cannot walk. But in therapy sessions, all is resolved-far too quickly. (One need only compare this instant solution with the careful probing of Arthur Miller's play "Broken Glass," which confronts a similar problem.) The psychiatrist tells Peter what his problem is-and how to cure it. How nice if all psychiatric patients could be cured in two weeks, with instructions from the therapist! (Of course it's not until Peter hears the same words from an army buddy that they register in his heart as well as his mind.)

But JRT can take pride in this particular production, directed by the skilled Richard Sabellico, JRT's associate artistic director. The play segues smoothly from one scene to the next, from the present to the past, never missing a beat. Peter sheds his hospital attire and quickly moves back into his barracks or to the dangerous mission. Sabellico's solid all-male cast includes Dylan Chalfy, Mark Deklin, Stephen Kunken, Jeff Talbott, C. J. Wilson, and particularly Robert Sella as the troubled Peter Coen.

A Girl Joan

Reviewed by Lisa Jo Sagolla

Presented by and at HERE, 145 Sixth Ave., NYC, Nov. 3, 10, 17, and 24.

Was she a lunatic, a supreme military commander, or simply a troubled adolescent?

For centuries, populations have argued in search of a truthful characterization of Joan of Arc. In "A Girl Joan," presented at HERE, Erica Stuart offers a beautifully rendered answer to the age-old puzzler. Her Joan is an odd and terribly disturbed young girl, plagued by voices that guide her astounding behaviors, but fail to protect her from deadly political machinations.

Though written and performed by Stuart, this dramatic, danced monologue is veritably a duet. Not merely accompaniment, the sound score composed and performed by Katie Down is an equal partner in the portrayal of Joan's character and the evocation of the narrative. Down's orchestra consists largely of homemade instruments-a toy xylophone, lots of drums and mallets, a giant suit of armor with spokes poking out the top, and a row of drinking glasses "tuned" (that is, filled with strategic amounts of water) to various pitches. A cunning composer, Down produces a remarkable array of sounds that accentuate each nuance of Stuart's drama.

Stuart is a skilled artist whose concentration is extraordinary. Her voice and body are expressive tools integrated and mined to the fullest-one suspects she could find an entire evening's worth of drama in the sound of a single consonant, while every tick of movement she executes seems meticulously selected and packed with meaning.

As she delivers her complex text, she finds physical shapes and gestures that parallel her spoken intentions. Her fingers ripple mysteriously as an imaginary voice emerges. In a perilous moment her body tilts way back, then magically stabilizes.

Fueled by Stuart's keen sense of kinesthetic design and fine acting ability, combined with Down's musical sensitivity, "A Girl Joan" evolves into an impressive theatrical unraveling of one of history's most inexplicable characters.

A Klezmer's Tale: Yoshke Muzikant

Reviewed by Irene Backalenick

Presented by Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre at Theatre Four, 424 W. 55th St., NYC, Nov. 10-Jan.16.

Yiddish theatre was never more alive, judging by this year's Folksbiene production "A Klezmer's Tale: Yoshke Muzikant," which has just opened at Theatre Four. Though in Yiddish, the show is easy to follow, with simultaneous English or Russian translation available. The 84-year-old Folksbiene is now led by Zalmen Mlotek (musician-musicologist) and Eleanor Reissa (writer-director-choreographer), both of whom have impressive track records.

"A Klezmer's Tale" is a Yiddish musical written at the turn of the century by Ossip Dimov and revised many times by Joseph Buloff. This story of Yoshke, a poet who longs for the unattainable, has a dreamlike quality. From the moment we view Vicki Davis's set-half-reality, half-dreamlike-we know we are in folk tale territory. Seen through flashbacks, the story spells out the regrets and remembrances of a grandmother who shares the past with her granddaughter. In the style of traditional Yiddish theatre, we meet an array of sharply drawn village characters, each with his own agenda.

The combined talents of Mlotek (musical direction, score and arrangements) and Reissa (director) give new vitality to this Yiddish classic. Pieces by Mlotek and others are combined with old folksongs, all of which get sensitive treatment from a klezmer group (clarinet, accordion, percussion, harp, violin).

Reissa has recruited a fine cast: Among them, Spencer Chandler is an appealing Yoshke, and Deana Barone is captivating as a little girl in two different time periods. Rachel Botchan, as Yoshke's beloved, tends toward a tragic grand opera style, when a lighter touch would be more suitable, but her arresting voice and appearance more than compensate. Shifra Lerer gives a compelling performance as the controlling mother, and the indestructible Mina Bern (a Folksbiene staple of many years) comes through with her usual exuberance.


Reviewed by David A. Rosenberg

Presented by Playwrights Horizons New Theater Wing, at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., NYC, Dec. 1-12.

The commendable camaraderie among actors was in full swing at Playwrights Horizons the night I caught Jessica Goldberg's "Refuge." Encouraging laughter greeted sexual fumblings, the surreal imaginings of a drug-smashed girl, and the querulous demands of a crippled boy in a neck brace. Written TV style-short scenes bridged by rock music, a simplistic theme, and characters with adolescent yearnings-the evening nevertheless demonstrated an authorial voice of definite promise. Although she writes attitudes and conditions rather than fully fleshed and mutable characterizations, Goldberg has a steady, vigorous hand.

In a tatty apartment, Amy has been taking reluctant but loving care of her younger sister and brother since all three were deserted by their parents. Sister Becca is a druggie always on the lookout for the latest rave, and brother Nat exploits his inability to fully care for himself. Understandably, Amy, wanting out, gloms onto Sam, a sometime drifter looking for a place to live.

Welcoming him into the house and her bed, Amy gives up whatever solace and escape she found in reading. While Becca finds flagellant release in dancing and Nat tells of meeting a Christian "who says we're put on this world for a reason" (Jewish-Christian allusions are slid over), Amy, afraid to feel too much, is torn between her dreams of escape and her duty to her siblings. Finally, there is acceptance that "this is life, real life, this keeping each other safe."

Neil Pepe's direction forges ahead, glossing over the inescapable feeling that this is a household with nothing but spinning wheels. As Amy, Catherine Kellner, holding onto her sanity, wears a tight smile, her eyes betraying the trapped animal inside. Chris Bauer as diamond-in-the-rough Sam, Mandy Siegfried as manic yet frightened Becca, and Chris Messina as demanding child meshed with emerging adult Nat round out an exemplary cast.

Scott Pask's set, Tyler Micoleau's lighting, and Sarah Edwards' costumes underline the play's conflict between flawed domesticity and fatal dreams. David Carbonara's sound design suggests, perhaps inadvertently, that though Goldberg's characters wish for paradise, they're stuck in hell.

Teaching Shakespeare

Reviewed by Karl Levett

Presented by Cutler Productions Inc., at ATA, the American Theatre of Actors: Chernuchin Theatre, 314 W. 54th St., NYC, Dec. 20-Jan. 2.

This 50-minute monologue created and performed by Keir Cutler puts the audience back in the college classroom. Cutler as lecturer would like us to examine a scene from "Much Ado About Nothing"-but is never able to complete the task. The impediments begin with the lecturer's obsession with poetic technique, consistently delivered in an avalanche of academic jargon, such as "the syncopation of the polysyllabic word." Next, there is the warning that Shakespeare is certainly not to be found in the theatre: "The theatre repels the seeker of Shakespeare...every production is a misrepresentation of the play." While ricocheting from one Shakespearean aspect to another, we learn that the lecturer is an actor-manqu who in his disappointment, "fell into teaching."

Cutler the playwright, while seeking to parody academia at its demented worst, spends much time in detailing the scholarly excesses. While this may be the precise point being made, suggestion would work better than actuality. Meantime, we only glimpse the truly interesting motives driving the lecturer, and there is insufficient emotional connection for a general audience. A pity, because playwright Cutler is on to an original creation here-a vibrant character whose sincere obsessions are in the process of destroying him. While the initial intention might have been mere parody, the author has stumbled towards deeper waters, as yet still untested. As is, the monologue would best be appreciated on the college circuit where such satirizing of academic style would be instantly recognized.

Actor Cutler is vocally versatile with a substantial stage presence. He would certainly be able to handle any demanding task that playwright Cutler might fashion for him from this basic piece of theatrical cloth.

Jolson & Co.

Reviewed by Robert Windeler

Presented by the York Theatre Co., at Theatre at St. Peter's, Citicorp Center, 619 Lexington Ave., NYC, Dec. 9-Jan. 2. If you care about the history of American show business in this century, rush to "Jolson & Co.," which is a grand entertainment and a worthy biographical portrait of the singular star who pioneered on stage, in movies, on radio and records. (Only his 1950 death kept him from conquering television.) Stephen Mo Hanan, who co-authored the musical play with its inventive director, Jay Berkow, bears an uncanny resemblance, physically and vocally, to Al Jolson and plays him with great style.

But the "& Co." is equally important here. The men and women in Jolson's life, providing the social context to his consuming career, are all played by two remarkable performers. Nancy Anderson portrays three of Jolson's four wives (including Ruby Keeler), his mother, Mae West, and two other characters with astonishing variety and alacrity of costume changes. Robert Ari niftily plays nine characters, including Jolson's father, brother, studio czar Harry Cohn, and radio host Barry Gray.

"Jolson & Co.," the first of many promised Al bioplays to make it to New York, takes the framework of a live Jolson interview on Gray's radio show from the Winter Garden Theatre, in December 1949, just months before Jolson's death. This neatly allows a full-life lesson, including the post P.C. examination of Jolson's use of blackface (as a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant, he identified with outsiders, and the "colored" mask allowed him to say and sing things he never would in his own skin. Only one number, "My Mammy," is done in blackface, and that with careful preparation in both senses). All of the expected Jolson standard songs are rendered here-the Al-Mae duet on "April Showers" is the highlight among highlights-and beautifully backed by musicians Peter Larsen, Randall Klitz, and Joe Brent on three instruments: banjo, violin, and ukulele.


Reviewed by David A. Rosenberg

Presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St., NYC. Opened Dec. 7 for an open run.

Welcome to the apocalypse. Actually, despite implications of high-tech disasters, the subject of Arthur Kopit's "Y2K" turns out to be our old friend, The Wrongfully Accused, decked out in director Bob Balaban's doomsday production. Unlike, say, "The Crucible" or "The Wrong Man," however, the intermissionless evening at the Lucille Lortel Theatre doesn't let us sufficiently inside the minds and hearts of its characters to make us care if they survive the millennial onslaught.

The evening is not dull: De rigueur loud music and slambang technical high jinks take care of that. But it is muddled. Its plot pits dyed-blond young man Costa Astrakhan against Random House editor Joseph Elliot and his wife, Sotheby executive Joanne Summerhays Elliot. "I am everywhere and when I'm on the hunt as relentless as the wrath of God," Astrakhan informs us. As elusive as Peter Pan in cyberspace, Astrakhan fiddles with hard drives and retrieved passwords. Before he is through victim Joseph stands accused of child pornography, his wife of just plain porn, and the feds are not pleased.

What Astrakhan wants, possibly, is a family he can control. Amid references to Mapplethorpe, Flaubert, and Yeats, the guy with the Russian name is a mother's worst nightmare come true. But we never really understand why, on either a symbolic (avenging angel?), metaphysical (aborted fetus come to life?), realistic (thwarted young author?), or political (communism vs. capitalism?) level.

Kopit's dialogue, though Pinteresque, contains little of that writer's menace or thrills. More damaging, the story, for all its hacker jargon, is hackneyed. What we're left with is 85 minutes of eye-popping graphics, courtesy Loy Arcenas (set), Kevin Adams (lighting), Tom Broecker (costumes), and Darron L. West (sound).

As the manic Astrakhan, Erik Jensen can't help but be the most cogent character onstage. James Naughton's Joseph becomes increasingly unhinged even as Patricia Kalember's Joanne manages to maintain a semblance of cool. As the feds, Armand Schultz and David Brown Jr. are the types of smooth government operators everyone secretly fears. Intense as they all are, "Y2K" remains several ideas in search of a play.