REVIEWS

The Uneasy Chair

Reviewed by David A. Rosenberg

Presented by and at Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42 St., NYC, Oct. 4-25.

Out of the tight-lipped, buttoned-up Victorian era, Evan Smith has fashioned an affectionate and amusing comedy that affords five wonderful roles. Under Richard Cottrell's clockwork direction, "The Uneasy Chair" at Playwrights Horizons craftily, if a bit preciously, suggests a world hung-up on mores and manners, where what you say is not as important as how you say it.

As if in a 19th-century English novel, Smith's characters speak asides to the audience, their thoughts and desires rarely matching their actions. The playwright makes delicious dichotomy out of the situation in which the slightly ridiculous Captain Wickett (Roger Rees) rents a room from pinched spinster Amelia Pickles (Dana Ivey), who's given to statements like, "I was on the verge of using profanity or, worse, slang."

Always correct with each other, they get into a terrible mess when she sues him for breach of contract, all because she misinterprets a marriage proposal meant to tie the knot between two young relatives of theirs. The youngsters, Alexandra (Haviland Morris) and John (Paul Fitzgerald) eventually get hitched, but the alliance is loveless.

Matters are further complicated by a nosy neighbor, a self-satisfied lawyer, a confused minister, and a lofty judge, all played to delightful effect by Michael Arkin. Morris and Fitzgerald make superciliousness and callowness attractive. Rees has a high old time as the awkward Wickett. But it's Ivey's evening, whether pretending to be girlish when she's truly a battleship, or projecting suppressed passion and loneliness. To hear her bridle at the word "obey," watch her arrange herself to fulfill her wifely "duty," or be moved by the final Beckettian scene makes you want to see her play both Winnie in "Happy Days" and Lady Bracknell.

Thanks to Derek McLane's set, Jess Goldstein's costumes, JR Conklin's sounds, and, especially, Peter Kaczorowski's lighting, this is a first-class production.

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Snapshots '98

Reviewed by Eric Grode

Presented by the Worth Street Theater Company, at the Tribeca Playhouse, 111 Reade St., NYC, Sept. 24-Oct. 18.

"Snapshots '98," the Worth Street Theater Company's new evening of one-acts, would be in a bit of trouble if it didn't feature Thomas M. Disch's tour de force "The Cardinal Detoxes" as its centerpiece. Thanks largely to this searing play and to a handful of fine performances sprinkled throughout, many weaker pieces are forgiven.

Disch is best known as a critic and children's author, but he captured lightning in 1990 with "The Cardinal Detoxes," a 35-minute verse monologue by an alcoholic archbishop facing excommunication (or worse) after a drunken vehicular homicide. As played by Worth Street stalwart Peter Appel, Archbishop Flynn launches into a staggering tirade against what he views as the hypocrisies of Catholicism, its "basketfuls of poisoned loaves and fishes." The piece's unremitting bleakness and abrasive protagonist require top-shelf acting and direction to overcome its nihilism, and Appel and director Jeff Cohen (who staged the entire evening) deliver. Fine work all around.

The other central piece, "Imagining Brad," by Peter Hedges, pales all the more by comparison. This absurdist tale of female bonding and desperate love in the South takes twice as long as it should to unspool its worthwhile but predictable tale. Despite perfectly adequate performances by Misty Rowe and Valerie Marsh, the play's baroque pieties wear themselves out long before the ending.

The other four pieces are considerably shorter and less ambitious. Richard Vetere contributes two moderately amusing pieces, "Holy Water" and "A Coupla Bimbos Sittin Around Talkin," which benefit from likable performances by Adam Hirsch (in the former) and Corey Feinsilver (in the latter). John Patrick Shanley's thin "Welcome to the Moon" boasts excellent supporting work by Darius Stone; Nancy Krusoe's "Landscape and Dream," for all its writerly skill, remains pretty impenetrable.

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'Til the Rapture Comes

Reviewed by David A. Rosenberg

Presented by and at WPA Theatre, 519 W. 23rd St., NYC, Oct. 6-25.

Where is a dramaturg when you really need one? " 'Til the Rapture Comes" at WPA is blessed with some sharp comic writing at its beginning, but cursed with not knowing when to end. Actually, Edward Napier's drama could use some help in the middle also. But it does let Pamela Payton-Wright seize an opportunity to create a harrowing portrait of a disturbed woman.

With similarities to "Long Day's Journey Into Night," the work details a West Virginia family in extremis. Slatternly Mom takes drugs, Dad may be philandering with his secretary, older son is terrible-tempered, and sensitive younger son is fast becoming a religious fanatic. Add a wise-cracking neighbor and you get an evening that goes off in many directions.

These are not hill folk: father is a lawyer; mother, a nurse. Trouble is, we don't get enough complications of the basic situation, as if the playwright were content to present the facts and let the implications take care of themselves. The repetitious dialogue is more conversational than dramatic.

At times, Napier hints at casting a wider net. References to Nixon and Reagan (the time is 1974) and to a sick world elsewhere (the Vietnam War continues) play off the illness in the family home. The idea of yearning for normality in a world gone cuckoo is potentially disturbing. The title refers to the Book of Revelation's prediction that certain Christians will be assumed into Heaven, but father admonishes his family to "keep on fighting 'til the Rapture comes‹that's the best we can do."

Supporting Payton-Wright is an exemplary cast: Cynthia Darlow, Richard Poe, Zach Shaffer, and Jase Blankfort. Pamela Berlin directs fluidly on Vicki R. Davis' set that makes clever use of the theatre's narrow but deep stage. Chris Dallos' lighting, Amela Baksic's costumes, and Bruce Ellman's sounds are in synch with the play's verisimilitude.

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Caught in the Act

Reviewed by Cindy Nemser

Presented by the Threshold Theater Company, at Here, 145 Sixth Ave., NYC, Sept. 10-Oct. 4.

The annual festival of modern international one-act plays, this year titled "Caught in the Act 98," featured 15 works from different authors. Divided into three rotating programs, it gave theatregoers the opportunity to see plays which are translated into English from around the world. For me, the works featured in Program B, which was the only segment I attended, were a disappointment‹they were overlong, belaboring the points they attempted to make.

"Edward and Agrippina," an absurdist French work by Ren de Obaldia, translated by Donald Watson and directed by Joel Bassin, dealing with the timely demise of a nagging wife, would have been somewhat amusing if the playwright had done some judicious trimming. However, Joan Shepard as the infuriating woman and John Michalski as her long-suffering mate did well in their meaty roles.

Valerii Briusov's "The Way-farer," a Russian piece, written by Valerii Briusov and translated by Daniel C. Gerould, gives us an account of a peasant woman's dissatisfaction with the dreary life from which there is no escape, but takes too long to get the message across. Francesca Di Mauro is effective as the frustrated Julia‹but only at the end, when all her hopes are once again dashed, is there a glimmer of real poignancy."Hanjo," by Yukio Mishima, based on a Japanese Noh play from the 15th Century, deals with unrequited love and madness. Translated by Donald Keene and directed by Elizabeth Swain, it would have been more engaging if the adaptation had been more astute and the dialogue crisper. The performers were not particularly convincing either.

On the other hand, "The Curve," by the German writer Tankred Dorst (trans: James L. Rosenberg), featured excellent acting by Robert Weldon, David Heymann, and John Wallace Combs. This play, which involves a farmer and a writer menacing a highway inspector, would have been quite gripping if only it had been tightly written and didn't take so long to get the riveting climax. Director Pamela Billig has did a good workman-like job, but she and the actors were defeated by meandering dialogue.

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Dancenow 98 Feature Presentation

Reviewed by Phyllis Goldman

Presented by the Downtown Arts Festival, at Cooper Union, Astor Place, NYC, Sept. 19.

The feature presentation of dancenow 98, the highlight of the 11-day Downtown Arts Festival, was held in the great hall of Cooper Union. The most fun part was right at the top of the evening: Six chairs, a derby, and John Heginbotham, who extracted the essence of Bob Fosse by targeting the humor of the Merry Murderesses in "Cell Block Tango," from the hit musical "Chicago." He lipsynched the lyrics to the infamous tale, mimicking all parts with amazing dexterity. The real charm of Heginbotham's loving homage was that with no extraneous shtick he paid attention to all the Fosse nuances and created an authenticity often missing from present-day Fosse dancers. This was an endearing memoir, delightful and honest.

David Dorfman and Dan Froot repeated an excerpt from "Bull," which is mostly text and begins as the two performers shout at each other through bull horns, then progresses from a polite repartee to repetitious slapping and crotch-grabbing.

Robert Battle contributed two pieces saved by Patricia Kenney's glamorous and energetic performance. Battle is seeking to establish a style, but right now it's too quirky and difficult to grasp.

An excerpt from Doug Elkins' "Center My Heart" has previously been reviewed, as has "Three Bagatelles for the Righteous," a biting take on politics choreographed by Jane Comfort. Mark DeChiazza and Kristen Hollinsworth performed an excerpt from Susan Marshall's "The Most Dangerous Room in the House," which out of context seemed only to be two people bound in a love-hate relationship, yanking each other around and banging themselves against a not-very-stable backboard.

Stuart Hodes and Alice Tierstein, a very funny duo, choreographed a sequence in which mature adults attempt to rekindle intimate interest in each other. It began with a great image: Hodes reading a newspaper, oblivious to Tierstein, dressed in skimpy blue satin pajamas and draped across a chair. High hopes for a witty gem diminished as the piece meandered into a puzzling middle section; though the focus may have been clear to the performers, it never moved across the footlights.

The Dancas/Brasil in "Jogo De Dentro" was a total mishmash, performed by unattractive dancers with (it seemed) very little stage experience. I haven't a clue as to what it was all about.

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Oedipus

Reviewed by David Sheward

Presented by Blue Light Theater Company at the CSC Repertory Theater, 136 E. 13th St., NYC, Oct. 11-25.

Thank God for Frances McDormand. If not for this Oscar-winning actress's intense animal energy, the four hours of Dare Clubb's new version of "Oedipus" would be interminable. Playwright-director Clubb has put an existentialist spin on the classic myth of the prince who is destined to kill his father and marry his mother. This edition, a production of the Blue Light Theatre Company, has the title tragic hero actively seeking out his fate rather than fighting it, but he's stymied by random circumstances. In Clubb's universe, all-knowing gods don't hold sway; it's chaos who is king.

The author's direction is swift and well paced, but he defeats himself with endless and repetitive talkathon scenes. Through most of the long evening, the dry dialogue is enacted with either wooden stiffness or centerless posturing. That is, except when McDormand is onstage. She dominates the first act as Oedipus' adopted mother, Merope. Like Phaedra in another Greek story, she lusts for her son and is doomed by her incestuous passion. Her movements are constricted as if her body, the cause of her sexual anguish, imprisons her. A fire burns behind her eyes, illuminating the stage and causing her fellow actors (Billy Crudup as Oedipus and Johanna Day as her servant) to play up to her level.

The second act passes with endless debates on free will and predetermination until McDormand returns in a diamond-hard cameo as the Sphinx. In contrast to her earlier physical behavior, she's now a fluid jungle cat, ready to devour her prey (the questing Oedipus) if he does not answer her riddles.

There are moments of heat from Crudup, Camilia Sanes, Jonathan Fried, and Carolyn McCormick, but they can't compare to McDormand. They really should have renamed this play "Merope and the Sphinx."

The usually brilliant Narelle Sissons provides an unimaginative backdrop for Act I, which disappears altogether in the latter portions. Christianne Myers' simple costumes are all in drab earth tones, but Christopher J. Landy does achieve some evocative lighting effects.

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Mrs. Bumpstead-Leigh

Reviewed by Cindy Nemser

Produced by and at the Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 E. 4th St., NYC, Oct. 3-25.

The mission of the Metropolitan Playhouse is to present plays that have been written before 1914, and "Mrs. Bumpstead-Leigh," written by Harry James Smith and introduced in 1911, certainly belongs in this category. Though wildly popular in its day, and akin in its structure to the light-hearted comedies frequently penned by George Bernard Shaw, it lacks the wit and pointed dialogue that would make it more than a rather dull antique.

The story is set in the home of a wealthy Long Island family and the action takes place on a sprightly patio charmingly designed by Charles Townsend Wittreich, Jr. The heart of the story is that Mrs. Adelaide Bumpstead-Leigh, a conniving opportunist, has wormed her way into "good" society by pretending to be a member of the British gentry; while in reality she is just the daughter of a phony medicine peddler. With her mother and sister in tow, she happily lords it over the snobbish Rawson family and their friends until a former suitor turns up and does his best to expose her. In the meantime, her sister, Violet, who is affianced to the elder son, Anthony Rawson, discovers she prefers his younger brother Geoffrey, the family black sheep

Under David Zarko's direction the cast works overtime to keep the pot bubbling, but too many overlong speeches work against them. Cynthia Hewett, as Adelaide, is not quite adept enough to pull off her demanding role. She flubs her lines on several occasions. Libby Hughes as her mother, Mrs. deSalle, is eccentric without being funny. Coleman Zeigen, as Anthony, is properly sleazy as a confirmed womanizer, but Andrew P. Boyer makes a tepid Geoffrey. Mari-Esther Magaloni, however, makes the idealist Violet completely believable and fetching. Susan L. Soetaert's vintage costumes add an appealing touch to the proceedings.

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Moonshine

Reviewed by David A. Rosenberg

Presented by and at the Irish Arts Center, 553 W. 51st St., NYC, Sept. 25-Oct. 31.

You don't have to be Irish to tune in on Jim Nolan's "Moonshine," for it has enough familiar elements to be universally accessible. That is also its problem. By giving equal emphasis to themes of Catholics vs. Protestants, unrequited love affairs, misfit villagers, capitulation, survival, and the healing power of art, this play at the Irish Arts Center is too much a muddled, every-which-way affair.

The protagonist is McKeever (Johnnie McConnell), a failed middle-aged undertaker, divorced, frustrated by small-town life, frightened of the future. To give himself some purpose, he decides to put on the Pyramus-Thisbe scene from "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Unfortunately, actors keep dropping out and the hall he's hired for the entertainment has been commandeered by a group commemorating the Easter uprising.

Orbiting about are painfully shy Michael (A. Ryan McGuigan), lovesick Bridget (Jacqueline Kealy), peevish Griffin (John Keating), Protestant minister Langton (John Leighton)‹whose wife is dying‹and their estranged daughter Elizabeth (Elizabeth Whyte). Once McKeever's lover, she has now returned to be at her mother's bedside. These are six characters in search of connections, united by the mother's funeral and Shakespeare's sentiments.

Act One is Good Friday; Act Two is Easter Sunday, the Resurrection, when, says McKeever "We sit in the dark and hope - hope for the best." The faint flicker they seek reveals disappointment instead of light, but Shakespeare's words impart "a way of breaking that awful silence."

Don Creedon directs with a sure hand for evoking specificity from his actors. Choreographer J'aime Morrison makes something funny/sad out of a delirious dance with a coffin, as executed by the standout McConnell. David Raphel's set and Jeff Tapper's lighting are versatile, and Judy Mauer's sound design seems to encompass every pop song with the word "moon" in it. But, despite virtues, "Moonshine" doesn't make its fragments whole.

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Over the River and Through the Woods

Reviewed by Victor Gluck

Presented by Jonathan Pollard, Bernie Kukoff, Tony Converse, and James Hammerstein, at the John Houseman Theatre, 450 W. 42nd Street, NYC. Opened on Oct. 5 for an open run.

Joe DiPietro has written a hilarious new family comedy that is even funnier than his long-running musical revue, "I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change." With "Over the River and Through the Woods," he can expect to be called the Italian-American Neil Simon. Indeed, "Over the River..." is a memory play narrated by its leading character very much in the way that Simon's Eugene narrated "Brighton Beach Memoirs."

Jim Bracchitta plays Nick Cristano, a New York marketing executive, who has Sunday dinner with his four grandparents back in Hoboken every week. When Nick, their only relative left in the area, announces that he has a promotion that will take him to Seattle, the grandparents get busy finding him a reason to stay. The humor is warm, winning, and true, striking deep chords of recognition. Director Joe Bishoff, who also staged "I Love You...," has cast four wonderful seasoned pros as the grandparents. As Nick's maternal grandparents, Aida and Frank, Joan Copeland walks with a little hop and is always ready to make something to eat, while Val Avery is completely unflappable no matter the situation. As the paternal grandparents, Nunzio and Emma, Dick Latessa and Marie Lillo are passionate individuals described by Nick as the loudest people he ever met. They also endearingly always speak their uncensored minds. Bracchitta is suitably loving and exasperated by the antics of his relatives and makes a pleasant master of ceremonies. Playing the pretty unmarried neighbor, Marsha Dietlein is refreshing as a modern young woman who is not afraid to tell the truth. The setting and lighting by Neil Peter Jampolis and Jane Reisman, respectively, attractively brings to life the Hoboken living room, dining room, porch, and neighborhood of Aida and Frank's home. "Over the River and Through the Woods" is the kind of satisfying old-fashioned domestic comedy that should run for years.

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Urban Artworks 6

Reviewed by Lisa Jo Sagolla

Presented by Mary Bruce Blackburn and the American Dance Ensemble in association with Pace University, at Pace Downtown Theater, Pace Plaza, NYC, Sept. 18-20.

Mary Bruce Blackburn's time would be better spent in the studio, developing her choreography. "Urban Artworks 6," the evening of dances she produced at Pace University, featured her work and that of seven other choreographers whose dance-making skills rank far below her own.

Created in collaboration with her performers (The American Dance Ensemble), Blackburn's pieces, "Rosie the Riveter" and "Cool Water Blue," are adroitly crafted. Both, however, are too brief. Blackburn teases us with a few minutes of entertaining, well-made choreography and stops short of embarking on a longer journey, one that would deeply explore her conceits and give rise to more significantly satisfying works.

Completing the program were four unremarkable ensemble pieces and two noteworthy duets. Trebien Pollard's "Scriptures and Nails" depicted the despair of a disconnected couple‹a woman and a homosexual man‹searching for spiritual peace. The boldly minimalist opening, with telling, tension-fraught gestures and unadorned, agonizing body shapes, is more engaging than the active second half in which African dance vocabulary is abstracted and imbued with dramatic meaning. The slow, elongated interpretations of the traditional movements, however, force us to examine their visual design and not respond solely, as one typically does, to their contagious energies and rhythmic stylings.

Choreographer-performers Christina Briggs and Edward Winslow offered "At the End of the Hall," a violent duet built of short, volatile phrases in which the dancers race through space and hurl themselves at each other. Initially, the work is compelling, because the duo's cruel actions seem to result from an unawareness of each other's presence. As Briggs runs deliberately across the stage, Winslow gets bumped, pushed, toppled, or rolled over simply because he's in the way.

The dance grows less interesting as the couple starts to attend more to each other. They aim their sprints directly at one another, motivated by a desire to attack. Whereas, at first, the work spoke to everyone‹representing the careless indifference we're all capable of assuming‹its turn toward a pointed aggression allowed us to exempt ourselves from personal involvement and simply observe the depraved characters.

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Fase

Reviewed by Lisa Jo Sagolla

Presented by The Kitchen in association with Rosas, at The Kitchen, 512 W. 19th St., NYC, Sept. 22-26.

Minimalism is not dead, dated, or dull! In the hands of the exceptionally gifted Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker it proves to be a mesmerizing and expressive approach to dance making.

While a student at New York University in 1981, De Keersmaeker choreographed an astoundingly original solo and a duet to music by Steve Reich, who was experimenting with "phasing"‹the repetition of a pattern that is progressively shifted through gradual rhythmic or melodic adjustments. The following year she made two additional duets to Reich's compositions and presented the four dances as an evening-length suite titled "Fase." The choreographer and her original partner, Michele Anne De Mey, recently revived this work at The Kitchen.

While one could marvel at the ingenious choreographic design of these dances, in which short movement patterns are repeated and altered in sync with the "phasing" of the music, what was most amazing about the performance was the dancers' superb execution of this dismayingly difficult piece.

The women dance a phrase in unison a mind-boggling number of times‹too many to count without getting lost and wondering if you had just finished or were just beginning the 58th repetition. Suddenly, one dancer is a full count ahead of the other. How and when did that happen? Baffled, we watch them more closely, intent on not missing it the next time. In spite of our rapt attention, they shift back into unison imperceptibly, and precisely on the beginning of what must, by now, be about the 142nd repetition of the phrase!

"Fase" demonstrates that minimalist work‹which typically entraps audiences with its seductive orderliness or hypnotizing repetitions‹can also be emotionally involving. The performers' extraordinary concentration and passionate physical intensity push the experience beyond the cerebral. We empathize with them kinesthetically, becoming aware of what it must feel like to do these movements and imagining psychological states that would prompt them. We grow deeply connected to what's happening in their bodies, secure in the repetitions, nervous about each little change, and somewhat anxious about when and how it will all end.

Brava to two brilliantly bewitching Belgian belles!