The Wind of Heaven

Reviewed by Robert Windeler

Presented by Undercroft Players at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, 164 W. 100th St., NYC, Feb. 5-28.

The splashier Emlyn Williams revival this season may be "Night Must Fall" on Broadway with Matthew Broderick. But this less well-known work from the Welsh actor-playwright, nicely produced in a church basement, is definitely worth a look. A period piece set in a fictional Welsh village in the summer of 1856, just after the end of the Crimean War, "The Wind of Heaven" concerns no less than the possible second coming of Christ. The play, at 10 minutes less than three hours, is too long and talky, with at least two false ending scenes before the real one. Director Gary Filsinger allowed the conversation and the action, such as it is, to unfold at Williams' pace rather than to try speeding things along a bit, which resulted in a draggy second act.

But the performances more than made up for the pace. John Cooper as a circus owner, the part Williams himself took during the play's 1944 premiere in London, and Mim Solberg in Diana Wynyard's role of the village Florence Nightingale, were the obvious standouts. But important, subtle portrayals were also given by Michael Dale as a local farmer and Christina Penney as a maid and the mother of the Jesus manqu . Gwendolyn Brown provided much-needed comic relief in the second act as the mistress and social-climbing mentor of the circus owner. Sasha Harris-Cronin's set and Kathryn Zarczynski's costumes also contributed a lot to creating the sense of time and place in this production‹even when Williams' words and plot do not.

Murder in America

Reviewed by Victor Gluck

Presented by Silver Chariot Productions, Inc., at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway, NYC, Feb. 23 - March 7.

Although "Murder in America" sounds like a murder mystery, in fact, it is a science-fiction story with pretensions to a political conspiracy message. Allen Blumberg reveals his interest in film history, as his play is an update of the 1973 film "Soylent Green." There are also pieces of "On the Waterfront," "The Landlord," "Escape From New York," and every ghetto gangster movie in which two sides battle for control of a neighborhood.

As directed by David Hutchman, "Murder In America" is more accurately a screenplay‹not a stage play at all. For its multiple scenes and endless blackouts, set designer Ray Recht has created a wall on casters which is wheeled across the stage between every scene in order to suggest a different locale. Set in 2004, the place is given generically as "the City" but Harlem is specified.

The large cast playing multiple roles does not help make the story coherent. The plot revolves around Rick (Jeff Jerome) who is about to sell some property to a cartel that is evicting tenants, while a plague against black people rages in New York. International gangs are in control as the police go without pay and the rescue squads do not arrive in time. When Rick's accountant and his father's friend from his activist days are put in danger, Rick decides to put a stop to the advance of the cartel. None of the actors rise above labels or stereotypes, though some are not unbelievable in this context.

The dialogue is either naturalistic speech with much cursing, symbolic discussions in Elizabethan English, or polemical messages in the form of statements made directly to the audience. The play's conspiracy theories include an Eastern European, fascist or Russian takeover, depending on interpretation. "Murder in America" is deeply confusing in its message and tedious for the audience.

The Sirens

Reviewed by Jane Hogan

Presented by Willow Cabin Theatre Company, at Intar, 420 W. 42nd St., NYC., Feb. 5-Feb. 28.

In "The Sirens," playwright Darrah Cloud gets down to business in a tightly written play that attempts a comprehensive look at the reasons for, and effects of, the abuse of women, as well as examining differences among gender, race, and class. First and foremost among the play's points, however, seems to be that women may not be safe anywhere with anyone: Margo's, Dylan-loving, peace-espousing hippie beau beats her once they're married; Teresa's cop husband habitually strikes her; Eileen, the frighteningly composed upper-middle class blonde, also suffers at the hands of her husband; and Sparky, a tough Army private, is almost raped by a stranger. Then there's Gertrude, a homeless woman continually harassed by the police.

The play's themes are many: the cycle of violence (which even Sparky perpetuates within the women's prison), a justice system that imprisons women for taking extreme action, and the contradictory messages women receive (Sparky discovers that her brother, who taught her to be on the offensive, thinks she should have allowed herself to be raped rather than kill her attacker), among others.

Cloud's writing is at times a bit message-heavy, particularly later in the play when it veers away from the specific situations of the characters; but Mark Wade's tight direction, and strong performances from all involved, add weight to this play that could have been no more than an issue-of-the-week drama. Vanessa Aspillaga, Cynthia Besteman, Fiona Davis, and Kimberly Poppe as the four women are particularly good. A multi-level set from Klara Zieglerova allows the various cast members to move around with ease, and serves nicely as different locations. Matthew McCarthy's atmospheric lighting starkly illuminates Zieglerova's skeletal wooden structure.

At play's end, with Teresa, Eileen and Sparky in prison for murder, Margo is the one who cries out "I'm leaving" to her husband, but this is no declaration of true independence: it is the ghost of the murdered‹at the hands of her husband‹Margo. The character may have found peace; but it's apparently a final despairing comment from Cloud.

Elinor Coleman Dance Ensemble

Reviewed by Lisa Jo Sagolla

Presented by Danse Mirage, Inc., at University Settlement, 184 Eldridge St., NYC, Feb. 18-20.

Elinor Coleman is a canny choreographer who artfully exploits her dancers' individual strengths to make movement pieces that pleasingly enliven time and space. Coleman has a keen sense of pacing. She knows exactly when a phrase or sequence must end, change, or develop. There is lots of activity in her choreography, but nothing extends too long or feels repetitious. Nor is any action presented too quickly; one always finds ample time to meaningfully absorb the designs and energies of the movements.

Though the dancers Coleman assembled to perform her choreographies at University Settlement are not among downtown's finest, they moved passionately and worked remarkably well together. In "Breaking the Mold," the program's prime offering, they executed oodles of nifty partnering work, most notably a stunning lift in which Patricio Suarez raises Mariana Bekerman aloft and then suddenly drops her; Bekerman's leg crooks over his arm so, instead of falling to the floor, she winds up hanging upside down by her knee, gently swinging back and forth. The dance is performed to recordings of music by Stephen Micus which provide an exciting undercurrent of energy that solidly supports, but doesn't intrude upon or distract from the choreography.

In "Renewal of the Spirit" the ensemble dances to frisky Middle Eastern-flavored vocal music that, at times, proved more fun than the choreography. Coleman devised some delightfully silly moves here that needed to be more playfully interpreted by the dancers.

Completing the enjoyable evening was the romantic duet "To My Love," which Coleman made the mistake of choreographing to the popular recording of Andrea Bocelli singing "Time to Say Good-bye." While the music certainly inspires a dancer to move, it contains such abundant power and beauty that movements situated alongside of it pale aesthetically. Though Coleman and Suarez danced with admirable determination, their efforts failed to signify in Bocelli's shadow.

Bravo NY!

Reviewed by Robert Windeler

Presented by The No Pants Theatre Company at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, 412 W. 42nd St., NYC, Feb. 5-28.

Dominic Orlando's play contains too many characters whose story lines don't really get resolved, too many actors running up and down the theatre's aisle, too much unneeded shouting and foul language, superfluous supra-titles announcing each scene, and a plot so convoluted it needs (and gets) a narrator. The play's title isn't even apt and seems tacked on. Orlando's central conceit is promising: a gaggle of cater-waiters who want to be actors or writers but who have been trapped for too long gigging for a martinet, collide during a weekend of preparations for a gala‹or three. The central party is a publicity stunt dreamed up by the flack for a big developer with an image problem, initials DT. Had the playwright stuck to this event and focused on just few a of the help, he might have been on to something. Everyone who had ever worked for a caterer could identify.

But Orlando embraces too many parties‹in two senses of the word‹and invites in lots of other ideas, overlaying them all with a seriously dated rant about life in New York City. The show's other overlay‹an attempted Fred Astaire movie musical sensibility‹does little to leaven the proceedings. Director Karin Bowersock did nothing to cut down on the resulting confusion, and the cast was mightily uneven. A couple of actors were even unintelligible in a tiny theatre. Rising above the rest of the cast were Dan Lundy as the developer and a couple of other characters, and Daren Firestone in what appears to be Orlando's autobiographical role: a playwright who only gets his plays put on by producing them himself. Ironically, Firestone was the only one of the production's 10 actors who got to concentrate on a single role. Would that the other nine had had that luxury.