#AmericanSonMatters on Broadway

“American Son” premiered in 2016 at Barrington Stage in Massachusetts and was staged at George Street Playhouse in New Jersey in February 2017. In those recent years, its theme of racially-charged encounters between African-American males and law-enforcement officers reflected the burgeoning #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Now, Christopher Demos-Brown’s cautionary tale has opened on Broadway, and what a difference a year makes. Or not.

The title character, eighteen-year-old Jamal, hovers over every minute of the emotionally intense tale, but does not appear in person. It is 4AM in the waiting room of a Miami police station, where Jamal’s mother Kendra has gone to report her son missing. Jamal had left home earlier that evening in his late-model Lexus, a gift from his father, and had not checked in or answered his phone. Mom is deeply concerned, a state of mind made clear by Kerry Washington’s Kendra before she speaks a word.

Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale [Photos: Peter Cunningham]

         Her midnight-shift ‘host,’ white Officer Paul Larkin, is pleasant with her, even as she demands information that he does not have – or cannot reveal. “We have our protocol,” he says, which does not placate the overwrought Kendra. He is also awkward and insensitive to racial ‘coding,’ pointing out, for example, that the old building has side-by-side water fountains in the hallway. Jeremy Jordan is as effectively understated here as he was effusive in “Newsies.”

Having called-in veteran police Lieutenant Stokes, whom he had never met, Larkin is relieved when a white man with a gold badge clipped to his belt finally shows up. Surprise: after a few whispered un-PC remarks (which are amusing until they’re not), Larkin realizes that the man is Jamal’s father, Kendra’s estranged husband, who happens to be an FBI agent.

Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale and Jeremy Jordan

While concern over Jamal persists, the tension between the separated spouses, concerning their marriage (and breakup), their racial identities and their disparate parenting techniques becomes central. If frantic Kendra is over-written (as opposed to over-acted) in the early portions with the rookie officer, Ms. Washington and Steven Pasquale are very real as the conflicted couple. The anguished mother may be a stock character, but these actors balance the upheaval between them. It’s toned down a notch, and…real.

Lieutenant Stokes does finally show up. Played by a deceptively low-key Eugene Lee, the professional veteran cop takes no guff. A physical confrontation involving antagonist Scott with the cops stretches credulity (FBI, after all), but it paves the way for an excellently played scene between Kendra and Stokes.

Lt. Stokes has news: Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale, Eugene Lee

Directed unrestrainedly by Kenny Leon on Derek McLane’s overly comfy station house set, “American Son” runs 90 minutes in real time. That its urgency remains current is signaled by the playwright’s designation of its time and date stamp: it is 4AM, as mentioned above, and, pointedly, “on a day this coming June.”

As for what’s been up with Jamal, mom and dad learn that when Lt. Stokes announces “I’ve got news.”

Through Jan 27 at Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street, NYC. For performance schedule (Tues-Sun) and tickets ($59-$169): 212-239-6200 or online at www.telecharge.com

Blog, Broadway, NY Theater

“Holiday Inn” Open For Business At Paper Mill Playhouse

The musical now officially titled “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn” is based on the 1942 movie “Holiday Inn,” which was updated on screen as “White Christmas” in 1954, which in turn was adapted into a stage musical (“Irving Berlin’s White Christmas”) in 2000, with Broadway stints in 2008 and ’09. This latest one, “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn,” premiered regionally in 2014 and had its own Broadway engagement over the 2016 holiday season.

Did you follow that? No matter; just know that Berlin’s immortal “White Christmas” is sung in all of them. The show remains popular thanks to its score (in two meanings) of Irving Berlin songs, for which he composed both music and lyrics. “Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn” is running through December 30 at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, NJ.

Let’s put on a show! [Photos courtesy Paper Mill Playhouse]

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“King Hedley II” Reigns at Two River Theater

In the play running through December 16 at Two River Theater in Red Bank, NJ, a 35-year old African-American woman defends her decision to terminate her pregnancy in an impassioned speech. “I ain’t raising no kid to have somebody shoot him. To have his friends…or the police…shoot him,” Tonya says, before relating the gut-wrenching story of a neighborhood mother whose son was shot and killed even as she had his favorite meal on the table. So…an angry, socially conscious play written in the wake of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, right?   Wrong.

“King Hedley II” was written in 1999. Set in 1985, it is one of August Wilson’s ten Century Cycle plays that examine “the unique particulars of black American culture” (Wilson’s phrase) through the twentieth century, decade by decade. It is a masterful work, and in Tonya’s and others’ speeches and in their interactions with the world around them, it is eerily prescient.

“Hedley” plays out in the back yards of two adjacent rundown houses that could not look any more lived-in, thanks to Michael Carnahan’s site-perfect set. In Two River’s intimate second space, the audience is virtually in those back yards with the actors, or, better said, with the characters, who are no more than 15-20 feet away.

King Hedley II (Blake Morris), left, and Elmore (Harvy Blanks) [Photos: T. Charles Erickson]

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Blog, Professional, Regional

“Annie” gets a makeover (with Andrea McArdle aboard)

With a few minor (and one not-so-minor) modifications, producers Andrew De Prisco and Jess Levy and director/choreographer Al Blackstone have given “Annie” a fresh appearance without sacrificing its Depression-era flavor or its sentiment. Fortunately, they haven’t monkeyed with the terrific (often under-rated) score, opting instead to emphasize how it is played, sung and moved to. The result is an altogether winning “Annie,” which ends its limited run on Sunday, November 18 at the Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Deal, NJ.

The ‘sentiment’ noted above refers to healthy, if simple, emotion (not icky sentimentality), and ‘moved to’ is apt because the smooth show feels choreographed throughout. It is still “Annie,” as good as any I’ve seen, among many, and better than most.

Andrea McArdle is Miss Hannigan [Photo: Rich Kowalski]

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Blog, Professional, Regional

A solo show evokes Lenny Bruce: Comedian…and so much more

You are unlikely to ever see the theatrical title “I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Richard Pryor.” Or George Carlin. Or Chris Rock. Or Sarah Silverman. But appending the name Lenny Bruce is altogether appropriate. Not that he wasn’t a comedian, because he was, and a damn funny one. No, it is what he was in addition to being a comedian. What else he stood for and represented, without which, btw, none of those other names would be in the mix. Just ask them. (Carlin once told me he credited Lenny with inspiring his transition from the Hippy-Dippy Weatherman to “my true self, man.”)

Lenny Bruce was a champion of free speech and civil rights, including blanket acceptance of human differences. He abhorred the abridgement of any of those liberties and was especially disdainful of hypocrisy. To those ends, his routines ‘addressed social taboos and controversial topics, such as racism, sexism, politics, and religion’.*

Ronnie Marmo as Lenny Bruce [Photos: Doren Sorell Photography]

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Blog, NY Theater, Off Broadway

Elaine May astonishes in “The Waverly Gallery”

It is generally true that the decline into dementia is a gradual process. From early symptoms – forgetting names or dates or where one left the keys – to a failure to connect with the real world, can take years. In Kenneth Lonergan’s “The Waverly Gallery,” now on Broadway 18 years after its off-Broadway premiere, Elaine May enacts such a decline in just over two hours. It is an outstanding performance, mining the situation for its humor (without ridicule) and pathos (without bathos).

Elaine May as Gladys Green [Photos: Brigitte Lacombe]

         Heading a superlative cast that includes Tony Award-winners Joan Allen (for “Burn This”) and David Cromer (for directing “The Band’s Visit”), plus multi-film star Lucas Hedges in his Broadway debut and Lonergan-regular Michael Cera, Ms. May’s portrayal is astonishingly authentic.

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Blog, Broadway, NY Theater