‘Ain’t Too Proud’ Broadway Review: The Temptations Fight the Grind of Fame

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The wonderful thing about biographies is that they allow writers to get away with an overload of melodrama and irony that would never work in fiction. Take the story of the Temptations, the most successful rhythm-and-blues group ever: Paul Williams committed suicide, David Ruffin OD’d in a crack house, Eddie Kendricks died of lung cancer, and Melvin Franklin destroyed his immune system through the overuse of cortisone while suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. Which leaves it to Temptations founder and survivor Otis Williams to tell the story of these men in the new musical “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations,” which opened Thursday at the Imperial Theatre.

Besides eschewing the drugs, booze, women and the egomania that brought down so many of the other Temptations, Otis Williams had it relatively easy in comparison. He only got his girlfriend pregnant, endured a shotgun wedding and promptly ignored his wife before she left him for another man. Years later, his only son died in a construction accident at age 22.

In other words, “Ain’t Too Proud” delivers more traumas than “The Jersey Boys,” “The Cher Show,” “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” and “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” combined.

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Dominique Morisseau’s book for “Ain’t Too Proud” is based on Williams’s autobiography, “The Temptations,” and may explain why Williams is the most genial subject of a musical since Carole King, whose show would more aptly be titled “Nice.”

Derrick Baskin’s impersonation of Otis Williams defines the word “innocuous,” even though late in the musical he is accused of being a control freak. Here, control freak is an encomium for a man coping with drug addicts, alcoholics and egomaniacs. During the overly long first act, Baskin/Williams is able to resolve in record time every problem the Temptations encounter: A feisty manager is fired and a demanding mother is appeased within minutes of being introduced. Rather than dramatizing the group’s rise to stardom, Morisseau’s book has Baskin/Williams narrate it.

Real drama doesn’t arrive until singer Al Bryant (Jarvis B. Manning Jr.) is replaced by David Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes). There are four more musicals to opens this Broadway season, but it’s difficult to imagine a performer more energized in any of them than Sykes. His superstar-making turn as Ruffin sums up that old adage about the brightest burning out the fastest.

Baskin/Williams keeps telling us that the Temptations are a group, and how it’s not about any one star. Sykes defies that platitude with every song he sings, every jump and split he lands, every mic he tosses and catches in the air. Sykes makes it totally understandable why such a talent would keep the others waiting, miss engagements and then show up uninvited to crash performances after he’d been fired from the Temptations.

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If only Ruffin/Sykes were narrating “Ain’t Too Proud.” For one thing, we’d be spared the cliched build-up to the group’s success and the endless parade of funerals at the end.

It makes dramatic sense that Ruffin’s closest ally in the group is Kendricks, especially as played by Jeremy Pope, hot off his own breakthrough performance in the just-closed Broadway drama “Choir Boy.” Both men exude an aura of suspense and danger on stage, as if each song could be their last. They’ll worry about their aching joints and vocal chords in the morning.

Playing Paul Williams and Melvin Franklin, respectively, James Harkness and Jawan M. Jackson impress with their vocals. Baskin appears to be the weak link, but surprises with a stirring “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” near the end. It’s Sykes and Pope, however, who prove that the parts can sometimes be much greater than the whole.

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Why do audiences love these cautionary showbiz tales? Do we need to see how miserable the rich, the talented and the famous really are under all that money and glitz?

Des McAnuff’s direction of “Ain’t Too Proud” gives us both the alluring razzle-dazzle and the underlying nightly grind of touring. Repeatedly, the Temptations perform to us out front, then turn to deliver the next few bars to the other three walls of the stage. Meanwhile, Robert Brill’s scenic design and Peter Nigrini’s projections give us the towns the men are playing — Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, Denver. After a while, it’s all a blur and we understand how a gifted talent like Ruffin’s just doesn’t fit within that box.

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‘White Noise’ Theater Review: Daveed Diggs Dazzles in Suzan-Lori Parks’ New Race Fantasy

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Fantasies can be difficult to review. The usual dictums regarding character and plot development just don’t apply, since fantasies set up and proceed on their own logic. Suzan-Lori Parks’ fantasy “White Noise,” which received its world premiere Wednesday at the Public Theater, is written as if a very important amendment to the U.S. Constitution never existed, and proceeds from there. (Paul Beatty used the same subject matter to spin his own Swiftian tale, “The Sellout.”)

The four characters in “White Noise” aren’t so much characters as they are archetypes of race, class and privilege who level stinging barbs at one another that would immediately vaporize any other real-world interracial friendship or affair. And that’s true before Parks drops the play’s big bomb.

Where “White Noise” quickly and repeatedly sheds its more fantastical elements are in the four remarkable monologues interspersed throughout this two-act, three-hour drama. There’s the white college instructor Ralph (Thomas Sadoski), who loses out on a tenured professorship to a person of color. His girlfriend, a black woman named Misha (Sheria Irving), takes angry telephone calls from viewers of her livestream show, “Ask a Black.” Their good friend Dawn (Zoe Winters) is a white lawyer who’s defending a black teenager who’s actually guilty of the crime as charged. And Dawn’s boyfriend, Leo (Daveed Diggs), is a black artist who suffers from insomnia for all those things that sum up Ralph, Misha and Dawn, and more.

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Leo’s alternately funny and painful monologue kicks off “White Noise,” and Diggs turns this rambling reverie into a plea for understanding that prepares us (almost) for the character’s outrageous wager to his best friend, Ralph. The actor’s Tony-winning turn in “Hamilton” was only a warm-up for the ways in which he grounds “White Noise.”

After this opening tour de force, the other actors are at a distinct disadvantage in our warming to them — until, one by one, each gets a turn to speak to us directly. Each monologue is a veritable essay on the subject of race in America, and yet each is as personal and heartrending as Leo’s woozy sleep-deprived meditation. Oskar Eustis’ even-handed direction makes sure that Irving, Sadoski, and Winters nearly match Diggs’ sheer intensity and charisma in these individual moments, which turn out to be the most character-driven aspects of Parks’ fantasy.

One of those characters tell us, “Some folks are doing their best to make things right, but to really fix the s—, you gotta go all the way back. Back through the portal of history, back through the rabbit hole, the abyss, the void, back through the wormhole, yeah, the wormhole as wide as the world.”

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Before this review reduces “White Noise” to a sermon or lecture, it’s appropriate to note that Parks writes great sketch comedy. And it’s the first play I can ever remember seeing that puts a bowling alley on stage (scenic design by Clint Ramos). It’s a bit startling at first to have the bowling balls coming right at you, and Parks mines that sport (the only one you can play while smoking and getting drunk) for enormous laughs. Even more uproarious is the scene where the rejected Ralph secretly phones into his girlfriend’s show to “ask a black” about his recent job humiliation. Irving’s quick segues from playing a hyper-educated woman to dialing up “the ebonics” for her on-air persona provide a master class in racial stereotypes.

These sketches float the first act of “White Noise,” making it the fastest 90 minutes in recent theater history.

The provocative wager between Leo and Ralph — no spoilers here about its nature — bears immediate positive results: Leo can sleep; he doesn’t even need that white-noise machine. And the previously unpublished Ralph immediately gets a story accepted by the New Yorker. (I told you that “White Noise” is a fantasy.) But those funny sketches turn ugly in Act 2: “Ask a Black” begins to torment Misha; the nights of bowling are now drenched in violence.

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A final match at the bowling alley lays out the marriage of capitalism and cultural appropriation, and springs directly from Leo and Ralph’s visit to a secret society of privileged white men. The two men are so hard-wired (see the “some folks” quote above) that they give entirely different monologues to describe what transpired in this private fraternity. Could Parks have called it something other than the White Club? Like those stinging barbs her couples level at each other in the first act, she utilizes short cuts to energize the drama. Making Dawn a lawyer is another short cut.

Parks also creates some convoluted twists to make Ralph both wealthy and neglected by his father. Oh, to be white, male and heterosexual! It’s amazing such a person even dares go to the theater anymore. But to pile on this white/male/straight stereotype, it’s not necessary to give Ralph so much childhood trauma. He’s the kind of guy who wouldn’t recognize his own sense of entitlement and privilege regardless of his upbringing.

More troubling are the play’s two magical bisexuals. Parks uses sexual orientation the way a costume designer switches clothes on an actor: It’s a mere point in the thesis or bump in the plot to keep an audience from falling asleep. You might as well call it gay face.

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‘Nantucket Sleight Ride’ Theater Review: John Guare Takes a Big Dip Off the Island

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New plays, even those running close to two hours, tend to forgo an intermission. An exception is John Guare’s “Nantucket Sleigh Ride,” which had its world premiere Monday at LCT’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre. For good reason, there’s an intermission after a relatively short first act. Audience members, not to mention the actors, needs to catch their collective breath. Guare has packed enough plot into those first 45 minutes to fuel a dozen plays by Mamet or LaBute.

John Larroquette plays Edmund Gowery, a contemporary businessman who, 50 years ago, wrote one successful play, “Internal Structure of Stars,” but never had the inspiration to write another, much to his regret. “Nantucket Sleigh Ride,” for the most part, is a flashback to the events following a 1975 amateur production of “Internal Structure” in Nantucket when this promising playwright bought a house on the island as an investment only to discover that a kiddie-porn ring has been operating from the property.

The young Gowery copes with not writing a second play by working on two film projects that drop into his lap while dealing with the Nantucket police. One screenplay is a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Suspicion,” to star Jane Fonda and Robert Redford and be directed by Roman Polanski. Only slightly less dazzling is the other project, to be produced by Disney from a series of children’s books written by the father (or maybe it’s the grandfather) of a woman named Elsie (Clea Alsip) who starred in the Nantucket production of “Internal Structure,” which Gowery refused to see because he hated amateur actors, much to the regret of everyone on the island but especially Elsie who never recovered from the snub.

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This brief synopsis of the first act leaves out two adulterous affairs, the frequent appearances of Jorge Luis Borges (who happens to be Gowery’s favorite writer), the movie and the novel “Jaws” (which was the must-see movie and the must-read novel of 1975) and the amnesia of Elsie’s two sexually exploited children (Adam Chanler-Berat and Grace Rex), who set “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” in motion with their visit to the older Gowery’s office.

Because there’s more action than an action movie, Larroquette doesn’t so much perform in this comedy as he tells it to us. Often, his conversations with the other actors are not face to face; rather, the second level of David Gallo’s set provides a kind of panoramic cupboard that opens to reveal various people whom Gowery speaks to in his imagination or on the phone.

Larroquette is a magnificent narrator. He also segues miraculously between the present and the past to convey both an older man’s smugness (for being wealthy) and a younger man’s angst (for being creatively burnt out). Even more inspired is German Jaramillo, who makes a most enchanting Jorge Luis Borges.

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While attempting to follow the first act’s ever-twisting plot, however, one’s mind may drift to incidental problems with the play and its production. For starters, Jerry Zaks’ direction emphasizes the farcical situations, but most of the eye-popping performances are merely manic and not remotely amusing. Then there are Gowery’s many quotes from Borges, especially his “Labyrinths,” which bear almost no relation to the many labyrinths of Guare’s story. Also, Gowery uses a rotary phone in the 1975 scenes but makes the 2019 mistake of punching it. Over two decades ago, Paul Rudnick used that joke to much better effect in his “In & Out” screenplay. And very odd is Gowery’s “Suspicion” rewrite. He is asked to give the source of the heroine’s wealth, because Hitchcock failed to reveal it in the original. Um, no. The parents of Joan Fontaine’s character are rich, hence she has money.

That’s the first act of “Nantucket Sleigh Ride.” In the second act, the triple-cast Douglas Sills shows up as Walt Disney, fresh from a cryogenic chamber, his suit festooned with icicles (costumes by Emily Rebholz). Even more momentous, we learn that “Nantucket sleigh ride” is an old sailors’ expression that describes what happened when a harpooned whale used to drag a boat through the ocean waters. Usually, the animal died, but sometimes it was the men who were plunged to their death. Plays sometimes experience a similar sinking feeling.

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Cole Porter has suddenly grown a heart as big as Rodgers & Hammerstein. It’s just a guess, but musicals like “Oklahoma!” and “The King and I” receive more revivals than ones by Porter because they’re musical romances. Porter, on the other hand, wrote musical comedies, not that he didn’t know how to write a terrific love song. Take “So in Love” from “Kiss Me, Kate,” which opened Monday at Roundabout’s Studio 54. It comes early in the show, and as sung by Kelli O’Hara in this revival, it makes the next two and a half hours glow with the wistful longing and sweet desperation of a diva in love.

Despite her Tony Award and long career on Broadway, the word “diva” has never quite fit O’Hara. Indeed, she’s an odd choice to be playing a movie star who’s returning to the theater to play opposite her former husband in a musical version of “The Taming of the Shrew.” The only word less appropriate than “diva” for O’Hara would be “shrew.”

Her masterful rendition of “So in Love” is so heartfelt that we may overlook her rather genteel take on the Bard, but maybe not. O’Hara plays the movie star Lilli Vanessi for real, turning her into a cool Veronica Lake complete with long, sometimes peekaboo, blond hair. There’s nothing send-up or buffoonish about this performance; in fact, she sometimes conveys the impression that her Lilli is slumming a bit in this less than first-rate production of a musical “Shrew” that’s opening in Baltimore. (David Rockwell’s sets are appropriately seedy looking.).

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What O’Hara is is in love. When Lilli’s ex-husband Fred Graham (Will Chase) sends a bouquet to his current paramour, the chorus girl Lois Lane (Stephanie Styles), and the flowers end up in the star’s dressing room by mistake, O’Hara’s meltdown when she learns the truth is a heartrending reversal of her singing “So in Love.” By the way, O’Hara is in great voice throughout and has never sounded more thrilling.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire — and Chase presents a red-hot lover on the rebound. He eschews playing the impresario-actor Fred Graham as a big ham. He’s actually an excellent Petruchio in the musical-within-a-musical scenes, and his pursuit of Lilli backstage is tinged with just enough recklessness to make it real. It’s a little odd to hear this character’s music, originally written for a bass-baritone, to be sung by a lighter voice. Chase’s best notes are up there in tenor territory, but at least they’re good notes.

Scott Ellis can be credited with keeping his two leads playing from the same slightly jaded Valentine’s Day poem. He wisely keeps the more manic comedy to the show’s secondary couple, Lois Lane and her boyfriend, Bill Calhoun. Playing that chronic cuckold, “High School Musical” and “Dancing With the Stars” alum Corbin Bleu leads a spectacularly danced “Too Darn Hot,” with choreographer Warren Carlyle in top form.

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Slightly more droll are the twin vaudevillians John Pankow and Lance Coadie Williams as two gun-toting gangsters. The shtick is expertly handled and marred only by the  inclusion of a 21st-century joke about gun control.

The other misfire is the handling of “From This Moment On,” delivered by Lilli’s fiance, Gen. Harrison Howell (Terence Archie), in a way meant to show the character’s dictatorial approach to love. (The 1999 Broadway revival of “Kate” turned Harrison into a general, and that revision of Sam and Bella Spewack’s 1948 book stands here.) Archie’s under-pitch singing brings a certain levity to the number, but sometimes his horseplay with O’Hara borders on physical abuse.

In that 1999 revival, Marin Mazzie gave the audience a big wink at show’s end to assuage any sexist taint. O’Hara’s wry retreat with Chase is much more sophisticated.

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In Florian Zeller’s “The Father,” which played on Broadway three years ago, an older man suffers from dementia. In Zeller’s “The Mother,” which opened Monday at the Atlantic Theater Company, a middle-aged woman suffers from a debilitating depression.

Is Zeller advising us all not to have children? In “The Mother,” the kids clearly return no favors to mom or dad upon leaving the nest. The adult daughter never appears and the son (Justice Smith) crashes one night in his parents’ house after a fight with his girlfriend (Odessa Young), only to take off the following day when she appears with promises of wild sex. How can any mom compete with that?

In the two Zeller plays, the title characters’ state of mind is painfully jumbled and the playwright leaves us guessing as to what has really just taken place or been said, and scenes are sometimes repeated but altered in the ways our memory reshapes events in the past. Curiously, Zeller does include in each play one scene where the title character is off stage and the other characters deliver important information about the respective parent’s mental state.

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Those scenes help to ground our perspective — until then, we may be floundering as to what’s real or not — but they also rob us of what otherwise is most riveting about “The Father” and “The Mother.” For 90 minutes or so, we experience what it is to have our mind completely unravel. It’s not unlike the vicarious thrill you get watching a 1970s disaster movie: How do somebody live through an earthquake or a tsunami? The difference is, Zeller takes us on a journey far more frightening because it’s far more common and no one survives.

Isabelle Huppert is the mother, and she brings her signature icy hauteur to the role. In the beginning, it’s a delight to watch Huppert be a total bitch to her husband (Chris Noth) well before we know she’s suffering severe depression — as if the many discarded bottles of orange plastic pill bottles littered under the mile-long white sofa aren’t a major clue (set design by Mark Wendland).

She says things a wife may think but isn’t supposed to say out loud — like wishing him dead. Even more outrageous, she says things about her children a mother may think but isn’t supposed to say — like how much she prefers her son to her daughter. Those whoppers are only the tip of her compelling acidity, which recedes rapidly as soon as she gets her eager hands on that long-absent son, an obvious lover substitute. There’s no longer any semblance of affection between wife and husband, who is forever running late and off to yet another seminar in Buffalo, of all places. The son is another matter, and Huppert’s weaponizing of a dangerously short red dress (costumes by Anita Yavich) to steal her son’s attention away from his girlfriend is both hilarious and pathetic.

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Huppert spends more time looking at and talking to us than anybody on stage. She even waves away the cigarette smoke so that we’ll get a better look at her face. It’s a showy performance, but it allows the actress to cut through her own steeliness, grab us by the hand and explore together a mother’s madness.

Noth, Smith and Young are uniformly blunt in their approach, and that lack of nuance only helps to distance them even further from Huppert. Trip Cullman’s direction makes the contradictory performance styles work. He also puts on a real spectacle. In addition to Huppert’s manic depression, there’s lots of razzle-dazzle in Ben Stanton’s lighting, Fitz Patton’s sound and original compositions and Lucy Mackinnon’s projections. We hear as well as see the brain synapses as they ignite and set off sparks before completely burning out.

The English translation, from the French, is by Christopher Hampton.

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Tori Sampson takes a West African fable and turns it into an all-American cartoon geared for the afterschool-special crowd. Too bad that few adolescents will be attending a play titled “If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhf–a,” which opened Sunday at Playwrights Horizons. Urban Dictionary and Wiktionary give no synonyms for “muhf–a,” except the word’s unprintable definition. For clarity’s sake, let’s substitute “real bummer” or “bringdown,” which gives a much better idea of Sampson’s gentle cautionary tale. Those theatergoers expecting something edgy or provocative from “Muhf–a” will be disappointed.

Since Broadway and the major non-profits aren’t producing Neil LaBute this season, it’s appropriate that someone has taken up the body-image problem. In the village of Affreakah-Amirrorikah, a teenager named Akim (Nike Uche Kadri) is the undisputed beauty, which turns her into the natural rival of the stout Kaya (Phumzile Sitole), the overly petite Adama (Mirirai Sithole), and the callipygous Massassi (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), who loses her boyfriend, Kasim (Leland Fowler), to the aforementioned prettiest girl in town. Somehow, Akim’s being slightly taller than Kasim is not a “muhf–a,” making this place very different from any middle school in America — excuse me, Amirrorikah.

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The most fascinating aspect of “Muhf–a” is how Sampson misleads us into thinking the play is about one character, the pretty one, when it’s really about one of the other young women. That singular pleasure, however, can’t be savored until the evening is almost over.

Until then, you have to deal with confusing plot twists that turn Akim’s father (Jason Bowen) into the villain because he overprotects his daughter so she won’t end up with guys like Kasim.

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Leah C. Gardiner has directed the cast to scream their lines; louder is inherently funnier until it’s downright painful. The exception is Mirirai Sithole, who turns Adama’s every appearance into a charming, delightful respite from the noise around her, which includes Louisa Thompson’s set and Matt Frey’s lighting. The two designers have re-created a 1970’s discotheque on stage, and it’s presided over by a rhinestone-bedecked Chorus, if one person (Rotimi Agbabiaka) can be called a chorus, who narrates the play. The poster and program for “Muhf–a” depicts a young woman wearing bejeweled sunglasses, but it is the Chorus who wears them in the play.

Dede Ayite’s costumes are kind of African — excuse me, Affreakahn — except for the Chorus, who is made up to look like a Joel Grey with bling from “Cabaret.” Maybe the Chorus should extend his duties of giving plot points (almost every plot point) to tell the young women how he manages to be so fabulous, beautiful, and happy with himself.

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Debra Jo Rupp, best known as the mom for all eight seasons of “That ’70s Show,” is a bizarre cross between Barbara Harris and Mitzi Gaynor. Add a Southern accent to that intriguing amalgam and you have her lovable bigot named Della in Bekah Brunstetter’s new play, “The Cake,” which opened Tuesday at MTC’s City Center Stage 1.

Rupp makes Della very much worth watching in her opening monologue as she tells us how to bake a cake. She’s a baker and her cake shop is located in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Della is funny, homespun and thoroughly committed to the art of turning us all into diabetics. When Della’s talking butter and sugar, “The Cake” tastes just right. When Della segues to the Bible, the play is very underbaked.

A note-taking reporter named Macy (Marinda Anderson) sits in Della’s bakery. Why a journalist would find Della of interest is never revealed, but that doesn’t stop Macy from asking about that colorful Noah’s ark cake in the bakery’s display case. Della quickly apologizes. She would have added dinosaurs to the boat’s menagerie if the little plastic critters hadn’t sold out at the local Hobby Lobby or some such excuse.

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Yes, this sweet-tooth baker is a white Christian literalist and homophobe who finds herself suddenly too busy to bake a cake for Macy’s impending wedding to her fiancée, Jen (Genevieve Angelson), who is an old friend of Della’s family.

Let the tired Old Testament debates begin! Macy, of course, is having none of it and she wants to know: If marriage is only to procreate, why is the childless Della still married to her plumber husband, Tim (Dan Daily)?

Much more intriguing is why a smart lesbian of color like Macy would marry, much less ever date, a simpering Southern white magnolia like Jen, who is a repressed lesbian hellbent on spending $30,000 on a wedding that must take place in her hometown despite the fact she’s hesitant even to introduce her black girlfriend to Della?

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How repressed is Jen? Her description of heterosexual sex turns out to be even more chilling than the Devil’s rape of Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby.” To its credit, Jen’s screed does take up, albeit inadvertently, the pressing issue of heterophobia.

Speaking of straights, the play also addresses the state of Della and Tim’s marriage. In addition to being childless, it’s also sexless. Apparently, all this lesbian talk with Macy and Jen pushes Della to get creative in bed with her own mate. The following remark may come off as ageist, but as a senior citizen myself, I don’t want to see actors of a certain age — almost any age, for that matter, unless they workout 24/7 — slather frosting or mashed potatoes on their body and request that someone else lick it off.

Lynne Meadow directs this odd sermon of a play.

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“Daddy” picks up where “Slave Play” left off. Although critics aren’t supposed to say this, we might be living through a golden age of new American plays. Critics tend to identify a golden age 50 years after the fact. Here’s the scene today in New York City: In only a matter of months, Theresa Rebeck followed her “Bernhardt/Hamlet” with “Downstairs.” Jackie Sibblies Drury followed “Fairview” with the recently opened “Marys Seacole.” And Jeremy O. Harris followed last fall’s “Slave Play” with “Daddy,” which opened Tuesday at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

Mentioning these three playwrights isn’t meant to diminish the remarkable and substantial new works of so many others. It’s simply good news that the talented Rebeck, Drury and Harris are also prolific and have, in each case, improved on their previous work.

Harris’ “Slave Play” told the story of four interracial couples and how the master-slave dynamic of the antebellum South is recalled in each of those relationships. That’s a major simplification, but it sets the groundwork for “Daddy” and its depiction of an affair between a white, middle-aged, wealthy art collector (Alan Cumming) and a black, young, financially struggling artist (Ronald Peet, “The Meyerowitz Stories”).

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Even before “Daddy” begins, set designer Matt Saunders’s rendition of a Bel-Air manse and pool mesmerizes. Cumming’s Andre lives in a house that melds David Hockney’s “Beverly Hills Housewife” to his “Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures).” And just like those two Hockneys, Saunders’ set under Isabella Byrd’s lighting suggests something unhealthy grows beneath all that California glare.

There’s a Twombly hanging on the wall in the hallway beyond the pool. Even more impressive, or so Peet’s Franklin tells us, is the master bedroom that’s chock-full of Basquiats. Franklin wonders aloud how someone with so much art on his walls could have so little taste. For most art collectors, that remark would be a deal breaker if not for the fact that Andre is very horny and Franklin is very needy in ways that go far beyond his being young and ambitious.

Soon, Andre is calling Franklin “my little Naomi” (Franklin’s legs remind him of Naomi Campbell’s) and Franklin is calling Andre “Daddy.” Suffice to say, those pet names are what’s most printable of what transpires between the two men in this very graphic play.

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Harris stacks “Daddy” against one character, only to reverse or level the playing field in the next scene. No sooner has Franklin taken up residence in Bel-Air than he invites two young friends, Bellamy (Kahyun Kim, “American Gods”) and Max (Tommy Dorfman, “13 Reasons Why”), to enjoy Andre’s pool and sushi. Thanks to Harris’ gift for comedy, it’s side-splittingly clear that the wealthy aren’t the only exploiters in town. To be young and attractive is a commodity that many are very willing to sell despite admonitions of love.

Later in “Daddy,” we will meet the gallery owner Alessia (Hari Nef, “You”), who believes Franklin is the next big thing. Nef’s performance recalls Toni Collette’s art curator in the recent Netflix film “Velvet Buzzsaw,” only on steroids. “Daddy” and “Velvet Buzzsaw” cover the same L.A. art turf. The difference is, Harris has some very interesting things to say about aestheticism robbing art of its essence.

On the title page of the script, Harris calls his play “a melodrama.” Perhaps the word “tragedy” doesn’t apply because Franklin is so acted upon. The forces are against him to an overwhelming degree, and the true crux of the play is an epic battle between Andre and Franklin’s mother, Zora (Charlayne Woodard).

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Andre holds his own against this maternal giant, who fights for her son’s soul and isn’t afraid to hit below the belt when she refers to Andre as Methuselah, among other nasty things. (In a remarkable performance, Cumming never loses his vampire cool.) As patriarchies go, however, Andre represents one system and Zora’s many prayers to “Our Father” represents another. LGBT children struggle with an existential dilemma: Blacks raise black children, Jews raise Jewish children, but heterosexuals raise homosexuals. No one’s teaching LGBT offspring how to behave in an alien world.

Zora’s rearing of Franklin has set the stage for his relationship with Andre, and during the course of this almost three-hour play, Peet’s performance takes this young man to a place that the Edward Albee of “The American Dream” would fully appreciate.

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In addition to melodrama, Harris could add the description “fantasy” to his new play. Did I mention that “Daddy” includes a stirring gospel chorus (Carrie Compere, Denise Manning, and Onyie Nwachukwu in strong voice), two alternately hilarious and heartbreaking renditions of George Michael’s “Father Figure,” and grand moments of opera from Bellini, Strauss and Verdi?

Danya Taymor directs this magnificent hodgepodge of styles in a way that makes perfect sense even while we’re recovering from some absolutely startling new surprise. Taymor also has unerring taste in new playwrights. In the last year alone, she directed Antoinette Nwandau’s “Pass Over” and Martyna Majok’s “Queens.”

“Daddy” is a co-production of the New Group and the Vineyard Theatre.

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Bryce Pinkham is the Johnny Depp of musical theater. Give him a wildly eccentric/bizarre/screwed-up character, like the lovable serial killer in “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,” and he is the best singing actor on Broadway. But like Depp in the movies, give him an ordinary romantic leading role, and he can underwhelm. Pinkham’s turn in “Holiday Inn” receded into the scenery.

Fortunately, the casting gods are back in charge to bestow Pinkham with the very troubled/conflicted/angst-ridden title role in John Logan and Tom Kitt’s new musical, “Superhero,” which opened Thursday at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater. Pinkham plays a guy named Jim who finds himself suddenly fired from his job driving a city bus, and, just as suddenly under siege by a love-struck widow, Charlotte (Kate Baldwin), and her teenage son, Simon (Kyle McArthur), who thinks the super-shy bus driver living in their apartment building is actually a very real superhero. All Simon needs to do is have his mother fall in love with Jim to find out the truth, because all superheroes have a girlfriend who knows the full truth. Think Lois Lane.

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Jim is the creation of book writer John Logan (“Red”) and composer Tom Kitt (“Next to Normal”), and Pinkham springs full-blown from a comic book to play him. His glowering presence and delayed timing make this unemployed bus driver alternately creepy and funny, off-putting and compelling, nerdy and appealing. In addition, Pinkham’s bright tenor is a throwback to another era in musical theater, when the high-pitched male voice was considered the ultimate in romance, before baritones took over most of the lead roles.

Pinkham is on stage for so much of “Superhero” that we can ignore the far less interesting Charlotte and Simon and their endless mourning over a dead husband and father. Baldwin and McArthur are competent, but it’s unfortunate that the silent Jim can’t find more intriguing neighbors to share his secret. Baldwin is blessed with Kitt’s best number, “Laundry for Two.” The composer of “Next to Normal” and “If/Then” (which deserved better reviews from the critics) has a gift for melody, but his rhythmic palette needs variety. The second act could use an old-fashioned march or a tacky disco number to enliven the often lulling score.

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It’s understandable why Jim want to ditch Charlotte and Simon as them wallow in their endless mourning, which is strictly Musical Theater Grief 101. Completely unexplored by Logan and Kitt is the voyeuristic pimping of a teenager wanting his mother to sleep with a man who may have special powers. Now that would have made Simon a compelling character.

Logan’s book provides a few other characters who manage to give “Superhero” an after-school special glow. Jason Moore’s direction compensates by filling the stage with superheroes that jump from Simon’s notepad. Tal Yarden’s scrawling projection design makes it clear that Simon possesses a limited imagination: One superhero looks pretty much like another. Only Pinkham is in a class by himself.

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Every decade a New York theater stages an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.” Are any of these ever good enough to merit a major revival? Certainly not the most famous of them, which arguably would be Elizabeth Swados and Joseph Papp’s 1961 “Alice in Concert,” starring Meryl Streep and later adapted to “Alice at the Palace” for television.

MCC is the latest theater to bring Carroll’s picaresque fantasy to the stage, where it opened Tuesday at the company’s new Off Broadway space Newman Mills Theater. This version has the distinct advantage of being updated from the 19th-century to World War II London during the Blitz, and many of the liberties taken by book writers Steven Sater and Jessie Nelson are captivating.

Stuck in a grimy tube (the monumental set is by Edward Pierce), Alice Spencer (Molly Gordon) reads “Alice in Wonderland” out of boredom and wants to share this fascinating story with her sick friend Alfred Hallam (Colton Ryan), who has been quarantined in another section of the tube due to tuberculosis.

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Any good musical needs a love interest, and as the musical “Alice by Heart” develops so does the budding romance between Alice and Alfred, who, in the show’s best revision, turns into the White Rabbit and has a thing about clocks because he knows he doesn’t have much time left on Earth. If the bombs don’t get him, the TB will. Quarantined, Alfred does have the advantage of not being subjected to the nutcases surrounding Alice. If war is hell, it’s also a madhouse in this underground world.

When Alice’s journey down the rabbit hole begins, it’s best that any audience be up on Carroll’s 1865 novel. For good reason, the Playbill comes with a directory that describes in detail the fantastical characters, from the Cheshire Cat to the Mock Turtle. Jessie Nelson’s direction and Paloma Young’s costumes do a colorful job of using found objects (rags, faded posters, torn pages, old flags) to establish the situations and characters. The score, by the “Spring Awakening” composer-lyricist team  Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, front-loads the show with a couple of hit-ready tunes that border on infectious bubblegum.

But sometime between the Caterpillar and the Jabberwock, the novelty wears off and the narrative isn’t strong enough to push the show forward. It’s the problem with almost any “Alice in Wonderland” stage adaptation — or any picaresque tale, for that matter. A stringing together of scenes may work in novels or the movies, where the mise-en-scene is all-important, but the theater demands a stronger narrative drive. “Candide” has never completely resolved its book problems, despite many writers’ attempts. Erica Jong’s riff on Moll Flanders, “Fannie Hackabout-Jones,” sank fast. And it seems there’s always another “Tom Jones” musical out there that never sees the light of a stage.

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The title character in “Alice by Heart” does want something more than Carroll’s Alice. She wants the war to be over and she wants her boyfriend to live to see that day. Sater and Nelson’s book, however, never makes her desires strong enough to fuel the show. She’s no Dorothy looking to escape Oz and go home. The production also distances us from the drama by having Alice continually refer to the original book; she keeps dropping pages from Carroll’s novel. At several points, you may find yourself wanting to grab that book just so you know what’s going on.

While charismatic performers are always a plus, the actors here are uniformly arch and operating under the delusion that they’re a lot more fascinating than they are. Several are downright repellent in their depiction of Carroll’s creatures. And why does every English accent turn frighteningly American as soon as anyone sings?

Post-bubblegum, Sheik overloads “Alice by Heart” with a number of interchangeable ballads. The lyrics are another matter. Sitting in the theater, I couldn’t follow them. Reading them the next day, I found Sater’s wordplay vivid and imaginative, an effective replication of Carroll’s prose. Perhaps repeated listenings in the theater would help, but not that that’s likely ever to happen.

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Six years ago, Jackie Sibbles Drury wrote a play about a zombie apocalypse, titled “Social Creatures.” Her new play, which opened Monday at LCT’s Claire Tow Theater, is about a health-care apocalypse, titled “Marys Seacole.”

Mariana Sanchez’s very mutable set begins as a hospital room, but before anyone gets the idea that you’re in for another of those ponderous deathbed dramas, you should know that Drury will eventually take us to a battlefield in the Crimean War, where the real-life Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale carried out their own personal war to nurse the British soldiers there. (Seacole remains a controversial figure. Her statue in London continues to inspire protests from Nightingale’s fans.)

We’ll also witness a staged trauma rehearsal in a modern hospital that the fictional nurse Mary manages with slapstick panache. Both Marys were born in Jamaica, and are played in grand style by Quincy Tyler Bernstine, giving the performance of this winter season in New York City.

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Drury keeps switching the story between the two Marys, who appear to be in direct communication with each other a 100-plus years apart. They wear identical earphones. Bernstine manages the time lapses seamlessly, and is immeasurably aided by Lileana Blain-Cruz’s direction, which is both over-the-top and precisely what a big saga like “Marys Seacole” requires (despite its 90-minute running time.

Sitting through this version of the Crimean War in the tiny Tow Theater, you feel like you’ve visited a battlefield — and that doesn’t include the verbal fireworks between Seacole and Nightingale (Lucy Taylor, being comically condescending).

There are also quiet moments that expose a more seasoned sense of humor. The modern Mary and her younger Jamaican nurse friend Mamie (Gabby Beans) are minding their own business during a hospital break when a new mother (Ismenia Mendes) with a baby carriage feels the need to unload her problems on them.

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Sitting there on the park bench, Mary doesn’t say much; her expressions and gestures do all the talking as she cautions Mamie not to get involved with this person from the white world. It’s trouble. Mary and Mamie embody those caregivers you see on the streets of New York City, attending other people’s grandparents, and you wonder, who’s caring for their grandparents? It’s a dilemma Cruz makes abundantly clear with the play’s final tableau.

As written by Drury, neither Mary is a saint. The modern Mary’s tough façade probably doesn’t make her the greatest caregiver the world has ever seen. And far more curious is Drury’s portrait of the real Mary, who can’t stop talking about her mixed heritage and the strong Scottish blood coursing through her veins.

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A powerful visual leitmotif in “Marys Seacole” is the real Mary’s mother, who rarely leaves the stage or stops walking. She doesn’t say anything, but Karen Kandel makes her an awesome, towering presence. When she does finally open her mouth, it’s to rant: What’s her daughter doing caring for all those white people?

The Jamaican accents here are very pronounced, and not everything was unintelligible to these ears. Suffice to say, the ensuing spectacle of two titanic actors ripping into each other makes riveting theater, like hearing a great opera duet even when you don’t know the language being sung.

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Madeleine George clearly knows the housewives of New Jersey better than she does Greek gods. Her new play, “Hurricane Diane,” opened Thursday at the New York Theatre Workshop (in a joint production with the Women’s Project), and the comedy begins inauspiciously with a long monologue from Dionysus (Becca Blackwell), who feels the need to reintroduce himself to a no longer adoring public. He’s one god who isn’t talked about much anymore. He used to be famous. In Rome, they affectionately nicknamed him Bacchus, and women threw themselves at him. But that was millennia ago, and now he’s not only ready for a big comeback, but he’s a female, insists on being called Diane, and lives “outside of Burlington, Vermont — I had my own landscaping business up there with a focus on sustainability and small-scale permaculture.”

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“Hurricane Diane” improves mightily the second the lesbian goddess Diane shares the stage with a gaggle of housewives who live on a cul-de-sac in Monmouth County, New Jersey. These four “girls” (they call themselves “girls”) want to hire Diane to landscape, and each of them has a very definite idea of what should be done with her respective yard. Diane, for her part, will have none of the accent benches or flowering vines that match the color of the plastic shutters. She’s into sustainability and “permaculture,” and more important, she wants to screw all four wives, just like Dionysus used to do back in the good old days.

After their monologue, Blackwell holds their own with the girls. Blackwell prefers the pronoun “their,” and this trans performer gradually emerges in “Hurricane Diane” as a strong, sexy, silent type in the play’s many seductions and makeout sessions.

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The girls, on the other hand, are anything but quiet. When they’re all together on stage brainstorming on things pretty and mundane, “Hurricane Diane” turns into the very best moments from a “Real Housewives of New Jersey” reunion. As the Italian-American Pam, Danielle Skraastad gives a spot-on impersonation of real-life jailbird Teresa Giudice, only more deafening and defiant. Like a master stand-up comic, Pam demands that her backyard resemble the mural at a favorite Italian restaurant, complete with fountains, statues and terraces. Also hilarious are the somewhat more restrained riffs on leafy outdoor décor from her three neighbors: the persnickety Carol (Mia Barron), the pseudo-intellectual Renee (Michelle Beck) and the whimsical Beth (Kate Wetherhead), who wants a garden lovely enough to attract fairies.

Leigh Silverman’s direction makes sure that George’s biggest laughs come from the sprite one-liners, as well as the many things the housewives don’t tell each other to avoid hurt feelings. The subtext is often sublime and comes through loud and clear.

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In other words, “Hurricane Diane” is an inside hit job in the vein of Clare Boothe Luce’s “The Women” and Mary McCarthy’s “The Group.” It’s a post-feminist play by a female playwright giving us a very unflattering portrait of women. The husbands never appear, but no matter. They sound like they deserve being married to these women.

George’s satire on suburban living offers only two choices. Everybody can embrace Diane or ruin the planet with our eco-unfriendly dreams. It’s clear that we’re all doomed. But what a way to go!

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The only thing theater fanatics like better than talking about great shows is great flops. Call it the Joe Allen Effect.

The Fiasco Theater’s revival of “Merrily We Roll Along,” which opened Tuesday at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, included a replica of the old Alvin Theatre marquee in its purposefully cluttered set design (by Derek McLane).

The Alvin (now the Neil Simon Theatre) is where this Stephen Sondheim and George Furth musical opened in November 1981 and played 44 previews and only 16 regular performances. I saw one of those previews. Back in the 1970s, I saw every Sondheim musical in previews, then returned a month or two later to see what, if any, changes had been made.

Back then, we Sondheim acolytes had to contend with Clive Barnes, Walter Kerr and Richard Eder never giving the songwriter a good review in the New York Times. (Today, critics can’t rave enough about him, his every minor ditty considered a masterpiece.) “Merrily” shuttered too soon for me to see it twice. Never have I seen an audience put up such a wall of contempt for any show.

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“Merrily,” based on an original play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, tells in reverse the break-up of three friends: a songwriting team, Frank and Charley, and their novelist-critic pal Mary. Hal Prince’s original staging of the musical cast it with young actors just out of high school. That worked for the opening number, set at a high school graduation, but Furth’s book quickly fast-forwards to a movie-premiere party in Bel-Air where the characters are now middle-aged, drunk, drugged up and basically miserable.

I remember the spectacle vividly. Watching “Merrily” in 1981 was like watching a high school production of “Company,” and the preview audience at the Alvin rejected it. Completely.

The Fiasco’s “Merrily,” like many revivals of the musical, wisely cast it with actors closer to the age of those Bel-Air partygoers. By the time the characters have regressed (what other word is there?) to their early 20s, we’ve had time to get to know them, make the adjustment and identify.

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The problem is, I didn’t identify with the characters in 1981 and I don’t in 2019, even with age-appropriate ators in the roles. Worse, I don’t find them interesting on any level. Frank (Ben Steinfeld), Charley (Manu Narayan) and Mary (Jessie Austrian) are jaded, boozed up and bitter, and thanks to Furth’s book (drastically cut and tinkered with here) they are also witless.

Here’s how the sodden Mary tells off the Bel-Air crowd: “You are dull, you are dopey, you are dumb, you are despicable.” She left out “drippy.” Imagine Margo Channing or Edward Albee’s Martha telling off guests with mere alliteration.

Excised from the original book is a below-the-belt crack about aging movie stars who come to Broadway to resuscitate their career. I remember that anecdote getting real groans from the Alvin audience in 1981: Elizabeth Taylor had opened earlier that year in “Little Foxes.” But the nastiness, sans any gloss of sophistication, lingers in the current revival.

Over the years, critics like to defend Sondheim, saying that Furth’s book and Prince’s direction sabotaged his work. I’m not so sure that the score doesn’t contribute to problems stemming from the reverse narrative.

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“Merrily” isn’t the first musical to break rules of storytelling. Back in 1949, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II had the audacity to open “South Pacific” in an uncharacteristically intimate way, with a little number, “Dites-Moi Pourquoi,” sung in French by two children. Rodgers and Hammerstein got away with that gamble because, a few minutes later, they unleashed “Some Enchanted Evening.” The audience was smitten.

“Merrily” doesn’t get away with its audacious opening (a story told in reverse that begins with a lot of loud bores), in part, because Sondheim doesn’t deliver vintage Sondheim. We have to endure four scenes (and travel back in time 11 years) before we hear a strong tune like “Old Friends.” And even this soft-shoe is a retread of the soft-shoe “Side by Side by Side” from “Company.”

It’s followed by the exquisite “Not a Day Goes By.” But even this truly great number is undermined, being used to introduce a character, Frank’s first wife, Beth. Who is this woman Beth (Brittany Bradford radically overdramatizing the number) and why is she so pissed off at Frank?  The song is gone before we can identify the emotions that inspired it. Much later in the show, when “Not a Day Goes By” is reprised at Frank and Beth’s wedding, it’s genuinely haunting. However, the musical is almost over, and we’ve just suffered through a spoof on the Kennedys titled “Bobby and Jackie and Jack,” which is bottom-drawer Sondheim.

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While Frank and Charley are identified as geniuses who squander their talent, the only evidence we’re given of that talent, unfettered by commercial concerns, is that pale Kennedy number. If this is the best they’ve got, these guys wouldn’t be sneezed at in Hollywood.

Cutting a good half hour out of “Merrily” doesn’t solve the book’s problems. The cuts simply reduce each scene to a cliché: the drunken party, the extra-marital affair, the divorce, the pretentious cultural elite, the bitter in-laws.

Speaking of cuts, the original “Merrily” featured 27 performers, most of them making their Broadway debuts. The Fiasco production gives us six, which translates into double- and triple-casting for Paul L. Coffey, Emily Young and Bradford. Noah Brody’s direction doesn’t always make sense of what characters these three are playing. Brody handles the time element with greater ease but little finesse: Every few minutes, one of the actors yells out what year it’s supposed to be.

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One segue back in time sees Austrian shedding several costumes (by Paloma Young and Ashley Rose Horton) and spitting out lots of stage vermouth as well as three — count ‘em three — olives. Here’s hoping the cast is well versed in the Heimlich maneuver.

Like Pal Joey, Frank needs to be a star turn — someone who is charming, sexy and irresistible despite the fact he sells out, turns on his friends and cheats on women. The Fiasco’s Frank does manage to engender some sympathy, but not because of anything Steinfeld does. Austrian’s Mary and Narayan’s Charley look so ready to bite off Frank’s head from the get-go that you can’t help but want to protect him.

“Merrily” is a reminder of that old Broadway arrogance which routinely turned the movies and TV into inferior stepchildren. Who relates to that swill today? Also completely sham is Mary’s humblebrag about her best-selling novel and how success and fame aren’t what they’re cracked up to be. Mary ought to write a novel or two that doesn’t get published. She’ll acquire an overnight appreciation of success and fame.

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Nick Payne and Simon Stephens do their respective one-act monologues no favors by putting them together on a double bill. Even the starry solo turns of Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Sturridge can’t relieve the monotony of seeing Stephens’ “Sea Wall” and Payne’s “A Life” back to back with an intermission. The revival of these two plays opened Thursday at the Public Theater.

Very distant are the days when playwrights, like Edward Albee, routinely paired one-act plays, like “The American Dream” and “The Zoo Story.” Nowadays, theater companies are content to stage a 70- or even 60-minute play and call it a night at the theater.

(The Metropolitan Opera is one of the few theater companies in New York City where short works are consistently staged together.  The Met just concluded its joint run of Tchaikovsky’s “Iolanta” and Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” running three hours. Earlier this season, the company presented Puccini’s triptych “Il Trittico,” which clocked in at slightly over three and a half hours)

Those evenings at the opera, as well as Albee’s oft-paired combo, offer something sadly lacking with the Stephens/Payne coupling: variety.

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Since “Sea Wall” had its debut in 2008 and “A Life” (formerly burdened with the title “The Art of Dying”) followed six years later, Stephens can be said to have gotten there first to write a monologue about death in which the man’s grief is so overwhelming that he can’t cogently tell us the story of what happened.

Yes, in his monologue, Alex (Sturridge) always returns to the death that has wounded him, but he mixes it up with what, at first hearing, seem to be unrelated topics. He tells us how best to photograph people and that Jane Austen didn’t write detective fiction, as if anyone were asking. He recalls going scuba diving and encountering a great underwater sea wall.

In an amazing feat of literalism, Sturridge climbs a ladder to teeter precariously on an upstage wall (set design by Laura Jellinek). There’s also talk of pi, or the Archimedes’ constant. In his plays, Stephens is big on math references, which never fail to impress theater critics who majored in the liberal arts.

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The math references, as well as other digressions, have to do with God. They are the kind of ramblings you heard from that annoying college freshman in your dorm who recently returned from a Lars von Trier film festival.

Alex’s non sequiturs are meant to show his discombobulated state of mind, but soon devolve into a playwright’s tic. “Sea Wall” is not helped by Sturridge’s jerky performance. Every fifth or sixth word is punched, as if English is Alex’s second language, and Sturridge never stops attacking the air around him, as if shadow-boxing with his right hand. He appears most excited when correctly pronouncing a French location — the play is replete with such place names since the death in question takes place in the south of France.

Carrie Cracknell directs “Sea Wall” with a minimum of fuss. She makes up for that minimalism by pulling out every directorial cliché to stage “A Life.”

A stagehand enters the dimly lit stage only to miraculously morph into Jake Gyllenhaal! Cracknell and designer Peter Kaczorowski immediately place him under a spotlight for the duration of the play. He’s the movie star, all right, but designer Kaye Voyce attempts to remedy his good looks by putting Gyllenhaal in baggy pants and a lumpy green cardigan sweater that almost but not quite covers his plaid flannel shirt. Directors used to do this kind of deglamorization with Julia Roberts in her post-“Pretty Woman” film career, as if to prove she could really act.

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A far greater problem than the costume is that spotlight. This effect might work for anyone sitting in the first four rows, but it’s a trial for everybody else in the very narrow, long space that is the Newman Theater at the Public.

And the lighting only gets worse. About halfway through “A Life,” Gyllenhaal leaves the stage to walk through the audience, illuminated by his iPhone. You will pay no more attention to what he’s saying during this excursion than you do when Bryan Cranston holds court in the audience in Broadway’s “Network.”

Payne is better at the non sequiturs than Stephens. Then again, the design here is more obvious: Gyllenhaal’s character keeps going back and forth between the death of his father and the birth of his daughter. It’s an effectively sentimental play, and Payne isn’t above throwing in John Lennon’s “Imagine” to give the heartstrings a good workout. It’s also a deeply naive play. Only a playwright under the age of 40 would tell us that we plan for birth but we don’t plan for death.

Not that I’ve kept count over the years, but I don’t recall ever seeing a play in which “ER” is mentioned. Until now. Stephens and Payne’s respective characters each mention the TV show that not only made George Clooney a star but had so much to say about these playwrights’ favorite subjects: life and death.

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‘Switzerland’ Theater Review: Patricia Highsmith Takes Another Shot at Ripley

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An editor from a New York publishing house arrives in Switzerland to convince the reclusive and notoriously difficult Patricia Highsmith to write another Tom Ripley novel. That intriguing premise is the subject of Joanna Murray-Smith’s “Switzerland,” which opened Thursday at Off Broadway’s 59E59 Theater under the auspices of the Hudson Stage Company. The play was first performed in 2014 at the Sydney Theatre Company.

For the first few minutes of “Switzerland,” you might be reminded of the recent Broadway hit “The Lifespan of a Fact,” based on a real-life incident regarding a persnickety fact-checker and a recalcitrant writer who harbors an odd notion of what constitutes nonfiction. “Lifespan” made total nonsense of how the magazine world works; in fact, despite its many references to writer John D’Agata and editor Jim Fingal, much of the play was pure fiction.

Murray-Smith (“Honour” on Broadway, 1998) has a much more grounded idea of how things like articles and books get published. In “Switzerland,” the editor named Edward (Daniel Petzold) talks like he might actually work for a publishing house. Although he looks and sounds a little young for such an assignment, it makes sense that no one else at his place of employ wanted to go to Switzerland after Highsmith (Peggy J. Scott) physically threatened the life of the last editor who made the trip.

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But seeing “Switzerland,” you might also understand why the “Lifespan” authors (Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell) felt the need to hoke up their drama with so much publishing malarkey, beginning with a fact-checker and an editor who fly across the country to make sure their writer hasn’t committed libel, among lesser crimes.

Editing and writing are not inherently theatrical activities; they require solitude, and an audience is anathema to the process.

“Switzerland” has the advantage that its subject isn’t a pretentious writer of magazine essays who believes he’s really writing Pulitzer Prize-worthy nonfiction. Murray-Smith’s subject is the racist, anti-Semitic, lesbian, misandric, cat-adoring, chain-smoking, alcoholic and utterly brilliant writer of “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Strangers on a Train” and other classics of suspense, apprehension and murder.

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It’s very possible that the real Highsmith was not a female Oscar Wilde whose every exquisitely wrapped utterance deserved repeating. Murray-Smith makes Highsmith sound intelligent, but too often her bigotry and quirks, like raising a small farm of snails that she lets loose in her guest’s bed, register as little more than distinctly unpleasant.

The slowly evolving plot for the new Ripley novel is also something less than ingenious. Murray-Smith almost makes up for those deficiencies by delivering a good twist before the final curtain. Petzold handles the switch with great aplomb.

Scott also is a delight to watch. She doesn’t look like the real Highsmith, but reminded me of Pauline Kael if the late film critic were having a very bad day.

Dan Foster directs.

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Loy A. Webb gives herself only 70 minutes to tell the story of a young Chicago couple who are on the verge of getting married only to see those romantic dreams shattered over an argument regarding concert tickets.

In “The Light,” which opened Sunday at MCC’s brand-new Robert W. Wilson Theater Space, is a fast, sometimes funny, and ultimately furious 70 minutes, and what makes it all the more remarkable is that Webb tells the story of Rashad and Genesis in real time.

There’s such a thing as guilty pleasure in the theater. Webb’s “The Light,” as directed by Logan Vaughn and performed by McKinley Belcher III and Mandi Masden, gives us something far more unusual. It’s what could be called guilty unease.

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The Wilson Theater Space is intimate, and Kimie Nishikawa’s scenic design for “The Light” positions the audience just beyond the sofa and chairs in Genesis’ modern, upscale living room. The actors’ space is our space, and we’re all breathing the same charged-up air. Vaughn delivers such controlled performances from Belcher and Masden that we’re not so much watching them perform as eavesdropping on their scorching dispute.

“The Light,” which first played last fall at Chicago’s New Colony, is not one of those two-handers that leisurely takes its time to get started. Early on, Masden’s Genesis complains about a female teacher at her Chicago charter school, where she is principal, who has taken the side of Brett Kavanaugh, against assault accuser Christine Blasey Ford, in the recent Supreme Court confirmation hearings. (Among other things, “The Light” is very up to date with its chitchat.) Belcher’s Rashad thinks the teacher should be fired, but as his girlfriend points out, that teacher hasn’t broken any rules.

In interviews, Webb has said that she wrote “The Light” in response to the controversy regarding not Kavanaugh but rather the actor and film director Nate Parker, whose “The Birth of a Nation” appeared to be on the fast track to Academy Award glory in 2016 before rape accusations surfaced (he was acquitted at trial).

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Parker isn’t mentioned in “The Light,” but Webb creates a vivid character we never meet but who possibly stands in for him and is very much why Genesis refuses to attend a concert to which Rashad has proudly secured some expensive V.I.P. tickets.

Before Genesis makes her secret known, “The Light” races along as one of those polemic plays in the tradition of David Mamet’s “Oleanna.” Webb masterfully gives us the woman’s side, then the man’s side, and back and forth it goes. The dialogue crackles with wit and intelligence. But Webb delves deeper than a staged essay.

“The Light” is structured around two big secrets, one for each character. Genesis’ revelation is a bombshell and a total shock to her boyfriend. But Webb wisely withholds details about Rashad’s own troubled history until Genesis detonates an incident from his past to achieve maximum impact in her argument. Just when we’re totally on Genesis’ side, Webb shifts some of that empathy to Rashad.

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Notably, there’s one detail that is never directly addressed but that repeatedly gums up the characters’ romance. Tucked in the edges of the drama is the issue of class, and how Rashad as a firefighter lives a step or two under Genesis’ social and financial position in Chicago. He makes serious misstatements regarding a woman’s allegations, but she patronizes him, saying that he’s a success when, in fact, he deservedly harbored far greater ambitions for himself.

From #Me Too to Black Lives Matter, “The Light” plays host to a number of issues, but what’s really at the core of Webb’s play is the eternal battle of the sexes. Rashad and Genesis can’t help but talk around each other’s pain.

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‘My Fair Lady’ Broadway Review: Laura Benanti’s Eliza Doolittle Suffers a Midlife Crisis

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You’ve never met a more determined Eliza Doolittle than Laura Benanti’s. Lincoln Center Theatre’s revival of “My Fair Lady” continues in grand, sumptuous form under the direction of Bartlett Sher at the Vivian Beaumont, but with a big difference.

Benanti’s flower girl is no girl at all. She’s an independent, grown-up woman who knows precisely what she wants in life even before Professor Henry Higgins overpays her for a bunch of posies in the marketplace of Covent Garden. All she needs is more money to buy new clothes, acquire some manners and lose her Cockney accent. As played by Benanti, Eliza isn’t an ingénue on the verge of a fabulous new adventure like Lauren Ambrose, who previously starred in this revival. Rather, she sees Henry Higgins as the last best chance to escape her father, poverty and life on the street.

Danny Burstein is this production’s new Alfred Doolittle, and while deliciously low, he’s just as headstrong as his independent daughter. Both wish for something big, they get it, and end up suffering a mighty midlife disappointment. Their mutual existential angst is palpable.

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Late in the show, Henry calls Eliza a “tower of strength,” but in this pairing of Benanti and Harry Hadden-Paton, who continues in the master-teacher role, he’s the one who goes through the much greater transformation. Why did he ever underestimate her? His “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” is a mad, frantic scramble to appreciate her towering personality.

That personality, however, is a little schizo. Benanti has the vocal range to sing Eliza, but an idiosyncrasy of her voice is that it takes on a prim, studied quality above the register break or “passaggio.” This operetta approach worked better in “She Loves Me,” her last Broadway musical assignment. In “My Fair Lady,” when Benanti is supposed to be at her most dynamic, suddenly Eliza turns into a latter-day Jeanette MacDonald.

Hadden-Paton is every bit as manically wonderful as he was when this revival opened last spring, and continues to be partnered marvelously by Allan Corduner’s Colonel Pickering. They are two ships that cross on stage. In the beginning, when Hadden-Paton is the epitome of confidence and calm, Corduner is all nervous insecurity. In the second act, they nimbly trade places.

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Christian Dante White made a big stir last season subbing for Gavin Creel in “Hello, Dolly!” with Bette Midler. As Freddy Eynsford-Hill, he emphasizes the buffoonish side of this love-struck character; there’s not a smidgen of British reserve on display here, but his ebullience is infectious. And vocally he’s stupendous. In the future, theatergoers can look forward to White scoring big time in any number of classic Broadway musicals.

A genuine theater legend, Rosemary Harris gives us a definitive Mrs. Higgins.

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How can one actor be so good and another so misguided in the same production? That bizarre mash-up happens in the Roundabout’s new revival of Sam Shepard’s “True West,” which opened Thursday at Broadway’s American Airlines Theatre. Indeed, how can Ethan Hawke deliver such a grandiose, inspired performance as the bad brother Lee across the stage from a wan, overly ironic performance by Paul Dano that flirts with embodying, but never grabs hold of, the good brother Austin? James Macdonald directs this very unbalanced spectacle.

Hawke nails Lee. He’s the real thing even though he’s playing a great fake, a would-be cowboy who desperately hangs on to some outmoded idea of rugged individualism in a world that no longer believes in John Wayne, much less a true man of the West. Hawke is giving the performance of his stage career, an achievement made even more remarkable in light of his current film work. In “First Reformed,” he essays a man of God who’s as repressed as Lee is out of control.

Dano, on the other hand, camps it up in “True West.” He’s perfectly acceptable in the first act when he’s supposed to be playing the good brother who has a family and is in the middle of what appears to be a somewhat successful filmwriting career. But nowhere in that first act does he give any glimmer of the gravitas that makes him a formidable force against Lee in the second act.

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Dano’s is not an incompetent performance in the vein of Madonna’s in “Speed-the-Plow” or Peter Krause’s in “After the Fall,” which also played at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre. Those two actors couldn’t get beyond the basics of making us believe they were doing anything more than reading a script.

Dano has mastered a low-key, naturalistic style of speaking, but Austin is anything but understated in the second act when he challenges his brother for supremacy in their mother’s house, as well as the world beyond. Dano doesn’t make a convincing drunk, which is a real problem for a role that requires his character to be totally smashed for most of the second act. But more serious is his inability to match Hawke’s energy, presence and intensity. Instead of confronting Lee, Dano’s Austin literally flounces. At the end of a line reading, he adds a silly gesture, like flicking his wrist or bumping his hips. The audience rewards him with nervous giggles. He’s playing camp while Hawke’s playing real.

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“True West” was last seen on Broadway in 2000 with John C. Reilly and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. They switched lead roles throughout the run, and there was real logic to that casting legerdemain. They were clearly two bad apples who had fallen from the same tree. Hawke and Dano aren’t even distant cousins.

As the two men’s mother, Marylouise Burke is much less mannered than usual, having almost if not completely retired her pixilated persona here. Gary Wilmes plays to perfection the stereotype of a Hollywood movie producer that Shepard no doubt despised.

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Male drag is a staple of the theater. Female drag, uh, not so much. So it’s good news to report that Amy Staats’ new bio-comedy, “Eddie and Dave,” makes spectacular use of its female actors in male roles, in this case, the rockers Alex and Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth. “Eddie and Dave” opened Tuesday at the Atlantic Theater Company.

Yes, the men of Van Halen are being played by women, although that fourth band member, Michael Anthony, gets an entirely different kind of stage treatment, which will not be revealed here but is worth more than a few hearty laughs.

Two summers ago, the Public Theater staged a disastrous “The Taming of the Shrew” with an all-female cast at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. When men play women, it’s inherently funny because what you get are a lot of larger-than-life women. Going in reverse with the Bard, the female actors of “Shrew” simply turned themselves into a lot of little men trying to be gruff and vulgar, and coming up, well, short.

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In “Eddie and Dave,” Megan Hill (Dave), Amy Staats (Eddie) and Adina Verson (Al) do something far more imaginative under Margot Bordelon’s super-sharp direction. They startle us by being the little boy that is at the heart of every rock-and-roll star. They’re not playing men. They’re playing petty, pampered, spoiled, solipsistic little boys who only occasionally resemble adults, but for the most part spend their time trashing hotel rooms and showing up late for an important recording session.

These female actors also have that androgynous thing down pat, what Mick Jagger personified before he turned 30. Hill, especially, sports Jagger’s obscene mouth, and she uses it and the rest of her body for magnificent semi-virile effect.

Vanessa Aspillaga, playing an MTV VJ, narrates the rise and fall and semi-resurrection of the band known as Van Halen, starting with their disastrous reunion at the MTV Music Awards in 1996. I’m not sure if Aspillaga is playing male or female, but unlike most narrators in the theater, she’s worth watching in her own right.

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The credits includes the following line: “The only thing real about this play is the author’s love for a certain band.” Experts on Van Halen may disagree. Included here is Eddie’s unlikely marriage to erstwhile TV star Valerie Bertinelli, whom everyone simply calls Val in “Eddie and Dave,” and is played with hysterical feminine charm by Omer Abbas Salem. He towers over Staats, but they don’t let that get in the way of showing tender love for each other.

Staats hasn’t found quite the right ending for “Eddie and Dave.” The comedy and the chaos tend to dribble off in the last 10 minutes of this 90-minute play. Maybe she should end things with David proclaimed as the “Este Lauder of tattoos.”

‘Colin Quinn: Red State Blue State’ Theater Review: How Not to Pick Sides in 2019

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Colin Quinn returns to the New York stage with his sixth one-man show, “Colin Quinn: Red State Blue State,” which opened Tuesday at Off Broadway’s Minetta Lane Theatre. Despite that title, the former Comedy Central, MTV and “SNL” star doesn’t take political sides in his gentle diatribe on what’s wrong with America. Previously, Quinn’s shows have been recorded by Netflix or HBO. Audible is on board this time with “Red State Blue State,” and the show seems designed for an audience far beyond the West Village theatergoer who usually buys a ticket to the Minetta Lane. In other words, no one could possibly be offended, upset or even mildly irritated by anything Quinn has to say in “RSBS.” And that’s a real problem.

Which is not to say that this stand-up comic is anything but consistently clever. The audience awards him with nonstop guffaws. According to Quinn, the United States of America is a concept that has “run its course…isn’t working out…didn’t really pan out…we’re running on fumes… we got greedy.”

He predicts a revolution, but what would the “Battle of Six Flags” look like, he wonders, and how about all those “fat refugees” fleeing the country to, where, Mexico?

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Often, Quinn makes perfect sense. “Every 700 miles people have different personalities,” he says. After all, shouldn’t people from New Jersey and Utah be as different as people from Scotland and Yugoslavia?

Other stuff is scatterbrained but fun. He puts the “end of humanity” at the time when “robots,” i.e., cars, replaced “horses,” and no one cared. So why shouldn’t robots replace humans?

Quinn puts most of the blame on social media, a favorite punching bag that no one could argue with in 2019. People don’t meet or talk to each other anymore, meaning that the future will be nothing but “roaches, rats and Amazon delivery trucks.” More novel is his take on Tindr, and how even Caligula would be aghast enough to opine, “This is s—!”

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Quinn is at his funniest when he takes on — no surprise — Donald Trump. He doesn’t resort to the beach-blond wig, the obscenely long red tie or turning his mouth into a cat’s anus. Quinn doesn’t even sound that much like the president, but he replicates his one-syllable bombast (“great”) to perfection. So how come every state in the union, even those that didn’t vote for Trump, get the same one or two-sentence take-down? (Michigan: “No one’s going back to Detroit. Drop it.”)

“Red State Blue State” is the ultimate feel-good false-equivalency show.

Bobby Moresco directs.

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It takes Eugene O’Neill nearly four hours to reveal that Mary Tyrone is a closeted drug addict in “A Long Day’s Journey into Night.” Jack Neary takes only 100 minutes — including an intermission — to deliver far more reveals, a few of them false, in his new play, “Trick or Treat,” which opened Sunday at the 59E59 Theater.

In the first act of “Trick or Treat,” which takes place on Halloween, Neary maintains an uncomfortable balance between farcical comedy and kitchen-sink drama. The jokes about Justin Bieber and the Kardashians seem forced coming from the mouth of the 60-something father, Johnny (Gordon Clapp), who relishes dishing out supersize candy to all the kids in the neighborhood. Clapp convincingly plays this latter-day Archie Bunker who dotes on Tucker Carlson. But then he quickly, too quickly for the good of the play, makes a bold confession to his adult daughter, Claire (Jenni Putney). He embellishes it with scatological details that more than squelch any laughter despite the noisy appearance of a nosey neighbor, Hannah (Kathy McCafferty), who smells something foul afoot, and her old boyfriend, Johnny’s hothead cop-son Teddy (David Mason), who clearly has anger management issues not only on the job but with Hannah.

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Carol Dunne’s direction never finds the right focus in this short but confused first act. Then again, her actors have been given the near-impossible task of having to play high drama in an absurd situation with a few sit-com jokes thrown in the mix. It’s a little like watching “Arsenic and Old Lace” if one or both of the aunts had Alzheimer’s and wore Depends.

What Neary does pull off with complete success is the surprise appearance of the play’s most talked-about character. It’s the kind of coup de théâtre that can only be followed by a quick blackout and that aforementioned intermission. For the next 15 minutes, the theater buzzes with, “I didn’t see that coming!”

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The New York stage is currently overcrowded with mentally challenged women. In “The Ferryman” and “Girl From the North Country” (to reopen, on Broadway, this spring), we’re treated to elderly female characters who exhibit a kind of magical Alzheimer’s that gives them great wisdom, as well as the power to see the future. Nancy in “Trick or Treat” is closer to Gladys in “The Waverly Gallery,” the role now essayed by Elaine May on Broadway. Kathy Manfre in “Trick or Treat” is nearly as good as May, and helps to ground the far more stable second act of Neary’s play.

Gone are the jokes about pop stars, but the twists in the plot keep piling up, pushing “Trick or Treat” into soap-opera territory. Mason is so effective as the cop-gone-wrong that we almost believe he could cause so much havoc. But much of that havoc comes from there being way too much plot.

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