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Articles by Joseph Pisano

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About Joseph Pisano (40 Articles)
Joseph Pisano writes about theater and film. His work has appeared in Cineaste, The Atlantic, The Village Voice, Slant Magazine, and several other publications. He has now lived in New York long enough to be called a New Yorker by people who have lived here all of their lives.

Pumpgirl

November 20, 2019

Told as a series of alternating, interlocking monologues, there is a "Rashomon"-esque quality to "Pumpgirl" that grows more obvious as the play's story comes into focus. Not only do the relationships between the characters subjectively deepen as they each take their turns speaking under lighting designer Michael O'Connor's isolating glare, but a life-altering crime is also revealed, one that is committed with  stomach-churning cruelty. Though, unlike in the Kurosawa movie, its details are never in doubt. [more]

Bella Bella

October 31, 2019

Like a great many history plays, Harvey Fierstein's "Bella Bella" is as much about the present as the past, paralleling everything that's gone wrong now with what went wrong then. Unsurprisingly, it's also shamelessly biased, with the first word in the play's title apparently meant to be read in Italian as part of Fierstein's banally straightforward tribute to Bella Abzug, the feistiest of feisty 1970's New York City politicians, best known for her take-no-prisoners liberalism as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. One's enjoyment of the play probably depends on how prone you are to clap or hiss along with the rest of the unambiguously sympathetic Manhattan Theatre Club audience, even if it's only in your own head. [more]

The Rose Tattoo

October 28, 2019

To be sure, Serafina and Alvaro's romance is less than credible, but director Trip Cullman wisely commits to it completely, recognizing that Williams really hasn't given him any other choice. Luckily for Cullman, he has the ebullient Tomei to portray Serafina and keep the audience from losing faith that the character's happy ending is just over that lovely Gulf Coast horizon, no matter what miseries she's endured. [more]

Mothers

September 26, 2019

The first act of Anna Moench's "Mothers" concludes with a genuine shock as the playwright startlingly upends all of our expectations. Visually punctuated by Wilson Chin's suddenly not-so-stable set, this audacious turn suggests Moench's intermittently funny satire of upper middle-class motherhood at a "Gymboree-style playroom" has only been a prelude to something much more challenging and profound. Unfortunately, what you soon begin to suspect is that Moench just ran out of narrative steam and started writing something else. [more]

Only Yesterday

September 16, 2019

As John, Christopher Sears is an enjoyable pill, perfectly offset by Tommy Crawford's Paul whose amiable placidity is almost Buddha-like. More importantly, both actors have impressive musical chops, which wonderfully serves Stevens' truncated overview of Paul and John's tuneful reminiscing about their musical influences: Chuck Berry, Bobby Freeman, Gene Vincent. Sears even has the opportunity to do a bit of Elvis Presley hip swiveling that feels absolutely perfect in its oh-so-British imperfection. [more]

Moscow Moscow Moscow

July 30, 2019

Halley Feiffer's new comedy, the obsessively titled "Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow," is an intermittently funny ten-minute parody of Anton Chekhov's "Three Sisters." Unfortunately, it goes on for another hour and twenty-five minutes, tiresomely recycling jokes and shallow insights until you begin to wonder if Feiffer actually read the Russian playwright's work or just a Wikipedia synopsis for her cooler-than-thou "adaptation," which seems motivated by a strange desire to ridicule not only Chekhov's characters but also anyone who might feel bad for them. So, be forewarned, if you have an ounce of sentimentality in your soul, it may seem as if the laughter heard during the production (and, to be fair, there was a lot of it) is to some extent directed at you. [more]

The Plough and the Stars

May 7, 2019

The Irish Repertory Theatre ends its thirtieth season by going back to the beginning, with a sturdy revival of Sean O'Casey's "The Plough and the Stars." An historical prequel to the other two plays in O'Casey's Dublin Trilogy, it was also the Irish Rep's inaugural production, a daring choice that essentially served as an artistic mission statement, signalling a commitment not to shy away from Ireland's ever-contested past. [more]

The Poor of New York

April 30, 2019

One of the theater's most skilled 19th-century melodramatists, Boucicault was uninterested in the finer points of history, character development, or narrative objectivity which, of course, is why, as the Metropolitan Playhouse's lively revival of "The Poor of New York" demonstrates, his works are often so much fun. That doesn't mean they're untruthful; it's just that Boucicault wasn't prone to letting a bunch of cumbersome details and ho-hum dramaturgical considerations get in the way of a good story or a necessary cause. But if you're aching to learn how Andrew Jackson's monetary policies and the peculiarities of his personality might have contributed to a downturn in the American economy, there's always the hope Aaron Sorkin will eventually write that play. [more]

Juno and the Paycock

April 12, 2019

From this group of familiar faces, O'Reilly and Keating are particularly strong in their second go-around, finding notes in Jack and Joxer's codependent relationship that are both hilarious and hideous. With his almost sneering delivery of Joxer's obsequious and vowel-rich responses ("it's a darlin' funeral, a daarlin' funeral"), Keating's performance is especially brilliant, pitched just before the point when servility turns into hate. As for Jack, O'Reilly brushes aside his litany of faults to make him a first-rate charmer, capable of snatching a smile from Juno even after he's brought the overburdened woman to her wit's end. [more]

The Shadow of a Gunman

February 21, 2019

Director Ciarán O’Reilly handles O'Casey's abrupt tonal shifts well, transitioning from laughter to tears to horror with barely a hint of contrivance. A top-notch production team greatly aids O’Reilly's quest for authenticity, turning the performance space into an impressive simulacrum of war-torn Dublin. Leading the effort is Charlie Corcoran whose incredibly detailed set spreads out into the audience, where a gloomy, ramshackle corridor deposits theatergoers into seats bracketed by crumbling brick walls and overhung with clotheslines burdened by the tenants' latest washings. [more]

Alone It Stands

January 17, 2019

Breen's script, a succession of rapid-fire vignettes divided in half by an unnecessary intermission, tries to compensate for its lack of depth with imagined multitudes. According to a promotional flyer, the production's six actors portray a total of sixty-two characters. While I feel confident enough in my counting abilities to verify the former, I'll leave the latter to someone whose obsessiveness exceeds my own. That person might also have to be a little generous in regards to defining what constitutes a character. [more]

The Emperor’s Nightingale

December 4, 2018

Although Chua is less interested in beauty for beauty's sake than Andersen, the look and sound of "The Emperor's Nightingale" is still stunning, drawing on a wealth of traditional Chinese art forms to both enliven and culturally ground the story. Leading the way are Joseph Wolfslau's period-inspired score and You-Shin Chen's eye-popping set, which pays lovely tribute to the art of Chinese paper cutting. Leslie Smith's lighting design nicely highlights all of the wonderful colors in Chen's set, as well as those found in Karen Boyer's lambent costumes, which do imaginative justice to human and animal alike. [more]

The Thanksgiving Play

November 6, 2018

Many comic artists have noted that great humor often comes from great tragedy, though, inevitably, sometimes the latter overwhelms the former, and all you’re left with is a lot of indignation and nobody laughing. As the late Joan Rivers once remarked, "comedy is anger, but anger is not comedy." It's a maxim that the Sicangu Lakota writer Larissa FastHorse takes to heart in "The Thanksgiving Play," as she manages to keep us smiling while four white characters attempt to turn a half-millenium of genocide into a 45-minute children's show. [more]

Thunderbodies

October 29, 2018

In Kate Tarker's satiric "Thunderbodies," America is a relentlessly strange place, where people spout nonsense, act without reason, and are led by the narcissistic man-baby they've elected president. To state that the playwright has hit the nail right on the head might sound like a compliment, but it's not, mostly because Tarker accomplishes this small feat with very little wit and even less insight. Substituting outrageousness for both, she tosses the play down a Rabelaisian rabbit hole, desperately trying to hold on to our attention at the cost of anything that might demand just a little bit more. [more]

On Beckett

October 18, 2018

Along with excerpts from Godot and a couple of Beckett's novels, Irwin relies heavily on several "arcane" prose pieces from a collection Beckett dubbed "Texts for Nothing." Irwin was first introduced to them by one of his mentors, the late Joseph Chaikin, a much-respected figure in the theater world who, like Irwin, did a lot of everything well. Using all of these works as a guide, Irwin traces the development of not only Beckett's artistic voice but his Irish one, too, returning it to the place it originally called home. [more]

Wild Abandon

October 8, 2018

What our mothers owe us - and what we owe them - is at the heart of Leenya Rideout's one-woman autobiographical show, "Wild Abandon." In it, the prodigiously accomplished singer, songwriter, playwright, actor, and multi-instrumentalist comes to terms with both her mother's life and her own. Perhaps these twin goals converge a bit too neatly, especially given the harrowingly true complications Leenya introduces along the way, but there are so many hard-earned and poignant insights in "Wild Abandon" that the end result is successful nonetheless. [more]

I Was Most Alive with You

September 26, 2018

In Craig Lucas’s "I Was Most Alive with You," two down-on-their-luck television writers mine recent personal tragedy for their latest project, hoping, with the Book of Job as their inspirational guide, to set both their careers and the universe in order. Although suffering has touched each of them, Ash (Michael Gaston), a late middle-aged recovering alcoholic in a bad marriage, is the much more forlorn figure. Like Job, Ash has hit one of those rough patches in life, where, if you’re a person of faith, you might start to suspect that your higher power doesn’t like you very much. [more]

Agnes

September 16, 2018

Unfortunately, Worsham’s efforts just confirm the play’s central problem: only the relationship between June and Charlie has any real depth. As for the rest of the characters, although McMullen’s writing is clever, too many of the lines are focused on eliciting laughs rather than explaining why these people are choosing to shelter together. It doesn’t help matters that the play’s lighting by Cheyenne Sykes and sound design by Daniel Melnick are wholly devoted to overdramatizing Charlie’s Asperger’s while failing to offer much-needed periodic reminders of the torrential plot device that keeps everyone from fleeing the cramped apartment. [more]

Comfort Women: A New Musical

July 30, 2018

In telling the rest of this shattering story, the creators of Comfort Women, inexplicably, rely heavily on musical theater conventions that result in wrongheaded, if not downright offensive, choices. The most cringeworthy is the choreographed sequence of a Korean woman being gang raped by Japanese soldiers. At some point, in their effort to visualize this atrocity, director Dimo Hyun Jun Kim and choreographer Natanal Hyun Kim should have realized that they were, in fact, trivializing it. [more]

Brecht on Brecht

July 25, 2018

But when things slow down a bit, especially during the musical interludes and longer dramatic pieces, Petosa’s eight performers -- four lead (Christine Hamel; Jake Murphy; Harrison Bryan; and Carla Martinez) and four supporting (Miguel Castillo; Sebastian LaPointe; Olivia Christie; and Ashley Michelle) -- are an absolute wonder, gracefully tackling a head-spinning array of difficult subjects, including xenophobia, social inequality, and infanticide. And thanks to Hallie Zieselman’s bare set, Annie Ulrich’s modest costumes, and Joe Cabrera’s vibrant lighting, they accomplish it all in a decidedly Brechtian way. [more]

Desperate Measures

June 14, 2018

Shakespearean spoofs are almost as old as Shakespeare himself, dating back to at least the Restoration period. Although the vast majority has faded into history, there are still some real standouts like the classic musical "Kiss Me, Kate," which thanks largely to Cole Porter is arguably even more enjoyable than its source material, a rare feat that the relatively new musical "Desperate Measures," now in its second off-Broadway run, also accomplishes. [more]

Woman and Scarecrow

June 5, 2018

Unfortunately, O'Reilly’s heavy reliance on the production team is also indicative of a significant problem: the play is repetitive. Despite finding new, and often lovely, poetic ways to convey the centrality of death to life, Carr’s thoughts and arguments quickly begin to sound like the same melody over and over again, just in a different key. O’Reilly tries to distract us from this fault by giving the Gottlieb-Rumery-Corcoran trio creative free rein; the deathbed, for example, frequently looks like it’s floating somewhere in the cosmos. But the images invariably keep giving way to the words, which, though beautiful, grow tiresome by the second act. [more]

Light Shining in Buckinghamshire

May 14, 2018

There’s a brilliant play buried somewhere in Caryl Churchill’s "Light Shining in Buckinghamshire," a bottom-up historical epic about the English Civil War that the acclaimed British writer developed collaboratively with director Max Stafford-Clark and a group of actors back in 1976. Fifteen years later, it premiered stateside at the New York Theatre Workshop, where it has just returned for a ploddingly drawn-out second go-around that yielded a lot of empty second-act seats on the night I attended. [more]

Replay

May 10, 2018

To be sure, there are examples of talented playwrights who have also been able to tread the boards without tripping over their feet, or tongues. Harold Pinter, Noël Coward, Tracy Letts: they all come quickly to mind. Some theater historians have even argued that Shakespeare might have been a pretty good actor, too. But, still, it’s exceedingly rare to find a playwright like Nicola Wren, who can bring her words to life with as much passion and grace as she set them down. [more]

We Live by the Sea

April 26, 2018

Devised collaboratively by Patch of Blue, a London-based theater company, the play also benefits from a talented supporting cast. Alexandra Simonet makes Hannah’s caretaker fatigue evident before she even says a word, but, somehow, you also never doubt her commitment to Katy. And Lizzie Grace is an absolute delight as Paul Williams, especially during a monologue late in the play, in which she pontificates on the importance of imaginary friends and gives insights into Katy that are both touching and profound. As for Ryan, Tom Coliandris does what he can with his character’s tacked-on back-story, but he shines when he’s simply required to be a warm, caring and decent presence. [more]

This Flat Earth

April 13, 2018

But, unfortunately, Ferrentino squanders this intriguing setup, getting lost in existential musings that end up being nowhere near as complicated as her subject matter. The first signs of trouble are actually percolating even before the play begins. As we enter the theater, Cloris (Lynda Gravátt), Julie and Dan’s elderly neighbor, is already perched in the upstairs apartment of Dane Laffrey’s two-story set. And there she remains for the entire play, a constant presence hovering over the action below. Initially, you wonder about her and, then, you feel sorry for the actor, hoping she’ll be given something more to do than just putter around. Eventually, however, after a couple of pat exchanges with Julie, it all becomes cringingly clear. Cloris isn’t a character at all; she’s an inspirational device, one that Ferrentino unleashes with full, and shameless, force at the play’s tear-jerking conclusion. [more]

Three Small Irish Masterpieces

March 30, 2018

It’s impossible to discuss the history of modern Irish drama without reference to William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory, and John Millington Synge, who, at the beginning of the last century, helped to found the National Theatre of Ireland. With "Three Small Irish Masterpieces," this literary trinity receives a heartfelt, if somewhat exaggerated, nod from the Irish Repertory Theatre, which, over the last few decades, has proven its own indispensability, too. [more]

Three Wise Guys

March 12, 2018

Just in time for Easter, TACT/The Actors Company Theatre has adapted and combined  two Christmas-themed Damon Runyon short stories into the seasonally inappropriate, but nonetheless very charming, "Three Wise Guys." Gleefully peppered with Runyon’s distinctive demi-monde argot, or Runyonese, the comedic play depicts a Prohibition-era New York of principled crooks and hustlers who, in true Runyon style, end up having hearts much bigger than their ill-gotten bankrolls, which, of course, doesn’t mean they’re ready to commit to their matrimonially frustrated gal pals. Like another Runyon adaptation about some guys and dolls, the sparsely musical "Three Wise Guys" fancifully speaks to the, perhaps not so unreasonable, belief that those on the make are much more trustworthy than the ones who’ve already made it. [more]

Terminus

February 27, 2018

In the semi-autobiographical "Terminus," part of a seven-play cycle set in the fictional town of Attapulgus, Georgia, playwright Gabriel Jason Dean unleashes this intriguing Southern Gothic setup which touches off a deeply felt personal story about racism in a place that is obviously more real to Dean than imagined. Unfortunately, as it goes along, Dean’s initially captivating ghost story exponentially loses steam, finally grinding to a halt well before Eller’s big, shameful secret is revealed at the play’s not-so-stunning conclusion. [more]

The Pill

January 29, 2018

This comedy/drama/fitful musical also suffers from major tonal challenges, as it strains to push all of our emotional buttons. It’s a shame, because the cast gives it their all. Particularly good is Zoe Wilson, as Leni, a severely depressed teenager whose body dysmorphia has led to self-cutting and bouts of suicidal ideation. Wilson is just the right mix of pained and angry. Whenever she speaks, or sings, The Pill feels centered and we’re ready to delve deeper into Leni’s personal struggles. [more]

A Kind Shot

January 24, 2018

And that’s essentially the problem with "A Kind Shot." Clocking in at 75 minutes, the “performance” feels more like a motivational speech than a theatrical event. It’s well-meaning and well-told, but other than the charismatic Mateer, there isn’t much else to it. The set, a masking tape outline of a shrunken basketball key, accomplishes so little visually that it begs the question, “Why bother at all?” Mateer completes the obvious motif with a flower-emblazoned basketball, which she dribbles around a bit and bangs off the wall as if she’s making shots. I’m all for audience imagination, but, come on, just hang up a basketball hoop. [more]

America’s Favorite Newscaster

January 15, 2018

Another irony is that while Fury is kind of a bore, another character is not. Yeah, you guessed it. Him. When the president (David O. Friedman) appears in Fury’s bedroom like the Ghost of Christmas Present, Attea’s writing finally comes to life. His take on you-know-who isn’t unique, but the situation is wonderfully silly, and Friedman’s impression is a funny profile in petulance. [more]
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