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Articles by Joseph Pisano

Without You

January 26, 2023

And that's the agonizing tension in "Without You;" in his lyrical responses to Larson, Rapp is well aware that it's not a back-and-forth, that Larson can't say anything more than he has already. But, just as with "Rent," there is still solace, because I'm sure Rapp, the show's impressive five-member band cozily tucked into Southern's set, and the production crew could hear what I did in the audience: lots of crying. It came with a palpable feeling of not being alone in your thoughts for the dearly departed, especially those taken much too soon. A generation or two removed from having attended "Rent," it was an unspoken bond not only worth revisiting but, if I'm being honest with myself, desperately needed. [more]

The Far Country

December 15, 2022

All of the above occurs prior to the intermission and, if "The Far Country" has a shortcoming, it's that the second half feels like a sequel to what came before rather than a continuation of the same play, despite the sensitive efforts of director Eric Ting to emotionally stitch everything together. In part, that's because characters disappear entirely after Suh's story resumes, though the more salient cause is the relatively late introduction of Yuen (Shannon Tyo), a desperate, but still strong-willed, young woman to whom Gyet proposes marriage after returning to China with his U.S. citizenship, essentially replicating Gee's offer to him with an even more intimate bond. [more]

KPOP

December 5, 2022

Adopting the hokey framing device of a concert documentary, Kim turns the impending U.S. debut of a South Korean entertainment company's three hottest acts into a triptych of rigorously gendered plots. While attempting to capture all the glitz, glamor, and artistry, the American documentarian (Aubie Merrylees) also relentlessly stirs the pot to heighten any behind-the-scenes discord for the cameras, which doesn't make much sense since his paycheck is signed by Ruby (Jully Lee), the record label's iron-fisted founder and driving force, who obviously wants a glorified promotional video, not an investigative report. But to ascribe dramaturgical logic to the situation is to entirely miss the point. Aided by Peter Nigrini's voyeuristic projections of backstage squabbling, the objective is not truth but, rather, to establish the type of assiduously rendered false intimacy fans perceive as truth. [more]

Mike Birbiglia: The Old Man & The Pool

November 20, 2022

Still, rest assured, most of what Birbiglia says is funny, even for any fans well aware that Birbiglia is leading us somewhere that is not. Given the eponymous Hemingway allusion, the show's mortal endpoint is obvious, but the journey to it is full of surprising, and sometimes touching, laughs. They begin with an annual health checkup that includes a worrisomely poor performance on a spirometer, the ball-and-hose machine that measures lung function. The results baffle Birbiglia's doctor, since they seem to indicate he was having a heart attack while taking the test. [more]

You Will Get Sick

November 8, 2022

Ostensibly a comedy, or a tragi-comedy, or a dystopic mashup of "The Wizard of Oz" and "Field of Dreams," Diaz's play could possibly be enjoyed as a befuddling trifle if not for its serious pretensions about morbidity and mortality. Both aspects of this double downer involve a young man (the hopelessly adrift Daniel K. Isaac) recently diagnosed with a terminal disease that Diaz, desperately straining for universality, never identifies. He also doesn't note any character names in the program's cast list, referring to each of the actors only by the numbers 1 through 5, even though character names are used in the script. This concealment likely is a way of protecting the play's huge final reveal, or it could have another point that exists in Diaz's noggin but not in mine. [more]

Walking with Ghosts

November 1, 2022

"Walking with Ghosts" is a decidedly intimate experience, one that seems tailor-made for an off-Broadway theater like the Irish Rep. Price and his production team try to expand the show to Broadway proportions through McKenna's lighting and aforementioned set and Sinéad Diskin's vivid sound design. But its true scale is human, which means all that's required is Byrne and his bravery. [more]

Death of a Salesman

October 19, 2022

To be clear, the casting isn't colorblind; it's just casting, with director Miranda Cromwell delicately drawing out a different set of lived experiences from Miller's almost untouched words. The play's West-End co-director Marianne Elliott has not  made the journey across the pond with its ongoing contributors, all of whom deserve kudos for the revelatory production, especially Wendell Pierce ("Broke-ology," "The Wire," "Treme") as Willy and Sharon D. Clarke ("Caroline, or Change") as Linda, his long-suffering wife. Though Pierce devastatingly pulls Willy apart in front of our eyes until all that's left is his sense of failure, it's Clarke who gives Willy's downfall its saddest dimension, convincing the audience, beyond any doubt, that the very-flawed Willy is loved. If seeing previous productions of "Death of a Salesman" has inured you to Willy's ultimate fate, this one should bring back the tears, and Clarke deserves a lot of credit for that difficult gift. [more]

Cost of Living

October 12, 2022

Perhaps because of its prestigious accolade, or just undeniable merit, "Cost of Living" is the first of Majok's heartfelt efforts to make the journey from off-Broadway to on-Broadway in the Manhattan Theatre Club’s production, a transition that, thanks to director Jo Bonney's returning and unflinching guidance, hasn't diminished any of the play's intimacy or daring. If anything, on Wilson Chin's Bergman-meets-Bayonne turntable set, gloomily lit in unrelenting twilight by Jeff Croiter, "Cost of Living" has become even more persuasive and poetic. Invaluably serving that dramatic growth are actors Gregg Mozgala and Katy Sullivan, repeating their roles from the play's 2017 New York City Center premiere by MTC. [more]

Jasper

September 21, 2022

Most poignantly, when Drew starts to wonder if maybe their son's survival has been the opposite of a blessing, Andrea expresses horror for a thought that, thanks to Pimentel's touchingly subtle performance, we know she's had herself. To its strongest credit, MacDermott's play affords all three of its actors the opportunity to find meaning beyond their characters' words. Though, of course, with a less capable trio, this sort of dramatic freedom could have been a disaster. [more]

Kinky Boots

September 1, 2022

Several years after vacating its Broadway home, "Kinky Boots" has settled in to a cozier off-Broadway venue, Stage 42, at a presumed discount for theatergoers, albeit with a much smaller orchestra and actors whose talents far exceed their name recognition (and no mask mandates, which might be a dealer breaker for some). Also returning is director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell who gives the resized production the same energy as the original, nurturing a buoyant vibe that, as before, underscores the show's positive messages about celebrating difference, particularly as it relates to hoary conceptions of masculinity. But, when everything is said and sung, Fierstein and Lauper's joyously uplifting, but shallow, efforts are only memorable for meaning well. That's not nothing, especially these days, but the show could have been so much more. [more]

Lessons in Survival: 1971

June 26, 2022

Originally broadcast on "Soul!," an early PBS program dedicated to showcasing Black arts and politics, Baldwin and Giovanni's one-on-one echoes contemporary concerns while also remaining decidedly of its era. Unearthed by a theater collective and other trapped-at-home artists during the pandemic for an online recreation, it has now been transformed again, this time into a staged adaptation titled "Lessons in Survival: 1971." In truth, "googled" is likely the more appropriate verb for how someone found the Baldwin-and-Giovanni conservation, since it is entirely available on YouTube, where, to be honest, it is best experienced, not least because in that digital form it can be rewound for another listen, which a few of Baldwin and Giovanni's complex, unannotated arguments definitely require. [more]

Islander: A New Musical

June 7, 2022

An import from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, "Islander" embraces that renowned international jamboree's artistry and experimentalism, most notably by forgoing musicians for sound looping machines operated by Findlay and Tennick themselves. Especially for the technophobic (cough, cough), it's an extraordinary feat to witness actors become part of the production crew without the conceit ever feeling gimmicky or compromising the flow of the storytelling. That's no doubt due mostly to Findlay and Tennick's on-the-spot sound engineering abilities, which, to be sure, still take a backseat to their even more remarkable singing and acting. [more]

American Buffalo

May 8, 2022

The 1975 play "American Buffalo," now onstage at the Circle in the Square Theatre in a crackling revival, remains the quintessential Mamet experience, the one that should be seen to fully appreciate what has been lost. Essentially a two-hander masquerading as a three-hander, it's a character study short on plot and long on self-delusion as a couple of small-time crooks imagine themselves as much more than they are while planning an ambitious heist. To say they're all talk gets to the satirical heart of Mamet's play. [more]

Suffs

April 30, 2022

Unfortunately, while Wells (Nikki M. James) and Mary Church Terrell (Cassondra James), another renowned Black suffragist, occasionally pop up to offer intersectional insights, they mostly come across as an addendum to the all-female and nonbinary musical's Paul-centric narrative. Taub knows Wells and Terrell obviously belong in the story she's trying to tell, but she hasn't figured out how to dramatize their inclusion yet. Other suffragists whose names should be much more well known today also receive paper-thin characterizations: Lucy Burns (Ally Bonino); Doris Stevens (Nadia Dandashi); Ruza Wenclawska (Hannah Cruz); Inez Milholland (Phillippa Soo). [more]

The Little Prince

April 18, 2022

Essentially, Mouron boils the story down to a couple lines about love and beauty, while eliding any sense of the loss, isolation, and dread that the novella also poetically conveys. Her little prince is a man-child incapable of engaging with life's pain rather than Saint-Ex's courageously inquisitive child-man who can't help but look for happiness in sorrow and vice versa. In the absence of this existential heft, the production makes room for co-director Anne Tournié's, admittedly, often charming choreography. A pas de deux between Zalachas and Sulty is particularly lovely, thanks in part to the latter's stunning, and protean, red dress from costume designer Peggy Housset. [more]

Alex Edelman: Just for Us

March 26, 2022

Despite the familiar visual trappings--mic stand, performer-blinding stage lights, and a dull curtain backdrop--Edelman's deceptively free-flowing talents hew more towards the monologist Spalding Gray than those of Williams. Like Gray, Edelman is an entrancing storyteller capable of stitching together personal anecdotes into a rich thematic tapestry. In Just for Us his canvas includes mental pictures of growing up Orthodox Jewish in a Boston where white privilege is starkly stratified; his brother's 2018 Winter Olympics participation as a member of the Israeli team in possibly the least athletic competition; witnessing the actions of a predictably conceited Jared Kushner at synagogue; and the touching time his family celebrated Christmas in order to console a bereaved non-Jewish friend. [more]

A Touch of the Poet

March 8, 2022

Director Ciarán O'Reilly confidently lets the clever cast explore their characters' profound complexities, which means forcing the audience to simply accept a few psychological contradictions. At its best, watching the play feels like eavesdropping on a real family whose lives are unfolding before us naturally. Dramatically, it's a little messy but also much more human. Where the play falters somewhat is at the very beginning, with a long, exposition-laden exchange between a gossipy bartender (James Russell) and Con's old war buddy (Andy Murray) that is less a scene than an information-delivery system. Fortunately, the put-upon Russell and Murray enjoy later opportunities to put their estimable skills to better use. [more]

Space Dogs

February 27, 2022

Heyman and the rest of the production team quickly turn "Space Dogs" into an exercise of quantity over quality. More lights. More noise. More projections. More props. It's theater as sensory overload, with success measured by distraction. The major problem is that it also leads to a lot of other annoyances, with Nathan Leigh's sound design doing nothing for the intelligibility of Hughes and Blaemire's lyrics, Mary Ellen Stebbins' concert lighting occasionally blinding the audience in MCC's small off-Broadway space, and Stefania Bulbarella's numerous projections just stoking the meaningless hurly-burly. [more]

Made by God

February 17, 2022

It's just that, as the fictional Eva supplants the non-fictional Ann onstage, the play reverses course and sacrifices its human scale back to the rhetorical, with pro-life Eva and pro-choice Michael's gentle discord eventually turning toward the upcoming 2018 Irish referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment. Actually, the far more spirited debate is being held in Eva's own head as her religious upbringing wrestles with a sense of culpability for a recent tragedy that has cast doubt on her previously rock-solid convictions. Unfortunately, the much too-on-the-nose parallels between Ann's fate and what is tormenting Eva's conscience amount to a bundle of contrivances that touch off a cascade of underwhelming revelations not nearly as thought-provoking as the play's beginning scenes involving Ann and Mikey. [more]

Long Day’s Journey into Night

February 7, 2022

But, again, O'Hara does these actors no favors, forcing them to contend with incongruous historical information while also depriving them of the greatest acting benefit O'Neill's four-act play affords: time. The characters' drawn-out, if not periodically downright tedious, interactions are fundamental to establishing the family dynamic and, more importantly, necessary for giving the work it's much-needed oppressive weight. It's nice that O'Hara wants to spare us from that suffering, but it doesn't help the play. [more]

The Streets of New York

December 14, 2021

Cue the Irish Rep and its remounting of artistic director Charlotte Moore's musical "The Streets of New York," which the theatre first premiered twenty years ago in the aftermath of September 11. An affectionate adaptation of Dion Boucicault's 1857 melodrama "The Poor of New York," it returns in the wake of a different tragedy--a global pandemic that has claimed nearly 800,000 American lives and more than five million human beings worldwide--sharing the same social conscience as the Dickens classic but also encouraging the audience to do something more fun and cathartic: hiss at the greedy old man. Perhaps it's the Christmas story we actually need this year. [more]

A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing

November 22, 2021

Performed as one long 80-minute monologue, A Girl is a Half-formed Thing also offers actor Jenn Murray little, if any, respite, laying on her shoulders complete responsibility for telling every detail of its emotionally unyielding story. Besides the girl, she must give voice to all of the other unnamed characters in the play, too, distinguishing them so that the staged version of McBride's novel, where it's impossible to simply reread a sentence, has an immediate intelligibleness. By itself, this feat is enough to make Murray's performance astonishing, but it's only the tip of her accomplishments. [more]

Autumn Royal

October 20, 2021

Previously only known for his novels and short stories, first-time playwright Kevin Barry brings the same full-hearted doom and gloom to the stage in "Autumn Royal" that was evidenced in his Booker-Prize-longlisted "Night Boat to Tangier," unravelling May's and Timothy's forlorn existences with a compassion apparently meant not only for these two characters but also for anyone in the audience whose time is slipping away faster than their ability to enjoy it. In other words, Autumn Royal is the perfect midlife-crisis-cum-Covid play. (I dare the Irish Rep to use that in the advertisements!) Though Barry wrote it before the pandemic's onset, this fraught two-hander has gained, perhaps against its will, a far deeper resonance from the subsequent worldwide catastrophe, a fact that doesn't escape director Ciarán O’Reilly who turns Charlie Corcoran's spare and icy set into a very lonely domestic island for May and Timothy to neither share nor experience anything fundamentally new other than, of course, the neighbors' priggish judgment for wanting to shed their father for greener pastures. [more]

Six: The Musical

October 10, 2021

More concert than musical, the 80-minute show's libretto adds little to its cast album, with the lyrics of each queen's autobiographical song also pruning their individual histories to a point even a Wikipedia writer might consider reductive. The English nursery rhyme "Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived," which the women recite at the beginning of the sing-off, pretty much sums up writers Lucy Moss and Toby Marlow's level of interest in the lives of Catherine of Aragon (Adrianna Hicks), Anne Boleyn (Andrea Macasaet), Jane Seymour (Abby Mueller), Anna of Cleves (Brittney Mack), Katherine Howard (understudy Courtney Mack in the performance I saw), and Catherine Parr (Anna Uzele). In between the songs, the women disparage one another's suffering, all in an attempt to snipe their way to the grand prize: leader of the group and, with it, the audience's adulation. [more]

Stranger Sings! The Parody Musical

August 11, 2021

Since it's difficult to make fun of something that was never meant to be taken seriously in the first place, Hogue and director Nick Flatto are often left to spin their wheels by simply rehashing their subject matter's underbaked characters and shamelessly derivative storytelling, which all-too-often turns "Stranger Sings! The Parody Musical' into a glorified clip show. Hogue further hampers himself by largely sticking to the series' first season, as if he only had time to skim the second and third. It's an especially odd choice that leaves Hogue needing to rely on unfunny, if not downright offensive, parodic padding. [more]

Tumacho

March 5, 2020

To review dramatist/lyricist/composer Ethan Lipton's "Tumacho" almost feels like missing the point of this endearingly oddball "play with songs," a comic pastiche of Western and horror tropes that is essentially the theatrical equivalent of an old Hollywood B-movie. Its major goal is to shamelessly please the audience, something it largely achieves through top-notch performances and an abiding strangeness, if not necessarily a consistent quality of jokes or characterizations or plotting. Obviously, all of the latter should matter, but the fact that it doesn't only attests to the show's bizarre charm. [more]

Lady G: Plays and Whisperings of Lady Gregory

February 20, 2020

It might be about 90 years too late, but writer/director Ciarán O'Reilly is throwing a good old-fashioned Irish wake, with poems, songs, and a slice of barmbrack (Irish sweet bread) or each of the lucky attendees. And he's also summoned the dearly departed herself, Lady Isabella Augusta Gregory, and a few of her more notable friends (some guys named Yeats, O'Casey, and Synge) to join in the celebration, stitching together her words with some of theirs to create the waggishly titled "Lady G: Plays and Whisperings of Lady Gregory." It's a charming and touching tribute to a woman whose literary efforts are usually far less appreciated, unfortunately, than her advocacy. [more]

Grand Horizons

February 10, 2020

Bess Wohl's "Grand Horizons" opens with a pas de deux of marital inertia as Nancy (Jane Alexander) and Bill (James Cromwell), two near-octogenarians wasting their twilight days in a so-called independent living community, wordlessly go through the motions of sitting down to dinner. Their silence, and apparently 50-year marriage, are finally both broken when Nancy dispassionately declares that she "would like a divorce" and with equal nonchalance Bill responds, "All right." Confidently staged, or rather choreographed, by director Leigh Silverman, it's an extraordinary scene that, in truth, could stand alone as its own very brief play with the audience, possibly to its experiential chagrin, imaginatively filling in everything that came before. [more]

Maz and Bricks

January 15, 2020

Created and first performed during the run-up to the 2018 national referendum that eventually led to the amendment's repeal, Maz and Bricks, a part of the Origin Theater Company’s 1st Irish Festival, hasn't suffered any loss of social relevance, because O'Connor is not a single-issue polemicist. Her play brims with many pointed ideas about modern Ireland, which, with greater and lesser success, are woven into a beguiling tale that follows its two titular characters on a Joycean ramble through the streets of Dublin, tripping up most significantly at the end when O'Connor shoehorns in a needlessly melodramatic coda intended to tie together a few loose plot threads that really shouldn't have been there at all. [more]

Jagged Little Pill

December 15, 2019

Given the personal nature of Morissette's artistic output, it might be surprising to learn that the Broadway version of Jagged Little Pill doesn't take the easy biographical route for its book, mimicking, say, the mega-popular "Beautiful: The Carole King Musical," whose subtitle pretty much says it all. Instead, Morissette's album (Glen Ballard co-wrote the music) and a few of her other songs support an entirely original story from theater-novice Diablo Cody, whose Oscar-winning screenplay for "Juno" was funny, affecting, and decidedly superficial. This same descriptive mixed bag also holds true for Jagged Little Pill, which rises above typical jukebox musical fare, but not as much as it could have, largely because Cody is interested in hot-button issues, not characters. [more]

A Christmas Carol

November 26, 2019

Campbell Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge and Dashiell Eaves as Bob Cratchit in a scene from Jack [more]

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]
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