News Ticker

Articles by Joseph Pisano

The Life & Slimes of Marc Summers

February 26, 2024

Christopher Rhoton's Double Dare-inspired set belies these weightier autobiographical details, offering enough of a time-warping simulacrum to help middle-aged members of the audience shed a few decades when Summers interrupts his fraught remembering to twice become a kid's game show host again. Those who legibly scribble their names on a piece of paper dropped into a fishbowl before the performance, eventually get the chance to head onstage (not sure if mezzanine ticket buyers are eligible), answer trivia questions, and launch pies on a catapult (a warning for the first few rows). Amid all the cheers, laughter, and chaotic fun, there's also an opportunity for the quick-witted Summers to go off-script, asking the theatergoers-turned-contestants trite questions like "Where are you from?" and "What do you do?" to set up a slightly mischievous back-and-forth. [more]

Sunset Baby

February 20, 2024

"Ain't nothin' sentimental about a dead revolution." Wearing a too-short, too-tight dress, shiny thigh-high boots, and a long fuchsia wig, the twentysomething Nina (Moses Ingram) attempts to plunge these words like a dagger straight into her estranged father's idealistic heart, which has survived a long prison stretch for an armored truck robbery committed decades ago to aid the Black liberation movement. Coming early in Signature Theatre's revival of Dominique Morisseau's "Sunset Baby," it's obvious Nina's flinty declaration will never be genuinely up for debate--at least not for Nina--nor should the audience get even passingly optimistic about a dewy-eyed mending of the broken familial bond between Nina and the recently freed Kenyatta (Russell Hornsby). It's a lot to so quickly take off the dramatic table, but the unrelenting Morisseau does it forthrightly and thoroughly to serve the play's one overriding objective: being true to Nina. [more]

Days of Wine and Roses: The Musical

February 7, 2024

Reteaming with O'Hara and book writer Craig Lucas for the first time since the 2005 Tony-award-winning "The Light in the Piazza," Guettel's hodgepodge of a score equates jazz with blithe inebriation and opera with soul-crushing regret, a mostly tiresome juxtaposition that includes the gobsmacking discordance of Kirsten drunkenly bebopping around her apartment while vacuuming it. That O'Hara is never less than luminous, coordinated, and note-perfect during this ill-conceived pas seul fundamentally captures what's wrong with the musical: it's much too beautiful. [more]

How to Dance in Ohio

December 12, 2023

Based on an identically titled 2015 HBO documentary by Alexandra Shiva, "How to Dance in Ohio," in its musical form, works best whenever that magnificent seven is completely together onstage and falters mightily if none of them are present. Their characters' bond comes courtesy of Dr. Emilio Amigo (Caesar Samayoa), a psychologist--in both real and theatrical life--who specializes in social therapy for autistic people. To assist them in the closing stage of their adolescent development, Dr. Amigo's creative approach is to hold a spring formal, a traditional rite of passage that, of course, generally produces a lot of anxiety even if you're not neurodivergent. Through the voice of Marideth (Madison Kopec), the newest and most studious member of the group, Rebekah Greer Melocik's high-minded book makes sure to point out this hoary event's gendered baggage, though simply as an annotation rather than as the basis for any intriguing character conflict. [more]

Spamalot

November 20, 2023

Still, whatever faint accommodations he grants it, for Idle, structure is the enemy of joy, which every aspect of "Spamalot" is relentlessly intent on delivering, not only from a few well-performed and well-known old Monty Python bits (the Knights Who Say "Ni!"; the French Taunter; the Black Knight) but also through amusing allusions to classic Broadway musicals that Aaron Sorkin was never given the chance to ruin. To be sure, it is fan service on a couple fronts, forming a Venn Diagram highlighting anyone who adores, for example, how Idle's brainy, irreverent silliness transforms Stephen Sondheim's song "Another Hundred People" from "Company" into a running plague count. It takes incredibly varied abilities to appealingly belt out Sondheim while landing that joke, which Ethan Slater, as the dejected Prince Herbert, does impressively and without remotely shortchanging either responsibility. [more]

I Need That

November 12, 2023

A repetitively thin outlook on grief, "I Need That" ostensibly concludes with an image of healing, but I'm not sure why, or if it actually does. It's possible the famously prolific Rebeck had another play to write and figured DeVito would leave the audience feeling better no matter what she put on the page. That wasn't a bad bet, I suppose, but not everyone has the privilege of casting DeVito to pull attention away from writing that ultimately falls prey to a cheaply metaphoric sunrise (no knock on lighting designer Yi Zhao who was just doing his job). [more]

Gutenberg! The Musical!

October 25, 2023

How much you enjoy 'Gutenberg! The Musical!" likely depends on a combination of factors entirely unrelated to that German fellow: familiarity with the tropes it's skewering; your own level of disdain for such hackney execution; and your tolerance for Rannells and Gad's incessant mugging. In their first Broadway pairing since "The Book of Mormon" over a decade ago, Rannells and Gad are less a comic team than a comic rivalry, with neither willing to be the Abbott to the other's Costello. Fortunately, their ping-ponging, look-at-me dynamic only occasionally grows tiresome, usually when either of them is trying to gin up laughs that aren't there or shouldn't rise above a tee-hee. [more]

DruidO’Casey: Sean O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy

October 16, 2023

Director Garry Hynes (a co-founder of the Druid) heightens the portent of this bellicose rhetoric, as well as O'Casey's mockery of it, by having a fractious collection of barroom denizens stop their arguing to silently imbibe the outside speechifying with upturned faces (hauntingly lit by James F. Ingalls). As for a verbal rebuke, a biting one comes courtesy of Rosie Redmond (Anna Healy), a prostitute, who pragmatically declares she won't "fight for freedom that wouldn't be worth winnin' in a raffle!" With O'Casey, female wisdom, unfortunately, is never heeded, which inevitably has dire consequences for female sanity and female safety. [more]

Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch

October 5, 2023

In 1961, Ossie Davis channeled the hurt of growing up in segregated Georgia into "Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through The Cotton Patch," humorously attacking the cause of his suffering rather than giving into it. A Broadway revival of the play, the first since those heady days of the modern Civil Rights Movement, is a current reminder that it's possible to smile through the pain. That it's a needed one is the tragedy. [more]

Swing State

September 24, 2023

Gilman's triteness and predictability combine to poorly serve a talented acting quartet, all of whom originated their roles in a 2022 production of "Swing State" at the Goodman Theatre under the usually steady hand of that institution's former Artistic Director Robert Falls, a Chicago legend. For whatever reason, Falls has kept his directing duties for the Off-Broadway run, too (a nice dinner at Minetta Tavern perhaps?). But it was a wasted trip for everyone, likely motivated by tragic topicality, the reputation of a world-class theater company, and a local sense of obligation to peek outside the New York bubble. [more]

The Shark Is Broken

August 17, 2023

As for what's in a name, yes, Ian Shaw is Robert's son, returning the life-giving favor not just through his words but also bodily, portraying his father in "The Shark Is Broken" with a candid empathy (and astonishing physical resemblance) that highlights the elder Shaw's strengths while giving context to his weaknesses, too. Because of ongoing technical difficulties with Spielberg's monstrous mechanical fish, known as Bruce, there was protracted downtime during the filming of "Jaws," which the play fills with imagined conversations between Robert and his co-stars Richard Dreyfuss (Alex Brightman) and Roy Scheider (Colin Donnell). Despite set designer Duncan Henderson's remarkable recreation of the Orca, the movie's barely seaworthy boat, hardcore Jaws fans might feel as if they've been bait-and-switched, since, in the final tally, they only get one early image of a not-so-ominous shark fin to satiate their thrill-and-chill-seeking expectations. In keeping with what's on the marquee, it quickly malfunctions, sinking into video designer Nina Dunn (for PixelLux)'s vast ocean backdrop, never to be seen again. [more]

Singfeld! A Musical Parody About Nothing!

June 15, 2023

Picking the easiest possible creative path, a decision the effort-averse George would no doubt admire, the McSmiths forgo imaginative risk-taking in favor of simply copying their source material, shaping "Singfeld!" as a parody musical about writing a parody musical. In other words, "Singfeld!" is also about nothing, which makes the entire endeavor feel, at times, akin to a Sartrean spiral or, as Jerry's archnemesis Newman (Jacob Millman) more bluntly puts it, "hackey." That's not to say there aren't some funny moments during "Singfeld!," but when humor is largely based on "remember when?," the comedic ceiling is right above your head. [more]

This Land Was Made

June 7, 2023

In its earliest scenes--as a Marvin Gaye record spins on the turntable, Adam Honoré's lighting design pairs naturalistically with Wilson Chin's meticulous set, and Dominique Fawn Hill and DeShon Elem's beautifully redolent costumes delight our eyes with vibrant patterns--"This Land Was Made" achieves an authenticity that makes you want to sit at the bar and order some lunch, too. Ironically, it's when Newton (Julian Elijah Martinez) and his comrade Gene (Curtis Morlaye) enter the story that the play's verisimilitude begins to come undone. Abandoning realism for audacious dramatic license, "This Land Was Made" turns into an intellectual showdown between Newton and Troy, with the latter becoming entangled in the fatal incident that led to Newton's imprisonment. [more]

Prima Facie

May 1, 2023

The mesmerizing Jodie Comer, making her Broadway debut in the Olivier Award-winning best new play after starring in the genre-subverting BBC show Killing Eve, portrays Tessa (for which Comer also won an Olivier in her West End bow) with stunning fidelity to the pain she causes and endures. While the tension between these two aspects of Tessa's personal history eventually ignite a fervent reassessment of who she has been, who she is now, and who she should be, Comer never gets ahead of herself in the performance. Early on, as Tessa recounts, in predatory terms, conducting a cross-examination that frees a rapist, Comer convinces us, beyond any reasonable doubt, that Tessa not only perceives practicing law as a "game" but also is emotionless about the outcome, no matter the consequences for others. At this point, in hearing Tessa trumpet her job so blithely, the horror is ours alone, because, for Tessa, everything she's saying is just another day at the office. [more]

Fat Ham

April 19, 2023

When it comes to modern adaptations of Shakespeare plays, many theatergoers tend to treat them like a test, mentally annotating plot and character correlations as if their high school English teachers were going to tap them on the shoulders and ask, "Did you catch that one?" If you suffer from this same hang up, then consider James Ijames' Pulitzer Prize-winning "Fat Ham" therapy, not only encouraging its audience to break free from fawning fidelity to the Bard but also, more poignantly, tragic endings. Simply put, for Ijames' insightfully idiosyncratic take on Hamlet, we're not in Elsinore anymore, and that's a good thing. [more]

Shucked

April 17, 2023

In addition to a surfeit of approximate rhymes, the score for Shucked includes a paean to corn and a reprise of the following ready-for-Hallmark advice: "maybe love is like a seed/a little sun is all you need." Meanwhile, Horn blithely salts the earth with acerbic observations about how "marriage is simply two people coming together to solve problems they didn't have before." Foregoing any accountability for this philosophical inconsistency, director Jack O'Brien instead attempts to cover for it with turbo-charged pacing that not only sacrifices thought for an admittedly infectious energy but also, as a part of this devil's bargain, undermines the comic timing necessary for a lot of Horn's jokes to land properly. But the amiable cast never falters, even when the laughs do or the score becomes more saccharine than corn syrup. The cast is adept, too, at executing Sarah O'Gleby's inventive choreography on scenic designer Scott Pask's ramshackle barn of a set. Particularly enchanting is a rolling barrel dance that Durand daringly pulls off with impressive grace. It's just too bad that this delightful surprise isn't accompanied by many others. [more]

Parade

March 27, 2023

While Brown's tunefully varied score strives to historically situate the bigoted nightmare we're witnessing within the cultural context of the South's fabricated sense of nobility and victimhood, an offensive postbellum myth known as The Lost Cause, Alfred Uhry's reductive book ham-fistedly narrows our attention, transitioning from a corrupt law-and-order procedural in the first act to a preposterously scripted search for the truth after the intermission. Although Dane Laffrey's unremarkably fungible from-courthouse-to-prison-to-gallows set overbrims with historical figures, most of them exist on a character believability spectrum somewhere between "My Cousin Vinny" and "Driving Miss Daisy" (also written by Uhry). If not for Sven Ortel's rear-wall historical projections of these real people, an audience might suspect at least a few of them were invented out of whole cloth. [more]

The Coast Starlight

March 20, 2023

When it comes to plot, characters, or often both, even the best theater tends to require a suspension of disbelief. Given that it's hardly a sucker's bet for indolent playwrights to pin their hopes on the lack of effort it requires an audience not to think, what Keith Bunin does in "The Coast Starlight" is astonishing. Taking its title from the Amtrak overnight sleeper that scenically services an ocean-hugging route from Los Angeles to Seattle, the play is primarily set in one of the train's coach cars, where the passengers, a group of strangers, are reluctant to break the silence between them. Mostly, like real human beings, they don't, or at least not when it might have done some good. [more]

Fall River Fishing

March 7, 2023

Absurdist to an increasingly ho-hum degree, Szadkowski and Knox let their imaginations run amok with silly speculations about pre-double-homicide life in the Borden household that are punctuated by head-scratchingly anachronistic jokes involving Tinder, Cabbage Patch Kids, John Belushi, and whatever other free associative references apparently sprung to mind during their no-doubt personally enjoyable writing sessions together. The problem is that Szadkowski and Knox are incapable of bridging the gap between their evident fun and our actual entertainment, an obnoxious shortfall made cringe-worthy by the fact that they both star in "Fall River Fishing." For the charitable among us, I suppose, seeing Szadkowski and Knox delivering their own unfunny dialogue might compel a forced giggle, especially in such close downtown quarters. But theater is expensive and time is fleeting, so a lack of chortling generosity is also perfectly understandable. [more]

Lucy

February 14, 2023

Writer/director Erica Schmidt's "Lucy" is a play struggling to find a point of view, or perhaps a point of view struggling to find a play. If the latter is true, then that narrative position seems to be "good help is hard to find," which generally only satisfies an audience, at least the "help" part of it, when there's a "My Man Godfrey," or even "Mary Poppins," spin attached. But Schmidt apparently has adopted her position sincerely, with some topical digressions into issues like healthcare coverage and paid sick leave. Or maybe Lucy is just an exceptionally slippery satire, and I failed to grasp its profundity while wondering why the play had to last more than one scene. [more]

Between Riverside and Crazy

February 1, 2023

Living in his "palatial" rent-controlled apartment on one of Manhattan's most stunning architectural stretches, Walter "Pops'' Washington (Stephen McKinley Henderson) is an aging man of aging principles. A Black ex-cop, he presides over a crumbling kingdom from the figurative throne of his dead wife's wheelchair in Stephen Adly Guirgis' Pulitzer-Prize-winning "Between Riverside and Crazy." The gruffly engaging Henderson, along with the rest of the heady ensemble, feast on Guirgis' piquant dialogue that blends the sacred with the profane, the comic with the tragic, and earnest social commentary with intense silliness. It's just unfortunate that Guirgis' shaggily constructed plot inspires doubts about whether a brilliant cast and brilliant writing necessarily equate to a brilliant play. [more]

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]
1 2 3