22 October 2017

'The Violin'

Caper movies are usually a lot of fun: Ocean’s 11 (the original Rat Pack version, 1960), Topkapi (1964, arguably one of the greatest of the genre), The Thomas Crown Affair (with Steve McQueen, 1968), The Italian Job (the Michael Caine original, 1969 – with Noël Coward), The Sting (Paul Newman and Robert Redford together again, 1973), Heat (Robert De Niro teamed with Al Pacino, 1995).  The list goes on.  (Even television got into the act with series like Hustle, a British series that featured Robert Vaughn and aired in the U.S. on AMC from 2004 to 2012, and TNT’s Leverage with Timothy Hutton, 2008–2012.)  The caper play, on the other hand, hasn’t seemed to catch on; David Mamet’s American Buffalo (1975) is the only attempt that comes to mind.

Until now, that is.  My frequent theater companion, Diana, had a hankering to have a look at Dan McCormick’s The Violin, a world première that played at the 59E59 Theaters this fall.  Despite the New York Times review that came out right after Diana and I discussed catching the show (Show-Score gave Alexis Soloski’s notice a negative rating of 45), my  friend decided to go ahead and see it anyway.  So at 8 p.m. on Friday, 13 November 2017, we met at the theater complex in mid-town on the East Side for the penultimate performance of McCormick’s tale of a would-be crime that didn’t quite work out.  You might call it The Sting That Goes Wrong.

According to his own account, McCormick, also a singer-songwriter who trained originally as an actor, began working on The Violin “many years” ago and saw it through “several table readings and staged readings.” The playwright asserts he wrote the first draft in “perhaps only a few months at most,” based principally on inspiration.  He practices what sounds to me like a form of freewriting or focused freewriting, letting the ideas flow randomly until “suddenly something takes hold.”  Even then, “often times I don’t know what the story is about or who characters may be, until many pages into” the draft, McCormick says.  Sooner or later, he has “an ‘Ah ha’ moment” when he understands what the play’s about and who the characters are.  After that, the playwright goes back and revises the draft “so as to make what I just discovered make sense.” 

A two-act play, the final version of The Violin started previews in 59E59’s Theater A, the complex’s 196-seat proscenium house, on 7 September and opened on 19 September; the production closed on 14 October. The world première, under the direction of Joseph Discher, is a production of The Directors Company in association with ShadowCatcher Entertainment.

The Directors Company (Michael Parva, Artistic/Producing Director), formerly known as Staret . . . The Directors Company (and not to be confused with the short-lived Hollywood production company formed by Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, and William Friedkin in the 1970s that went by the same name), was founded in 1980 and is a not-for-profit theater company that claims as its mission the development and production of “groundbreaking new plays and musicals.”  Composed of three divisions—mainstage division, the production arm of the company; development division; and S. T. A. R. (for Serving Teens through Arts Resources), an educational outreach program, TDC fosters the development and production of theatre artists and their work.  Recent Off-Broadway work includes Irena’s Vow by Dan Gordon (Baruch Performing Arts Center, 2008), Poetic License by Jack Canfora (59E59, 2012), Walter Anderson’s Almost Home (Acorn Theater, 2014), On a Stool at the End of the Bar by Robert Callely (59E59, 2014), Gordon’s Terms of Endearment (59E59, 2016), and A Better Place by Wendy Beckett (The Duke on 42nd Street, 2016).

ShadowCatcher Entertainment (David Skinner, Executive Producer) develops, produces, and invests in live stage productions and television programming.  The company—which produced its first film in 1997 (Smoke Signals), invested in its first Broadway show (Frankie and Johnnie in the Clair de Lune) in 2002, and that same year became associate producer of two successful Off-Broadway shows, Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical and Tuesdays with Morrie—collaborates with the creative community in the telling of diverse stories to a universal audience.  ShadowCatcher was a producer on three recent Tony-winners (Memphis, 2009-12; Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, 2013; A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, 2013-16) and has invested in other successful shows (Dear Evan Hansen, 2016-present; Come From Away, 2017; You Can’t Take It With You, 2014-15)

In Giovanni’s Tailor Shop on Avenue A in Manhattan’s “Alphabet City”—the far East Village, Gio (Robert LuPone, in his first stage appearance in 14 years), 70-ish, works hunched over his sewing machine till his fingers bleed—literally, since he keeps sticking his thumb with his needles.  Outside, it’s the dead of winter, “present day February,” in the middle of the evening.  Gio’s worked in the same shop since he took it over from his father—who moved the several blocks north from Little Italy when he ran afoul of the mafia.  Gio’s losing his sight and his hearing and he suffers from an endless catalogue of maladies borne of a life spent working until it’s just passed him by.  Gio (pronounced Geo, like the defunct Chevvy of the ’90s, not Joe, like an Italian would say) no longer even hears his phone ring of customers knocking at the door. 

Gio’s only companions are brothers Bobby (Peter Bradbury) and Terry (Kevin Isola), a couple of 20- to 40-somethings (it’s hard to tell; they’re emotional age is arrested adolescence, though) who practically grew up in the shop.  Bobby, the elder, is a wannabe gangster and petty thief who’s looked after his brother since their parents were both murdered by the Irish mob when the boys were still kids; Terry’s “special,” as his mother used to tell him—meaning he’s mentally disabled—an innocent.  Gio’s been a surrogate father since the young men’s parents died and he seems to act as the voice of reason and wisdom whenever they go off the rails—especially the rash and impulsive Bobby.

Bobby, who gets frustrated and angry with his brain-damaged brother often, has gotten Terry a gig driving a gypsy cab—but Terry’s just quit the job.  He’s left the cab on the street, but he took a souvenir: a violin left by his last fare.  (The fiddle is a McGuffin.  It’s introduced early in the first act, but mostly just gets moved around and handled until late in the act when it magically transforms into the prime-mover of the plot.)  When Bobby takes the car back to the garage, he finds flyers all over the place identifying the instrument as a 1710 Stradivarius and that the owner is offering a reward for its return.  A little research reveals that the Strad is worth four million dollars, so Bobby decides to ransom it back to the musician for 10 percent of its value.  “That’s $4,000!” shouts Terry.  No, Bobby corrects him, it’s $400,000!  They’re gonna be rich!  Gio, meanwhile, has said nothing.

The get-rich-quick scheme begins to unfold, and Gio soon inexplicably deals himself in, but only if he can be the boss and have the final word on all disputes.  Bobby and Terry agree and they start making elaborate plans.  Given the characters McCormick’s gone to such lengths to lay out—and the obvious fact that there wouldn’t be a play otherwise—you just know this is all going to fall apart, almost certainly disastrously.  The Violin ran two hours at 59E59, and it took all of act one’s full hour to get this far with an abundance of character-revealing arguments and bickering—even before the violin boondoggle comes up—as McCormick stuffs it to the gunnels with exposition and background (and there’s still more to come!).

Act two covers most of the actual deed, which is all negotiated over the phone (so, more talk).  Gio turns out to be less competent at this than he made out and Bobby takes over despite his demonstrated lack of self-control and his hair-trigger temper.  It’s so obvious that the plan—a misnomer, really, considering that this is the gang than can’t think straight—is headed for all kinds of disaster.  As David Barbour wrote on Lighting & Sound America: “An act of grand larceny, committed by three neophytes, requiring intensive phone negotiations—what could possibly go wrong?”)  The only question is how many goofs and screw-ups and how bad.  (The play doesn’t set up like a potential tragedy of errors—the guys are too lightweight for that heavy an outcome—so I ruled out murder and mayhem.  But anything else was viable possibility.)  As the caper comes together (so to speak) and the boys voice their dreams of a life in the money, all kinds of secrets are revealed and hidden truths are told.  (I won’t catalogue them here because though they’re hardly surprises—the most significant ones had been telegraphed since act one—they’re the only feints at suspense in this would-be crime drama.)

All I’ll say about the end of The Violin is that it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion.  Gio, who made one uncharacteristic shift in act one, suddenly returns to his role as guardian and protector of the younger men and saves them from the fate they probably should have suffered some time ago—but we have no sense of what will become of them after the (figurative) curtain comes down.  The theater’s promo for the play says it’s about “loyalty and family ties,” but I question that this is treated with any degree of rectitude.  I suppose you could say The Violin is a depiction of how not to make a family and exercise loyalty.  Aside from that, I can’t say what McCormick wants us to take away.  (In an interview with McCormick, the writer never mentions what he intended the  play to be about.)

Playwright McCormick, who appears to be in his late 40’s (his birth year isn’t listed anywhere), was born in Philadelphia and grew up just outside the city.  He graduated in 1990 from Philadelphia’s Drexel University with a business degree before moving to Los Angeles to pursue acting; studying first at the Stella Adler Studio in L.A. and later with the A.R.T./MXAT Institute for Advanced Theater Training in Cambridge, Massachusetts (a branch of the Moscow Art Theater School at Harvard University’s American Repertory Theater).  McCormick is a member of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) and Actors Equity Association (AEA). 

McCormick’s actor training inspired an interest in writing, which ultimately brought him to New York City, where he currently lives.  He’s a member of the Dramatists Guild of America, the stage writers’ professional association, and the Actors Studio Playwright/Director’s Unit and Workshop in New York (where The Violin was workshopped).  He’s lectured and taught playwriting and acting on both the college and high school levels.  Upon writing his first novel, The Return of Devin Darby, which is currently awaiting publication, McCormick began studying piano while writing the book and lyrics for his first musical, The Myth of Dreams, which received two staged readings in New York City and Asbury Park, New Jersey, in 2013, directed by the playwright. 

Since singing with his brothers in karaoke bars in Philadelphia, McCormick says he discovered his voice again as the singer-songwriter of Broadway Lights, his 2011 début album.  As a composer and lyricist, McCormick’s a member of ASCAP and has subsequently written the lyrics for over one hundred rock, pop, country, and folk songs. 

The playwright is also a member of the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.  His plays The Violin and Homeless and How We Got That Way received staged readings at the theater in, respectively, December 2012 and June 2014.  Joseph Discher, who staged The Violin at 59E59, previously directed the première of Butler at NJ Rep, in June-July 2014, another play that Diana and I saw at 59E59 (see my report on 3 August 2016). 

I found my mind wandering often over the two hours of the performance, even though the acting was fairly good.  McCormick’s dialogue is mostly credible and often catchy, but the characters and plot (except for one or two elements) are predictable.  It’s territory that’s been mined before.  Diana argued (quite vehemently, in fact) that the playwright was revealing things about human nature and behavior, but I don’t believe he is; it’s not revelatory since it’s not at all new—or even a new angle or presentation.  The first act is about an hour, and I started to get fanny fatigue before the end, shifting around in my seat to keep from going numb.  (Act two was a little shorter, about 45 minutes—there’s a 15-minute intermission—but I started to have the same problem before it ended.)

The Violin is a throwback: an old-fashioned naturalistic well-made play.  Diana kept comparing it to Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller—though I disputed that playwright McCormick belongs in that company.  (Certainly McCormick’s writing has none of Williams’s lyricism and poetry either older writer’s depth.)  The writer of whose work The Violin most reminds me is David Mamet, especially American Buffalo—minus the obscenities; perhaps McCormick aspires in that direction.  Diana liked the play, and I told her that that didn’t surprise me at all since it has two attributes that are common to plays she likes: it’s old-fashioned in structure and style and it’s talky.  Almost nothing happens on stage so the three characters spend almost two hours talking.  The “action” is all off stage (or in the backstory).  

One writer, Alix Cohen of the website Woman Around Town, invoked the term “kitchen-sink drama” for The ViolinWikipedia defines this dramatic style as “a British cultural movement that developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s in theatre, art, novels, film and television plays, whose protagonists usually could be described as ‘angry young men’ who were disillusioned with modern society.”  (One fitting example is John Osborne’s 1956 Look Back in Anger.)  Cohen did note that Terry and Bobby are hardly even working class, but wondered if the playwright wasn’t reaching for that theater form.  The comparison isn’t far off, I’d say.  Wikipedia goes on to describe the genre as using “a style of social realism, which depicted the domestic situations of working class” characters in “cramped” quarters, which certainly aligns with McCormick’s play.  What The Violin is missing, though, is any mention of the social and political issues on which kitchen-sink plays focused.

The Violin isn’t badly written in terms of the dialogue; McCormick obviously has an ear for speech.  But there’s something vital missing.  McCormick doesn’t really have a point.  He has characters, an environment, and a situation—he even has a backstory.  But what he doesn’t have is a reason for any of this to be on stage.  There’s no center to The Violin, just a lot of peripheral detail.  A real lot, most of it in the first act, which is overstuffed with information, leaving little for the second act except to get on with the doomed ransom scheme.  Oh, the author drops in a few reveals which are supposed to be shockers, but those that I hadn’t already guessed were so ham-handedly disclosed that their dramatic value was erased.

There are also a couple of sudden plot and character shifts that seem to have come out of left field—just to make the story proceed.  Gio all of a sudden does things that seem out of the character McCormick had written—and then, in the climax, switches back.  He could justify these switches—they aren’t quite out of nowhere altogether—but it would take a lot more talk to close the logic gap.  As it is, there’s a lot of exposition just to explain why Gio lets Bobby and Terry hang out at his place.  So we either have to take a leap of faith on McCormick’s say-so, or do a lot of inner script-doctoring to fill in the missing connectives.

The actors are pretty good, but I found the characters mostly pat—not quite clichés, but types we’ve seen on films and on TV since at least the ’50s.  (Would you believe that Gio listens to Italian opera on vinyl I his shop.  Where’ve we head that before?)  Diana disagreed, insisting that these weren’t people we’d know as neighbors—which I insist is irrelevant anyway.  (To prove her point, at intermission she asked the young couple next to us if they knew people like McCormick’s characters.  I tried to nudge her because this pair had very pronounced accents, but Diana said she hadn’t noticed that.  They didn’t know anyone like these guys, of course, because it turned out our neighbors were from Argentina, though they live in New York City now, so she had ended up asking two foreigners if they knew anyone like this trio of stereotypical American—and New York—types!  Not really the corroboration she was looking for!)

LuPone, a Broadway vet (he was the original Zach in A Chorus Line starting in 1975 with its New York Shakespeare Festival début) and co-artistic director of MCC Theater (formerly the Manhattan Class Company), managed to be credible between character shifts, but Gio’s such a stereotype that he can’t generate much traction.  In the play, Gio’s placid life is upended by the impulsive Bobby and the damaged Terry—but LuPone displays very little inner turmoil, as if the old tailor had been dealing with this kind of tumult all his life.

The brothers are also such recognizable types that their very presence in the story telegraphs the direction the plot will go in.  What’s a hotheaded petty crook going to do?  He’ll devise a half-baked scheme (Bobby’s evidently seen many of those flicks I listed at the top of this report) and get . . . well, hotheaded.  Bradbury’s not unconvincing as Bobby—he played the volatility believably—but he had nowhere to go that isn’t predetermined by his near-cliché of a character and the stock situation McCormick provides.  Isola’s Terry was sweet, but that only gets a character so far, and it’s no surprise that he ends up where he does.  Like Bradbury, Isola nailed his character’s behavior and demeanor—but again, there’s nothing he did or McCormick supplies him that made Terry more than a stock figure.  It’s all crime drama by-the-numbers, like a game of Clue on uppers.

Discher managed the actors’ stage work nicely.  Nothing looked unreal or faked, and the characters all  related to one another perfectly credibly; they were all unquestionably in the same play, the same universe.  But that’s just the craft of acting.  (The company apparently had only a three-week rehearsal period, which speaks to the actors’ professionalism.)  What was missing for me was the art part of acting—the part you can’t learn and no director can give you.  The spark that makes the play jump off the stage and smack you in the face or punch you in the gut.  No one caught fire, and that’s a problem for the director.  He can’t hand them that element like he can blocking and even line readings—but he has to find the trigger that strikes that spark.  It’s part of an actor’s homework—finding the thing that make the role juicy for him—but if the actor doesn’t come to it, the director has to utz him into finding it.  Discher just settled for a technically expert production.  Ultimately, the play never got under my skin the way it should have.  Part of that’s McCormick’s failing, but Discher never solved the problem of the empty center.

Another thing Discher did accomplish was moving the three actors around the cluttered tailor shop of a set.  Harry Feiner’s scene design was easily the best thing about The Violin.  Gio’s shop was so covered with the objects of a tailor’s life and work there wasn’t enough room for a cat to skitter around the place. (Special commendation goes to properties designer Andrew Diaz for dressing this set.  It must have been a Herculean effort.)  In order to switch from one task, say stitching a garment, to doing something else, like eating a carry-in dinner, everything had to be moved from one surface to another to clear a new space.  (I had an apartment like that when I first moved to New York.)  To answer the phone (when Gio hears it), the old tailor had to unbury it from beneath a pile of clothes and fabric pieces.  You could almost literally smell the must.  (It’s a perfect example of a kitchen-sink set—even without an actual sink.)

Michael McDonald’s costume design, Michael E. Adelson’s lighting design, and Hao Bai’s sound design all added measurably to the palpable sense of place Feiner established.  They were all as authentic to their East Village locale as Gio’s shop was.  I live not too far from where the play’s set and I frequently run errands over near there and I know I’ve been in shops just like Gio’s, with all the attendant noises and shadows, and the customers and passersby dress just like the characters in The Violin.  I may not  know them, as I admitted to Diana—but I see them often.  Discher’s design team nailed the whole look and feel of Alphabet City.

Show-Score collected 18 published notices which rendered an average score of 69—not the lowest I’ve seen, but close.  The breakdown of the reviews was 66% positive, 17% mixed, and 17% negative. The highest score on the site was one 95 for TheaterScene.net, followed by a 90 (Broadway World); the lowest rating was a 40 for TheaterMania, backed by two 45’s (New York Times and Talkin’ Broadway).  I’ll be reporting on 11 reviews in my round-up.

In the only print review, the Times’ low-scoring notice (45), Soloski characterized McCormick’s The Violin a “clumsily crafted, finely acted and, yes, high-strung drama.”  The play, said Soloski, “aims to be a meditation on lives good, bad and unlived, though its philosophy never convinces.”  Performed on Feiner’s “remarkable, ultrarealistic set,” it “has some of the savor of early David Mamet and much of the macho posturing,” but the “plotting, with its florid back stories and unsurprising revelations, is ploddingly predictable.”  The Times reviewer added that “the dialogue is less than snappy,” and some “lines lack finesse.”  Nonetheless, she continued, “some of them are still fun to hear, and there’s pleasure in watching the actors attack the roles.”  LuPone, reported Soloski, “lends [Gio] moral authority and flickers of sardonic humor”; Isola “winningly communicates sweetness and perplexity,” even if “Terry’s impairments . . . seem like a writerly convenience”; and “tightly wound”; and Bradbury “gives perhaps the most layered turn” as Bobby.  “But even capable actors,” concluded Soloski, “can’t make this play plausible or mend the contrived and sentimental conclusion.”

All the rest of the published and posted reviews of The Violin were in the cyber press.  On TheaterScene.com, Eugene Paul called the première of McCormick drama “a valuable production” (though I’m not cleat what he meant by that) “under splendidly sympathetic direction by” Discher “in an uncommonly atmospheric setting by” Feiner.  “You can’t take your eyes off Gio’s musty, cluttered old tailor shop,” effused Paul, crediting “[i]lluminating designer” Feiner with creating “the heart of the show.”  The TS.com review-writer felt that playwright McCormick “involved us in what’s–going-to-happen-next,” director Discher “swept us up,” and the “three wonderful actors . . . hooked us.”  He deemed LuPone “very fine,” Bradbury “outstanding,” and Isola “marvelous”; “We are in for the ride,” Paul decreed.  In conclusion, he declared: “I cannot say enough about the direction and the performances.  They’re grabbers.”

Tania Fisher affirmed on Stage Buddy that “McCormick provides a riveting and thoughtful story” and director Discher “tapped into the crux of the themes and nuances of the story, providing keen direction that never looks forced or unnatural.”  Terry and Bobby’s relationship “is intelligently explored” and “McCormick has that rare knack of being able to insert moments of genuine comedy” that “don't take anything away from the gravitas of the scene.”  Our Stage Buddy felt, “Although the story itself is completely absorbing, this special skill holds the audience for every step of the way, keeping us engaged and involved.”  Her bottom line: “All in all, a gripping piece of theater not to be missed.”

David Kaufman of TheaterScene.net (not to be confused with TheaterScene.com, discussed above) reported at the outset of his review (which rated 95 on Show-Score), “The realism of the shabby, derelict, tailor’s shop that greets you when you arrive at the mainstage Theater A at 59E59 lets you know that you’re about to see that rarest of things in today’s theater–an old-fashioned, realistic, well-made play.”  “The Violin does not disappoint,” declared Kaufman, “delivering one powerful punch and surprise after another.”  The production was “directed with a razor-sharp precision and gritty realism by” Discher and the performances of Bradbury and Isola were “magnificent,” “matched by the estimable Robert LuPone.”

On Theater Pizzazz, Sandi Durell observed that McCormick “has written a far reaching tale” that “revolves around caring, a debt owed and paid and the cost of it all.”  Gio was “expertly played” by LuPone, Badbury was “perfectly cast rough and tumble” and Isola was “marvelous.”  Durell asserted that “you have to admire Dan McCormick’s reaching imagination,” but concluded, “I must admit it’s a really tall tale of circumstances thrown together and hard to believe but it’s a winning cast and makes its point.”  Elyse Sommer of CurtainUp found that The Violin is a play with “major and minor flaws” and that “the plot does have a credibility problem.”  The playwright drops hints “like bread crumbs throughout the two hours too obviously telescope the high drama surprise finale,” which “sacrifices credibility for melodramatic sentimentality,” though “it does surprise and comes with a big bang.”   Despite this, Sommer felt, the production “is bolstered by the beautiful performances of LuPone, Bradbury and Isola.”   

Calling the play “a slow-paced melodrama with sit-com flourishes,”  Howard Miller of Talkin’ Broadway lamented, “Some very good acting, a couple of emotionally touching speeches, and an evocative set are not enough to cover up the numerous plot holes and overall sudsy narrative of The Violin.”  (Miller’s review scored a low 45 on Show-Score.)  The plot begins “[a]fter a rambling introduction,” and then “unfolds amidst side stories that lead nowhere.”  Miller asserted, “Somewhere buried in all of this is a lost potential” and concluded, “The three performers, under Joseph Discher's direction, do their best with what they have been given to work with, but there simply is not enough for The Violin to escape its discordant structure.”

David Roberts posited on Theatre Reviews Limited that McCormick “created believable characters whose conflicts are easily identifiable as significant and raising rich and enduring questions about the compass of morality in human behavior.”  Roberts reported that Bradbury played Bobby “with the perfect balance of moral depravity and salvific rigor,” Isola portrayed Terry “with an unwavering naivete and scarred innocence,” and LuPone plays Gio “with a high moralism masking an underlying guilt.”  The TRL reviewer ended his review with a cryptic comment that’s hard for me to decipher—except that it’s a objection: “If a violin is the main character in a play – and afforded that play’s title – one might expect that “actor” to have more to say.”

On Theatre’s Leiter Side, Samuel L. Leiter, like many other reviewers (not to forget myself), compared McCormick The Violin with Mamet’s American Buffalo, but found that McCormick’s play is “far less memorable.”  “In a sense,” asserted Leiter, the play “is an existential melodrama about how our choices define us.”  Then the TLS blogger declared, “The Violin is about as old-fashioned, formulaic, and predictable as they come; it is straightforward naturalism without any of the fanciful, dreamlike incursions with which so many of today’s playwrights like to distract us.”  He also observed, “The ending can be surmised at least two-thirds of the way through” and added that “never does [the play] make its far-fetched dramatics convincing.”  Leiter declared, “Dramatic exigency takes precedence over dramatic honesty,” pointing out, “The characters, who look right in Michael McDonald’s costumes, are anything but consistent.”  He summed up his opinion of the production and the play this way:

Under Joseph Discher’s direction, the pacing and energy maintain attention but there are too many times that the vastly experienced actors seem to be wearing signs saying, “Look, I’m acting.”  You admire their technical facility but they push too hard to be fully believable; a large part of the blame rests with the insufficiently credible characters they’re playing.

As his final remark, Leiter quipped: “During the play, Terry tries playing the violin he’s found. Like his playing, Dan McCormick’s The Violin is seriously out of tune.”

In Show-Score’s highest-rated notice (90), Marina Kennedy proclaimed on Broadway World, “The Violin . . . is a drama that gives audiences a compelling reason to go to the theatre.”  The première, said Kennedy, “is an intriguing play,” featuring a “a thought-provoking” story and “the finest staging and superior acting.”  In fact, the BWW review-writer found that the “cast of accomplished actors . . .  completely master their roles” so that the actors “capture the drama, humor and the suspense of this very original story” and “characters are distinctive and perfectly portrayed.”  Her final word is: “The Violin is a play that you will remember long after the curtain call.  Make this fascinating human drama a part of your fall entertainment schedule.”

On TheaterMania, Zachary Stewart opened Show-Score lowest-scoring review (40) with this blunt criticism of “an overwrought melodrama”:

It is reasonable to spend the first act of Dan McCormick’s The Violin wondering what era the playwright had in mind when committing ink to paper.  From the look of Harry Feiner’s overstuffed set (not a digital screen in sight) and Michael McDonald’s vintage costumes (complete with a red puffer vest), one might assume late ’80s, early ’90s.  McCormick’s dialogue, which sounds drawn straight out of an old Robert De Niro movie, feels similarly dated.  In fact, a glance at the program would inform you that this world premiere . . . is taking place in “present day February.”  That’s just the least example of how this tortured crime caper strains credulity. 

Stewart also complains not only, “Everyone speaks in an exaggerated ‘youz guyz’ New Yorkese,” but, “They also tend to use far more words than is necessary to get a point across, making the play feel slow to develop.”  McCormick “overloaded his script with tearful monologues revealing deep, dark secrets from the past,” which “provide the only fuel for a less-than-combustible script.”  The TM reviewer did feel, however, that director Discher “directs a handsome production,” praising the work of designers Feiner, Adelson, and Bai; however, “not even performers as watchable as LuPone, Bradbury, and Isola can save this show.”  In the end, Stewart reported, “It makes for a dull two hours.  The only surprises come when we see just how shameless McCormick is in each successive contrivance, the last of which will leave you with a hearty (if unintended) chuckle.”

17 October 2017

The Red Letter Plays: 'Fucking A'

The second play in the Signature Theatre Company’s Red Letter Plays tandem productions was Suzan-Lori Parks’s Fucking A, which began previews under the direction of Jo Bonney (see my reports on By The Way, Meet Vera Stark, 27 May 2011, and The Mound Builders, 27 March 2013) in the Pershing Square Signature Center’s Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, the company’s variable-space house, on 22 August 2017 and opened on 11 September.  Extended a week from its original closing date of 1 October, it had its last performance on 8 October; my friend Kirk (who went to In the Blood with me, too) and I saw it at the 7:30 performance on Wednesday evening, 4 October (after having been canceled out for 13 September due to an undefined “actor emergency”).  The Red Letter Plays were Parks’s final productions in her 2016-17 Residency One at STC; she will be followed in that slot for the 2017-18 season by Stephen Adly Guirgis.  (Guirgis will be presenting three plays at STC, starting with Jesus Hopped the 'A’ Train, which I’ll be seeing on 27 October; a report on that production will follow soon after.)

Fucking A premièred at the DiverseWorks Artspace in Houston, Texas, for Infernal Bridgegroom Productions on 24 February 2000; directed by Parks.  It was presented Off-Broadway at the Public Theatre, opening on 25 February 2003; directed by Michael Greif.  The Signature’s staging is the first New York revival since the Public’s production.  (It’s also the first time the two Red Letter Plays, which were written separately, have been staged in tandem.  For a brief description of Parks’s account of how she came to write the two plays, see my report on In the Blood, posted on 12 October.  There’s also a profile of the playwright in my report on The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World on 1 December 2016.) 

Like Parks’s In the Blood, which was composed and staged first, Fucking A is a riff on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter.  (As I said in my ITB report, it isn’t necessary to have read The Scarlet Letter to follow Fucking A.  You can look the novel up for yourself,  so for now, I’ll just say that it’s set in Puritan Boston in the 1640s where Hester Prynne, married to a man believed lost at sea, gives birth to a daughter whose father she refuses to name.  Cast out of the community, she’s forced to wear a red letter A for “Adulteress” embroidered on the bodice of her dress.)   Neither play is an adaptation of or sequel to Hawthorne’s novel; like its sister play, Fucking A, a tragedy with songs for which Parks wrote the music and lyrics (played in lofts  overlooking either side of the stage by cast members doubling as musicians directed by Todd Almond), uses elements of the novel to explore and examine modern-day issues Parks considers important to contemporary society: poverty, class structure, marginalization, systemic prejudice against women, motherhood, fatherhood, among others.

Set in an unspecified time and place, “a small town in a small country in the middle of nowhere,” Fucking A takes place in a dystopian world where towns are fiefdoms ruled by autocratic mayors.  Hester Smith (Christine Lahti) is an outcast living on the margins of her town’s society.  She bears the letter A branded into the skin above her left breast.  Unlike Hawthorne’s Hester, though, Parks’s isn’t being punished for adultery; her A is for “Abortionist.”  The brand bleeds afresh every time a customer comes, but her status is ambiguous: reviled in public for her trade, in private she’s sought out and employed by the same people who shun her.  The brand, which must by law always be visible, serves as both an indictment and an advertisement, bringing customers to her. 

As Fucking A opens, Hester is talking to her friend Canary Mary (Joaquina Kalukango) about the son Hester hasn’t seen for 20 years.  Boy Smith was sent to prison as a child for stealing a piece of meat from the wealthy family where Hester scrubbed floors, and Hester was forced to become an abortionist or join him behind bars.  The “little Rich Girl” who fingered Boy is now the wife of the despotic Mayor (Marc Kudisch), who runs the town like a tin-pot dictator. 

Hester tells Canary (who, incidentally, wears a bright yellow dress—which Ben Brantley of the New York Times called “curve-hugging,” and, man, is it ever!) that she writes to her son in prison and had been saving her fees to buy Boy’s freedom, but in the meantime, she’s paying installments into the Freedom Fund toward a “reunion picnic” with him.  (Some of Hester and Canary’s conversation, as well as other dialogue throughout the play, is in a language called TALK which only the women of the town speak—used principally when they talk about sex or women’s private parts.  The English translation of these passages is projected on the back wall of the set.  The projections are designed by Rocco Disant.)  The two women’s banter includes their calling each other “Whore” and “Babykiller.”  Hester and Canary sing the “Working Womans Song.”

Canary in turn reveals that she’s become the Mayor’s mistress and that the First Lady (Elizabeth Stanley) can’t give her husband “an heir or heiress.”  The Mayor’s planning to “bump  off” his wife and Canary thinks he’ll marry her.  Hester, who (like Hester, La Negrita in In the Blood) is illiterate, asks Canary to read her last letter from Boy and Canary gives her a gold coin she’s gotten from the Mayor.

Hester goes to the Freedom Fund to make another payment towards her reunion with her son.  The Freedom Fund Lady (Marlene Ginader), a figure certainly inspired by Kafka who keeps the payment records, tells Hester that Boy’s “picnic price” has doubled because he’s “committed a few crimes” since her last payment.  Later, Canary walks through a park “in the middle of nowhere,” where she meets an escaped convict from “up north,” Monster (Donovan Mitchell).  She notices a scar on his arm he says is “from a long time ago.”  After a few moments, she goes on her way.

In a tavern, three Hunters (J. Cameron Barnett, Peter Roman, Ginader), fresh off a successful capture of an escaped prisoner (from whose mutilated body they’ve kept souvenirs: his feet, a finger), lament that they won’t have a shot at catching the “famous convict” Monster for the bounty since he escaped “up north.”  They sing “The Hunters Creed.”  Hester comes in looking for Scribe (Kudisch) so he can write a new letter to her son.  She meets Butcher (Raphael Nash Thompson), who protects her from the abusive Hunters.  Following a confrontation with her husband and then encountering Hester on the street, a distraught First Lady meets Monster in the park.  They exchange some kind words and he remarks on the same scar Canary had noticed.  At the end of their conversation, the First Lady asks if she can kiss Monster.  He agrees, and they kiss.

Late at night in Hester’s house, she finds Butcher sitting in her front room; they’re both wearing bloody aprons from their respective jobs.  They talk about their children and we learn that Butcher, too, has a child, a daughter, in prison.  Hester learns that Butcher has been leaving fresh meat at her door and he confesses that he’s attracted to her.  He teaches her how to slaughter a pig by slitting its throat so that “it never hurts.”  The next morning, Hester comes in from her back room to find that Monster’s broken into her home and he threatens her and robs her of all her money except a gold coin she has hidden in her boot.  While he’s holding her, Monster sees the scar on her arm that matches his, but he doesn’t react.

Hester’s finally paid the Freedom Fund enough for her to have her reunion picnic with her son.  As she waits in the prison yard, she lays out the picnic spread and the guard brings out a prisoner called Jailbait (Roman), who Hester assumes is Boy.  She embraces him and tries to get him to show her his arm; earlier, Hester had told Bucher that when Boy was arrested, she bit him to leave a mark on her son and then bit herself to make an identical mark.  Jailbait’s more interested in the food, however, than he is in her, and Hester realizes he’s not her son.  Jailbait claims he killed her son in prison;  Hester stares at him in shock.  Jailbait finishes eating and assaults Hester sexually and rapes her; too stunned to resist, Hester lets him do what he wants.  She sings “My Vengeance.”

The First Lady has become pregnant by Monster and at first decides to abort the child, but changes her mind at the last minute and chooses to pass it off as the Mayor’s.  Hester’s at Butcher’s shop when the Mayor comes in for an order and announces that he and the First Lady are expecting a child.  Hester hatches a plan for revenge against the First Lady for putting Boy in prison so long ago and enlists Butcher and Canary to help her kidnap the First Lady and abort the baby so that the First Lady can echo the pain that she caused Hester all those years ago.  The next night, Canary and Butcher bring a drugged First Lady to Hester’s house, where Hester aborts the baby, not knowing that it’s her own grandchild. 

After Butcher and Canary leave, Monster runs into the house, trying to escape the Hunters.  Hester has begun to piece together the evidence and realizes that Monster is actually her son, but has trouble accepting that he’s no longer the “angel” she believed he was.  He sings “The Making of a Monster.”  The barking of the Hunters’ dogs gets louder and Monster tells Hester that when they catch him, they’ll torture him to a gruesome death.  He begs Hester to kill him; though at first she resists, she finally slits his throat like Butcher showed her.  The Hunters enter and although they are disappointed to find that Monster’s already dead, they drag his body away because there’s “plenty of fun still to be had.”  Hester sits alone in her house for a moment, reprising “Working Womans Song.”  Soon Hester’s back doorbell begins to ring insistently, but she ignores it and gets her abortion tools and goes into the other room to continue her work.  Even after all she’s suffered, life simply goes on for Hester as it has for 20 years.

(A few words about casting in Fucking A and the STC staging:  In In the Blood, Parks specifies the race of three of the characters, including Hester, La Negrita, leaving the rest open to the directors’ choices.  In Fucking A, the dramatist puts no restrictions on the racial make-up of the ensemble.  At Signature, for instance, Hester Smith is white, Canary is African American, and the First Lady is white; at the Public Theater in 2003, Hester was African American [S. Epatha Merkerson], Canary was Latina [Daphne Rubin Vega], and the First Lady was African American [Michole Briana White].  In Signature’s revival, Christine Lahti’s “son” is African American while the prisoner she thinks is her son, Jailbait, is Caucasian; in 2003, both men were black [Mos Def and Chandler Parker, respectively].  There’s nothing in the text to contradict any combination of actors’ backgrounds.

(In addition, when the production at STC was extended past 1 October, three members of the original cast left the show and their roles were recast.  Ruibo Qian, Brandon Victor Dixon, and Ben Horner were replaced by, respectively, Marlene Ginader, Donovan Mitchell, and Peter Roman.  Early press coverage of the production, including most reviews, will feature the first trio of actors.)

Signature’s Fucking A, which is composed in 19 scenes in two “parts” with an intermission after scene 12 and runs two hours and 15 minutes, is performed on a unit set (designed by Rachel Hauck and lit moodily by Jeff Croiter) that serves as all the play’s locales.  It’s a generally realistic two-story architectural wall with doors, staircases, and landings, but generalized so that it doesn’t represent any place in particular.  It could also be from nearly any period from the Renaissance (say, Hester Prynne’s 17th century) to today.  This confirms that Parks means us to be displaced in time and space—neither the program nor the published text makes any mention of the setting, not even in the vague terms of “Here” and “Now” as in In the Blood.  (There are several mentions of characters going to Europe, so the locale is probably not on that continent—but anywhere else is possible.)  Only Emilio Sosa’s costumes give us an occasional hint about the time; most could be of any period as well, but the First Lady’s scarlet dress and Canary’s yellow one are definitely contemporary.  Those costumes are also the only splashes of color in the otherwise bleak landscape of Hester’s homeland.  The set is painted a dull, institutional green—“puke green,” we  used to call it: the color of school hallways and hospital corridors in the ’50s.

Drawn from the same source  of inspiration, In the Blood and Fucking A couldn’t be more different.  Still, there are similarities, marks of Parks’s art and dramaturgy.  Like ITB, Fucking A is a contemporary tragedy, ending with a horrific act which Parks has rendered completely understandable, if no less shocking, by her storytelling.  I’ve noted above some of the topics Parks explores in the Red Letter Plays, but in the end, Fucking A is about the gap between the classes more than the races, which has been more familiar territory for Parks in the past.  In the Blood can be seen as the struggle of a poor black woman to survive and take care of her family in the face of systemic discrimination, but Fucking A depicts a struggle in a world controlled by those with power and wealth for those who have none to subsist.

Furthermore, both plays’ plots are astonishing in their unpredictability—one of Parks’s most noteworthy gifts is her boundless, and perhaps restless, imagination—while the plays remain absolutely logical.  As one writer has it, “We cannot predict the stories she’ll tell us or even how she’ll tell them”—but once the playwright spins her tale, I nod and think, ‘Well, it couldn’t happen any other way.’ 

Parks has also employed some distancing techniques as in In the Blood.  The race- and gender-blind casting (one of the Hunters is a woman and one of Hester’s waiting clients is played by a man) could be seen as a Brechtian application, though it’s no longer so striking as it once was on New York stages, but the Kurt Weill-like songs dropped into scenes that are largely naturalistic in style are definitely dissociative.  When the characters stop to sing, all other action ceases.  The ambiguity of the time and place, the character labels instead of names—Butcher, Freedom Fund Lady, Scribe—and the secret language of the women and the projection of the translations are other Brechtian touches.  Despite their theoretical origins, though, Parks makes her dramaturgical techniques entirely her own.

All that said, I found Fucking A less appealing as a theatrical experience than In the Blood. (I don’t want to say “enjoyable,” because neither play is intended to be an evening’s entertainment—despite considerable humor.)  It’s not that Fucking A wasn’t engrossing or intellectually stimulating—it was—but I found it much more set-up—constructed—than In the Blood, at least in the way the two plays were presented at Signature.  I didn’t see either play in its first New York production, so this response may be due to the two STC directors’ concepts—though I don’t think that’s so.  Both plays have been described as fables, but it may be that Fucking A is just enough more fable-like than ITB and therefore too much removed from my experience—too distanced, perhaps.  (I’ve read the dystopian novels of Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and Franz Kafka and been engrossed by them, but the films adapted from them have never been as engaging.  I confess, I didn’t see the recent stage version of 1984 that ran on Broadway this summer and fall, so I don’t know how well it was translated into performance.  I have seen Sidney Kingsley’s stage adaption of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and I recall that worked for me, but that was in the early 1960s and I was a teenager, which may account for its affect on me at the time.)  Whatever the reason, I found Fucking A considerably chillier than In the Blood.

One explanation for that may be my response to Christine Lahti as an actress.  I’ve always found her cold and hard (if you want to check me out, look back at my blog report on Adam Rapp’s Dreams of Flying Dreams of Falling, posted on 6 November 2011).  As Hester Smith, she was the warmest, most sympathetic, and most relatable I’ve ever seen her on stage or on screen.  (This is also the first time I’ve seen her play a character outside the upper-middle social class.  Maybe that’s part of the explanation: get her out of her acting comfort zone, and she gets real.)  Lahti, however, is still her own Verfremdung Effekt.  I can imagine her being excellent in several true Brecht roles, such as Mother Courage or Jenny in The Threepenny Opera.  (Several reviews of the 2003 Public Theater production remarked on the warm and human qualities of S. Epatha Merkerson’s Hester; from her other work, I imagine she’d have been more empathetic—but that’s admittedly only in my mind’s eye.)

The other members of the ensemble were excellent, with stand-out turns by Joaquina Kalukango as Canary Mary and Raphael Nash Thompson as Butcher.  Kalukango played Canary as confident and unabashed—even when she acknowledges, “I am a whore”—and at the same time, sensible and charming, even breezy.  Her rendition of “Gilded Cage,” a ballad lamenting the loss of freedom, was wise and clear-eyed.  Thompson was easily the most ingratiating personality on the Linney stage, making Butcher not just a nice man (somewhat bizarrely when he teaches Hester how to slit a throat painlessly, though Thompson handles this almost sweetly), but a devoted protector and guardian.  He, too, revealed much in his solo, the tongue-twisting “A Meat Man Is a Good Man to Marry,” a proposal of marriage from a committed carnivore—but Thompson actually makes it sound endearing.  In her one scene as Freedom Fund Lady, Marlene Ginader (who also played one of the Hunters and one of Hester’s clients)  cut a disconcerting figure in Fucking A, a chatty, friendly personality that disguises a Kafkaesque soul.  Freedom Fund Lady has the mind of Joseph Heller’s Milo Minderbinder (from Catch 22) with the instincts of Dracula, and Ginader played her so coolly it sent a chill up my spine.

Based on 30 published reviews, Show-Score computed an average rating of 72 for Fucking A.  The highest-scoring review was a 92 for Reviews Off Broadway backed up by three 90’s (including New York magazine and Stage Buddy) and the lowest scores were two 40’s earned by Edge New York and Broadway Blog followed by three 45’s (The Hollywood Reporter, The Wrap, Lighting & Sound America); the breakdown was 66% positive notices, 17% mixed, and 17% negative.  My survey includes 18 reviews from the print and cyber media; some of the notices are the same ones I covered In the Blood because the reviewers wrote omnibus reviews of The Red Letter Plays.

In the U.S. edition of the Financial Times, Max McGuinness asserted that Fucking A “tries to turn the story of a beleaguered small-town abortionist . . . into a universal parable of sexism and racism.”  He added that “Parks artfully exposes the hypocrisy of those who denounce Hester as a ‘baby killer’ one minute, then anxiously knock on her door the next.”  The second Red Letter Play, however, “becomes overstuffed as prostitution, lynching, mass incarceration and Homer’s Odyssey are all thrown into the mix,” complained the FT reviewer.  “Moreover,” he continued, “under Jo Bonney’s direction, the stylised dialogue, broadly sketched characters, and off-key musical interludes feel like Bertolt Brecht-by-numbers.”  While he praised Christine Lahti for Hester’s “sour wit and brittle dignity,” McGuinness posited that “Fucking A has a lot of points to make, but they’re a little too blunt.”

Matt Windman of am New York described Fucking A as “an explosive combination of gory 17th-century revenge tragedy, ‘Sweeney Todd,’ cabaret performance, confrontational direct address and class warfare.”  (Kirk and I both also glommed onto Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd as soon as the performance was over.)  Jo Bonney’s direction “gives the production an electrifying edge,” added Windman, “with the broad performances of the supporting players (including Marc Kudisch as the local mayor) played against the protagonists’ grim circumstances.”  Overall, the amNY reviewer affirmed, each of the Red Letter Play productions “is an outstanding staging of a bold, difficult and provocative work.  When viewed together, ‘The Red Letter Plays’ proves to be one of the most interesting and rewarding theater events of the fall.”  Barbara Schuler’s “Bottom Line” on Long Island’s Newsday read: “Suzan-Lori Parks delivers powerful riffs on ‘The Scarlet Letter.’”  In this second of two “powerful pieces,” Lahti played Hester “with a potent mix of strength and vulnerability.” 

In the Times, calling the Signature production of Fucking A “compelling revival” and a “vibrantly reincarnated work,” Brantley affirmed that the “forthright, comfortably uncomfortable” opening scene demonstrated that “those involved . . . know what they’re doing.”  The Timesman asserted that Fucking A “is a dark, didactic entertainment deliberately in the mode of Bertolt Brecht,” whom he affirmed is “difficult for American theater artists to get right.”  (Brantley quipped that this was “probably the best American production I’ve seen of a Brecht play that wasn’t written by Brecht.”)  He continued, “It would be all too easy for any interpreters of [Fucking A] to be overwhelmed by the play’s disparate influences and intellectual self-consciousness,” but the STC revival, which the review-writer described as “as harrowing as it is witty,” “is light on its feet—quick, sharp and perfectly paradoxical.”  The production “has the look of a noir fairy tale. It is steeped, visually and verbally, in Brothers Grimmsian images of slaughter and torture” and the “cast brings humanizing shades of pain, greed and longing to symbolic figures, without ever tearing the play’s somber folk-tale fabric.”  Brantley singled out Lahti for her “fierce portrait of ravaging maternal obsession” as Hester.  The Times reviewer summed up his assessment with:

Ms. Parks is best known for her dense, expressionistic studies of black lives trapped in the nightmare of American history.  [Fucking A], with its color- and gender-blind casting, is untethered by topical sociology.  But those looking for parallels to an angry contemporary world divided between rich and poor won’t have to strain.

The New Yorker’s Hilton Als characterized the play as a “story of romance-as-blight” in which there are “[s]o many frustrated dreams” even though “love or the dream of love won’t let anyone go.”  He praised Lahti for the way she “was able to use her body to show how Hester Smith’s slow manner was born out of necessity: her gruesome instruments are heavy in more ways than one, as is her letter ‘A.’”  The New Yorker reviewer’s further remarks concerned both plays and I summarized them in my report on In the Blood (http://rickontheater.blogspot.com/2017/10/the-red-letter-plays-in-blood.html). 

Sara Holdren, noting that Fucking A “is closer kin to Brecht than to Hawthorne,” wrote for Vulture/New York magazine that the play is “a fiery, raw-throated shout in the face of hypocrisy, privilege, and injustice.”  It’s “an explicit . . . examination of the class struggle and its brutalities,” Holdren declared, “eschewing the colloquial and familiar for a mode of theatricality that calls attention to its own artifice.  It’s a heightened, dangerous world—and a gut-wrenching one.”  The dramatist “revels in stark, often crass language that cuts across the fourth wall,” she asserted.  “Her characters speak directly to us and, when impassioned, break into ragged bursts of song providing commentary on their actions and social positions.”  Holdren observed:

It takes the ear a moment to adjust at the play’s beginning, but Bonney and her actors handle the blunt, clipped rhythms of the text with confidence.  They don’t overplay the style, nor do they try to force it into naturalism.  They trust that we as an audience will listen and will learn the language.  And we do.

Holdren lauded Lahti for portraying Hester “with fearsome monomania and frighteningly dead eyes” and complimented Kalukango for a Canary who “is rich-voiced and winning, a striking contrast to the flinty, brooding Hester.”  In conclusion, she proclaimed:

Fucking A is a rare play in our contemporary landscape.  It reaches across genres and performance styles—musical, Jacobean revenge play, Brechtian epic theater—drawing on the gifts of a multitalented ensemble to touch something frighteningly prescient about a world twisted by inequity and disenfranchisement, a world in which resentment and hatred can bloom into a cancer.  The fiery Russian poet and playwright Mayakovsky, in defiance of Hamlet’s famous dictum to “hold a mirror up to nature,” once wrote: “The theatre is not a reflecting mirror, but a magnifying glass”—it can enlarge and, held at the right angle, it can burn.  In the hands of Jo Bonney and company, Fucking A both amplifies specific brutal aspects of the society it observes and leaves a smoldering mark.

In Time Out New York, Raven Snook affirmed that the “expressionistic and politically charged exploration of class, family and violence, studded with jarring bursts of humor and song” that is Fucking A “owes more to Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera than to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel.”  The woman from TONY, cautioned theatergoers that director Bonney “struggles to establish a cohesive tone,” but reports that “Fucking A’s alternations between pain and entertainment are never boring.”  Snook concluded: “Like Hester’s bloodily branded A, the play leaves an indelible mark.”  Marilyn Stasio  of Variety deemed that Bonney “runs with the play’s sense of menace” and Lahti’s “fiercely drawn Hester is a survivor, but so consumed with equally balanced passions of love and hate you can’t tear your eyes away from her.”

Frank Scheck, in one of Show-Score’s low-rated notices, stated bluntly in his “Bottom Line” in the Hollywood Reporter: “F—ing no.”  (In case some readers hadn’t noticed, many publications, including the New York Times, TheaterMania, and Variety, among others, won’t print the vulgar participle that forms half of Parks’s title.  It’s somewhat amusing how the editors and publishers twist themselves into pretzels to come up with an alternative—amusing, that is, until you try to find the coverage in a search engine or database!)  Noting that the “elements of Jacobean revenge tragedy and the plays of Bertolt Brecht” Parks inserted in Fucking A “should be enough to create an engaging theatrical experience,“ Scheck felt however that the play “never manages to transcend its derivative, ersatz feel.”  He complained that “the work comes across like the thesis playwriting project of a zealous grad student.”  Though the production is “suitably visceral,” the HR reviewer contended, “It may occasionally succeed in its goal of shocking the audience, but for long stretches this play just never comes to theatrical life.”  The playwright, asserted Scheck, “occasionally delivers here the sort of virtuosic writing that rouses our attention[, . . . b]ut F—ing A becomes bogged down in borrowed stylistic devices.”  The reviewer continued that though “the play traffics in important, urgent themes, its affectations prove its undoing.”  Director Bonney “infuses the proceedings with intense theatricality,” while the actors “tear into their schematic roles with energy and conviction,” said Scheck, praising Lahti as “the standout with her fiercely commanding turn.” 

On TheaterMania, Zachary Stewart called the STC production of Parks’s Hawthorne riff “a powerful revival” of a play that “asks if we've really progressed beyond the cruel puritan society of the early Massachusetts Bay Colony.”  Director Bonney “elicits a believable hunger from the cast” and Stewart reported that Lahti played Hester “with a motherly combination of vulnerability and ferocity.”  Carol Rocamora of Theater Pizzazz characterized the Red Letter Plays as “wildly original” and “provocative,” and labels Fucking A “compelling.”  Parks’s play, “with its rich characters and gripping plot,” presented Rocamora with a number of Brechtian references which she saw as aspects of the playwright’s “bold and fearless inventiveness.”  The Theater Pizzazz writer affirmed, “Under Jo Bonney’s masterful direction, the play is gripping and darkly entertaining despite its traumatic content” and she pronounced Lahti’s Hester “superb.” 

Joel Benjamin had quite a bit to say on TheaterScene.net about Parks’s writing and the Red Letter Plays as a pair, which I reported in my ITB write-up and won’t repeat here.  Of Fucking A, Benjamin said that Bonney “turns it into a blood and guts oversized verismo opera in which passions and revenge drive the plot.”  (According to The American Heritage Dictionary, verismo is “an artistic movement of the late 19th century, originating in Italy and influential especially in grand opera, marked by the use of common, everyday themes often treated in a melodramatic manner.”  I had to look it up, too.)  On Broadway World, Michael Dale called the play “sardonically abstract” and Bonney’s production “chilling.”  Lahti played Hester “with determined grit,” Kalukango is “wryly humored” as Canary, and Kudisch‘s Mayor is “grandly hammy.”  Rocamora particularly relished the “lengthy, crazily off-beat” speech of Butcher in which he lists all his daughters crimes, delivered “beautifully” by Thompson.

Fucking A is a dystopian fable,” declared Elyse Sommer on CurtainUp.  Though “relentlessly downbeat and bloody as any Greek tragedy,” STC’s Fucking A “has been given a production that works well on all levels.”  The CU review-writer reported that Bonney directed “with a sense for the rhythm to keeps it flowing” and the “cast, top to bottom, is up to giving fresh, meaningful life to” the play.  Like other reviewers, Sommer singled out Lahti as “gut-stirring” and Kalukango for “a lovely, bouncy performance.” In the lowest-scored review (40), Samuel L. Leiter bluntly proclaimed on The Broadway Blog:

Barely any of the show works and, while the play and production, energetically directed by Jo Bonney, have their fervent admirers, I found Fucking A’s two hours and fifteen minutes hard to sit through: pretension, illogicality, artificiality, exaggeration, and banality will do that to you. 

Leiter complained that “the goal of creating a ‘this is theatre, not life’ atmosphere succeeds only in underlining the dialogue’s affectation” and he contended, “A feminist subtext is ticking beneath the surface but the play’s embellishments prevent it from exploding.”  In addition, the BB reviewer charged that “the score is as dully ersatz as the writing and contributes little to the narrative or thematic continuity.”  He called the plot “clumsy,” the characters “stereotypical,” and accused he actors of “overacting.”  The Broadway Blogger protested (“for literal-minded people like me”) Bonney’s alogical interracial casting (particularly Hester’s confusing the white Jailbait for her black son).   “Colorblind casting is commendable,” Leiter acknowledged; “in this case, it’s a distraction.”  His “big regret,” though, was “that Christine Lahti, unattractively bewigged, made up, and costumed . . . in Mother Courage-like basic drab, retains an aura of speech and sophistication that suggests she’s playacting rather than fitting seamlessly into Hester’s more life-battered skin.”  Leiter concluded, “Without a Hester to believe in, there’s no way one can grasp just what Parks wants to say about class, gender, sex, and motherhood, much less believe she’s said it in Fucking A.”

On Talkin’ Broadway, Howard Miller reported that STC’s Fucking A “unfolds with the inevitab[ility] of a Greek myth, with a low-key style of performance that would seem to be intentional on the part of director Jo Bonney.”  Miller complained that for this reason, “and after so much set-up, the act of revenge is rather anti-climactic.  There is no catharsis for Hester or for us.”  Kathryn Kelly warned us on Stage Buddy, “If you are convinced society has progressed beyond Nathaniel Hawthorne’s vision in The Scarlet Letter, Suzan-Lori Parks has an offering to prove otherwise.”  Of course, she was referring to Fucking A, “a staggering work of expert storytelling and captivating performances brought to life by Jo Bonney’s direction.”  The cast is “exemplary,” most “seamlessly” playing several roles as well as performing the music.  Kelly pointed out, “The journey to knowledge is difficult and ends in a heartbreaking climax, comparable to the most searing of Greek tragedies, but the lessons are necessary.”  She ended by urging, “Don’t miss this experience.”

The top-scorer among Show-Score’s review assembly was Scott Mitchell’s notice on Reviews Off Broadway (92).  In it, he insisted that Fucking A “honors Nathanial Hawthorne’s work” and that Bonney “gets great performances from the cast, and the pacing of this piece works beautifully.”  Mitchell felt that Lahti “does a remarkable turn bring[ing] Hester Smith to life.”  (On Show-Score’s website, the quotation for this entry didn’t match the ROB website, so I went in search of the source.  It turns out, Mitchell also uses Facebook to post some of his opinions, and the single paragraph on Fucking A is a little more specific: “Christine Lahti and Brandon Victor Dixon [replaced at the performance I saw by Donovan Mitchell] stand out in an excellent cast in ‘F**king A’, a searing play based on the themes found in ‘The Scarlet Letter.’”)

12 October 2017

The Red Letter Plays: 'In the Blood'

Suzan-Lori Parks’s Residency One tenure has extended from its start in the 2016-17 season at the Signature Theatre Company (The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, reported on 1 December 2016, and Venus, 7 Jun 2017) into the company’s 2017-18 season, which just got underway.  Parks’s final entry in her residency (she will be followed by Stephen Adly Guirgis, whose first Signature production will be Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, which I’m booked to see on 27 October with a report to follow) is comprised of two plays drawn from the same source material, though they were composed separately and are vastly different in nearly all respects. 

Under the umbrella title of “The Red Letter Plays,” STC’s presenting In the Blood and Fucking A, both inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel, The Scarlet Letter.  (If you’ve never read The Scarlet Letter, which isn’t necessary to respond to Parks’s riffs, I’ll let you look it up on your own.  For now, it’ll suffice to say that in the novel, set in Puritan Boston in the 1640s, Hester Prynne, married to a man believed lost at sea, has a daughter whose father she refuses to name.  She’s cast out of the community and forced to wear a red letter A for “Adulteress” embroidered on the bodice of her dress.)  Both plays, which have never been produced together before, have as their lead character a woman named Hester who lives on the margins of society.  (This is also the first time that the Signature Theatre Company has presented two plays by the same writer simultaneously.)  Together, In the Blood (not to be confused with the 2014 action-adventure film of that title from Anchor Bay Films) and Fucking A speak about motherhood, fatherhood, and family; class, the injustice of the social system, and the struggle to survive against a stacked deck.  Both plays, too, are modern-day tragedies that depict a devastating story and end with a wrenching and disturbing final action.

I’ve seen a number of Parks plays now, and though both of these two are quite different from what I’ve become accustomed to (and, as I’ll remark in my next report, Fucking A is even more distinctive), there are still clear marks of her dramaturgy evident here, especially her use of language which, as always, is unique, startling, and exciting.   In addition, I was astonished at the breadth and depth of the playwright’s imagination, as I have been at every Parks play I’ve seen.  If the truth be told, I can’t begin to understand how this artist conceives of the ideas she uses to make her plays.

The STC production of In the Blood, directed by Sarah Benson (Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s OBIE-winning An Octoroon at the Soho Repertory Theatre in 2014 and the Theatre for a New Audience in 2015), began previews in the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, the small proscenium house at the company’s Pershing Square Signature Center, on 29 August 2017 and opened on 17 September; the revival will close on 15 October (after a week’s extension from 8 October) and my friend Kirk Woodward and I saw it at the 7:30 performance on 19 September.  The play, a finalist for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, premièred under the direction of David Esbjornson at the Joseph Papp Public Theater on 22 November 1999 (with Charlayne Woodard as Hester) and was subsequently presented at the Edison Theater in Los Angeles in July 2003 and the Schaeberle Studio Theatre at New York City’s Pace University in the fall of 2004.  Both plays are published in The Red Letter Plays from the Theatre Communications Group (2001):

Parks explains in a program note that the birth of the Red Letter Plays came around 1997 when she was canoeing with a friend, and they were singing songs and making conversation.  Parks remembers saying, “I’m going to write a riff on The Scarlet Letter and I’m going to call it Fucking A!”  She thought it was a funny idea—but she’d never read Hawthorne’s novel.  So the playwright read the book and began writing.  She wrote a draft of a play about Hester and when she finished, she realized that it wasn’t working.  She wrote several more drafts, “trying to find the story.” 

Parks described the riff she was trying to do on Scarlet Letter as “a contrafact, if you know jazz.  You take the chords [of an already-existing composition] and you write your own melody.”  Still, it “wasn’t coming together.”  She wrote more drafts.  She sat at her computer and deleted everything but the title, Fucking A.  Then she says she “heard this voice saying, ‘I’ll tell you the story of your play.’”  

The voice continued: “‘A woman with five children by five different lovers, that’s your play, and the children and the adults in the play are played by the same adult actors.’  And I was like, ‘that doesn’t sound like Fucking A.’  And the voice, a woman’s, was like, ‘No, it’s not.  It’s called In the Blood.’”

After that, Parks recounts, she found it very easy to write Fucking A.  

It was as if they were twins in the womb of my consciousness, twins in my mind.  And one couldn’t get out because they were entangled together.  So when In the Blood came out easily, then Fucking A was very easy to write.  They’re sisters, these two plays.  Both asking that question that I seem to keep asking in my work: “Who are you to me?”  And out of that questioning, hopefully, will come an understanding.

(There is a brief biographical profile of Parks in my report on The Death of the Last Black Man, as well as a discussion of the importance of jazz to her work.)

The play’s performed at Signature as a two-hour one-act of nine scenes (plus a Prologue), though In the Blood’s published text indicates an intermission after Scene 4.  The unmarried Hester, La Negrita (Saycon Sengbloh), has five children of varying races—Jabber (Michael Braun), Hester’s oldest son, aged 13; Bully (Jocelyn Bioh), her oldest daughter, 12; Trouble (Frank Wood), her middle son, 10; Beauty (Ana Reeder), her youngest daughter, 7; and Baby (Russell G. Jones), her youngest son, 2—each from a different father, none of whom acknowledges his relationship with Hester, much less his paternity of any of Hester’s children.  

The destitute family of six make their home under a bridge, where Jabber tries to teach his mother to read and write as she goes hungry so that her children can eat.  Hester’s illiterate—she gets Jabber to read things for her, including the pejorative graffiti scrawled on the bridge abutment—and so far, she’s mastered the letter A, which she chalks shakily on the same bridge structure—an unmistakable allusion to Hester Prynne and Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter.  Her friend Amiga Gringa (Reeder), a poor white neighbor who visits the family often, offers useless help; Amiga tells Hester her “first love,” Chilli (Braun), Jabber’s father, is back in town and is looking for her.  Amiga, a kind of street hustler who’ll do anything to get “a leg up,” suggest, too, that one of the fathers of Hester’s children might offer her some help.  As the children come home, they disappear under the set floor (between the floor of the set and the stage proper), which represents the shelter of their home, and while Amiga and Hester are talking, the Doctor (Wood), a road-side physician to the street people, passes through wearing his self-advertising sandwich board.  

Others who are part of Hester’s world of the streets are the Welfare Lady (Bioh), a representative of the state who’s married with children and living a prosperous, comfortable life, and Reverend D. (Jones), a neighborhood street preacher (and former alcoholic street-dweller himself) who’s on the verge of having his own church.  Reverend D. (a reference to the character Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester Prynne’s lover in The Scarlet Letter) is two-year-old Baby’s father, though he’s never acknowledged it, and we learn as each member of Hester’s little community has a scene with her and a “Confession” (which Ben Brantley of the New York Times aptly called “monologues of self-justification”) that they’ve all engaged in some kind of sexual relationship with her: the Doctor, Amiga Gringa, and the Welfare Lady, who, with her husband, had a one-time three-way with Hester. 

(Hester’s designation, La Negrita, is a polysemous locution.  It literally means ‘little black girl’ and can be no more than descriptive.  Apparently, it’s usually applied as a term of affection or endearment among Latin Americans, depending somewhat on nationality, but it can be derogative in some contexts.  The word negrita also has a second meaning of ‘bold,’ in reference to typeface, and that sense of bravery or strength carries over as well.  [Obviously from this characterization, Hester’s played by an African-American actress; other characters need not be any particular race or ethnicity except Welfare, who’s also a black woman, and Amiga Gringa, who’s Caucasian.]  The actors playing the children are all adults.  Parks calls for these five actors each to portray two characters—Hester is the only character who’s not double-cast—one child and one adult.  They also make up the chorus who appear at the beginning and end of the play to torment Hester.

(During the performance, I began thinking that each of Hester’s children are played by the same actors who play their fathers—with Bully played by Bioh, who’s also Welfare, whose husband is presumably Bully’s father.  We know from the text about Chilli/Jabber and the Reverend D./Baby.  But then, who’s Beauty’s father?  She’s played by Reeder, who portrays Amiga Gringa—who had a fling with Hester, too, but couldn’t have sired a child.  Of course, I could just be wrong—or is this something we’re just not supposed catch?  I kind of like the symmetry—except that it may just be imaginary.  The 5/5 cast of characters is certainly an issue of practical playwriting; but the assignment of the doubling, if it falls the way I thought—with whatever explanation arises for Beauty/Amiga Gringa—could be thematically significant, at least subliminally.  [The published script and the on-line casting breakdown in Back Stage specify this pairing, but have nothing more to say on the matter of paternity.])

Amiga’s news about Chilli (the name refers to Roger Chillingworth, the name Hester Prynne’s husband takes when he, like Chilli—who’s also taken a new name—reappears) seems to promise help, and when he arrives, he plays their song (“The Looking Song,” written by Parks) on a tape recorder and offers her marriage.  But when Hester’s four other children start coming home, he quickly withdraws the proposal and abandons her once again.  Indeed, everyone who purports to offer Hester help is really just betraying her and using her for their own gratification and selfish needs: Amiga, who’s essentially been stealing from her all along anyway, suggests Hester perform a sex show she’ll call Chocolate and Vanilla with her; Welfare has a job for Hester—sewing piecework—and suggests that Hester have a hysterectomy—a “spay,” Welfare calls it, like for a stray dog—and threatens to have her children taken away so she’ll “never see them again”; the Doctor also wants to remove Hester’s “womanly parts” (his eye chart—which Hester can’t read—spells out “SPAY”) and examines her like a mechanic checking under a car, sliding between her legs and beneath her dress on a dolly.  Finally, Reverend D. refuses to take any responsibility for Hester or Baby, stringing her along with empty promises and finally telling her not to come around any more. 

At the beginning of the play, vandals had graffiti’d “SLUT” on the supports of the bridge, but Jabber had told his mother he couldn’t read the words.  At the end of the play, Jabber admits he had refused to read the word for her because “It was a bad word”—the word that for Hester, La Negrita is what “Adulteress” is for Hester Prynne: a label of outsiderness.  Once having said the word, however, Jabber keeps repeating it until Hester strikes out in a rage and beats her son to death.  In the blood of her son, she scrawls the letter A on the ground before the bars of a prison cell come down and enclose her.  The voices of the community chorus show no sympathy for Hester, concluding the brutal drama with no hint of mercy. 

In the Blood, the first of the two Red Letter Plays, is considered to be the demarcation between Parks’s thoroughly poeticized and anti-realistic scripts like The Death of the Last Black Man (1990) and Venus (1996) and a move toward Realism, or at least a sort of Brechtian Realism.  The play still has many distancing characteristics, including choral scenes, the spoken-aria-like Confessions, poetic use of language, scene labels (for the Confessions), music and song, and others—not the least of which is the casting of adult actors to play little children.  As you’ve seen, except for Hester and Chilli, none of the characters has an actual name; Reverend D. comes closest, but the rest only have descriptive labels.  In fact, three of them, the Doctor, Welfare, and Reverend D. are clearly representatives of the societal structures that neglect and oppress Hester and those like her: the medical establishment, the state, and religion.  Not even Hester’s children have real names; they’re almost allegorical. 

In addition, Louisa Thompson’s scenic design is in line with the playwright’s description of the setting as “spare,  to reflect the poverty of the world of the play.”  It’s only vaguely realistic, suggesting an actual bridge abutment without reproducing one.  Aside from this suggestion, Thompson’s set is more an environment for the actors to work in than a visual image to orient the audience.  One naturalistic touch is the big, yellow chute that brings garbage and construction debris down from above at intervals—some of which refuse become the children’s playthings.  The floor of the set, constructed above the stage floor, is severely raked and the rear “wall” is sloped like a giant slide—down which the children slide from a catwalk above, representing the street level.  That slope is a metaphor for the plight of Hester and her family, though: the children can slide down it, but there’s no way to climb up the wall (as Sengbloh observes in an interview); it’s absolutely Sisyphean—like Hester’s life.

This calls  for some non-naturalistic physical performance, directed by Elizabeth Streb.  (Other physical performance elements were in the charge of choreographer Annie-B Parson and fight director J. David Brimmer.)  The stark lighting design of Yi Zhao and the sound designer of Matt Tierney blends with this scheme as well, with moody and slightly noirish effect.

Hester has been rejected by the system with no possibility for redemption because she’s poor, black, and homeless.  Her fate is in her blood, society had concluded.  But beyond race and even social status, by connecting each child to a father and painting that father (or his surrogate, as in the case of Welfare) in defining colors, Parks asks what is “in the blood”?  What is innate and what is imposed by societal forces (that is, prejudices and assumptions)?  Because Parks has universalized the saga by drawing on a classic piece of literature, setting the play “Here” and “Now,” giving most of the characters descriptions and labels rather than names, and casting them from all races and genders, the message is that this fate applies to all in Hester’s situation not just one person called Hester, La Negrita.  In the Blood is a class-action indictment.

As Hester, Saycon Sengbloh manages to make a woman who doesn’t seem to be able to control her own life, much less her destiny, sympathetic, even down to the awful act she perpetrates in the end.  Sengbloh exhibits a certain resilience in the face of her destitution, but her Hester believes the lies she tells herself.  She’s almost Candide, but with a dash more cynicism: the world she inhabits isn’t the best of all possible worlds, but she’s doing the best she possibly can in it.  Neither Sengbloh nor Parks condescends to Hester: she’s no saint or pitiable, misunderstood soul.  She’s a survivor who’ll do (and does) unapologetically whatever’s necessary to keep herself and her children going—and that’s what the actress plays..

The five members of the ensemble are all excellent, making distinct personalities for both their adult and child characters, each one a different individual.  The adults are already cold and selfish, each in his or her own way, and the children are beginning to show the signs of where they could be going, as Bioh’s 12-year-old Bully sleeps with her hands clenched into little fists and the 10-year-old Trouble of Wood has stolen a cop’s truncheon (with which his mother later beats Jabber to death).  But these actors really play three roles since they’re also the Greek chorus that represents the community that judges Hester and finds her unworthy.  These five are the five-fingered hand that Hester sees blocking out the sun, the dark shadow she says is the hand of fate—Hester’s fate.

On the basis of 23 published reviews, Show-Score calculated an average rating of 79 for Signature’s In the Blood.  The tally of positive notices was 91%, with the highest scores two 90’s (including Broadway World) and eight 85’s (among them, the New York Times and New York magazine/Vulture), 5% mixed reviews, and 4% negative, represented by a single notice with a score of 40 (scribicide).  My review survey will include 16 notices.  (A number of reviewers covered both play in one notice, as if the Red Letter Plays were being presented as a two-play rep.  This makes it hard to summarize those reviews as they pertain specifically to each play—but I’ll give it a try.)

In the U.S. edition of the Financial Times, Max McGuinness described Parks’s play as “as bleak and unredeeming as Hawthorne’s novel” but added that its “bursts of theatrical energy ensure that In the Blood’s social critique never feels heavy-handed.”  In the Blood “remains topical” and “never flirts with sentimentality.”  Sengbloh, said McGuinness, plays Hester “with consummate understatement” and “the hypocritical bromides of evangelical Christianity prove a rich source of satire thanks to Russell G. Jones’s pompous yet insecure” Reverend D.  Director Benson, the FT reviewer declared, “creates a winningly anarchic atmosphere full of offbeat comic touches.”

Barbara Schuler of Long Island’s Newsday stated in her “Bottom Line” that “Parks delivers powerful riffs on ‘The Scarlet Letter.’”  Schuler’s review was an omnibus notice covering both Red Letter Plays, so her assessment of In the Blood consisted of the judgment that Hester is “played with a driving force by” Sengbloh and the description that a “better life seems momentarily within her grasp, and when that hope is dashed, there’s unspeakable tragedy.”  Of both plays, which she labels “powerful pieces,” the Newsday review-writer observed that “they’re about mothers, and the choices—sometimes excruciatingly terrible choices—they must make to protect their children from all that life throws at them.  Any mother will relate.” 

Matt Windman wrote in am New York that both In the Blood and Fucking A “are packed with ominous tones, intense emotions, freewheeling theatricality, social criticism and an inevitable sense of tragedy.”  In the Blood “is the more serious and sensitive of the two plays,” however. “In spite of some slow patches,” caviled Windman, naming the Confessions specifically, Benson’s staging “has a scorching brutality, which grows in intensity as the play heads to its violent climax.”  Both Signature productions, the amNY reviewer asserted, are “outstanding staging[s] of a bold, difficult and provocative work.  When viewed together, ‘The Red Letter Plays’ proves to be one of the most interesting and rewarding theater events of the fall.”

In the Times, Brantley declared, “Tragedy stalks Hester La Negrita . . . as relentlessly as it does the doomed queens of Euripides and Racine.”  Calling the play a “genre-mutating” drama, Brantley labeled the Signature mounting a “first-rate revival” staged “with finely measured restraint and a dangerously relaxing sense of humor” with Hester enacted with “exquisitely clouded radiance” by Sengbloh.  The Timesman asserted that “this enduringly fresh work” plays “craftily . . . with theatrical traditions and the expectations that come with them.”  The performances are “both subtly stylized and naturalistic enough for us to identify the characters as people we know,” said Brantley, and though it “may sound like agitprop,” the director “reins in the hectoring and melodrama.”  (The Times reviewer had one complaint: he doubted that “the sexual element in two of the monologues is either necessary or convincing.”) 

Hilton Als of the New Yorker, characterizing the two plays as “masterpieces of the form,” asserted that Parks “shows how pain wears on [both Hesters], but also how they outwit life—which is to say a life that is dominated by male-generated puritanism.”  Als observed that he didn’t see the original New York productions of these plays, but he had read them and “ was amazed . . . by Parks’s gift for theatrical synthesis” in the way she melds her diverse influences and makes the combination her own.  (Als names Adrienne Kennedy, Ntozake Shange, Samuel Beckett, and William Shakespeare.)  He posited, however:

There’s a great gulf in the mind between reading a play and seeing it, and I wonder if the disappointment I felt at both shows had to do with how I’d first imagined these essential works—and how far short of that these productions fell.  Perhaps the greatness of Parks’s language shut the directors out, before they even got started.  There isn’t a lot of air in her scripts, and I can see how an actor could feel cowed by them. 

The New Yorker reviewer found that “Parks’s complicated view of motherhood—is it fulfillment or destruction, biology or destiny, liberation or prison, or all these things?—isn’t played out enough.” 

For Vulture/New York magazine, Sara Holdren dubbed the Signature revival of In the Blood a “powerful production” and declared that “we never forget that we are grappling with the particular horrors of the here and now, facing down the specific breed of resentment and contempt this society reserves for women of color.”  In the play, and its companion piece (which I’ll cover next week), Holdren asserted that “Parks rages incisively, articulately, and sometimes even humorously against the capitalist machine that grinds these women down.”  Director Benson and the “skillful design team have brought the harsh texture and soundscape” of the city streets onto the stage as the “intelligent and versatile actors are by turns exuberant, touching, and even a little menacing.”  Sengbloh’s performance is “both innocent and frightening—and finally, devastating” as she “brings a cheerful, loving determination to Hester that makes . . . her story all the more heart-wrenching.”  The plays “may be almost 20 years old,” observed the woman from New York, “but make no mistake, the productions currently playing at Signature are proof that these stories belong to our world, right now, today.”  She warned, “They’re not easy to watch, but they’re vital, scrappy, angry, witty, articulate.”  Holdren acknowledged, however: “If this sounds grim, trust me, there’s humor here as well. . . .  Parks is canny—she knows that laughter opens up the ribs so that later you can slip the knife in.” 

In the Blood “seizes you from the get-go,” wrote Raven Snook in Time Out New York, with “a simmering Saycon Sengbloh.”  The play, Snook observed, is “even more relevant” today than it was in 1999, and “[i]ts urgency is heightened by director Sarah Benson’s relentless pace . . . and the ensemble cast’s unfettered performances.”  The TONY review-writer’s conclusion?  “Parks’s scathing indictment of how society treats impoverished women gets your pulse pumping even as it breaks your heart.”  In Variety, Marilyn Stasio reported that Sengbloh “gives a remarkable performance as Hester.” 

Elyse Sommer dubbed the Red Letter Plays “terrific productions” with Hester “played with great passion” by Sengbloh.  Labeling the play “very raw,” Sommer cautioned, “While In the Blood has its comic moments, what it’s definitely not about is light entertainment.”  The CU reviewer added that In the Blood is “an unremittingly dark and hopeless tale and yet, there's something poetically gut-wrenching” in its telling.  Sommer concluded that “while Hester’s story remains downbeat,” In the Blood “is a stirring, highly recommended theatrical experience.”  On Talkin’ Broadway, Howard Miller called Signature’s In the Blood “stunning” and reported that it “grabs you by the throat from the moment it begins and does not let up.”  The play, “brilliantly helmed” by Benson, “hits all of the marks and absolutely makes the case for why the Pulitzer Prize-winning Parks is considered to be one of our great contemporary playwrights.” 

Brian Scott Lipton of Theater Pizzazz labeled Benson’s In the Blood at STC “first-rate” with an “extraordinary” Sengbloh who “never shies away from the play’s most difficult moments.”  On scribicide, Aaron Botwick (in the lowest-rated review on Show-Score) begrudged that the production “looks great,” with its “exquisite set,” but “the emotional wallop in the text never materializes onstage.”  Botwick pointed out that “Parks is working in the tradition of Brecht, which has a tendency toward flat execution.”  The scribicide review-writer feels “that eliciting empathy from the audience highlights and focuses metatheatrical alienation rather than distracting from it: cold derives its meaning from heat, distance from closeness.”  He asserted that “we only see Hester from very far away, we only hear her in monotone.  When the curtain falls, she is covered in the blood of her favorite child.  I felt nothing,” he complained.

Michael Dale, noting that In the Blood is “more sensitive” than its sister play, pronounced in Broadway World that it “receives a solid remounting” at STC.  In the Blood “takes on the style of Greek tragedy,” reported Dale, “though, especially in director Sarah Benson’s production, reality is raised to near-absurdist proportions.”  Sengbloh’s performance is “heart-tugging,” and the BWW reviewer asserted, “With America's current leaders looking to severely limit the government assistance made available to people like Hester, IN THE BLOOD has sadly lost none of it's relevance.”  Zachary Stewart of TheaterMania dubbed the production a ”searing revival” under the “steady direction” of Benson, guiding an “excellent” cast.  Sengbloh plays Hester “with a steely determination that immediately makes us root for her.”  In the end, Stewart remarked, “You may find In the Blood dystopian, but is it really so far off?”

On TheaterScene.net, Joel Benjamin proclaimed that, no matter how you feel about Parks’s  work, the Red Letter Plays “certainly deserve attention.” Benjamin, however, found himself “conflicted about these plays.”  Parks, he acknowledged:

is brilliant at generating fire with the source of the heat difficult to pinpoint.  It’s her talent to write dramas which sizzle, constructed in her strange vernacular, yet somehow leave too many questions unanswered, the better to prove her one-sided stories.

In both the Red Letter Plays, Benjamin complained, Parks avoids “revealing or analyzing the two Hesters’ inner lives which is Parks’ major weakness as a playwright.”  Though he found In the Blood’s Hester “played heroically and passionately” by Sengbloh, The TheaterScene review-writer had qualms.  “Colorful language?” he asked. “Yes.  Memorable characters?  Check.  Motivation?  Not so much.”  Nevertheless, Benjamin concluded, Benson “turns In the Blood into a chamber opera” and watching Sengbloh “resourcefully taking every blow and not fall apart is excitingly satisfying.”  Stanford Friedman, dubbing the play a “captivating revival” on New York Theater Guide, found “moments of playfulness that feel like 1960’s improvisational theater, sexually frank monologues that would be at home in the 1980s, a clear feminist political agenda . . . and, conversely, a touch of musical comedy.”  And, Friedman added, “There is also a healthy dose of absurdity.”  He called Hester “a slowly ticking time bomb,” played by Sengbloh in a “finely measured performance.”