Theater J certainly has a gift for uniting the political with the personal, as seen in its engrossing season opener, After The Revolution.
Amy Herzog’s play explores how the Joseph family’s dynamics interact with its history of political persecution. Emma Joseph (Megan Anderson) is the daughter of radical Marxists, though she’s the only member of her generation to have followed in her family’s politically active footsteps. Her passion is the plight of Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose treatment after being accused of shooting a Philadelphia police officer has been questioned by many civil-rights activists.
She’s tied the case’s social justice implications to the treatment of her blacklisted grandfather during the era of McCarthyism, and raises funds for the cause. But when new information about her grandfather’s behavior comes to life—information her father, Ben (Peter Birkenhead), has kept secret for years—Emma has to deal with the implications it has on her career, her cause, her relationship with her family, and her personal life.
In Torch Song Trilogy, currently playing at Studio Theatre in a heartfelt production by Shakespeare Theatre’s Michael Kahn, it’s telling that protagonist Arnold’s drag queen persona sports a modest vintage dress and a 1940s, Andrews Sisters-style wig rather than sequins and size-12 platform heels. For all his brash stories and double entendres, Arnold, played impeccably by Brandon Uranowitz, is a true romantic at heart, and something of an anachronism in New York City’s pre-AIDS gay scene. He moons about his apartment, staring at a rotary phone that maddeningly refuses to ring, and in one terrifically funny scene, manages to form an unlikely emotional attachment to an anonymous guy who’s just manhandled him (and more) in the back room of a bar.
That bar shares a title (“The International Stud”) with the first act in Harvey Fierstein’s three-play trilogy, which won the 1983 Tony Award for Best Play and remains resolutely charming 30 years later. Bundled together, the three hour-long pieces trace Arnold’s evolution from a needy, angsty, wistful lost soul to a matriarchal tour de force, with enough heartbreak along the way to furnish a Dolly Parton record.
Kahn also manages to make each one quite distinct, theatrically: “Stud” is a series of monologues where Arnold regularly breaks the fourth wall; “Fugue in a Nursery” features conversations but is set entirely within the confines of a giant bed; and the last play, “Widows and Children First,” is set in Arnold’s home and is almost sitcom-like in its faux-naturalism.
Broke-ology marks a number of firsts for the local theater scene: It’s the first full play produced in the Anacostia Playhouse, the first play presented east of the Anacostia River by Theater Alliance, and the first area staging of a drama by Nathan Louis Jackson, whose work has been gathering acclaim since Broke-ology played at New York’s Lincoln Center in 2009. Theater Alliance artistic director Colin Hovde, on record as saying he’s no fan of “kitchen-sink dramas,” has made an exception for Broke-ology, which even features a kitchen sink in the set. “The play is naturalistic,” Hovde says, “but it’s in the spirit of Tennessee Williams, August Wilson, and Eugene O’Neill. It has magical elements but is really about family and people.”
Running August 16 through September 8, Broke-ology is about a father and his two sons who are struggling to support one another after the father’s health fails. The elder son, who has a blue-collar job, expounds on his theory of “broke-ology,” the complex science of being broke. His younger brother returns home following his postgrad studies to find his family resenting his absence. “It’s a powerful story that deals with issues that are relevant to the community of Anacostia, but it is in no way didactic or presumptuous,” Hovde says. “For me, having it be the first Theater Alliance play in Anacostia is about opening a dialogue and beginning a relationship.”
For more than a decade, Theater Alliance was based at Northeast DC’s H Street Playhouse, which moved to Anacostia after rents priced it out of the neighborhood. The company hopes to maintain a presence in the Capitol Hill area while presenting works in its new location. Broke-ology’s cast and crew include Howard alums G. Alverez Reid and Marlon Russ as the father and one of his sons, Helen Hayes Award-winning costume designer Reggie Ray, and New York director Candace Feldman.
Says Hovde: “One of the things I love about Nathan is that as a black writer, he doesn’t write black plays—he writes plays. Broke-ology presents a beautiful picture of a family that happens to be black, but he doesn’t make that the central concern. His is a strong way to approach storytelling and a voice that needs to be heard.”
Broke-ology. August 16 to September 8 at Theater Alliance. Tickets ($25) at theateralliance.com.
This article appears in the August 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.
When Carolyn Cole shyly approaches the stage and starts singing, eventually crescendoing into a killer high note, it’s hard to avoid transforming into a teenybopper American Idol audience member in the process, squealing and cheering in approval. The girl can wail.
Such frenetic applause wouldn’t be out of place. Signature Theatre’s Spin: A New Musical, part of its Siglab series of shows in workshop form, takes place in a universe similar to the Ryan Seacrest-hosted show. Cole plays Makalo, an unlikely contestant on a show called Idol Chatter, a singing competition that has yet to receive national attention though it’s hosted by a former boy-band singer, Evan Peterson (James Gardiner). It doesn’t give away much to say that Makalo (performing under the name Adonna) ended up on the show after seeking out the dad she never knew, and the musical, based on the Korean film Speedy Scandal, is as much about their attempts to piece a relationship together as it is an amusing satire of the music industry.
Still a work in progress, Spin, with a book from Brian Hill and direction from Eric Schaeffer, can be problematic at times. With almost 30 musical numbers, including a few too many expositional songs (like the “Family Tree” routine, in which Evan tries to explain a white lie to Makalo’s young son, Jesse), it could use some trimming. There are also some structural issues. An intensely choreographed medley, also named “Spin,” falls awkwardly after curtain call. One character, the photographer Danny (Stephen Russell Murray), has creepy promise at first as a sinister-seeming stalker, but the show hurriedly fits him into a more integral role later, a transition that feels abrupt. The show also has the tendency to be schmaltzy, particularly in the climactic “What If?” when Peterson looks back on the mistakes he’s made.
OPENING THIS MONTH
The jukebox show Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story became one of the most successful West End musicals in history when it debuted in London in 1989, running for 12 years; a revival followed in 2007 and is still playing today. The show, about the ’50s rock-and-roll musician, includes the hits “Peggy Sue” and “That’ll Be the Day.” July 2 and 3.
Famed Chicago comedy troupe the Second City returns to Woolly with America All Better!!, inspired by the highs of 2013 (the economy’s upward swing, the progress of gay marriage, and the legalization of marijuana) compared with the lows of the recession. July 9 through August 4.
Studio stages The Rocky Horror Show 40 years after the cult musical's original London run. Mitchell Jarvis (Broadway's Rock of Ages) stars as Frank N. Furter, and the production's directed by Alan Paul and Keith Alan Baker with choreography by Michael Bobbitt. July 10 through August 4.
Forum presents a new work by writer, director, and Georgetown professor Natsu Onoda Power. The T Party features vignettes exploring stories of transgression, transgendered people, and theater. July 18 to 27.
Synetic reprises its popular A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a wordless adaptation of the Shakespeare classic by Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili. July 18 through August 4.
American Century stages I Do! I Do!, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s 1966 musical about a 50-year marriage. July 19 through August 17.
The festival returns with five new plays—three world premieres—90 minutes from downtown DC at West Virginia’s Shepherd University. The slate includes Sam Shepard’s Heartless, which explores the human condition through a Los Angeles family; Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah, a premiere by Mark St. Germain about F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway; and H20, a play by Jane Martin about an actor who wins the role of Hamlet. July 5 through 28.
The Fringe Festival returns with more than 135 groups presenting offbeat shows over 18 days, most of them at Fort Fringe headquarters (607 New York Ave., NW). This year’s lineup includes shows by Faction of Fools, Bowen McCauley Dance, Pinky Swear Productions, and Washington Improv Theater. July 11 through 28.
Opening This Month
Round House Theatre
Patricia McGregor directs the local premiere of Becky Shaw, Gina Gionfriddo’s 2008 comedy about a couple set up on a bad first date. The New York Times called the Pulitzer Prize finalist “as engrossing as it is ferociously funny.” Through June 23.
Local playwright Jacqueline E. Lawton’s The Hampton Years explores the true story of two African-American artists tutored by an Austrian refugee during World War II. Through June 30. $25 to $60. Read our review.
The Source Festival returns with three full-length premieres, 18 ten-minute plays, and three artistic “blind dates,” or cross-genre collaborations. The full-length plays are by Jason Gray Platt, Joe Waechter, and Topher Payne, the ten-minute plays by writers including locals Renee Calarco and Stephen Spotswood. June 7 through 30.
American Century Theater
American Century presents Biography, S.N. Behrman’s 1932 play about an artist offered a large sum to write about her experiences making celebrity portraits. June 7 through 29.
Kennedy Center Opera House
Roundabout Theatre Company’s Tony Award-winning production of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes comes to the KenCen, featuring “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “It’s De-Lovely,” and “Let’s Misbehave.” Variety called the 2011 New York run “a daffy, shipshape romp.” June 11 through July 7.
Olney Theatre Center
Patrick Hamilton’s Angel Street gets a revival at Olney for the first time since 1950. Set in 1880s London, the play is about a husband intent on psychologically torturing his wife. It was the basis of Gaslight, the 1944 Ingrid Bergman/Charles Boyer movie. June 20 through July 14.
WSC Avant Bard
Caesar and Dada, a new play by Allyson Currin, who teaches playwriting at George Washington University, looks at the origins of the avant-garde movement and Dadaism’s impact on artists. June 22 through July 14.
The New York visual-theater company Wakka Wakka Productions presents Baby Universe, a science-fiction-inspired show incorporating puppetry, mime, and multimedia. The New York Times called it a “funny and poignant eco-fable” during a 2010 run. June 26 through July 14.
Rabbit Hole, David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer-winning drama about a couple haunted by the loss of their child, comes to Church Street. June 28 through July 21.
A little reimagining goes a long way in the Kennedy Center’s sparkling, emotionally mysterious new rendering of an old play, Ferenc Molnár’s 1910 comedy of marital misunderstanding, The Guardsman. If you’re a real theater buff, you’ll want to compare this show with Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing at Studio Theatre. Each explores love and infidelity, but quite differently.
Playwright Richard Nelson’s new translation of Molnár’s text—it’s not billed as an “adaptation”—doesn’t “update” the story. It’s still a period piece, set in Budapest circa 1910. What’s different, as Nelson explains in his program notes, is that he’s shaken the fluff out of earlier English versions, one of which was a feathery vehicle for stage legends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne on Broadway (1924-25) and on film (1931). He and director Gregory Mosher mine the melancholy lurking in Molnár’s sophisticated comedy about marital strife. The show gets laughs while simultaneously plumbing depths.
The opening scene, though it’s very funny, also sounds like a seething Strindberg play about a marriage on the rocks. A pair of newlyweds, both stars of the Budapest stage and dubbed simply Actor (Finn Wittrock) and Actress (Sarah Wayne Callies), fight constantly. He’s convinced that after only six months she doesn’t love him any more, and she won’t deny it. He harangues; she weeps. Then a bill collector walks in, and instantly the couple—they’re actors, after all—shift into convivial giggles, buying him off with flattery and a couple of theater tickets. As soon as he goes, they rejoin the fight. Funny, yes, but also uncomfortably close to the bone in its depiction of how couples hide their private clashes from the world.
Director Mosher has not staged a door-slamming farce here. He leaves breathing room for his fine cast to show conflicting emotions and to live between the lines. The Guardsman stays with you as most farces do not, because of the feelings that hang in the air as the curtain comes down.
The toxic stew of long-buried family secrets, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, barbed endearments, and bourbon that festers in Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities—currently having its local premiere at Arena Stage—is the kind of grim but enthralling mix that makes for gut-punching theater, in which the “indentured servitude of having a family” is put under a microscopic lens. As Arundhati Roy once put it, the trouble with families is that, “like invidious doctors, they [know] just where it hurts.”
Opening This Month
Two performances run in repertory at Shakespeare Theatre this month: Artistic director Michael Kahn directs Friedrich Schiller’s Wallenstein, about the infamous 17th-century general; and Studio Theatre artistic director David Muse helms Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, about the tragic war hero. Through June 2.
Aaron Posner directs The Last Five Years at Signature, the last-minute fill-in for Crimes of the Heart. The two-person musical stars James Gardiner and Posner’s real-life wife, Erin Weaver, as a couple pondering their relationship. April 2 through 28.
Andy and the Shadows, a world premiere play by Theater J artistic director
Ari Roth, opens at the
DC Jewish Community Center in a production directed by Daniella Topol. Alexander Strain stars as Andy Glickstein,
the son of two Holocaust refugees exploring his heritage. April 3 through May 5.
Olney Theatre revives Neville’s Island: A Comedy in Thick Fog by Tim Firth, writer of the movies Calendar Girls and Kinky Boots. In the play, four Englishmen are shipwrecked on a minute island in the Lake District, ensuring mishaps and adventures during their quest to get home. April 4 through 28.
Taffety Punk stages Oxygen, Ivan Vyrypaev’s music-themed play set in contemporary Russia to a soundtrack by E.D. Sedgwick, the Caribbean, and more. April 5 through 26.
The Hub Theatre presents A Man, His Wife, and His Hat, the local premiere of Lauren Yee’s magical realism story about a man who loses two very important things. Shirley Serotsky directs. April 5 through 28.
Monty Python’s Spamalot returns to the National Theatre, featuring songs riffing on the tale of King Arthur (“His Name is Lancelot”), an evil rabbit, and the Knights Who Say Ni. The musical adaptation of the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail won three Tony Awards during its Broadway run. April 10 through 14.
New Round House producing artistic director Ryan Rilette directs the East Coast premiere of Bill Cain’s How to Write a Book for the Bible. The autobiographical play explores the relationship between Cain, who is a Jesuit priest, and his elderly mother during the last year of her life. April 10 through May 5.
Georgetown University presents the world premiere of Christine Evans’s Trojan Barbie, juxtaposing ancient and modern culture in a contemporary spin on the legend of Troy. Maya E. Roth directs. April 11 through 20.
In the odd, zeitgeisty way in which cultural depictions of certain subjects seem to come along like buses (nothing for decades and then three at once), Elizabeth Keckly is very much alive again—seen portrayed by Gloria Reuben in last year's Lincoln, and as the subject of a recent book by Jennifer Chiaverini. But it’s almost impossible to imagine a more intriguing, nuanced portrayal of Keckly than the one Tazewell Thompson has crafted in Mary T. & Lizzy K., his world premiere play currently at Arena Stage. Immaculate in a gown of bronze patterned silk, and ferocious as she crafts a dress around the First Lady, Thompson’s Keckley (played by Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris) is one of the most riveting female characters seen all season.