Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Off-Broadway Roundup: How the World Began, Professor Bernhardi, Russian Transport, Rx

How the World Began
Starring Justin Kruger, Adam LeFevre, Heidi Schreck
Written by Catherine Treischmann; directed by Daniella Topol
Previews began Dec. 28, 2011; opened Jan. 5, 2012; closed Jan. 29
Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 W. 42nd St., New York, NY

Professor Bernhardi
Starring Sam Tsoutsouvas
Written by Arthur Schnitzler; directed by Lenny Leibowitz
Previews began Jan. 31, 2012; opened Feb. 5; closes Feb. 28
Marvell Rep @ TBG Theatre, 312 W. 36th St., New York, NY

Russian Transport
Starring Janeane Garofalo, Daniel Oreskes, Morgan Spector, Sarah Steele, Raviv Ullman
Written by Erika Sheffer; directed by Scott Elliott
Previews began Jan. 17, 2012; opened Jan. 30; closes Mar. 24
The New Group @ the Acorn Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St., New York, NY

Starring Michael Bakkensen, Marylouise Burke, Marin Hinkle, Stephen Kunken, Paul Niebanck, Elizabeth Rich
Written by Kate Fodor; directed by Ethan McSweeny
Previews began Jan. 24, 2012; opened Jan. 7; closes Mar. 3
Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 W. 42nd St., New York, NY

Kruger, Schreck, LeFevre in How the World Began (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Darwin and the Bible butt heads in How the World Began, Catherine Treischmann’s provocative drama set in a Kansas high school about the fallout from an offhand remark made by Susan, a teacher just relocated from New York City, about Creationism that Micah, one of her students, finds offensive to himself and his faith.

Maybe because she agrees with Susan‘s position, Treischmann has made both Micah and his adult guardian Gene more sympathetic than Susan, whose hardheadedness underlines an insensitivity that quickly grates. The playwright also stacks the deck, making Susan pregnant from a failed relationship and allowing the unseen locals to be more stereotypically closed-minded than Micah and Gene (both wonderfully enacted by Justin Kruger and Adam LeFevre). Heidi Schreck’s Susan is intelligent but broken-down emotionally; too bad Treischmann didn’t probe her persona more thoroughly, which would have made How the World Began less propagandistic and more truthful.

Tsoutsouvas in Professor Bernhardi (photo by Jill Usdan)

The plays of Arthur Schnitzler are rarely seen in New York, unless a gimmick is attached (“See Nicole Kidman naked!” was the come-on for David Hare’s La Ronde adaptation, The Blue Room, on Broadway in 1998). Luckily, enterprising companies like the Mint Theater and the new Marvell Rep mount productions of some Schnitzler masterpieces, so we can see for ourselves their beauty, subtlety and humanity.

Schnitzler’s dense “character comedy” (as he called it) Professor Bernhardi is a shrewdly observed study of morality and religious hypocrisy in 1900 Vienna: a Jewish doctor is thrown in prison for refusing to allow a Catholic priest to give last rites to a dying young woman. This sprawling play (well-translated by G. J. Weinberger) is talky and polemical, but neither is a defect: Schnitzler’s penetrating philosophical, psychological and political insights, fill every minute of its three-hour running time.

The five-act, five-setting, 18-character Bernhardi needs a large-scale production to be truly effective, but the Marvel Rep makes up for its lack of resources (small stage, uneven cast) by presenting the play‘s English-language premiere in New York. Smoothly directed by Lenny Leibowitz, this Bernhardi stars Sam Tsoutsouvas, whose usual blustery stage presence is reined in just the right amount to convey the good doctor’s self-confidence bordering on arrogance.

Garofalo and Spector in Russian Transport (photo by Monique Carboni)

In Russian Transport, a family of Russian émigrés in Brooklyn has its everyday existence upended when a family member arrives from the home country. Erika Sheffer’s illuminating comedy-drama shows an ordinary family (mother, father, teenage son and daughter) dealing with shady Uncle Alex, and learning that a new life in America might be easier for those who see it as a continuation of the old criminal ways in Russia.

Sheffer’s superbly-etched portraits of the members of this family are neither idealized nor caricatured: the kids are sympathetically drawn, and Alex is a charismatic monster. There’s more than enough real life contained in Sheffer’s writing, Scott Elliott’s persuasive directing, Derek McLane’s apt two-tiered set and Peter Kaczorowski’s skillful lighting. And the superlative acting quintet does wonders making these people come to vivid life: Janeane Garofalo is especially compelling as mom and Morgan Spector gives a hair-raising portrayal of Alex, who unblinkingly casts aside family ties for what he considers upward mobility.

Burke and Hinkle in Rx (photo by James Leynse)

Nothing if not timely, Kate Fodor’s amusing Rx is a smart if superficial satire of the world of Big Pharma and how clinical drug trials line its pockets while causing problems for patients taking still-unapproved drugs. A former journalist who covered the pharmaceutical industry, Fodor knows whereof she speaks, and Rx is filled with cutting humor without coming off too “inside.”

Rx isn’t as substantial as Fodor’s strong previous play, 100 Saints You Should Know, as she introduces melodramatic (cancer) and farcical (Albert Einstein) elements that dilute the play’s comedic thrust. Energetically directed by Simon McSweeny and acted by a terrific cast led by Marin Hinkle, Stephen Kunken and the always reliable Marylouise Burke, Rx might not be a prescription for all ills, but it does provide temporary comic relief.

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