Saturday, June 15, 2013

Off-Broadway Roundup: “Nikolai and the Others,” “Reasons to Be Happy,” “3 Kinds of Exile,” “The Tutors”

Nikolai and the Others
Written by Richard Nelson; directed by David Cromer
Performances through June 16, 2013
Mitzi Newhouse Theatre, 150 West 65th Street, New York, NY

Reasons to Be Happy
Written and directed by Neil LaBute
Performances through June 29, 2013
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, New York, NY

3 Kinds of Exile
Written by John Guare; directed by Neil Pepe
Performances through June 23, 2013
Atlantic Theatre, 336 West 20th Street, New York, NY

The Tutors
Written by Erica Lipez; directed by Thomas Kail
Performances through June 23, 2013
Second Stage Uptown, 2162 Broadway, New York, NY

Cerveris (right) as Balanchine in Nikolai and the Others (photo: Paul Kolnik)
Richard Nelson’s plays, which run the gamut from Some Americans Abroad and its clueless tourists to a four-play Apple family cycle (which concludes this fall), are intelligent, uncondescending explorations of ordinary and extraordinary people. The latter comprises luminaries Frank Lloyd Wright (Frank’s House), Brutus and Cassius (Conversations at Tusculum) and, in Nikolai and the Others—a fictional recreation of a summit meeting of expatriate Russian artists one weekend in Connecticut in 1948—composer Igor Stravinsky and choreographer George Balanchine, working on their latest project, the ballet Orpheus.

Also present are Vera, Stravinsky’s beloved wife; theater designer Sergey Sudekin (Vera’s former husband); Natasha Nabokov, former wife of Nicky Nabokov (the Nikolai of the title), a Voice of America functionary who helps his fellow Russian émigrés with their difficulties, especially the nascent Communist witch hunt. The 18 characters, which also include Balanchine’s native American wife Maria Tallchief—a dancer in Orpheus—and an unctuous American, Charles Bohlen, are sympathetically drawn by Nelson on his expansive but intimate canvas.

Nelson’s voluminous research sometimes overwhelms the drama and characterizations of this exquisitely crafted portrait of art intertwining with life. Still, this mesmerizing production—savvily directed by David Cromer, with Balanchine’s own choreography used for the dazzling Orpheus excerpts—benefits most from an accomplished cast fully inhabiting the 18 roles: the standouts are John Glover’s boisterous Stravinsky, Michael Cerveris’ standoffish Balanchine, Blair Brown’s wounded Vera and Stephen Kunken’s Vanya-like Nikolai, a composer who accepts his lesser lot in life—Chekhovian allusions are apposite for this bittersweet work.
Fischer, Hamilton and Bibb in Reasons to Be Happy (photo: Joan Marcus)
The twists in Neil LaBute’s plays range from a student remaking her boyfriend for a school project in The Shape of Things to a grieving widower whose dead wife turns out to be his mother in Wrecks. His new play, Reasons to be Happy, has a different twist: there is none. Instead, it’s a straightforward, moderately insightful exploration of how shabbily men treat women.

This sequel to 2008’s Reasons to Be Pretty—which dramatized how Greg’s offhand remark about his non-gorgeous girlfriend Steph sparked recriminations and soul-searching among the couple and their married friends, beautiful Carly and cement-head Kent—is set years later: Steph is married to someone else and Carly is seeing Greg after breaking up with Kent. LaBute keeps the relationships volatile: Steph is angry when she discovers Greg and Carly are together, Kent’s reaction is even more violent, while Greg and Steph find they still have feelings for each other.

Although LaBute hits perceptive notes about relationships—mostly to the denigration of Greg, Kent and men in general—at other times he spins his wheels, seemingly hoping that by dragging out his two-hour-plus play, he will hit on something truly insightful. All he ends up repeating, though, is the not exactly late-breaking news that relationships are difficult.

Director LaBute once again relies on blasting songs by Nirvana—including the obvious “Dumb” and “Come as You Are”—during scene blackouts: coupled with an obnoxious horn that blasts during the warehouse scenes, the sounds are about as abrasive as the formerly “edgy” playwright gets. Josh Hamilton’s Greg is as intelligent a portrayal as Thomas Sadoski’s in the original; Frederick Weller’s Kent is amusingly banal and Jenna Fischer’s Steph starts out credibly but becomes shrill and profane, weakening her as character and mouthpiece, and Leslie Bibb’s lovely and sympathetic turn makes Carly much more than a very pretty face.
Sangare and Guare in 3 Kinds of Exile (photo: Kevin Thomas Garcia)
3 Kinds of Exile, John Guare’s triptych of plays about people who unwillingly left their homelands, opens with a monologue about a fictional Eastern European living in England, moves onto a duologue about Polish actress Elzbieta Czyzewska, who at the height of her career moved to the United States, and ends with a freewheeling one-act about Polish novelist Witold Gombrowicz, who went to Argentina right before Hitler invaded Poland in 1939.

Guare obviously relished transforming these fascinating tales of dislocation into a theatrical event, but what’s onstage isn’t always illuminating, despite director Neil Pepe’s inventiveness. The monologue Karel (well-performed by Martin Moran), a short allegory that sets up what follows, concerns a man whose survivor’s guilt has physicalized itself as a rash all over his body, its twist ending making psychological (if not logical) sense.

Elzbieta Erased consists of Guare himself (gamely making his acting debut) and talented Polish actor Omar Sangare standing at podiums and relating the bizarre life of Czyzewska, on her way to becoming Poland’s biggest star but who left for Manhattan with new husband, New York Times Poland correspondent David Halberstam. Guare and Sangare knew and worked with her, so her story has personal resonance for both, but despite haunting moments from a career essentially wasted, it never resonates for the audience.

Lastly, Funiage, about absurdist novelist Gombowicz, fails to find sensible theatrical equivalents for the Polish author’s playful, multi-layered literary works. With Gombowicz (a befuddled David Pittu) being chased around the stage by annoying Argentines while deciding to remain in Buenos Aries upon hearing of Hitler’s blitzkrieg, Guare ends up trivializing this great 20th century writer’s importance.
The cast of The Tutors (photo: Joan Marcus)
Erica Lipez’s The Tutors is an interesting if superficial look at 20-somethings trying to get a social media startup on its feet just as Facebook hit it big. The year is 2007, and sharing an apartment are Joe, the website’s brains who uses his charisma to get financial supporters, and computer whizzes Heidi and Toby, who take turns working on the site itself.

While Heidi sits around the apartment improbably conjuring up a fantasy man of her own named Kwan, Joe and Toby—who has a crush on Joe—work as tutors for entitled teenage brats on the Upper East Side, one of whom, Milo, is a typical amalgam of teen naiveté and smarts. These characters interact humorously, but when the real Kwan enters—a foreign student for whom Heidi edited his college entrance essay and who she initially thinks is her fantasy—the comedic returns diminish quickly.

At least Lipez cares enough about her characters to show them working out their problems, her dialogue is peppy, and even when plausibility goes awry, Thomas Kail’s effective direction and engaging performances—especially Aubrey Dollar’s exquisite portrait of Heidi—make The Tutors recommendable.

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