Monday, September 19, 2016

Off-Broadway Reviews—“The Wolves” and “The Birds”

The Wolves
Written by Sarah DeLappe; directed by Lila Neugebauer
Performances through September 29, 2016
Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street, New York, NY

The Birds
Adapted by Conor McPherson from Daphne du Maurier’s short story
Directed by Stefan Dzeparoski
Performances through October 2, 2016
59E59 Theatres, 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY

The cast of The Wolves (photo: Daniel J. Vasquez)
In The Wolves, playwright Sarah DeLappe hit on an imaginative idea for a character study: the nine members of a high-school girls soccer team are a microcosm for the fraught teenage years, a sort of female-only Breakfast Club. Although it seems like a gimmick even as you’re watching, it satisfyingly negotiates the thin line between self-indulgence and sympathetic observation.

During the play’s feverishly-paced 90 minutes, we come to know these young women, all subtly individualized by DeLappe in her fresh, dialogue-driven script. Director Lili Neugebauer’s miraculous nonet playing the teammates—Brenna Coates, Jenna Dioguardi, Samia Finnerty, Midori Francis, Lizzy Jutila, Sarah Mezzanotte, Tedra Millan, Lauren Patten, Susannah Perkins—fires off DeLappe’s rat-a-tat dialogue so effortlessly that it sounds like it’s the natural speech patterns of the young athletes.

These nine extraordinary actresses, who also give intensely physical performances—they have to stretch, run and practice soccer throughout—embody their characters in a natural and winning way, whether dealing with the tragic death of one of their own (the one moment when the play rings less than true) or simply being teenagers by befriending or bullying one another.

The Wolves (the team’s name, of course) is a cogent, urgent glimpse of the here and now, shrewdly played out on the Duke on 42nd Street’s tiny stage, and capped by Laura Jellinek’s clever set and Lap Chi Chu’s animated lighting. Would that The Birds—staged in the cramped 59E59’s Theater C—had the same flicker of wit that sparked DeLappe’s play.

The cast of The Birds (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Adapted by Conor McPherson from Daphne du Maurier’s chilling short story—also the basis of Alfred Hitchcock’s vastly different (and vastly superior) 1963 film—The Birds begins with two survivors of lethal avian attacks that have decimated the world’s population and turned civilization upside down. They are barricaded in a house which they leave periodically to look for food: when a young woman joins them, their travails become far more psychologically fraught inside their claustrophobic shelter.

Too bad McPherson’s superficial adaptation wasn’t opened up, as it were, by director Stefan Dzeparoski, who uses David J.Palmer’s interesting projections and Ien Denio’s creepy sound effects to show what’s beyond the walls, but is unable to make the characters sympathetic. That’s despite the intense efforts of Antoinette LaVecchia, Tony Naumovski and Mia Hutchinson-Shaw, the latter especially compelling as the young interloper who puts herself between the other two.

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