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  WINDY CITY TIMES

New York theaters bounce back: Four shows ask questions about identity
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Theater Editor
2022-11-22

This article shared 500 times since Tue Nov 22, 2022
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All theater critics worth their salt should take a bite of the Big Apple now and then, savoring the bright lights of Broadway and a soggy slice of what passes for pizza.

On my first visit in nearly three years, Broadway and Off-Broadway were up-and-running after the long COVID shutdown, although the pandemic still casts shadows. New York audiences no longer need to wear masks (Chicago's Off-Loop theaters still require them), but Actors Equity—the union for actors and stage managers—continues to mandate daily testing for those onstage.

I planned to see an Off-Broadway production of Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance, featuring an Asian-American cast, but the performance was cancelled when a cast member tested positive. Still, I managed to see four plays—no musicals this visit—offering a stimulating cross-section of New York theater that's in a thoughtful and serious mood.

Take Me Out: Schoenfeld Theatre (Broadway)—This is a new production of Richard Greenberg's 2002 hit play, in which a superstar slugger for a New York baseball team comes out of the closet. Everyone takes his gay reveal more-or-less in stride until the team brings up a young minor league relief pitcher who is a rabidly homophobic racist. What had been, in a way, a comedy-of-manners suddenly turns very dark. Early on, the slugger's nerdy gay money-manager notes that baseball is a metaphor for democratic society: a game in which everyone has a chance to excel and be a hero. This struck me much more intensely than it did when I first saw Take Me Out 20 years ago. Greenberg didn't rewrite the play, but our democracy has changed: the bigoted pitcher clearly could be attacking the Capitol or wearing a MAGA cap. The lead roles are played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson—late of Modern Family—as the money manager and Jesse Williams—late of Gray's Anatomy—as the slugger. They lead an excellent ensemble cast.

Good Enemy: Minetta Lane Theatre (Off-Broadway, Greenwich Village)—This new play by Chinese-born playwright Yilong Liu was directed by longtime Chicagoan Chay Yew, who was artistic director of Victory Gardens Theater from 2010-2019. It's set in 1984 China and 2021 USA, revealing the journey of Hao, a Chinese security officer who becomes disillusioned with the repressive Chinese regime which arose after the death of Mao Zedong. Hao escapes to America with a young woman branded a dissident because she frequented underground music clubs. By 2021, he is a middle-aged widower seeking to rebuild a relationship with his estranged American-born daughter. Good Enemy comments on present-day America as much as recent Chinese history. Hao—who becomes Howard in the USA and has a blandly ordinary life—notes that "Americans are so terrible about understanding stories about anyone besides white people," which is funny, if true. But he also says, "Every day, America becomes more and more like what I ran away from," which also may be true but isn't at all funny. Hao is played by Francis Jue, a wonderful actor who appeared a few years ago at the Goodman Theatre in King of the Yees. We may not see Jue in Chicago, but I think Good Enemy is a good bet to be staged by a Chicago theater troupe.

Leopoldstadt, Longacre Theatre (Broadway)—Sir Tom Stoppard, now 85 years old, arguably our finest living English or American playwright, effortlessly combines intellectualism with first-rate theatricality in thought-provoking and entertaining plays such as Arcadia, The Real Thing and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Leopoldstadt is no exception; it is a beautifully-acted, nuanced, huge family drama with nearly 40 characters. It's highly-personal as well: Stoppard was middle-aged before he learned that his true heritage was Jewish, and most of his real family died in Nazi concentration camps.

Stoppard has spent much time exploring his family's pre-War roots in Czechoslovakia, and Leopoldstadt is a fictionalized version of them, set in a historically-Jewish district of Vienna. The play follows four generations of a prosperous, thoroughly assimilated Austrian-Jewish family—they celebrate both Christmas and Passover—from 1899-1955, with only three family members surviving the Holocaust. One character represents Stoppard himself, raised in England by an adoptive Christian father. In the play's closing minutes, he has a stunning sense-memory recollection of his lost family; an epiphany which leaves the audience in tears. Leopoldstadt is thoughtful, emotional, involving and entertaining—just as all theater should be!

Camp Siegfried: 2nd Stage (Off-Broadway)—Nazism also rears its head in Bess Wohl's new play, set in 1938 at a family summer camp run by the pro-Nazi German-American Bund. A real place, Camp Siegfried functioned on Long Island from 1936-1941. The two-character play concerns a romance between 17-year-olds, with Nazi politics as a backdrop. The boy appears sexually precocious, but it turns out the girl is far more knowing. She dominates him emotionally, including a tease as to whether or not she's pregnant, and eventually he explodes with physical abuse. The issues are complex but the boy-girl story has far more weight than politics in a play running just 85 minutes.

The Nazi bookends aren't sufficiently well-developed. Wohl is an admired up-and-coming playwright, but Camp Siegfried needs some additional work. It's directed by Tony Award winner David Cromer, a former Chicagoan who still returns every now-and-then to direct or act. He's given it an intensely physical production, very well acted by Johnny Berchtold and Lili McInerny in their New York debuts.

All four plays very much reflect American society past and present, even Leopoldstadt, with its issues of assimilation and cultural identity. As the old saying goes, art mirrors life.

Jonathan Abarbanel is a member, and past Chairperson, of the American Theatre Critics Association.


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