Chicago LGBTQ talents have spread their considerable wings in New York this season. Artistic directors Will Davis ( American Theater Company ) and Chay Yew ( Victory Gardens ) both staged well-received Off-Broadway plays. Yew directed Luis Alfaro's Oedipus El Reyproduced at Victory Gardens in 2012at the Public Theatre while Davis staged Philip Dawkins' Charm at the MCC Theater. The 2015 world premiere of Charm was staged by Northlight Theatre. The MCC production featured Chicago actors JoJo Brown and Kelli Simpkins in their New York debuts. Both shows have completed their limited runs.
Most notable of all, erstwhile Chicago director David Cromer transferred his award-winning 2016 musical, The Band's Visit, to Broadway, where it opened to glowing reviews Nov. 9 at the Barrymore Theatre. This unusual and wondrous little show, based on a 2007 Israeli movie, concerns a small Egyptian police orchestra traveling in Israel and going to the wrong town by mistake. Forced to spend a night in a dreary desert town, the Egyptians and their reluctant hosts somehow break barriers of nationality, religion and suspicion as one-on-one human connections are made. The lovely musical score by David Yazbek is influenced by jazz and Arabic classical music. ( The eight-piece band features instruments such as the oud and darbouka. )
Although only 90 minutes long and quite episodic in structure, The Band's Visit manages to profoundly explore universal feelings of isolation, longing and desire. It cleverly parallels two widowersone Israeli and one Egyptianand two young men in pursuit of romance, one experienced and one not, and mixes in a tender love story not-to-be. There are no big production numbers, no dazzle ( except the musicianship ) but it matters not The Band's Visit starts slowly and takes half its brief length to draw you in, but when it does it will charm you and genuinely move you. The producers already have booked theatre time in Chicago, so we can hope to see The Band's Visit here next year, perhaps.
Junk, a new play by Ayad Akhtar at Lincoln Center Theatre, is a whirlwind of brilliant rapid-fire dialogue and cinematic structure. It focuses on the 1985 recession, the junk bond industry, a hostile corporate take-over, illegal stock manipulation, insider trading and ruthless manipulation of investorsstuff that lead to restraints on Wall Street which a certain clown-headed POTUS would like to eliminate. Junk is as slick and fast as the evil genius at the center of it, a fictional dealmaker who claims that debt is wealth because it's "a promise to pay" exactly like government-issued paper currency.
If you've never understood the differences between America's traditional industrial sector and our piratical financial sector, Junk will make it all clear. Junk is too true to be completely amusing or even entirely clever ( and it certainly is clever ), portraying financiers whose social and ethical values are so warped that another financial crisis probably is inevitable because the guilty rarely receive the well-and-true punishments they deserve. Junk is huge with 23 actors, among them Lookingglass Ensemble member Joey Slotnick as a crucial inside trader known as Ahab. Junk continues at Lincoln Center Theatre through Jan. 7. We can hope Goodman Theatre or Steppenwolf will offer it to Chicago next year. FYI: Ayad Akhtar is the award-winning author of Disgraced ( world premiere 2012 at American Theater Company here in Chicago ) and The Invisible Hand ( currently running at Steep Theatre through Nov. 18 ).
NYC's 2nd Stage Theater is presenting an off-Broadway revival of Harvey Fierstein's break-thru Torch Song Trilogy ( now called simply Torch Song ) in a very effective production at the Tony Kiser Theatre on 43rd Street ( through Dec. 9 ). Michael Urie ( of TV fame ) plays wise-cracking and often actually-wise hero Arnold Beckoff, and if Urie cannot begin to duplicate Fierstein's foghorn voice, his better looks and considerable puppy-dog charm make the relationship with all-American hunk Ed ( Ward Horton ) more probable. But probability and reality never were the essence of Torch Song, which always was and remains a gay fantasia, especially with its sitcom-derived third part, Widows and Children First! I wanted to see if Torch Song still holds up 40 years after Fierstein penned and performed its first part, The International Stud. Set in the promiscuous pre-AIDS 1970s, it possibly could be terribly dated today. No fear; Torch Song still works like gangbusters for several reasons. First, it's genuinely funny, hopeful and compassionate even if not entirely plausible. Second, part of it concerns the always-pertinent tale of a closeted man who must accept himself. Finally, Torch Song isn't about sex in the 70s but about love and family. It wouldn't hold up if sex was its focus. It's a remarkable tale about a romantic, quixotic manequal parts needy and independentwho ends up having four great loves in his life, beautifully and wordlessly brought home by Urie and director Moises Kaufman in the play's closing moments.
The Public Theatre offers Illyriaa world premiere by Richard Nelson, whose The Apple Family Plays were staged so lovingly at TimeLine ( sic ) Theatre in 2015through Dec. 10. Illyria also is about the Public Theatre, and it's so narrowly parochial in both subject and writing technique as to be pointless for anyone unfamiliar with the Public's original incarnation as the New York Shakespeare Festival. Set in 1958, it's about founder Joseph Papp, his closest allies, and a threat by New York City authorities to end free Shakespeare productions in Central Park. This actually happened, and nearly scuttled Papp's still-new baby.
But Nelson provides few details about the dispute or its resolution, choosing instead to offer a highly-naturalistic snapshot of Papp and associates, who appear in three nearly-inaudible and utterly conversational scenes filled with seemingly-random personal and professional information. Tiny bits of the minimal story filter through. Nelson takes interesting, driven real-life people who profoundly influenced contemporary theatre and makes them ordinary and boring. Ordinary isn't a theatrical sin but boring is, as is inaudible. Theatre is dialogue with the audience, not conversation among characters. Nelson ( who also directed Illyria ) and Public Theatre artistic director Oskar Eustis both are at fault. The title, Illyria, is from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.
Jonathan Abarbanel also reviews Sunday mornings for The Arts Section on WDCB Public Radio. He is immediate past chairperson of the American Theatre Critics Association.