Off Broadway Reviews
The Wisdom That Men Seek
Elephant in the Room!
And Somewhere Men Are Laughing
All that sustains the Brooklyn family headed by Lee (John Fugelsang) and Dot (Carol Lempert) through the difficult fall of 1955 is a shared love of baseball, which older son Paul (Paul Iacono) considers a potential career and wheelchair-bound younger son Danny (Hunter Gallagher) sees as his lone salvation in a painful and probably short existence. They all love each other, of course, but Paul is growing bitterly resentful of the increasing amount of attention his dad pays Danny (with extravagant gifts ranging from baseball attire to prime World Series tickets Paul is denied), and Dot is concerned that the out-of-work Lee's spending could incite even more problems.
It's all grandly old-fashioned kitchen-sink drama, both in its general approach to hand-wringing realism (despite a rickety memory-play frame), and in its content, which covers a few too many overwrought bases for its own good. But if there are missteps - violent scenes near the end of each act are of such questionably necessity they dilute the impact of the potentially powerful relationship between Lee and Paul, for example - they don't prevent the play from being a frequently affecting look at a family in crisis. Bill Russell's fluid direction helps keep the action progressing smoothly and cohesively even when the play stumbles in making sense of its many tangled components.
Fugelsang overplays Lee's ever-present rage and Katie Neil can't make the underwritten role of Paul's would-be girlfriend seem essential. But the rest of the cast elicits all the emotional content possible from even the script's most awkward moments. Iacono and Gallagher are magnetic throughout their passive-aggressive and more explosive moments of sibling rivalry alike, while Lempert delivers a brittle but warm portrayal of a woman crumpling under the weight of far too many secrets.
Better still is Jana Robbins, who as Pearl, Dot's meddling aunt and Danny's doting admirer, finds every laugh in a character that could too easily become a stereotypical Jewish busybody. With a core of intelligence surround by a thin shell of sex appeal and drenched in kindness, Robbins's Pearl is a delectable confection. She, much like the rest of And Somewhere Men Are Laughing, illuminates moments of heartwarming truth in too-familiar surroundings.
Running Time: 2 hours 25 minutes with one intermission
The Wisdom That Men Seek
Long-gone family members' ghosts are the most difficult and most important to exorcise, especially for fathers and sons. Not only do they generally have more in common than they realize (or would like to admit), but they're often too laden with their own baggage to say the right thing until it's too late to effect an easy reconciliation. Playwright-director Robert Liebowitz wraps all these issues up into a deceptively tidy package with his moving but slow-moving Fringe Festival entry at the Players Theatre, The Wisdom That Men Seek.
The play's premise is almost too simple: Nathan Kessler, who died of a heart attack 22 years ago, reappears to his grown son Michael late one night so they can hash out the differences and unspoken resentments that separated them for decades. There's a turn for the more interesting, however, in that we see Nathan not just at age 59 (when he's played by Joe LoGrippo) but also at 45 (Mitch Poulos) and 18 (Michael Ruocco), and Michael at both 45 (J. Michaels) and 11 (Artie Mezzo). This allows Liebowitz an unusual amount of freedom in drawing connections between his characters; as Nathan and Michael's memories intermingle, so too do the spiritual and corporeal worlds until it's deliciously unclear who's having the greater effect on whom.
This only completely comes together in the final third of the 90-minute evening, and much of the earlier hee-hawing is stuff too standard to keep your interest at peak levels along the entire journey. LoGrippo's abrasively unsentimental performance unnaturally extends the Grand Canyon-sized emotional distance between Nathan and Michael, and offers too little acquiescence even at the most necessary of times. He also doesn't convince as the place Ruocco and Poulos are headed. But the four other actors, Michaels (in the play's largest role) chief among them, make for an engaging, intricate, and intimate family of two right up to the play's end.
It's obvious from the first scenes what sort of an ending that will be. But what you can't understand until you've seen the whole play is how the past and the present will conspire to make that ending come about, and that's where Liebowitz finds the meat of his story. The ghosts of those who came before we did - as well as the ghosts of ourselves before we were who we are now - prove compelling subjects, even if The Wisdom That Men Seek never feels quite as thoroughly haunting as it should.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Elephant in the Room!
Dan Fogler has apparently never met a punctuation mark he didn't like. A 2005 Tony winner for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Fogler has seen to it that the program for his Fringe Festival play, Elephant in the Room!, is full of exclamation points and that every line in the play itself is bracketed with quotation marks.
To some degree, this is intentional. His play is baldly based on Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros, with the setting updated to present-day Manhattan and the story retaining its same basic tenets about a lackadaisical schlub (here named Bern, and played by Johnny Giacalone) who's one of the lone holdouts against an unexplained affliction causing nearly every New Yorker to become a pachyderm. It seems as if Bern can only depend on his successful friend John (Ariel Shafir) and the young woman he likes named Sylvia (Sarah Saltzberg), though his days with them could well be numbered.
Fogler has upped the spoof quotient by several orders of magnitude: He's translated every scene into the contemporary comic vernacular, making his version into a jokey treatise on the perils of Republicanism and conservative thought. (It's no accident that everyone is changing into elephants or that the phenomenon originated "somewhere in Middle America"; and a befuddled George W. Bush makes a couple of key appearances.) This never seems particularly adventurous in the heart of Blue State territory to begin with (especially given the outcome of the 2006 mid-term elections), but Ionesco's targets were ideological conformists who stood by while bloody dictatorships assumed too much power in the run-up to World War II. Fogler's interpretation feels facile and flimsy by comparison.
Fogler's direction of the piece, however, is spot on, and if most of the ensemble members go too far for easy laughs, the three leads could likely hold their own in a Rhinoceros revival. Saltzberg gives a sophisticated performance as Sylvia, negotiating her subtle changes in philosophical outlook with expert skill, and Giacalone brings plenty of easygoing, anxious charm to the determined Bern.
But it's Shafir who's saddled with the challenge of transforming John into a beast in full view of the audience (much as happens with his character's analogue in Rhinoceros). He tackles the scene with a fiery grace, and his success at adopting the proper stampeding anger gives the otherwise barren second act a few minutes of genuine excitement. The rest of Elephant in the Room! is too content sacrificing content for laughs, which explains why so little of it possesses the danger or immediacy that gives Ionesco's original its terrifying but satisfying bite.
Running Time: 100 minutes with no intermission