Off Broadway Reviews
The Midtown International Theatre Festival
Yo Hot Mama(s)!
For the two women whose life stories comprise Yo Hot Mama(s)!, which is now playing at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, troubled souls are not soothed by the social vagaries of American culture. Only by returning to her distant Korean roots can Natalie Kim understand what's made her a confused hellion of a young actress, and Karen Fitzgerald must fully embrace the hip-swiveling liberation of an Indian retreat before she can free the smoldering desires pent up within her body. Both women have long journeys, but neither gets all the way to her destination.
Fitzgerald's tale, "Hot Mama Mahatma", is the more satisfying of the two even if, as little more than a recap of her almost-sexual exploits on her trip, it's also the more conventional. Raised in a strict Catholic environment and recently out of a barren marriage, Fitzgerald has never really known her heart or her urges, and is destined to become comfortable with herself. On her way, she has a raft of abortive encounters with a wide selection of international lotharios who are trying to turn on her dormant spirituality, but turn on her instead. If episodic, these hook-ups substantiate what would otherwise be a flimsy anything-for-titillation tale, and provide much-needed comedy and color to the ramp up to her final epiphany in the show's waning seconds.
Kim could use a similarly strong anchor for "Yo Mama(s)!", in which she examines in metatheatrical fashion how four different mothers have shaped her life. Her birth mother was coerced into giving her up for adoption to an American couple; her new mother was an abrasive realist; and a subsequent step-mother was a chain-smoking control freak. This parental uncertainty leads to conflicts with her serious new boyfriend and propels her into American therapy (which doesn't work) and a Buddhist meditative retreat (which does). Much of the show feels like crumpled-paper filler only setting the stage for the final scene, in which Natalie serenely confronts her birth father and a fourth mother that's destined to alter the future shape of her life.
"Yo Mama(s)!" then becomes moving and "Hot Mama Mahatma" settles for triumphant - appropriately contrasting views on changing womanhood from women firmly bracketing opposing ends of middle age. Directors Kenneth Heaton (for Kim) and Matt Hoverman (for Fitzgerald) allow no unnecessary flash into their presentations, forcing the women to extract the shows entirely from their own personalities and experiences, which - paired with the actresses' abundant abilities and finely honed comic senses - ensures they're as robust as they can be. Fitzgerald could do with more variety in her show and Kim with clearer emotion through line in hers, but the two works complement each other well enough that Yo Hot Mama(s)! seems to function better as one piece than it could if its parts stood alone.
Yo Hot Mama(s)!
In his solo show Southern Man, Jeff Pierce plays Jackson Elijah Taylor, a young North Carolina man who enlists in the Army and is shipped off to World War II. During Operation Torch in the North African desert, he and his battalion are captured and relegated to a prison camp. Facing both physical and spiritual malnutrition, he somehow survives and escapes (with the rest of his battalion) after over two years of confinement, even bicycling to freedom across the German countryside. Sounds exciting, right? Unfortunately, it's not.
Pierce, who wrote the play with his wife Colleen (who also directed) and Stuart Katz, has no shortage of natural charm. And as long as he's sticking to Jackson's good-ol'-boy mentality, whether trying to escape the farm, or starting a family with an unexpected love, he makes for an ingratiating onstage figure. But when it comes time for him to move on to the meat of Jackson's story, it doesn't take him long to ignore two cardinal rules of one-person shows: Don't do anything you're not expert at, and don't shoehorn in everything you're expert at.
Regarding the former: Superfine delineation between multiple characters is not Pierce's strength, and yet much of the description of his captivity relies on that distinction - Jackson and his cohorts, who hail from Texas, Britain, and the Bronx, have moderately different voices, but all bear an uncomfortably sunny similarity to each other. As for the latter, the program confirms Pierce's considerable background in musicals, but should a play about a subject this serious sport as many song, dance, and acrobatic interludes as it does? (Pierce sings all of "Toot Toot Tootsie," a la Al Jolson, at one point.)
What this play needs instead is an intense intimacy that will draw us not just into Jackson's world but the horrors he experiences there. Pierce's occasionally unpolished characterization - and, at least at the opening-night performance, a palpable nervousness throughout - don't lend the play much formality or dramatic authority. It needs more of both to completely succeed as a war play, a character study, or even just a catalog of one performer's talents. Jackson and Pierce both seem interesting enough to deserve more than they get from Southern Man.