Friday, November 12, 2021

Short Takes: November II - Theater

Reviews: Nollywood Dreams, Fairycakes, Autumn Royal, Letters of Saresh

Nollywood Dreams (c) Daniel J. Vasquez

Theater: Nollywood Dreams 
Manhattan Class Company 

It’s 1990, Laos, Nigeria. The vibrant film industry is growing. Famous director Gbenga Ezie (Charlie Hudson III) and superstar heartthrob Wale Owusu (Ade Otukoya), think Tom Cruise in his prime, are auditioning local girls to play the title character of their new film, “The Comfort Zone.” Young travel agent Ayama (Sandra Okuboyejo) has dreams of becoming an actress and auditions, even though the rumor is that actress Fayola (Emana Rachelle) already has the part. Playwright Jocelyn Bioh wrote the successful and wildly entertaining adaptation of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” for Shakespeare in the Park last summer, and this play is just as fun. It’s hard to argue against a show that is such a crowd pleaser – its slightness being part of its charm – but it’s hard to distinguish this play from, say, any theatrical comedy output of Tyler Perry. But even the Oprah Winfrey-inspired character of Adenikeh (Abenda) who is the closest to an oversized Madea type character still has humanity in addition to all her droll line-readings. I was hoping for a little more insightful social commentary that made Bioh’s “School Girls; Or the African Mean Girls Play” such a success a few seasons back, but “Nollywood Dreams” is a refreshingly light and enjoyable diversion in our ongoing pandemic life. 

Fairycakes (c) Matthew Murphy

Theater: Fairycakes 
Greenwich House Theater 

Douglas Carter Beane is one of the funniest playwrights working today, and with a cast that includes theater comedy geniuses like Julie Halston, Jackie Hoffman and Ann Harada, what could go wrong? “Fairycakes” is sort of “Into the Woods” mashed up with Shakespeare – it’s even written in rhyme – in which the many fairies that inhabit these stories (“Cinderella,” “Pinocchio,” “Peter Pan,” “A Midsummer Summer’s Night Dream”) are actually related. It’s the impending divorce of their parents that leads the fairies to neglect their work, and the stories run amok. This is a classic good ole time children’s play that Beane deliciously mix and match. But a first-class production with great talent, including Mo Rocca and rising stars Kristolyn Lloyd and Kuhoo Verma, is just too much for the slight play to support. The actors all have their moments, but what should be a quick hour of “imagination all compact” is over two hours of funny situations with no momentum. Kudos to Gregory Gale’s lively costumes which unfortunately overwhelm the small stage. (He also put Jason Tam as Cupid in a loin cloth, so again, kudos.) Jackie Hoffman, who stole every background minute she was in in the Hulu hit series “Only Murders in the Building,” does the same here. To again reference Shakespeare, while these shadows did not offend, they did lose their way from page to stage. 

Autumn Royal (c) Carol Rosegg

Theater: Autumn Royal 
Irish Repertory Theater 

A pair of adult siblings, the optimistic dreamer Timmy (John Keating) and the bitter realist May (Maeve Higgins) still live in their sad, deteriorating childhood home in County Cork, Ireland, mostly to care for their ailing poet father (unseen), but also because they’re too stuck in their roles as bickering family members to actually move on with their lives. “No Exit,” indeed. It turns out they are all still dealing with the same traumatic moment, when their mother abandoned them, and how each has internalized it. When the children finally do act, by putting their father in a nursing home with an ominous Shady Pines-like name that gives the play its title, things really spiral out of control. The two actors enhanced the small play, especially a fierce performance by Higgins, who I only know from her appearances on NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me.” But the play, as written by Kevin Barry, is so dour and pessimistic about the siblings’ situation that I sort of knew where it was going. Just a little glimmer of hope would have made the journey feel a tad less inevitable. 

Letters of Suresh (c) Joan Marcus

Theater: Letters of Suresh 
2nd Stage Theater

Epistolary plays have made a return, thanks to the pandemic, since it’s ideal for online or in-person presentations with its version of social distancing built right in its fabric. “Letters of Suresh” is such a play. Melody (Ali Ahn), the grandniece of an elderly, Japanese priest (Thom Sesma), receives his meager personal possessions after his death, including a stack of letters from someone named Suresh (Ramiz Monsef). Suresh, it turns out, is a successful techie living in the US. How he and this mostly solitary priest in Japan became pen pals is the mystery Melody feels compelled to uncover. She at first wants to return the letters to Suresh unread, but after not hearing from Suresh, curiosity gets the better of her and what she discovers is a mentor-student relationship filled with both encouragement and resentment. The play by Rajiv Joseph has characters reading their own letters (which is fine but falls in a rhythmic predictability). However, halfway through the play it surprisingly morphs into a wonderfully crafted and complex origami puzzle. “Letters” is sort of a sequel (continuation?) of Joseph’s 2008 origami-themed play “Animals Out of Paper,” in which Suresh also appears. With a much-appreciated text exchange and FaceTime call between Suresh and his ex-girlfriend (Kellie Overbey) breaking up the letter-reading conceit, my preconceived notions of these kind of plays have been happily folded on itself, making “Letters of Suresh” into something special.

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