Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Reviews: "English" and "The Daughter-in-Law" Play with Culture and Language while "Hollywood/Ukraine" is Old-Fashioned fun.

Reviews: English, The Daughter-in-Law, A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine 

English (c) Ahron R. Foster

Theater: English 
At Atlantic Theater Company with Roundabout Theatre 

In Sanaz Toossi’s chamber play “English,” the drama is evident to anyone who has gone through what four of the five characters are trying to do: learn a foreign language. Unfortunately, like all good playwrights, Tossi tries to create a drama within this world for the audience, and it does feel like the most artificial part of the proceedings. The class in question takes place in Iran, in the city Karaj in 2008, and the four students are taking an Advanced English class to take the TOEFL, the Test of English as a Foreign Language. Among the students are a young girl (Ava Lalezarzadeh), who feels English might be helpful down the line; a scientist (Tala Ashe) hoping to do research in Australia; Roya (Pooya Mohseni), a grandmother hoping to be proficient enough to talk to her Canadian grandchild; and the lone male, Omid (Hadi Tabbal), who seems to speak English remarkably well. His presence in the class is the mystery and drama that, of no fault of Tabbal, is the most extraneous and least believable in a production that is nothing but honest yearnings of a group whose fate is tied to their success. Their teacher is Marjan (Marjan Neshat), who lived in England for 12 years and insists that the only way to learn English is to only speak English in her class. Tossi uses the convention that when the characters are speaking English, it’s broken, but when they speak Farsi, it’s fluent English. The acting is the best thing about the production, even if Mohseni, who is otherwise wonderful, seems a bit young to be a grandmother. Seeing these characters in and out of the classroom setting is so believable and relatable that even with the unnecessary storyline, I felt immersed enough to learn about a culture that is as foreign to me as English is to the students. 

The Daughter-in-Law (c) Maria Baranova

Theater: The Daughter-in-Law 
At The Mint Theater Company

D.H. Lawrence wrote his first play “The Daughter-in-Law” in 1913 around the same time as his novel “Sons and Lovers,” and with the success of that book, the play was shelved and seemingly lost to history until it was unearthed in the 1960s. The play, which shares a familial referenced title with the novel, is definitely about Minnie (Amy Blackman), the titular daughter-in-law, as well as the only person in the play who calls her that, her husband’s mother, Mrs. Gascoyne (Sandra Shipley). And boy, do they hate each other. Minnie believes her husband, Luther (Tom Coiner), has been coddled and spoiled by his mother, who refuses to cut the apron strings. Mrs. Gascoyne, on the other hand, believes Minnie doesn’t really love Luther but likes to play with his affections and only married him because her options were limited. This conflict is played with the backdrop of the 1912 pit miner strike in England’s Nottinghamshire, which will ultimately bleed into the plot in a dramatic fashion. The Mint Theater first staged the play in 2003 to great success, and while I am happy to finally see it (if you think it’s hard to get through the thick accents and colloquiums during the show, try reading the text!), this is ultimately more successful as a curiosity piece than a satisfying play. Even with a winning and complex performance by Blackman, Minnie is still a cypher of motives and deeds. The cast, which also includes Ciaran Bowling and Polly McKie, is the reason to see director Martin Platt’s impeccable production. 

A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine (c) Russ Rowland

Theater: A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine 
At J2 Spotlight 

J2 Spotlight, which began their second season with the enjoyable “A Class Act” earlier this month, has opened their second show with “A Day in Hollywood / A Night in the Ukraine” on the day Russia invaded the Ukraine in real life. Tough luck for a show whose main theme is the joy of escapism. And although the second act does take place in the Ukraine with some talk of Moscow, it’s just an excuse to make a zany Marx Brothers flick out of Chekov’s short story “The Bear.” And while the more substantial second act is fun; the pleasures of a Marx Brothers movie may not hit an audience in 2022 the same way it did in 1980 when it opened on Broadway in a production directed by Tommy Tune. The first act, which is a revue of songs sung by the ushers at the Grauman’s Chinese Theater, may even be a bit more of a puzzlement as their golden-age, cinematic references come fast and furious, and one wonders what a young audience will make of a medley of songs of Richard Whiting as well as a love/hate song to a guy named Nelson. But that’s exactly why you should see this amiable production, directed by Robert W. Schneider, because if you, like me, only know the show from the cast album and the performance on the Tony Awards, you probably won’t see another revival in a long while. This production is graced with an excellent (if maybe a bit too homogenous) cast performing the old-fashioned songs of Dick Vosburgh and Frank Lazarus (with a couple of additional earworms by Jerry Herman) and the creative choreography by Diedre Goodwin (hitting its apex with the showstopping “Doin’ the Production Code” tap dance). Special mention to performers Mike Cefalo, whose performance as the always grinning Carlo is a standout, and Suzanne Slade, who did well with the hit song “Best in the World” and whose physical comedy chops as Gino happily exhausted me. I wish I could say that “Day/Night” was a hidden gem in the pantheon of lost musicals. It’s not (which breaks every bone in my heart) but this production, which runs only through March 6, certainly spotlights (if you will excuse the pun) the many delights found throughout.

If you want to comment on these reviews, please do so on my 
Instagram account.  All reviews have their own post.  And please follow to know when new reviews are released.