Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Reviews: “Out of Time,” “The Baker’s Wife” and ‘On Sugarland” All Shine With Diverse and Talented Acting Ensembles

Theater Reviews: Out of Time, The Baker's Wife and On Sugarland

Out of Time (c) Joan Marcus

Theater: Out of Time 
Public Theater (closed) 

A few New York theater shows reopened in August 2021 after the pandemic shutdown with most Broadway and nonprofit Off-Broadway companies really revving up around October. And now here we are in March 2022, eight months later, and we get “Out of Time,” the first play written by and starring Asian-American theater artists. Thank goodness for the Public Theater, who co-produced “Out of Time” with the National Asian American Theater Company, and is also producing “The Chinese Lady” this month with the Ma-Yi Theater Company, for giving these smaller but vital theater companies much needed exposure. And of course, the need for representation was reiterated earlier this month when a Chinese dancer on his way to the Public to celebrate “The Chinese Lady” was beaten on the Lower East Side (and still wanted to perform!). Just add this incident to the countless other attacks and murders of Asian people in the last two years in New York City alone, not to mention all the unreported microaggressions (which I too have experienced on the R Train recently). So, while I enjoyed “Out of Time” enough, I was happier to finally be in the company of Asian-American actors with more than the usual number of AAPI audience members. “Out of Time” was an evening of five monologues written by five different playwrights for five over-60-year-old actors. And like most evenings of one-acts, some were more enjoyable than others, but all five plays have something important to say about the human experience. 

The most substantial and engaging was “My Documentary,” the evening’s opening monologue, written by Anna Ouyang Moench and performed by a luminous Page Leong, about a woman documenting the many losses in her life. “Ball in the Air” by Mia Chung and performed drolly by Mia Katigbak is the most experimental in its text, jumping between at least three major events in her life, which was a bit harder to decipher, but nevertheless intriguing. Jacklyn Blackhaus’s “Black Market Caviar” is director Les Water’s most ambitious staging as we only see the wonderful actress Rita Wolf on a huge monitor, trying to film a message to a family member to be seen in the future. The most personal piece has to be Naomi Itzuka’s “Japanese Folk Song,” which takes inspiration from Itzuka’s own father who recently passed. The only male actor of the evening, Glenn Kubota is charming as a man who’s taking stock of moments in his life, including the importance of the Thelonious Monk tune that gives the play its title. The one overtly political play is Sam Chanse’s “Disturbance Specialist” in which an author (a defiant Natsuko Ohama), on the verge of being canceled for her views, decides to give a speech to a less than friendly audience. All these plays could have been tightened, but each one provides the audience with a good story performed by a terrific actor and a grateful feeling to be let in these character’s lives, even if just for a fleeting moment out of time. 

The Baker's Wife (c) Russ Rowland

Theater: The Baker’s Wife 
J2 Spotlight Musical Theater Company

J2 Spotlight, the upstart new musical revival company, has saved the best for last in their sophomore season at Theatre Row. Their season started with spirited revivals of “A Class Act” and “A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine,” but for “The Baker’s Wife,” Stephen Schwartz’s most famous show to never play on Broadway, the company has finally presented a show that is thismuchcloser to possibly working and having a future life elsewhere. With Schwartz’s participation in rehearsals, Robert W. Schneider’s production feels confident and assured. Based on a 1938 Marcel Pagnol film of the same, the musical, with a book by the late Joseph Stein, surrounds the residents of Concorde, a provincial French town, who are bemoaning the death of the town baker (cause if there’s one thing the whole town can agree on, freshly baked bread makes life worth living). Enter Aimable Castagnet (played by the amiable Howard Pinhasik), the newly hired, middle-aged baker who has also brought a surprise: his much younger, newlywed wife, Geneviève (a strong-willed Maddie Beba). Although this generates much gossip in the town, they are just happy to have bread being baked again. But even before you can say thirst trap, the young and confident Dominique (played with roguish charm by Bruce Landry) has set his eyes on Geneviève, and the big question of the show is will she be faithful to the baker or give in to temptation. This is my first experience with “The Baker’s Wife,” of which I only know a few songs from the 1976 cast recording with Patti LuPone and Paul Sorvino. I hadn’t realized that the musical was less about the love triangle and more about the town, giving the show a sort of 19th Century opera structure. The reason why “The Baker’s Wife” has had such a cult following among theater fans has always been the score, especially the most famous song, “Meadowlark,” sung here with an emotional rawness by Beba, which I can happily now put into context. Maybe a new writer could shape the book to give us a bit more shading to some of the townsfolk, who all seem to exist with one defining characteristic each. Still, this thoroughly entertaining production, with its talented ensemble, certainly accentuates the positives of the show. Set designer Joshua Warner cleverly uses every inch of the modest-sized stage, incorporating what must be the hardest working, moveable wall in New York City. So, while it’s true that man cannot live on bread alone, one can imagine sustaining quite well on just these Stephen Schwartz songs. 

On Sugarland (c) Joan Marcus

Theater: On Sugarland 
New York Theatre Workshop 

Aleshea Harris apparently based her vibrant, euphoric and heavily symbolic play, “On Sugarland,” on the Ancient Greek myth of “Philocretes,” a Trojan War hero who was abandoned alone on an island by his troop after being bitten on the foot by a snake. Harris’ hero, Staff Sergeant Saul Greenwood (Billy Eugene Jones) has returned from the war with a foot injury, and he is much admired by his mentally challenged adult son Addis (Caleb Eberhardt), who wants to be a hero like his old man. “Sugarland” is the symbolic burial place of war casualties for the trailer park residents that include two elderly sisters (Stephanie Berry and Lizan Mitchell) who are charged with the upkeep of Sugarland, as well as the family of the latest war dead, which includes the victim’s sister Odella (Adeola Role) and now orphan daughter (KiKi Layne), who has since lost her ability to speak. On the sidelines (and occasionally forcing their way in the plot) is the Greek Chorus of The Rowdy commenting on how America’s wars affect poor, black communities. The best thing about the show is the acting, especially during the energetic scenes generated by the community funeral ceremony known as Hollering. Standout in the cast is Kiki Layne, who may be best known as the lead in the film “If Beale Street Can Talk,” who may not talk in the play, but we hear her monologue thoughts, including her belief that she can communicate with the dead. But every cast member gets a chance to orate, which gets to be too much for this almost three-hour play. Harris has a flair for dialogue, but some judicious cutting of the play to a taut two hours or so would have made the anti-war themes more immediate and focused. Still, the acting lifts the play whenever it gets too didactic, and you leave the theater feeling inspired.

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