Friday, March 3, 2023

Theater Review: First-Rate Plays to Catch This Winter: “Wolf Play” at MCC, “black odyssey” at CSC and “The Wanderers” at Roundabout

Wolf Play (c) Julieta Cervantes

Play: Wolf Play 
MCC Theater 

Spoiler alert: “Wolf Play,” the wonderfully wacky but sincere new play by Hansol Jung, produced by MCC after a successful earlier run at Soho Rep, is great. But I had my doubts at the start of the play when the very earnest actor Mitchell Winter talks to audience in a prologue with rhetorical questions about the meaning of acting and theater that usually rubs me the wrong way. But it turns out, in retrospect, that it helped ease the audience into the remarkable, breathless staging of director Dustin Wills. After the prologue, Winter picks up a simple wooden puppet and imbues it with life as they become Jeenu, a six-year-old Korean boy whose short life so far has been so harrowing that he protects himself by believing he’s a wolf. Jeenu is an orphan being brought to his new parents – Robin (Nicole Villamil) and her partner Ash (Esco Jouléy) – in San Francisco by his current adopted father Peter (Christopher Bannow) in a crazy but real practice in which people sell children through illegal means, which in the case of Jeenu, takes place through Yahoo message boards. While the play could have stayed in this realm of TV issue movie of the week, Jung uses this as a stepping off point to a creative investigation of this young boy’s psyche and this chaotic but surprisingly nurturing world that includes, of all things, boxing. And believe me, there’s more, but people should experience in person the wonderful synergy of this wonderful cast working like a well-oiled machine, constantly in motion but always finding the heart of this whirlwind of a play, on a helter-skelter set by You-Shin Chen and a truly astonishing lighting design by Barbara Samuels that helps situates the audience to the play’s many locations. I was taken aback by how truly transporting this ambitious play and production was. 

black odyssey (c) Julieta Cervantes

Theater: black odyssey

I rarely say this, but however fun and inventive playwright Marcus Gardley’s “black odyssey” (lower caps for some reason) is, I really think this adaptation of Homer's Odyssey might work even better as a movie. His conceit is that his hero, Ulysses Lincoln (Sean Boyce Johnson), who has fought a war and is trying to find his way home, is a Black Everyman caught in the crosshairs of a fight between the gods: his uncle Deus (James T. Alfred), who is trying to protect him, and Paw Sidin (Jimonn Cole), who is exacting revenge on Ulysses for killing his son, by sidelining him with the power of the ocean. Ulysses is a soldier coming home from Afghanistan, and although present day, his encounters with many obstacles take the form of events and figures in black history, including death of Martin Luther King, slavery, the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina and, most amusingly, his encounter with the sirens Diana Ross (Harriet D. Foy), Tina Turner (Adrienne C. Moore) and James Brown (Lance Coadie Williams). This is all presented with wit and style by director Stevie Walker-Webb, and even with imaginative designs by Adam Honoré (lighting), David Goldstein (sets) and Kindall Almond (costumes), I can only imagine that a more cinematic approach might give audiences even more depth and immersion that cannot be achieved on any stage. What does work on the stage is the concurrent story of Ulysses’ wife Nella P. (D. Woods) and son Malachai (Marcus Gladney Jr.), who may not believe he’s dead but still have to move on with the day-to-day struggles of a one-parent house in Harlem, even with the help of Ulysses’ goddess mother, Athena, in the form of Aunt Tee (a radiant and sassy Foy). This more realistic part of the play may feel at odds with the mythological one occasionally, but in the end it all comes together nicely and emotionally satisfying. 

The Wanderers (c) Joan Marcus

Theater: The Wanderers 
Roundabout Theatre Company 

Anna Ziegler’s “The Wanderers” is an intriguing story about two Jewish marriages in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, one modern day with two writers, Sophie (Sarah Cooper, of the viral Trump lip-synch clips) and Abe (Eddie Kaye Thomas), and one a generation ago with Esther (Lucy Freyer) and Schmuli (Dave Klasko), who live in the cloistered, Orthodox Satmar Hasidic community. Their stories alternate scene by scene, with Schmuli and Esther’s tale told chronologically from their wedding to their break-up, while Sophie and Abe’s story revolves around an episode in their lives that starts with movie star Julia Cheever (Katie Holmes) and her email correspondence with starstruck Abe after attending one of his book readings. That incident, as well as Lucy’s dissatisfaction with balancing her writing with raising their two children, starts Abe on a sort of crisis regarding his career as a writer (many award names are dropped), his marriage and a possible flirtation with a celebrity, who may or may be more interested in a movie adaptation of Abe’s novel than Abe himself. This correlates with Esther’s story as she aspires to be more than just a wife and mother, which sets up a clash with her conservative religion and husband. The movie star element of the plot provides a unique and intriguing device in a story that would otherwise seem rather predictable. But Ziegler is such a good writer (I enjoyed her last play “The Last Match,” which also dealt with two marriages in crisis) that the movie star plot (no fault of the game Holmes) starts to feel rather extraneous to the more intriguing story of these two couples. The expressionistic set by Marion Williams feels very similar to Beowulf Boritt’s set for the recently closed “Ohio State Murders,” but I’m not sure it quite worked in such a realistic play like this one. There is a lot going on, including a late plot twist I saw coming from minute one, but I would rather have too much ambition than not enough. Director Barry Edelstein’s production balances the conservative world with the modern one nicely.

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