Tuesday, June 13, 2023

Theater Review: Nostalgia Is Tarnished by History in Off-Broadway’s “This Land Was Made” and “Love + Science” as Well as Broadway’s “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window”

This Land Was Made (c) Carol Rosegg

Theater: This Land Was Made 
At Vineyard Theater 

Taking a page out of Quentin Tarantino, playwright Tori Sampson, who made quite a splash with her play If Pretty Hurts, Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka a few seasons ago, has decided to write some speculative history surrounding Huey P. Newton, the Black Panthers and who they affect in a small bar in Oakland, California in 1967. As a proud product of the Oakland ethos myself, I was happy to have a play set in my hometown, with the lingos and the landmarks intact. Sampson’s play is set in Miss Trish’s Bar in a primarily Black neighborhood in Oakland, run by a North Carolina transplant named Miss Trish (Libya V. Pugh), who tries to bring a bit of Southern cuisine to the Bay Area. Her daughter (and our narrator), Sassy (the dynamic Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), takes over a little corner of the bar to cut hair, but what she really wants to do is write a book about Oakland. Her love interest is Troy (Matthew Griffin), a Berkeley undergrad who, through circumstances that make up the bulk of the first act, attends a speech being made by Newton (a very persuasive Julian Elijah Martinez) on the infamous night in which Newton was accused of shooting police officers. Sampson inserts her fictional characters into the real-life drama to humanize the story beneath the headlines. This all plays out in Taylor Reynolds’ surprising subdued production, with Wilson Chin’s gorgeously retro bar set and unflashy but period-accurate costumes by Dominique Fawn Hall helping to create an evocative mood. As much I as enjoyed If Pretty Hurts, it seemed like a young playwright showing off her language wordplay and devil-may-care play structure. Here, Sampson has written a more traditional play that may be imperfect but I found way more engaging. The Huey Newton shooting may have been the jumping off point, it was her other characters that stayed with me. 

Love + Science (c) Emilio Madrid

Theater: Love + Science 
Presented by In Vitro Productions at New York City Center 

There was a pandemic before Covid-19. And there were many parallels between the whole year the world had to wait for a vaccine in 2020 and the over 50 years since the first clusters of AIDS cases appeared in 1981, where there is still no affordable cure for those affected by the virus in the third world. So, when two medical students at Columbia University in New York City, one of the epicenters of the AIDS crisis, encounter infected patients, they have the same questions we all had three years ago: Is it airborne? How is it transmitted? Closeted Matt (Matt Walker) and openly gay Jeff (Jonathan Burke) meet on the first day of school, and Jeff assumes he is the more experienced and outgoing of the two, but the audience knows that Matt has spent the last couple of years working for Steve Rubbell (the skillful Tally Sessions) as a bartender at Studio 54 during its heydays. Matt stays the more conservative of the two, maybe because of the debauchery he saw before medical school, while Jeff is living his best graduate school party life. This dichotomy doesn’t really change throughout the play, as they date, don’t date and reconnect occasionally, all with AIDS literally infecting their personal and professional lives. Running parallel with the central couple’s personal stories, playwright David J. Glass also gives us a compelling story of science and detective work in the virology lab they both work at, run by Professor Gold (the wonderful Thursday Farrar). This tract is the more intriguing and dramatic, with the playwright (who is also an adjunct Columbia professor) giving us some truly heartbreaking scenes involving AIDS patients (the talented Adrian Greensmith and Ryan Knowles). With the versatile Imani Pearl Williams rounding out the talented cast, director Allen MacLeod keeps the audience invested in a story some of us are too exhausted to go through again so soon. Walker, who was so funny in the Off-Broadway version of The Play That Goes Wrong, and Burke, who was one of the more memorable ensemble members in The Inheritance, are both superb and keep the play’s engine running, even when it runs out of steam in a final scene that reaches for profundity with its message, but without providing some emotional resonance. Still, an important story always needs to be told and retold from different perspectives, and Glass’s play gives us a compelling one. 

The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (c) Julieta Cervantes

Broadway: The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window 
At The James Earl Jones Theatre 

After a sold-out run at BAM, the revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1964 The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window moved the entire production across the Brooklyn Bridge to Broadway, where it opened right before the current Tony Awards eligibility deadline. Along with a controversial but popular revival of A Raisin in the Sun at the Public and her induction into the Off-Broadway Playwrights Walk of Fame, Hansberry is having quite a resurgence. This play in particular is a bit bittersweet as Hansberry was sick during previews and died soon after its short Broadway run. The original production in 1964 was not a hit, and there was an even shorter stint for a revival in 1972, so this current revival is already the most successful Broadway production, thanks mostly to the marquee stars of Oscar Issac as the titular Sidney Brustein and Rachel Brosnahan as his actress wife, Iris. The couple live in small but homey New York apartment and both are at a crossroads in their employment: Iris is questioning if she should continue waitressing while pursuing her dream of acting, and Sidney just had to shut down his bar, which amusingly was based on the themes of Henry David Thoreau’s novel, Walden. Sidney, not to wallow in his failure, immediately buys a small village newspaper, and after some cajoling, decides to endorse his friend Wally O’Hara (Andy Grotelueschen), a progressive running on an anti-Bossism platform for a local city seat, even hanging his campaign sign in his apartment window, which gives the play its title. 

The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (c) Julieta Cervantes

The play gives us a large cross-section of New Yorkers, which was revolutionary at the time, including a biracial friend (Julian De Niro) and a gay neighbor (Glenn Fitzgerald), as well as Iris’s uptight sister Mavis, who would seem to be the stand-in for the conservative Broadway audience Hansberry would have had to face. No matter what you think of the play and its cynical look at politics and liberal talk, its one undeniable and successful element is the character of Mavis. Alice Ghostly won a Tony Award for the original production, and even though it only ran a couple of performances, Frances Sternhagen was nominated for a Tony as Mavis, too. Here, she is played by the wonderful Miriam Silverman (who won the Tony Award this past Sunday), and she indeed steals the show from the bigger stars as Mavis is the only character you really sympathize with (despite her casual racist asides) as she has already made her choices in life and despite some pain has no real regrets. Issac gives Brustein an animated exterior life, but even he can’t reconcile the character’s goal of inner peace and his abundance of intellectual cruelty, especially to his wife, played in a vibrant but sort of aimless way by Brosnahan. The most fascinating character in the play is actually Iris’s other sister, Gloria (Gus Birney), who shows up late in the evening and proves, even with all the political talk, just how dramatically inert the rest of the play really was. While all the sisters (who are unbelievably supposed to be a mix of Greek, Irish and Native American heritage) are misused by the men in their lives, it is only Gloria who needs to escape what is impossible to endure. Anne Kauffman’s clean production is a great way to experience a rarely produced and messy play by an esteemed playwright.

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