Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Theater Reviews: “Teeth” is a New Musical With a Lot to Chew On; “Corruption” Doesn’t Pull Punches Examining the Rupert Murdoch Empire; and in a Bold Play About Israel and Palestine, What Is the Definition of an “Ally?”

Teeth (c) Chelcie Parry

Theater: Teeth 
At Playwrights Horizons 

Gird your loins, everyone. Michael R. Jackson, the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and composer of A Strange Loop, has a new musical and, depending on your acceptance of the subject matter and the fearlessness of the material, it is either a daring, edgy, provocative tour de force or a daring, edgy, provocative mess. I ultimately find myself in the latter camp, in spite the fact that Jackson and co-writer Anna K. Jacobs have crammed so many themes and ideas in this two-hour show that it’s hard to keep up. Based on the 2007 indie film by Mitchell Lichtenstein, which I haven’t seen, the story focuses on Dawn (Alyse Alan Louis), a four-star Promise Keeper in a New Testament Village church, which is reeling from the recent scandal of an unwed pregnant teen in their midst. Her stepfather is the Pastor (Steven Pasquale), and while he greatly admires Dawn, he has greater contempt for his biological son Brad (Will Connolly) in an almost Carrie fanatical way (this production reminded me of the movie and the infamous musical). Dawn and her crew keep referring to their deity as Father God, which nicely mirrors Brad’s journey into the dark web searching for straight, white male empowerment support from a leader known as the Godfather (unexpectedly sporting an Australian accent). The plot comes to a head (pun intended) when Dawn is tempted to not keep her promise anymore with her jock boyfriend Tobey (Jason Gotay) and her untapped sexual energy leads to biological awakening, that in turn activates the titular weapon. Even though this plot point is the thing the whole show hinges on, Jackson and Jacobs are more interested in the build-up to the revelation through many fun songs and character development moments like when Dawn makes lemonade from the lemons of her changing body, singing, “I need the sting of shame in my body to keep and protect me from sin/desire can’t win” in “Shame in my Body,” a song which gives Teeth a sort of vibey, modern take on Spring Awakening

Teeth (c) Chelcie Parry

I won’t get into spoilers, but director Sarah Benson goes full hellzapoppin’ with the last half hour of the show breathtaking in its over-the-top-ness and culminating in a finale that you can only say sticks to its conviction, prudes be damn. I’m here for that, even when I feel the need to shock sort of overshadows Dawn’s arc, robbing us of a “Carrie pushing Sue out of the gym” moment of humanity. The cast is fearless and all in, including the dueling ensemble choruses of PK girls and VR boys. Louis as Dawn is a breakout performance that must be experienced, but special mention has to be given to Jared Loftin as Ryan, Dawn’s male confidant who steals every scene he’s in. Father God bless Playwrights Horizons – every few years they present a play that puts me through the ringer like the one that forced me to stand and carrying a plastic anatomically correct baby, the musical where the whole cast points guns into the audience (I did see the original production) and a play that ponders a head-scratching future generation’s take on The Simpsons. Teeth belongs in that group of memorable, uncomfortable shows that I can truly say with all admiration and breathlessness, “What the hell was that?” 

The Ally (c) Joan Marcus

Theater: The Ally 
At the Public Theater 

Plays don’t get as up-to-the-minute as The Ally, Itamar Moses’ politically engrossing and evocative new play that takes as its premise the Israel-Palestine conflict in all its messiness. That his play ends. days if not hours before the attack on Israeli citizens by Hamas is provocative because the resulting war the two sides are still embroiled in today would have thrown Moses’ play into a totally different direction. As it stands, Moses (the Tony Award-winning writer of the musical, The Band’s Visit) deals in theoretical quandaries of the conflict as both sides believe they are the wronged party. And that’s even before we throw university racism and gentrification into the mix. Josh Radnor does a yeoman’s job as the liberal, non-practicing, Jewish American everyman, Asaf. Like Moses himself, Asaf is a restless, blocked writer teaching at an east coast university, who is encouraged by his wife and school administrator Gwen (Joy Osmanski) to get involved in campus activities. Into his lap come two such opportunities: one is to sign off a petition from Baron (Elijah Jones), a former black student whose cousin was mistakenly killed by campus police for car theft, and the other is to be the teacher supervisor of a newly formed campus group of the more progressive Israeli and Palestinian students. The two events throw Asaf down a rabbit hole of intellectual debate in which he can never take a position without the other side complaining at his short-sightedness. Radnor does a great job bringing his years of experience in TV comedy on How I Met Your Mother to a sort of audience stand-in as he flip-flops on his alliances from one side to the other while also voicing questions for the less politically minded audience members to catch up to the ever-shifting issues of each. As unsure of himself as Asaf is, every other character seems to hold fast to their belief that their side is the right side, including two students, Jewish Reuven (Ben Rosenfield) and Palestinian Farid (Michael Khalid Karadsheh), who each get what seems like many singled-spaced pages of monologues arguing their sides – and bravo to both actors for making their cases strongly persuasive. But what makes The Ally feel like a lesser Tony Kushner play is that Moses ultimately doesn’t really have Asaf take a side, whereas Kushner would have. Instead, Moses introduces a late-in-the-play, deus ex machina character who suggests Asaf take on a more spiritual point of view. And while I agree that after all the brimstone, rhetoric and grandstanding, taking a step back is always welcome in real life, in a play that is so literate, smart and, yes, funny, the ending, while not without its merits, lacks the dramatic exclamation point throughout the rest of the play. 

Corruption (c) T. Charles Erickson

Theater: Corruption 
At Lincoln Center Theater

If you couldn’t figure it out from its blunt title, J.T. Rogers’ Corruption is not going to be filled with poetry and allegorical imagery. It is going to deal head-on with ripped-from-the-headlines topics, sweeping the audience in a barrage of names, places, political parties and facts (!) to chronicle the British media and government officials that turned a blind eye to, uncovered evidence of, then finally put on trial Rupert Murdoch’s News Organization (News Corp in the US) for phone hacking and ultimately hammered the nail in the coffin of the News of the World tabloid reign. The biggest hurdle for Rogers is that American audiences may not be familiar with a cast of characters whose names are not Murdoch, and it also doesn’t help that most of the hardworking cast are playing multiple roles on opposing sides of the issue. On the one side is the influential editor Rebekah Brooks (Saffron Burrows) and on the other is Parliament member Tom Watson (Toby Stephens), who was once the target of a News smear campaign and is now tasked with investigating this scandal. Rogers, who wrote the superior Tony Award-winning “Oslo” a few seasons ago, feels a bit hamstrung here with so many moving parts (exemplified by the complex choreography of the continuously moving desks of Michael Yergen’s set) without giving us any hint of the inner life of these characters, except for cameos of their family (apparently just so they can be threatened by menacing phone calls of violence). This is a perfectly acceptable documentarian single-minded approach, but one misses the smooth dramaturgy of David Hare and Tom Stoppard, who have written similar political issue plays. Each of the cast members have at least one scene to shine in with my favorites coming from Dylan Baker as the News lead counsel and K. Todd Freeman as a stealth Parliament ally. Stephens and Burrows do the most with their didactic roles, but neither really make their characters relatable at any point. I did get caught up in the story and intrigue, but there are too many moments in Bartlett Sher’s otherwise deft direction in which characters direct their ire-laced dialogue to the audience, as if to accuse us of indirect collusion (at worst) or being interested bystanders (less worse). Considering that Rupert Murdoch’s company is still alive and well and wreaking conservative and fake news havoc on many countries’ political arenas, that may be the damning evidence to convict us all.

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