Friday, June 14, 2024

Theater Review: Off-Broadway’s Fascinating “The Fires” Burns Intensely; “What Became of Us” Is a Universal, Immigration Story as Told by Second Generation Siblings; and “Titanic” Sails Magnificently With Its Cast of Dreams

The Fire (c) Julieta Cervantes

Theater: The Fires 
At Soho Rep 

Celebrated choreographer and director Raja Feather Kelly (A Strange Loop, Teeth) has written an engrossing and structurally complicated first play that seems to be inspired by The Hours, both Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and the Oscar-winning movie adaptation, but with a decidedly black and queer perspective. The Fires takes place in three time periods: 1974, 1998 and 2021, and they all occupy the same New York City railroad apartment simultaneously for the almost two intermission-less hour runtime. In 1974, the apartment is a black gay couple’s summer refuge from the straight world in which one is a tortured writer (Phillip James Brannon) working on debunking the Aphrodite myth leading to suicidal thoughts that scare the other (Ronald Peet). In 1998, a confused young gay man (Sheldon Best) related to one of the 1974 men, holes up in the pied-à-terre and pours over the journals of the writer in hopes of finding the truth of what happened that summer with such obsessive veracity it scares his mother (Michelle Wilson) and sister (Janelle McDermoth). And in 2021, a hookup obsessed young man (Beau Badu), who is subletting the apartment, is planning a party (although he doesn’t buy the flowers himself) while also reading the journals and hyper-fixating on a friend (Jon-Michael Reese) who may-or-may-not come to the party and who may-or-may-not be the love of his life. All three men are also literally stuck in the apartment: the first two in variations of agoraphobic tendencies while the third is self-isolating in the middle of the pandemic. It is fascinating to see the three men, who almost never leave the stage (the bathroom is their only escape), at various moments writing or reading the journal while also dealing with various family members (brothers, mothers and sisters) as well as found family (best friends and lovers). It is all well-conceived by Kelly and deliciously acted by the cast with a non-self-conscious queer sensibility. As a first-time playwright, Kelly makes some rookie mistakes, including sacrificing some of the individual character threads of each time period to make the overall theme fit together. But Kelly’s ambition is admirable and thrilling, especially in his directing choices when things start falling into place for the audience, if not for the characters. Raphael Mishler’s red-dominated set is so accurate in that it’s both comfortable and NYC-cramped that I’m surprised there’s no bathtub in the middle of the kitchen. Even in a play filled with painful truths, the joy and energy of Kelly’s writing is evident and infectious. It’s an impressive debut. 

What Became of Us (c) Ahron R. Foster

Theater: What Became of Us 
At the Atlantic Theater 

There’s a lot of stylistic choices in Shayan Lotfi’s play What Became of Us that keeps the audience on its toes and certainly gives the actors a lot to chew on, but ultimately, by making the play feel universal, it also has an unfortunate, generic sheen to it. Lotfi wants to make the point that much of the immigrant diaspora experience is the same, regardless of what country they are from. For the first set of actors in the Atlantic Theatre’s World Premiere production, the siblings Q (the sister) and Z (the brother) are played by Rosalind Chao (The Joy Luck Club) and BD Wong (M Butterfly), whose heritage identifications are Chinese. By having the immigration story be told by the children and not the parents who immigrated, the play is relatable with the emotional themes of cultural shame, language barriers and resentment towards the ways of “the old country,” as the origin country is referred to in the text. “The new country” is also never identified either, so it could be any first-world city, depending on the production. And lastly, of the complex playwriting elements, the dialogue is essentially delivered in monologues, with the dutiful Q, born in the old country and working at the family-owned corner market, and the more rebellious Z, born in the new country and having more independence from familial ties, telling their own life stories. Only a precious few times do their actions overlap into a real dialogue scene. Both Chao and Wong do a good job creating believable characters with all these limitations, and oddly, Wong’s Z is given a very specific identity journey that spices up the usual school-job-family-health biographical paradigm in keeping with the playwright’s universal intent. What will really be interesting is seeing the second cast with Shohreh Aghdashloo (House of Sand and Fog) as Q and Tony Shalhoub (Monk) as Z, playing the siblings from a Middle Eastern perspective. For actors, this play must be an exciting playground of an acting exercise, but for the audience, the play’s pleasures may be harder to embrace. 

Titanic (c) Joan Marcus

Theater: Titanic 
At Encores! 

In 1997, the frontrunner for the Tony Award for Best Musical was Cy Coleman’s The Life with 11 nominations. It was by far the most nominated show of the season. Further down the nomination totals was Titanic, Maury Yeston musical about the notorious nautical disaster, which seemed like it was only cashing in on the blockbuster James Cameron movie that opened the same year. With only 5 nominations, Titanic somehow won all of them, including Best Musical, showing that the voters enjoyed the show much more than the nominators. Encores!, ended its season with an all-star production that includes Chuck Cooper, who won the Tony for The Life in 1997 and is now playing EJ Smith, the Captain of the ill-fated ship of dreams (making this a family affair, Cooper’s children Eddie and Lilli are also in Titanic). The musical would seem more suited for opera companies now with so many singing parts and huge chorus moments, but Encores! is able fill the stage with such a stacked cast that musical theater luminaries Chip Zien and Judy Kuhn are essentially cameos and only has one duet at the tail end of the evening. If there are two standouts in the cast, it’s only because both play characters that have more to do and sing. Ramin Karimaloo as Frederick Barrett, the ship’s stoker, whose booming and pure tenor in two of the most memorable songs, “Fare-thee-well” and “The Proposal,” should have been utilized as a foghorn after the iceberg to find other ships in the area, and Bonnie Milligan as Alice Beane, the second-class passenger who dreams of hobnobbing with the wealthy of the first class in a funny turn originally played by her Kimberly Akimbo co-star Victoria Clark. Other cast members of note include Tony-nominated A.J. Shivley and Brandon Uranowitz as well as up-and-coming newcomers like Alex Joseph Grayson, Nathan Salstone and Samatha Williams. The most complicated role goes to Jose Llana as the Titanic architect Thomas Andrews, whose busy second act includes not only a song in which he second guesses his design but also as the unenviable task as he describes what happened to the poor souls left on the ship as it sank, something already visually embedded in our memory from the Cameron film. Director Anne Kauffman does a yeoman job making us know exactly what’s going on, especially when some actors are double cast as both first- and third-class passengers. But the VIP is and will always be Maury Yeston’s gorgeous songs, which, under the capable hands of conductor Rob Berman, are able to make portentous lyrics about a future that never comes feel less ominous than it has a right to be. Also look out for a ticklish celebrity cameo in a role that may be played by different actors throughout the show’s limited run (in my performance, it was a playwright who is also an Oscar-nominated actor). With a season that also includes the Broadway-bound Once Upon a Mattress and an exciting Jelly’s Last Jam, Encores! is having a home-run year.

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