While all the star-laden vehicles are previewing and about to open on Broadway, there are some off-Broadway plays that merit your immediate attention before they’re gone and some of these performances are not to be missed. They’re playing in many disparate places, including a loft on Mercer Street, but all are terrific in their own unique ways.
The play “Kin” at Playwrights Horizons is a major surprise from a woman we’re going to be hearing a lot from in the months and years to come. She is Bathsheba Doran, aka Bash, and while this may be her first major work to premiere in NYC, she’s a very busy writer. She’s currently adapting “The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency” as a feature film, and she’s also writing episodes for the second season of the sensational “Boardwalk Empire”. “Kin”, however is hard to pigeonhole-it’s a play of ideas, a play about a variety of interrelated people who seemingly interlock in very odd ways, a play that moves from place to place, from NYC to Scotland, and for a short period at the beginning, you’re not quite sure where you’re going. Oh, but when you get there, and you’ll know it when you do, it’s a breathtaking experience-these characters are strong and beautiful and needy and damaged-and they’re all seeking solace and love and salvation, and begin to find it and begin to heal by the play’s end. The cast is extraordinary-I must mention Suzanne Bertish as a woman haunted by an assault many years before on home ground, in the very place where her son is to be married, and Bertish fills you with emotion as she reels from shock to sensibility-it’s a marvelous performance you will long carry with you. Kudos to actors Matt Rauch, Bill Buell, Cotter Smith, Laura Heisler, Kristen Bush, Patch Darragh,Kit Flanagan and Molly Ward-all are exemplary. But this a director’s showpiece, and thankfully, the director here is the gifted Sam Gold, whose specialty is taking the damaged, the hurt and the healing-and making them alive and human and whole-making them people you’ve known all your lives and making their motives understandable. Gold is one of a handful of the next wave of major directors for the theater-but he is currently the frontrunner, and like Ms. Doran, a talent we’ll be hearing a lot from in the future.
Downstairs in what they call the Black Box at the Laura Pels Theatre at Roundabout, veteran stage actor Reed Birney is once again searing the stage in a new play called “Dream Of The Burning Boy” about a teacher-student relationship that physically ends in the very first scene of the play, and yet runs throughout the rest of the piece through interactions of Birney’s teacher character, and others in the play who portray students, a guidance counsellor and the late student’s mother. The writing is crisp and potent, the intimate space abets the play, and the direction by Evan Cabnet is spare and simple as befits this unique piece. Author David West Read is only 28 years old, which means we have another author whose work we can look forward to for awhile to come. But this is Birney’s showcase all the way-by the end of the brief 90 minutes, Birney’s teacher is an emotional wreck-and you will be as well. Birney proves once again his prowess as a theater animal-and we benefit from it.
Down at the Irish Repertory Theatre, there is revival of a Brian Friel play last seen here in 1996, one I somehow managed to miss that time around, but happily corrected that with this production. The play is “Molly Sweeney” and it is a powerhouse piece for three talented actors, and this production has that in spades. One of my favorite theatrical memories was the joy of seeing the late great James Mason many years ago in a Brian Friel play called “Faith Healer”, which was a play consisting of 4 monologues telling of the tragic end of a traveling faith healer named Frank, told “Rashomon”-style, from 3 different points of view, ending in bloody tragedy. well, “Molly Sweeney” is done similarly, in that the three characters never interact with each other, but do tell the same story. This is the story of a blind woman, Molly, who’s given the gift of sight by a talented but damaged surgeon whose own backstory tells how he’s landed in the town of Donegal, Ireland, after working all over the world, and who’s chosen to live in solitude after losing his wife to a colleague. Molly’s husband, Frank, is determined his wife, blind since the age of 10 months, have her sight restored so she may share the magnificence of the world he can see. But Molly has her own world, created through touch and smell and taste, and while at first thrilled at the idea of sight, soon discovers we should always be wary of what we think we know we want. The gift of sight can be a cruel thing as well, and as Denis Diderot has written, “Learning to see is not like learning a new language. It’s like learning language for the first time”. The restoration of Molly’s sight affects all three is disturbing and damaging ways, and therein lies the moral of this fascinating play. Simone Kirby gives a spellbinding performance as Molly, charting her slow descent into madness; Ciaran O’Reilly is all jovility and brusqueness as husband Frank, but it is veteran stage actor Jonathan Hogan who lights up the stage here as the eye surgeon, Mr. Rice. Hogan plays the alcoholic physician to the hilt, yet never overplays his hand, he walks the fine line of an actor in control playing a character who is clearly not. It’s one of Hogan’s most beautiful performances, and we’re talking about a man who was a veteran of the legendary Circle Repertory Company, so this performance is not to be taken lightly.
And while we’re on the subject of Circle Rep, let us pause to remember one of Circle’s greatest gifts-playwright Lanford Wilson, who passed away in the last week of March after a brief illness. Wilson was my favorite playwright-he combined the real and unreal, the practical and the mystical, the sadness and the joy of living, and created indelible characters in plays like “Hot l Baltimore”, Fifth Of July”, “Talley’s Folley” and “Burn This”. His repertoire is extraordinary, and his works will live on as long as theater survives. The first time I had the chance to talk to Mr. Wilson, I wasa young actor just arrived in NYC, and I walked up to him and managed to stammer, “My dream has always been to appear in a new Lanford Wilson play”, to which he delightfully responded’ Well, I ain’t dead yet, Honey”. RIP, one of our great dramatists. I’ll treasure your work always.