Bruce Graham is having the most magnificent year of his playwriting career. His new works so far in 2016, “Funnyman” and ‘White Guy on the Bus” not only take Graham to new levels as a dramatist but are important plays, one of which delves shrewdly into one person’s psyche, the other of flinch addresses the thorniest of modern issues with unflinching candor. Brave and provocative, “White Guy on the Bus,” as directed by Michelle Tattenbaum for Trenton’s Passage Theatre, puts perspective om race relations but adding human nature, unforced reality, and the divided nature of all of us into the equation. It is a play that eschews the bane of political correctness to tackle events, attitudes, and human behavior honestly. Grade: A+ for play and production.
“The Single Shard” transcends its initially cloying folk tale roots, and Yoda-like language, to becoming quite moving and inspiring, Thank director Seema Sueko and a superb cast led by Brian Lee Huynh, Thom Sesma, and Graham Smith from raising Robert Schehkkan’s piece from the kind of sweet and pretty play that tends to get praise for its saccharine goodness to an affecting story about a boy who rarely receives a kind word or smattering of attention but finds his courage and a talent. Grade: B- for play; A for production.
Interesting, well-produced failures abound on local stages at the moment. “The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning” receives a wonderful staging from Inis Nua, but Tim Price’s play, for all of its variety and angles, turns out to be more agitprop than objective, Price would have you believe Manning sent classified American military information spilling through the Internet via Julian Assange’s “WikiLeaks” out of bratty spite and seeks to make the rebuffs and rejections Manning receives through life as an excuse for his reckless disobedience. “The Christians” impresses you with the style and deadpan approach Timothy Bond takes towards Lucas Hnath’s play at the Wilma (following a run at Bond’s Syracuse Stage), but the piece, though it might be the pinnacle of controversy in some circles, doesn’t deal with anything particularly important and rarely universalizes anything it has to say about religiosity or schisms. It makes points about hypocrisy, interpretation, irony, etc. in passing, and Julie Jesneck enlivens the proceedings, but in the long run, “The Christians” wastes so much ado on nothing, it’s dismissible as crafty novelty act. Hooray for the Philadelphia Community Choir, especially the cute guy who sings well but has no rhythm, but ho-hum and shrug shrug for Hnath’s play. Grade: C- for play; B+ for production.“See What I Wanna See” receives a bravura production from Megan Nicole O’Brien and 11th Hour, but show biz brightness is not always enough, the noir section that accounts for “Wanna See’s” first act is underdone by composer Michael John LaChiusa and a bit overbaked by O’Brien. It is also lacking in one core performance that makes the piece seems more like an exercise in presenting a genre rather than an homage to, or send-up, of it. Except for the most basic of curiosity, you really don’t buy into or care much about the “Rashomon” approach to LaChiusa’s adaptation of a Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s story. Jake Blouch is magnificent and reveals a powerful yet well-toned voice in this sequence, but learning about that voice is the only discovery that turns out to matter. Playing for satire or with genuine noir austerity might have been better than the straight down the middle route O’Brien took, however lively. “Wanna See’s” second act fares better, but while it is far-fetched it truly involves you with a sincere man’s battle with faith, allows you to enjoy a simple, impulsively mischievous hoax that gets out of hand, and treats you to several fine performances, most notably by Billy Bustamante as a priest tormented by challenges to once-firm beliefs and Nancie Sanderson as his atheist mother. Jake Blouch scores well in this segment, too. (He’s just a fine, commanding actor who can being shades to what could easily be left to straightforward characterization.) With its irony, Bustamante’s genuine conundrum, and Sanderson’s marvelous rendition of a LaChiusa song assessing religion, the second half of 11th Hour’s “Wanna See” redeems the entertaining enough but texturally empty first act. LaChiusa’s music is more tuneful and playful than most, but snappy melody cannot always hide or make up for empty dullness. Grade: C for play; B+ for production.
“All the Days” is an interesting failure of a different stripe. It takes a while for playwright Sharyn Rothstein to show you where she’s going. Rothstein writes sitcoms, and the formula shows. Her audacious, mean-spirited one liners are several cuts above television fare and will have you chortling at their cruel candor, but the theme of “All the Days” doesn’t emerge until late in the play, too late to be totally affecting. Rothstein’s point is the love and even functionality of even the most caustic, obtuse, and insensitive of families. Savage jokes and hilariously deft comic turns save Emily Mann’s McCarter Theatre production until Rothstein shows her bittersweet stripes at about the three-quarter mark. Caroline Aaron is exceptionally good as the mother, grandmother, sister, and ex-wife who cannot control her sarcasm, accusations, or guilt-making any more than she can control the overeating, especially of sugar, that is going to kill her. Aaron’s Ruth has a reason for her tetchy temper and binging, but it doesn’t seem enough to propel her level of destruction, of herself and others. Also, Rothstein’s worst misstep is the heavy-handed story that leads to Ruth evolving into her worst self after years of simply being her bad self. This section, about Ruth’s adored son’s death, is too out of kilter with the rest of “All the Days” to compute. Rothstein may want to turn a sharp corner, but she skids and crashes instead of snapping us out of comedy and into pathos. Aaron does better as you see more sides of Ruth and see her change, especially when he unexpectedly acquires a boyfriend. Leslie Ayvazian and Ron Orbach are also great at landing comic salvos. Justin Hagan is lovably natural as a man who has played the “what I’m supposed to be” game and wants to be real, even as Rothstein lampoons him by having him spout all kinds of new-age verbiage about strength, dignity, and kindness to others. Ruth would have lots to say about that. Good thing she never hears any of it. Grade: C- for play; A- for production.
“Moth,” as Azuka boasts two excellent performances. Nicholas Scheppard’s actually goes beyond excellent into creative and admirable. The problem is Declan Greene’s play is more bizarre for bizarre sake than substantial. Scheppard, under the direction of Michael Osinski, embodies a young man going through a psychic break. The play is told from a teenage boy’s point of view and shows the descent into madness of a lad who tries to fit in but is taunted and rejected at every turn, Even where he finds friendship and affection, he’s teased and has to run in circles in a cat-and-mouse game. Scheppard rivetingly physicalizes Sebastian’s descent — Even the character name reeks of Greene’s self-consciousness — but all of the fantasy and monsters and elements Greene cooks up turn all for naught. “Moth” is showy twaddle. The play is all smoke and mirrors that obscure the story underneath. In some ways, “Moth” is the flip side of “The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning,” a look at the buffets and psychological influences that drive a young man to the edge, but while Tim Price is cunning and works from a basis of reality, Declan Greene is more intent of the Gothic trappings of youth and how to incorporate populist fantasy into a tale that becomes a shaggy dog story. You may watch Scheppard with admiration, but “Moth” itself is an overwrought, overworked bore that pretends…and pretends and pretends… to depth that in actuality, would have trouble filling Tom Thumb’s thimble. “Moth” is a two-hander, and as an actress, Hannah Parke holds up her part of the show. She convinces you her Claryssa is the tough, tough-minded adolescent girl who sees the world and its absurdities too clearly to love or respect them. Parke makes points with the way she comes out of Claryssa’s jadedness and desire to stay in her own metaphorical cave and avoid the nonsense outside to be a real friend of Sebastian every time it counts. Scheppard and Parke are called upon to play multiple characters, and they do a fine job with their ancillary roles. Grade: D for play; B- for production.