NYC Review Roundup: Scintillating ‘Slave Play,’ the cruel world of Hades and sexy ‘Oklahoma!’

I was in New York in November for the annual American Theatre Critics Association conference, where I saw six shows in three days, a mix of Broadway and off-Broadway. The following are my capsule reviews from those shows. 

Circle in the Square Theatre, 1633 Broadway at 50th
Tony Awards for best revival and best featured actress (Ali Stroker)
Through Jan. 19th

There is a single insanely powerful moment amidst plenty of them in the magically potent and relevant Broadway production in the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II production of “Oklahoma!.” The final 15 minutes of the show are just filled with brutality – a savage auction for literal and metaphoric pie, followed shortly with blood-soaked marital duds and a reality check for black people in this territory, no matter how lofty the title they carry. A black federal marshal isn’t nearly as powerful as the person who carries the title of “White Person.” It’s a stunning, timely metaphor as we now live in a moment in history where subpoenas can simply be ignored by those who are most powerful.

The power of doing what’s right is no match for the power of a wedding night.

That single moment is a look that the marshal gives Laurey, a look that almost makes her understand that she is now in a world of shit. The diaspora of Oklahoma, a territory that didn’t experience statehood until 1907, is a scene dominated by white folk and guns that are strewn throughout the theatre. That one look seems to tell Laurey “Do you have an idea what you’ve just done to us?”

Laurey Williams (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and Curly McLain (Damon Daunno) smolder in a reimagined revival of “Oklahoma!” (Little Fang photos)

“Oklahoma!” is not a show I grew up or engaged with much in prior years, save some of the songs that have longtime crossover appeal. But this production, loaded with surreal casting from top to bottom, is a show that has never left me, a production among the best Broadway shows I’ve ever experienced.

The thrill of retooling the first musical of Rodgers and Hammerstein from 1943 sends away the big orchestra, replaced with a down home feel to the arrangements, steel guitars and strings with a ton of bluegrass and country twang.

The cast is so incredibly sharp. The great Mary Testa as Aunt Eller is the voice of painful pragmatism, understanding that a woman’s agency will always be limited in this world of men and their guns. Damon Daunno’s Curly uses his guitar as a weapon of mass melting, sauntering throughout the stage armed with some of the show’s best compositions, all targeted at a fantastic Rebecca Naomi Jones, who portrays Laurey. Ali Stroker is masterful as a girl who just cain’t say no, the delightful Ado Annie. And Patrick Vaill as the disconcerting Jud Fry creates instant tension at any moment he is on the stage, never able to engage many while constantly lurking in the shadows. His terrifying duet with Daunno, whose Curly tries to implore him to a glorious suicide is incredibly sharp, with cameras projecting each conflicted subject tightly.

When it comes to reimagining classic works for modern audiences, director Daniel Fish has taught a master class on how to do so. Simply amazing.

And a very important point is clear – if you belong to the right crowd, everything is most certainly going your way.

Slave Play
The Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th Street
Through Jan. 19th

In talking to my co-chair for the American Theatre Critic’s Association’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, someone remarked to her that it would probably take about three weeks to process what she saw.

In all honesty, I’m not sure it’s possible to ever fully process this incredibly vicious and scintillating show.

“Slave Play” is an absolute game changer. Written by Jeremy O. Harris and directed by Robert O’Hara, nothing can prepare you for how this play unfolds – its wicked, delectable humor, its viciously rapturous satire of group therapy and its ability to attack the blind spots of race and force full illumination. This crass idea that black people should just get over slavery because it was a long time ago is deconstructed here with the sharpness of a surgeon’s blade. Harris goes to great lengths to show just how the effects of the many years of oppression continue to destroy the psyche for folks of color.

Kaneisha (Joaquina Kalukango) and Jim (Paul Alexander Nolan) are one of three couples going through “Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy” in “Slave Play.” (Matthew Murphy photo)

Just listen.

The cast is universally fantastic, a thrilling and bold group of actors who absolutely pull no punches. Nudity, shock and awe are some of the tamer components of the play, but what thrills to no end is in the play’s ideas. There have been a zillion responses to the play, from euphoria to flat out fury, which has made for some very interesting talk backs. Outrage is just for starters, but the idea of listening with the two ears instead of talking with one mouth sets the play ablaze.

There is no denying the poetic justice of having Harris, a young, queer black playwright who has exploded since seeing his play hit the New York Theatre Workshop a year ago, take Broadway by storm. He is as engaging as all hell and is one helluva Twitter follow. People will be both gushing and fighting over his play for years to come.

The 30-year-old wunderkind playwright is just getting started.

Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th Street
Tony Awards for best musical and best original score

What is so striking about Hadestown is the visuals. It all starts when Broadway legend André DeShields walks onto the stage, while eyes zero in on his every move, a man who slays in shiny silver sharkskin. You also get a strong sense that his cast is in constant reverie, the lucky few getting a high five as he gets into position.

Writer Anaïs Mitchell’s show, which was developed and directed by Rachel Chavkin and has had quite the long journey to Broadway, makes for quite an experience inside the theatre. DeShields is perfectly suited as Hermes, young Broadway star Eva Noblezada shines bright as Eurydice and very few can touch the rich timbre of Patrick Page as the brutal Hades. In addition, Amber Grey delivers a terrific, warm performance as Persephone. The way she leads the closing moments of the show are truly chilling and powerful.

While some of the best work in the show comes from the three Fates in the jazzy score, the love story between Eurydice and Orpheus (Reeve Carney) has a bit too much of a “Rent” feel, a guy trying to write one great song. While Rachel Hauck’s set design and all it can do is worth the hefty price of admission alone, I can’t say I loved the show with all my being the way many have. But it is quite good, nevertheless.

Freestyle Love Supreme
The Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th Street
Through Jan. 12th

(L to R) Anthony Veneziale, Chris Sullivan, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Aneesa Folds perform improvised hip-hop in “Freestyle Love Supreme.” The show features a different guest star nightly, and will be in San Francisco for one night in January. (Joan Marcus photo)

There is no groundbreaking hip-hop in the Broadway production of “Freestyle Love Supreme,” the improv group that sprung from Thomas Kail, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Anthony Veneziale. But if you are fan of Upright Citizens Brigade, The Groundlings, Second City or Comedysportz, this show is for you.

The show is very tame yet very fun, a piece that changes nightly. There’s a celebrity rotation of original members, including Miranda himself, Daveed Diggs and Christopher Jackson to name a few (Hayward’s James Monroe Iglehart took the reins on my night).

Even though this production is hip-hop light, the show doesn’t feel as if it should do more than that, which is not a knock on the production at all. More than trying to create rap for rap’s sake, the show is really a showcase of quick-thinking wit, with a nice mixture of raunchy thrown in. When you can create an entire rap on the indignity of a guy in the audience who took a crap on his friend while on a ride in Disneyland, that takes some skill. All of the rhymes are given some pop with the smooth beatbox skills of Chris Sullivan, AKA Shockwave.

The show is in its final few weeks, but as a West Coast treat, the production moves to San Francisco for one night on Jan. 24th as part of SF Sketchfest.

Dr. Ride’s American Beach House
Ars Nova
Greenwich House, 27 Barrow Street, West Village
Closed Nov. 23rd

(L to R) Meg (Marga Gomez), Matilda (Erin Markey) and Harriet (Kristen Sieh) gather on a rooftop on the eve of Sally Ride’s historic launch in “Dr. Ride’s American Beach House” in the West Village. (Ben Arons photography)

This is a play that was stunningly good, with some sanguine hilarity thrown into the mix. The story of two girls who don’t have much going on, chilling out on a roof letting the time pass by, is deceptively mesmerizing. Harriet (Kristen Sieh) and Matilda (Erin Markey) both rock MFA’s in poetry but are locked into their lives being married to men. Even though husbands are referenced, there are hints that marrying each other might be a more fulfilling option. It is 1983 after all, still light years away from legalized gay marriage. This rooftop also functions as a fascination zone for the world of astronaut Sally Ride, who it’s suspected, is a lesbian but married to a man.

The play is cheerily quirky, with director Katie Brook getting the most out of Liza Birkenmeier’s delightful and poignant script. As a Bay Area treat, local stalwart and performer extraordinaire Marga Gomez played Meg, an out lesbian who disrupts the calm on the steamy rooftop. The play, set on the eve of Ride’s historic launch on the space shuttle Challenger, is a wonderful jaunt through ideas both hilarious and deceptively deep.

Broadbend, Arkansas
Transport Group
The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 W. 42nd Street
Closed Nov. 23rd
I will sum it up in one concise word – excellent. The show is a two-act musical, with one performer handling each act. It’s the story of an orderly named Benny (Justin Cunningham from “When They See Us”) who dives into the Freedom Riders and Civil Rights Movement. The second act moves to 1988, when Benny’s daughter (Danyel Fulton) deals with her own difficulties.

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