Stephen Adly Guirgis

DramaWatch: Aliens in rom-coms

Corrib's "How To Keep an Alien" in review, "Jesus Takes the 'A' Train' and "Crossing Mnisose" opening, children's theater, new seasons

Irish playwright Sonya Kelly’s How To Keep an Alien, which took the best-production award when it premiered at the Tiger Dublin Fringe in 2014 and is now enjoying its West Coast premiere from Corrib, Portland’s all-Irish theater company, isn’t about flying saucers and little green men. It’s about that other kind of alien – the foreign-born kind, the kind who faces political and sometimes actual walls when trying to move from one nation to another, and who must overcome not only bureaucratic obstacles but also personal ones, the sort we often erect between our desires and our fears.

It’s intriguing, often appealing, and whimsically constructed, like a shifting tower leaning sharply to one side: an odd duck of a play, and I mean it no disrespect when I say it’s a contemporary rom-com, the sort of story that might make a good Hallmark movie if Hallmark movies ever were to recognize the actual and ordinary existence in the world of homosexuality (or, for that matter, the desirability of non-white characters filling any role in a romantic comedy larger than supportive sidekick). I happen to like a good rom-com, and this one has the enormous advantage of being about two lesbians falling in love, but approaching their affair altogether naturally, with no flashing lights of cultural or political importance: just two people going through what people of all sorts all over the world go through every day. The decision to not make a big deal out of the lovers’ gender – to treat it matter-of-factly, as just the way this story goes – is in fact a bigger deal than making a big deal would be.

Amy Katrina Bryan (left) and Sara Hennessy in Corrib Theatre’s “How To Keep an Alien.” Photo: Adam Liberman

In this case the two people overtaken by emotional attraction are Sonia, an Irish actor starring in a historical costume drama that she finds ridiculous, and Kate, the show’s Australian stage manager, who is also, in a meta sort of way, the onstage stage manager of How To Keep an Alien, batting back and forth between the reality of the story and the reality of the production. If this sounds confusing, it sometimes is, but usually isn’t.

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Crazy good on Riverside

The strivers and miscreants in Artists Rep's taut and slippery "Between Riverside and Crazy" crackle and pop with terrific verve

An apartment on Riverside Drive in Manhattan is the setting and in some ways the crux of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ 2015 Pulitzer-winning play Between Riverside and Crazy, currently getting a crackling Adriana Baer-helmed production at Artists Rep.

That geographical marker is important. A large, pre-WWII apartment in that highly desirable section of New York City has a lot of value. For the play’s central character, disgruntled ex-cop Walter “Pops” Washington, it’s his home of several decades, a place where he can shelter his ex-con son Junior and various friends. And, crucially, it’s on an increasingly rare rent-controlled lease. For the landlord, it’s a diamond in the rough, an apartment falling into disrepair but easily worth several times the current rent. And for city and police officials, we quickly learn, the property has turned into leverage in a long legal standoff over compensation for Pops’ being injured in a shooting by another cop.

Kevin Jones, Ben Newman, and Val Landrum in “Between Riverside and Crazy.” Photo: Russell J Young

And yet, something’s a little puzzling about that title, Between Riverside and Crazy. Whatever location that suggests is not a geographical one like “between Riverside and Broadway” or “between Riverside and the Hudson River.” Perhaps, for New Yorkers particularly, the title points to some sort of imagined behavioral terrain, between the posh conventionality a Riverside address connotes and some other, wilder impulses of human character. But who among Guirgis’ assemblage of strivers and miscreants and authority figures here is really “crazy”? There is depression, addiction, anger, and so forth, but there’s no “crazy.”

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A roomful of foulmouth, a hatful of funny as hell

Artists Rep's 'The Motherfucker with the Hat' blows the lid off decorum and lights up the stage

OK, let’s just get that title out of the way right off the bat: The Motherfucker with the Hat.

 Take a deep breath, gird your damn loins, say The Word three more times.

Motherfucker!

 Motherfucker!

 Motherfucker!

 There, now. Did the sky fall in? Did you just put a down payment on a one-way train trip to the Hubs of Hell? Feel like washing your mouth out with soap? Or is this just linguistic business as usual?

From left: Del Campo, San Nicolas, Mack. Photo: Owen Carey

From left: Del Campo, San Nicolas, Mack. Photo: Owen Carey

Truth is, The Word’s just the beginning in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s 2011 dramatic comedy, which is a roomful of foulmouth and a hatful of funny as hell. It rains obscenities like an avalanche of Richard Pryor, like a World Wrestling Federation smackdown, like a construction crew on lunch break, like an editorial meeting at the Dictionary of Urban Slang. Mr. Angle and Mr. Saxon would feel right at home in the play’s coarse company, cutting straight to the chase while the Norman invaders were obsessing over how to brew a proper cup of tea.

And the greater, maybe more surprising truth is that, despite its not-so-casual scatological streak (surely the play’s title is a bigger draw for potential audiences than a turn-off) MoFo is an old-fashioned kind of play – a literary play, one that succeeds not just on the basis of its theme or the quality of its performances but also because of its tightly written, carefully constructed language. Its dialogue is a poetry of the streets, as precise and besotted with sound as the linguistic inventions of an Elizabethan comedy. It’s like music: a symphony for concrete pavement and tenement floorboards and rooftop pigeons and broken dreams. It takes a lot of discipline to create something so free and loose.

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