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by Lucy Komisar

Photo from 'The Syringa Tree'
Pamela Gien is a child and 27 other characters in "The Syringa Tree." Photo by Michael Lamont.
Contents: December 24, 2000:
(1)"The Syringa Tree"
(3)"Jesus Hopped the A Train"
(4)"Down the Garden Paths"

"The Syringa Tree"
by Pamela Gien, directed by Larry Moss
produced by Matt Salinger
Playhouse 91, 316 E. 91 Street
Opened September 14, 2000
Closes December 31, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar October 31, 2000
Through a child's eyes, Pamela Gien recreates the powerful reality of apartheid in South Africa. In an astonishing performance, portraying multiple characters, she offers a panorama of personalities and political views and a lucid picture of the anguish and complexities of that era. It is funny, clever, and moving. She says it is a fictional story based on true events.

Gien is a consummate performer, handling moods and accents with polished artistry, and director Larry Moss makes one think the stage is bursting with characters and action.

Gien's viewpoint is that of the liberal whites. Dangling in a swing, she is chirpy 7-year-old Miss Lizzie alarming the black servant, Salamina, about the "Tokalozh" spirit. But she is also the racist Afrikaner neighbor from whom one must hide the birth of Salamina's child so that it isn't discovered and banished from the white neighborhood.

Lizzie's mother is a believing Catholic and her father a Jewish atheist. The contradictions in their lives are vivid, marked by real affections and overwhelming barriers. One flinches when the blacks refer to their employer as 'the master.'

Against a backdrop of rough texture that seems to change shades from brown to blue or green, and with balletic movements, Gien is a naive child noticing the black members of a road gang. She is Isaac Grace, Lizzie's doctor father, disgusted because a white patient gets angry at seeing a black child in his dispensary. She is her mother, Eugenie, ordering that the servants get table leftovers.

The little girl, observing a police car, comments with excruciating matter-of-factness, "They are looking for people who have got no papers." You hear the sounds of a motor and dogs. Lizzie reports that the quarry scramble to safety by climbing into the syringa tree. But there are few "syringa trees" to harbor apartheid's victims.

The contrast between black and white is highlighted by the parallel lives of Lizzie and of Moliseng, Salamina's daughter. The baby Moliseng is almost lost in a hospital system that holds her in so little regard, it doesn't bother recording her presence. Then, she is a militant among the youths who lead Soweto school strikes. However, it's clear that whites are the system's victims, too, when violent tragedy strikes the Graces.

The lighting by Jason Kantrowitz and the sound by Tony Suraci create a palpable set with car lights and horns, shadows of shutters, chirping of frogs and crickets, and the melody and beat of Africans songs. One feels transported to a country of aching sorrows.

by Lee Blessing, directed by Joe Brancato
produced by The Melting Pot Theatre by arrangement with Trigger Street Productions and Kevin Spacey
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street
239-6200, 800-432-7250
Opened November 8, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar December 12, 2000

Ty Cobb, the Detroit Tigers baseball Hall of Famer who played from 1905 to 1928, was a narrow-minded, violent, nasty, lonely man. Lee Blessing's excellent, moving, taut play about his life gets finely tuned performances by Michael Cullen, Michael Sabatino, and Matthew Mabe. They interact with each other as Cobb in his old, middle and young years, and with Oscar Charleston, portrayed with powerful, quiet anger by Clark Jackson as a black player relegated to the Negro leagues.

Blessing uses the device of having the bitter Cobb, in a bathrobe, just deceased at 74, review his life by talking, arguing, and challenging his own memories as "the Georgia Peach" and a middle-aged businessman. He exults that he's a millionaire and in the Hall of Fame ("a man like those in Wall Street boardrooms and the White House"), but he's jealous that the world loves not him, but Babe Ruth.

He refuses to acknowledge the parts of his life that shaped his dark character. He was dogged by violence. When he was 18, his mother killed his father, mistaking him for a prowler on the porch. "Did she have a lover?" It gnaws at him, though there's no evidence to back his suspicion.

One of his "selves" recalls how teammates humiliated him, nailed his shoes to the floor, locked him out of a hotel bathroom, so he bought a gun. His fights left a trail of blood and broken bones. He slid into bases cleats first, aimed at the basemen. He was arrested for fights; he attacked black people. He denies it: "Don't you go into it." And, "I never owned a gun in my life." In Joe Brancato's smoothly choreographed direction, the three Cobbs suddenly point guns at each other.

Beginning his career near the turn of the century, Cobb was a racist in a time of baseball's color bar. When the Tigers played exhibition games with teams that had black players, Cobb stayed away. Charleston, who played the same position and was known as "the black Cobb," taunts him that he never wanted to test his mettle. Cobb was the first member of the baseball Hall of Fame in 1939; Charleston wasn't voted in until 1976. Blessing reminds us that the color bar was instituted by businessmen with familiar names such as Spalding and Kaminsky.

Cobb made his money by hanging out in bars frequented by Detroit's auto tycoons and investing in General Motors. The middle-aged Ty wears a vested suit and a satisfied self-assurance. But the superb Cullen shows us how the old, crotchety Cobb, his face twisted as if in an accusation, half cackles his bitterness at the public's lack of attention.

The simple set is back-dropped by metal rods on which are black squares with backlit sepia photos of the players and the sport. The most vivid picture is the one provided on stage.

"Jesus Hopped the A Train"
by Stephen Adly Guirgis, directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman
produced by Ron Kastner, Roy Gabay, John Gould Rubin, and the LAByrinth Theater Company
East 13th Street Theater, 136 E. 13 Street
239-6200, 800-432-7250
Opened November 29, 2000
Closes December 31, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar December 1, 2000

One emerges from Steven Adly Guirgis's play shaken and moved by the questions he raises and never sure of the answers. It's a gripping work. It opens with a desperate 30-year-old Angel Cruz (John Ortiz) on his knees in a jail cell, howling savagely, unable to find the words to talk to God. And when, finally, you think he's found him, the result is a self-betrayal that causes him increased torment.

Angel, whose name conjures up contradictory images of goodness, suffering and redemption, has shot a cult leader named Kim, obviously modeled on Sun Myung Moon, who had "programmed" his childhood friend.

On New York's Riker's Island, awaiting appearance before a jury, he spends an hour a day in a rooftop chain-link fresh-air exercise cage. The pen next to his is occupied by Lucius (Ron Cephas Jones), a fast-talking, manipulative, psychotic cocaine dealer about to be extradited to Miami for multiple murders. Lucius presses Angel to accept God and read the Bible.

Angel yells, "I don't need to be saved, I didn't kill eight people." Angel explains his action: "All I did was shoot him in the ass." And he had good reason to do it to the money-grubbing phony. "The Son of God don't ski in Aspen," he declares. Where is morality? "Where's the director of Philip Morris -- on the seventh green in a cashmere sweater."

To point up further that good and evil are not necessarily neatly divided by the walls of the jail, the law-abiding world is represented by Valdez, a nasty, violent corrections officer (played by David Zayas, a former real life cop with very New York accent) who thinks it's his personal mission to make inmates miserable. And D'Amico (Salvatore Inzerillo), a more amiable guard, has just as little judgment; he is thrilled by the fact that Lucius is a celebrity.

Angel's lawyer, Mary Jane Hanrahan (Elizabeth Canavan), believes she is defending "a great right outweighing a little wrong." So, is it okay to kill a bad guy for a good reason? It turns out Lucius can dredge up some defense, or at least, mitigating circumstances, for his behavior, too. As the lawyer remarks, "One man's neurotic is another man's hero, and who can say which is which with any certainty at all."

The weakest part of the play is that you don't see Angel struggling with doubts about his actions. That makes the flip for redemption something of a surprise. The script is also sometimes overly talky in its monologues. However, Philip Seymour Hoffman's direction is emotionally honest and taut and lets us ignore the flaws as he carries us along on a wave of tension.

Ortiz is a powerful actor, alternately exploding with frenetic anger, then burrowing into morose, quiet darkness. Jones is a finely wired Lucius; you can see his mind racing in tune to his running-in-place. The others are also good, especially Canavan in a crisp, modulated performance as the dress-for-success New York lawyer and Zayas as the viscerally savage guard.

"Down the Garden Paths"
by Anne Meara
produced by Elliot Martin, Max Cooper, Ron Shapiro, Sharon Karmazin
Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane
Opened November 19, 2000
Closes January 28, 2001
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar November 24, 2000

"Should, woulda, coulda." What if at a watershed moment in life, a different choice had been made. Playwright Anne Meara makes that happen in a fascinating and often dark comedy that pursues the different paths the members of the Garden family might have followed had 8-year-old Arthur (John Shea) years before not successfully rescued his younger brother Max (Adam Grupper) from the chilly winter waters of Kiamesha Lake. The answer to the question seems to be, "Don't tempt fate, and be happy for what you've got. Things could always be worse."

The play weaves back and forth between the funny and serious. The Gardens are celebrating a prize won by Arthur for a book about infinite probabilities. He will explain that "Quantum theory goes deeper than Copenhagen." Infinite probabilities cause worlds to bifurcate.

Some of it is shtick. Still making fun of the play "Copenhagen," Jerry Stiller appears on video as the weird renowned physicist and violinist who wrote "Die Ganse Geschichte" ("The Whole Story"), a book on quantum theory, and in whose honor the prize is given.

Sid (Eli Wallach) and Stella Garden (Anne Jackson) are charming and appealing as the old borscht belt and TV comics (Kiamesha Lake is in the Catskills) who kvetch and fight and make up. He calls her an Irish balabusta. She shouts, "Don't get ethnic!"

Their kids have not turned out so perfectly. Sharon (Amy Stiller), whose husband is in the Caribbean filming a commercial, proclaims that she's stopped doing booze and drugs and sleeping around and urges everyone else to take up the therapy that "saved our lives." When none are interested, she declares, "This family is drowning in the longest river in Egypt -- denial!"

Her sense of a "saved life" gets a new meaning when she remarks that her 6-year-old is in boarding school and, "It's so funny when the kids speak in French: 'Ne me quittez pas, maman!'" (It means, "Mommy, don't leave me!")

Max is a hack soap opera writer. He and his wife Claire (Roberta Wallach) have an autistic daughter. Artie's wife Liz (Leslie Lyles) has been getting fertility treatments, to no avail. Sexual fidelity is not meticulously observed.

So, could things be worse? Just wait. Suppose Artie and Liz had a kid. You know what kids are like these days. Or suppose they hadn't married. Suppose Artie lived with someone else. Suppose the boating accident had ended differently. Some of the results are unpleasantly depressing. What starts out as comedy becomes more like a sick joke.

The focus on family gets an ironic assist from the casting: Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson are the parents of Roberta Wallach; Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller are the parents of Amy Stiller.

Wallach and Jackson are a masterful couple, he as the crusty, sad, funny Sid and she as the durable Stella who hovers over the brood like a tough and occasionally exasperated mother hen. Jackson acts with every tiny muscle in her face. The rest of the cast is uniformly fine, and director David Saint prevents the cumulative disasters from turning the play into a Max Garden soap opera.

by Rob Ackerman, directed by Connie Grappo
produced by Amy Danis, Mark Johannes, Richard Firestone, Joan D. Firestone, Ellen M. Krass, in assn. With Karen Davidov
The American Place Theatre, 111 W. 46 Street
239-6200, 800-432-7250
Opened October 30, 2000
Closes December 31, 2000
Reviewed by Lucy Komisar December 11, 2000

Can the people who make TV commercials be as nasty as the director in this imaginary film studio or as willing to suffer humiliation as the people who work for him? Since playwright Rob Ackerman has been a property master for film commercials, you get the feeling he is getting revenge on some real persons. His dark comedy wittily satirizes the self-importance and self-abnegation which seem combined in individuals who take abuse from those above them in the power chain and visit it on those below.

Sometimes, the nastiness is too unrelieved, and you long for characters who are less cartoonish. Still, with Connie Grappo's accurate direction, you have the sense of being in true company hell.

The play is built around the task of setting up a photo shoot for a pink fruit drink that is going to be poured over a pile of grapefruit, bananas, grapes and the like. Such a close-up shot is called "tabletop" in the ad world. To point up the absurdity of the exaggerated importance going on around this bit of nonsense, Ron, the goofy red-headed studio manager (a comic Jeremy Webb), who speaks in perfect teen language ending phrases on an upswing, thinks "the 30 second spot on TV is the single most eloquent statement of our times." And, "We're artisans. In the 13th century, we'd be carving gargoyles on the tallest cathedral."

Jeffrey, the uptight, cynical prop manager (smoothly portrayed by Dean Nolen) demurs: "We're snake oil salesman getting people to eat things not good for them" and, he adds, making commercials that dry up independent thinking.

The set-up doesn't go smoothly, which gives the vulgar, obnoxious, autocratic studio owner-director Marcus (Rob Bartlett) a chance to scream at everyone. Marcus, realistically depicted by Bartlett as a round-shouldered, gold-chain wearing, hunkering creep with a New York accent, declares, "The shows are nothing; the commercials are the truth."

The only sympathetic character in the group is Dave (Jack Koenig), a gay man who is ridiculed by the others, especially by Oscar (Harvey Blanks), the technician with whom he'd planned to go into business. (The notion they could have considered a partnership is a rather unlikely bit of script.) Dave counters with an assertion of his humanity through an amazingly erotic and tender description of foreplay that eschews any sexual terms and is largely about opening another man's shirt.

Ackerman fantasizes how a rebellion can occur in the midst of this cauldron of tension and boredom, fear and panic.

The tension is released with some funny lines. When Marcus's assistant, Andrea (Elizabeth Hanly Rice), tells the outspoken Ron to keep a low profile, he replies, "That's sort of difficult for me. I don't have a lot of protective coloration. Predators can find me."

The lifelike set by Dean Taucher aptly recreates a large loft studio, with cameras, lights, a black table on wood trestles, a back office and a tool room. You wouldn't want to work there.[Komisar]

Theater critic Lucy Komisar gives pre-show briefings and post-show discussions for theater parties to enrich playgoers' experiences. She'll also help find an appropriate show and make or advise on arrangements. Interested parties may telephone (212) 929-1610 for information.

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