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Curtain Call

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BLACKBIRD If you can arrange a ticket and show up in time for the curtain, chances are you’re in better shape than our heroes, Baylis, an injured, chain smoking, whiskey guzzling Gulf War vet and his girlfriend Froggie, a teen-age junkie runaway lap dancer who’s never heard of the “Golf” War. Baylis has to tell her the Persian Gulf is a bay. We learn that her doctor dad plays golf in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, which it turns out was the site of her private war. To say she has survived offers negligible insight. The writing is drenched in this grab-tag style and the tone, the best thing about “Blackbird,” relies on contrasting poverty, illness, drug addiction, and prostitution––which the author and we, by virtue of being “the audience,” ostensibly find sordid––with safety, comfort, connection, good health and love (or goodness at least). The love between these two wanderers is of the sweet and cute variety. McNally’s 1987 love story is seen as a prayer for the possibility of romantic love in the age of AIDS. In contrast, Baylis and Froggy feel like inhabited corpses after separate wars they have lost—they sense the pull toward love, but we know from the get-go they are really more driven toward death. Somewhat unbelievably, the dope and booze has not numbed the sensitivity Froggy and Baylis have after shell shocked lives. Chaste, impotent and yes, co-dependent, the two do love each other at least within the context of their prison-like sanctuary. Froggy wants to “be snow” and Baylis is “tired of living like a god-damned toddler.” But we know he would sacrifice everything for her and she says, “I’d marry you because you’re good at telling me what to do.” This is real Tarzan/Jane territory, without the hormones. There’s a dollop of Stockholm Syndrome here as well, just for crunch. The Blue Heron Theater, 123 E. 24 St., 212 868 444. (A. Sichel)

MATCH Can a lifetime of anguish be “healed” in a moment? How often do we get to look at the consequences of the choices we didn’t take? What happens when we accept responsibility for our own lives? These questions provide the thoughtful undercurrent to the splendid new mystery/co­medy/drama “Match,”. Because the plot turns on a mystery, giving away too much might spoil the fun. However, what can be revealed is that the story concerns Tobi Powell, a 62-year-old dancer who has devoted his life to traveling, performing, teaching, and indulging himself in many and varied sexual escapades. He is the archetype of the affected, artistic character who has devoted his life to his work—and himself––and by all appearances achieved if not fame exactly, then a kind of mature, if self-centered, contentment. His is a life that for all its public nature has not, it seems, let another person get too close, at least not beyond sex. That is the consequence of his choices, and Toby accepts and embraces them. This solipsistic equanimity is challenged when he receives a visit from a young couple, Mike and Lisa Davis. Ostensibly they are there to interview Tobi for Lisa’s graduate thesis on the dance community in New York in the late 1950s. Yet as the questions go on, Tobi realizes that this is a canard (as mystery writers like to say), and in time, we see not just the real motivation for the visit but three lives laid bare and new choices that must be made. The play ends with a moment that questions what the truth of the situation really is—and what truth really means in the final analysis. It’s a fine bit of work in which the moments never seem “played” but rather fluidly and transparently unfold balancing inviting ease with some real “thriller” moments. Plymouth Theater, 236 W. 45th St., 212 239 6200. (C. Byrne)

TWENTIETH CENTURY Long before television sitcoms co-opted silly plots, stock characters, and cheesy jokes, a whole class of plays served up predictable comedies that strove to do nothing but entertain. Certainly, “Twentieth Century” by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, currently getting a delicious revival, is in this vein—perhaps archetypically so. Skewering the over-the-top antics of egomaniacal show folk, dealing with every twist and turn of life as if it were epic drama, is a tried and true formula. In 1932, the play’s first production allowed the theatrical cognoscenti an unwaveringly amusing opportunity to sneer at movies as the tawdry artistic stepchild of the theater. (Pronounced with three syllables, please.) Add a couple of self-deprecating marquee names poking fun at their own stardom and some fabulous clothes and you’ve got the perfect mix for delightfully frivolous entertainment.

That’s certainly what you’ll find in the current revival of “Twentieth Century” starring Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche. The Twentieth Century Limited is a train that makes the trip from Chicago to New York in 16 hours. During that time, struggling theatrical producer Oscar Jaffe must convince his former protégé and lover-turned-screen siren, Lily Garland, to return to him as actress and lover. Only with Lily’s signature on a contract can Oscar hold off the bill collectors. Oscar and Lily are two towering figures spitefully fending off rightful assaults to their egos. With deceit, cajoling, manipulation and innumerable “life or death” fabrications, Lily and Oscar spar while everyone around them gets caught in the crossfire until the story reaches its inevitable happy ending. American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., 212 719 1300. (C. Byrne)

FROM DOOR TO DOOR James Sherman’s new play is a warmly lyrical family drama played out through the experiences and interactions of three generations of Jewish women. It’s also an exploration of how culture and religion shape an individual’s experiences, at times creating neuroses. The writing is so gently heartfelt and the three performances so beautifully rendered that this play is like a walk down a familiar path bathed in a different light. For all its familiarity, “From Door to Door” is nonetheless a novel take on the interplay of recognition and disconnection. The play begins in 1939 but the experiences of the women reach back further, such as Bessie, the oldest character, who remembers escaping the pogroms of the late 19th century in Russia and coming to New York where she raised her daughter Mary. Mary in turned raised a daughter, Deborah, and the action of the play takes place in different times with each woman appearing both as mother and daughter at different times. Along the way, we learn that each harbors secrets and that each has sacrificed, and we see the elemental power of family bonds dictating life choices. Sherman captures the different rhythms and forms of expression of each of the three generations he portrays. The use of Yiddish in everyday speech is one of the metaphors in his script, and Bessie liberally sprinkles her English with Yiddish, Mary does less so though she understands the language, and Deborah works hard just to understand it. Simplistic, perhaps, but the communication feels consistently real and underscores how families speak to one another over the generations, giving the play a wonderful sense of intimacy. Sherman is also an economical writer whose repeating images of making cabbage soup, attending weddings, and unpacking the car create the bittersweet sense of the world as it changes and evolves. Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43 St., 212 239 6200. (C. Byrne)

MY KITCHEN WARS Few other rooms in the house have the associations of a kitchen: food, unity, how we express ourselves. So the kitchen is the perfect, albeit inevitable, setting for the new play “My Kitchen Wars,” adapted and performed as a one-woman show by Dorothy Lyman from Betty Fussell’s book of the same name. It tells the story of Fussell’s growth and emergence as a fully realized, independent woman from a post-World War II wife and mother who chafed against her assigned role as cook and caregiver, yet did them anyway with all her heart. Fussell, however, finds her liberation not by abandoning the kitchen with which she had become comfortable, but through it—allowing, against many odds, her inner artist and writer to find a voice and a truth. For baby boomers whose mothers always seemed so together and, well, perfect, the play is a peak under the veneer of that myth and becomes a heartfelt and deeply moving portrait of one woman, who clearly reflects many of her peers. For a gay audience, the play is especially moving as it provides a complex and evocative vision of the costs of living in a repressive culture. By virtually sitting with Betty in her kitchen, one both knows this woman and understands her on a personal level. From her first childhood experience to a celebration of eating alone, Betty’s journey is a process of discovery, surrender, choice, and hope. Betty is wonderful because she is not perfect. She is compulsive and frightened, risk-taking, and conservative, struggling to fit a mold, only to find that she is the mold. The scenes are punctuated with songs from cabaret artist Melissa Sweeney. It’s a deft touch. Sweeney is a lovely performer, perfectly in tune with the energy of the piece. This is such a sweet, honest, and compelling piece, the only regret you’ll have is that you won’t get to share Betty’s meal—like the rest of the production it looks perfectly done. 78 St. Theatre Lab, 212 868 4444. (C. Byrne)

JOHNNY GUITAR Cult classics work because they appeal, in an ironic “wink-wink” manner, to the audience’s intelligence. Beneath the artifice of the best camp are sociopolitical and psychosexual complexities. So it is with Nicholas Ray’s 1954 cow-chick flick, “Johnny Guitar,” in which McCarthyism and repressed queer longing boil beneath the Technicolor surface of a Western stewpot. When you cast Joan Crawford as gun-totin’ whore-turned-entrepreneur Vienna (even her name evokes Freud), you’re bound for subversive fun. Add desert-dry Sterling Hayden as Johnny Guitar, drifter-fighter-strummer-lover, and underappreciated (and recently deceased) Mercedes McCambridge as Vienna’s blatant nemesis/latent admirer stoking a catfight of Shakespearean dimensions, and you’ve cooked up some rich kitsch. Not that audiences of the time appreciated it. As title singer Peggy Lee noted in a recent PBS biography, the flick was a flop. However 50 years of hindsight and a light touch do the material happy justice in a new musical adaptation. Playing opposite the epic sweep of the 1950s back lot, the era’s excess of extras, its bleeding celluloid, and Crawford’s bug-eyed charisma, director Joel Higgins––who wrote the lyrics and, with Martin Silvestri, the music––has pared this production down to its comic essentials. Judy McLane––in a short Crawford wig that lends her beauty a soft butch edge––is Vienna, the tough-as-nails tramp gone straight who, having “exchanged… confidences” with the railroad’s engineers, has invested in a saloon in anticipation of the Iron Horse’s arrival. Ann Crumb is Emma, a crazed little whip of a woman who owns the bank and most of the land in this part of New Mexico. She ostensibly hates Vienna, not only because her power is threatened by the town’s newest diva, but because she’s in love with Vienna’s suitor, the Dancin’ Kid (Robert Evan). When a stagecoach is held up and Emma’s brother is killed, she blames the Dancin’ Kid and Vienna and promises revenge. Meanwhile, a handsome stranger has come to town, absent guns but armed with a guitar slung across his back. He’s Johnny Guitar, aka the “gun-crazy” Johnny Logan (Steve Blanchard), Vienna’s estranged lover, hired by her “for protection” but hoping to get back into her chaps. There’s a bank robbery, a lynch mob, arson, a mountain hideout, some hardboiled lovin’ and a clawing, biting she-brawl denouement. The cast knows their audience. In the 21st century, even a house filled with middle aged straight couples chuckles good-naturedly at the “homotextual” undertones of moments like when a male saloon worker says to Johnny, “That’s a lot of man you’re carrying in those boots, stranger.” If it’s all a little reductive and a lot silly, who cares? The tunes are toe-tappers, and the cast is having such a good time that the audience can’t help but enjoy themselves. Century Center, 111 E. 15th St., 212 239 6200. (E. Andrews)

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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