The fragile, fragmented story of a lesbian couple’s 25-year relationship is the focus of Tanya Barfield’s “Bright Half Life,” now at the Women’s Project. Told in overlapping scenes, which the playwright describes as “kaleidoscopic,” we see the relationship from inception to dissolution to a kind of resolution. The clarity and the economy of the writing takes us into the world and hearts of Erica and Vicky. “Bright Half Life” brilliantly balances details like the couple’s ability to get married and their parenting life full of skydiving and Ferris wheel rides with other ups and downs in a story of two people struggling to make a life together.
Barfield set a high bar for herself in structuring the play as fast-pace vignettes that flash like piecemeal memories before the audience — an approach that in less sure hands could be muddy and confusing. Here, every moment of the relationship is crystal clear, and under the direction of Leigh Silverman, every moment lands and resonates, accumulating over a swift 60 minutes to be a surprisingly detailed chronicle of Erica and Vicky’s relationship. Rachel Holmes as Vicky and Rebecca Henderson as Erica are extraordinary in managing the lightning-fast transitions while giving their characters the depth that makes us care for them and their relationship at every turn, from hilarious mattress shopping to more poignant and painful passages.
Rachel Hauck’s spare, metallic set, Jennifer Schriever’s lighting, and Bart Fasbender’s sound design are all essential elements of this production’s success in telling a simple, powerful, and touching tale.
With the beautifully crafted, perfectly cast, and elegantly staged revival of Ferenc Molnár’s “Fashions for Men,” the Mint Theater delivers a charming and deliciously entertaining evening, among the best you’ll find on stage to warm this biting winter.
Dorothy Parker in her review of the original 1922 production was so irritated by this story of a good man who, surrounded by connivers, ultimately prevails, that she wished a piece of heavy scenery to fall on the main character. Parker, however, made a career of being acidic, and in 2015, with the world perhaps too full of grifters and manipulators, this gentle, well-crafted story is a hopeful counterbalance, if not an antidote, to the venality and corruption around us. This neatly constructed tale brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s observation, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is the meaning of fiction.” It’s also the nature of escapist entertainment — and why we enjoy it so much.
Set in downtown Budapest in the early part of the 20th century amidst Hungary’s emerging middle class, the story concerns a young shop owner, Peter, whose fatal flaw is his compassion for others and his insistence on always doing the right thing, even when that goes against his self-interest. Through various twists and turns, he loses his shop, regains it, and when the curtain falls may be on the way to a happy ending. The story’s comic warmth comes, in large measure, from how maddening Peter’s goodness is to the morally bankrupt around him.
Molnár crafted this play so well that it’s difficult to tell if he considers Peter a fool or not. That’s for you to decide, but I’m willing to air my dissent from Ms. Parker’s scorn. Peter’s consistent humanity in the face of adversity — implausible as it might seem — is appealing. And without the willing suspension of disbelief, who would ever enjoy the theater?
Davis McCallum has directed with clarity and sensitivity and manages to make this period piece feel immediate and contemporary. The sets by Daniel Zimmerman and costumes by Martha Hally are wonderfully rich. The cast is likewise tremendous. Joe Delafield as the put-upon Peter is charming and believable. Rachel Napoleon as Paula, a manipulator who can’t overcome her inherent goodness, delivers a deceptively rich performance. Kurt Rhoads as the Count who woos Paula and has no patience with what he sees as Peter’s angelic nature, has perfect comic timing to complement his bombast. The supporting cast all play recognizable comic types, and they do that with originality and precision.
“John & Jen,” Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald’s 1993 song cycle, is being revived by Keen Company. The only rational response is, “Why?” The story of a brother and sister and later a mother and son is a tedious celebration of neurosis and narcissism with a healthy dose of co-dependency thrown in just for good measure. Act One is all about a brother and sister, John and Jen, growing up in the 1950s in an abusive household and pledging to support one another. They grow apart, Jen becomes bohemian, and John is killed in Vietnam.
Wake up; there’s more. In Act Two, Jen is divorced and has a son named John and a pathological devotion to her brother’s memory that cripples her son. Were each of the events in these stories not so trite or obvious, this might work — as another song cyle, “The Last Five Years,” does so well — but instead it is obvious and heavy-handed. Lippa’s music is opaque and mechanical and Greenwald’s lyrics are, at best, immature.
Happily, the production is partially salvaged by fine performances from Kate Baldwin and Conor Ryan. These truly gifted and masterful singers salve the wounds inflicted by this self-indulgent piece. Ryan, in particular, has a range and technique that is consistently impressive. Both actors deserve much better, as do audiences.
BRIGHT HALF LIFE | Women’s Project at New York City Center, 131 W. 55th St. | Through Mar. 22: Tue.-Sat. at 7:30 p.m., Sat.-Sun. at 3:30 p.m. | $65 at nycitycenter.org or 212-581-1212 | One hr., no intermission
FASHIONS FOR MEN | Mint Theater, 311 W. 43rd St. | Through Mar. 29: Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat at 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m. | $27.50-$65 at ovationtix.com or 866-811-4111 | Two hrs., 40 mins., with two intermissions
JOHN & JEN | Keen Company at the Clurman, 410 W. 42nd St. | Through Apr. 4: Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $69.25 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., with intermission