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Mike Birbiglia, The Illusionists back with their magic; a new play that doesn’t quite do the trick

Mike Birbiglia in his one-man Broadway show “The New One.”
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My main concern in seeing Mike Birbiglia on Broadway was whether the intimate appeal of his previous Off-Broadway outings would translate to a much larger house. I shouldn’t have worried. His latest piece, “The New One,” has taken up residence at the Cort Theater, and it fits with the ease of your favorite jacket.

Birbiglia’s charm has always been his accessibility and wry observational comedy. His subject is usually himself, and his character is always someone at sea in a confusing world. His fans, of which I’m one, have gone through sleepwalking, dating, and now the adventure of parenting. Or, rather the process of becoming a parent.

The first half of the 90-minute show is Birbiglia cataloging all the reasons not to have a child, and the second half is about what happens when the “dreaded” child arrives. Don’t worry; it’s all done with Birbiglia’s combination of affection and bemusement.

The show is wonderfully crafted. It’s as elegantly written as it is performed, and Birbiglia’s specificity with language as well as his timing will keep you grinning — and laughing — throughout. That he can spin such delight out of details of life like a cat, a couch, and a kid is what makes him unique. Birbiglia also looks at the darker side of life, but his take is more a mottled gray than a deep black. His honesty gives substance and context to the lighter material and makes him that most appealing thing to see on the stage — a real human being.

The Illusionists are back in town with a new show through the holidays called, aptly enough, “The Illusionists: Magic of the Holidays.” Combining various styles of magic, the five performers each do their thing, and it’s impressive indeed. Colin Cloud does mentalist tricks. Darcy Oake stages outsized illusions. Chloé Crawford does some very surprising things with household objects. Shin Lim does jaw-dropping card tricks, and Adam Trent serves as emcee and does a variety of styles of tricks. These five are complemented by the seven-member dance group Light Balance that uses costumes trimmed and wired with lights to create wonderful effects as they move. All of this is achieved with a prodigious amount of stagecraft and great good humor.

This is an exceptional family entertainment, but my guess is that even the most jaded New Yorker will enjoy it thoroughly. By the end, if you’re not beaming and enchanted, you are an impressive curmudgeon indeed.

It’s always problematic when a play’s main character never appears on stage. It’s especially dicey when the conversation about the absent character consistently devolves into polemics and reveals lots of surface and virtually no substance about those doing the talking. That’s the problem with “American Son,” now on Broadway.

Christopher Demos-Brown’s play is clearly well-intentioned and designed to shine a light on the personal costs of toxic race relations in today’s culture, particularly when it comes to law enforcement. Set in a police station in Miami, Kendra has shown up at 4 a.m. looking for her son, Jamal, who has gone missing. Kendra, who is black, is also affluent, a psychology professor estranged from her white husband, Scott. At the police station, she is demanding answers, which are in short supply. She condescendingly browbeats Officer Larkin for information, all the more so when he pleads protocol. But when Scott, an FBI agent finally arrives, Larkin sees a fellow officer and bends the rules, prompting Kendra to erupt again. More conflict ensues when Larkin’s superior officer, Lieutenant Stokes, arrives, with Scott and Kendra’s emotions running up against police procedures.

What makes dramatic news coverage doesn’t always make a good play. Demos-Brown’s script is more expository than exploratory, and that leaves little room for much more than a shallow procedural. The playwright also has a penchant for the surprise revelation or the line calculated to get a shocked reaction from a presumed liberal audience. One-liners, however, are not playwriting; they’re provocation that obscures a more substantive examination of the issues at hand. The play is so freighted with topics — a dissolving inter-racial marriage, a son’s quest for identity, the racial combustibility of traffic stops, and issues surrounding life as a privileged black person — that it quickly loses focus. Despite a “discussion guide” tucked into the program, the play itself is overly facile and makes, at best, a superficial contribution to the cultural conversation. By being casually cathartic, it lets the audience off the hook, allowing them to “tut tut” into the night rather than being truly challenged.

Director Kenny Leon and his cast have an uphill battle. Kerry Washington as Kendra is an exponent of the “shout and sniffle” school of acting, her performance swinging between both extremes. Washington can’t make the tricky conflict posed by her character— of being a selfish, resentful woman deserving of our empathy — work. Steven Pasquale as Scott gives a generic performance of a generic white guy. Eugene Lee as Stokes acquits himself adequately in the Greek tragedy messenger role of taking Kendra down a peg or two. Jeremy Jordan is the most interesting to watch. He seems at home in the role of the young, eager Larkin, the most self-aware, if awkward, character in the piece. Larkin has only one intention — to do his job well. If the rest of the play had this simple clarity, it might have been a powerful evening.

THE NEW ONE | Cort Theatre, 138 W. 48th St. | Through Feb. 20: Sun., Tue.-Thu.. at 7:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 3 p.m. | $59-$159 at telcharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Ninety mins., no intermission

THE ILLUSIONISTS: MAGIC OF THE HOLIDAYS | Marquis Theatre, 210 W. 46th St. | Through Dec. 30: Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 11 a.m. & 3 p.m. | $39-$149 at ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000 | Two hrs., 20 mins., with intermission

AMERICAN SON | Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St. | Tue.-Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $69-$169 at telcharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Ninety mins., no intermission

Updated 9:12 am, December 5, 2018
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