Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.

Alix Cohen

The Blind Boys of Alabama -A Cure For What Ails You


Original members of The Blind Boys of Alabama met when they were nine years-old in the children’s chorus at The Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind. First known as “The Happyland Jubilee Singers,” they made their professional debut on June 10, 1944. Next year, they dropped out of school and began touring the gospel circuit. (The name was changed in 1948.) Of the original members, founders Jimmy Carter and Clarence Fountain remain – the latter records, but no longer tours.

Seventy years later, having traversed boundaries of color and disability, The Blind Boys have moved from performing solely at black churches during the Jim Crow era to touring the world, garnering five Grammy Awards plus one for Lifetime Achievement, and performing at The White House. The octogenarians’ deeply felt, uber-energetic, deftly arranged amalgam of gospel meets secular music makes a beeline for the heart, raising spirits wherever it’s heard.

I had never seen the group live before this concert. Members enter single file, hands on shoulders. Each has a chair to which he periodically returns. The show is helmed by founding member Jimmy Carter whose exuberance, were it bottled, could light a town. “We hope we can sing somethin’ that’ll make you feel good tonight.”

“Almost Home” (Randall Bramblett), title song of their most recent CD, opens the program: I’ll always remember that sad day/Thought the world ended when the train pulled away… Carter sings all gravel and grit, left hand keeping time on his thigh. …I went to a school to read and write/It was hard sometimes cause I didn’t have my sight… Many of The Blind Boys secular songs were written for and about them.

Eric “Ricky” McKinnie

“I Can See” by band members Joey Williams and Steve Ray Ladson follows. This song rocks. One member claps, one punches now right now left, one taps a foot, one nods. There’s a howl or two from onstage and some responding “whoo woos” from the audience…sure the road got so hard/I had to totally depend on God…All four sing lead at some point, all sing back-up. Voices are powerful and raw.

John Leventhal joins to perform two songs he authored, “God Knows Everything” (with Marc Cohen) and the highly personal “Let My Mother Live Till I Get Grown” (with Marc Cohen and Jimmy Carter). The first is a gospel march, part sung, intermittently spoken. It’s a deep sigh extended by reverb; an assurance, a celebration. Leventhal’s guitar is sweetly played…He’s always beside me 00,  000…/Every step of the way/God knows whoa whoe/…Everything/That’s what I say/For him I sing/For him I sing/…ending with an undulating high tenor.

The second number expresses Jimmy Carter’s childhood wish not to be abandoned by his mother. (She was 103 years old when she passed.) “The Lord puts nothing on you (he bangs his chest) that you can’t bear.” A solid R & B beat drives here. Bass gets under one’s skin, drums pull, guitar punctuates. Carter stamps.

A country-flavored “Stand By Me” (Charles Tindley) arrives in line-dance tempo provoking all four members to their feet bouncing, bobbing, bending; testifying with sounds. “Uncloudy Day” (J.K. Atwood) also has a western feel albeit with a bit of ragtime influence. One member periodically does a little dance-the kind of thing George Burns used to do where one can imagine vivacious youth but enjoys current insouciant cool…step side to side, hop, hop, slide…

The world is in a bad condition,” Carter comments. We don’t know where we’re headed. No matter how bad things look or seem, remember…One day we’ll live in a world of peace and harmony/Ask me, ask me how I know/God said it, God said it/That’s good enough for me…” Line breaks are mine as they’re undoubtedly unique to each singer. (“God Said It-That’s Good Enough For Me”- Kenneth Gamble/Cecil Womack)

A sorrowful sound introduces “Amazing Grace,” (traditional-arranged by John Chelew) performed in harmony with short phrases. Shades of “House of The Rising Sun.” Keyboard pines. Bass delivers a circular theme. The pithy arrangement is unlike usually melodic renditions. “Somebody out there oughta know somethin’ about amazing grace!” Music quiets. There are moans.

Somewhere in the solar plexus of a joyous, fifteen minute plus tent revival number, Carter gets us up on our feet clapping and dancing in place. Repetition goes on and on, hypnotic as a whirling dervish… Hey, hey, hey, hey/Ha ha ha/Awright, awright…” “Y’all feelin good? This little song is a good song. I don’t know about you but The Blind Boys are here tonight to have a good time!”…”I gotta get up and talk to my musicians. Musicians can I talk to you?” he asks turning his back to us. “I want my bass man to give me a groove…Do you FEEL me?!”, he shouts to the room. Needless to say, the audience responds.

Jimmy Carter Surrounded by Admirers

Later, a similar collective effect rises with the group’s joyous rendition of “Drive” Once again, we’re immersed in sheer thoughtless feeling. “I like to hear you say yeah, yeah, yeah!” Carter is escorted to the edge of the stage where he continues to call out. People from the audience spontaneously go forward to shake his hand or pat is shoulder. A crowd forms. (The music never stops.)

Now they’re running down from the back of the room, wanting to touch, to express gratitude and feel connection. When he rises, people hug. “I feel the heat, I feel the heat!” At the front of the hall, two young girls dance together, then a couple. “Do you feel it?!” A handler tries repeatedly to help Carter back on stage but he slips away again and again walking back and forth on the theater floor like a happy errant child. Finally, he’s retrieved.

The artists exit, but cheering and clapping no one else leaves, they’ll return for an encore. Imagining exhaustion, my companion and I start for the stairs when, unbelievably, they again take the stage. “This is an old Stevie Wonder song we made into a Knoxville song…” It’s “Higher Ground.”

The weight of the world is temporarily lifted.

Photos by Kevin Yatarola.
Opening: Left to Right: Steve Ray Ladson (bass), Paul Beasley, Austin Moore (drums), Jimmy Carter, Eric “Ricky” McKinnie, Joey Williams, Matt Hopkins (keys)

Listen to Alix Cohen talk about reviewing theater on WAT-CAST.

Lincoln Center’s American Songbook presents
The Blind Boys of Alabama:
Jimmy Carter, Eric “Ricky” McKinnie, Paul Beasley and tonight, stepping in for Ben Moore, John Leventhal
Joey Williams-Musical Director/Guitar/Vocals
Matt Hopkins-Keyboard, Steve Ray Ladson-Bass, Austin Moore-Drums
February 16, 2018
The Appel Room – Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall

Deborah Grace Winer – Defined By the Company She Keeps


Author/historian/dramatist and self avowed “show maker,” Deborah Grace Winer owns her grandmother’s 1929 piano. (“Lots of cool people,” some of the best in the business, play it.) Among photos atop the instrument is her younger self with beloved mentor Rosemary Clooney. On the wall behind is a framed copy of “The Ballad of The Shape of Things” a hand written birthday gift from the song’s lyricist Sheldon Harnick. Across the room her sister’s paintings swirl. This is a woman defined by family and the company she keeps.

Deborah, Toba (their mother), and Jessica Winer

“One of the greatest gifts is to wake up in the morning and do something you love surrounded by people who have the same passion and love to create in the same vein… It’s flip side of the professional struggle. I’m a very glass half full person…”

Winer talks with urgency. Thoughts race forward like salmon determined to spawn. Enthusiasm palpably sparks. Longtime fan, author/historian Robert Kimball, whom she asks for advice and information, was instrumental in paving the way to her successful tenure as Artistic Director of 92Y’s Lyrics and Lyricists. He calls her a “cheerleader,” noting she brings out the best in people. (Positivity/can-do attitude is mentioned in every comment made about Winer.) She tenderly remembers Kimball’s being one of the first to telephone congratulations upon seeing her newly published 1990’s book on Dorothy Fields: On the Sunny Side of The Street in Barnes & Noble.

Robert Kimball and Deborah GraceWiner (Photo: Stephen Sorokoff)

“Bob’s work is the gold standard of historical scholarship in our field. He’s extraordinary about recognizing when someone of a younger generation has a passion and talent for understanding this music, nurtures and champions their effort. He does that for me.” There’s no doubt these two would go to the barricades for one another.

Her eyes fix on mine, typifying focus that enables the artist to metaphorically juggle an apple, a hat, and a buzz saw. Conceiving and putting together successful American Songbook concerts/revues requires knowledge, taste, imagination, planning, diplomacy, and tenacity. “My 92Y work taught me to organize lots and lots of moving parts.”

She thinks fast, speaks with confidence, and rhapsodizes about people she esteems as if they were leaders of a common tribe. Were it not self-created, the kind of professional freedom she enjoys might be viewed as a fairytale. Even during her demanding term at 92Y, she remained an independent contractor.

My subject has dedicated herself to illuminating and presenting songs and, in her books, associated talent, from the 1920s through the early 1960s, when popular culture shifted. She’d have loved to have been born early enough to have had her “heyday” in the time of supper clubs and The Golden Age of Broadway.

Deborah Grace Winer, Teenager

As an adolescent, friends listened to rock n’roll while Winer played Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, and musicals on the turntable. A quintessential New York kid growing up on the steps of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, she was raised by “smart set” parents: a mother who’d been a classical piano prodigy and a physician father with interest and friends in theater. Deborah and her sister Jessica (the painter responsible for the mural in Sardi’s upstairs banquet room) were surrounded by the arts.

Winer’s mom “instilled in us that in the world there’s no hierarchy or bureaucratic impediment to accomplishing anything you dream…if you envision it and do the work, there’s no earthly reason you shouldn’t go immediately to the top and sort it out with whoever’s in charge.” Her  dad offered “a philosophical view of people, very measured and insightful…taking people on their own merits and accepting them for who they are.”

Dr. and Mrs. Winer had a subscription to The Metropolitan Opera. When her mother didn’t want to go, one of the girls was escorted as daddy’s date. Deborah’s first exposure occurred at seven years old. The opera was – wait for it – Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. I wonder aloud at her sitting through, leave absorbing the piece. She lightly assures me that having had dinner, they arrived after the performance began and because her father had to be at the hospital early, left before it was over. This happened often. “…so stories often ended happily and we always got a cab.” She smiles. It seems to come easily.

That same year, a friend invited Winer to her first Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof. It was, she says, “tremendously impactful.” Recollected impressions include “visual enormity,” “thrilling theatrical values,” “wonderful dancing,” and “the sound of the pit orchestra.” Curiously, she applies none of these vivid descriptions to years of extravagant opera. Winer filtered everything through songs. She was more stylistically excited by Broadway and old Hollywood musicals. Though she appeared in school plays, even as a child she wanted instead to write them. Her work was produced at school.

Deborah Grace Winer and Jesscia Winer, Apprentices

The Winers spent summers in Westport, Connecticut, a haven for people in the arts. Deborah rounded up neighborhood kids and put on al fresco plays. The Westport Country Playhouse was a short drive and family friend Lucille Lortel’s White Barn Theater just a bike ride down the road. Mrs. Winer asked the impresario to take her daughters and “make’m sweep the stage or something” in order to get theater out of their systems. Like countless other cases, the reverse happened. Winer hastens to tell me that any field was fine with her parents as long as she and her sister “showed verified talent. “

Apprentices Debbie and Jessie got a taste of both grunt work and creative aspects of theater. As “pets” of the barn’s grande dame, they were additionally dressed up (she grimaces slightly) and trotted out to greet audiences. “We were the kids without sun tans, but I got to show Jason Robards where the bathroom was,” she adds nonchalantly. Even as a teen she was never starstruck. “It’s a missing valve.”

Lortel set another example for Winer. “A rich, social woman whose husband wouldn’t let her pursue a career she’d begun as an actress, she loved theater, and though not an intellectual, had an uncanny sense of what was valuable to our time.” Here was an independent, iconoclastic spirit – she sat her audiences like guests at a dinner party and insisted on having submissions read aloud to her – who found a way to participate in the art about which she was passionate.

A history major at Swarthmore, the young woman took every theater course. She and Jessica (also enrolled) were characteristically impatient to create rather than discuss. They began putting on plays and concerts at the campus coffee house. “Reinventing the space, creating our own opportunities to get work up set the template for almost everything in my career.”

After graduation, she was employed at what she cites as her only “real” salaried job, tearing and logging in Metropolitan Opera raffle tickets. No kidding. Winer had been “note-taker, sometime driver and all around resource person” for every show at the Barn directed by Charles P. Maryan. Reading a play by “this bright, enthusiastic young woman” led to his becoming a mentor. He recommended her for an editorial position at Opera News, later directing her Off Broadway play. Ever unorthodox, Winer’s first article, “Kid Sister,” was a profile of Frances Gershwin Godowsky. Making a living as a playwright is extremely difficult. Writing about what she loved, Winer found her way “in.”

“And then I made my way,” she comments mildly. The new graduate wrote for Opera News, The New York Times (she simply sent them a letter pitching an idea), and Town and Country. In 1995, Winer’s play, The Last Girl Singer, was produced Off Broadway by The Women’s Project Theater. (Others would follow.) Stephen Holden of The New York Times opined “…it offers a bracingly cynical view of show business and has some acidic, funny lines…” She was just out of her twenties.

Winer authored four books, the first two with Dennis McGovern, two on her own. Among solo efforts was The Night and The Music, day to day portraits of treasured mentors/ friends Rosemary Clooney, Barbara Cook, and Julie Wilson. Her show based on the vocal virtuosos will be presented during Mabel Mercer Foundation’s October 2018 Cabaret Convention.

Deborah Grace Winer and Rosemary Clooney (Photo: Jessica Daryl Winer)

Meeting Rosemary Clooney was “like lightening striking in a romantic story. We were insanely close. She taught me everything about how to be an artist in this business, how to be true to oneself and build what one thinks is valuable…” Winer shares the example of Clooney’s appearances at New York’s iconic Rainbow Room. “The economics of the job and the vocalist’s expenses meant that inevitably she would barely break even.”

Clooney told Winer it was nonetheless the most important gig of the year because artistically she made it exactly the way she wanted, stellar exposure made it worth the outlay. “It had to do with priorities…” This was a major star “whose psychological and prescription abuse issues along with the arrival of rock n’ roll had reduced her to playing The Holiday Inn in Ventura, California.” Winer notes this would be the show Clooney afterwards took on the road as if it was secondary motivation.

Barbara Cook and Deborah Grace Winer; Deborah Grace Winer and Julie Wilson (Photos: Jessica Daryl Winer)

“Barbara (Cook) was a broad with a great sense of humor… She was grounded…There was nothing world weary about her or namby pamby….She had edge, and fire and temperament… Even when very successful, Barbara kept pinching herself to recognize where she was and what she achieved.”

“Julie Wilson taught me mastery over an audience. She had them in the palm of her hand even when she had no voice left…she was never a worrier… she knew things were out of her control anyway, so whatever happens, happens. Other people knew that too…but they worry all the same – not Julie.”

Lyrics & Lyricists: Songs of The City-Billy Stritch, Klea Blackhurst, Jeffrey Schecter, Leslie Kritzer, Darius De Haas, La Tanya Hall, Deborah Grace Winer (Photo: Stephen Sorokoff)

Having parted with the 92Y hasn’t slowed the artistic director a moment. Her Gershwin program at The Schimmel Center downtown established a relationship there. Great Women Songwriters of The American Songbook began Winer’s collaboration with Feinstein’s/54Below, which will continue with The Classic American Songbook Series on March 27, May 8, and June 17, 2018.

Each of these will feature vocal entertainment bridged by brief anecdote and/or historical narrative riffs. Winer’s philosophy pervades: “I never want the Songbook to have a whiff of nostalgia. Do you go see Traviata and get nostalgic for the 19th century? The material is fresh, vibrant and current. Our first audiences included a bunch of young people.” Some recent and upcoming shows will also be staged at out of state venues. Projects abound. Multitasking is second nature to this seemingly indefatigable woman.

Feinstein’s 54/Below: Great Women Songwriters of The American Songbook – Margo Seibert, Karen Ziemba, Deborah Grace Winer, Kenita Miller, Emily Skinner (Photo: Bruce Cohen)

“I have been in the audience for programs about songwriters produced by Deb Winer and I have performed in such programs. Deb’s affection and respect for songwriters is quite moving to me,” friend/mentor Sheldon Harnick tells me. Ironically Harnick is the lyricist behind her first Broadway experience, a fitting case of aria da capo.

The artist met the famed wordsmith in the early 1990s. “I learn from him almost every moment we spend together, asking for stories about how he wrote this work, or solved that theatrical puzzle, or the ins and outs of collaborating with this or that iconic creative artist.  He is also one of the most deeply principled human beings I’ve ever known…”

Deborah Grace Winer and Sheldon Harnick (Photo Stephen Sorokoff)

Winer absorbs something from every talent with whom she comes in contact. Professional relationships often evolve to friendships. “The biggest blessing is the people in my life.” Her mentors appear to be as outstanding as they are legion. Their presence and devotion is telling.

To Deborah Grace Winer, show making/artistic direction is alchemy, a great adventure, a cause. Watch the horizon.

Deborah Grace Winer at work (Photo: Jessica Daryl Winer)

Opening Photo of Deborah Grace Winer: Jessica Daryl Winer


WAT-CAST: Stacy Sullivan Talks About Her Musical Career


Stacy Sullivan, the seventh of eight children born in Boggy Depot, Oklahoma, is a long way from her geographic roots, but ever faithful to musical underpinnings. An actress and vocalist, Sullivan has performed in churches, musical theater, straight drama, film, television, commercials, concert halls and cabaret venues as well as recording. The artist currently challenges herself creating iconoclastic new shows for the latter two venues and CDs. Alix Cohen talks with Sullivan about her career choices, collaboration, and the future. Click to listen.

Opening Photo: Bill Westmoreland

Stacy Sullivan’s website

Click to buy tickets for Stacy’s show at the Beach Cafe, Saturday, March 17, 2018.

Episode 7: Stacy Sullivan Talks About Her Musical Career


Stacy Sullivan was born into a musical family in Boggy Depot, Oklahoma. She now lives in New York City where she continues to dazzle audiences with her performances, creating new shows that are fresh and exciting. Journalist Alix Cohen, who writes about music and theater, talks with Stacy about her childhood, her musical training, and how she continues to challenge herself with her musical choices.  

An (almost) ALL MALE Production of The Boys From Syracuse — Rollicking!


From the moment one enters the intimate Lion Theatre and sees Joshua Warner’s irreverent Set: the giant, clip art, bulb-lit arrow and graphic pointing hand, a broken arc of stage bulbs, black and white cardboard cut-outs signifying Grecian columns and familiar blue and white Greek coffee shop signage, we know this is no traditional production of The Boys From Syracuse.

Director Jonathan Cerullo’s limber imagination shapes the tuneful 1938 show into a vaudeville meets musical romp cast entirely – but for one-of men!  Just as during the Depression, we need what producer Mel Miller calls “a knock-about comedy.” With songs like “Falling In Love With Love,” “This Can’t Be Love,” and “Sing For Your Supper,” to carry one along, the experience is thoroughly enjoyable.

Matt Dengler and Ian Fairlee (Ephesus)

Successfully executing this kind of daft, precision humor in a matter of a mere three weeks is something of a marvel. Ethan Steimel’s scrupulous Lighting Design aides and abets freeze-frames and a waka-waka Harpo horn which punctuates ba-dump-dump moments – not one held too long. The small stage is artfully occupied from the band on a balcony, up and down various ladders, and onto the theater floor by a predominantly talented and entirely game company. Let the shindig begin!

The story, as you may recall, involves two sets of twins separated during a shipwreck seven years ago and mishaps that occur when they all unknowingly find themselves in the city of Ephesus. At the top of the show, the local Duke (Shavey Brown) condemns Aegeon (Jody Cook) to death for being a citizen of Syracuse unable to pay a tithe. Aegeon is father to one set of twins (the other set is their servants). He’s searching for his sons.

Matthew Fairlee and Josh Walden (Syracuse)

Twin Antipholus of Ephesus (Matt Dengler) long ago gave his parents up for dead. He and servant Dromio of Ephesus (Ian Fairlee) live well. The master has a loving wife – Adriana (Jonathan Hoover), and willing mistress, head courtesan of a neighboring brothel (Sam Given). Dromio is married to kitchen maid Luce (Adam B. Shapiro – an inspired piece of physical casting albeit with apparent talent quotient.) Also in their household is Adriana’s sister Luciana (Darrell Marris Jr.).

When Antipholus of Syracuse (Josh Walden) and his servant Dromio-of Syracuse (Matthew Fairlee – yes, the actor servants are real twins) arrive in town, the two are immediately mistaken for their doppelgangers by a tailor, a merchant, the head courtesan (Sam Given), local constabulary, and Antipholus of Ephesus’s household. The hapless Syracusians are even pressed into spending a night with their brothers’ spouses. Realizing it’s unsafe to remain, the visitors plan to return home when Antipholus of Syracuse falls in love with Luciana. Got all that? Believe me, it’s clear as you’re watching.

Matt Dengler, Jose Luaces, Shavey Brown holding Ian Fairlee

Both Antipholuses – Matt Dengler (Ephesus) and Josh Walden (Syracuse) are triple threats. They act, sing, and dance well. Both are adroit with comic timing. Whether planned or not Dengler’s more naturalistic acting beside Walden’s somewhat more broad, music hall delivery works wonderfully further distinguishing the two. (Walden could easily play Jolson.) Thespians worth following.

The Dromios, Ian Fairlee (Ephesus) and his brother Matthew Fairlee (Syracuse) are funny, credibly innocent, and physically adept.

Adam B. Shapiro is marvelous as Luce. The performer stakes claim to the stage without going over a prescribed top (mugging is skilled). A big man, he’s light on his feet, deft with a look, playful; in context – believable. And he sings!

Sam Given

Jonathan Hoover makes the most of Adriana with female bearing, movement, and reactions that serve the production admirably. Darrell Marris Jr.’s Luciana is palpably wide-eyed, soft, and besotted. Sam Given’s sinuous Courtesan is aptly sassy but pushes it to abrasive.

Creative Directorial moments include in part: the tale of the shipwreck told in puppet cut-outs, shadowplay, searching the audience for “an honest man,” an unexpected, hat and cane soft shoe, spoken sound effects, clever acknowledgement of lyrics ahead of their time, tongue-in-cheek, synchronized movement, well engineered fisticuffs… Jonathan Cerullo keeps his cast taut and quick, almost none of them self conscious about farce. Staging is aesthetically appealing and fluid, choreography fun; vivacious high spirits sustained.

A scene where courtesans show their “wares” seems less well thought out and the third reprise of a wonderful, harmonized rendition of “Sing For Your Supper” might ditch its blazers and fedoras.

Adam B. Shapiro, Darrell Marris Jr., Jonathan Hoover

Hope Salvan’s Costumes intentionally have that rummaged from trunks in an attic aspect. Antipholuses and Dromios look swell. Luce resembles a splendid, lavender-wigged Raggedy Anne. I can’t say I understand sporting jeans underneath dresses and courtesan drapery. Use footless leggings if you need cover. Being tentative with sexual designation works against the preposterous credence of the production.

Also featuring: Joseph Scott Holt, Jose Luaces, Elliott Mattox.
The production’s token and completely extraneous female, actress Madeline Hamlet, wears a “The Future Is Female” t-shirt and mostly speaks in irritating squeaks. I would encourage the role dropped in any revivals.

The Band: Cupid & The Arrows– Evan Rees—Conductor/keyboard, Michael Bagby-second keyboard, Matt Watson-drums/percussion, Joseph Scott Holt- cello/violin/percussion

This is Musicals Tonight’s 98th revival of an American musical. It deserves our support.

Photos by Milliron Studios Photography
Opening: The Company

Musicals Tonight! presents
An (almost) ALL MALE production of
The Boys From Syracuse
Adapted from Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors
Libretto- George Abbot
Music- Richard Rodgers; Lyrics- Lorenz Hart
Directed by Jonathan Cerullo
Music Director/Conductor- Evan Rees
The Lion Theatre
410 West 42nd Street
Through February 26, 2018
NEXT: Anything Goes- February 27-March 11, 2018

Listen to Alix Cohen talk about reviewing theater on WAT-CAST.

Time Stands Still – Is She Bearing Witness or an Adrenaline Junkie?


Sarah (Nancy Nagrant), an internationally known photographer, arrives home leg in a cast, arm in a sling, with face badly scratched, having been caught by a roadside bomb on assignment in Iraq. (Nagrant moves in credible sync with painful infirmity.) She’s been “collected” by longtime partner, James (John Long), a freelance journalist who had left for the states earlier in the throes of shellshock. “The eagle has landed.”

Ross DeGraw, Assol Abdullina, Nancy Nagrant

Concerned friend/editor Richard (Ross DeGraw) comes to visit. Instead of an intimate reunion, however, Sarah and James are additionally faced with Richard’s new, much younger, sweet, but decidedly simple girlfriend, Mandy (Assol Abdullina).  An events planner, the girl has brought helium balloons that say “Get Well” and “Welcome Home.” “I’m into events too,” quips Sarah, “wars, famine, genocide.” You can almost hear an audible “ouch.”

Two of Sarah’s three cameras survived the explosion. Photos are harrowing. Richard suggests a book. James can write the text for Sarah’s chronicle – but can he do it without being affected by her secret? Looking over shoulders, Mandy is aghast. “Why didn’t you help them instead of taking a picture?! Sarah protests she was helping. “…otherwise who would know, who would care…?”

Nancy Nagrant, John Long, Ross DeGraw, Assol Abdullina

During the exchange, it’s clear the photographer can’t wait to get back where the action is. James is appalled. After eight and a half years, he was hoping her lengthy coma would bring Sarah to her senses; that they would finally stay put, marry, and have a family. She agrees to the ceremony, but…

This insightfully written, articulate play pits bearing witness against trying to actively help. Sarah could’ve volunteered for the Red Cross, but that’s not where her talent lies. Doesn’t someone have to bring atrocity to public attention? What about motivation? Is Sarah sacrificing her safety in order to remind people of moral imperative or is danger like a drug she’d have to secure elsewhere were she not a war correspondent? Like many in the situation, she feels most alive when challenging death.

Nancy Nagrant

The company is all very good. Each actor creates distinctive bearing, movement, and speech. Both couples silently communicate.

Director Jerry Heymann has a keen eye for subtle moments and nuanced timing. He invisibly brackets tension and sarcasm, utilizes watchfulness as often as gesture and approaches the piece without judgment. Small signals reveal – ie., when one of two bicycles leans against the wall instead of hanging.

Brian Dudkiewicz’s Apartment Set is appealingly personalized.

The only thing wrong with visuals is that, as manifest, Mandy’s swaddled baby is too small to be anything but a hospital preemie. (Props-Stephanie Gonzalez)

Like minded drama: David Hare’s 1978 play Plenty (opening in New York – 1982) centers on Susan Traherne, a former special agent in Nazi-occupied France who finds it impossible to adjust to boring, morally bankrupt, civilian life.

2013’s film 1000 Times Good Night stars Juliette Binoche as a highly lauded photographer felled by a Middle Eastern bomb, returning to a husband (and family) who will no longer endure her life being risked.

Time Stands Still premiered in February 2009 in Los Angeles. The 2010 Broadway production was nominated for three Tony Awards.

Photos by Hunter Canning
Opening: Nancy Nagrant and John Long

New Light Theater Project presents
Time Stands Still by Donald Margulies
Directed by Jerry Heymann
13th Street Repertory Company  
50 West 13th Street
Through February 24, 2018

Listen to Alix Cohen talk about reviewing theater on WAT-CAST.

In The Body of The World – Yours and Mine


“… I have been exiled from my body. I was ejected at a young age and I got lost. For years I have been trying to find my way back to my body, and to the earth.” Sounds poetic, doesn’t it, rather like the neopagan goddess movement? In fact, author/actress/activist Eve Ensler’s journey lead her past family and marital abuse, through indulgence of alcohol, drugs, and sexual promiscuity to a liquor, drug and smoke free, physically active, vegetarian existence, albeit maintaining “lots of sex.” Ensler hastens to show she’s struggling, fallible, one of us.

Ensler is an evangelist. She believes women (read humanity) capable of the kind of enlightened activism that respectfully nurtures both our bodies and earth – where they reside; one that supports, defends, connects and celebrates. If we neither turn away nor harm, are courageous and willing she posits, there’s hope. One can only admire the example she sets.

In 2010, on the verge of opening City of Joy, an African healing sanctuary for women who experienced unspeakable violence, Ensler discovered she had uterine cancer. The disease  “… threw me into the center of my body’s crisis. The Congo threw me into the crisis of the world, and these two experiences merged as I faced what I felt sure was the beginning of the end.” (Ensler wonders whether she brought it on herself and if her trial is meant to teach.) It’s this two headed experience she shares. While her other plays featured the voices of many women, this one is markedly personal; highly specific and starkly raw. She stands before us naked from breast to soul.

The show includes grim details, but is pointedly not a deluge of suffering. Extremely deft, Ensler weaves humor (gallows and otherwise) through her story like a couturier. Her stay at The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, aka “Tumor Town,” is often wryly described. Seen in the recovery room, she peeks beneath a blanket as if observing what remains after the surgeons’ excavation. Having to rate pain verges on one of David Letterman’s lists. “How’d I get it?!” Ensler muses, “…was it tofu… marriage failure…bad reviews…not being breastfed… Tab-oh my God, I drank so much Tab…”

Between treatments, telephone conversations with a Congolese woman named Angelique about difficulties with the African project (the grisly history and determination of those women is startling), and her own mother’s bout with cancer, helped keep Ensler from imploding. The first are frustrating, angering, energizing; the second debilitating, moving, and finally healing.

We hear about her alienated past, lengthy communion with a tree when she lacked strength for anything else, selfless volunteers, deep friendships, a birthday party in the hospital that sounds like Woodstock before the mud, and “things not to think about on day four of chemo: garbage-where does it go…the disappearance of bees…and if you’re in chemo now, Kellyann Conway…” When was the last time you stood and danced in front of your seat at theater?!

Ensler could easily have died. Instead, the artist persevered, enduring physical and emotional challenges few of us will ever face. (She’s fine.) That she kneaded pain, enfeeblement, and fear into recommitment to galvanizing humanitarianism is a case of making maggot occupied lemons into lemonade. I don’t mean to sound frivolous. This is a woman who found her deeper self in a foxhole, emerging grateful for the sun above and warm earth round her corporal form. Refusing pedestals, Eve Ensler inspires awareness and encourages participation. Off stage, she gives great hugs.

In The Body of The World is both powerful and entertaining; beautifully written in fluid vignettes and marvelously acted. One forgets Eve Ensler is also a highly skilled performer.

Director Diane Paulus, known for coordinating a stage full of thespians, here illuminates the heart and intention of her sole actress as masterfully as she manages stagecraft. Gestures can shock or amuse. Manipulation is invisible. Pacing is perfect.
Jill Johnson is credited with additional movement, so well integrated, it’s organic.

Transitions are ably effected through splendid, symbiotic Lighting Design by Jen Schriever, infectious Sound Design by M.L. Dogg and Dam Lerner, and Finn Ross’s superbly artful and illustrative projections. Scenic and Costume Design by Myung Hee Cho are aesthetically appealing, original, and, at the finale exuberantly fitting.

If you’ve been living under a rock, Eve Ensler’s “The Vagina Monologues” erupted Off Broadway in 1996, then spread worldwide establishing a new standard for frank discussion of women’s sexuality. It helped birth the anti-violence organization V-Day and then a sanctuary for rape victims in the Congo called City of Joy. Her memoir In the Body of the World was released on April 30, 2013.

Photos by Joan Marcus

Manhattan Theatre Club presents
In The Body of The World  Written and Performed by Eve Ensler
Directed by Diane Paulus
City Center Stage 1  
131 West 55th Street

Listen to Alix Cohen talk about reviewing theater on WAT-CAST.

The Chekhov Dreams – Derivative, But Often Fun


John McKinney’s play is ½ Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, ¼ Woody Allen’s Play It Again Sam and ¼ that of the playwright. Still, it zips along with contemporary spin offering ample whimsy, romance, a dash of darkness, and some clever literary dialogue. It’s not without entertainment value, has an attractive cast, and is likely very marketable.

Dana Watkins and Elizabeth Inghram

Aspiring writer Jeremy (Dana Watkins) lost his beloved wife Kate (Elizabeth Inghram) in a car crash three years ago…or at least her corporeal form. She regularly visits him (first in dreams, later waking) engaging in playful banter and apparently sex. A depressed hermit since her passing, he’s unable to work on his psychological/ fantasy novella and has no inclination to do much of anything else. As long as she’s “there…”

Impelled by good hearted, thoroughly dissipate brother Eddie (Christian Ryan) to get back out in the world, Jeremy joins an acting class. Assigned partner Chrissy (Charlotte Stoiber) is gung-ho about their doing a scene from Anton Chekhov’s Seagull, an author Jeremy abhors. Like many young actresses, she’s always wanted to play the ingénue Nina. Jeremy would be Boris Trigorin, a much older, famous writer with whom Nina becomes entangled. Enter the dandified spectre of Chekhov (Rik Walter) to advise and provoke. (Humphry Bogart – and later Sigmund Freud in the Woody Allen.)

Christian Ryan and Dana Watkins

Later, Kate will parallel Chekhov’s jealous Irina Arkadina, longtime lover of Trigorin. (In Blithe Spirit, dead wife Elvira is pitted against live love interest/wife Ruth.) Jeremy is confused and torn. Things come to a head too dramatically with too little incitement somewhat out of sync with the rest of the play.

Dana Watkins and Rik Walter

Dana Williams’s Jeremy often looks as innocently embarrassed as a Frank Capra character, especially where sexual innuendo is concerned. The playwright seems to have one foot in each of two eras. Williams is, however, all of a piece and sweetly appealing.

As Eddie, Christian Ryan plays indolent hedonist with low key gusto. He’s slick, wryly self aware, and palpably high with every word and move. Able performance, fun to watch.

Director Leslie Kincaid Burby employs the length and breadth of her stage with great naturalism. Playfulness and seduction are completely credible. Crissy’s squealing could be toned down – she’s a bit too adolescent. Her Seagull preparation, however, is priceless. Kate is lovely at the start, but grows increasingly irritating and obviously false as the play progresses. Charm would have made what occurs easier to swallow. Chekhov’s accent may be Hollywood Russian, but it works in context. The actor’s bearing and phrasing are grand.

Christina Giannini’s Costumes for Kate are uniformly awful. A succession of white dresses is old fashioned and unflattering, supposedly erotic apparel looks like a Rockette, her really cheap-looking Russian ensemble appears to feature a bath rug as cape and aluminum foil hat… Contemporary clothes are fine as is Chekhov’s suit.

Scott Aronow’s Scenic Design offers a winning, impressionistic dreamscape reminiscent of Chagall and apartment walls (with alas, little personality) that smoothly revolve between here and the afterlife.

Photos by Arin Sang-urai
Opening: Elizabeth Inghram, Dana Watkins, Charlotte Stoiber

The Chekhov Dreams by John McKinney
Directed by Leslie Kincaid Burby
The Beckett Theater&nbsp
410 West 42nd Street
Through February 17, 2018

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