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.

Hannah Cabell

Men On Boats: Historical Fiction with Vitality and Insidious Humor


Inspired by the government sanctioned Powell Geographic Expedition of 1869 which charted the Green and Colorado Rivers into Grand Canyon, Jaclyn Backhaus’s enormously imaginative, humor-peppered melodrama puts us among a group of men who endured hardship, hunger, loss, and life threatening challenges to produce the first cartography and descriptions of the area.

The Company

Of the ten who began, only Powell and five others reached journey’s end. One, having had enough, left earlier at an Indian Agency of his own volition and three were lost (assumed to be killed by Indians) when they abandoned camp sure they’d never make it. One of three 21’x 4’ oak-made boats was splintered. The fourth was smaller and made of pine. Named for Powell’s wife, it was equipped with a strap he could clutch with his left hand to maintain balance while standing on deck. We know what occurred from the naturalist’s published work.

The piece is cast entirely with women who lower their voices, walk, and stand eschewing feminine traits. None of this, I’m happy to report, feels exaggerated or false. To a person, the actors play it straight.

Kristen Sieh, Kelly McAndrew, Donnetta Lavinia Grays

Members of the group include, as they did originally, John Wesley Powell (Kelly McAndrew), an experienced rafter and subsequent professor who lost an arm in the Civil War; his brother Walter, here nicknamed Old Shady for childhood reasons, who sings the occasional spontaneous, barely tolerated ditty (Elizabeth Kenny) ; John C. Sumner (Donnetta Lavinia Grays) a rough-hewn professional guide; Oramel G. Howland (Hannah Cabbell) and brother Seneca Howland (Danaya Esperanza)- the former a printer and hunter, the latter a mountain man; hunter/trapper William H. Dunn (Kristen Sieh): “I don’t do omens, I do forethought”;  mountain man William R. Hawkins (Jocelyn Hioh) who acted as $1.50 a day cook; 19 year-old Andy Hall (Danielle Davenport) allowed along for rowing skills; George Y. Bradley (Layla Ksoshnoudi) who was present in exchange for an army discharge; and Frank Goodman (Birgit Huppuch), a British gentleman adventurer. None had whitewater experience.


Brigit Huppoch, Danielle Davenport, Donnetta Lavinia Grays, Jocelyn Bioh

We learn about right-to-name rules and rituals (the playwright shows this as a credible thrill, also managing to insert a sentence in which the explorers summarily dismiss any previous Indian naming), observe resourceful acquisition of edibles (Goodman’s experience catching “fishies” is charming while Hawkins’s quick-witted kill of a snake actually startles), watch portage, cliff skimming, the loss of a boat and supplies, and rising tensions. Affinities become allegiances when things get tougher and men risk their lives for one another. One particularly harrowing deliverance is accomplished with a pair of pants! It’s a broad, well drawn picture studded with practical details and relationship nuance. Just wait for the wry Indians!

Donnetta Lavinia Grays, Kelly McAndew, and Kristen Sieh and the cast of MEN ON BOATS, Photo by Elke Young(1)

Donnetta Lavinia Grays, Kelly McAndew, Kristen Sieh

Men On Boats feels immersive. (No, the audience doesn’t actually participate.) Time spent navigating treacherous water is immensely vivid. “

Pull…Pull, almost there…One more time! and…Line Pull Pull…Almost to the- Clear! We’re out!…Clear…There!…Watch the Wall!…OH SHIT!” they all shout in trenchant unison, moving in tight units, swaying, turning, dipping, and tumbling as currents and rapids threaten survival.  Temporarily free of underlying danger, one shouts “Oooooo, I love it when there’s no rocks!” as if on a benign roller coaster.

Hand-held, two-sided boat bows simulate vessels. Aisles are selectively employed to great effect as are the hidden doorways of Arnulfo Maldonado’s evocative, three-sided photographic Set. And I’ve never ever seen rope put to such mercurial and creative stage use.

Danielle Davenport, Hannah Cabell, Layla Khoshnoudi, Jocelyn Bioh, Elizabeth Kenny

Company stand-outs:

Donnetta Lavinia Grays has crafted a fully formed, physical and emotional character with her laconic, deadpan, can-do Sumner.

Birgit Huppuch’s Goodman, replete with British accent, seems irritatingly chipper until we learn who and why he’s there, whereupon everything fits.

As embodied by Elizabeth Kenny, Old Shady is a bit slow, sweet, and doggedly loyal. Her songs feel as if she’s coming up with them for the first time.

Kristen Sieh is a natural whose thinking we see as clearly as Dunn’s brooding. Masculinity is aptly manifest.

Expedition leader Powell is admirably served by a focused Kelly McAndrew. The actor’s believable interpretation is calm, serious, watchful, authoritative, and fair. Even when in jeopardy, measured response stays in character.

I can’t imagine how Director Will Davis conceived what we saw out of what he read. This is a glass mountain climb with roaringly successful results.

Jane Shaw’s Sound Design, which features innumerable water attitudes seeming to envelop us, is highlighted by wonderfully corny Hollywood music accompanying pivotal moments.

Solomon Weisbard’s Lighting Design helps create innumerable mood shifts and curiously adds to geography.

I admit to not understanding Asta Bennie Hostetter’s Costume choices, many of which are better suited to saloon gambler dandies.

Photos by Elke Young
Opening: The Company

Playwrights Horizons & Clubbed Thumb present
Men On Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus
Directed by Will Davis
Playwrights Horizons’ Peter J. Sharp Theater
416 West 42nd Street
Through August 14, 2016

The Father – Rage Against the Dying of The Light*


Already broadly celebrated in Paris and London, Florian Zeller’s 2012 “tragic Farce” (the playwright’s term) places us squarely in a mind suffering from advanced dementia. That’s an oxymoron. One cannot be squarely inside anything whose parameters are frighteningly mercurial. Intimates are unfamiliar, geography morphs beneath one’s feet, time shifts back and forth, oblivious and cruel. Yet we are there, wherever there is, almost as surely as Zeller’s protagonist, André, The Father (Frank Langella).

An elegant, upper middle class Frenchman who was probably never likeable, André fights the onset of this disease with a long unassailable ego and every ounce of his considerable strength and intelligence. It’s as if Prospero (The Tempest) took on the typhoon called forth by his errant brain. We watch as self-sacrificing daughter, Anne (Kathryn Erbe) futilely tries to get him at-home help who can withstand his anger, confusion, and indignant denial.

Frank Langella

The play is a succession of scenes divided by blackouts with painful, flashing, proscenium lights – brain synapses? At first, we’re in André’s tasteful, bourgeois apartment shortly after his latest caregiver has fled in tears. He tells Anne that, among other failings, the woman stole his watch – André’s compass and an ongoing concern throughout. When it’s found in a cupboard behind the microwave where he stashes valuables, her obstinate father declares the only reason it wasn’t purloined is that he hid it. Why is Anne so unsympathetic, he demands, why is she not like the younger daughter he prefers?!

Brian Avers, Frank Langella

Every time the lights go off and on, time and place alter unsequentially. In the first vignette, Anne, who is divorced from Antoine (Charles Borland), says she’s moving to London to be with her lover, Pierre (Brian Avers) and must find a solution to her father’s inability to care for himself. In the next, André is living with Anne and a resentful Pierre to whom she seems to be married; then Antoine appears as her spouse. Both men seem to be current, both are not at first recognized. One of them repeatedly slaps the 80 year-old which is viscerally shocking. André regresses to a whimpering child.

One moment Anne appears to be a completely different woman, a blonde (Kathleen McNenny). In the next, she is ‘herself.’ A newly hired aide, Laura (Hannah Cabell), looks just like André’s absent daughter, who, spoiler alert, turns out to be long dead. The actor who plays Antoine shows up as a doctor; the blonde as his nurse.

Kathryn Erbe, Frank Langella

André is convinced Anne wants his apartment and will put him in a home. In his shaken mind, faces become interchangeable. Unmoored, he remembers only the last scene from which he tries to regain his bearings. We ricochet in time like a character out of a Kurt Vonnegut novel. The only consecutive aspect of the piece is increased incapacity, every incremental change palpably experienced. Charm turns to cruelty, paranoia, panic.

Frank Langella, Hannah Cabell

Keep your eyes on Scott Pask’s excellent Set. Each time the lights come up, things have changed. Artwork, photographs, books, and furniture disappear and return. To say this compounds the disorienting narrative is to minimize its effect. Between Mr. Langella’s inhabitation of this larger than life personality, Donald Holder’s disturbing Lighting Design, Fitz Patton’s evocative Music and Sound, and the map-less script, you may want to pack Dramamine.

Florian Zeller and translator Christopher Hampton have crafted an immensely affecting, immersive play in which we find ourselves sharing, rather than observing the protagonist’s experience.

Frank Langella

Frank Langella is simply brilliant. Whatever affectation you may have attributed to the actor during the mid portion of his long career, has, these last years, been jettisoned for newfound authenticity. The portrayal is wrenching; mercurial adjustments in an effort to appear more grounded completely credible. Rather than indulging in an appeal for sympathy, Langella plays André with callous rancor, a man whose formidable pride and then actual self is violently stripped away by an unseen hand.

As Anne, Kathryn Erbe is believably strong, exhausted, frustrated and devoted.

Director Doug Hughes has done a masterful job. The result- powerful, nuanced, clarity of acting in an environment of utter obscurity.

Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Frank Langella, Kathryn Erbe

*Dylan Thomas

Manhattan Theatre Club presents
The Father by Florian Zeller
Translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Doug Hughes
Samuel J. Friedman Theater
261 West 47th Street