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.

Marti Sichel

Pete Rex Everything


Imagine the pandemonium: Dinosaurs have woken from 65 million years of slumber in the small town of New Kensington and are, understandably, in need of a snack. While the mighty lizards smash and grab their way through town, three thirty-something friends take cover at slacker Pete’s place and wait for it all to blow over. Such is the premise of Alexander V. Thompson’s new play, Pete Rex, now showing at 59E59 Theaters. 

That is, at least, the premise of the first half of the play.  The first half flies by as best buds Pete and Bo, and Pete’s ex-girlfriend, Julie, debate hunkering down versus fleeing for their lives. Julie thinks it’s time to move. Pete and Bo aren’t that sure it isn’t all just the best practical joke they’ve ever seen. 

The title is Pete Rex, and he really does. Pete wrecks his relationship. Pete wrecks his friendship. Pete wrecks the best opportunity he has for his continuing education. The question we have to ask is why.  That is the questions whose knot of answers metaphorically unravels in the play’s significantly more introspective—albeit emotionally muddy—second half.

Rosie Sowain and Greg Carere

Where psychological clarity is missing, what we do get is a punky, British-accented T-Rex named Nero. Really, there are worse inner demons. Greg Carere, Simon Winheld, and Rosie Sowain play the trio of Pete, Bo, and Julie, respectively. (Winheld spends the second act as the affable but unpredictable short-armed surprise guest.) If there are any faults to their performances it might be that they don’t appear to be quite as affected by events and actions as one would expect. But then, who knows how they would act when faced with a posh prehistoric predator in their living room?

Director Brad Raimondo pulls a few fun tricks out of his sleeve to shift into flashback, and the overall feel of the first act is a little like a funnier and significantly less bloody (onstage) Dawn of the Dead. Tempers flare and people make poor choices when the pressure is on. Life or death choices, actually. And it doesn’t work out well for everyone. But it’s so amusing to watch them try.

Pete Rex has a great sense of humor and a solid heart. Where the cracks start to show is in defining the main plot device in the second act. At different times it means different things: Is it Pete’s immaturity? Toxic masculinity? White male entitlement? Childhood trauma? Bullying? Chronic indecision? What we can do is bundle up all of those issues under one overarching but vague heading—emotional dysfunction—and just hope Pete can get his act together enough to break his patterns and crawl out of the rut he’s dug for himself. Maybe it isn’t too late for a happily ever after.

Photos by Hugh Mackey
Top: L-R: Rosie Sowain and Greg Carere  

Pete Rex
Written by Alexander V. Thompson, directed by Brad Raimondo
Produced by The Dreamscape Theatre 
59E59 Theatres
Showing through Saturday, March 3, 2018 

With Plenty of Turns, Molly’s Game Plays A Winning Hand


Molly’s Game, the newest from screenwriter Aaron Sorkin—and also his directorial debut—is full of colorful characters and fast moving, predictably clever dialogue. It’s also so entertainingly laid out that it’s almost possible to forgive the absolutely terrible people who populate the story for the lives they ruined and the amount of needless suffering that came from it all. It also hints at a glamorous world where the incredibly wealthy can win and lose amounts of money in a single night that most won’t see in a lifetime. And because of its glamour—a word first used to mean magical enchantment to make things appear better than they are—it’s easy to wish to be a part of that world. And that was Molly’s first problem.  

Based on the book by the eponymous Bloom, the true story of her own undoing, Molly’s Game is also a complicated legal dramedy about her legal defense after an arrest by the FBI. Bloom ran a continuing series of poker games, first hosted by her terrible Hollywood employer in a thinly veiled “Cobra Lounge.” These games were incredibly exclusive thanks to the incredibly famous people who attended, including Hollywood celebrities, business moguls, and politicians. When she falls out with her employer, she opens her own games. What follows is a meteoric rise to the top of a multi-million-dollar secret industry and all the infamous pitfalls that come with that kind of quick success.

Kevin Costner and Jessica Chastain

Bloom built her “multi-million dollar empire with her wits” and, through Sorkin’s lens, her something-that-rhymes-with wits. (His male gaze is…overt.) Jessica Chastain, who has shown herself many times over to be a phenomenal actress, does not disappoint. If there’s any complain about her performance it would be the same as so many of Sorkin’s characters; they’re so logical and put-together that they rarely show the kind of emotion you might expect in moments of extreme duress.

This is a story about very bad and very damaged people and the myriad ways they inflict harm on themselves and others. But because it’s also an Aaron Sorkin picture, it’s about the delivery of snappy rat-a-tat dialogue, clever quips, and enough giggles to make you walk away feeling like you’ve just seen something bordering on uplifting. It isn’t, but it feels like it.

To speak of Sorkin’s directorial style, he seems to have borrowed a few recognizable tricks from the likes of Guy Ritchie and Steven Soderburgh, but they have proven effective and are used with good humor. A moment sits less agreeably is the one big emotional scene between Chastain with Kevin Costner as Molly’s father. The scene is shown with Costner always just a bit more in focus than Chastain, no matter who’s positioned more dominantly in the frame or who’s speaking. If there are two of them, he’s just a little more emphasized. This doesn’t make a huge difference in the story; it’s just something that isn’t a complete surprise for those who are familiar with Sorkin’s treatment of female characters in the past.

Idris Elba and Jessica Chastain

The supporting cast is solid, with Idris Elba again the voice of justice and ethical behavior, his accent inconsistent but everything else about him very likable. Chris O’Dowd and Brian D’Arcy James play hilarious repeat gamblers who have more significance than Molly realizes. Michael Cera plays a straight-up sociopath, which is an interesting and surprisingly unnerving departure for him, and there was an audible frisson in the theater when Joe Keery, fresh from Stranger Things, appears.

Overall, this is a tight, entertaining film. There are some generally honorable people who make huge mistakes, and deeply dishonorable people who like to watch others drown in those mistakes. As the story unfolds on two timelines—the flashbacks and the legal defense—a picture emerges of a woman who beats the odds time and again among the morally corrupt while maintaining some semblance of her own true moral compass. 

She didn’t intend to hurt anyone she hurt, and because she experiences pain beyond what she could have foreseen with as little exposure to the criminal underbelly as she had, she goes out of her way to prevent anyone else from undue suffering. She’s a good woman in a bad man’s world. In that much at least she’s relatable. Molly’s Game is a fascinating story. It’s invigorating, thrilling and at times shocking. If you’re going to gamble on a good time, you could do a lot worse this holiday season.

Photo Credit: Michael Gibson; Motion Picture Artwork © 2017 STX Financing, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

AMP Electrifies


“No man chooses evil because it is evil; he only mistakes it for happiness.”

In AMP, now playing at HERE Theater, playwright performer Jody Christopherson forges a curious and vital bond between two women separated by 100 years. The first is Mary Shelley, she whose imagination birthed Frankenstein, the classic science fiction horror, on a bet in a Geneva cottage. The second is Anna, once an aspiring cellist, now confined to an asylum outside of Boston. The two don’t appear to have much in common at first, but common truths begin to emerge as the play moves forward.  

While Mary stalks the stage assembling pieces of the story of her childhood as the precocious daughter of early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and philosopher William Godwin, of her abuse at the hands of her father’s second wife, and of her love affair with and marriage to poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Anna remains locked on film. Her story is that of an unraveling, with intercut segments describing her removal from recess after an incident with another student—possibly and accident, possibly not—and dropped her in the school orchestra. 

“No human being is born a monster, something has happened to turn this innocent child into a frightening adult.” 

In both biographies, childhood talents are only just blooming when the girls fall victim to adults who deny them praise and applause, who could nurture their skills but instead choose to tear them down. The play’s title, AMP, can be read in two ways. The first is the scientific term for electric current. The second is a take on Mary Shelley’s most famous work, which features the subtitle “The Modern Promethues.” 

In the Greek myth, Prometheus gives humanity fire, and is punished for the deed by being chained to a mountaintop to daily have his liver eaten out by an eagle without dying. Every night the organ regenerates for the following day’s torture. The similarity to his plight and these two women’s is that they were all set up for failure. They are all given the tools for success and then denied that success by the very people who insisted they take up the tools in the first place. That rejection or gaslighting, rightly, infuriates them. To be true to themselves, they have to break their chains and disappear into the ether. 

Christopherson is a captivating performer. As Mary she exudes radiance that has nothing to do with the lightning and “laudanum.” Her cheeks are flush, her excitement palpable. As Anna, she is morose and sinister. Listening to her story, she doesn’t seem as honest and true Mary, as if there are a hundred details she refuses to admit. Yet she remains sympathetic, because like Mary and like so many women, her story doesn’t sound strange. It sounds familiar to the extreme to any woman who has been held back or told to stop being unladylike, that her interests aren’t becoming of a lady. 

The stage setting is simple but very effective, a light fog hanging over all that catches the lights in ways that make it alternately hazy, dreamy, stormy. Christopherson has spliced pieces of her subjects’ work into her own, and we hear their voices cutting in to have their say every now and then. The technical skill necessary of sound designer Martha Goode to make it come together so seamlessly is incredibly impressive. Special kudos also go to director Isaac Byrne for making the video segments so genuinely, incredibly chilling. 

AMP is a moving piece, with shocking moments that make it a truly visceral experience. It’s also worth experiencing as a feminist piece, of which the Marys—Wollstonecraft and Shelley—would have undoubtedly approved. 

Photos by Hunter Canning

Written and Performed by Jody Christopherson
Directed by Isaac Byrne
Playing at HERE Theater in a limited run through December 19, 2017

The Shape of Water Is A Dreamy Escape


“Time is but a river flowing from our past.”

There are princesses and monsters in The Shape of Water, a sumptuous, scary, and spellbinding new fairy tale film from Guillermo del Toro. It’s “Beauty and the Beast” for a time when happy endings can seem too few and far between, with political underpinnings that are almost uncomfortably relevant. And even though it’s built on a fairy tale frame, it is definitely not for children.

Fairy tales were not meant to be pretty. Women and children were victims in tales often filled with sexual angst and violence as a caution to anyone who might consider stepping out of line. They were populated by malevolent creatures, and the creeping horror could insinuate itself into a listener’s consciousness, revealed as a little voice of warning—or perhaps of conscience. It is no wonder then that del Toro, one of our generation’s most creatively dark storytellers, a crafter of elegant nightmares, could so brilliantly re-imagine a classic for our time. 

Octavia Spencer and Sally Hawkins

The Shape of Water takes place in the sleepy emerald-colored world of Elisa Esposito, played with remarkable power and charm by Sally Hawkins. Elisa’s a mute nightshift janitor at a large government laboratory facility. She smiles mildly while her cleaning partner, Zelda (a reliably funny but put-upon Octavia Spencer), chatters at a constant clip about her frustration with her uncommunicative, unappreciative husband. Elisa’s silence is never a weight or a weakness. She says everything she needs with her expressiveness and a few signs. The same is true of her relationship with her neighbor and best friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), a gay man far enough past middle age to see what he has become who longs to return to the days of his youth.

The film is set in 1960s Baltimore—just a short drive from Washington, D.C. during the dark days of the Cold War, the capital of a nation on the eve of great change, from the Civil Rights Movement to the space race to naked hippies on Haight and Ashbury. The Shape of Water exists in a world in flux, the visuals intoxicating in their lushness but the content full of social tensions that we can look at through today’s lens to note how far we’ve come, and how far back we could slide if we’re not careful.

Michael Shannon

The film’s villain, Strickland, played with tingling menace by Michael Shannon, is the part that makes this movie so uncomfortably relevant. He’s a violent, racist, misogynist white man in the business of getting paid protecting the greedy interests of other rich and powerful white men. He’d be right at home in a certain Cabinet today. He’s confident in his superiority as a master of the universe, so much so that it’s difficult for him to admit when he’s been had.  

Del Toro specializes in otherworldliness. He brings to life unique characters and ethereal, dreamlike places like no one else. Doug Jones, who has played a menagerie of del Toro’s incredible inventions, is the nameless being brought to the facility by Strickland and Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a man with secrets of his own. Like Hawkins, Jones is limited by lack of speaking, using his strong, graceful physicality to communicate. 

This isn’t revolutionary cinema in terms of giving us something we’ve never seen before, but it is lovely and hopeful and done so well that it doesn’t even seem that fishy for a woman to fall in love with a creature who bares more than a passing resemblance to the Creature from the Black Lagoon. We’ve seen characters like these before—even played by the same actors—but we can see them in this light, in these. Their familiarity isn’t a curse, but a comfort. It makes it easy to relax and enjoy the story as it ebbs and flows.

The Shape of Water isn’t a film about celebrating outsiders, or even about underdogs triumphant. That’s all consequential. What it is, to a great extent, is an argument that even in this often cold and ugly world, where monsters are all around us, it is still possible to find beauty. We just have to open our hearts to it. 

Photos by Kerry Hayes © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Top photo: Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones

Remembering and Forgetting: Two Plays Go East to Edinburgh


As part of their annual East to Edinburgh series, 59E59 Theaters have given a temporary home to several small acts before they head to Auld Reeky for August. There is always a wide assortment of plays and one-person shows of varying levels of completeness. This year is no exception. Here are two:

Tales of life and Death 

There was an announcement made before Tales of Life and Death that a fifth short play had been added to bring the length to an hour and that, for that play, the actors would be reading from scripts. No problem there. What is a problem is when it’s impossible to tell which of the short plays that means as three of the five very clearly involved at least one performer reading their lines. Then it isn’t a case of not enough time to learn blocking and technical cues but not have lines down; it’s a case of lack of preparation.

Playwright Craig Lucas has some impressive credentials: Both a Pulitzer and Tony Award winner, his most famous work is Prelude to A Kiss, a play that went on to become a major motion picture with Alec Baldwin and Meg Ryan. Tales of Life and Death has neither that piece’s charms, nor its philosophical conundrums. These stories might have been provocative a few decades ago, like when AIDS was fairly new and the AIDS quilt movement started. For a current play it felt stale, out of touch — at least when limited to the few minutes in which that particular story ran its course.

The performance comprises a series of only loosely linked vignettes performed by two actors, Richard Kline and Pamela Shaw. Kline’s style is loose, and he seems perfectly comfortable onstage. On the night of the performance, even when he was “on script” he was mostly off it, delivering his lines with a natural ease. Shaw, on the other hand, seemed to have difficulty not only with the new material but with the greater part of it. This was made particularly evident in a vignette in which she’s the only one who does any speaking, with Kline’s character offering only nods and shakes of his head in reply to her questions and the pre-recorded comments. There was a lot of stammering and reading off notes on the “bar.” Her delivery, when it came, was consistently rushed and nervous throughout. It might have been a chosen style of performance, but it looked like lack of preparation.

News clips fill the silence and dark between scenes, but these too feel stale and irrelevant, other than possibly to clue the audience in to the dates when these stories may take place. Though that’s just a guess to their purpose. It isn’t clear if that was a directorial decision or the playwright’s prerogative, but the sound balance was off on the evening and so much of what was said in the clips was lost or very difficult to hear.

It’s true that this is a preview show, and that the cast and crew are preparing for their time in the world’s largest cultural festival, but with time running short, there is a lot of work to do.

As part of their annual East to Edinburgh series, 59E59 Theaters have given a temporary home to several small acts before they head to Auld Reeky for August. There is always a wide assortment of plays and one-person shows of varying levels of completeness. This year is no exception.


Where Tales suffered from stiffness and forgotten lines, Cece Otto’s one-woman show Hyperthymesia offers a dynamic narrator and a fascinating story. The monologue piece is about a woman who is one of only a couple dozen or so people who have been diagnosed with a condition characterized by highly superior autobiographical memory (HSAM). In these cases, a hyperthymesiac can recall even minute details about any day during their lives from the beginning of their memory on. While many people might think about how useful an ability like that could be, Otto’s show focuses on the other edge of the sword: Happiness is being able to forget the things that have hurt you. Breakups, deaths of loved ones, scares and disappointments — all feel as fresh as the day they happened. It’s no wonder someone in the position of possessing such an extraordinary memory would do anything they can to try to forget.

Much of the play runs parallel to the life of a woman named Jill Price, at least in terms of the techniques Price employed to try to calm her thoughts, like regular and extensive journaling. People with HSAM have talked about their memories crowding their heads in any calm, still moment. Otto describes it like a swarm of bees, and the amount of detail that she wrote into the play could be just as intimidating. In between descriptive and emotional recitals of life stories (and the dates on which they occurred), she performs various series of actions and gestures, borrowing from dance, that provide slow, smooth feeling to counterbalance her narrator’s sometimes frenzied words.

The stage design consists of a single chair, but Otto pantomimes whatever else might be needed, leaving the audience to form an idea from imagination. It’s a plain but touching performance about one person’s struggles with her own amazing mind. The script is thoughtful, and also asks the audience to question their own experiences with remembering and forgetting. There is empathy and kindness in the telling, making Otto a very endearing narrator. It’s a piece that demands a lot of her, both physically and mentally — which also explains the unusual running time of 40 minutes — but is very satisfying and ultimately very hopeful.  Hyperthymesia is directed by Robert Scott Smith.

Top photo: Balmoral Hotel, Edinburgh, Scotland

We Can Be Happy Underground


The London Underground can be devilishly tricky if you don’t know what you’re doing. For a start, the map you’d use to navigate the city bears very little resemblance to what exists in reality. It isn’t unheard of for a passenger to hop on a line and transfer three times over the course of 40 minutes to end up only blocks from where they started. So it takes experience to learn the ins and outs. Kind of like modern dating, as playwright Isla van Tricht seems to suggest in her new play, Underground, now playing at 59E59 Theaters.

Claire and James cross paths constantly. They take the same tube to the same stops every day of the week, but they just don’t realize it until a popular swipe-based dating app points it out. She’s pleased by his minimal and mature profile photos. He thinks she has a nice smile. Why not give it a try?

The two aren’t perfectly paired by any stretch, but they aren’t a complete mismatch either and so they might as well give it a try. That’s how you do these things now. The night of their first maybe-a-date starts off well. They keep up a conversation that is by odds open enough to suggest a possible future, but also full of awkward moments to understand if they said goodnight and lost each other in the crowd again. He’s a bit dark and…flannelish, relating to characters from The Breakfast Club rather than more recent or age-appropriate cultural figures. She’s saucy and breezy in a way that speaks to the confidence of youth rather than caprice or irresponsibility. She actually knows what she wants—she’s even written a list—though it’s clear from their conversation that she’s still pliable. And he does try to ply.

Michael Jinks

There are a lot of cute and funny moments throughout the piece, but there’s a chance that several could be missed depending on which side of the stage you sit to face. Most of the action takes place in a subway car during an unexpected stop in the middle of the night. As Claire (Bebe Sanders) and James (Michael Jinks) discuss what twists and turns have brought them out and what it was about the other that encouraged meeting up, they run into some awkward conversation. It is not, however, as awkward as the existential voice that flows from the PA system that they can both hear, though only one at a time.

While there were stronger productions in the Brits Off Broadway series this year, Underground makes a solid showing for itself. It doesn’t have polish, but it feels like it comes from an honest place—even down to the fact that Claire can get pressured into a few hesitant romantic moves and James’ awkward verbal diarrhea about how awkward he can be. They do amuse each other, but not so much that it’s a sure thing. However, in a very distancing and increasingly (somewhat paradoxically) large but lonely social web, the potential for close human contact can be a persuasive influence. Throw in the appearance of a pair of doppelgängers and a broken-down Northern Line train, and that mysterious voice you have a recipe for a lasting encounter.

Tricht’s script has a few quirks, possibly a couple of philosophical concepts more than necessary, but it’s a lot of fun. If it feels a bit like a student project, at least it’s a really good one. Director Kate Tiernan has to make a lot with very little and pulls it off in a very pleasant manner, though it’s hard to say what is meant by the audience relationship categorization that doesn’t actually go anywhere. (But hey, who doesn’t like a sticker?)

In the end, we don’t know if they’ll make it or not, but James and Claire are actually kind of endearing and you may find yourself rooting for them. Underground makes a good argument for getting connected, but also putting down our phones. As they talk you may want to think about the last time you had such a full exchange of ideas for so long without interruption. An hour Underground is a good start.

Photos by Carol Rosegg
Top: Michael Jinks and Bebe Sanders

Produced by Shrapnel Theatre & Hartshorn – Hook Foundation for Brits Off Broadway
59E59 Theaters
Through July 2, 2017

Invincible – A Master Class in Vulnerability 


“I don’t care about being happy anymore. I just want to be at peace.”

Tolstoy wrote that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Timeless, that. In the newest play by the very talented playwright Torben Betts, Invincible, two couples—Oliver and Emily, Dawn and Alan—meet not-very-cute as new neighbors in a small North England town.

Emily and Oliver are posh, solidly upper middle class expats from London who have spent their adult lives immersed in art, culture, and severely left-wing politics. She is consumed with the idea of the plight of the working class, even if she doesn’t know anyone like that. Dawn and Alan are actually among working class, former teenage sweethearts who, after twenty years, share a too settled, too bland, too predictable life together.  Too bland for Dawn, at least, who dreams of something more but has never really  left the small town, or even the street, where she was born.

Emily Bowker and Alistair Whitley

In a hilarious first act, it seems the two families couldn’t be more different. It’s often the culture clash that makes things so funny, watching as quirks and foibles lead to revelations and . As events unfold we find that they have for more in common than they would like.

There are many great moments in Invincible, but in particular Betts does a wonderful job of connecting his layered, complex, damaged characters on multiple levels in unexpected ways. Each character is an individual and every performance is pitch perfect.

Emily (Emily Bowker) is happy to play the part of the enlightened truth seeker and champion of the underdog even though everything about her speaks to the privilege that she claims to despise. In truth, she doesn’t understand the first thing about the plight of the poor. She admires the idea of the proletariat lifestyle but not the proles. She fancies herself a intellect and is wound so tight it feels like she could snap at any minute. Bowker’s performance is excellent; she’s absolutely insufferable.

By contrast, Dawn (played by the always wonderful Elizabeth Boag in her third year and fourth performance in the Brits Off-Broadway series) is incredibly likable, though she doesn’t have the social skills one develops in a big city. When she explodes into the room with a burst of operatic bombast, she’s a breath of fresh air in a tight, red (charmingly inappropriately revealing) dress. She’s dying to make a good impression, but soon realizes it may not be worth the effort.

Where Emily works hard to be a “good” person with debatable success, Dawn is a naturally good person, but without the social or scholarly privileges afforded Emily. They are both deeply dissatisfied with their lots in life.

Graeme Brookes and Elizabeth Boag

As for the cowed Oliver (Alistair Whitley) and the boisterous and fashion-challenged Alan (Graeme Brookes), they just want their wives to be happy. They don’t know how to make that happen, but they both really, really want it to. Oliver tries as hard to please Emily as Emily tries to be righteous and indignant on behalf of the working class. He endeavors find the point of understanding they have lost over the years. He recognizes their disconnect and craves a return to easier times.

Alan doesn’t realize how disconnected he and Dawn have become, but as soon as it’s pointed out he understands that it will take a lot of emotional work on his part. He cherishes and feels thankful for his wife, not necessarily seeing her for who she is but rather what she looks like and how well she looks after their kids.

When it comes to the class structure and privilege, all can agree on one thing: If you’re poor, you’re screwed. Emily and Oliver know it in theory, but their station makes them able to stay distant and logical about it. Uninvolved unless they feel like getting involved. Dawn and Alan have no choice. They live it every day, and when they suffer it doesn’t take a lot of university courses and sociology keywords to know why. We also know why, and it’s heartbreaking.

Photos by Manuel Harlan
Top photo: Emily Bowker, Graeme Brookes, Elizabeth Boag, and Alistair Whitley

Invincible is a rare treat, a lovely, funny, smart and poignant piece of theater.
59E59 Theaters
59 East 59th Street
Through July 2, 2017

Rotterdam – Intimate, But Large As Life


“You’re not supposed to stay in Rotterdam. It’s a port. Everything’s moving on, it’s just passing through, nothing’s standing still. It’s all on its way somewhere…else.”

There are more melodiously named cities in Europe. Rotterdam almost sounds like a curse muttered under the breath. Fortunately for all, and very unlike its namesake, the play named Rotterdam, now playing at 59E59 Theatres, is a thing of surprising beauty.

The story centers on Alice (Alice McCarthy) and Fiona (Anna Martine Freedman), who have both been living one way or another in the closet in the titular city. Alice is working on a letter to her parents to tell them she’s gay and living with a woman. Fiona, who has been out as a lesbian since she was 10 years old, has a secret of her own, but it isn’t until she reads Alice’s draft that she decides to acknowledge what she has been feeling the last several years. Her confession: She isn’t a lesbian, but rather a man who was born into a woman’s body. And she wants to transition.

Ellie Morris and Alice McCarthy

What do you do when someone you love tells you they’re actually something completely other than what you have come to know and love? In Alice’s case, her lover wants to come out as a man—something Alice hasn’t had any real interest in pursuing because Alice, as she’s trying to tell her parents, is a lesbian. If she loves Fiona, who wants to grow a beard, flatten his chest and be called Adrian from now on, what does that make her? On the verge of admitting to the world who she is, her identity is called into question. Can she be a lesbian when the woman she loves isn’t really a woman?  Alice is thrown into existential chaos, whereas Adrian is delighted that he can finally present himself as a man after a lifetime of pretending to be something he’s not.

Thrown into the mix are Fiona/Adrian’s surprisingly resilient brother Josh (Ed Eales-White), who also happens to be Alice’s best friend and one-and-only ex-boyfriend, and Alice’s colorful and exuberant 21-year-old gay coworker Lelani (Ellie Morris). Josh adds necessary perspective to the proceedings as the one who really has ‘been there and done that.’ Lelani is great because she’s so young and spontaneous and so fabulously lacking in perspective.

Anna Martine Freeman and Ed Eales-White 

McCarthy and Freedman showcase incredible strength and control as actors, but also invite the audience to witness heartbreaking vulnerability. It’s no wonder that the play was awarded several of the London West End’s Olivier Awards: It’s generous with its open heart and wrenching in its honesty. Even the characters who lend most of the comic relief, Josh and Lelani, provide moments of insight that tug at the heartstrings in an “I’m glad I’m older and wiser” kind of way. They’re both incredibly refreshing though, and necessary on a number of levels.

Rotterdam is blessed with a perfectly on-point script by Jon Brittain and a quartet of actors who deliver universally outstanding performances. Brittain achieves a perfect balance of humor and heartbreak, proffering the opportunity to feel sharply contrasting emotions that somehow actually make the entire experience both realistic and bearable. On their own, each character is emotionally discordant, lacking something that would make them better, stronger people. Together however their shortcomings act in complement to one another, and the combined effect is lovely harmony.

With direction by Donnacadh O’Briain, even the interstitial moments, the moving of furniture and setting of props, is entertaining. The scenes transition beautifully, with fairly minimal set dressing and a soundtrack of toe-tapping, head-bobbing Dutch dance music keeping up the energy. O’Briain embraces the small space and allows the conversation and action to spill right up to the front row instead of opting to keep the actors at more than an arm’s length. And that’s what Rotterdam is like; it’s intimate but large as life. It implores you to really live, to try new things, to make the most of who and what is around, to feel and experience. It’s about learning and growing, even—and maybe especially—when it scares you. And knowing that there will always be someone to hold your hand when it does.

Photos by Hunter Canning
Top photo: Anna Martine Freeman and Alice McCarthy

Written by Jon Brittain, directed by Donnacadh O’Briain
Produced by Hartshorn – Hook Foundation Ltd for Brits Off Broadway at
59E59 Theaters
59 East 59th Street
Through June 10, 2017

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