April Matthis and Monica Applebyin Anna Bella Eema(Photo © Jim Baldassare)
April Matthis and Monica Appleby
in Anna Bella Eema
(Photo © Jim Baldassare)
Off-Off-Broadway is to the theater what the American independent film is to cinema. Whether it's on stage or on screen, we find young artists working with low budgets and unknown actors making art -- often, bad art. But Off-Off-Broadway, like the American indie, sometimes tosses up some pearls. The pearl at hand is Katie Pearl, who has lustrously directed one of this season's first great plays, Anna Bella Eema by Lisa D'Amour. As written, acted, and directed, the production is so organic and cohesive that it feels like a work of nature rather than a work of art.

At its simplest, Anna Bella Eema is about the relationship between mothers and daughters. You could call it a coming of age story, or you could call it a story for the ages. Either way, this galvanizing piece of theater deals with a 10-year-old girl, her extremely highly strung mother, and the efforts of the police to move them out of their home; they live in an otherwise deserted trailer camp where a stretch of the interstate highway is going to be built.

The play builds to a climax that features an explosion of magical realism, yet the work remains solidly grounded in the darkly comic here and now. D'Amour's script is a goldmine of emotional complexity, and this production's three actresses are surpassingly brilliant in bringing the play to life. Gretchen Lee Krich as the mother (and various animals) is ferociously talented; Monica Appleby, as her daughter, is remarkably versatile; and April Matthis as the Mud Girl, created out of dirt and water by the daughter, is a revelation. She also plays a giant policeman with great humor.

The performers create sound effects using small objects that sit on TV dinner trays in front of them. They also sing a cappella several times throughout the show, to stunning effect. And they act their asses off. The Obie Award-winning team of D'Amour and Pearl has created a thrilling and challenging piece of theater that, unfortunately, has just two performances remaining in its current run at HERE. Anna Bella Eema can be seen on Friday, October 3 at 8:30pm and Saturday, October 4 at 4pm.

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Bill Irwin and Marin Irelandin The Harlequin Studies(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Bill Irwin and Marin Ireland
in The Harlequin Studies
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Bill and Todd

There is theater that breaks new ground -- and, on the opposite side of the spectrum, there is theater that celebrates the hallowed ground of its antecedents. An example of the latter type, Bill Irwin's Harlequin Studies at the Signature Theater is a loving and playful primer on our theatrical past. The largest part of Irwin's 70-minute, intermissionless show is a piece in which the Harlequin role (played by Irwin) is at the center of an original work. Irwin's concession to our time is that he's the only character who is silent in a deliciously broad comedy that seems more like a Chaplin movie than an academic exercise. Supported by the likes of Paxton Whitehead and Rocco Sisto, Irwin's Harlequin flirts with a coat rack, plays a broom like a banjo, and serves his master with a winsome loyalty. What a delightful way to learn about the theater!

If Bill Irwin wants us to understand how the Harlequin character influenced today's comedy, Todd Robbins in Carnival Knowledge at the Soho Playhouse wants us to recall the fundamental appeal of the sideshow entertainers who worked on the very fringe of theater. Robbins eats glass like a gourmet and gets his heartburn from swallowing fire. If you think you have a sinus problem, wait till you see him drive a spike into his head through his nose; it ain't pretty, but it's show business. And it's as disgusting as it is compelling. Robbins demonstrates one repellant stunt after another with so much charm and humor that, if you have any disposition at all for this stuff, you're going to come away impressed. By the end of the show, you can't help but feel a certain queasy nostalgia for an era that will soon be gone. The carnival sideshow is theater's cousin once removed; its power to entrance makes a statement about human nature and serves as an unsettling reminder of the underpinnings of art.

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Laura Linney and Marcia Gay Harden in Mystic River
Laura Linney and Marcia Gay Harden in Mystic River
Why Clint Eastwood Likes Stage Actors

The opening night movie of this year's New York Film Festival is the Oscar-touted Mystic River, directed by Clint Eastwood. Every major and supporting role in the movie is taken by actors with roots in the theater: Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon (both of whom were in Slab Boys), Tim Robbins (artistic director of the Actor's Gang company in L.A., last seen on stage in The Exonerated), Laurence Fishburne (Two Trains Running), Laura Linney (The Crucible), Marcia Gay Harden (who first made a splash in Angels in America and who recently performed in the Food for Thought series at the National Arts Club), and Eli Wallach (name the play).

In a press conference at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater, Eastwood further tied his movie to the theater when he described one of its key scenes as "Shakespearean" and referred to Laura Linney as Lady Macbeth and Sean Penn as the king. Later, we asked Eastwood about the advantages of working with theater-trained actors. "Acting is acting," he said, "but they [theater actors] do bring something extra." He smiled: "They know how to talk up."

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Tony Danza
Tony Danza
Tony Danza's Nightclub Rerun

Tony Danza is back at Feinstein's at the Regency with an act titled The Boy From New York City. It's not really all that different from the shows he's done before; in fact, this much-beloved TV star has returned to town with a show that feels like a rerun.

Danza still does his doo-wop medley, tap dances, plays the coronet, tickles the keys of the piano, talks about his Broadway experiences, and generally sails along on his breezy personality. His best lines are the ones he's used before; his new patter, replacing stories about his TV career, isn't nearly so clever. By the same token, the new songs in the act don't deliver the modest pleasure that one gets from his old standbys.

Where Danza has changed songs, he has often surrounded them with the same old shtick, like allowing patrons to take photos of him while he sings. Amidst the mediocre new material, however, are some engaging songs about Brooklyn, including a clever rap number that lists famous people who were born in the borough of Danza's birth.

This is Danza's least impressive outing since we first started seeing him at the old Rainbow & Stars. His charm is such that fans will continue to be enthralled. Still, he'd be wise to come up with a brand new show the next time around. Cabaret rarely works in syndication.

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[Editor's Note: Above is the first edition of a retitled and reformatted column in which Barbara & Scott Siegel will write about theater and theater-related events such as concerts and films in addition to their coverage of New York cabaret and nightlife, which will continue unabated. Look for The Siegel Column to be posted every Tuesday and Friday.]