By Pete Hempstead
When Alex Mahgoub takes the stage in his autobiographical solo show, Baba, running at the Spectrum Theater, his bright smile belies his tragic memories. He begins with a joke about Groupons, as though he's launching into a standup routine, but after he gives us a vivid, affectionate portrayal of his father, we get the sense that he's about to tell us something awful.
With the excited energy of a young actor, Mahgoub recounts the story of his "Baba," an Egyptian man who came to America with less than nothing and managed to build a small empire that included house rentals, restaurants, a record store, and all sorts of other businesses. He wore Cool Water cologne and rode a motorcycle (the "Egyptian James Dean"), and he loved his son dearly. Eventually, Alex's parents divorce, and he goes to live with his mother. Sometime later, however, the young boy learns that intruders have broken into his father's house and murdered him.
It's a startling revelation in an otherwise lighthearted coming-of-age story about an awkward, nerdy kid from a poor New Jersey home (the money evaporated after his father's death) who struggles to find self-confidence and self-worth when his hero is no longer there to protect him. He gets tired of being picked on by the bullies at school and decides to hit the gym, then goes to college, moves to New York, and becomes an actor. That's when he discovers that he likes doobies and sex with dudes as well as women. Hard times force him to look for a steady, good-paying job, and he learns to make a fine living for himself in real estate while never giving up his love of acting.
Mahgoub portrays at least a dozen characters in this hour-long monologue, though, unsurprisingly, he is most successful and most moving in depicting the physicality, strong accent, and masculinity of his father. While the show's main goal is to treat us to a playful look at his life, Mahgoub creates stirring moments of deeply felt emotion, as when, on a couple of occasions, he speaks longingly of his father and genuine tears blur his eyes. Christine Renee Miller's direction, combined with lighting and music that enhance the mood, lend emotional intensity to his words.
Though still a work in progress, Baba has a heartfelt innocence and appealing authenticity. Mahgoub has done a courageous thing in bringing his story to the stage, and it's a fitting tribute to his father. One can't help but imagine that Baba would be proud.
By Hayley Levitt
Love her or hate her, Millennial Messiah Lena Dunham has infiltrated nearly every corner of today's popular culture. That now includes the New York Fringe Festival where I Want to Kill Lena Dunham, at Teatro LaTea, is taking the generational Dunham debate to new levels of urgency. Through vitriolic diatribes against the twentysomething actor, screenwriter, producer, and Golden Globe Award winner, director and playwright Sergio Castillo pegs Dunham as a symbol of the inequities and injustices that have perverted our pop-culture-driven society.
While his protagonist Nora, an African-American artist (played by the commanding Shereen Macklin), struggles to make ends meet in a recession-ridden New York economy, Dunham (who never actually makes an appearance in the play) mocks her plight from a far-off position of (what Nora sees as) white privilege. She fills headlines in inane entertainment news broadcasts (delivered by the obnoxiously perky Melanie Rothman), collects undeserved television accolades, and soaks up the praise of an adoring fan base.
In the meantime, Nora — a Dunham contemporary who we can only assume sees herself as the more talented artist — is on the verge of being evicted from her apartment by her white lesbian landlord, Lynn (a sufficiently hard-nosed Nicole Stoica), as she watches her father (a jovial Roland Sands) sink into financial ruin. Despite the sympathetic urgings of Nora's friend and Lynn's girlfriend, Tina (played by the exceedingly likable Susaye Lawson), Lynn does not budge on her decision and becomes another source of oppression in Nora's deteriorating life — a mounting burden embodied by a Grim Reaper-like saxophonist labeled "La Muerte" (Nigel Inniss) who shadows Nora throughout the play.
Dialogues on race, class, sexual orientation, and artistic responsibility are packed into Castillo's "dark satire" where, the playwright assures us, Dunham's function is purely metaphorical. And yet, a very real Dunham finds herself the target of pointed attacks, with her talent, upbringing, and creative decisions all taking some aggressive heat. Castillo aims high, trying to call out a very misguided society on its contradictions and hypocrisies (including an all-out rejection of simple diverting entertainment). Unfortunately, he's landed among the fields of disparaging message boards that boast the very cultural smut at the foundation of his bloodlust for Lena Dunham.
By Pete Hempstead
"God, I hope I get it!" That could be the catchphrase for Popesical, a campy Chorus Line-like musical playing at Theatre 80. Adam Overett wrote the book, music, and lyrics of this nutty tuner, which turns a Papal Conclave into a farcical battle for eight cardinals (some of them women!) who are trying to win the title of Pope. While it takes itself a bit too seriously at times, Popesical's bright bouncy numbers deliver solid laughs from start to finish.
The last pope is dead, and now six quirky cardinals have been called to the Vatican to vote for the new Holy See. These completely unqualified people (don't ask how they got their jobs) come from all walks of life and have at least one significant mental hurdle to deal with. There's the repressed gay Cardinal McCafferty (Stephen Christopher Anthony), the Jewish gay Cardinal Bergenstein (David Perlman), the Jersey Shore bombshell Cardinal Robin (Alexa Green), the identity-crisis-ridden black Buddhist Cardinal Hu-Jin Chao (Jason Veasey), the certifiably insane Southern belle Cardinal St. Louis (Danette Holden), and the mute Bolshoi Ballet dancer Cardinal Fouetté (Lucas Thompson). They're subjected to several ludicrous "tests" (including a game of "Biblical Chairs") by the wicked hunchback Cardinalissimo Francisco Franco (Rachel Coloff) and his dingo-obsessed Australian assistant Cardinal Wallaby (Susan J. Jacks) as all eight vie tooth and nail for the coveted job of Pope. Will everyone make it out alive?
The backstabbing and love affairs (yes, love affairs) that ensue make for a lively 100 minutes. Director and choreographer Drew Geraci pulls out the stops in songs like "Love M'Jaysus," in which Holden leads the others in an off-the-chain gospel revival and blends her gorgeous voice with knee-slapping lyrics. Her performance alone is worth the price of admission. Veasey has the audience rolling in the aisles with his pentatonic delight "Hun-Jin Chao's Meditation," which features a ridiculous call-and-response with the whole ensemble.
At times, Popesical puts the brakes on the Popemobile when it isn't needed, as in "I Love You Always," Cardinal McCafferty's ballad of gay love for Cardinal Bergenstein. Adding a little humor here wouldn't have hurt the romantic mood. But fortunately these slow moments are few and far between. For its laugh-inducing zaniness and catchy tunes, Popesical deserves a vote.
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