Jay Johnson is No Dummy
One-person shows: Jane Monheit, George S. Irving, and (yes) The Two and Only. Plus a sniff of The Marijuana Logues and a trip to Boise.
A superb ventriloquist, Johnson isn't simply doing his act on stage at the Atlantic Theater Company; this is a genuine piece of theater during which he gives an adroit history of his craft, interwoven with his own story of growing up and finding his way into show business. He doesn't do stereotypical ventriloquist things like drinking water and throwing his voice at the same time; his skills are demonstrated in more clever ways as he actually explains some of the tricks of the trade. During the course of the show, he introduces us to such hilarious companions as the vulture Nethermore and the monkey Darwin.
But Johnson is after more than laughter: He creates an unexpected depth of feeling as he unfolds the story of his mentor, Arthur Sieving. That story culminates in the unveiling of the puppet that Sieving created for the needy teenager and in Johnson's account of the last trip that he made to see his mentor. Bring tissues.
The Two and Only is a family show with a couple of bad words thrown in here and there, but it's by no means a kiddy show. This is serious, soulful, satisfying theater -- and it's also hysterically funny.
Boise, David Folwell's new comedy at the Rattlestick Theatre, marks the emergence of a gifted writer with a wonderfully sweet and sour style. The play concerns a frustrated thirtysomething New Yorker named Stewart (Christopher Burns) who starts off married and in a comfortable middle-management office and then free-falls into -- well, you'll see.
Boise's rich array of contemporary New York characters gives this scintillating work the aroma of reality; all of them are wounded in some way but press on with their lives, however comically. And all of them are portrayed by exceptional actors. Burns is a wonderfully desperate everyman, calibrating his character to the point of implosion. Tasha Lawrence as his sister, Jackie, gives one of the most natural comic performances we've seen in years. She's simply sensational and so is Matt Pepper, who plays four different roles to perfection. Lucia Brawley, Geneva Carr, and Alex Kilgore round out the estimable ensemble and Rob Bundy dynamically directs the production. You can skip Boise, Idaho but don't miss your chance to visit Boise the play.
The Grass is Always Greener
A sweetly scented takeoff (or is that rip off?) on The Vagina Monologues, The Marijuana-Logues at The Actor's Playhouse is a playful ode to pot, written and performed by self-confessed stoners Arj Barker, Doug Benson, and Tony Camin. These three tell their story while sitting on stools and reading from notebooks. Each of them has a distinct personality, which helps keep the comedy from getting stale. Potheads, or those who have at least dabbled in drugs, will most fully appreciate the show's sophomoric sense of humor -- but that's kind of the whole point, dude.
One of Broadway's great character actors, George S. Irving made his professional stage debut in 1941. You do the math. This past weekend, as part of the White Barn Theatre series, he performed his one-man show Still Carrying On at the Lucille Lortel. The man has worked with many a theater star and his show was, in part, a retrospective of his life on stage but it was mostly a sampling of some of his better songs and routines. This loose structure gave Irving free reign to engage the audience with a wealth of warmth.
Simply staged by Donald Saddler and with musical direction by Mark Hartman, the show allowed Irving some time to sit in a comfortable easy chair while talking to us. All in all, this was a welcome bit of nostalgia that gave the theater community a chance to thank George S. Irving for more than 60 years of artistry.
Jane Monheit: Overhyped
We've been giving Jane Monheit second, third, and fourth chances, hoping that this young jazz singer with an exceptional voice would eventually perform her music without posturing like a caricature of a vamp. Monheit has four poses and she uses them unstintingly during every song she sings, regardless of the meaning of the lyrics. We started counting and found that, per number, she averages five gestures in which she puts her hand to her forehead and then runs her fingers through her hair. When she really wants to pack a wallop, she runs both hands through her hair. In another repeated gesture, she places her left hand on her right breast and taps out the beat of the music. Slightly less often, she will provocatively place her hands on her hips, flapper style; but the best (?) is when she puts her hands on the piano behind her and stretches forward as if she's a figurine carved into the prow of a ship. This has nothing to do with the music of Arthur Schwartz, the subject of Monheit's current show (through June 26) at the Algonquin's Oak Room.
We had hoped that Monheit would grow out of these ridiculous poses. There isn't one honest moment during her entire act -- and we do mean "act." Everything she does on stage is calculated, including the way she uses her eyes; she is always looking out of the sides of them flirtatiously, like a Lauren Bacall wannabe. Whether she's singing the heartbreaking "Haunted Heart" or the comedy number "Rhode Island is Famous For You," her gestures are the same...the expression on her face is the same...the emotion, or lack thereof, is the same.
Monheit received enormous praise when she made her cabaret debut a few years ago, though not from us. As we feared, she has seen no reason to change what brought her critical acclaim in the past. A woman with a great voice, she continues to sing without seeming to know why.