Reviews: School Pictures, Amusements, and Sad Boys in Harpy Land at Playwrights Horizons

Three solo shows play in rep at the 42nd Street venue.

Rather than mount one play at its upstairs Peter J. Sharp Theater, Playwrights Horizons is presenting three solo shows in rep: Milo Cramer’s School Pictures, Ikechukwu Ufomadu’s Amusements, and Alexandra Tatarsky’s Sad Boys in Harpy Land. Even if you consider yourself allergic to solo performance, there’s something in one of these three shows for you.

Milo Cramer wrote and stars in School Pictures, directed by Morgan Green, at Playwrights Horizons.
(© Chelcie Parry)

The one I keep thinking about is School Pictures, which ought to be required viewing for anyone crazy (or rich) enough to raise kids in New York City. Cramer draws on their experience working as a private tutor for some of the city’s most privileged children, all of whom aspire to be admitted to an exclusive private school or one of the city’s specialized public high schools (or at least their parents have that aspiration for them). For the latter, they must conquer the dreaded SHSAT, an admissions test with the power to catapult a student to elite Stuyvesant High School (a ladder to join the ranks of America’s elite) or leave them to languish at a failing neighborhood school (a chute to working-class servitude). The stakes are enormous — but try convincing a hormonal teenager who hates everything.

Through 11 original songs, Cramer offers sketches of 10 pupils, taking artistic liberties with names and details to protect the innocent. There’s Jade, who has a meltdown about missing flashcards. Javier doesn’t think there’s a point in attending his lawyer-themed summer camp since we’re all going to die from climate change. Divya is terrified of incorrectly answering the essay prompt, “Is Shakespeare’s Othello racist?” And teenage libertarian Jason already knows everything and contends (not irrationally) that Democrats want him to hate himself because he is white. Born with every advantage in the richest city in human history, these people have a very good chance of becoming your boss or client or landlord or congressperson some day!

The songs have a vaguely improvisational feel. Some stanzas rhyme, others do not, but all are bracingly honest. Cramer sings in a sweetly unpolished voice while playing an array of ever-larger instruments (the evening starts with a ukulele and goes from there). I worried that the morose pixie dream tutor gimmick would wear off, but it never did thanks to sharp direction from Morgan Green and the beguiling presence of Cramer, an enigmatic performer who makes you lean forward and pay attention.

Andreea Mincic’s oppressive institutional scenic design (tile wall, grey carpet) offer a strong sense of place, while Taylor Lilly’s guerrilla concert lighting enhances the tones established by the songs.

Before the heartbreaking final two numbers, about a smart girl unlucky enough to spend her senior year (2020-21) hiding behind a blank Zoom screen, there is a brief nonmusical interlude in which Cramer lays down some statistics about education in New York City. What emerges is a clear picture of a class-sorting machine disguised as a meritocracy, lubricated by expensive private tutors and fueled by cringeworthy personal essays about overcoming adversity. “The people with urgent stories to tell don’t have the means to tell them. The people who have the means to tell stories don’t have urgent stories to tell,” Cramers sings. We know they are right, and wonder about the kind of people who can survive in New York City long enough to emerge with a theatrical career.

Ikechukwu Ufomadu wrote and stars in Amusements, directed by Nemuna Ceesay, at Playwrights Horizons.
(© Chelcie Parry)

Unlike School Pictures, Ikechukwu Ufomadu’s Amusements is aggressively apolitical, a gentle parade of dad jokes and other verbal sleights-of-hand. Shortly after his arrival onstage, he peers into the audience and asks, “By show of hands, who’s here?” He later slips into a decent vocal impersonation of Robert F. Kennedy, scrupulously avoiding any mention of the late Senator’s son, who aspires to be our next president. This show is not about that, or anything else that might raise your blood-pressure. In the grand tradition of Waiting for Godot, Amusements is a play about nothing (but maybe everything). Either way, I can confidently state that Ufomadu is a much funnier writer than Samuel Beckett.

Over the course of an hour, Ufomadu tries on new accents like a kid playing dress-up, interacting with the audience in purposefully lame bits: At one point, he asks if anyone in the house needs a volunteer in an inversion of the old magic show trope. “My hobbies include enunciating and emailing my résumé to various gatekeepers,” he announces with a smile, perhaps unintentionally pointing back to School Pictures.

Director Nemuna Ceesay keeps the tone loose and lighthearted, with every element (Andreea Mincic’s swanky bar cart set, Taylor Lilly’s spot-against-red-curtain lighting, Christopher Darbassie’s sound design, the underscoring of which sounds like it came from a Google search for royalty-free music) springing from the singular presence of the writer-performer.

Ufomadu has long been interested in the affable host archetype, a parasocial buddy to lull you to sleep with inoffensive jokes and inconsequential chatter. His off-off-Broadway talk show, Ike at Night, was an earlier expression of this (here he is interviewing then Brooklyn Borough President and now Mayor Eric Adams). Amusements represents the refinement of that idea. It escapes the surly bonds of Tischcore to touch the face of the universally absurd, and it feels like a welcome respite from all the urgent and important theater being created in the city. Whether he’s performing a flaccid magic trick or leading you in a holiday sing-along, it’s impossible not to like Ike.

Alexandra Tatarsky wrote and stars in Sad Boys in Harpy Land, directed by Iris McCloughan, at Playwrights Horizons.
(© Chelcie Parry)

Your reaction to Alexandra Tatarsky’s Sad Boys in Harpy Land is likely to be less warm-fuzzy and more head-scratchy. The 80-minute show is about the creative process, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, the concept of the wandering Jew, the end of the world, and hell — and it’s a clown show!

 Tatarsky actually achieves a decent lampoon of the American creative class, guzzling iced coffee (she drinks about a gallon over the course of the show) and wallowing in self-doubt as they pour over old texts in an attempt to ground a new work in something solid, while also justifying the expensive arts degree that led them down this path of despair (we’re back to School Pictures again). At times, the shows feels like an extended elevator pitch of itself, with more screaming and weeping than one would typically want to display before a group of potential backers.

Tatarsky is a dynamite performer who physically commits to every beat except for one frustrating trait: She tends to laugh at her own bits, momentarily escaping from the character she’s playing or the mood she’s setting to let us know that she’s in on the joke and she finds it just as ridiculous as we do. That’s reassuring, but deflates whatever moment she and her creative team have worked so hard to create, resulting in a show that feels like a big freeform rehearsal.

That roughness extends to Iris McCloughan’s production, which teems with half-baked great ideas. Some of Andreea Mincic’s costumes reveal brilliance (like a long gray beard that comes in a fire hose reel), while others are merely revealing (a sheer red “earthworm” costume in the second half). A section that transfers the whole audience to the stage is poorly executed and takes too long, although the little backstage warren Mincic creates (“my bedroom,” Tatarsky calls it) at least feels like a more appropriate environment for this kind of show — something you would typically have to take a Brooklyn-bound L train to see.

Playwrights Horizons (a “shockingly respectable venue,” in the words of Tatarsky) should be congratulated for handing over some of its primo real estate to this kind of challenging theater. It may not all work, but these are three voices worth hearing.

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Closed: December 3, 2023