Spring 2015 Openings – “The Heidi Chronicles” and “Iowa”

After last year’s Tony controversy involving an even greater lack of representation of women in theatre than usual, New York City has really stepped up this season with plays written by, directed by, or starring women in major roles. Both The Heidi Chronicles, playing on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre, and Iowa, a new work that premiered this week at Playwrights Horizons, follow women’s narratives and their personal and societal connections.

The Heidi Chronicles, written by the late and great Wendy Wasserstein, follows Heidi (a stunning Elisabeth Moss) from her adolescence through adulthood as she grapples with her feminist ideals, pursues a career in studying women artists, and maintains relationships with her friends Susan (Ali Ahn) and Peter (Bryce Pinkham), and her ex-boyfriend Scoop (Jason Biggs). Filled with pop culture references, from Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” to John Lennon’s death, The Heidi Chronicles does not shy away from the cultural milestones experienced by the boomer generation–nor does it demure from honest discussions about feminism (which is now often thought of as a dirty word), an how it has affected Heidi’s life. Still, the play’s content remains as poignant and fresh as it was when it premiered twenty-six years ago. I credit that to Wasserstein’s emotionally rich characters, which have been brilliantly brought to life by the cast and Pam MacKinnon’s direction. Elisabeth Moss brings a constant inner life with Heidi, while Bryce Pinkham wins over the audience with his disarming charm (begin the Tony watch now). And though Heidi’s conflicts still resonate today, I almost wish they didn’t.

How to show your old play’s still got it: cast selfies. (Source:

The Heidi Chronicles originally had its off-Broadway premiere at Playwrights Horizons, which is now presenting Iowa, a new musical play written by Jenny Schwartz and Todd Almond. Iowa follows Becca (Jill Shackner), a teenage girl who’s dealing with her crush on her math teacher (Lee Sellars), her not-so-great poetry, and the fact that her mother Sandy (Karyn Quackenbush) is marrying her online boyfriend and moving the two of them to Iowa. That’s about as much plot as I can give you, as Iowa is an absurdist romp that includes Becca’s best friend Amanda’s (Carolina Sanchez) issues with body images and popularity, Sandy’s fixation with the internet and ponies, and a pony actually coming on stage with a musical number of his own.

Madonna and Child. (Photo Credit: Joan Marcus)

Iowa was disappointing for a number of reasons. The first was its billing as a “musical play.” While that was an accurate description of the show’s format, it allows for a confusing mishmash of songs. In some ways it’s a proper musical, primarily with, “I Don’t Know,” song by Becca and her mother. Their duet clearly delineated the characters’ conflicts and provided insight into their thoughts and dysfunctionally functional relationship. Sandy’s solo “Fun!” especially delved deep into her neuroses, which was both a terror and a delight. Meanwhile, other numbers, like the Amanda’s observations about cheerleaders and the pony’s thoughts about women (simply titled “Cheerleaders” and “Ponies,” respectively), were entertaining, but seemed to exist more in the realm of surreal sketch comedy. (The surreal nature of the show definitely disconnected with some theatergoers, as a few audience members walked out during the performance I attended.) The final blow for me was the show’s closing number, a song so earnest and hopeful that it completely underwrote everything that had preceded it. While I could see how Iowa actually wanted to disconnect from its audience through its subversive content, the results still left me a little too cold. Tickets and more information for The Heidi Chronicles and Iowa can be found here and here.

Second Stage Theatre’s “American Hero”

Second Stage Theatre launches its 12th annual Uptown Series with American Hero,  a play that is as much about the American Dream as it is about the prime rib sandwiches made by its characters. Said characters are three sandwich artists starting work at a new franchise. After a day of training by Bob, their odd franchise-owner, they launch the store’s grand opening… even though their owner never makes an appearance. Save for one more brief visit, Bob never returns to the shop. When sandwich supplies run out and the corporate offices fail to respond, the employees take matters into their own hands: they make their own homemade sandwiches to try and get paid.

Taste the despair.

The world of American Hero is very familiar. Pointed satire on corporate America? Check. Ditto for the banalities of fast food franchises? You got it, dude. Underdog misfits attempting to defy the odds and succeed on their own hard work and ingenuity? Ding, we have a winner. But all the parts add up to a whole more deeply satisfying than a turkey-Swiss combo. Bess Wohl’s dialogue makes you laugh and empathize with her imperfectly perfect characters. Leigh Silverman’s direction is one of the best kinds: the play flows so effortlessly that you forget there ever was one. And the four-person cast creates performances that are as honest as they are hilarious.

In the light of the recent Tony controversy regarding sound design awards, it’s worth mentioning that Jill BC Du Boff’s sound design for American Hero was my favorite design element of the show. (Dane Laffrey’s hyper realistic set that could be a real sandwich franchise shop is a close second.) During all of the transition scenes, instrumentals of pop hits are played (including “No Scrubs” and “Don’t Stop Believin'”). Not only are they garishly funny and mimic the music that is often played at franchise restaurants, but they also often fit the dramatic context of many scenes.

One of American Hero’s characters utters this line: “We’re all lucky to be here in this particular shit show.” As the audience learns the problems of every character, from the lowliest sandwich artist to a corporate executive, it becomes clear that every person has their own share of struggles and triumphs. And their own sandwiches to make.

“Cherry Smoke” @ Urban Stages

While Rocky is ducking punches (and singing about them) uptown in the Winter Garden Theatre, the Working Theater has their own down on his luck boxer waiting in the wings. Cherry Smoke, now playing at Urban Stages, follows Fish (Vayu O’Donnell), a young man with a self-destructive streak as unyielding as his blows.

He shares the stage with his girlfriend Cherry (Molly Carden), a runaway who hasn’t been in school in years; his younger brother Duffy (Patrick Carroll); and Duffy’s tomboyish-yet-maternal wife Bug (Julie Jesneck). As the plays goes through its assortment of flashbacks, present-day scenes, and direct address monologues, we learn about Fish’s troubled past and his attempts to change once Cherry gets pregnant with his child. As indicated in the play’s awkward prologue, where all four characters stare morosely into the audience before an abrupt blackout, Things Do Not End Well.

Working Theater states that their mission “is to produce plays for and about working people.” I’m in love with this, as it can be grating to see another season of plays set in fancy sitting rooms. But Cherry Smoke, with its two-dimensional characters, seems to stereotype the people it wants to portray. Fish is a boorish alcoholic whose penchant for violence is vaguely explained away with “daddy issues.” Bug, who has a steady job and a loving husband, can only find fulfillment in being a mother (yawn). And Cherry is literally unable to survive unless her man is at her side. For a woman who has been living on her own since she was a child, her Ophelia-style breakdown is upsetting… and a little questionable. Finally, while the play’s violent end should come across as shockingly tragic, it instead reads as a foregone conclusion for its poor working class ne’er-do-wells.

With downtrodden characters from beginning to end, Cherry Smoke fails to pack a dramatic punch. Its impact could have been felt, though, if we just knew what Fish was fighting for.

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney at Soho Rep

No lies, I was staring at that plate of food during the whole play

It’s often easy to ignores the bureaucratic banalities and ethical problems that lie behind artistic genius. We alienate celebrity figures and their works fromany semblance of reality in much the same way that Disney World is alienated from the rest of Florida. In A Public Reading, the central conflict is precisely Disney’s struggle to remove himself from reality– to become an eternal figurehead of escape and happiness.

That’s not to say Disney is  a happy man himself. At least, not when he’s out of his own head. When he humbles himself enough to interact with his brother Roy, his daughter, and his son-in-law, he’s a resentful, proud, and power-hungry man. But when he’s inside his thoughts in true megalomaniac fashion, he’s his own best company. Still,  the play excellently depicts Walt’s (a hauntingly good Larry Pine) relationship with his family, using largely brief fragmented dialogue to display their struggle in genuine communication.

What A Public Reading does best however, is depict a genius who, as time and old age sets in, is seeing his work fall prey to various forces. Walt can’t seem to have anything original or authentic anymore. If you’re a Walter Benjamin nut like me, you might follow my train of thought a bit better– Benjamin was a 1930s critic who claimed that modernity robs art of a certain ‘aura’ that existed when a piece of art could not be reproduced. So let’s say that a piece of art like the Mona Lisa, in the 19th century, had an almost sacred quality. Art devotees could only travel to the Louvre to see it. There were not coffee cups with the Mona Lisa on it. No souvenirs or postcards in the Louvre gift shop with the Mona Lisa on it. No quick Google searches to glance at it.

Now, fast forward to 20th Century France. The Mona Lisa is everywhere and anywhere. And who really actually goes to the Louvre anymore to see it? My own interaction with the real Mona Lisa took about 3 seconds, and it was mostly just to say I had done it.

As Walt Disney gets older, his works are growing increasingly alienated from the wonder and awe he inspired in those of his generation. In many ways, Disney is more concerned in the reproduction of an idea than in its original form. For example, when we first meet Roy (Frank Wood) and Walt they are busy making a nature documentary about lemmings who supposedly suicidally jump off a cliff every year as part of their life cycle. When they discover that lemmings don’t actually do that, however, they launch the lemmings right off the darn cliff themselves. Later on, while building FrontierLand, Roy buys land from a local farmer on the condition that a generations-old tree remains on the property. Walt, however, first relocates the tree, then fills the tree with cement. Then replaces the leaves with fake ones. Good enough, right?  We see this alienation from original ideas in Walt’s private life as well. He is overwhelmingly distressed by the fact that his daughter refuses to name his unborn grandson after him. He is likewise concerned about the reproduction of his legacy in his final cryogenic freezing of his head. (JUST the head! It can get a new body later) A head is the center of ideas, of genius, of impulse. But is it any longer so once placed on a new and ‘improved’ body?

By the end of the play, we’ve realized that not only has Walt alienated himself from any authentic relationship with his family, he has also alienated himself from the authenticity of his work. And what better way to show this complete, authoritarian disconnect from the nature of love, art, and happiness than to set the play in a corporate boardroom? Good times.

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