Second Stage Theatre

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.

Little Miss Sunshine at 2ST: Why Can’t Musicals Get Dark Material Right?

Throw a $60 Banksy sketch into Times Square and it’s likely to hit a theater hosting a musical that has been adapted from a film. With the era of jukebox musicals whimpering stubbornly along, Broadway is looking for new ready-made material to translate into high-grossing, audience-pleasing, low-risk adaptations.

Sometimes it works. A classic movie gets instantly revived by the Broadway treatment. Disney usually plays this game well and I’m totally psyched for the Aladdin and Hunchback of Notre Dame musicals on the horizon. And look at what Broadway did for The Producers and Spamalot. But these shows all sprouted from original films that had simple and/or comedic plots, larger-than-life characters with very clear motivations and personality traits, and overall optimistic and entertaining goals. Family films and classic comedies fit comfortably into the Broadway mold of spectacle, frivolity, and lots of heart.

Working with material that strays from that formula is a bit trickier, although perhaps it shouldn’t necessarily be so. See, the way I always figured that a successful musical adaptation works is that you look at the original material, see where there’s a key emotional moment, and plug a song into that shiz. Ragtime is one of my favorite musical adaptations because it gives its production a great balance of plot-driven and character-driven substance. Its songs work to drive its enormously proportioned plot forward while also exploring the plot’s emotional resonances in the characters.

So when given a piece of emotionally complex original material, the adaptation formula seems like it could be simply carried out: have a major character development or a complicated relationship or idea? Make a song out of it. Use the advantages that music plus lyrics afford over just plain old dialogue or general statements. A melody can add so much more power to an expression. It can enhance it, mimic it, even contradict it.

So why has Broadway and Off-Broadway  turned three pieces of emotionally rich material into something resembling a Disney musical more than anything. Continue reading “Little Miss Sunshine at 2ST: Why Can’t Musicals Get Dark Material Right?”

Nobody Loves You at Second Stage Theatre

Jeff (Bryan Fenkart) receives a trophy for being all sorts of lovable.

A critique of faux-reality t.v. might sound a bit trite and begrudging nowadays. Unless you’re some kind of neo-Luddite, most of us have come to terms with our fascination with reality shows, even when their events are obviously staged or exaggerated. Reality television helps give our minds a rest from words like “trite” and “neo-Luddite.” I still get excited about new episodes of The Voice, even though I can’t bear to watch anything with Gordon Ramsay in it for more than 30 seconds.

I was originally looking for a funny Gordon Ramsay gif but this seems a lot better.

Which is why, perhaps, the first five minutes of Nobody Loves You feel a bit worrisome– are we about to get preached to about the evils of reality television?

But never fear! Nobody Loves You, or NLY as the show’s resident twitter expert calls it, has all the heart, fun, and spectacle of a great musical. And the best part is that its critique of reality television is only as deep or complex as you let it be.

Jeff is a smartypants PhD student writing a dissertation on ontology, or the philosophical study of reality. His girlfriend Tanya gets frustrated with his academic views, particularly when it comes to her favorite reality television show, “Nobody Loves You.” Tanya breaks up with Jeff, announcing that she’s going to audition to be a contestant on NLY. Jeff also auditions, seeing the chance to win Tanya back, but when he finds that he has a spot on the show and she does not, he remains on the show as research for his diss. He aims to prove the unreality of reality tv, and in doing so, becomes a fan favorite, as well as the favorite of a production assistant named Jenny.

NLY feels a bit banal at first but once focus turns away from Jeff’s relationship problems towards the reality show within the show, it finds its hilarious, and often genuine voice. Jenny and Jeff’s relationship feels fun and unique, as portrayed by their love song listing the things they hate. The supporting characters are all excellent and hilarious. The contestants begin their NLY stay as stock characters but they quickly develop individual wants and needs so that you truly care about what happens to each one. The show’s host, played by Heath Calvert, left me replaying some of the show’s funniest moments in my head all day. Rory O’Malley also steals his scenes as twitter fan Evan. You can watch him perform a song written almost entirely in twitter lingo here.

If you didn’t clip on that link, you really should. Got it?

Because honestly, I really shouldn’t continue unless you click it.

Okay, now that we’ve got that clear…

Nobody Loves You is fun, it’s fresh, and it’s reflective of today’s obsessive fan culture. For example, is reality t.v. functionally similar to musical theater in a willing suspension of disbelief sort of way? Are reality tv fans inherently aware of its superficiality, and if not, is that something to be worried about?

But nevermind that, because you can still enjoy the show without all that thinking. Now go watch that Rory O’Malley clip or I SWEAR TO GOD…

4 Reasons Why Water by the Spoonful is Awesome


Last night Water by the Spoonful had its New York premiere at the Second Stage Theatre.  Here are some reasons why it’s awesome:

1. It is the first Pulitzer Prize-winning play by a Latina playwright.

And boy does Quiara Alegría Hudes represent. Water by the Spoonful follows ex-Marine Elliot and his return home to Philadelphia. While Elliot’s postwar demons are not new, the perspective of a Latino veteran is. The same could be said for Elliot’s cousin Yaz, who is reevaluating her life after her divorce. Her relationship with her husband was strained in part because it was an interracial one. Odessa, Elliot’s biological mother, has a particularly poignant arc. While her addiction to cocaine would usually be the end of the story, in Spoonful it’s only the beginning as  Odessa uses her experiences to moderate a forum about substance abuse. Add in a group of  diverse well-rounded supporting characters and you have Water by the Spoonful.

2. Internet conversations can still be dramatic ones.

At first, I couldn’t believe that entire scenes were taking place in Odessa’s internet chat room. But this production of Spoonful deftly handled these scenes, in part by displaying the avatars and usernames of the characters on stage. And with so much of our communication now taking place online, it was a bold and timely move to include the online interactions of the characters.

3. Location, location, location.

I mentioned this in my Stephen Adly Guirgis post, but I love plays that take us somewhere beyond the living room. Spoonful travels to a Subway in Philly, a train station in Japan, a rainforest in Puerto Rico, and more. Seeing all of these places on stage was not only exciting but also allowed characters to go on new and unexpected journeys. I especially liked Madeleine’s quest to find herself in Japan, and Elliot and Yaz’s spreading their aunt’s ashes in El Yunque.

4. So. Much. Heart.

A lot of today’s theatre has to do with aloof-ness and disassociation, whether it be through emotion-less line readings or snarky witticisms. But Water by the Spoonful‘s characters aren’t afraid to care. Yaz is passionate about teaching Coltrane to her students and take care of Elliot, Odessa wants the best for all of her forum members, and Madeleine wants to connect to Clayton in a tangible way. Hudes’ honest writing and the ensemble’s sincere performances create a memorable, heartfelt night of theatre.

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