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September 29, 2010

"Now Circa Then" is an All-Time Charmer


As anyone who has ever watched even a trailer for a Jennifer Aniston movie knows, romantic comedies are an endangered species.  They aren’t in such great shape on the New York stage either. The fact that the dyspeptic Neil LaBute is probably our leading chronicler of modern romance gives you some idea about the state of the genre. Which is why I was initially intrigued—and later charmed—by Now Circa Then, the appealing comedy that opened this week at ArsNova, the theater space way over on 54th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues. 

The play is set in a museum much like the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side that has restored modest tenement apartments and celebrates the hardscrabble life of the immigrants who lived in them at the turn of the last century. The sole characters are two contemporary twentysomethings, who work at the museum as historical reenactors, the costumed guides who act out the lives of the former tenants for the sightseers who come to visit.

Gideon is a history fanatic who takes the job very seriously.  Margie is a slacker who’s just trying to earn enough money to pay her rent. She thinks he’s a prig. He’s offended by her lack of commitment and by her inauthenticity: they’re portraying a Jewish couple and she’s Filipina. But both can’t help noticing that the other is awfully cute.  It’s a perfect rom-com set-up and the fun is watching how they fall for one another—and what happens afterward.

Their story is juxtaposed against that of the marriage of the immigrant couple they play and playwright Carly Mensch, who has a day job writing for the TV series “Weeds,” does a nice job of balancing the light comedy and some deeper thoughts about the differences between relationships then and now. (Click here to read a Time Out New York interview with Mensch.)

There are a few missteps. The backstory about Gideon’s dead mother is overworked. Director Jason Eagan is less handy with the play's serious moments than he is with its humorous ones. The play runs close to two hours and that’s too long. But the production has been blessed by two delightfully charismatic actors, Stephen Plunkett and Maureen Sebastian, who turn Gideon and Margie into real people whom you grow to care about during the course of the play. 

Everyone in the audience at the performance I attended—from some beer-drinking frat boy types in the back row (ArsNova offers free drinks) to a grey-haired grandmotherly type in the first—was openly pulling for the pair and having a good time watching as Gideon and Margie tried to make their thing work.

Eagan has directed the play with as much fluidity as he can, given the theater’s small black-box space and Now Circa Then’s huge set demands—over the course of the play the action moves from the formality of the apartment’s sitting room to the domestic comfyness of its kitchen to the bittersweet intimacy of its bedroom. That set, by the way, is so richly detailed and period-perfect that it looks as though designer Lauren Helpern lifted it wholesale from the Tenement Museum.

Succumbing to the current theatrical vogue for augmenting shows with continuing-ed style lectures, the producers have scheduled a series of talkback sessions with demographers, historians and preservationists through the end of the run which ends Oct. 9.  It’s the kind of stuff I usually eat right up but it’s not what this play is really about.  It’s about people and the way history—our own and even that of those we learn about—can shape us. And that doesn’t require any extras. The show is worth the trip to far West 54th Street all by itself.

September 25, 2010

"Orlando" Both Charms and Confounds


As regular readers of B&Me know, downtown theater is not my natural habitat.  So it’s been an adventurous week for me. In the space of four days, I saw the sensational revival of Angels in America at Signature Theatre, not a downtown company but Tony Kushner’s masterpiece will always be a proud standard bearer of the downtown aesthetic (I’ll say much more about this production after its official opening); and I saw Flemish director Ivo van Hoven’s iconoclastic remix of The Little Foxes at New York Theatre Workshop (click here to read my review of that one); and Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel "Orlando," which opened for a four-week run at Classic Stage Company on Thursday night.

It may have been too much downtown for me. The notes I took while watching Orlando are so badly scribbled that I can’t decipher them. My mental images of the play dissolve into dream-like vapors.  Which, ironically, may be appropriate. 

Woolf’s novel, a tribute to her lover, the aristocrat and poet Vita Sackville-West, is an elusive fabulation.  It recounts the 400-year life of a nobleman born in the 16th century who over the years transforms into a woman but never ages.  The character Orlando has lovers of both sexes, including Queen Elizabeth I. The book is consider a landmark in feminist writing, gender studies and modernist fiction.  All of which makes it an obvious challenge for a playwright.

Ruhl, of course, is no stranger to feminism, gender issues or modernist writing.  She began working on her Orlando 12 years ago and, according to folks far more literate than I, has remained faithful to Woolf's text.  Maybe, some say, too faithful.  Ruhl has employed the story theater approach to tell Orlando’s story, which means there’s a lot of narration, with characters spouting exposition and referring to themselves in the third person (click here to watch an interview in which she talks about the making of the play).

The language is beautiful but, at least for me, also tedious after a while.  The saving grace is that this production, directed by Rebecca Taichman, is gorgeous. Allen Moyer has devised a spare set that is elegant in its understatement and witty in its carefully chosen touches of whimsy: his miniature houses, miniature boats and even miniature tea cups made me smile each time I saw them. As did Anita Yavich’s lovely costumes and Annie-B Parson’s charming choreography. Christopher Akerlind’s supple lighting shows them all off to good effect.

The cast is equally fine, lead by Francesca Faridany, radiant as the title character, and the downtown darling David Greenspan, who brings some much needed humor to the proceedings in a variety of roles including Queen Elizabeth (click here to read an interview with him).

I'm not sure what to make of Orlando.  My mind wandered throughout the two-hour performance. But each time it returned, it saw something it liked.

September 22, 2010

"The Little Foxes" Needs Sharper Teeth

Theater talk, including mine, usually focuses on whether to point the thumb up or down. Witness the hedline for this posting.  But the new revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes that opened last night at New York Theatre Workshop requires a far more complex response than that. For this production has been directed by Ivo van Hove, the post-modern Flemish director who specializes in deconstructions of classic plays that some people find to be brilliant—and others baffling. 

Van Hove believes there’s no sense in reviving a play unless you’re going to reinterpret it.  Or, as he says, “Just to look in a mirror is not interesting.  But to look behind the mirror at what is the deeper truth, that is what interests me.”  (Click here to listen to excerpts from an interview he did with the New York Times.)  His dogma clicked with my husband K.  “I’m not sure if I can say I liked it," he said as we left the theater after seeing The Little Foxes. "But you’ve got to respect his artistic vision.”

That vision tends to include a nearly bare stage; modern dress, regardless of when the play is set; moody music; a prominent video screen on which bits of the performances are projected; and a core of actors who appreciate van Hove's highly stylized—and highly physical—approach to theatermaking and so often appear in his productions. 

A prominent member of that group is the always-impressive actress Elizabeth Marvel, who has played Hedda Gabler and Blanche DuBois for van Hove and is now creating Regina Giddens, the greedy she-wolf at the center of Hellman’s dysfunctional family drama.   

The Little Foxes, which the New Orleans-born Hellman used to say was inspired by her own kin, is set about 20 years after the Civil War. Regina’s prosperous, if unscrupulous, brothers are just about to build a cotton mill that will make them even wealthier and they’re willing to share the riches with their sister if she can come up with $75,000 to invest in the project. But when Regina’s ailing husband won’t give her the money, she remains determined to get it by any means necessary.   

The play, perhaps Hellman’s best, is old-fashioned and well-crafted with big speeches for nearly all the characters, including the family’s loyal black servants. The movie version with Bette Davis is one of my all-time faves.

Unlike K, I may be too much of a traditionalist to appreciate van Hove’s stripped down approach. So many of the choices he's made seem odd to me. I couldn’t figure out why the set was basically just a bare purple box, with the exception of a tiny piano, a tinier table and a half-seen flight of stairs. I wondered if it might have symbolized the emptiness of the characters’ lives but K thought I might be over thinking the concept. 

Maybe so but the actors seemed desperate to interact with something and so they kept pounding on the walls, running into them and rubbing up against them, all of which got old after awhile. 

Another of van Hove's choices is the casting of Tina Benko, an actress I’ve recently grown to admire, as Birdie, Regina’s emotionally (and in this production, physically) abused sister-in-law.  Birdie, the heiress to a once-great plantation, is usually played as a sad sack but Benko is so classically beautiful that I had a hard time believing that money would be the only reason Regina’s avaricious brother would marry her.  K said I was being too literal.  

That may be. But while I was intellectually challenged by van Hove's interpretation of The Little Foxes (and respect it) my heart was left totally unengaged.  And, call me old-fashioned if you like, when I go to the theater that’s the kind of catharsis I’m seeking.

September 18, 2010

Reprising "A Little Night Music"


Unlike so many of my fellow theater lovers, I seldom revisit a show after I’ve seen it. I have a hard enough time keeping up with the new stuff. But the buzz surrounding the replacement cast for the current revival of A Little Night Music (Bernadette Peters as Desirée!  Elaine Stritch as Madame Armfeldt!) was so loud and so enthusiastic that my husband K and I decided we had to see for ourselves what everyone we knew was calling a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  So we went.  Alas, I came away thinking that maybe once really had been enough for me. 

As touted, Peters delivers a moving rendition of the show’s signature song, and its composer Stephen Sondheim’s most famous, “Send in the Clowns.”  But the rest of her performance seemed too broad for me—more emoting than genuine emotion. 

I had even bigger problems with Stritch.  She went up on her lines in her first speech, fumbled others and drew out the rest with long pauses that kept me on the edge of my seat about whether she’d make it through the performance and pushed the show's running time past three hours.  I know Stritch is 85 but Angela Lansbury is just a year younger and she was the best part of this revival's original cast (click here to read my earlier review)

But, apparently, my disappointment with Stritch is only narrowly shared.  Because K aside (her performance so distressed him that he literally put his head in his hands) the rest of the audience loved her, waited patiently until she finished her speeches, laughed indulgently at the faces she made as she tried to remember them and applauded madly at her every entrance and exit.

Broadway darlings Peters and Stritch aren’t the only changes.  Aaron Lazar, who played Desirée’s pompous lover Carl-Magnus when the show opened last December had annoyed the hell out of me with his over-the-top antics and so I had looked forward to his replacement. Instead, I developed a new appreciation for Lazar’s work. Bradley Dean, who took over the role, is totally bland and doesn’t sing nearly as well.

Most aspects of the production remain the same, however. The tiny eight-member orchestra still can't do justice to Sondheim's score.  And the set—rugs, pillows, a few chairs and the occasional bed—looks even chintzier than when I first saw it. 

But there were some things I liked better this second time around. Ramona Mallory, who plays the far younger wife of the man Desirée truly loves, seemed shrill and almost amateurish in December but she’s matured over the past 10 months.  Her passing resemblance to Peters also works in her favor. You can actually see why the husband Fredrik would be so infatuated with this younger incarnation of his ideal woman. 

And speaking of Fredrik, I had admired the way Alexander Hanson played the role when I saw the show last year but, back then, he’d been overshadowed by his high-wattage co-star Catherine Zeta-Jones who would go on to win a Tony for her performance of Desirée.  Now, there’s more of a balance between Hanson and Peters and he shines brilliantly.

So should you go see the show?  Maybe.  People like me who have the privilege of seeing lots and lots of shows can sometimes get overly picky. The house was sold out when K and I saw A Little Night Music earlier this week and nearly everyone seemed to be having a good time—almost as though it were once-in-a-lifetime experience.

September 15, 2010

"Me, Myself & I" Suffers an Identity Crisis

Edward Albee has nothing to prove to me. Or to anyone else.  Now 82, he is America’s greatest living playwright.  Over the past five decades, he’s won three Pulitzers, a special Tony for Lifetime Achievement and the Kennedy Center Honors. His plays Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Zoo Story, and Seascape have wedged themselves firmly into the literary canon and the American cultural psyche. (Click here to read a smart—and entertaining—interview with Albee in the Village Voice) And so it is an occasion when Albee offers a new work, even when that work doesn’t rank with his best, as is the case with his latest Me, Myself & I, which opened this week at Playwrights Horizons.

As soon as the play—and its cast, lead by Elizabeth Ashley and Brian Murray—was announced, my buddy Bill emailed that we had to get tickets right away.  And so we did. I’m a late blooming but devoted Albee fan. Like everyone else who wanted to think of herself as hip, I saw the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton movie version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but I was intimidated by Albee, not sure I was smart enough to really “get” him. Lincoln Center’s acclaimed 1996 revival of A Delicate Balance changed my mind a little.  But it was The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, one of the most moving theater experiences of my life, that turned me into a devotee. 

The thing, I discovered, about Albee is that tucked inside his plays’ absurdist antics and intellectual word play, are vulnerable people whose inability to connect with one another is so frighteningly real and familiar that they tear at your heart. But in Me, Myself & I, alas, the characters barely touch it. 

The plot tracks the events that unfold when one identical twin declares that his baffled sibling no longer exists. The standard Albee tropes about identity, monster mothers and phantom children are all there.  But watching the play is like listening to a cover band crank out songs from a favorite album—you can recognize the tunes but there’s not enough oomph—or heart—in them. My mind wandered. Too much, it seems. At intermission, Bill told me I’d nodded off.

I can’t blame the cast for that. Everyone tries his or her best.  Ashley tamps down her sometimes annoying grande-dame tics and even seems to raise her distinctively husky voice an octave to portray the mother who is so unfit for parenthood that she gives her sons the same name (OTTO and otto) and then can’t tell them apart:  “one of you is enough,” she laments. (Click here to read Ashley’s smart and also entertaining thoughts about the play.)

Murray keeps his trademark eye rolls but they work for his character of the mother’s subservient paramour.  In a couple of scenes he and Ashley struck me as a hetero version of Waiting for Godot’s Pozzo and Lucky. 

Zachary Booth and Preston Sadleir are fine as the Ottos and the clever costume design by Jennifer von Mayrhauser and lighting by Kenneth Posner make them look very twin-like. But the play ends abruptly and the audience at the performance Bill and I attended didn’t seem to know what to make of the whole thing. I felt deflated too. But Bill felt differently.  And I think rightly. So I’ll let him have the last word here.  “It’s a new play by Albee,” he said as we walked out.  “And just that makes it worth seeing.” 

September 11, 2010

An Idiosyncratic Preview of the Fall Season

It’s an annual rite.  Or should I say write?  For this is the time of year that people like me who write about theater are suppose to write about the shows we’re most looking forward to seeing in the upcoming season.  However it’s not so much the new shows I’m eager to see this year but, rather, certain performances.  Some of my very favorite actors—many of them MIA from Broadway for too long—will be hitting the boards this fall and here are the ones I’m literally bouncing in my seat to see:

ELIZABETH MARVEL in The Little Foxes. The role of the ruthless Regina, who will do anything to achieve the wealth she craves in Lillian Hellman’s tragic family saga, has always been catnip for powerhouse actresses. Tallulah Bankhead played her in the original 1939 stage production.  Bette Davis took her on in the classic movie version. Elizabeth Taylor got a Tony nomination for the 1981 Broadway revival. Now, the always marvelous Marvel—I dare you to name a more fearless actress working in the theater today—is ready to give the part her usual surge of dynamic energy.

CHERRY JONES in Mrs. Warren’s Profession. Jones has won all kinds of kudos for her turn as the President on the Fox series “24” but she is at her most commanding in front of a live audience.  Truth be told, I’m not that big a fan of George Bernard Shaw’s plays but it’s been four long years since Jones has been on a New York stage and I’d go to see her if she were appearing in the Ice Capades. 

PATRICK STEWART in A Life in the Theater. I know that some theater mavens think Stewart is too mannered but even they would have to admit that he seems a perfect choice for the grandiloquent old trouper in David Mamet’s droll love letter to the acting profession. And, there’s the bonus that T.R. Knight, a theater vet on Broadway, off-Broadway and in regional theater before his years as George on TV’s “Grey’s Anatomy,” will play the young protégé.

JEFFREY WRIGHT in A Free Man of Color.  There are far too few parts in which a black actor as talented as Wright can show off just how truly magnificent he is and it’s been far too long since Wright has been on a New York stage. So I’ve got my fingers crossed that John Guare’s eagerly anticipated new play, set in a freewheeling New Orleans during the time before the Louisiana Purchase and directed by George C. Wolfe, will offer Wright the kind of legroom he needs to strut his stuff. 

DAVID HYDE PIERCE and MARK RYLANCE in La Bête. The1991 version of David Hirson’s comedy, which centers around an 18th century French acting company and is written in iambic pentameter, didn’t fare so well with the critics and only ran for 25 performances. But I managed to see one of them and I found it a goofy delight. Both Pierce and Rylance are real smart when it comes to playing goofy and so the odds seem good that the play will do better this time around. 

VANESSA REDGRAVE in Driving Miss Daisy. To be honest, the casting of Redgave and James Earl Jones as the elderly southern grande dame and her faithful chauffeur in Aldred Uhry's odd couple story set in pre-Civil Rights Atlanta strikes me as strange.  But I’ve never seen Redgrave give a bad performance and I don’t expect her to break the pattern this time either.

JUST ABOUT THE WHOLE DAMN CAST in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.  Patti LuPone.  Brian Stokes Mitchell.  Laura Benanti. Sheri Rene Scott. All in David Yazbek’s musical adaptation of Pedro Almodóvar’s zany movie about four Spanish women, their lovers, mental illness, a botched kidnapping, Shiite terrorists and the mambo.  Need I say more?

September 8, 2010

"An Error of the Moon" is Full of Blunders


Retirement has been reinvented.  People no longer move to Florida or Arizona and just sit there and wait for their final exit.  Instead they take up high energy hobbies like mountain climbing and skydiving. Or they do high impact volunteer work for groups like Habitat for Humanity and the PEACE Plan.  Or, like Luigi Creatore, they start second careers. 

Creatore, who turns 90 this year, used to be a record producer who worked with Sam Cooke, Sarah Vaughan and Elvis Presley and wrote the lyrics to the songs “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Now, he writes plays and, through a company he set up called Theatre 21, backs productions for them.  His first venture, Flamingo Court,  a comedy about a retirement community, had two brief runs at New World Stages in 2008 and 2009.  Last week, he opened An Error of the Moon, a play about the actor brothers Edwin and John Wilkes Booth, in the Beckett Theatre at Theatre Row. 

Not up for old people jokes, I skipped Flamingo Court but, a sucker for Civil War-era stories and backstage dramas, I went to see An Error of the Moon. The royalty checks from Creatore’s earlier gigs are apparently still rolling in and he and his director Kim Weild have staged a relatively lavish production.  Alixandra Gage Englund’s costumes are sumptuous and Steven Capone’s expressionistic set is artful. Creatore also sprang for an elaborately-staged fencing duel even though it seems too large for the Beckett’s small stage; moody, albeit distractingly pretentious, video projections; and a video trailer that you can see by clicking here

Playing loose with history, An Error of the Moon opens in what seems to be a purgatory in which the uneasy spirit of Edwin Booth looks back on his successful career and ill-fated relationships with his first wife Mary and his younger brother Johnny who, of course, would become best known for being Abraham Lincoln’s assassin. The play borrows its title from a line in Othello and Creatore tries to graft Shakespeare’s themes of jealousy and madness onto his work. It’s an interesting conceit but he lacks the ability to pull it off.  Some scenes in the 85-minute play are confusing;  others unintentionally laughable.

I’ve seen worse plays but they were, at least partially, salvaged by good acting.  But An Error of the Moon falls short there too. The four-member cast hams it up with the kind of melodramatic, 19th century style acting that, ironically, Edwin Booth, the greatest American actor of his day, helped to banish. The actors look right for their parts, particularly the lovely Margaret Copeland, who plays Mary.  But only Brian Wallace, who appears in all the smaller supporting roles, does truly convincing work. I blame Weild's direction for most of the acting missteps.  But Erik Hefer, who plays Edwin, has to bear the weight for his own overly flamboyant bow at the curtain call.

This is the second time that Creatore has wrestled with the Booth story.  An earlier incarnation of this play called The Man Who Shot Lincoln played at the Astor Place Theatre back in 1988, before that theater became the seemingly permanent home for The Blue Man Group.  That version lasted just 24 performances. The current one is scheduled to run until Oct. 10.  If you're one of those now rare retirees who's trying to fill time, all tickets are a fixed-income friendly $50.

September 4, 2010

A Labor Day Celebration B&Me Style

Each September, as the nation indulges in its final-blast-of-summer festivities for Labor Day, this blog has celebrated the virtues of the journeymen actor.  But I’m changing up this year.  It’s still tough to be a working actor, to get a good part and even more to earn a living wage.  But the going seems to be even rougher for playwrights. 

So on Monday, I’ll be raising my glass and waving my banner for the folks like Brooke Berman, the talented but still largely unknown playwright who recently published “No Place Like Home,” a bittersweet memoir about the struggle to live as a theater artist in New York.

There are many more opportunities—plays and musicals staged on, off and off-off-Broadway, regional theaters and national tours, and even one-person cabaret acts—for actors to practice their craft in front of a live audience. The options are fewer for playwrights. Particularly for the unheralded ones like Berman who are still trying to break into the big time. 

These pups have to compete for stage time with the big dogs from Sophocles to Stoppard. And even those who do managed to get a first play produced often find it difficult to get additional productions (theaters like the fizz of being first with a new work) or to get a second play on the boards (unless the first made a tsunami-like splash). 

And yet, the New York International Fringe Festival, which closed last weekend, featured 197 works. Each got about a half dozen performances and most are unlikely ever to be seen again. And their playwrights were the lucky ones; hundreds of others didn’t even make the cut.  

But chances are they’ll all continue to scribble away during the coffee breaks at their day jobs and on the weekends in their outer-borough garrets. That's what Berman did and her “No Place Like Home” offers an up-close-and-very-personal look at what it can take to make it in the theater these days.

Berman is a relative success story.  She started out as an actor and was so eager to get into the world of the theater that she left Barnard after just one year.  She got a few gigs in the downtown theater scene and studied with Anne Bogart at Trinity Rep up in Providence but eventually when she began populating the performance pieces she wrote for herself with other characters, she turned to playwriting fulltime and got into the prestigious writing program at Juilliard.   

Her short play Dancing with a Devil was a standout at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in 1999.  Since then she’s written at least a dozen more and won all kinds of accolades, including fellowships to the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo and other supportive havens for artists. Her plays have been produced at regional theaters around the country, in London and here in New York.

But Berman’s life is also something of a cautionary tale about what it costs to be a playwright today. About half the plays she’s written remain unproduced. Berman has taught to supplement her income and after two decades of living in New York, recently moved to L.A. where she’s taken some screenwriting jobs.

The subtitle of her book is “A Memoir in 39 Apartments.”  That’s how many homes she had in the city between the time she was 18 and 39. Most of them—even when she was in her 30s—were shared with other people, some strangers, because that’s all she could afford.  Her wardrobe was non-vintage, pre-bedbug thrift shop. She often lived for days on a single pot of soup.

I was mixed about the one play of hers I saw, a wry romantic comedy called Hunting and Gathering that had a short run at Primary Stages a couple of years ago (click here to see my review).  But I was totally knocked out by her book, and moved by such passages as this one:

“I remember now when I was a kid and people would say, ‘A life in the theater?  That’s really hard.’ And, arrogantly, I’d think it wouldn’t be hard for me. But now I understand that it’s really objectively hard—for everyone.  I work in a profession in which there is no clear path, no ‘right way’ to go, and no reward for growth. Instead, there are a surplus of worthy plays and writers (and actors and directors and designers) and a deficit of opportunities to produce them.” 

But for Berman, and scores of other talented playwrights, there is no other home like the theater.  And without their labor, there wouldn’t really be much of a home for those of us who love the theater, particularly those of us who crave the thrill of seeing new works there. 

September 1, 2010

"Abraham Lincoln" and Other Civil Wars


The reviews for Abraham Lincoln’s Big, Gay Dance Party were so bad (it scored a D on the StagegGrade aggregator site) that I planned to skip it.  But then I got a special invitation to see the show.  So I went. And guess what?  I had a good time. 

The two major objections to the show seem to be: (1) it has very little to do with Abe Lincoln and sheds no light on the recent speculations about his sexual orientation; and (2) it’s not the campy romp that the title seems to promise. Instead, it deals with larger issues and is a more complicated endeavor. 

The show, which was a hit at last year's Fringe Festival, opens with a Christmas pageant at a modern-day grade school in the heartland Illinois county where Lincoln grew up. Political correctness has ruled out the traditional religious references so one of the teachers has substituted a play about the U.S. Presidents. 

I groaned inwardly as the grown-up actors mimicked little kids playing George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.  But then, the Lincoln kid speaks up to proclaim the 16th president’s love for his former law partner and to make a plea for acceptance of all same-sex relationships.  That kick starts the plot as the teacher is fired and put on trial. 

What happens next unfolds in three separate but overlapping acts told from the viewpoints of a conservative former congressman who’s prosecuting the case; the black female defense attorney, who just happens to be the congressman’s former protégée and his current rival in the governor’s race; and a gay New York Times reporter who’s come to town to cover the trial. Their accounts are punctuated by peppy dance numbers in which the entire cast dresses up in bad Lincoln costumes and performs in a variety of styles.

But underneath the stovepipe hats, false beards and other silliness, playwright Aaron Loeb, a videogame producer who majored in dramatic writing and literature at NYU, is taking a totally serious look at the complex attitudes that people on all sides of the issue in this country hold about homosexuality.  The political skullduggery in the play gets a little confusing but none of its characters come off as entirely good or entirely evil.  And that’s impressive when you’re dealing with a hot-wire, us-vs.-them topic like this one. 

It helps when you have a cast that is adept at hitting light and heavy notes with equal finesse. All seven of the actors here are terrific but Robert Hogan as the congressman and Pippa Pearthree as the teacher deserve special shoutouts for their poignant portrayals of characters who they refuse to treat as caricatures. Chris Smith’s direction does drag in places but he gets props for his fine work with the actors and for recruiting an equally top-shelf design crew, lead by Bill English who has devised a clever set in which panels bearing Lincoln’s image transform into everything from a jury box to a pie shop.

All of which makes me wonder why the show has been so badly dissed by the critics, many of whom complained that its themes are old-hat.  Well, I think that depends on who’s wearing that hat. And I can’t help wondering—and I know I’m venturing into touchy territory here—if the griping might reflect the fact that so many of the critics are gay and are coming at the show with a heightened sensitivity to the subject that holds shows with gay themes to tougher standards, a sin that I suspect I’m equally guilty of when I write about shows that deal with race (as evidence I offer what I now think is my overly contrary review of Clybourne Park). But hey, just because those of us who live these lives have heard these stories before doesn’t mean everyone has.

Abraham Lincoln’s Big, Gay Dance Party, which is playing at the Acorn space at Theatre Row through this Sunday, isn’t a great show.  And much of its satire is heavy-handed (the teacher is named Harmony; a Cuban character is a gratuitous hoochie mama; and, frankly, the ending makes no sense at all).  Still, it is a show that deserves a much better reception than it’s gotten.