THE BLOG
10/07/2013 02:36 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

New York Theatre: Off-Broadway, Off-Continent

As a theatre center, New York City can boast of not only Broadway but touring shows from other countries and local smaller theatres that draw upon an inexhaustibly rich vein of stage talent. First seen on a recent trip was the startlingly inventive production from London's Donmar Warehouse, The Machine, directed expertly by that respected theatre's artistic director, Josie Rourke. Matt Charman's marvelous, adroit writing expands upon the historical incident of Russian chess master Garry Kasparov (Hadley Fraser) taking on IBM Corp's computer, Deep Blue, ranging from the year 1973 to the match itself in 1997. Writer and director create a seamless and dazzling production, utilizing live and preproduced video, a judicious counterbalancing of chess, game theory and computer science with the personal and a cast with great precision, all staged in the round in the Park Avenue Armory. Charman has Kasparov's controlling mother Clara (Francesca Annis) on one side of the equation and the IBM team, led by former Taiwanese computer scientist Feng-Hsiung Hsu (the delightfully in-your-face Kenneth Lee), on the other. It is a production that never fails to amaze, whether posing the possibility that IBM duped its own scientists to win the chess match of the century, or Rourke's direction of a squadron of young boys with magnetic chess sets, all simultaneously playing Kasparov's mentor, Anatoly Karpov (the equally magnetic Cornelius Booth).

Another visiting production, this at 59E59's multiple venue space, was the Irish import The Life and Short Death of Eric Argyle. Playwright Ross Dungan has not only reinforced the stereotype of Irish obsession with death--with many characters buying the farm before we get to know them--but also a distances us emotionally by having the cast narrate action. The titular character (Dave McEntegart) cannot profess his love to the object of his affections, (the lovely, heart-breaking Siobhan Cullen), so he writes an enormous opus to her, which eventually finds its way to her hands, after his demise. Director Dan Herd gives it a go but in addition to the lead character never significantly changing, and an amorphous, partially explained plot device of sad sack Argyle being judged by already dead entities, we have a fairy tale that will be incomprehensible to children and, sad to say, meandering and morose for adults.

Third Rail Productions has taken imagery and themes from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and create a one-of-a-kind, site-specific experience, Then She Fell, staged in the Kingsland Ward at St. John, a century-old, three-floor former medical facility in Brooklyn that fifteen audience members are toured through, each undergoing a slightly different but always surreal trajectory. Third Rail co-artistic directors Zach Morris, Tom Pearson and Jennine Willett have created a mesmerizing walk-through, sometimes featuring dance numbers in which Carroll's characters miraculously seem to be moving in reverse motion, at times charged with eroticism. This is not your childhood Alice: to wit, there are two of them, and the use of reflections and mirrored images play a significant role. The famous tea party is one of the funniest things this writer has experienced in live theatre, as the furious Red Queen (Rebekah Morin), along with the White Queen, Mad Hatter and other familiar characters, go through an absurd ritual with real tea and pastries, shoving attendees to change seats to the right, descending into hilarious chaos. Yet, with the often haunting accompaniment of Sean Hagerty's pre-taped music, the magic of Alice and Carroll dancing a sensual pas-de-deux in a stairwell or the riveting Morin having a private breakdown on pills for you and two other strangers sitting next to you, helps make this a show that rightfully keeps closing and reopening.

Breakfast with Mugabe, at the Signature Theatre, written by Fraser Grace, has an inherently tense premise, with white doctor Andrew Peric (Ezra Barnes) forced to treat the tempestuous, black ruler of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe (Michael Rogers), whose resentment of the previous colonial rule and willingness to use violence make him a rather touchy client. But the play has an offstage atrocity leading to confrontation between Peric and a bodyguard, staged by director David Shookhoff in a highly unconvincing manner. Rogers is the saving grace with a great combination of menace and charm. With a thematic strand about ghosts that permeates the play, one wonders why playwright Grace never fully utilizes the otherworldly in this play. Further damage is done by Rosalyn Coleman as the dictator's wife, whose African accent is as shaky as her motivation as a character.

But in conclusion, one can wholeheartedly recommend The Recommendation by Jonathan Caren, at the reliably controversial Flea Theatre, which may be situated off-off in Tribeca but is generally on the money. Here, white, privileged Aaron Feldman (appropriately high-strung Austin Trow) finds his Ethiopian-American best friend Iskinder Iudoku at odds with him, when Feldman is arrested on traffic tickets and the both scary and cheery Dwight Barnes (Barron B. Bass) saves him from getting raped but Feldman never helps him later, as promised. Iskinder sets up a confrontation between the two when Dwight is finally released from jail and the ensuing danger makes Feldman rethink the meaning of friendship. Caren manages a great deal of complexity in these three men, Kel Haney's direction is impeccable and Bass is nothing less than captivating, as a convict who one minute insists convincingly he is friends with Steven Spielberg and the next, looks like he will make mincemeat out of you.

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