First Nighter: Dan Hoyle's Outstanding "The Block," Jonathan Brielle's Not Outstanding "Himself and Nora"

06/07/2016 04:48 pm ET Updated Jun 08, 2017

Mark Plesent, the Working Theater producing artistic director--in tandem with managing director B. J. Evans and Tamilla Woodard, artistic director of Five Boroughs/One City--has come up with an intriguing project: developing a play about each of the five boroughs that will then tour each borough.

After their working on the ambitious undertaking for a couple of years, Plesent has just opened the first one at Manhattan's Urban Stages. It's The Block, written by Dan Hoyle and directed by Woodard, and if the following four plays are anywhere near as strong as the initial entry, audiences throughout the City are in for a tremendous treat.

The block under scrutiny is in the Bronx and takes place for the most part at Moe's outdoor stand but also at a nearby corner. Moe (Nathan Hinton), who's operated his business selling refreshments et al but has his eye on a move to Wisconsin(!), is a judicious middle-aged man. For the play's purposes, he mostly keeps company with customers Dontrell (Clinton Lowe) and Rick (Flaco Navaja).

Dontrell, once a teenaged delinquent with a record, is just back from a few years living upstate in Schenectady. He's returned at a low point because his girlfriend has dumped him. Figuring himself on the block for good but crashing only temporarily with his addicted mother, he's looking for legit employment.

Rick, working for a chauffeur service, holds out promise for Dontrell by insisting he'll talk his friend up to the boss. But there's something about quick-talking Rick that tips observers to his not necessarily following through with the offer--not a giveaway Rick, trying to keep on the up-and-up, notices.

In between the trio's propulsive confabs, Hoyle--who obviously, knows the neighborhood and its denizens like the back of his hand--switches to Eddie (Robert Jimenez), an angry local spending his abundant spare time ranting from a plastic crate he drags around with him.

Dontrell also frequents the magnetic spot on the block, as does old pal, Soria (Yvette Ganier), a lesbian vociferously out, who's trying to keep her family together as the landlord at the building where she's lived for 43 years threatens eviction. (Raul Abrego is the set designer pinpointing the typical Bronx locales.)

The beauty of Hoyle's writing is that he incorporates no clichés into the multi-dimensional characters. They're instantly recognizable and yet unpredictable. They're certainly street-smart, but they're also informed about things far beyond the block: Kofi Annan comes up for discussion; Eddie wears a T-shirt that says "Cornell," because he has a daughter studying there.

The five friends are trying to make the most of their lives against odds so challenging that their honest striving is a guarantee of nothing. Straining to put his past far behind him, Dontrell even has to hang up on his mother when she suggests he resumes some of his old illegal ways for her sake.

According to Hoyle (I couldn't resist), the realities of Bronx living means something's got to give, and before the 80 or 85 minutes of The Block end, these men and the lone woman have to accept conditions as gracefully as they can.

Thanks to the utterly humane script, Willard's savvy directing and the playing by a flawless cast, this writer's Block is completely convincing and completely successful. It happens that every once in a while, a play about which little is known comes around and turns out to be a happy surprise. The Block is absolutely one of those.
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People who believe in musicals will tell you there's nothing that can't be turned into one. No idea deserves to be dismissed out of hand. Therefore, taking on the writing life as well as the love life of James Joyce, one of the 20th century's master wordsmith (if not the leading English-speaking wordsmith), can't instantly be described as an irrevocably doomed notion.

In that case, what needs saying is that subject matter not immediately impressive as tuner-ready requires the right person or persons to tackle it. So on the strength--that's to say the weakness--of Himself and Nora, the story of Joyce's relationship with, and long delayed marriage to, Nora Barnacle, composer-lyricist-bookwriter Jonathan Brielle may not be best suited for this daunting task.

Brielle throws the spotlight on Joyce (Matt Bogart, handsome in the Clark Gable/Cary Grant mode) when he's a young man declaring his intention to write. He's at odds with his Da (Michael McCormick) for whom he has great feeling. He's quarreling with the Catholic Church so much that he's beginning to believe he can't remain in Ireland.

He does know he's passionate about Nora (Whitney Bashor), particularly because she refuses to subordinate herself to him. After some colorful discussion, she reluctantly agrees to live with him without the sanctity of a marriage he abhors.

She certainly stands by him when publishing houses in large numbers reject his manuscripts and money is scarce. The penury is often due to his drinking away the cash his brother sends. (This Joyce declares it's the solvent brother's duty to take care of the struggling artist brother.) Nonetheless, Nora stands by her ceaselessly scribbling man as they raise their children, Giorgio (Zachary Prince) and Lucia (Lianne Marie Dobbs), who've become troubled by the time they reach their later adolescent years.

I've read much of Joyce's writing but must confess I've never gotten through Finnegan's Wake and all that compulsive wordplay. Also, I'm not certain Ulysses is the greatest 20th century novel, as Joyce intended it to be. (I'd argue for Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.) All the same, I admire Joyce enormously. Who doesn't?

But much as I think he's awesome (in contemporary parlance), I can't pretend I've retained every word in he's put to paper. So it may be that Brielle has lifted many of his lyrics from the printed Joyce page, but if he has, Joyce himself wasn't supplying language ready for setting on melodies.

Still, most of the lyrics must be Brielle approximating Joyce. The power ballads he puts into the mouths of the relentlessly self-regarding author and the tough Nora are not Joycean by a long shot. One ditty, sung when Joyce has settled in Italy and is teaching English to native Italians, consists of Ireland city names and is set to a jog, choreographed by Kelli Barclay. It's meant to be a sly joke, coming as it does directly after Joyce's insisting he misses nothing about his abandoned country.

Danced by the five cast members it may be the most un-Joyce-like outburst during Himself and Nora. Hold it. There is a rival routine. Ezra Pound (McCormick), a Joyce champion, appears with the donor Harriet Weaver (Dobbs) to do a vaudeville song and dance.

Directed by Michael Bush, the ensemble is proficient, although Bogart's portrayal of the often self-impressed Joyce occasionally looks as if it's Bogart impressed with his own himself. The hard ensemble work doesn't disguise the problem of a script that remains stubbornly unconvincing.

Although there are extended references to Joyce's problems with Ulysses before Sylvia Beach (Dobbs) fetches up funds for publishing, little analytic is revealed about the author's influences. There is, however, one constant walking symbol: a priest (Prince) who stalks Joyce throughout the musical. The suggestion, needless to say, is that try as Joyce might to evade the hold Catholicism had over him, he never could.

In other circumstances, the persistent presence of the priest might have been profound. In these circumstances, it's merely grating.