THE BLOG
05/21/2016 11:31 am ET Updated May 22, 2017

First Nighter: Joe Morton as Dick Gregory in "Turn Me Loose," The Irondale Ensemble Takes on Shakespeare in "1599," The Sluggish "A Better Place" and "Cal in Camo"

Dick Gregory isn't playing himself in Turn Me Loose, at the Westside Theatre, although, at 83, he certainly could. Right now Joe Morton, whom current tv viewers know from Scandal, is impersonating Gregory in the Gretchen Law play that also has John Carlin taking on several roles, among them William F. Buckley.

The beauty of this incendiary piece, directed with punch by John Gould Rubin, is that the manner in which Law has transferred Gregory's life to the stage has him transition from one of the first black stand-up comics gaining national attention in the 1960s--much thanks to his appearances with the now nearly forgotten Jack Paar--to an activist who stopped telling jokes because he increasingly came to believe there was less and less amusing about the condition of African-Americans in contemporary United States society.

He'll slip in a joke about America being the one place on the planet where a poor black boy like Michael Jackson could become "a rich white man," but more often than not he isn't jokey about nation-wide racism. The one-liners Morton as Gregory tells when he's meant to be at a comedy club's mic are hardly abundant later when, for instance, he responds to Buckley's leading Firing Line questions and comments.

There is an added element to Turn Me Loose. It's a strong emotional tug that hasn't only to do with one man's anger and overall humanity. By the time the intermissionless Turn Me Loose ends, Gregory has become a symbol of growing impatience among black Americans for their civil rights, a growing demand for equality. Gregory morphs into a representation of a population greatly disturbed over a state of affairs remaining stubbornly in place.
******************
If you're a Shakespeare idolater and don't know the name James Shapiro, you'd better learn it now. The Columbia University professor is fast becoming one of today's leading Shakespeare scholars. That's if he isn't already the preeminent titleholder.

Last year he published 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, which is a follow-up to 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. In both books he discusses the plays written during the year he's commemorating, implicitly making the point that no other playwright can claim to have had such triumphant writing years.

Wowed by both the Bard and devoted academic Shapiro, Jim Niesen at Brooklyn's Irondale has spent the past six years shaping the Irondale Ensemble into a celebration of Shakespeare, Shapiro and the plays of 1599. They're Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and, last but hardly least (judging by world-wide fame), Hamlet.

Yes, that's a quartet for both Ripley and the Guinness folks, and Niesen's notion is to present during one four-hour-plus offering each play in a trimmed-to-an-hour version and performed by the same six-person team--Joey Collins, Michael-David Gordon, Terry Greiss, Sam Metzger, Alex Spieth and Katie Wieland. FYI: There's a picnic meal between the two halves that takes place in what the Irondale people jokingly dub the forest of Arden. (It's part of the high-ceilinged Irondale floor space where a large rug and some pillows are tossed.)

To be sure, the evening is something of a stunt. Yet the earnestness with which it unfolds in various parts of the main Irondale performance room--Julius Caesar occupies most of the wraparound upper level--goes some distance to make the time spent rewarding. Plus, the actors exhibit eye-popping stamina, especially Spieth as Rosalind and Collins as Hamlet. 'Zounds!
*******************
David L. Arsenault's set is what's memorable about Wendy Beckett's A Better Place. It rises in the wide area between the two facing bleachers at the Duke. It's also in two separate parts. One depicts three floors of a post-war New York City apartment house, the middle abode furnished in a generic modern style. The facing apartment also between two half-seen floors is a more conventionally appointed flat.

In the modern unit, marrieds Mary Roberts (Judith Hawking) and John Roberts (James Edward Hyland) live with daughter Carol (Jessica DiGiovanni), who gets her sexual kicks when lovers abuse her verbally with real estate jargon. Meant to be amusing, the trope, repeated a few times, is merely tedious.

Directly opposite The Roberts are male lovers Les Covert (Rob Maitner), who's younger and flighty, and Sel Trevoc (John Fitzgibbon), who's older and surprisingly tolerant. Throughout the play, Les can't stop staring across the way in unabashed jealousy. Sel lets it pass.

Beckett, who has nothing in common with (sur)namesake Samuel when it comes to dramaturgical inspiration, is mocking the prominence that real estate has in Big Apple mindsets. She just isn't very funny about it as the Roberts argue over whether to sell and move to Florida and the Covert-Trevoc couple bicker over Les's dissatisfaction with their cramped quarters. For much of the play John Roberts, a carpenter, is keeping a secret that comes out in due course but doesn't lift matters.

Beckett has her own secret that some patrons may get on to and some may not. The name Les is Sel backwards, and the name Covert is Trevoc backwards. Just another element that isn't especially amusing. The director is Evan Bergman.
******************
William Francis Hoffman's Cal in Camo, at the Rattlestick, begins with Cal (Katya Campbell) attempting to produce milk for her newborn and then, after only a few seconds, proceeds to an extraneous scene wherein Tim (David Harbour), a beer salesman, tries to convince a bartender (Gary Leimkuhler) to purchase his product.

That Tim is doing worse on the road than Willie Loman could be established in a few sentences inserted into the following much longer scene. That's when Cal and Tim, now in their serviceable kitchen (John McDermott designed it), tear into each other over marital frustrations. Cal and Tim are so volatile that audience members will wonder why they're watching such unpleasant people.

A bone of contention for them is Cal's brother Flynt (Paul Wesley), whose wife has just died (Tim didn't even know Flynt was married) and for whom Cal has just bought a plane ticket she and Tim can't afford. The plane ticket will bring Flynt their way for an open-ended stay. When he arrives, in a badly soiled camouflage outfit, he's at loose ends and turns the Cal-Tim squabble into a three-way verbal brawl.

It may be that the eventual Cal in Camo saving grace is its illustration of how disappointed and disturbed people find a way to get through to one another. Unfortunately, Cal, Tim and Flynt are unbearable for so long--Adrienne Campbell-Holt is the flummoxed director--that by the time they reconcile, few watching them will care.