The Neurology Of The Soul

Artistic director Eric Einhorn describes his Untitled Theater Company #61 as a “Theater Of Ideas: Scientific, political, philosophical, and above all theatrical.” In the capacities of producer, director, and especially playwright, Einhorn has a strong background in theatrical work that pursues these ideas. A keen interest in neuroscience and its theatrical possibilities also saw him contribute heavily to the “emergence of neuro-theatre.” Hot off the success of his last intellectual dramedy on Gertrude Stein, Einhorn pens The Neurology Of The Soul, which sees this love of neuroscience explore the neuroscience of love.

“I love you,” says Stephen, a cognitive neuroscientist, as his wife Amy lies in the fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imagery). “Sexy,” he continues, watching how each of his words lands in his wife’s mind. It is a live experiment conducted on the brain to determine the patterns and circuits of love “reactions”; to find out how people, or at least how Amy, ticks.

Enter Mark, the smooth-talking head of a neuro-marketing firm, who convinces Stephen to take a job applying his research to advertising. Mark sees the marketing potential in quantifying love way beyond Stephen understanding Amy, but that doesn’t mean he’s completely overlooked her. When Amy, an artist whose career has stalled, is inspired to make multimedia art from her brain scan records, Mark steps in to help jumpstart her career, to growing suspicion from Stephen.

Eric Einhorn’s dissertational script demonstrates copious research on the matter of cognitive neuroscience. Neuroscientist Stephen Macknik spoke in his talkback about the scientific nature of fMRIs, in which blood oxygenation is studied for trends. Which is about as precise as it gets; blood oxygenation occurs based on the movement of neurons, at which level very little discernible change happens—which means these trends are far from conclusive. That Stephen makes such concrete interpretations of Amy’s brain definitely leans more towards fiction than science. Which corroborates Einhorn’s intent of “filling the gap between pure scientific analysis and what it means to us all as humans.”

That said, the play may hold up to scientific scrutiny, but from a theatrical standpoint, Neurology feels like Einhorn coloring in a thesis with a narrative, and the drama he tries to infuse to it makes for an uneven blend at best, and in some moments even undermines the science. It is appreciably difficult to write love triangles, but they require three-dimensional and authentically motivated plots and characters. All four of Neurology’s talented cast struggle to accordingly flesh out soulless roles. Mick O’ Brien, whose Mark’s main function in the narrative seems to be a mouthpiece for Einhorn’s marketing research, affects a convincing corporate air, but is too often reduced to “talk, talk, talk,” even if his Powerpoint presentation monologues sometimes lend exposition to Amy and Stephens’ lives. His own character is obscured until the third act. Matthew Trumbull’s Stephen similarly lacked a human element, but for Trumbull’s acting chops, it follows that Stephen still has his moments. Ashley Griffin, a character actress known for bravura performances in nuanced female leads, is stuck here in a plot-driven drama with a plot that barely drives, and affords her character even less agency. Yvonne Roen’s Claire is an interesting exception: Though written as a caricature, the fact that her character does not contribute to the stagnation of the plot gives Roen much more freedom to excel in scenes, and she does. Her timing and delivery were always conducive to the energy of the scenes she occupied, and there are glimpses of a subtle empathy in her towards the end for which I credit the actress alone.

Lastly, I would be remiss not to mention the architects of Neurology, in which much of the show’s soul is found. Big points to Jim Boutin, Magnus Pind Bjerre, and Jeff Nash for set, video, and lighting that yields a product of alchemic cohesion, which sound designer Sadah Espii Proctor contributes to with the most creative of choices.

The Thanksgiving Play – “It Doesn’t Piss Off The Funders”

Sicangu Lakota playwright Larissa Fasthorse, after being told repeatedly that her plays featuring Native American characters were uncastable, decided to take matters into her own hands and write a play about Native American issues…featuring four white characters.

There’s the overly earnest high school drama teacher Logan (Jennifer Bareilles), her street yogi/actor boyfriend Jaxton (Greg Keller),  the awkward academic Caden (Jeffrey Bean), and the guileless and beautiful LA actress Alicia (Margo Seibert). Logan, dead set on pushing the envelope and creating a “culturally sensitive” Thanksgiving play for her school, uses Native American Heritage grant money to hire Alicia, only to realize too late that Alicia’s headshot (in Native guise) was merely a headshot capturing her “super flexible” ethnically ambiguous look, and Alicia was white. Logan is left with the task of creating her woke play without any actual Native American input.

And this play is very much about performative woke-ness. Logan and Jaxton, careful to a fault, spend the better part of the rehearsal second-guessing themselves and tiptoeing around potentially faulty approaches to a subject they don’t feel ethnically qualified to address, with no help from Caden’s encyclopedic knowledge of the dire history of Thanksgiving.

To that extent, the play is comically self-referential and self-effacing from the start, from the mishandling of the Thanksgiving narrative and the erasure/perversion of Native American history to the excruciating sterility of the wokeness. Fasthorse is searingly funny, and her dialogue, in the hands of four exceptionally talented and cohesive farceurs, lands like thunder. The play is pure in execution, and paces well from start to finish.

But in its self-referential nature also lies the problem: What is the play about? It asks questions, pokes fun, but is it fair to expect an answer? It’s described as a biting comedy, but if you ask me, only inasmuch as it is taking a bite out of itself, and then pondering the nature of its now-missing mass. There are interludes between scenes wherein characters perform real American classroom Thanksgiving skitsobviously in ridicule, giving their often offensive nature—which are funny, but only further muddle the tone. The ending itself is that, amidst a chaotic climax, a near apoplectic Logan has a new, brilliant idea: That an “equitable emptiness” serve as their play. Perfectly harmless, perfectly nothing, offending no one.

I found it a brilliant ending given the narrative and structure, and it’s as funny as anything. But I looked for some closure regarding the many issues and themes I had seen in the play, and found the ending to mirror the play’s aftertaste.

Still, that’s AFTER not having been able to catch my breath throughout its runtime due to incessant laughter.

Screlton McNodes And His Search For Transcendence Through The Act Of Putting On Musicals In The Barn With Stray Cats Amidst A Life Full Of Pain, Abuse, Murder, And Insanity

Yeah, forget my usual attempt at a quirky touch-up to the title this one time. It really does speak for itself. As does its eponymous star.

They say it takes a really good singer to sing really badly. That meta comedy sensation Screlton McNodes should grace Feinstein’s/54 Below comes as no surprise to anyone, then, even if he “didn’t get the 7:30 slot.” Born of a spring break gag, a sleeper hit Youtube video, and creator Martin Landry‘s desire to take his career into his own hands, Screlton McNodes is your typical cat-musical-producing comedic-screlting deep-South victim of child abuse.

And it sucks so very, very good. McNodes lays both claim and waste to the entire musical theatre canon straying more from the melody than Mariah Carey and screeching enough to make Chuck Shuldiner blush. His setlist includes many perennial favorites such as “Defying Gravity,” “Let It Go,” and “Tomorrow,” but trust me, they are like nothing you’ve ever heard before.

Landry’s screlting (an amalgam of “screaming” and “belting”) technique is well-honed and curiously methodical. In the hands of a lesser performer, the act of comedically singing poorly might seem straightforward, but McNodes’ is a controlled chaos: His register, his enunciation, and his modulations are all to some extent deliberate. The patterns he sows, he later reaps with repetitions. Clear example: His habit of frequently ending verses with an “o” vowel no matter the rhyme. And it lands like thunder; the audience eats it right up.

Of course, it’s still something of a relief when the guest vocalists were invited onstage (The screlting, however masterful, became somewhat obtrusive after long periods). And McNodes has assembled an impressive roster: The supremely talented Christina DeCicco and Hannah Elless stepped in for some real Broadway-caliber belting, and each delivered or participated in a bit between songs. Special shout-out to Janice Landry, who stood in last-minute for an absent Sara Jean Ford (citing babysitter troubles), and still delivered an airtight rendition of “Let It Go.” And of course, to expert musical direction and accompaniment by James Dobinson, who even managed to sneak in a little characterization for himself.

The real juice of the guest appearances, though, was in the duets. Watching McNodes jointly sing and even harmonize with his guests was like witnessing an impossible combination of sweet and savory. The blend of ironic and unironic good creates a peculiar, but ultimately tickling and pleasant effect.

That said, McNodes is still here to give a show, and not just a concert. Despite the success of the other factors, the comedy was definitely the strongest part of the evening. Aside from his remarkable command of humor and physicality, Landry’s natural charisma and quick-wittedness allows him to establish a unique rapport with the audience as a character (McNodes) who possesses neither.

The narrative itself is of, as the title suggests, a Broadway-loving Screlton McNodes growing up in rural Alabama with abusive parents. His only solace was the cast recordings of Broadway musicals he listened to, and then proceeded to produce in his barn by casting the neighborhood cats as the characters. Thus Landry, as McNodes, tackles familiar and beloved works of musical theatre for the bulk of the show. A hairball of an endeavor they turned out to be: The almost always ill-fated productions were the source of many antics, and yielded strong laughs from the audience even as the tone grew darker and the ending tragic (in how McNodes ultimately responds to his household situation).

Which is my only real reservation about the show. Landry proves adept at the Dave Barry-esque principle of using laughter to express the “anxiety of knowing [we] in a world devoid of reason.” He is very careful in his use of self-effacing dark comedy to address the tragedies in his narrative, and in managing the tone of his performance with which he handles them. Overall, McNodes’s account is defiantly uplifting despite that which befell him, and it’s no surprise that real victims of abuse have remarked to Landry the therapeutic and cathartic qualities of the show. Furthermore, his exploits as a quirky musical theatre lover from a humble background with big dreams and an uneasy path to realizing them bears an emotional core that’s no doubt relatable to much of the show’s target demographic. However, the story does run the risk of tonal muddles between the comedy and the tragedy, in which case it might elude some audience members, and even disturb others.

Which, for the record, did not seem to be a problem at all at 54 Below. On Thursday November 15 of 2018, as the renowned supper club welcomed Screlton McNodes in a special one-night re-engagement of his solo show, New York City welcomed the abrupt return of heavy winter snow in a one-night preview of its incipient baby blizzards.

But McNodes, the indomitable, was matched in dedication by his fans and supporters, who with the exception of Sara Jean Ford all made it to the performance, and from a variety of origins for which (I heard) the journey made was less than smooth, especially in that weather.

And the ovations that night could’ve rivaled those at a Bette Midler concert. Rightly so, says I.

 

 

 

 

Special thanks to the producer Ashley Griffin, without whom the show might not have been possible, but without whom this review DEFINITELY would not have been possible.

Hey, Look Me Over – Yeah, Do Just That!

For 25 years, Encores! at New York City Center has been giving new life to rarely heard American musicals. In celebrating its 25th anniversary, artistic director Jack Viertel and music director Rob Berman created Hey, Look Me Over!: A smorgasbord of said obscure shows. Or rather, selected numbers and scenes from them. Pulling the hits from the misses, if you will. It bears one notable difference from the traditional revue: Bob Martin as the Man In Chair (see Drowsy Chaperone). Martin plays an opinionated Encores! subscriber leading a tour of ten “shocking omissions” from the series, which he cites as “perfectly respectable shows that never made it to this stage for unknown reasons.” After all, as any good urologist will tell you: “Longevity is not the definitive measure of worth.”

Ironically, a show that was meant to unite viewers through a shared love of musical theatre ended up leaving both audiences and critics divided in opinion.

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Bob Martin

That the show doesn’t sit well with some people is understandable. Though marketed as a musical, Martin’s Man In Chair makes for a thin, insubstantial glue that feels more like the MC of a concert. To Martin’s credit, he is an excellent host, but that still doesn’t give it a plot. On the other hand, what little is elaborated of the premises of the selected musicals often betrayed tastelessness and/or irrelevance in their content that rendered them unfit for presentation in the first place. Furthermore, the caveat of meandering from show to show, covering only selected portions, is that momentum built by one show or number is quickly dissipated to make room for the next, often an entirely different mood. As such, it also runs into some pacing issues: Opening the second act with Greenwillow was slightly underwhelming, and though it had potential, Vanessa William’s interlude of songs from Jamaica felt as contrived and gratuitous as it’d seemed to Bob Martin onstage.

Truthfully, most complaints about Hey, Look Me Over! feel subjective, and don’t detract from what made Hey, Look Me Over a massively delightful and unique experience. All the performances were top form. The 30-piece orchestra played Berman’s revised orchestrations flawlessly and were a fitting backdrop to the intense dance breaks. The overtures were as much a highlight as any scene with actors.

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And the actors: Never again will a stage see the same buffet of so many perennial Broadway favorites, each of whom gave linchpin portrayals to rival and even surpass their original counterparts. It was a good night for young male ballads, most notably Clifton Duncan singing “Never Will I Marry” from Greenwillow (Frank Loesser). It was an even better night, however, for belters: Carolee Carmello and Britney Coleman carried the banner for the production in an unforgettable rendition of “Hey, Look Me Over!” from Wildcat (Cy Coleman). Judy Kuhn, who had excellent chemistry with both Reed Birney and Mark Kudisch, respectively, tugged at my heartstrings every time she sang. And I would argue, having seen Bebe Neuwirth sing “Why Do The Wrong People Travel,” that it alone warrants a Sail Away (Nöel Coward) revival as a vehicle for the hard-driving star. A definite favorite of the evening, though, has to be Mack & Mabel. Douglas Sills is superbly hard-driving as Mack, and Alexandra Socha absolutely shattered expectations in a dazzling act one finale. Frankly, I can’t remember the last time the curtain fell and I felt the evening had blown by.

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L-R: Douglas Sills, Alexandra Socha

One thing to note: The selected shows in Hey, Look Me Over!, all from or bordering the social and cultural cornucopia that is the 60s, touch on many American themes, such as entrepreneurialism, wanderlust, Hollywood, and immigration. Encores! hammers the point home at the end by having the company sing “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” to the tune of an un-lyricized Irving Berlin Song. One can derive a dual interpretation of this warm, inviting number and its words: Just as America is emphasized as a sanctuary for all, so is Broadway, with its quintessentially American book musical, a haven for theatre-lovers of all manner of people. Despite the homogeneity of the affluent middle-aged (and above) at Hey, Look Me Over!, theatre is becoming decreasingly esoteric, and Encores! doesn’t forget that.

It wasn’t a bad idea. Encores! is welcome to try something like this for the next anniversary, as long as it remains true to itself about what it is: A celebration of the little guys—not with full scenes, but full numbers, that ask audiences to simply look it over and enjoy.

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Trial – Mercy Is Twice Blessed

Ashley Griffin’s Trial. Where do I begin? I recently had the privilege of catching this play in its limited run workshop at the American Theater of Actors, which succeeded readings done at Manhattan Theater Club and The Red Fern Theater Company. Like Griffin’s other plays, Trial lives off an extra helping of suspension of disbelief, but in turn delivers an intense and inimitable theatergoing experience.

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Trial is set in the judicial department of the afterlife. In this world, when the eternal placement of one’s soul is in question, they are held in trial arbitrated by the person to whom they did the most harm in life. To call this scenario bureaucratic hell would be redundant if it weren’t slightly erroneous: The protagonist, Arcadia Evans, commits suicide at the age of 15 from being abused physically, emotionally, and sexually by her father, Richard. After waiting in the celestial room for twelve years, Richard finally dies, and Arcadia’s status quo in the celestial waiting room ends when she is chosen to be judge and jury at a trial determining his salvation or damnation.

The guilt of Richard’s abuse and of it indirectly causing Arcadia’s death is open-and-shut and quickly determined, but the matter of the suicide itself (and subsequently Richard’s fate) remains in question. As the forces of good and evil fight tooth and nail for the soul of the defendant, the line between the two is both blurred and elucidated, and so the plot thickens. The play explores the externalities of Arcadia’s suicide from beyond the grave with enough perspective to make Kant turn over in his grave (given the play’s setting, he really might have). Trial tells us that the quality of mercy is not strained, but more importantly, mercy is twice blessed.

There is, I believe, ample evidence already of Ashley Griffin’s consummate storytelling abilities. She has exhibited appreciable talent for all creative aspects of theatrical work, namely writing, directing, and acting. What strikes me as most prominent, though, is her ability to create worlds. Owing to a rich heritage of stories past and present, Griffin’s work reflects the best elements of storytellers past and combines them in her own style. Just enough detail for the imaginations of her audience to take over.

 

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