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‘Bootycandy,’ Brassy Comedy About Black, Gay Experience, Opens Off Broadway

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

Of all the pet names you’ve heard used to describe your privates, “bootycandy” might be a first. As the title suggests, Robert O’Hara’s wickedly funny and provocative new play, which opened Off Broadway last week at Playwrights Horizons, is anything but demure.

Bootycandy2Through a parade of short scenes ranging from the outrageously-out-there to more intimate, but no less lively exchanges, the writer-director assembles snapshots of gay experience in a particular corner of black culture. Though plainly autobiographical, O’Hara’s play unfolds less like a linear memoir than an episode of In Living Color, with actors performing multiple characters and offbeat sidebars peppering the central coming-of-age story.

We first meet Sutter (O’Hara’s stand-in, a sensitive Phillip James Brannon) as a young fan of late ‘70s Michael Jackson—afro and all—asking his mom (Jessica Frances Dukes) the pressing, prurient questions of adolescence: Why do you call it bootycandy? Can I lick it? Mommy, what’s a blowjob? The following scene puts us in the pulpit of a pastor (Lance Coadie Williams, a master of versatility) whose riotous sermon could double as a missive from RuPaul. Next we’re in the crossfire of gossip calls between neighborhood hens (Dukes and Benja Kay Thomas) over an expectant mom choosing “Genitalia” as her future baby’s name.

Though a bit of Sutter’s story is introduced in act one (including his affair with a bi-curious friend, played by Jesse Pennington), the play’s first half is something of a sprawl. Episodes seem strung together tenuously at best, and the lack of a clear narrative might try audience patience were it not for O’Hara’s killer comedic rhythms and the company’s adeptness at nailing laughs. As it is, the play’s outer edges provide a colorful context for the playwright’s exercise in self-discovery.

Bootycandy1The second act more closely follows Sutter’s personal story, unpacking his family relationships and sexual history and tapping into his latent rage at feeling oppressed by straight norms. Weightier elements, like a teenage Sutter alerting his parents to a potential sexual predator, are balanced with O’Hara’s biting humor, often hinging on outsize black stereotypes.

A uniformly great cast breathes life into O’Hara’s medley of characters, from sassy shade-throwers to those with quieter convictions. Set and costume designs by Clint Ramos impressively juggle the play’s variety-show-speed changes between venues and personalities.

Bootycandy3Aside from a deliciously frank treatment of race and sexuality, the most daring aspects of O’Hara’s play are in its composition, including scenes that break the “fourth wall,” asking (even forcing) the audience to digest the play’s deeper implications beyond sidesplitting laughs. Thanks to O’Hara’s buoyant hand with comedy, these jarring moments of accountability go down like medicine with a spoonful of sugar.

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos:joan marcus)


Michael Cera and Kieran Culkin Open On Broadway in ‘This Is Our Youth:’ REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

It’s hard to believe Kenneth Lonergan’s seminal comedy about a trio of wayward twentysomethings stalling to come of age in ‘80s New York, which premiered in 1996, hasn’t been on Broadway until now. But director Anna Shapiro’s fantastic, finely tuned and terrifically acted production of This Is Our Youth starring Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin and Tavi Gevinson, which opened last night at the Cort Theatre, was worth the wait.

TIOY1In its nearly 20-year history, Lonergan’s play has been a magnet for young stars, including Mark Ruffalo (in the original cast), Jake Gyllenhaal, Matt Damon and Anna Paquin—and its definitive portrayal of Gen X inertia is up there with cult films by Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith. The current cast comes to Broadway from a production at Chicago’s Steppenwolf theatre, with performances that do Lonergan’s quirky, emblematic characters every bit of justice.

It’s Saturday night in 1982. Warren Straub (Cera), who’s just been thrown out of his father’s house for smoking too much pot, arrives on the Upper West Side doorstep of his dealer and personal hero Dennis Ziegler (Culkin). A textbook spaz, Warren is like a small boy in the body of a young adult; he flew the coop with a suitcase holding his rare toy collection and $15,000 he stole from his dad. Dennis, a charming narcissist and high-functioning addict, uses his evolved business sense to sell drugs, works as a bike messenger by day and lives in a Manhattan studio paid for by his parents.

TIOY2The two cut an endearing figure of affluent slacker-dom, and Culkin and Cera (who did another production of the play together in Sydney in 2012) inhabit their characters’ fractious bromance with an engaging ease. Together they hatch a plan to turn a profit moving some coke, and Dennis arranges for Warren to be alone with Jessica (Ms. Gevinson), an FIT student brimming with convictions, in the hopes of getting Warren laid.

Hyper-articulate, aimless and awash in insecurities, Lonergan’s characters share a steady appetite for their next thrill—be it a strong high, sex with a near stranger or intoxicating fear. All three actors expertly craft their own brand of specific, neurotic hunger.

TIOY3The awkward vulnerability that Cera is known for on-screen works perfectly here, and Gevinson (the wunderkind fashion blogger behind Rookie, making her major theatre debut) brings a raw, frenetic energy that matches Cera spaz-for-spaz. Culkin, who’s worked previously with Lonergan on stage and screen, is perhaps most in his element, exuding the sort of alpha-stoner charisma epitomized in cult teen comedies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High (released the year the play is set).

Lonergan’s story moves in mercurial fits and starts, with quiet drama, rapid escalations and big laughs cropping up around sharp corners. Shapiro does excellent work navigating the turns and developing candid, palpable connections between characters that grab our full attention.

Some two decades on, Lonergan’s title maintains (at minimum) a double meaning—the “our” of adults looking back on their own youth, or referring (with a shrug of distance) to “kids today.” That both still ring equally—and eerily—true is a testament to the play’s longevity.

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos:brigitte lacombe)


Weekend Movie: Guardians of the Galaxy

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a motley crew in outer space that aren't afraid of bright colors

BY NATHANIEL ROGERS 

The Marvel Universe movies could have not existed before Right Now. Yet, for all the technological advances and computer wizardry that have made The Avengers possible, the magic still comes from the humanity of the actors. No amount of technical prowess can make you care about Iron Man if a great actor hasn’t sold you on the bravado and change of heart of the man inside the suit. Captain America’s shield and super strength are great but his adventures don’t work if Chris Evans’s star turn isn’t so perfectly pitched to invoke fantasies of the nobility of a bygone American era. (Without the humanity it’s just Transformers and nobody wants that -Shut up. I’m in denial about those billions). With GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, Marvel Studios has gone Cosmic opening up a whole new movie wing for their ever-expanding universe. As they leave Earth behind, have they found a way to retain the humanity?

Yes and no. But not in the way you might expect.

It helps of course, on a superficial level that the movie begins on Earth and shamelessly pushes collective 80s nostalgia buttons by making Peter Quill our hero, relentlessly nostalgic about that era. We first meet him as a little boy in 1988 and his most cherished possession twenty some years later when the movie takes place isn’t any of his impressive weapons or starship but a walkman with a cassette tape called “Awesome Mix Tape Volume 1”. It also helps that Peter Quill is played by endearingly simple Andy from “Parks and Recreation” a.k.a. Chris Pratt.

MORE AFTER THE JUMP...

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New Musical ‘Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story’ Opens Off Broadway: REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

No one can claim a shortage of Broadway musicals about Brill Building artists who became household names—between them, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (Jersey Boys) and Carole King (Beautiful) have the Baby Boomer market cornered—so it seems fitting that Piece of My Heart, an engaging and surprisingly sexy new musical about lesser-known chart-topping songwriter Bert Berns, opened on a more modest scale Off Broadway Monday, at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

Piece2Writer of ubiquitous ‘60s hits like “Twist and Shout” and “Cry Baby,” Berns didn’t attain the notoriety of some of his peers, perhaps due to his early death from a heart condition at age 38. With two of his children as lead producers, the new musical tells the story of Berns’ career and his surviving family’s conflict over promoting his legacy.

Berns’ daughter Jessie (Leslie Kritzer) is called to New York City by her dad’s old friend and manager Wazzel (Joseph Siravo), warning her that Berns’ catalogue is in danger of being sold off for a lump sum by her mother (Linda Hart). Predictably, in dad’s Brill Building office, Jessie discovers who her father really was, herself by extension, and finally confronts her mother.

Piece4While its underlying plot is only slightly more original than the E! True Hollywood Story blueprint of its Broadway predecessors, Daniel Goldfarb’s book steers the show, rather than taking a backseat to showcasing the songwriter's hits. Instead of a litany of studio sessions or live performances, Berns’ songs are, for the most part, integrated into the musical’s several love stories. And because much of his music is about different stages of love, the formula works quite well.

Playing a relatively unknown, behind-the-scenes artist is a different kind of challenge from playing an icon, and Zak Resnick’s pitch perfect performance proves he has the makings of a star himself. His voice is both sweet and strong, and he manages to bring a modern sort of sex appeal to Berns that’s rare and refreshing to see in a jukebox musical.

Piece3Director-choreographer Denis Jones hints toward the decade of sexual excitement the songs portend, rather than their author’s achy-breaky heart—to fine affect. While dance numbers pay homage to the decade’s musical mix of styles, Jones forgoes nostalgia for originality and brings a carnal energy to songs otherwise known for being saccharine, if not exactly chaste.

Unlike most artists who die young, Berns knows his heart condition will lead to an early death, fueling his drive to succeed. His story (despite being true) is a potential minefield of clichés that the production for the most part successfully avoids. Maybe because its producers have their father’s legacy as their primary concern, Piece of My Heart stays focused on telling Berns’ story and making his songs sound their best, rather than pleasing the crowd—though it does that, too.  

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos:jenny anderson)


Tupac Musical ‘Holler If Ya Hear Me’ Opens on Broadway: REVIEW

Holler

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

When you imagine what the words ‘Tupac musical’ could mean, you might think back on the colorful verve of ‘90s music videos, the rags-to-riches stories that dominate their soundtracks and find yourself hoping for a big-ticket nostalgic trip down the mean streets of L.A. You’ll find precious few of your (modest) hopes realized in Holler If Ya Hear Me, the surprisingly stagnant and flimsily strung together musical that opened on Broadway last week at the Palace Theatre.

Holler2Rather than trace the iconic rapper’s rise to fame and tragic early death, the show’s creators choose to tell an original story (that’s anything but) about a thinly sketched ensemble of characters struggling against poverty, violence and racial tensions in their unspecified Midwestern city.

In the tradition of jukebox musicals like campy Mamma Mia!, the primary objective of Holler’s watery plot is to string together as many Tupac songs as possible in its two-and-a-half hour run time. But in place of the former show’s knowing wink (or any other gesture of the kind), the material is presented here with an earnestness that only amplifies its abundant clichés.

Holler1Shakur’s songs have a singular sort of gritty, poetic eloquence, many of them broaching the same theme from different angles: man vs. the system—the struggle, its cyclical nature, the impossibility of escape and inevitability of violence. While they add up to a thrilling body of work, combining them into a dynamic story proves difficult. Not only do many of the show’s numbers feel like the same sentiments repeated multiple times over, their quick-spinning rhymes do little to move the meandering plot forward, such as it is.

That story, by book writer Todd Kreidler, concerns John (skillful vocal stylist Saul Williams), who has just been released from prison (on what charges it’s unclear). His ex-best bud Vertus (a moderately hunky Christopher Jackson) seems to have moved in on John’s sometime girlfriend Corinne (Saycon Sengbloh) while John was locked up. In an early scene, Vertus finds out his brother’s been shot and the rest of the story hinges on a vague desire for revenge shared by the whole neighborhood. Tonya Pinkins plays Vertus' mother, a character whose backstory is mined wholly from the song "Dear Mama."

While its music is filled with lyrics about drugs, sex and violence, Holler is remarkably sober and chaste—its characters hardly reach first base and there’s not  a drop of booze in sight until its final scenes—further accentuating how disjointed its songs are from the story they’re supposedly telling. Still, the talented cast does its best to create the world of those songs, and comes closest to doing so in dance.

Holler3Choreography by Broadway vet Wayne Cilento packs the sort of visceral, kinetic energy the show otherwise lacks, making a much-anticipated “California Love” the evening’s clear highlight. But its dance breaks are too sporadic to lift the show from its drudgery and most numbers peter out with little flourish.

Tony winning director Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun) has a glittering track record of skillfully told narratives of black America, and Shakur’s pop poetry would seem like an exciting voice to share with Broadway audiences—and in many ways, it is. Perhaps it’s to his credit that Leon doesn’t offer an elaborate production, as Tupac’s lyrics carry powerful messages on their own. But their restless artistry is blunted here, and the larger story they come together to tell doesn’t resonate as the songs do on their own. 

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos:joan marcus)


Film Review: 'The Case Against 8'

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BY JOSEPH EHRMAN-DUPRE

“This may be the most important case I’ve ever handled,” states Ted Olson, one of the two attorneys fighting Prop 8 in Ryan White and Ben Cotner’s intimate documentary, The Case Against 8. And after watching the film, you will feel as though you have won right alongside him.

As we know by now, the initial case against Prop 8, Perry v. Schwarzenegger, eventually wound its way to the United States Supreme Court. We also know that the outcome was favorable, and same-sex couples in California could marry once more. Still, White and Cotner’s documentary effectively builds suspense by successfully balancing its emotional and legal content, taking us beyond primetime news coverage for an in-depth and ultimately cathartic journey.

8AttorneysThe film takes a relatively direct approach. Though we start in March 2013, with a prologue involving the lead-up to the Supreme Court case, the film immediately flashes back to November 2008 where we are faced with an interesting coincidence: the election of President Obama--a harbinger of hope--and the ominous passage of Proposition 8 in California. What follows is an Avengers-style character introduction, as each new member of the legal super-team is picked up, unaware of the harrowing adventures they will take on together. 

The movie was screened at Film Society of Lincoln Center and included a talkback with our super-team, the directors (who won the documentary directing prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival), the plaintiffs, and Chad Griffin, director of the American Foundation for Equal Rights. At the talkback, Ryan White admitted that he and Cotner initially intended to focus the film on the odd couple pairing of Ted Olson and David Boies (above right), memorable rivals in the Bush v. Gore case who, in this battle, proved that marriage equality is not an issue of liberals versus conservatives (check out Towleroad's 2010 interview with the attorneys here). The filmmakers adjusted their initial intention, however. Plaintiffs Jeffrey Zarrillo and Paul Katami (below left), and Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier (below right), take center stage, serving as the narrative’s emotional core. The couples are remarkably well-spoken individuals in their own right, and as much a part of the legal proceedings as the lawyers representing them.  

8JeffPaulWhere the film really stands apart is in its intimate, almost claustrophobic, prioritizing of jargon-heavy pre-trial vignettes in which a team of attorneys vet the plaintiffs and gather information in their San Francisco law office. The audience comes to understand the intricacies of the case and, more importantly, the personal investment that each of the people involved has in taking down Prop 8. Getting to know each individual helps forge a deeper stake in the case’s outcome, and makes the threat of failure in this battle far scarier.

CONTINUED, AFTER THE JUMP...

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