Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Steady Rain

"A Steady Rain," Keith Huff's two-actor star vehicle about a pair of overwhelmed cops, was destined to be a hit as soon as its film celeb cast was announced. But as it turns out, the intimate drama is engaging, gritty and even poetic. In other words, much better than expected. And in John Crowley's minimalistic but effective production, Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig are delivering thoroughly intense performances that captivate on a level of high ferocity.

At the start of the play, which takes place in an empty interview room, the audience applauds immediately and loudly at the sight of Jackman and Craig. But once that is out of the system, they speak to us in conversational, interwoven monologues. And it becomes clear that the show will be devoid of action or spectacle, dependent entirely on storytelling. It almost feels as if a "Law & Order" transcript is being read to you as a bedtime story.

Loosely based on gory real-life events, the drama observes how Denny (Jackman), a foul-mouthed, self-centered, racist cop played by Hugh Jackman, spirals out of control after a bullet strikes through the front window pane of his home one night, badly injuring Denny's youngest child and leaving him hungry for revenge. Joey (Craig), Denny's more stable pal and partner, who is known for his depression and alcoholism, watches from the sidelines and makes failed attempts to save his friend. He suffers guilt and achieves unexpected romantic exhilaration by stealing Denny's role as father and husband.

As Denny, Jackman is just as animalistic and disturbed, if not more, than Wolverine, displaying a rough and tough demeanor that is dangerously driven by impulse and emotion. Craig, in a less overtly emotional role and sporting a mustache, subtly but powerfully projects sorrow and unease.

Bottom line: "A Steady Rain" is a more than decent play receiving a powerhouse production. Not to be missed.

Monday, September 28, 2009


Even if JoAnne Akalaitis' production of "The Bacchae" at Shakespeare in the Park last month was undeniably terrible, at least it was short. But Peter Sellars' "Othello," which is just as misguided and bad, manages to be twice as painful by being exactly four hours in length due to an extremely slow reading of the text with unending pauses.

Sellars, who apparently believes that "Othello" must be completely reinterpreted in order to remain relevant, aimed to create a politically contemporary, color-blind version that, in his own words, "sheds the trappings of our forebearers' racial hierachies and assumptions and that addresses the realities and possibilities of the Obama generation a new century." Upon entering the theater, audience members are handed countless essays that desperately attempt to justify his supposed vision. You might consider this to be the anti-"Othello."

The play's racial tensions are completely diluted by casting Othello with a Hispanic actor (John Ortiz) and supporting roles such as Cassio and the Duke with black actors. Iago and Othello are now viewed as former best friends, with Iago acting not out of evil, but depression and jealousy. Other characters are combined or cut.

The dramatically inert staging consists mainly of the actors sitting around a row of chairs, lying on a weird structure of 45 video screens that represents a bed, or hosting press conferences. Harsh white lighting shines into the audience, hurting everyone's eyes. And the sound amplification is pumped up to such a deafening level that it feels as if you are at a baseball game listening to the announcer recite Shakespeare.

As Iago, Philip Seymour Hoffman gives what is probably the worst performance of his career, screaming every line and displaying absolutely no character development. You cannot possibly believe that his Iago, who wears a tight green golf shirt, could have masterminded such a perfect scheme against poor Othello. Meanwhile, John Ortiz is completely devoid of personality as Othello. While Jessica Chastain does attempt a credible performance as Desdemona, it is lost in this mess of a production.

Bottom line: The Public Theater ought to be extremely embarassed by this inert and inept production.

Skirball Center, 566 LaGuardia Place, 212-352-3101, publictheater.org. Through Oct 4

Friday, September 25, 2009

A Boy and His Soul

He's got rhythm. He's got music. Specifically, Colman Domingo's got the soul music recordings that changed his life - and has used them to craft an explosive, well-constructed one-man show. Who could ask for anything more? Not his audience, that's for sure.

39-year-old Domingo is best known for the flamboyant, extremely eccentric characters that he played to perfection in the rock musical "Passing Strange," as now preserved in Spike Lee's film version. His exaggerated facial expressions, theatrical voice and hyper body movements are thoroughly distinctive and often hilarious.

In "A Boy and His Soul," written and performed by Domingo, he uses his favorite sul music records as a basis to accurately recall growing up as an African-American youth in Philadelphia in the 1970s and 80s. He performs on a bare stage, but a detailed backdrop depicts his suburban basement and all its cluttered junk.

He describes how the music gets into his body, evoking images, past encounters, places and people in his life. He dips into an ecstasy that explodes up, down and all around the stage. In other words, the music makes him a stronger person, allowing him to move on following the most painful moments of his life.

What makes Domingo's show so entertaining is how he carefully mixes a heartfelt monologue with intricate characterizations and segments of songs into a coherent, very lively new creation. One moment, he is performing the role of his stepfather, romancing his mother with thrusting hips. Seconds later, he is doing The Hustle.

Domingo gets so physical that he must wipe the sweat off his forehead every so often. He also never forgets or ignores the audience's presence. In total, he portrays 11 characters while reenacting variety of scenes from his past, most notably how he admitted that he has gay to his brother at a strip club on his 21st birthday. Another haunting moment involved his mother pointing her black pocketbook to the moon, reciting the chant "New Money, New Experiences, and New Dreams."

Bottom line: "A Boy and His Soul" belongs in the limited pantheon of worthwhile one-person autobio plays such as Billy Crystal's "700 Sundays" and Chazz Palminteri's "A Bronx Tale."

Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15th St., 212-353-0303, vineyardtheatre.org. Through Oct. 18.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

"Kristina" at Carnegie Hall

If we all sat around for some time and tried to come up with a musical with the least amount of commercial potential for a Broadway audience, that would probably wouldn’t equal “Kristina,” the epic Swedish pop opera about immigrants traveling to America in the mid-19th century, penned by former lyricist Bjorn Uvaleus and composer Benny Andersson, former members of ABBA.

Watching it on Tuesday night at Carnegie Hall, where it is receiving a two-night-only concert, I wondered whether its creators had intended for “Kristina” to be an anti-“Mamma Mia!” But then I learned that “Kristina” actually premiered in 1995 – way before “Mamma Mia!” was around. And while I can’t imagine the show on Broadway, it’s received great acclaim and commercial success internationally.

Perhaps that is why it felt as if much of the audience on Tuesday night already knew the show inside and out. They greeted the cast with entrance applause and even gave a standing ovation to the lead actress in the middle of act two. (I asked one young girl – who had apparently traveled from London to see the concert – what she thought of it. She expressed disappointment with the English translations of the original lyrics.)

“Kristina” is reminiscent of the pop operas that swept the West End and Broadway in the 1980’s. But the bulk of the show does not involve rock music intonations, feeling instead like a symphonic film score.

The show, which has a running time of just short of three hours, moves so incredibly slowly that you could feel the majority of the audience feeling extremely bored. The bulk of the score is ballad after ballad after ballad, with pieces of narration here and there. Where’s the conflict? Is there a conflict? As such, there were many, many empty seats after intermission.

The “Kristina” concert closely mirrored the two-night “Jerry Springer” concert at Carnegie Hall two years ago, another European hit that also expected to play Broadway but never in fact did. Though “Kristina” did once receive a pre-Broadway workshop (with Alice Ripley in the cast), I highly doubt that’ll ever come to pass. If not much else, I suppose that the Carnegie Hall event at least served as an opportunity to introduce New York audiences to the score.

The staging of the concert was not very imposing. In fact, there was no staging. A few black-and-white images were displayed on the back wall, and a row of microphone stands stood downstage for the performers. If they had been wearing body microphones instead, perhaps that would have allowed them to add more staging, rather than stand next to the microphone stands the entire evening.

So far as the sound goes, I couldn’t understand most, if not all, of the lyrics. Perhaps it was because the cast was competing with a lush 50-piece orchestra, as conducted by Paul Gemignani? Or, the fact that, this being an operetta, the music tends to flow directly with the words, as is the case with Gilbert & Sullivan musicals. The creative team should have either added a super-titles or provided a full synopsis in the Playbill.

Helen Sjoholm, playing Kristina, displayed real vulnerability and some fiery vocal power in act two, which contains the most compelling songs. Russell Watson, playing Kristina’s husband Karl Oscar, is a handsome tenor with matinee idol presence. Louise Pitre, who was the most familiar face in the cast, having been in the Broadway cast of “Mamma Mia!,” provided narration. I spotted Ray McLeod (“Wonderful Town”) in the ensemble. But the real show stealer was Kevin Oderkirk, playing Karl Oscar’s younger brother, who makes an emotional, pained return to the family after taking part in the California Gold Rush.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Blind Lemon Blues

Last week, Congressman Charles Rangel hailed Blind Lemon Jefferson in the Congressional Record as "the first commercially successful black artist." August Wilson, who listened to his music everyday for five years, called him, "the voice of Black America at that moment." So why is it that practically no one else remembers this blind street musician who gained fame in the 1920s for his 80-plus recordings?

Very little is known of Jefferson's personal life, besides the fact that a Paramount Records scout discovered him playing guitar on a street corner in Dallas. Nevertheless, Akin Babatunde has co-created, directed and choreographed "Blind Lemon Blues," an intimate musical revue using no less than 60 songs, about half penned by Jefferson, coupled with bits and pieces of dialogue and sketchy biographical details. As if that wasn't enough, Babatunde also performs the role of Jefferson.

In spite of its good intentions, the musical uses far too many songs associated with Jefferson for its own good. Sitting through it feels rather like a long Thanksgiving dinner with blues music being mercilessly stuffed down your throat instead of turkey. If its creators cut the score in half and added a tighter narrative structure, it might work very well as a jukebox musical along the lines of "Jersey Boys." Still, guitarist Skip Krevens deserves loads for credit for his extremely meticulous and crafted work on each and every song.

As Jefferson, Babatunde delivers an intense performance that authentically captures the artist's larger-than-life persona. His four backup singers, who operate like a Greek chorus, are terrific vocally. But Cavin Yarbrough feels out of place as Skip Krevens, a fellow blues musician who is supposedly conjuring memories of Jefferson's life during a 1948 recording session. The flashback device is unnecessary and distracting.

Bottom line: playwrights can't fall head over heals in love with their subject. In the case of "Blind Jefferson Blues," its creators' overwhelming affection for Jefferson has removed any hope of constructing a coherent musical based on his work.

York Theatre Company, 619 Lexington Ave., 212-935-5820, yorktheatre.org. Through Oct 4.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Review of Aftermath

What exactly is documentary theater? Is it drama, or journalism, or both, or neither? With the exception of "The Laramie Project," I really, really dislike the genre.

Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, a husband-and-wife playwriting team, are best known as the creators of "The Exonerated," which used interviews conducted with death row inmates who were wrongfully convicted of murder as the basis into a play. But rather than create a typical play, they simply adapted the interviewees' own words into monologues. It was not so much written as it was edited together.

Last year, Blank and Jensen traveled to Jordan to speak with 37 Iraqi refugees. They have since crafted six of those interviews into "Aftermath," a new work exploring the lives of a cross-section of Iraqi civilians before and after the Americans invaded the country in 2003. 95 percent of the play is taken verbatim from their interviews.

The individuals represented onstage are accomplished and educated, including a dermatologist, religious leader, theater director and painter. They speak nostalgically about life under Saddam, noting that they led very happy lives in spite of his looming presence. When the Americans invaded, they then encountered acts of torture, humiliation and violent destruction. This is all conveyed in graphic detail.

In what is truly a fascinating touch, an Iraqi translator joins the interviewees, acting as a mediator between them and the audience. The characters speak about the miscommunications that often occur due to poor translators, leading to unnecessarily tense relationships with the American soldiers.

While Blank and Jensen should be commended for trying to spread public awareness, the stories in "Aftermath" are far more compelling on the page rather than onstage. Blank, who also directs, has the cast do little more than sit down for 90 minutes and politely take turns addressing the audience. It is an extremely modest and restrained staging with no scenery besides a row of chairs.

The excellent cast deserves credit for injecting personality and even humor to some very emotionally demanding material. But if there is a play to be made from the stories of the Iraqi civilians, it has yet to arrive.

New York Theatre Workshop, 79 E. 4th St., 212-239-6200, nytw.org. Through Oct 4.

Review of The Retributionists

"The Retributionists," which observes the ambitious plans of four very young Jewish freedom fighters seeking revenge against the Germans immediately after World War II, is not likely to be the feel good hit of the fall.

When Plan A - spreading cyanide throughout the city - is suddenly intercepted, the characters move on to Plan B - poisoning the enemy's bread with arsenic. As one of them bluntly describes the mission, "one German for every Jew."

Needless to say, this sounds rather like a popular Quentin Tarantino flick that's still in movie theaters. But what really distinguishes this suspense drama by Daniel Goldfarb, who penned "Adam Baum and the Jew Movie," is that it's loosely based on real events. "Inglourious Basterds," though entertaining, is a work of total fiction.

Goldfarb is also not interested in action scenes of blood and guts. He focuses instead on the characters, their intense interrelationships and what motives their passionate desire to execute an "an eye for an eye" scheme of justice. And if the plan doesn't succeed, will it be possible to move on with their lives?

Unfortunately, Goldfarb's spends so much time dissecting the emotional love triangle among the characters that he turns what could have been an exciting, philosophic thriller into a dragging, overly complicated soap opera. The flow of the action is also interrupted by a flashback at the top of Act Two and his very awkward use of language.

Director Leigh Silverman made matters worse by staging the play so slowly and using too many pauses. As a result, the production lacks the necessary momentum to carry the plot forward convincingly. Her very young cast displays a fiery amount of passion and raw sexuality, but their performances remain more melodramatic than truly convincing.

If not much else, Tom Kitt, the composer of "Next to Normal," contributes mood music that helps create an authentic film noir atmosphere that the play otherwise fails to perfect.

Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., 212-279-4200, playwrightshorizons.org. Through Sept 27.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Final Performance of "Avenue Q" (well, only for now)

Being the optimist that I am - or at least occasionally try to be - I prefer to believe that "Avenue Q" won the 2004 Tony Award for Best Musical because it is a far superior musical over "Wicked." I was in the audience of Radio City Music Hall that very night - the only time I've ever attended the Tony Awards from inside the house, rather than the rinky dinky press room across the street that I have since frequented. When the show's victory was announced, I immediately leapt to my feet without thinking. It felt amazing to be there. It was like watching the Yankees win the World Series in 1996.

"Avenue Q" was also the first new Broadway musical that I reviewed as a critic. It was for Show Business Weekly, which is still in print and I now regard as the inconsequential, ghetto version of Backstage, where I worked as an intern in the summer of 2003. Hearing those songs for the first time was an absolutely glorious experience. When I first heard the opening line of the opening song, I was about to start my sophomore year at New York University as a Dramatic Literature major - and began to suspect that I too would one day be cast away from an academic campus and into the real world unprepared for professional life - as is why I immediately went to law school. And when I first heard "I Wish I Could Go Back to College," I thought instead about Frenchwoods, the theater camp I went to when I was younger, and how I wished I could go back there again and be an actor in musicals. I still think about Frenchwoods whenever I hear that song. And whenever I go to back to visit the camp, I do in fact feel like an out-of-place loser, thinking "these kids are so much younger than me."

Anyhow, back to the present. "Avenue Q" managed to stay in marvelously mint condition throughout its Broadway run, thanks mainly to its pocket size cast requirements. And no one was going to enter it unless they could handle the puppetry. Therefore, that ruled out any real possibility of short-term star replacement casting. Ever since it won the Tony Award, "Avenue Q" managed to do pretty good business at the Golden Theatre, but never really called too much attention to itself ever again. (That is not to say that it didn't make news elsewhere - remember Las Vegas?) But it was always there. And upon re-attending the show, while the shock and awe of hearing the jokes for the first time was gone, you could instead marvel at the incredible craft displayed in its score and staging. (What a shame that Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez have not since supplied us with another musical...)

When it was announced early into this past summer that "Avenue Q" would finally close, it felt very sudden. It's not that its closing hadn't been predicted a few months earlier when "Spamalot" and "Hairspray" and so many other musicals all closed at once. It just felt rather soon. After all, doesn't Kevin McCollum like to announce closings rather early on, allowing his shows to then slowly extend a bit thanks to popular demand? When "Avenue Q" announced its closing date, it was shortly followed by news of an opening date for "Oleanna" shortly after. It wasn't going to receive an extension. Word also spread throughout the industry that "Avenue Q," in spite of the fact that it had been a hit musical, was being unceremoniously kicked out of the theater by the Shuberts. (Now seriously, but would it have been so terrible to put "Oleanna" in the vacant Cort Theatre instead? It was good enough for Will Ferrell...)

When the contest to change the "George Bush" line in the finale was first announced, I wondered whether this meant that "Avenue Q" had become too dated. Should it shutter on Bush's last night in office? Moreover, have its cultural references - like a song treating the Internet as a new phenomenon - become dated too? Maybe a bit. But the heart of the show - about aimlessly arriving in New York, wanting to find a meaningful purpose, finding a girlfriend and then quickly messing it up - remains relevant and touching. And its songs and book remain among the best of this decade. And the staging is certainly among the most original and innovative. Frankly, it just can't be copied by other shows.

At the start of its final Broadway performance on Sunday night, there was no pre-show cell phone announcement. The band simply started up its prelude, and the audience went wild, practically drowning out the lyrics. From then on, the audience applauded the entrance of not just every actor - but every damn character (seriously, did the Bad News Bears ever before receive entrance applause?). I was impressed at how the crowd, which had obviously seen the show before, still laughed at the same jokes. But I was more impressed with how truly good the cast was. Robert McClure was the most animated Princeton/Rod I've seen on Broadway since John Tartaglia. Quite frankly, I prefer Anika Larsen's Kate Monster/Lucy T. Slut over Stephanie d'Abruzzo. And as for Ann Harada...well, that's just one of those truly distinctive performances that can never again be repeated by anyone. (And speaking of Ann Harada, what the hell was up with her rather blank and meaningless role in "9 to 5"?)

When the finale arrived, right before the famous "George Bush is only for now" line (or more recently changed to "George Bush WAS only for now"), alumni filled the stage according to character - a wave of actresses who had played Christmas Eve, followed by Brians, followed by Gary Colemans, and so on. Among them, Rick Lyon, Stephanie d'Abruzzo, and Alex Gemignani (oddly not in sight was John Tartaglia). With all of them now onstage, the rest of the song followed. But instead of the "George Bush" line, they instead used the "this show is only for now" variation.

When Kevin McCollum entered the stage at curtain call from the audience, he received a kiss from Kate Monster. He then proceeded to speak. "Sometimes it doesn't take a village. It just takes an avenue," he jokes. But then he got down to business. "It's clear we don't want the show to close," he said. "Since the Shuberts are here, we'd like to renegotiate the deal," referencing the rumor that the show was being forced out.

Well, Jeff Marx at least was more optimistic. "How many shows get to see their seventh year on Broadway," reminding us that "Avenue Q" is now the 20th longest-running show in Broadway history. "Fantasties come true. Look." Robert Lopez then made a point of reminding us that he got cut off at the Tony Awards.

But then McCollum took back the stage. "We don't want this show to close because what the hell's an "Oleanna" anyway?" He then admits that "Oleanna," during its original run, was the first show he put money into as a producer. But he goes on. "We called the Bad Idea Bears and had meetings over at the Scientology Center...And in three and a half weeks, we'll reopen at New World Stages...It's a small theater, so seats will be $1,000 each...Same great entertaining you saw here tonight." He then declared that what would soon follow would be not a closing party, but a pre-opening party. Further, the first production meeting would be taking place in the upstairs bar, to be followed by auditions all night long.

At the after party, which took place at some trendy hot spot on 10th Avenue and 15th Street, signs saying "Avenue Q: Now and Forever" were littered everywhere. The mood was not one of sadness, but giddy surprise. One very important theater exec compared the announcement to David Merrick revealing the death of Gower Champion at the opening night curtain call of "42nd Street." Guests asked each other whether moving a show from Off-Broadway to Broadway to Off-Broadway was an unprecedented move - or at least Broadway to Off-Broadway. Some referenced "Billy Bishop Goes to War," which played 12 performances on Broadway in 1980 at the Morosco Theatre and then reopened a week later Off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, where it played 78 more performances. Others referenced the original run of "night, Mother," which closed on Broadway on February 26, 1984 at the Golden Theatre and then reopened at the Lucille Lortel on April 18, 1984, where it played 54 more performances.

What will the show's new run be like? Physically, will it remain the same as before? What will the economic demand for it be like? We'll soon find out. It's certainly the most exciting theater news of the new season. And I wonder whether this is a big step in finally removing the distinction and blurring the boundaries between Broadway and Off-Broadway. In the end, it's still the same show. It's just moving a few blocks down the road into a smaller venue that, quite frankly, won't be much smaller than its Broadway house. (And if it's a success, might "[title of show]" follow suit soon enough?) In any case, I'll be there next month. Tickets are already on sale. And I can't wait to hear those incredible songs again.

Maybe Princeton finally found his purpose - keeping the show alive.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

An Obligatory Fall Theater Preview

The upcoming fall theater season poses a serious philosophic question: if you put Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig onstage at the same time, will it even matter whether "A Steady Rain," the two-actor cop drama in which they are appearing, is any good?
In addition to Jackman and Craig, Broadway will be dominated by Hollywood hotties such as Jude Law ("Hamlet"), Sienna Miller ("After Miss Julie"), Julia Stiles and Bill Pullman ("Oleanna"), Gina Gershon and John Stamos ("Bye Bye Birdie") and Carrie Fisher ("Wishful Drinking)."
But here's why we're really excited: "Hamlet" and "Oleanna" already received great reviews outside New York; Miller is making her long-overdue New York stage debut; Fisher's autobiographical solo show promises to discuss the Princess Leia years; and while "Birdie" has been performed at every high school in America, it's never had a Broadway revival.
If you like David Mamet, you're in luck. In addition to "Oleanna," his provocative drama observing the power struggle between a male professor and his female student, his new play "Race" (of which we know no plot details) is premiering on Broadway, while Off-Broadway's Atlantic Theater Company is producing two of his new one-acts.
Two other important American playwrights will also debut new work on Broadway. Lincoln Center will present Sarah Ruhl's "In the Next Room or the vibrator play," described as a "comedy about marriage, intimacy and electricity," whatever that means. Tracy Letts, whose Pulitzer-winning hit "August: Osage County" closed during the summer, now offers "Superior Donuts," a sentimental comedy about a Chicago donut shop.
Neil Simon's coming-of-age tale "Brighton Beach Memoirs" will be revived in repertory with its later-written sequel "Broadway Bound" using much of the same cast and on the same set. Another revival worth noting is "The Royal Family," a 1927 comedy spoofing the Barrymore family, with Rosemarry Harris playing the eldest. 
There aren't many new musicals on Broadway besides "Fela!," which explores the life of African composer Fela Anikulapo Kuti, and "Memphis," about the birth of rock-n-roll in the South.
Take solace instead in musical revivals. Joining "Birdie" are new productions of the turn-of-the-century epic "Ragtime," which was unfairly overshadowed by "The Lion King" 12 years ago, and the politically savvy Irish classic "Finian's Rainbow," which made a splash last spring at City Center.
Off-Broadway has its own star attractions: Philip Seymour Hoffman will play the villainous Iago in the Public Theater's production of "Othello," Cate Blanchett will play the faded southern belle Blanch Dubois in "A Streetcar Named Desire" at Brooklyn Academy of Music," and Mark-Paul Gosselaar will make his New York stage debut in "The Understudy" with the Roundabout.
Other Off-Broadway highlights include "The Orphans' Home Cycle," a three-part marathon by the late Horton Foote at Signature Theatre Company; and the Gershwin musical comedy "Girl Crazy," which inspired the 1990's hit "Crazy for You," at City Center Encores!.
And just in case you missed it last season, "Irving Berlin's A White Christmas" will return to the Marquis Theater, allowing Broadway to compete in the already saturated market for holiday entertainment.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Off-Broadway Picks: The Bereaved and Oohrah!

One of the best pleasures in New York theatergoing occurs when you discover a raw, exciting play by an unknown playwright. That happened twice this week: first with Thomas Bradshaw's outrageous comedy "The Bereaved," followed by Bekah Brunstetter's sobering drama "Oohrah!". Taken together, they offer different perspectives on how economic ambitions can cause American families to fall apart.

In "The Bereaved," Carol, a high-powered lawyer, suffers a fatal heart condition, leaving her husband Michael and 15-year-old son Teddy with no financial security.

Michael decides that the most logical solution is to start peddling cocaine to middle school students. He also accepts Carol's questionable suggestion that he should marry her best friend immediately upon her death. Meanwhile, Teddy and his drug-addicted, pregnant girlfriend plan to steal the family's drug money and run away to a hippie commune.

In 70 tight minutes, Bradshaw relentlessly builds upon these odd situations to epic proportions and dark results. We won't spoil the details, but he uses a lot of shocking language and imagery.

On the other hand, "Oohrah!," whose title is derived from the popular military chant, is an unflinching look at a marine's awkward return home to his North Carolina family following an extended stay in Iraq.

Ron, once a high-ranking officer, now can't even land a job at Home Depot. While his wife is anxious for him to stay home so that they can create the image of a happy nuclear family, the arrival of a young man obsessed with military life makes Ron question whether he can successfully adapt into middle-class society. After all, why bother to go to your child's birthday party when you can play with guns instead?

Unlike Bradshaw, who opts for shameless farce, Brunstetter sincerely and successfully explores the helplessness and depression one could feel upon entering a new social environment. She ends her play not with a firm resolution, but rather lots of unsolved conflicts. It's a pretty gutsy move that really pays off.

"The Bereaved" is at The Wild Project, 195 E. 3rd St., 212-279-4200, partialcomfort.org, through Sept 26.

"Oorah!" is at Atlantic Stage Two, 330 W. 16th St, 212-645-1242, atlantictheater.org, through Sept 27.