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The Uncomfortable and Thought Provoking Underground Railroad Game

The Underground Railroad Game is a childhood memory revisited through the lens of race, sexual attraction, humor and taboos. Created, written and performed by two amazing talents, this show works beautifully to exam almost everything about race, love and sex, which we try to ignore.

Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard play two teachers, guiding their elementary school through an exercise about the Civil War. The audience is the class, but the audience participation is minimal. The two teachers describe the Underground Railroad Game, where the students are divided up into Union and Confederate Teams. The Union’s team’s goal is to transport slave dolls from one class’ “safehouse” to another, the Confederate’s team tries to catch them.

Underground Railroad Game

Scott Sheppard and Jennifer Kidwell, creators and stars in Underground Railroad Game

Right from the start of the play, the piece is a little disconcerting. To turn the Civil War into a hide and seek game with dolls standing in for slaves is uncomfortable. And the show dials up the discomfort level from there. Outside school, the teachers are attracted to each other and begin the tenuous process of dating between races. Their dating process reaches across pitfalls and mistakes with warmth and jokes – jokes that sometimes work and sometimes fall flat.

Underground Railroad Game then gives us snippets from the classroom, dates and the bedroom, mixed and folding in on one another. The two leads’ attraction and game playing takes them to deep emotional and sexual areas, often getting surprisingly out of control for each.

It took a while for the cynical part of me to warm to this show. It is a little too earnest in places and tries too hard to be edgy. But halfway through the fast paced show (90 minutes with no intermission) I was hooked. Ms. Kidwell and Mr. Sheppard are excellent in the roles, but even more than that, they are fearless. They walk right up to the edge of what people are comfortable with and then jump across, believing we have the guts to follow them.

The stagecraft is well done, with the Lighting Design by Oona Curley particularly effective. Director Taibi Magar keeps the play moving forward, but gives it plenty of room to breath and grow. By the end of the Underground Railroad Game, I wasn’t positive what I saw, but I knew I remember it for a long time.

Underground Railroad Game | Created: Jennifer Kidwell, Scott Sheppard, Lighting Rod Special | Director: Taibi Magar | Cast: Jennifer Kidwell, Scott Shepard

 

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Met Two Pulitzer Prize Winners – and only Embarrassed Myself Once!

At the US Open Men’s Finals – I met two Pulitzer Prize winning playwrights, and only embarrassed myself once.

I did fine with Lin Manuel Miranda – author of Hamilton. I wanted to meet him and Eddie introduced me.  He was charming and very pleasant. I didn’t say anything too stupid of effusive. You would have all been proud.

Michael Cristofer - Nicest Guy in the World

Michael Cristofer – Nicest Guy in the World

On the other hand, I met Michael Cristofer from Mr. Robot (head of Evil Corp). We spoke for quite a while, as he was fascinating.

He indulged me as we discussed the show, his role, how the writer director shot the entire series more in a movie format than episodic (Sam Esmail shot it all at once in each location to save time and allow him to write and direct it all).  I will tell you he was fascinating – and yes, I did ask for a picture like a nerd.

During our talk he said he was writing a new play in Chicago. It is based on an old boxer that actually killed a man (accidently) in the ring. Emile Griffith was gay and went in and out of the closet many times – never found peace. Mr. Cristofer had written the libretto for an Opera based on his life a few years ago, and is writing / directing a play about the story now. ( note: I looked it up.  It is called Man In The Ring and is running in Chicago Sept 15th to Oct 16.)

Suddenly, I remembered the write up of the Opera (Champion) in the New York Times a year or so ago.  And then I realized that Mr. Cristofer was much more a renaissance man than I knew. We left and I immediately looked his work up.

Ah – yes.  He is a like a superstar. Pulitzer Prize and a Tony for writing The Shadow Box! American Theater Award for Best American Play for Amazing Grace. He won a Director’s Guild Award for Gia. A Golden Globe for screen writing.

I (and Eddie) went back over and spoke to him again later – how could one not – and he was more humble, polite and charming than such an accomplished man has any right to be.  I am listing his imdb bio because I was so freaking impressed. I loved talking to him and totally fan-boy’ed out after that.  No one else impressed me so much in the box (including Kevin Spacey or Damien Lewis).

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Michael Cristofer was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and an Antoinette Perry “Tony” Award for the Broadway production of his play, The Shadow Box. Other plays include Breaking Up (Primary Stages), ICE, (Manhattan Theatre Club); Black Angel, (Circle Repertory Company); The Lady and the Clarinet starring Stockard Channing, and Amazing Grace starring Marsha Mason which received the American Theater Critics Award for best American play. Mr. Cristofer’s film work includes the screenplays for The Shadow Box directed by Paul Newman (Golden Globe Award, Emmy nomination), Falling In Love, with Meryl Streep and Robert DeNiro, The Witches of Eastwick with Jack Nicholson, The Bonfire of the Vanities directed by Brian DePalma,, Breaking Up starring Russell Crowe and Salma Hayek, Georgia O’Keeffe (Writers Guild Award) with Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons and Casanova starring Heath Ledger. His directing credits include Gia, for HBO Pictures starring Angelina Jolie, Mercedes Ruehl and Faye Dunaway which was nominated for 5 Emmies and for which he won a Director’s Guild Award. He next directed Body Shots for New Line Cinema and Original Sin starring Antonio Banderas. For eight years he worked as co-artistic director of River Arts Repertory in Woodstock, N.Y., where he wrote stage adaptations of the films Love Me Or Leave Me and the legendary Casablanca, directed Joanne Woodward in his own adaptation of Ibsen’s Ghosts and produced the American premier of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women – a production which later moved to Off-Broadway. His most recent works for the theater are in workshop at the Actor’s Studio where he is a member. After a fifteen year hiatus, Mr. Cristofer has returned to his acting career appearing in Romeo and Juliet (NY Shakespeare Festival), Trumpery by Peter Parnell, Three Sisters (Williamstown Theater), Body of Water with Christine Lahti, and the acclaimed Broadway revival of A View from the Bridge with Liev Schreiber and Scarlett Johansson. He appeared as the infamous Truxton Spangler in the AMC series Rubicon and in The Other Woman with Natalie Portman. He created the role of Gus in Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual… at the Public Theater and starred in Stephen Belber’s Don’t Go Gentle at MCC Theater. He was recently seen in the NBC series, Smash, American Horror Story and Showtime’s Ray Donovan.

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About Clarence & Me – A Light Touch

About Clarence & Me, premiering now at the Theater for New City’s Dream Up Festival, is a hopeful and light show about reaching across barriers that divide us in order to make connections. Clarence is an older black man who wants to take piano lessons in order to learn how to play a little better. Wonderfully played baboutbigy DeMone, Clarence is a self-effacing, but proud man with a huge personality and warm demeanor. The young white piano teacher, Sam, initially struggles with how to  engage and motivate Clarence.  As Sam, actor Max Roll does an excellent job of navigating the minefield of expectations and social misunderstandings that could derail the enterprise.  But it is Clarence that ultimately sets the standards and conditions of the relationship. Clarence is warm and accommodating with the patience and experience that age can bring in the best of us.

About Clarence & Me covers 8 years of their relationship, as the men come to a mutual respect for each other.  They bond first over music, later becoming friends although their interaction is limited to their lesson time. AS you would expect, a lot of life happens in eight years to these two.

Full of original as well a s familiar music, About Clarence & Me is a feast for piano music lovers. The training isn’t the focus, and occasionally Clarence or Sam will break into a beautiful piece of music, and the transformation that overcomes them is magical.

The spoken dialog flows less easily than the music. While Clarence’s voice seems real, Sam’s dialog occasionally ventures into the stilted. In part, this is because the character doesn’t want to cause accidental offense. At other times, the character is forced to impart “big ideas” that don’t flow.

But that is a minor complaint in the scale of the show. Two men had a hand in writing the show, Scott Hiltzik, who also composed the original music and Walter Jones who also directs.  About Clarence & Me is as breezy and lovely a jazz piece.

About Clarence & Me | Playwrights: Scott Hiltzik & Walter Jones | Composer: Scott Hiltzik |Director: Walter Jones | CastDeMone, Max Roll

A Surprisingly Timely Visit From Jack London

If you are like me, you mainly know Jack London from his nature fiction, like The Call of The Wild or White Fang. The Iron Heel, playing in various venues in New York City (link) introduces us to a side of Jack London, which is overlooked. Jack London was a socialist and active in the party at the beginning of the 1900s. The Iron Heel is a work of future fiction he wrote in 1908. It deals less with science and technological change than with social change, and the promise of a socialist system of government that he was sure would come about.

theironheelIn adapting the work for the stage, Edward Einhorn (also the director) pulls the social and economic threads out of the story and focuses on those. It is the story of a socialist hero, as told through the found autobiography of his wife. The hero, Ernest Everhard, is played by Charles Ouda, a Kenyan born actor whose obvious difference in race and dialect mimics Ernest’s difference in class. Ernest was of the working class, and in The Iron Heel he rebels against the Capitalist class in general, the oligarchs and plutocracy in particular.

Ernest’s wife, well played by Victoria Rulle, was born into the Capitalist class but Ernest brings her and her social circle to the revolutionary cause. He does this by way of an explanation of fairness and social responsability. It is a story that foretells of a class work between the owners of production and the laborers. Written before the World Wars and introduction of communism, it is an optimistic look at a future socialist nirvana, albeit one that takes 300 years of struggle to attain.

To flesh out the story (and to bring the audience along), the show also includes a number of period socialist / unionist songs from the time period. It is a surprisingly effective means to sweep us up into the moment.

The Iron Heel is presented as a reenactment of the autobiography, quite far in a future; a future which we know does not come about. This would be a rather dry piece if it were not for the parallels between London’s time and ours. The struggles are a bit different, but the Jack London predicted the rise of the 1%. The echoes of that era are too strong for anyone to miss.

The Iron Heel is a fascinating story – not always captivating, but always interesting. And I was impressed by how moved much of the audience was – old lefties and younger millennials finding a common bond in a story and songs over 100 years old. It is a fun night.

The Iron Heel | Writer: Jack London / Adapter: Edward Einhorn | Director: Edward Einhorn | Cast: Craig Anderson, Kevin Argus, Charles J. Ouda, Yvonne Roen, Victoria Rulle, Trav SD | website

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A Powerful Visit to A Strange Country

A Strange Country, now playing at the Access Theater on the border of Chinatown and Tribeca, packs a punch. It is unusually powerful because it veers into territory both familiar and unexpected. As a piece of theater, it often signposts where it is going, but it gets there in unique ways. And that is high praise.

The scene opens with Darryl (embodied by Sidney Williams) sleeping it off in an old stained BarcaLounger. As he wakes up and shuffles to the couch, it is obvious Darryl in old and stained as well – in ways we will learn. The room (ugly / beautiful set design by Brian Dudkiewicz) is American lower class, circa Texas. The play is then set in not exactly a foreign country, but a strange country, at least for most of us.

Sidney Williams, Bethany Geraghy and Vanessa Vache in A Strange Country

Sidney Williams, Bethany Geraghy and Vanessa Vache in A Strange Country

Darryl is pulled from sleep by his sister, Tiffany (newcomer Vanessa Vaché – holding her own against these more experienced actors) and Tiffany’s girlfriend Jamie (Bethany Geraghy). Tiffany has come to roust Darryl and take him home for a re-commitment ceremony of their parents. This leads to some great scenes between the three – if a little too Sam Shepardesque. Darryl and his father are violently estranged. Little sister Tiffany plays a rough edged “mom” to the entire family, inserting herself to just bring some peace for the day.

strangetallVarious excuses leave them coupled into changing pairs as A Strange Country drives us through the past of these characters. Jamie is a recovering alcoholic; Darryl is an unrepentant alcoholic who medicates his bi-polar issues with prescriptions. Tiffany’s addiction tends towards family and support, with a healthy dose of drama. And the only way to get Tiffany to leave him alone, is for Darryl to betray her.

Sidney Williams and Bethany Geraghy bring some amazing life to the characters of Darryl and Jamie as they ultimately find strength and express it passively, a difficult thing to do well on stage.

Written by Anne Adams, A Strange Country leaves a lot of loose ends lying around. There are echoes and flashes of bits that might have been cut from a longer play, but she and director Jay Stull have distilled this to the essence of the characters. It is a hell of a ride.

Playwright: Anne Adams | Director: Jay Stull | Cast: Bethany Geraghy, Vanessa Vaché, Sidney Williams | Website

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Mr. Robot Meets A Nested Escape Room in Paradiso: Chapter 1

I didn’t even know that New York had a Korea Town. Heading to an undisclosed location for the immersive experience “Paradiso: Chapter 1”, one learns that there is indeed an NYC Korea Town, and one learns a good deal more. Not only about the city, but about yourself and the group of people you share this experience with.

I don’t want to spoil it by sharing too much here, but let’s go with the basics.

A scene from Paradiso: Chapter 1, an immersive thriller created and directed by Michael Counts, happening at an undisclosed location in NYC. (www.ParadisoEscape.com) Photo by Caleb Sharp

A scene from Paradiso: Chapter 1, an immersive thriller created and directed by Michael Counts, happening at an undisclosed location in NYC. (www.ParadisoEscape.com) Photo by Caleb Sharp

Paradiso: Chapter 1 is not a traditional Escape Room exercise. It is an interactive theater / nested puzzle box experience. During your hour you move through a series of rooms not by rewiring or destroying anything. Instead, you must solve mental challenges that open doors and new challenges. Each leads you ever deeper into a complex emergency situation.Paradiso_02

You start as applicants to The Virgil Corporation, greeted by your traditional corporate drones. And your team is giving a basic exercise that is part team building and part level setting. How does your team do under pressure, who are natural leaders? You find out by doing, sweating under a count down timer.

I found the experience to be great fun. I played with a couple people who were, admittedly, bad at group problem solving and some others that had been in traditional escape rooms. Everyone had a great time (although we were ultimately unsuccessful).

Michael Counts has created an experience that is both unique and a huge rush. It is creepy great fun at a great price. I highly recommend it to anyone that might think it sounds remotely interesting. And I, personally, cannot wait for the Chapter 2.

Paradiso: Chapter 1

Creator: Michael Counts (with Rabbit Immersive)

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Phoenix Rising explores the Power of Women to Take Control of Their Stories

Phoenix Rising is a powerful journey of resilience in womanhood. It is a tale that explores the dynamic of strength versus venerability at that point in adolescence when a girl is on the edge of adulthood. And the edge of adulthood is a precarious perch.

Unfortunately, Phoenix Rising starts slowly and only grows into itself over time. For many people, the opening moments with the encouragement of the divine feminine and lyrical character introduction will be off putting and start the piece on the wrong foot.

The story of Phoenix Rising is one of a group of female high school students required to attend mandatory after school counseling with a social worker. The five students have all committed some (unexplained) infraction with the school or the law that has led to this. The women are a pretty standard mix of “troubled kids”: the sassy Latina, the sex pot, the Goth / grunge kid, the artsy one and the nice one. The actresses are very good, with Whitney Biancur and Nichollette Shorts as standouts in the exemble. They are giving a bit more character arc to chew on as Lola and Edwina, and take full advantage of it.

Phoenix Rising with (front row) Nichollette Shorts, Whitney Biancur, Miranda Roldan (back row) Rachel Haas, Julia Peterson

Phoenix Rising with (front row) Nichollette Shorts, Whitney Biancur, Miranda Roldan (back row) Rachel Haas, Julia Peterson

The teacher is Grace (played perfectly on type by Kristen Vaughan). Grace is the type of touchy-feely teacher that will inspire or annoy the viewer. Grace channels the pull of the divine feminine, and has the girls randomly select a “goddess card” to associate to themselves. The idea is that with this association they can reach into the backstory of their particular goddess to tell their own stories. Drawing from the power or perseverance of their goddess, they can then address their own demons.

We see the girls interact as high school students, with all the vanity, pettiness and false bravado that accompanies adolescence. But in the relative safety of this small group, they begin to lower their walls and share more of their actual emotions, hopes and fears. As the class progresses, Grace narrates the story of each of their goddess, which the girls will act out. Within the story, the women’s own narratives are explored, lightly at first, and more explicitly as the show progresses. This gives each woman an opportunity to confront their past in a supportive environment.

The strength in Phoenix Rising grows from the ability of each woman to survive their circumstances, and the bravery is displayed by their ability to confront their pasts. It is emotional and very raw, not an easy balance ; but one handled deftly by this cast. Written and Directed by Laura Gosheff, Phoenix Rising is a heartfelt exploration, not for the cynical.

Playwright: Laura Gosheff | Director: Laura Gosheff | Cast: Kristen Vaughan, Julia Peterson, Rachel Haas, Miranda Roldan, Nichollette Shorts, Whitney Biancur | website

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Himself and Nora: A Musical Look at James Joyce

James Joyce, the author’s love for Nora and his journey to get published provides the structure of Himself and Nora. Some beautiful singing provides the breath and soul of the play. Wonderful performances by Matt Bogart (as Joyce) and Whitney Bashor (as Nora) bring these two characters to life. So the question becomes, why is the whole not better.

Himself and Nora isn’t a bad musical by any stretch. It is an involving story that sheds new light on the personality and struggles of the famous author, making him more human and accessible. For most of the two plus hours, it is almost a great show.

It starts with the irascible but charming James Joyce in Ireland, where he fights with his dad, buries his mom, rejects the Catholic Church and meets a charming young woman, Nora. Joyce and Nora share a remarkable emotional and sexual chemistry at the outset, but Joyce won’t marry. He won’t subject himself to the Catholic rite that approves of his choice. Nora, understanding the man she loves and willing to be a partner, not a wife, agrees to the arraignment.

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Matt Bogart and Whitney Bashor in ‘Himself and Nora’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy via The Broadway Blog.)

And just like that, the Joyces are off. First to Trieste, where they struggle and live happily as James writes, teaches, and drinks. A visit back to Ireland to get published convinces him that Ireland will never accept him. Luckily, he finds a sponsor and publisher in Paris, where he and Nora settle down.

The second act is less heartwarming, as many biographical pieces tend to be. IN fact, it is a slog. Success has come, but James Joyce wants more: the next county that will publish Ulysses, the next book and most of all, the American market. Nora, fed up with being the mother of bastards, wants to get married. The children are problems, with the Joyce daughter being sent to a mental institution. World War II rears its head. And then Joyce dies. And, in the worst of biographical musical traditions, he dies for a long time. Three songs at least, and we haven’t been able to make that investment in the character.

The music and the singing are wonderful, and the acting is excellent; Himself and Nora just needed someone to edit it ruthlessly. The supporting cast, Lianne Marie Dobbs, Zachary Prince and Michael McCormick, all shine in multiple roles. Director Michael Bush does a very good job with the spare stage and trappings, focusing the attention onto the cast. It is frustrating, because there is a great musical there in Himself and Nora could unburden itself of the extraneous.

Book, Music & Lyrics: Jonathan Brielle | Director: Michael Bush | Cast: Matt Bogart. Whitney Bashor, Lianne Marie Dobbs, Zachary Prince, Michael McCormick | website

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Indian Summer Works It’s Magic Lightly

With Indian Summer, playwright Gregory S. Moss sets out to capture that fleeting moment of youth on the cusp of adulthood. The moment that feels impossibly real while it is happening and impossibly dreamlike in retrospect. It often succeeds. Indian Summer plays with time and memory like the sand dunes where the play is set – both real and permanent, but constantly shifting.

Owen Campbell portrays Daniel, a young man of 16 or so, left at his grandfather’s house on the Rhode Island beach in the summer for an indeterminate length of time by a flaky mother. Daniel, friendless and annoyed, takes to the beach to sulk, escape his grandfather and feel sorry for himself in that desperate way only the young can. But the beach throws up the detritus of life: his grandfather, marking time after the passage of his wife, a townie stuck in the rules of masculine preening and Izzy, the local girl that challenges and entrances him.

Elise Kibler and Owen Campbell in Indian Summer

Elise Kibler and Owen Campbell in Indian Summer

Elise Kibler gives life to Izzy. A native Rhode Islander with an Italian working class heritage that is perplexed by the skinny pale “summer people” with an attitude that is Daniel. Together they talk gently and long about life and their future and their dreams. Theirs is that first great summer infatuation filled with possibility, not only of the person you meet, but also of being bigger and more than you are right now. These two actors grow into that moment organically and honestly. One of the most touching moments is as they sit, back to back, role playing a distance future in which they meet with their respective partners.

Joe Tippett brings a sense of playfulness and sweetness to Izzy’s lug headed boyfriend Jeremy. He is the perfect counterpoint to Daniel and Izzy’s relationship and a rebuke to the easy path many writer’s take where the current boyfriend is, for some reason, horrible. Jeremy knows how good he has it, and the role he has to play here. The audience gets the sense Jeremy (the character) has played this scene before and knows the ending. Jeremy is trying to save his own future.

The final role is George, Daniel’s (step) grandfather. Jonathan Hadary does a good job with a tough role. As the wandering narrator, he is wonderful. As the self-absorbed widower, well that is a difficult role to pull off honestly.

Indian Summer does some things so fantastically, that it is regrettable that other things just don’t work. George and Izzy’s sudden role-playing seems whipped up to offer a bookend to the show, not because it is organically driven. Izzy is best and most enthralling when she is the tough local teenager that slowly opens up to Daniel because he is so alien. He is non-threatening and her guard lowers a bit at a time in a believable and touching way.

Director Carolyn Cantor handles these moments of quiet brilliantly. Daniel and Izzy are like too different species to each other, fascinating, beautiful and fragile. Watching Indian Summer is like watching tide pool, everything in that moment is so perfect, but will be washed away at high tide and redone countless times.

Indian Summer | Playwright: Gregory S. Moss | Director: Carloyn Cantor | Cast: Owen Campbell, Elise Kibler, Jonathan Hadary, Joe Tippett | website

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Benjamin Walker Mesmerizes in American Psycho

Expectations play a big role, and I did not have high expectations going into American Psycho.  So the funny and lively show that greeted me was an excellent surprise.  American Psycho is as dark as comedy comes, but I loved it.

American Psycho is an indictment of the ethics of the 1980’s as embodied by Patrick Bateman – or perhaps just an indictment of Patrick Bateman. In a period when greed and over-consumption was celebrated, Patrick lives a charmed life.  He is a moneyman, handsome with a beautiful fiancé, a steady supply of cocaine and sexual conquests; yet something is missing.  There is always someone a bit more successful or a party going on he wasn’t invited to or a restaurant he can’t get into.  And these little failures eat away at him until he does something.  The “something” in American Psycho is killing.  Big, showy murders punctuation by new wave classics.

Benjamin Walker - photo by Jeremy Daniels

Benjamin Walker – photo by Jeremy Daniels

Benjamin Walker plays Patrick Bateman and heis in command every second he is on stage.  He starts the play rising up center stage like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.  Walker’s half shell is a clothes caddy that he uses to describe his wardrobe and state of mind.  The audience enters his head and his point of view at that moment – and Walker never lets us leave it.

He narcissistically describes his apartment, his clothes and his job as a definition of himself.  He is great because he dresses great, has great things and a beautiful life.  He is 26 and compares himself to a gold standard constantly.  Even his body, worked and molded to perfection, is a reflection of his personality, more a costume than a self.  And his perfection only punctuates his insecurity – and he takes the audience right along with that journey.

As his girlfriend, Courtney, Helene Yorke is hilarious.  She is seen through Patrick’s filter as a stereotypical Long Island airhead, aspiring only to be beautiful, rich and married.  If Ms. York dropped the façade or winked at the audience ever, this whole thing would fall apart.  But she, like Benjamin Walker, plays the show straight and so it works.

The worst of the 1980s is mirrored perfectly, a sea of white privileged faces ignoring the world around them.  The sets are wonderfully designed by Es Devlin – suggesting the 1980s overstated opulence without the tackiness.  And when the sets turn red, the imagery is minimal but wildly effective.  The costumes, by Katrina Lindsay, are perfect with enough shoulder pads to play football.  The songs by Duncan Sheik are not particularly memorable, but functional.  However the remixed 1980s tunes vary from catchy to haunting.

Director Rupert Goold captures the American Psycho moment in time and delivers it to us perfectly.  It is distant enough to be a memory, but with just enough resonance for the zeitgeist of today.

American Psycho | Book: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Music & Lyrics: Duncan Sheik, Based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis | Director: Rupert Goold | Cast: Benjiman Walker, Helene Yorke, Jennifer Damiano, Drew Moerlein, Alice Ripley

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