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    Joaquina Kalukango and Amanda Williams on Creative Freedom

    The “Slave Play” actress and the Chicago-based artist discuss generational gaps, success and the art that brought them each acclaim.What does it mean for an artist to be free? And what does that freedom look like for a contemporary Black artist? Amanda Williams has recently been asking herself these very questions. A Chicago-based visual artist who trained as an architect, Williams, 47, is known for her pieces exploring the nuances of color, both racial and aesthetic. Her breakout work was “Color(ed) Theory,” a 2014-16 series in which she painted eight condemned houses on Chicago’s South Side in vivid, culturally coded shades, such as “Ultrasheen,” a dark turquoise that matches the hue of a Black hair-care product, and “Crown Royal Bag,” a purplish pigment that mirrors the packaging of a popular whisky.In a 2018 TED Talk, Williams discussed how we perceive color — specifically, how our perceptions are determined by context. One example, she said, was redlining — federal housing maps from the 1930s marked neighborhoods inhabited by Black Chicagoans as red, contributing to policies that prevented many residents from securing loans — which weaponized color and resulted in underinvestment. When the actress Joaquina Kalukango, 32, heard the speech, she was awe-struck. Kalukango is no stranger to powerful works of art: Last year, she received a Tony nomination for best leading actress in a play for her work in Jeremy O. Harris’s searing, passionately debated drama “Slave Play,” which is set on a plantation and follows a trio of modern-day interracial couples whose relationships are stymied by conflicting views on race.One rainy morning in October, Kalukango met Williams at the latter’s studio in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. Kalukango was days away from starting a Chicago run of “Paradise Square,” a musical about the 1863 Manhattan draft riots, in which Irish immigrants turned on the Black neighbors with whom they’d previously peacefully coexisted. (It’s headed to Broadway early next year.) Meanwhile, Williams is expanding on “What Black Is This, You Say?,” an ongoing, multiplatform series of abstract paintings inspired by cultural touchstones and observations related to the Black experience that she showed at Art Basel in Miami Beach this month.Amid laughter, Williams and Kalukango talked generational differences, the desire to be “regular” and the blurry line between artistic genius and madness.AMANDA WILLIAMS: Twenty twenty was a mess. I was contemplating Kool-Aid [the subject of one of her latest paintings] and laughing about it, and then the whole world was like, “How are you feeling about being Black, segregation and systemic racism?” People were like, “I want to help, right this minute.” I thought, “I don’t know how I feel right now. I was actually doing something else, and now I’m going to cry.” It’s a little easier now. We’re farther away from it. How did that feel for you?JOAQUINA KALUKANGO: It’s interesting, because “Slave Play” opened [on Broadway in October 2019] before the country had its racial awakening. There was a lot of aggression toward our production. There was a lot of pushback, specifically within the Black community. [Some who had seen the play, and many others who hadn’t, found it offensive in its use of antebellum role play and inappropriately sexually graphic; one online petition calling for the show’s shutdown referred to it as “anti-Black sentiment disguised as art.”] But after audiences saw the show, there was so much conversation. On the streets, people would come up to me and talk about it. That was affirming. It was also exhausting. The greatest thing that helped me was when we had a “Black Out” night — the audience was all Black. I heard the show in a different way: It was funny. There was this release of Black people finally being able to feel like this show was for them, as opposed to sitting next to someone and wondering, “Why are you laughing at this?” How can we get Black people to feel free regardless of who’s sitting next to them? How can we fully enjoy ourselves in situations and experience art without feeling like other people are watching us? It’s always a struggle.Kalukango in “Slave Play” at the Golden Theater in New York City, in September 2019.Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesA.W.: I’ve thought a lot about the freedom question. Take Kanye West. He’s obviously experiencing some mental health issues. But also, he has a level of mastery and talent that borders on complete freedom. He says inappropriate things, and maybe he doesn’t even understand what freedom is. But if you’ve ascended beyond practically any other brown human you’ve ever met, and you can buy Wyoming, isn’t that free? [West has purchased two huge ranches there.] He just does what he wants. [For the listening party for “Donda,” his recent album named after his mother, who died in 2007,] Kanye was like, “I’m going to recreate my mom’s house in [the Chicago Bears stadium] Soldier Field.” Everybody was confused. But I thought, “This could be a mental moment, but it’s also pure creativity.” Every artist who you might say is the most free, in terms of pushing their craft to the edge, is always called crazy.J.K.: Did anyone tell you, early in your career, that you had to work within certain boundaries? Did you feel pressure to be a certain type of artist?A.W.: I trained as an architect [at Cornell University]. My parents were in a panic that I might be an artist. They were like, “Artists who make money are called architects.” In a sense, that was a boundary. Then, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area right at the height of the dot-com boom. The economy was great. Projects were bountiful; jobs were plentiful. I was able to live out this architectural career that I thought would take 30 years in five or six. Then I had a boss who said, “If you could be doing anything in the world right now, what would it be?” She thought I was going to say, “Taking over your company.” And I said, “Painting.” She encouraged me to try it. And the Bay Area lent itself to that. Everybody had an idea. Google was born when I lived in the Bay. That kind of environment helped me take the leap.If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t. I’d be like, “What if it doesn’t work? How am I going to eat?” But back then, I was just like, “Oh, I’ll eat some avocados, it’s California.” There’s no moment I remember when somebody said I couldn’t do it. Well, I’m sure there was, but I blocked it out. My friend and I were just talking about how our generation tended to dismiss racist comments or sexual advances. We just kept moving. Your generation does not tolerate nonsense. Is that how it feels?J.K.: Definitely. The new show I’m in, “Paradise Square,” is a musical that has been in development for a long time. There was always a struggle to figure out whose lens the story should be told through. Now, it finally centers around this free Black woman in New York who owned a bar in 1863 [Nelly Freeman, the role Kalukango is playing]. We have an E.D.I. [equity, diversity and inclusion] person who talks about terminology. One day in rehearsal, an assistant said, “Joaquina, we’re not going to say the L-word in this sentence.” I was like, “ ‘Let’? ‘Listen’? ”A.W.: Which “L”?J.K.: It was “lynch.” I said, “What? We’re just not going to say this?” But the idea was, we don’t have to say that word until it’s absolutely necessary. I thought, “Well, this is a whole new way of being, even for me. That word doesn’t bother my spirit, but it’s bothering other people’s spirits.” It’s a different world from when I was growing up in Atlanta.Loren ToneyA.W.: How does that impact your craft? Does it trip you up to have to be mindful of words in a way that maybe you hadn’t been before?J.K.: We’re all more careful. Everyone’s fragile. We’re still in the midst of a pandemic, and so many issues have come up for so many people. We’re all giving each other a lot of care and grace in this new era that we’re trying to build, this new era of theater we’re trying to make. But it’s a bit of a struggle, I’ll be honest. When you do work that’s specifically about a very troublesome time — and if you look at the Jan. 6 riot [at the U.S. Capitol], it’s similar to the draft riots — you can’t sugarcoat it. You can’t run away from it. It’s always a balance of, how do you tell a story without traumatizing our community?T: When did you first encounter each other’s work?J.K.: I first saw Amanda’s work in her TED Talk.A.W.: Oh my God. I had wondered, how did you find out about me? How do you know who I am?J.K.: I had such a visceral reaction to “Color(ed) Theory.” All of it was so much a part of my life, my childhood. Plus, I just love colors. How did you get that concept? What inspired you?A.W.: I grew up on Chicago’s South Side and crossed town every day to go to school. Chicago segregation, coupled with the city’s grid, is perfect for systemic oppression because it sets boundaries, and then we mentally reinforce them. I was hyperaware of color all the time, as in race, thinking, “That’s a Mexican neighborhood.” “Chinese people are there.” “White folks do this.” Things like that. And I’ve loved [chromatic] color since birth. Then I learned about color in an academic setting.One summer, while [I was] teaching color theory, a friend joked, “They pay you money to teach people what? Red and blue is green?” I said, “No, color theory is a whole science.” She said, “You know colored theory.” We laughed and I left it alone. A week or two later, I thought, “I do know colored theory.” I spent another few years making sense of it. It seemed so juicy. I started to think, “What things make you think of the color first?” There’s a story I told in the TED Talk: I met a gentleman who grew up near the “Crown Royal Bag” house. He thought the purple house meant Prince was coming. Even after I told him about my art, he said, “You wait and see. Prince might show up and perform right here.” Suddenly, he had hope for that vacant lot, in a way that maybe he didn’t before. To me, that was success.J.K.: It was brilliant.A.W.: At first, I wasn’t as familiar with your work, but when I started to look into it, I was like, “How could I have missed all of this? These are the exact same things I’m thinking and talking about.” I’m excited about how we translate these thoughts across mediums — theater, performance, music, architecture, sculpture, writing.Williams’s “Color(ed) Theory: Pink Oil Moisturizer” (2014-16).Amanda WilliamsWilliams’s “Color(ed) Theory: Crown Royal Bag” (2014-16).Amanda WilliamsT: You both have long been working artists, but your breakout pieces — “Slave Play” and “Color(ed) Theory” — made you famous. Has that affected your work? Do you feel an added responsibility now?J.K.: An actor starts off auditioning for nearly everything. We’re told “no” 99 out of 100 times. Initially, the roles I took were just what ended up coming to me. But I also believe that what’s for you is for you. When you’re on a path that you’re aligned with, more things start coming your way. Now I am adamant that Black women see many facets of ourselves, that we are depicted with a wide gamut of emotions: the unflattering and unraveling parts but also joyful and loving, peaceful and gentle. I want it all for us, at every possible moment. I’m trying to ensure I show Black women as full human beings — not stereotypes, not archetypes. We’re not strong all the time. Yes, our ancestors had to survive, but there was always joy in the midst of all that pain.A.W.: You also have to give yourself permission to be an artist. That’s hard because there is a burden. You know how few people have the same opportunities, so you always want to make sure you’ve done justice. At the same time, you have to take the pressure off. Our society thinks about the home run, the slam dunk — the idea that each thing you do must be better than the last. But if you look at any creative being’s full oeuvre, there are ups and downs. Artists have to continue to understand themselves and improve their craft for themselves. It makes me think of this great artist Raymond Saunders, who lives in the Bay Area. He taught an advanced painting class, and I was teaching at the same school, so he invited me to his class. I went — and the students were eating handmade pastries from this beautiful boutique in Berkeley or something. I’m like, “What is this?” And they’re like, “He told us he can’t teach us how to paint, he can teach us how to live.” It was mind-blowing. Maybe we don’t have to nail it every single week of every year. Maybe we just nail it every five years. Maybe we can sleep one of those years.J.K.: I always think, “Do we ever have the space to be mediocre and figure things out?” I don’t want to be Black girl magic every day. Sometimes I want to be regular. Just regular Black. [All laugh]A.W.: Regular Black. I’m going to make a painting based on that.T: How do you two define success right now?A.W.: Just being the best me. I don’t worry so much if my work is well received or if it garners accolades. That sounds so cheesy. My husband jokes, “Well, that’s nice to say after you’ve gotten the accolades.” [All laugh]J.K.: I love originating and creating new roles. For me, success is knowing that there are girls coming up who can use work I’ve done as audition pieces for colleges. In “Slave Play,” my character, Kaneisha, has a 10- or 15-minute monologue. She takes up space for almost the entire last act. I’d never seen anything like it onstage before. For a long time, it was hard to find material or scene work that included multiple Black characters. It was hard finding those plays [when I studied at the Juilliard School]. It’s all about the next generation for me. If at any point I can make someone feel more free, more confident in their abilities, that’s the win.This interview has been edited and condensed. More

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    Dominique Morisseau Pulls Play From L.A. Theater, Citing ‘Harm’

    The playwright ended a run of “Paradise Blue” a week after it opened at the Geffen Playhouse. The theater acknowledged “missteps.”The playwright Dominique Morisseau has ended the run of her play “Paradise Blue” just a week after it opened at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, saying that Black women who worked on the show had been “verbally abused and diminished.”Morisseau did not specifically describe what happened. But in a 1,100-word Facebook post on Wednesday, she said that members of the creative team had been “allowed to behave disrespectfully,” that she had demanded an apology from one member of the team and that “instead of staunchly backing this, the Geffen continued to enable more abuse.”“Harm was allowed to fester,” Morisseau said in the Facebook post.“I gave the theater an ultimatum,” she added. “Respect the Black womxn artists working on my show, or I will pull my play.”In a statement about the cancellation, the Geffen Playhouse said that officials had “apologized to everyone involved” and acknowledged having “fallen short” in its commitment to artists.“An incident between members of the production was brought to our attention and we did not respond decisively in addressing it,” the theater’s statement, released on Wednesday, said. “As a result of these missteps, some members of the production felt unsafe and not fully supported.”“Paradise Blue,” which is set in 1949, is part of Morisseau’s trilogy of Detroit plays, which have been widely produced at theaters around the country. It played Off Broadway in 2018; the Geffen production had opened to strong reviews on Nov. 18, and had been set to run through Dec. 12.“Skeleton Crew,” another play in the trilogy, is scheduled to begin Broadway performances on Dec. 21.The theater declined to comment beyond its written statements. Morisseau did not respond to a request for additional comment.Morisseau’s decision to pull the play over what she described as the mistreatment of Black artists and the dismissal of their complaints comes as theater continues to grapple with how to reform itself and improve its culture.The protests over the police killing of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 ignited a nationwide reckoning over racism and inequality in America that resonated in the theater world. As artists prepared to return from the long pandemic shutdown, some have grown more outspoken about what they say are pervasive problems in the industry.This summer Broadway power brokers signed a pact pledging to strengthen the industry’s diversity practices as theaters were preparing to reopen.In her Facebook post, Morisseau — who earned a Tony Award nomination as the book writer for “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations”— said she had been “gutted” by what had transpired with “Paradise Blue.”She urged the theater industry to “look inward and acknowledge a pervasive culture of anti-blackness, anti-womxness, and anti-black-womxnness.” More

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    Stephen Sondheim Tributes Pour In From Stars

    Audra McDonald, Bernadette Peters, Andrew Lloyd Webber and others mourned and celebrated the essential composer and lyricist, who died at 91.Passionate tributes to Stephen Sondheim came quickly as the news of his death reached the theater world and beyond on Friday. Comparisons to Shakespeare were invoked more than once; so was appreciation for his tough-love feedback to those who interpreted his songs.Because the Pulitzer-Prize-winning composer of such beloved shows as “Sunday in the Park With George” and “Sweeney Todd” was known for his wit and wordplay, writers who stick to the page, not the stage, weighed in with admiration as well. (The pop tunesmith Jack Antonoff did, too.) And, given how often Sondheim songs traded in wistfulness and melancholy, the composer’s own lyrics were used to celebrate and remember him, too. Here is a sampling of responses.InterpretersI’m weirdly numb and super-emotional all at the same time. I can’t quite process what the world (especially the theatrical world) looks like without him. He was a giant, he was a genius, he was a legend, he was wickedly funny, he was wildly supportive but bluntly honest, and he was one of the wisest, toughest, most profound mentor/teachers I’ve ever known. I will miss him terribly. AUDRA McDONALDEven in a time so full of loss, this news feels like a unique punch to the heart. Which is appropriate, I guess, given that is exactly how his music always affected me. What do you say when the ocean goes away, or when a mountain disappears? Steve was that elemental and irreplaceable a part of my career and my understanding of art and life. And I’m surely not alone in that feeling. I don’t really have the words. Steve would. MICHAEL CERVERISHe was like Shakespeare, and what a privilege to be able to say, “Steve, what did you mean when you wrote that?” You could get it right from the horse’s mouth. I always say, he gave me so much to sing about. BERNADETTE PETERSTake a walk in the words and music that he left us. Walk in privacy, walk with a friend, put it on at different times in your life. Listen to it, sometimes listen more than once because the simplicity with which he expresses the most complicated human emotions — he’s able to do it in a way that once you hear it, it’s unforgettable. He was simply one of our greatest teachers. MANDY PATINKINHow I cherished his ambivalences! Once, after the final dress rehearsal for “Do I Hear a Waltz?” Sondheim stood in front of the entire company and crew. He suddenly noticed me, and I said “Hello!” and he burst out, “Oh, hello! You were wonderful, most of the time.” That comma, that breadth of affirmation and doubt, is what makes him so astounding, and so wonderful to sing — most of the time. No, all of the time. MELISSA ERRICOThere is no way to overestimate Steve’s impact on my life and work. He was like my second father. I honestly can’t imagine a life without him in it. LONNY PRICEAdmirersFellow theater writersWriters from all cornersPaying tribute with his own wordsThe theater has lost one of its greatest geniuses and the world has lost one of its greatest and most original writers. Sadly, there is now a giant in the sky. CAMERON MACKINTOSH More

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    Review: Getting a Moral Fix From ‘Approval Junkie’

    The radio and television journalist Faith Salie stars in a one-woman show about the perils of striving for achievement and affirmation.A loosely drawn girl eyes a gold star near the top of an illustrated tree. She climbs up to reach it but tumbles to the ground and lands on her feet. The brief animation serves to introduce “Approval Junkie,” a one-woman Audible production that opened Tuesday at the Minetta Lane Theater, neatly encapsulating the whole of its familiar, and repeated, moral fable about chasing the highs of success.By some measures, the subject in this case is exceptional. “Approval Junkie” is written and performed by the radio and television journalist Faith Salie, in collaboration with the director Amanda Watkins. Fans may recognize Salie’s bright, even demeanor from her roles as a regular panelist on the NPR news quiz show “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” and as a contributor to “CBS News Sunday Morning,” positions that reward gentle, authoritative relatability.But the anecdotes from her life that Salie recalls here, of striving for achievement and affirmation, reflect gendered expectations and social pressures that many women will recognize.After four years of competing in her high school pageant, Salie finally won by performing a Barbra Streisand song in a rainbow-sequin mini. She still has the tiara. (“It’s missing some stones … aren’t we all?”) Pursuit of the spotlight drew her to Los Angeles, where an acting coach once asked, “Why aren’t you as pretty as I want you to be?” adding that motherhood would soften her features.Salie’s quest for thinness led to early struggles with anorexia and a lasting fixation on appearance. “I don’t know who could tell me enough that I’m beautiful,” she says.Perhaps it’s no surprise then that Salie is not exactly an unselfconscious performer. With the exception of one truly unrestrained outburst (at an Ayurvedic healing center, no less), onstage she is poised and polished, watchfully reserved. This is not an unruly takedown of conventional womanhood’s narrow strictures from someone on the outside. In a navy silk jumpsuit and beige heels (the costume design is by Ivan Ingermann), Salie could stroll into an advertisement for no-makeup makeup, pointing to the beauty ideals she embodies as a trap.The production has an amiable, anodyne quality well tailored to its release as an Audible Original recording (“Approval Junkie” is based on Salie’s 2016 book of essays of the same name). Watkins’ minimal staging marks Salie’s incidental transitions with as little as the spin of a bar stool or a few steps to one side. A backdrop of fractured panels glows in shades of pastel (the set design is by Jack Magaw, and lighting by Amanda Zieve), and a buoyant piano composition by the sound designer Brandon Bush comforts listeners like a plush love seat.“Approval Junkie” wants to suggest a certain self-awareness about the fallacy of craving outside validation. But for all its pat wisdom — “Don’t change yourself for someone else,” Salie tells her kids, “change yourself for you” — the play still demonstrates the value of caring what other people think.“Seeking approval has not undone me,” Salie says. “It’s built me.” Even so, being put together is not nearly as interesting onstage as falling apart.Approval JunkieThrough Dec. 12 at the Minetta Lane Theater, Manhattan; audible.com/theater. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. More

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    Tomfoolery With the Classics? Play It Straight, Please.

    Two London productions that play fast and loose with their literary sources lack the theatrical magic of another show that gives viewers the original, unadorned.LONDON — If you’re going to revisit a classic novel by a woman, you should probably give that task to women. That’s the conceit behind “Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of),” a play that’s now at the Criterion Theater here for an open-ended run. The production, a success at the Edinburgh Festival in 2018, will most likely appeal to those with no time to actually read Jane Austen: Let the five gifted performers of the all-female cast relay the novel in their own larky, irrepressible way.The parenthetical in the title sets the cheeky tone. Written by Isobel McArthur “after Jane Austen,” as the playbill puts it, the show gives us all the time-honored characters, from the self-dramatizing Mrs. Bennet to her five matrimonially challenged daughters. Nor are the men excluded: McArthur, the author, doing triple duty as the play’s co-director (with Simon Harvey) and as one of the hard-working cast, drops her voice as required to play Fitzwilliam Darcy, the book’s abiding heartthrob.Putting a contemporary spin on a Regency-era tale, the play co-opts music to make a point: Barely has the bride-to-be, Elizabeth Bennet (a gleaming-eyed Meghan Tyler), fallen under the sway of Mr. Darcy before she launches into the Carly Simon standard “You’re So Vain.” In the let’s-try-everything spirit of the venture, the cast members also play musical instruments, and there’s a reference to “The Phantom of the Opera,” which is playing around the corner, in an opening sight gag involving a falling chandelier.The intention is to play fast and loose with the source while honoring its spirit, which for the most part succeeds. Mr. Darcy’s eventual confession of his desire for Elizabeth is accompanied by the swelling sounds of the Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You.” The overbearing Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Christina Gordon) enters to the music of the sound-alike Chris de Burgh, and we hear expletives that would surely have made Austen herself blush.The all-female cast brings a party vibe to Jane Austen’s iconic love story.Matt CrockettI wish more had been made of the suggestion at the outset that we will be viewing these characters from the perspective of the servants, whose employment enables the Bennets’s leisurely lives. At the beginning, the performer Hannah Jarrett-Scott galumphs about in Doc Martens, busy with her cleaning chores and not quite ready for the show to begin. (“We haven’t started yet,” she exclaims.)But any sort of class commentary soon disappears. This is “Pride and Prejudice” with a party vibe. “Are you having a good time?” we’re asked late on, to which the audience members at a recent matinee responded at the curtain call by leaping to their feet.Playfulness with a resilient source also informs “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” a play by Christopher Durang that draws three of its title characters from Chekhov. A hit on Broadway, where it won the 2013 Tony for Best Play, the comedy is at the Charing Cross Theater through Jan. 8. The production, originally scheduled just as the pandemic took hold, is directed by Walter Bobbie, whose Broadway staging of “Chicago” recently marked its 25th anniversary.In Durang’s telling, Vanya and Sonia are no longer the uncle and niece of Chekhovian renown. Instead, they are siblings sharing discontented lives in rural Pennsylvania while their more glamorous sister Masha (Janie Dee), an actress, is off gathering toy boys like Spike (Charlie Maher).The cast of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” from left: Charlie Maher, Rebecca Lacey, Lukwesa Mwamba, Janie Dee and Michael Maloney.Marc Brenner The first half consists largely of extended chat about what costumes this trio should wear to a party: The spinsterish Sonia (Rebecca Lacey) isn’t sure whether to go as Jean Harlow or Marlene Dietrich, though we soon discover that she can do a spot-on vocal impersonation of Maggie Smith. The tone darkens, somewhat, after the intermission, with a series of monologues in which, as in “Uncle Vanya,” the characters address their psychic turmoil. “I’m worried about the future, and I miss the past,” says this play’s Vanya (a morose Michael Maloney), who turns out to be gay and is given to adoring the toned Spike in various states of undress.Dee’s feisty Masha has been married five times but isn’t beyond fretting about an outfit that doesn’t go down well with the locals: At such moments, the play lapses into the comparatively cheesy realm of sitcom (a genre unknown to Chekhov). Additional characters include Nina (Lukwesa Mwamba), the name referencing someone from another Chekhov play, “The Seagull,” and an emphatic seer named — you got it — Cassandra (Sara Powell). The literary forebears may be there, but the play doesn’t so much pay tribute to Chekhov as leave you pining for his wit and wisdom.After two shows that riff on (and in the case of the Durang, sometimes cheapen) an illustrious source or two, along comes Ralph Fiennes to give us the real thing, unadorned and unedited. The protean actor, rarely long absent from the stage, is directing himself in a theatrical performance of T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” at the Harold Pinter Theater through Dec. 18. The production, lasting 75 minutes with no intermission, represents a decidedly highbrow alternative to the japery on view nearby.Ralph Fiennes in T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.”Matt HumphreyEliot’s masterwork was written in four parts while the poet was also evolving as a playwright, and Fiennes treats this writer’s often abstruse language as the stuff of drama, as potent in its way as the Shakespeare texts to which this actor regularly returns. I doubt I’m alone in not knowing what Eliot meant by the words “deliberate hebetude” from “East Coker,” the second of the quartets. But there’s no denying the mesmeric spell of a performer who can make even the opaque sound immediate. (I looked it up later: “Hebetude” means lethargy, or dullness.)Appearing barefoot, pausing to sip water or move the gray slabs that make up the designer Hildegard Bechtler’s elegantly austere set, the actor guides us through Eliot’s extended meditation on consciousness and hope, exploration and loss. Fiennes commits himself physically to an agile performance in which his body often writhes in response to Eliot’s images. And at a time when other London stages are filtering great work through a revisionist lens, here is the thing itself, ceaselessly and restlessly alive.Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of). Directed by Isobel McArthur and Simon Harvey. Criterion Theater, open-ended run.Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Directed by Walter Bobbie. Charing Cross Theater, through Jan. 8.Four Quartets. Directed by Ralph Fiennes. Harold Pinter Theater, through Dec. 18. More

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    ‘Clyde’s’ Review: Sometimes a Hero Is More Than Just a Sandwich

    In Lynn Nottage’s bright new comedy, cooks at a greasy spoon dream of remaking the menu — and their lives.We are living in Greek times — or so you might conclude from the preponderance of Greek tragedies turned out by today’s playwrights. The world they show us is too dark for anything but the cruelest of tales, the bleakest of forms.And no wonder. The systems that control our lives — institutional racism, predatory capitalism, the prison-industrial complex — seem as powerful and implacable as gods. What can humans do about fate, these playwrights suggest, but submit to it and hope to preserve the story?Lynn Nottage has sometimes been one of them. Her two Pulitzer Prizes are for works in which the world and its people are trapped in an abusive relationship. In “Ruined,” women prove to be the real targets in the Congolese civil war. In “Sweat,” steelworkers resisting their union-busting management inexorably wind up busting one another.But Nottage’s delightful new play, “Clyde’s,” which opened at the Helen Hayes Theater on Tuesday, dares to flip the paradigm. Though it’s still about dark things, including prison, drugs, homelessness and poverty, it somehow turns them into bright comedy. In Kate Whoriskey’s brisk and thoroughly satisfying production for Second Stage Theater, we learn that, unlike Oedipus and his mom, people who may have little else nevertheless have choices.Which is not to say the choices are easy. In the kitchen of the truck stop diner that gives the play its title, the cooks making the sandwiches have all served time. Letitia (Kara Young) “got greedy” and stole “some oxy and addy to sell on the side” after breaking into a pharmacy to obtain “seizure medication” for her daughter. Rafael (Reza Salazar) held up a bank but (a) with a BB gun, and (b) only because he wanted to buy his girlfriend a Cavalier King Charles spaniel. We don’t at first get the story of how Montrellous (Ron Cephas Jones) wound up behind bars, but he is so saintly that Letitia, called Tish, believes it must have been elective.In any case, like the others, he has paid the price, and keeps paying it. As the joint’s proprietor, Clyde (Uzo Aduba), enjoys pointing out, she’s the only employer in Reading, Penn., who will hire “morons” like them. She does so not because she too was once incarcerated; don’t accuse her of a soft heart. (Of the crime that landed her in prison the only thing she says is that the last man who tried to hurt her “isn’t around to try again, I made damn sure of that.”) Rather, Clyde has shady reasons to keep the overhead low and the morale even lower.Aduba, far left, as the shady restaurant proprietor Clyde, and her cooks, from left: Reza Salazar, Kara Young, Jones and Edmund Donovan.Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesIn Aduba’s hilarious and scalding performance, Clyde, wearing a succession of skintight don’t-mess-with-me outfits by Jennifer Moeller, is a shape-shifting hellhound, all but breathing fire. (The pyrotechnics are by J&M Special Effects.) Though “not indifferent to suffering,” she tells Montrellous, she doesn’t “do pity,” which is an understatement. Popping up like a demon in a small window between the front and the back of the restaurant, she roars orders and insults; when she emerges, in full glory, among her minions, it is only to exert her fearful, foul-mouthed dominance.Into this uncomfortable equilibrium comes Jason (Edmund Donovan), recently out of prison and covered with white supremacist tattoos. (The other characters, in this production, are Black and Latino.) At first it seems that Jason’s integration into the kitchen will form the story’s spine: Tish quickly warns him that she knows all about “breaking wild white horses.” But it turns out to be less of a spine than a rib. Despite his tats and defenses, Jason is a puppy, fully domesticated before the play is half over.This conception of Jason worried me at first. People who have seen “Sweat” will recognize him as one of the perpetrators of a heinous attack on a Colombian American busboy at the climax of that play, also set in Reading. (Another character suffers a traumatic brain injury in the process.) If Nottage’s aim was to keep “Clyde’s” a comedy, even one about redemption, Jason had to be rebuilt; in the writing though not the performance — Donovan faultlessly negotiates the contradictions — the seams sometimes show.Even if you don’t know “Sweat,” though, “Clyde’s” may slightly cloy. The three other cooks, with their softball crimes, begin to seem a pinch too adorable. Tish, in Young’s superb performance, is a smart, sharp, heavily defended kitten; Rafael, a huggable romantic; Montrellous, an impeccably kind sage — “like a Buddha,” Rafael says, “if he’d grown up in the hood.” Jones fulfills that description perfectly, correcting for the character’s Zen imperturbability with subtle dashes of pain and sacrifice.Still, where’s the action? Another underdeveloped plotline explores the possibility of the diner becoming a destination restaurant. In yet another, a pro forma (but totally heartwarming) romance buds between two of the characters. And the series of fantastical sandwiches Montrellous creates, inspiring the others to make their own as a way of dreaming big, threatens to convert from a leitmotif into an annoyance when it is forced to bear too much meaning. All the cooks have served time. Young, left, plays Tish who stole “some oxy and addy to sell on the side.” And Salazar, as Rafael, held up a bank to buy his girlfriend a Cavalier King Charles spaniel.Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesYet in “Clyde’s,” Nottage does something shrewd with the obvious underlinings that can sometimes make her meticulously researched plays feel didactic. By putting them into a character whose goal is in fact to educate, and by blowing them up into amusing overstatements, she keeps the play itself from becoming gassy. When Montrellous says that sandwiches like his grilled halloumi on home-baked herb focaccia are “the most democratic of all foods” — or that “this sandwich is my freedom” — we see something about his personality, not just the playwright waving semaphore flags.It also helps that Takeshi Kata’s cleverly expanding set, lit for comedy by Christopher Akerlind, allows Whoriskey to hit the ground running and barely pause for 95 minutes. She leans beautifully into the sweetness of the cooks but also, bending the other way, into the sourness of Clyde, for whom Nottage has written great zingers. When Rafael complains about the rotting Chilean sea bass she expects him to cook, she responds, approximately, “You think Colonel Sanders didn’t fry up a couple of rats to make ends meet?”Playwrights sometimes do the same. In this case the shortcuts were totally worth it; that “Clyde’s” is a comedy does not mean it doesn’t have tragedy baked in. (It was originally called “Floyd’s” — until George Floyd was murdered.) Though it ultimately rejects the Greek model, it is still about gods and mortals. What is Clyde but a greasy-spoon Satan, the diabolical voice seductively whispering “Don’t get too high on hope” to people trying to escape their past?Still, the cooks are in purgatory, not hell. They are not merely victims of fate; they can use their moral imagination to resist the Clydes of this world. That they discover the power of that imagination in the most unlikely way, by making food, is what makes the play funny. The point would be much the same, though, if it weren’t: Sometimes, there’s a good reason you can’t stand the heat. When that happens, get out of the kitchen!Clyde’sThrough Jan. 16 at the Helen Hayes Theater, Manhattan; 2st.com. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes. More

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    ‘The Humans’ Review: Reasons (Not) to be Cheerful

    Stephen Karam’s film adaptation of his powerful play acquires a supernatural sheen as a family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner.“The Humans” — Stephen Karam’s startling film of his 2016 Tony Award-winning play — has seven characters, only six of whom are human. The seventh is a dilapidated Manhattan apartment where three generations of the Blake family have convened for Thanksgiving dinner.The occasion is also a housewarming for Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend, Richard (Steven Yeun), who have just moved in together and seem blithely unfazed by the monstrous disrepair of their new home. Not so Brigid’s father, Erik (Richard Jenkins), whom we meet staring through a filthy window at the uninviting courtyard below. There’s something despairing in the slump of his shoulders and the set of his mouth; but neither his wife, Deirdre (the magnificent Jayne Houdyshell, reprising her stage role), nor his older daughter, Aimee (Amy Schumer), seems to notice. His mother, Momo (June Squibb), her mind confiscated by dementia, is demanding all their attention.“Don’t wait until after dinner,” Deirdre whispers ominously to Erik, teasing at least one uncomfortable revelation. And as the evening wears on and banal pleasantries rub shoulders with more pointed exchanges, secrets spill with almost comical regularity. The confessions and tensions are commonplace, but “The Humans” is never less than high on the terrible power of the mundane. To that end, Karam, aided by Skip Lievsay’s marvelous sound design, gives the apartment an eerie, sinister life. Thuds and groans and rumbles disturb the dinner, as if the family’s psychic baggage — Erik’s petrifying nightmares; Momo’s unearthly screaming fit — has stirred something foul in the home’s sludgy depths.Thrusting into every crumbling corner, Lol Crawley’s camera distorts and blurs. A faceted glass doorknob turns the screen into a honeycomb of refracted light. Pustules of water-damaged paint bloom on the walls and exposed pipes flake and gurgle. An oppressive sense of ruin blankets the film, its repeated adoption of Erik’s gaze suggesting the projection of an ongoing mental collapse.“Don’t you think it should cost less to be alive?” he bursts out at one point, seemingly at random, as if the decrepitude around him has stirred much larger anxieties. And had I not seen the play, I may not have fully registered how ingeniously Karam has used the freedom of film to open up and underscore his already powerful material. Inside that haunted house, the family members in “The Humans” are all as trapped as Momo is in her illness, shrieking uselessly into the void.The HumansRated R for serious illness and a sex-related secret. Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes. In theaters and on Showtime platforms. More