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    Review: In ‘Sandra,’ a Search for a Friend Leads to Self-Discovery

    In the playwright David Cale’s thriller, a woman looking for a vanished friend discovers a new sense of self.David Cale’s new play, “Sandra,” is packed with classic thriller tropes, as if he had challenged himself to cram as many of the genre’s staples as possible into a 90-minute show — I kept waiting for someone to transfer information from a computer to a USB key as seconds ticked by.Though this tale of a woman’s search for a missing friend is built using basic potboiler blocks, “Sandra,” which opened Sunday at the Vineyard Theater, is far from generic.Cale is operating, as he has been for over 35 years, within the parameters of the monologue — a style demanding of writer and actor, and not one usually associated with white-knuckle suspense. He also weaves in the themes that have long permeated his work, including the way people reinvent themselves, often to deal with trauma, and the need for transformation in the face of adversity.The playwright usually performs his own shows, but here he is lending his voice to another actor, as he did with his 2017 hit, “Harry Clarke,” which starred Billy Crudup and introduced Cale to a wider audience.Marjan Neshat (“English,” “Wish You Were Here”) plays all the characters, chief among them the narrator, Sandra Jones, a woman in her 40s who owns a cafe in Brooklyn and is vaguely dissatisfied with her life. One day, a close friend, a musician named Ethan, leaves for a trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico; he never returns. Ethan’s compositions live on with Sandra (the lovely piano score is by Matthew Dean Marsh, Cale’s collaborator on the 2019 play with music “We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time”), who listens to them often. But physically, it’s as if he has vanished off the face of the earth.Our heroine decides to look for him, jumping on the first of several flights she will take over the course of the show. Once in Mexico, Sandra — who is separated from her husband and, perhaps, had not realized how emotionally and physically bereft she was — falls for Luca, a younger hunk. He says he’s a student, and glows with a magnetic, insouciant masculinity, with just the right amount of enticing mystery about his background. Luca is a male counterpart to the sultry sirens who have long lured film noir’s male protagonists, and at times it feels as if Cale is having great fun flipping the codes of the 1990s erotic thriller.Though the show’s plot can seem outlandish, Neshat acts as an anchor, infusing Sandra with a perfectly calibrated balance of effortless warmth.Sara KrulwichLeigh Silverman’s sober staging can dull the impact of the show’s suspenseful set pieces, as when Sandra surreptitiously searches a bag while its owner is in the shower, or when she stealthily records an incriminating conversation on her phone. Thom Weaver’s lighting is the great technical asset, romantically moody in the early stages of Sandra and Luca’s relationship, then suggesting the ominous chiaroscuro of film noir when the plot thickens.Neshat mostly stays rooted to a spot, sometimes standing and sometimes sitting, and the show feels uninterested in the body as a storytelling tool. The actress is literally at the center of it all, and has been handed a thorny gift of a role that requires the protean ability to portray a variety of characters, including the manager of Sandra’s cafe, an Australian surfer dude and an older gentleman straight out of a Tennessee Williams play. She struggles to differentiate them, and even Luca does not register much as Neshat goes in and out of his accented “potpourri of a voice.”But she shines as Sandra herself, a woman who was confident enough in her identity to name her cafe after herself but feels adrift, and defined mostly in relation to others. As far-fetched as the plot gets, Neshat is a steadying force, infusing Sandra with a perfectly calibrated balance of anxious hope and effortless warmth — her smile alone is a masterpiece of complexity, in turn melancholy, joyous, triumphant, bittersweet. We immediately understand, for instance, why Sandra throws herself into the relationship with Luca (the reverse is not as convincing).Early on, Sandra informs us that when Ethan was about to depart for Puerto Vallarta, he told her that they were “so simpatico, if I vanish you’d probably disappear from your life too.” Yet Sandra does build herself out of Ethan’s absence, and even, ultimately, her own.SandraThrough Dec. 11 at the Vineyard Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes. More

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    Interview: Shining A Light(house) on Wickies

    Graeme Dalling on Wickies: The Vanishing Men of Eilean Mor

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    We all love a good ghost story, and better yet, one that has a foot firmly in true life events. Which is just what Wickies: The Vanishing Men of Eilean Mor promises us. It’s based on the the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers stationed on a deserted island in the Outer Hebrides in 1900. No trace of any of the men was ever found, which has lead to a century of speculation and folklore.

    And now the story is coming to Park Theatre this December. Billed as a haunting ghost story, which does suggest which way writer Paul Morrissey is taking his twist on the tale. Wanting to know more, we grabbed some time with one of its stars, Graeme Dalling, who we will soon be seeing as one of the lighthouse keepers, Donald MacArthur.

    What can you tell us about Wickies then?

    The play explores one of Scotland’s most enduring mysteries… what on earth happened to three men stationed on a lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides who seem to vanish without a trace?? I think that’s all I’ll say. The less you know the better!

    The play is based on true events, were you aware of the story before you auditioned?

    Yes, absolutely, and its weirdly so present in the public psyche. So many books, songs and films have been inspired by these events. It’s captured people’s imaginations for over 120 years!

    Have you done much background research into the story and your character? Or is it best not to delve too deep into such things in case it clouds how your director wants you to present the character?

    I like to do a bit of reading, yes. I gathered quite a few books on lighthouses and lighthouse keepers to get into the world of the play. I also tried to get out to a lighthouse, but they are very hard to get to! I try and not get too bogged down in research and instead spend a lot of time with the script. All the answers tend to be in there!

    How much of the play is based on what’s really known about the men and the events surrounding their disappearance, and how much is based on the folklore that has evolved over the years?

    I would say it’s a bit of both. There are lots of written documentation from the time from the inquest and initial interviews into the disappearance, so quite a bit of the script is word for word what those people actually said. And obviously we will never know truly what happened on that lighthouse in December 1900, so Paul Morrissey does draw on folklore and superstition and ghost stories to fill in the gaps!

    You’re playing Donald MacArthur, what do we need to know about him then?

    That a lighthouse is the perfect place for him. He’s a stoic, brooding, quiet man who just wants to put his head down and do the work. Initially the isolation and loneliness fit him perfectly but ultimately becomes his undoing. There is an unpredictability to him, a lot of repressed rage and pent-up aggression which one character seems to unlock, unluckily for him….!  

    And we need to ask, will you be growing (or gluing on) a nice big bushy beard for the play because surely all lighthouse keepers should have wonderfully unkempt beards? And a pipe permanently in the corner of your mouth maybe?

    It’s all about moustaches in 1900! And I’m steadily cultivating a beautiful one.

    Is there a different approach when playing a true-life character, do you feel a need to be honest to whatever you may know about them?

    I haven’t thought too much about it to be honest, it’s so long ago, and not a lot is known about these men. Like I said before, when a script is this good, everything you need is there on the page.

    The show opens 30 November, so still a couple of weeks away, but have you had the opportunity to see the set yet – how are you bringing the feel of a remote lighthouse on a deserted Outer Hebrides Island to Finsbury Park?

    We’ve seen the model box and the set looks incredible, Zoe Hurwitz has really captured the essence of being in a lighthouse, it’s almost like we’ll be performing in the round, which kind of makes sense! There’s going to be a lot done with sound and lighting and costume which will hopefully make the audience feel like they are on the lighthouse with us!

    Why do you feel ghost stories seem to be part of Christmas theatre tradition then? And is there much difference to acting in a ghost story like this as opposed to more normal dramas? Do you have to bring a different attitude to the rehearsal room to get into the right mood?

    It’s about the night’s drawing in, the cold and the dark and us all gathering in together to tell stories of the past, which inevitably become ghost stories. I think A Christmas Carol has a lot to do with it also. It’s a time for reflection and looking back at the past and perhaps trying to make sense of things that don’t make sense! And we’ve just tried to keep the truth of each moment and scene. We can’t over play the scariness of moments because it then becomes too knowing. The characters don’t know they are in a ghost story, so you have to play it straight!

    And now you’ve some time to delve into the story and your character, have you developed any of your own theories as to what happened to the three men? Or are we to believe they just vanished into the thin air on that cold night?

    My mind keeps changing. My logical side of my brain accepts the most obvious answer, which is that they all got taken out by a storm, but my imagination wants it to be something else. Ask me again at the end of the run!

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    Our thanks to Graeme for his time out from rehearsals to chat with us.

    Wickies: The Vanishing Men of Eilean Mor plays at Park Theatre 30 November – 31 December. Further information and bookings can be found here. More

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    Review: On Broadway, ‘& Juliet’ (& Britney & Katy & Pink)

    Shakespeare’s tragedy becomes a girl-power romp in a cotton candy jukebox musical, featuring songs by the Swedish hitmaker Max Martin.They don’t even bother to hide the jukebox. It’s right there, out in the open, before the show starts: a chrome Cyclops glowering at you from the stage of the Stephen Sondheim Theater, of all places.Are you daring me, “& Juliet”?I have done everything a critic can do to stamp out the jukebox musical. I’ve called it a cockroach, a straitjacket, a leech, a dead fish. I’ve argued that, with few exceptions, it’s a form that’s satisfactory neither as music nor as theater, let alone the combination. I’ve stood proudly, even among my colleagues, as a denier of everything that shows like “& Juliet” typically stand for.So shoot me: I liked it. It felt so wrong; it felt so right.This even though “& Juliet,” which opened Thursday on Broadway after establishing itself as a hit in London, trails the faint odor of carpetbagging and brand extension that makes other examples of the genre — “Motown: The Musical,” “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” and the inexcusable “Escape to Margaritaville” — so dispiriting. The show’s entire reason for being, after all, is to exploit the back catalog of Max Martin, the Swedish hitmaker behind Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” and 24 other No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 since 1998.That the songs are good to begin with — chunky, hooky, belty, dancy — is neither here nor there; they generally are, in shows like this, or there would be no audience to pander to. Also par for the course is the way “& Juliet” wedges them into unlikely contexts, aiming for laughs that are little more than Pavlovian reactions to anticipated familiarity.What saves “& Juliet” from being a lowest-common-denominator corporate byproduct is something else, something I never expected: wit.The wit operates on many levels in the director Luke Sheppard’s super-poppy production, including hilarious hybrid Elizabethan costumes (by Paloma Young) that feature a codpiece the size of a snapping turtle, cotton-candy lighting (by Howard Hudson) and playful sets (by Soutra Gilmour) situating the story in a century somehow combining the 16th and ours.Stark Sands, left, as Shakespeare and Betsy Wolfe as Anne Hathaway in the musical. The couple’s marital issues play out alongside Juliet’s new story.Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesBut that’s just the surface; more important are some fundamental choices about what a jukebox can and should be. For one thing, “& Juliet” is not — like “Jersey Boys” and “The Cher Show” — a biomusical, chronicling artists’ ups and downs no matter how jimmied or flat-out falsified. Martin having no taste for the spotlight, it instead opts for an original story, if you can consider a reboot of “Romeo and Juliet” original. Making that story a fable — not unlike “Head Over Heels,” the Go-Go’s romp from 2018 — smartly relieves it of the pressure of reality.But the book, by David West Read, aims higher than that. Because so many of Martin’s biggest songs featured singers like Perry, Britney Spears, Pink and Ariana Grande — Taylor Swift’s are mysteriously absent from the show — the choice to focus on a young woman made sense. Yet Juliet, as Shakespeare wrote her, comes with some baggage, including the fact that by the sixth line of the prologue she’s dead.Undoing that fate became the musical’s animating principle and spine. In Read’s telling, Juliet (Lorna Courtney in a blow-you-away performance) doesn’t die but rather wakes up confused and a little emo following Romeo’s suicide. Cue “…Baby One More Time,” which she performs, still in her funeral dress but also sporting headphones and a Walkman, in front of her lover’s sarcophagus.That’s as grim as “& Juliet” gets — not very — because, as the erasure of Romeo from its title suggests, this girl is getting a glow-up. Here the show moves into meta territory, introducing Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, as the force behind the revision. “I mean, what do I know,” Anne (Betsy Wolfe) slyly tells cocky Will (Stark Sands). “Maybe she doesn’t kill herself just because he killed himself?”When Will insists (to knowing chuckles) that he writes his plays completely by himself, Anne simply grabs the quill until he agrees to share authorship. To raise the meta ante, they also write themselves into the tale. “& Juliet” then proceeds to process the Shakespeares’s marital issues through Juliet’s new story, toggling between Anne’s feminist uplift and Will’s squirrelly, writerly (and perhaps patriarchal) need to complicate it.So when the scene shifts to Paris, where Anne provides Juliet with a new boy to enjoy, that boy — François du Bois (Philippe Arroyo) — turns out to have eyes for someone else, whom Will has contrived to throw in his path. The plot now twists its way through several typical Shakespearean tropes, including comic mismatches, reunited lovers (Paulo Szot and Melanie La Barrie) and the return of yet another character (I won’t spoil who, but you can probably guess) from the grave.Philippe Arroyo, left, as François and Justin David Sullivan as May in the musical.Sara Krulwich/The New York TimesThe songs that illustrate these developments — “Oops! … I Did It Again” when Juliet agrees to marry François, “Blow” for a big Paris ball — are mostly apt enough, though with nearly 30 of them squeezed into the show’s 150 minutes they eventually dig an aural rut. (The sound design by Gareth Owen doesn’t help, with its arena-style reverb in a relatively small theater.) And some have the tang of reverse engineering, as when Juliet’s nonbinary best friend, May, is given Spears’s “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.”Nevertheless, May (Justin David Sullivan) is a typically clever modern gloss on Shakespeare — a playwright, as Anne points out, who is “basically synonymous with gender-bending.” And if three of the couples, liberated by Juliet’s liberation, achieve surprisingly normative happy endings, the girl herself ends the show uncommitted, still trying to “own her choices,” apparently by not making any.Most of the comedy derives from similar tensions; though “& Juliet” is jokey, and its authorship is entirely male, its feminist critique is real enough, winking alternately at Shakespeare’s assumptions and ours. At one point, Anne summarily up-ages Juliet by about a decade because she’s “not going clubbing with a 13-year-old” — nor (it goes unsaid) letting a 13-year-old marry.Indeed, it’s Anne who provides most of the wit, not just verbal but philosophical. And it’s Wolfe’s performance — capped with a roof-raising rendition of the Celine Dion hit “That’s the Way It Is” — that gives the show its heart, an organ too often unheard from in musicals entirely focused on the ear.I could have used a bit more brain, though; “& Juliet” sometimes seems suspicious of its own intelligence, like a nerd invited to the cool kids’ party, only to get drunk and vomit in the pool.The overcompensation — two confetti explosions? — is unnecessary. Jukebox musicals may still be bottom feeders, but, as “& Juliet” proves, there are sometimes small treasures to be found in the murk. And as long as they’re going to keep arriving regardless, I have to admit (citing Martin’s hit for those theater critics the Backstreet Boys) I want it that way.& JulietAt the Stephen Sondheim Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes. More