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This Play Needs a Co-Star. How About You?

Jonny Donahoe in Every Brilliant Thing

Jonny Donahoe in Every Brilliant Thing

The surprisingly rich audience participation in Every Brilliant Thing

You’re closer than you realize to co-starring in an Off-Broadway play. Just buy a ticket to Every Brilliant Thing, now at the Barrow Street Theatre, and you could easily land a significant role. That’s because the show relies on audience participation, and in a meatier, more dramatic way than you’ll find at a typical improv night.

As the unnamed narrator (played by British stand-up comedian Jonny Donahoe) tells the story of his mother’s suicidal depression and his own attempts to cure her, he enlists the crowd to play the people he loves. Randomly chosen patrons portray his father, his love interest, and even his veterinarian, and through some ingenious work by playwright Duncan Macmillan, they’re able to seriously impact the story.

At one point, for instance, the narrator tells us his therapist liked to play a game with him during their sessions, and based on how the selected audience member responds, he adjusts the rules. That leaves the civilian looking correct, no matter what.

And then there’s the list. When he’s a little boy, the narrator’s strategy for “curing” his mom is to create a numbered list of every wonderful aspect of the world. As he calls out numbers, audience members read the corresponding “brilliant thing” on a paper that Donahoe has given them before the show. By the end of the sixty minute production, which comes to New York after successful runs in England and Scotland, we’ve all become a chorus of celebration.

Crucially, the list (as well as Donahoe’s feisty performance) makes this play about depression and suicide feel buoyant and nuanced, not viciously dark or cheaply optimistic. As Macmillan says, “There’s a way of talking about it that’s sincere and funny and accessible and tries to communicate the complexity of the issue without being mawkish about it. That’s the tightrope walk.”

The impact depends, of course, on Donahoe finding people who want to participate, but that’s why he spends 20 minutes circulating through the house before showtime, passing out pieces of the list. “During that, I cast the play,” he says. “I try to get people involved in the spirit of sharing something. It would be very easy to give those sheets to the ushers and say, ‘Here you go! Hand them out at random!’, but that’s not what we’re creating.” [Read more →]

December 16, 2014   No Comments

An Actor Channels His Inner Journalist to Play a Marine

Jonny Orsini in Almost Home

Jonny Orsini in Almost Home

Jonny Orsini’s passionate preparation for his latest role


“I wanted to become a journalist before I became an actor,” says Jonny Orsini. “I think I approach roles the way a journalist approaches stories.”

That means he does a serious amount of research for every part he plays. Take his work in Almost Home, a new drama by Walter Anderson that’s now at Theatre Row in a production from The Directors Company. Orsini plays Johnny Barnett, a Marine going back to the Bronx after serving in Vietnam. The character not only confronts his own guilt at being called a hero, but also grapples with the expectations of his family and mentors, some of whom have shady ulterior motives.

For Orsini, who’s too young to remember what Vietnam veterans faced when they came back to America, books and films have been essential to his preparation. Even more importantly, he’s had long conversations with Anderson, who fought in Vietnam himself. “Walter didn’t necessarily experience everything in the play, but a lot of it draws from his life,” the actor says. “So to have him in the room was incredible. And he had the best suggestions about what to read and what to watch.”

The research, though, is only part of Orsini’s journalistic impulse. “I was always interested in learning about people and things that weren’t necessarily widely known and then bringing the story to light,” he says. “If you’ve gone through something and you feel alone, then seeing it in a respectfully told story can make you feel less isolated. Anything I can do to make people feel less alone is very much what I want to do with my life.” [Read more →]

September 26, 2014   No Comments

This Time Around, The Play’s a Big Deal

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Donna Lynne Champlin & John Cariani

For its return to New York, John Cariani’s Almost, Maine is a proven hit

Extreme, near-Arctic cold can be an isolating purgatory–or, if northern Maine native John Cariani is right, it can be a valuable organizer of priorities.

“I don’t think you can survive there very well with a bleak worldview,” says Cariani, an accomplished character actor and playwright whose Almost, Maine is currently in revival at the Gym at Judson in a production from Transport Group. “You have to learn to manage your pain in a place where it’s very difficult to make a living. You make things work. You don’t spend a lot of time complaining about it. There’s a lot of complaining here in New York. I admire the lid that Mainers keep on it: Whenever there’s a problem, you know, the solution is to get to work to solve the problem.”

Indeed, Almost, Maine–an anthology of vignettes about various current, former, and would-be couples on a fateful night in the fictional title town–was itself the solution to a problem.

“When you’re a character actor, you always end up helping the main guy get the girl, or main girl get the guy—you don’t get a whole lot for yourself,” says Cariani, who starred on Broadway in Fiddler on the Roof and has reams of acting credits on TV and in regional theatre. “I just found it very interesting that non-hot people don’t get to have love in movies and plays. So I thought it would be fun to write scenes for my friends who are character actors.”

There was another deficit Cariani hoped to redress with his first play: “Most of the work generated in New York is about urban people, in urban settings. I was disappointed there weren’t any great plays about rural people that didn’t make them seem stupid or pathetic, or more awesome than they are.”

New York didn’t seem to appreciate the favor: The initial 2006 run of Almost, Maine at the Daryl Roth Theatre got mostly dismissive reviews and closed after a month of performances, losing its entire $800,000 capitalization.

But a strange thing has happened in the years since: Published by Dramatists Play Service, and included in Smith & Kraus’ “Best Plays” anthology that year, the show has since become one of Dramatists’ most-produced titles, with productions in several languages around the world and hundreds of high school stagings.

Practical as ever, Cariani attributes the play’s popularity in part to “cast size. And there’s a lot of room—a lot of ways to interpret the play.” Indeed, he’s flattered not only by the quantity of productions, but also by their quality: “It’s astonishing what people have done with the play; it’s the highest compliment when people think hard about something you’ve created, to have great minds wrap around something you’ve written.” [Read more →]

February 10, 2014   1 Comment

I’m Rich and Crazy for a Reason

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The careful chaos of the Rude Mechs’ Stop Hitting Yourself

Even if they never talked to us or invited us to strip naked for money, the Rude Mechs could still make a point with their latest show.

Now premiering as part of Lincoln Center Theater’s LCT3 program, Stop Hitting Yourself wonders if it’s possible to be truly generous in a wealthy society. On the most literal level, it asks this question by following a contest in a queen’s palace. The queen is so wealthy that everything in her ballroom is made of gold and her fountain spews a bubbling stream of queso dip, and by promising to grant the contest winner a request, she dangles the dream of similar luxury. After all, who wouldn’t want to be a nobleman or own a queso fountain of their own?

The status quo is subverted, though, when a “wild man” enters the game, startling everyone with his tangled hair and earnest love for plants. If he wins, he says, he’ll ask the queen to take better care of the world, which seems to create a tidy contrast between the selfish rich and the generous poor.

But the Rude Mechs, a theatre collective from Austin, Texas, are never that simple. They create their shows themselves, which gives them the freedom to detonate our expectations of what a story is supposed to do. In Stop Hitting Yourself, for instance, the tale of the queen’s contest gets interrupted by tap dances and odd little pop songs and explanations from the Wildman about what’s going to happen at the end of the show.

More importantly, the plot gets sidetracked when the performers drop their characters and speak as themselves. Sometimes, they step to the front of the stage and tell personal stories about times they were wasteful. Sometimes, they put audience members through increasingly embarrassing paces to see what they’ll do for money.

These detours are vital to the show. “It’s very important that we have those moments where we break out and are just ourselves, so we can acknowledge that we are in the space with you,” says Lana Lesley, a performer in Stop Hitting Yourself and one of the company’s six co-artistic directors. “As we’re talking about money and wealth and greed and the idea of charity, we can really examine ourselves.” [Read more →]

January 28, 2014   No Comments

Putting a Face on a Military Tragedy

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Charles Fuller’s One Night confronts sexual assault in our armed forces

Last year, the military prosecuted approximately 300 cases of sexual assault or impropriety, but that’s nothing: Roughly 3,000 cases were reported, and it’s estimated that 26,000 instances of unwanted sexual conduct actually occurred.

“If you don’t know anybody in the military, do you really care about that?” asks playwright Charles Fuller. “We really don’t want to look at the fact that people are being mistreated. Or if we do look, we don’t look long.”

That’s partially why Fuller wrote One Night, which is now at the Cherry Lane Theatre in a co-production with Rattlestick Playwrights Theater. The play follows an ex-servicewoman named Alicia who’s forced into a seedy motel room after a fire consumes the homeless shelter where she lives with a troubled fellow veteran named Horace. In the midst of her present crisis, she’s also haunted by flashbacks of what happened when she served: After being sexually assaulted by three fellow servicemen, she pressed charges against them, only to have her case mishandled by her commanding officer.

Fuller knows this is not an easy story for an audience to hear, but that’s his point. “The play was written in my heart of hearts because somebody had to say something about this in a way that would make us understand [the problem] easier than we do when it’s simply statistics.”

When Fuller first heard about the mounting nightmare of sexual assault in the military, he was astounded. This was a different army than the one he knew when he served in Korea. “When you serve with somebody, that’s your buddy, that’s your comrade,” he says. “You look to that person to save your life if your life is in jeopardy. How dare you think that you can rape them? How dare you think you can mistreat them in the matter in which these women and men have been mistreated since they’ve been in the military? That’s horrifying. To me that goes against all the values and rules of what soldiering and what being in the military is supposed to be about.” [Read more →]

November 25, 2013   No Comments