Review: The Underlying Chris (Second Stage)

I guess last week was the week to see vague plays because last Sunday evening, I celebrated the 3-day weekend by seeing The Underlying Chris with my partner. Written by Will Eno, the Pulitzer-Prize nominated playwright who also wrote The Realistic Joneses, which was on Broadway back in 2014 (and that I sadly did not see). However, I have seen his play Thom Pain twice, in two different productions, so I sort of knew what I was getting into. (But not really.)

I read in reviews of The Realistic Joneses was a series of small scenes and I think that must be a theme in Eno’s work because that was also the structure of The Underlying Chris. On Second Stage’s website, it describes the playas “a life-affirming and high-spirited look at how a person comes into their identity, and how sometimes it’s life’s tiniest moments that most profoundly change our lives. In these divided times, The Underlying Chris serves as a celebration of our differences, our individuality, and the many mysterious, difficult, and beautiful things we share simply by being alive.”

I believe this may come across in the final scene, which is a funeral for someone named Chris, but a better description of this play would’ve been: “A play about many Chris’ in many different stages throughout one’s life and each scene is connected to the previous scene in a subtle or not-so-subtle way.

An example of these unrelated scene connections is in the first scene, Chris is a newly born baby boy. The scene ends with his mother getting a call, but we never find out the nature of that call (though we do hear sirens so we’re led to believe that something’s happened). In the next scene, Chris is a young girl in a doctor’s office and she tells the doctor that her father died in a car accident when she was a baby.

This happened for scene after scene after scene culminating in the funeral of a person named Chris.

I’m sure there was a big point somewhere that I completely missed but I completely didn’t see any celebrating of our diversity here.

I thought the best performances came from Howard Overshown and Isabella Russo, though the ensemble cast, each playing multiple roles, were equally strong.

It was an entertaining night, sure! But if you want something clear and focused with an easy to spot theme, this won’t be it. But I applaud Second Stage for giving space to a play like this.

Did you see it? What did you think?

If you want to find out more about The Underlying Chris, click here!

I snagged a last minute ticket to the second-to-last performance of James Lapine and William Finn’s Little Miss Sunshine at Second Stage Theatre. I’d heard very mixed things but I’d be hearing things for so long that I wanted to check it out regardless. And I’m really glad I did.

I think I may have seen the movie at one point or another, but I didn’t remember it well at all. I knew it was about a children’s beauty pageant and the road to get there, but that was it. The space inside Second Stage’s main stage was used so brilliantly and simply. It revolved around an upstage platform with some LCD screens and some seats on wheels, one with a steering wheel. 

I have to admit that the show didn’t have a great flow, but the characters were engaging enough that most of the time you didn’t really care that each song felt disconnected from the last. Will Swenson and Stephanie J. Block, as Olive’s parents, were both amusing and well-sung; Rory O’Malley was emotionally gripping as Olive’s uncle Frank; Logan Rowland was hysterical as Olive’s older, silent brother Dwayne (though his voice was at times a tad nasally); David Roscow also provided very necessary comedic relief as the grandfather when times were tense inside the bus. Additionally there were Wesley Taylor, Jennifer Sanchez, and Alivia Clark, Victoria Dennis, Miranda McKeon, and Leonay Shepherd as the additional (and in my opinion pointless) pageant brats. 

Last, but certainly not least, was Hannah Nordberg, as the title character Olive. Nordberg was energetic, owned the stage whenever possible, and she had a great voice. Her final number had everyone in the audience clapping and shouting. If you hadn’t loved her up until that point, you certainly did afterward.

Little Miss Sunshine, though not perfect by any means, was certainly a fun 100 minutes at the theatre that I’m glad I didn’t miss. 

When I interned for a well-known producer of benefits and concerts in 2006, I became acquainted with the musical talents of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. On May 14th of that year, we produced a concert staging of their musical “Become.” It was a great success, to say the least.

I’d heard a lot about Dogfight, the Second Stage production that closed in midtown today, and mostly that it was fantastic. After Kristen and I got our tickets for Into the Woods (at the Delacorte), we hopped on the train and got two last minute tickets the third-to-last performance. Excitedly, we sat down, unsure of what to expect (and I admittedly, barely knew whether or not it was a musical or straight play).

Based on the little-known-about indie film of the same name, Dogfight is about a group of marines who have a dogfight on their last night before shipping out “to some country named Vietnam.” A dogfight is a dance in which every marine brings the most unattractive girl they can find, and whoever brings the the ugliest, wins a cash prize. The night of the dogfight, the main antagonist, a marine named Eddie (played by Derek Klena), falls for his date, a not-so-homely diner waitress named Rose (Lindsay Mendez). 

The score, by Pasek and Paul, is terrific. Duh. That was the one thing I knew I didn’t have to question. The story (book by Peter Dunchan) was interesting, heart breaking, with a lot of hilarious one-liners too. I also really enjoyed the cast, the aforementioned Klena and Mendez (though her head voice needs to be strengthened a bit, but her belt is great), along with Annaleigh Ashford (hilarious), Nick Blaemire (endearing), and Josh Segarra, and an ensemble that’s energetic and entertaining.

My one constructive criticism for Dogfight was the ending. I felt it was weak because it was incredibly vague. Do I think Dogfight should transfer to a 500+ seat Broadway house? No, probably not. It’s an intimate show that would lose a lot in say, the Jacobs. Also it’s very dark, and I don’t see that doing exceedingly well right now on Broadway either.

But was Dogfight great? Oh yes. Pasek and Paul have arrived (officially) and I have a feeling that they aren’t going anywhere. 

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, by award winning playwright Lynn Nottage, is the newest work at Second Stage right now and it’s a fascinatingly interesting and thought-provoking piece.  By the way, I have no idea where they conjured the name from because the “By the Way,” in my humble opinion, is totally unnecessary.  I digress.

Vera Stark is about a black woman, Vera, who’s an aspiring actress as well as servant to a prominent white movie star Gloria Mitchell (Stephanie J. Block).  Vera asserts herself with her friend Lottie (Kimberly Herbert Gregory) over how she would never lower herself to play the role of a slave in a movie, but given the first opportunity to do so, she ceases the moment.  Act Two takes place many years later on a talk show after Vera’s career has sky rocketed and she is now retiring from the industry.  There are hints that Vera and Gloria were actually sisters, but it’s never revealed what is true and what isn’t.

The play is an insightful look at race during that decade and race relations many years later and whether or not Vera compromising her dignity was worth it in retrospect.

… Vera Stark plays at Second Stage through June 12th.  Click here for more information.

(photo via)