By Lynn Nottage. Directed by Kate Whoriskey. Manhattan Theatre Club. (CLOSED)
Thanks to Lynn Nottage, people can stop referring to this as Manhattan Theatre Club's Troubled Season (To Be or Not To Be, Romantic Poetry). Critical response to Nottage's play about the ways in which the Congolese civil war has been fought on women's bodies receives overwhelmingly positive--even rapturous--reviews. The common criticism is that the play--based on interviews Nottage conducted in the Congo and on Brecht's Mother Courage--is at times too soft and that its ending may be too upbeat for a play about war, rape, and survival. As a personal aside, I'll just mention that I saw the play last week and it makes a compelling case for the enduring power and appeal of naturalism in the theatre. It's like a Graham Greene novel turned on its head so that you focus on the side characters. Really, don't miss it.
(Patrick Lee) Lynn Nottage's emotionally devastating and spellbinding new play Ruined, now at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage I, in a co-production with Chicago's Goodman Theatre, is the rare work that succeeds spectacularly both as potent political statement and as riveting drama that should not be missed by any serious theatergoer.... Under Kate Whoriskey's clarifying and supremely confident direction, the production is remarkable for its sure command of tone and its success at honoring both the play's darkest scenes as well as its most hopeful. The acting by the entire cast is uniformly superb and unusually cohesive, with Ekulona, believably tough and resilient as Mama; Rashad, who emphasizes Sophie's resourcefulness, and Jones, who economically communicates Christian's decency, among its standout performers.
(Elyse Sommer) Whether Ruined wins any big prizes or not, it has my vote as a play that confirms live theater's ability to enlighten and enrich. Give up the pre-theater dinner if your pocket book is hurting, but don't miss seeing it.
(David Cote) Although there are plenty of postcolonialist and feminist politics sprinkled throughout, Lynn Nottage wisely chooses to tell a crackling thriller, with humor, plot twists and lots of humanity. Although Mama's theatrical forebear is clearly Brecht's Mother Courage, she's a more vulnerable, less didactic creation. Ruined is the kind of new play we desperately need: well-informed and unafraid of the world's brutalities... Nottage is one of our finest playwrights, a smart, empathetic and daring storyteller who tells a story audience won't expect.
Village Voice A
(Michael Feingold) Nottage's feat, achieved in close collaboration with director Kate Whoriskey, has been to capture, simultaneously, both the place's drifty, unresisting atmosphere and the deep underlying agonies left behind by the violence that abruptly shoots through it. Seemingly laconic and often placid, Ruined in fact rolls on implacably, building tension that marks and changes its characters. It has the density of lived experience, rare in plays of any era. Whoriskey's staging, abetted particularly by Derek McLane's set and Dominic Kanza's music, builds on the writing's richness. All the performances are excellent: Boothe, brashly authoritative, is a revelation; Ekulona, a powerhouse triumph; and Rashad, whose musical and emotional command seem to spring unbidden from her delicate presence, is a major discovery.
(Linda Winer) Beautiful, hideous and unpretentiously important...Nottage doesn't always resist the sentimental impulse. In a way, that's valuable, too. She pays homage to the universal mercilessness of Bertolt Brecht's antiwar pageant, Mother Courage, but lets in a sliver of humanity's light.
AM New York A
(Matt Windman) While one can certainly hope that Ruined will raise cultural awareness over the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where nine out of ten women have been raped in many villages, the play stands on its own feet as a layered drama of soaring humanity and painstaking character detail.
American Theater Web A
(Andy Propst) Playwright Lynn Nottage takes theatergoers on a compelling, often emotionally devastating, and sometimes genuinely surprising trip to a small mining town in the Democratic Republic of Congo.... Ekulona, who's rapidly distinguishing herself in a wide variety of roles at theaters around the city, makes for a commanding and fascinatingly mercurial Mama. When Ekulona smiles, it does indeed seem to light up the stage, and those around Mama know all is well. However, when Mama's crossed or feels her back against the wall, Ekulona's performance takes on a powerful fierceness...It's a galvanizing performance at the center of a compelling drama that haunts well after its final climactic, and yes, surprising moments.
(David Sheward) Rarely does a play take you to a corner of the world you hardly ever think about and force you to care fiercely for the people in it. Lynn Nottage's shattering work Ruined, presented by Manhattan Theatre Club in a co-production with Chicago's Goodman Theatre after a successful run there, does just that.
Wall Street Journal A-
(Terry Teachout) Leaves no doubt that the author of "Intimate Apparel" and "Crumbs From the Table of Joy" is one of the best playwrights that we have...All this is tough and truthful stuff, and it is to Ms. Nottage's infinite credit that she does not present it as an illustrated lecture but instead uses the terrible realities of Congolese life as the raw material of an immensely compelling human drama about the lives and hopes of her characters, each of whom is portrayed not as a political cartoon but as a recognizable person...Staged with tightly controlled force by Kate Whoriskey..This is a play you must see.
DC Theatre Scene A-
(Richard Seff) Theatre can be, and in this case, is illuminating, even when it’s a bit lumpy and overwrought. I learned a lot and was gripped almost all the way through by this very worthy venture. For some reason, Shaw’s Saint Joan and its haunting last line came to mind as I moved slowly out of the theatre,: “Oh God, that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?”
Associated Press A-
(Michael Kuchwara) A harrowing tale set against the backdrop of an African civil war, the play... creates a parade of memorable portraits, people surviving — or not — in the most brutal of environments....Nottage, author of such accomplished and diverse works as "Intimate Apparel" and "Fabulation," walks a fine line here. She never allows the drama to veer into soap opera or sermonette. Her dialogue is direct, yet oddly poetic. She's helped by director Kate Whoriskey's vivid, music-driven production.
(Joseph Pisano) Still, setting aside its problematic ending, Ruined is an extraordinary accomplishment, the type of serious-minded and disquieting play that forces you to grapple with your existential blind spots. Perhaps the most telling evidence of the play’s effectiveness was the lack of chatter as people left the theater; normally, of course, even after the warmest curtain call, theatergoers soon begin discussing where to eat or their initial impressions of the play. But "Ruined" apparently shocked most of the audience into silent thoughtfulness. Obviously, though, for women like Salima and Sophie, thought is not enough.
(David Rooney) Under Whoriskey's gentle guiding hand, these characters and their relationships take shape fluidly in the leisurely first act, frequently energized by Dominic Kanza's soukous music and the entreating mellifluousness of Rashad's singing. The second act is more uneven, stacking up too many speechy monologues that serve to recount the characters' experiences, spell out their philosophies or state their positions. But it's a testament to the play, to the production's integrity and to the cast's impassioned commitment that the drama's power is never sacrificed. The plight of Salima, in particular, is devastating, related by Bernstine in all its distressing detail yet elevated by this misused girl's resilient spirit and her ability to recall still the beauty of a vine of ripe tomatoes on a perfect sunny day. The rain-soaked vigil of her penitent husband Fortune (Chike Johnson) further deepens the emotional pull of this plot strand, embodying countless humble farmers and workers with guns thrust into their hands.
Lighting and Sound America A-
(David Barbour) It's Nottage's particular achievement -- aided by Kate Whoriskey's flawless staging -- to fully realize a world that few audience members have ever attempted to imagine. Ruined has the urgency of a bulletin from one of the world's darkest corners, yet it is also an elegantly constructed drama peopled by vividly drawn characters... It's all the more dismaying then that Nottage stumbles so badly in the final scene, in which she raises the possibility of a healing romantic relationship between two major characters... this tin-eared closer is the most upsetting thing of all about Ruined. She also leaves the fates of several key characters dangling, adding to one's sense of frustration. Still for 90% of its running time, Ruined is a swift, urgent, and cannily plotted melodrama, a work that bravely leaps beyond the navel-gazing identity politics of so much modern American playwriting. It also provides several under-recognized actors with sterling opportunities for making an indelible impression.
Time Out New York A-
(Adam Feldman) The subject matter gives Ruined undeniable weight, and Kate Whoriskey’s admirable actors carry it unflaggingly... A more unconventional dramaturgy than Ruined’s—less carefully arranged and melodramatically spring-loaded—might have been even more effective in conveying the terrible reality of the Congo morass. But there’s truth enough here to scorch you.
Bloomberg News A-
(Jeremy Gerard) Powerful... Nottage creates a world as lushly dangerous as the dense forest surrounding Mama Nadi’s place. Unlike Brecht, Nottage is a sentimentalist and her play’s pat ending betrays the tougher spirit of the harrowing earlier parts. Until then, a superb ensemble under Kate Whoriskey’s energetic yet sensitive direction creates some of the most memorable characters you’ll see anywhere this season.
NY Post A- In the hands of this talented playwright, what might have been a predictable political polemic instead emerges as a richly stirring and complex drama that even includes generous doses of humor. Director Kate Whoriskey's vibrant and superbly acted production fully conveys the violence-tinged atmosphere of the setting, with the occasional interludes of rousing African music and dance adding to the sultry effect.
NY Daily News B+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Kate Whoriskey’s vibrant staging leaps to life at Manhattan Theatre Club... Despite the troubling subject and looming threat of violence, there are flickers of humor and warmth. When Sophie performs songs (by Nottage and Dominic Kanza) at Mama’s, there’s an almost wild exuberance out-of-sync with the grim surroundings. If the specter of Mother Courage, Brecht’s battlefield profiteer, hangs over “Ruined,” the whorehouse setting and shoot-em-up anarchy recalls classic American westerns. The reference seems apt since the script sometimes carries cinematic gloss and melodramatic moments not at home here. There’s that subplot about an uncut diamond and a daring escape. And when Mama says “Congratulations! You’re the first girl bold enough to steal from me” to Sophie, it’s a flashy line that just rings false. That doesn’t diminish the play’s power, persuasiveness and first-rate performances.
New York Times B+
(Ben Brantley) Ruined which opened Tuesday night in a vivid production directed by Kate Whoriskey, is a comfortable, old-fashioned drama about an uncomfortable of-the-moment subject. But whereas Mama, a latter-day variation on Brecht’s Mother Courage... uses hominess and familiarity to shut out the terrors of war in Congo, “Ruined” craftily creates the same atmosphere to bring those same terrors to our attention.
(Scott Brown) Mama’s grim blend of mercy, pragmatism, and profit disturbs us perhaps not quite as much as it should, but then Ruined, galvanic and unflinching as it often is, still has a touch of the tourist about it. Nottage, with her lyrical ear, picks out the music of suffering with such ease that she occasionally lets us get a tad too comfortable in Mama’s juke joint.
TM A+ 14; CU A 13; TONY A 13; VV A 13; ND A 13; AMNY A 13; ATW A 13; BS A 13; EDGE A- 12; LASA A- 12; WSJ A- 12; AP A- 12; Variety A- 12; TONY A- 12; Bloomberg A- 12; DCTS A- 12; NYPost A- 12; NYDN B+ 11; NYTimes B+ 11; NYMAG B 10; TOTAL = 235 / 20 = 11.75 (A-)