Friday, June 12, 2009

Night Sky

Grade: C+

By Susan Yankowitz. Directed by Daniella Topol. At the Baruch College Performing Arts Cetner. (CLOSED)

The only consensus in this show's set of reviews is that Jordan Baker-- last seen in New York in Three Tall Women-- is the tops. Beyond that, reviewers detect alternately detect either creekiness from Yankowitz's script, lack of inspiration from Daniella Topol's direction, or meh work from the supporting cast. The fact that the play is about a brilliant astronomer who is stricken with aphasia and sponsored by the National Aphasia Association during Aphasia Awareness month has some breaking out the terms "public service announcement" and "after school special". All is not doom and gloom, however. CurtainUp, NY1, The Daily News and the Post all feel that the performances and staging overcome any other problems with the show, and Bloomberg's John Simon flat out loves it.

Bloomberg A+
(John Simon) Susan Yankowitz's best play yet... Daniella Topol has directed discerningly, and the acting of the principals could not be better. Jordan Baker, too long absent from the New York theater, is a heartbreakingly stunning, subtly compelling Anna. Jim Stanek, as her dedicated but sorely tested partner, is enormously affecting. The scene of their near-breakup may be the most shattering on our current stage. Tuck Milligan’s Bill lends staunch support. You could do yourself no greater favor than immersing yourself in this riveting, dark yet anything but cheerless, starry “Night Sky.”

CurtainUp B
(Elizabeth Ahlfors) Director Daniella Topol steers the story through short scenes that often provoke laughter through the tears. The production is forceful through the first act when Anna returns home to face the dizzying confusion of the outside world. Act II moves with fits and starts, overwhelmed with details of Jennifer's prom, Daniel's career, therapy, friendly advice, and recurring frustration. Anna's feverish determination to be ready for the Paris conference seems insurmountable as she stumbles through her struggle, words tumbling out incomprehensibly, like "elephants on tongue,"" before she fights again to restate her intentions. With the abrupt scenes and details, the emotional connection is sometimes loosened.

NYpost B
(Frank Scheck) While Night Sky lacks the artistry of Arthur Kopit's 1979 Tony-nominated "Wings" about the same subject, it's still powerful, thanks to the inherent drama of its subject matter and Baker's affecting and technically superb performance. Watching her character desperately struggle to express the simplest of ideas, one is brutally reminded of our fragility -- and how we take the most basic human abilities for granted.

NY1 B-
(Roma Torre) While Night Sky follows a fairly predictable course, this well-intentioned work is not without merit, namely a towering lead performance... The performances are uniformly strong, especially with the outstanding Jordan Baker, who was last seen in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Three Tall Women 15 years ago. Even when the writing turns cliche, Anna seems real. And there are moments when Baker's mastery of technique in playing this severely-impaired woman leaves the audience at a loss for words.

The Forward B-
(Gwen Orel) As a teaching tool, Night Sky works beautifully, and fulfills the National Aphasia Association’s mission to increase understanding of the disorder. Without hesitation I recommend it highly for anyone who has any contact with anyone with aphasia. In its own way, it offers a curative, talking loudly about something not often discussed: theater as tikkun olam. As a play, its appeal is more limited. Oddly, the straightforward sections dramatizing the condition and the process of recovery are so effective that they cast shadows over the more conventional family drama alongside them. Chaikin was known for innovative, highly formalized and often cutting-edge drama, but much of the play he commissioned feels schematic. Director Daniella Topol, a rising talent, mostly takes a conventional approach to telling the story, moving the characters around nicely on Cameron Anderson’s spare set. Original music by The Broken Chord Collective adds a yearning atmosphere to the story of recovery.

NY Daily News B-
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Though the play follows a predictable path, Baker's excellent performance holds your interest during the show's two hours... Director Daniella Topol's straightforward staging keeps the action moving smoothly on the minimal set. But the play strains from the author's efforts to neatly link Anna's brain and the universe.

NYTimes C-
(Neil Genzlinger) Disguising a public-awareness campaign as a play is a tricky business, and Night Sky, a drama by Susan Yankowitz that focuses on the medical condition aphasia, doesn’t quite get it right. Despite a strong lead performance by Jordan Baker, the play is never organic enough to let the audience forget that one of its producers is the National Aphasia Association... the play often feels as if it’s running through a “Things People With a Disability and Their Families Have to Deal With” checklist. Acknowledge that a disability affects everyone in the family; e.g., a teenage daughter? Check. Note that friends and colleagues often become strangers when someone encounters misfortune? Check. Make fun of store clerks because they’re not aphasia experts and don’t know how to respond to a customer who has it? Check.

Variety C-
(Marilyn Stasio) While the stricken victim is delineated with care by Yankowitz and played with conviction by Jordan Baker, the shelf life of this inexpertly mounted oddity should expire come July... the bland visuals would have been better scrapped for some otherworldly tech effects that conveyed some sense of the infinitely dazzling heavens above -- and so out of reach of this earthbound production.

TheaterMania C-
(David Finkle)the play (which first debuted in 1991) is now best appreciated as a guide for families dealing with an aphasia-afflicted member. Furthermore, some of the dramaturgy -- including the Anna-Daniel argument that sends her racing out of the house into the path of an on-coming car -- is afternoon-special-creaky. Moreover, in her understandable eagerness to cover every aspect of a sufferer's dilemma, Yankowitz inserts ironic comments like Anna's declaring "I'm speechless" in one of the attenuated opening scenes. Also, she sees to it that other characters have their moments of temporary aphasia. At one point, Yankowitz even has another aphasic patient (Dan Domingues) reading from Chicken Little at the moment when Henny Penny decides the sky is falling. Still, the play's inherent problems are strongly offset by the successful efforts put into the proceedings by director Daniella Topol and the cast of six, each of them clearly sensitive to the gravity of the business at hand.

That Sounds Cool D+
(Aaron Riccio) By featuring it at the center of her latest play, Night Sky, Susan Yankowitz does a great service to the National Aphasia Association by demonstrating, time and time again, that aphasia is "not an impairment of intellect," and an even greater service to Jordan Baker (and vice versa), who plays--with boundless emotion--the central role of Anna, a brilliant and beloved astronomer whose ability to communicate is abruptly paralyzed. However, aphasia still ends up being Yankowitz's worst nightmare; despite her attempts to find a parallel in the dark matter of the sky, she talks her subject to death, latches on to an unoriginal foundation, and struggles with some really hackneyed moments. In other words, Baker's a blinding star, and without her Night Sky is rather barren.

BB A+ 14; CU B 10; NYDN B- 9; FOR B- 9; NY1 B- 9; TM C- 6; NYT C- 6; V C- 6; TSC D+5; TOTAL = 74 / 9 = 8.22 (C+)

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