Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Night Watcher


By Charlayne Woodard. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. 59E59. (CLOSED)

Charlayne Woodard doesn't have any biological children, but she has been an "Auntie" to many. Those experiences make up The Night Watcher and it is her motherly storytelling abilities that win over critics. Only Frank Scheck, writing for the New York Post, is left unsatisfied, and CurtainUp's Paulanne Simmons wonders about the point of the evening.

The Daily News A+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) The stories are joyful, amusing and sometimes harrowing as she recalls an illiterate teenager whose ripe sexuality spells trouble for her, a bratty 11-year-old shopaholic who needs to buy some manners and a boy made so unhinged by his volatile father that he can't sleep, which gives the play its title. With flashing eyes, gifts for impersonation and unbounded dynamism, she brings adults and children to vibrant life. Daniel Sullivan, who has directed three of her earlier solo shows, gives the staging a strong emotional flow.

Talk Entertainment A+
(Oscar E. Moore) Every care has been taken, no detail overlooked to enhance the phenomenal performance of Charlayne Woodard in her solo play “The Night Watcher” which is unlike any other solo performance piece I have ever seen. It’s exceptional. She is exceptional. Charlayne Woodard is that rare actress who can become any one of the characters she is portraying in a split second, her voice and body inhabiting the human spirit of those she becomes right before our eyes. From the refined and assured direction of Daniel Sullivan, to the open and welcoming set by Charlie Corcoran and Thomas Lynch that is bathed in the most beautiful lighting by Geoff Korf to the jazz inspired music and sound design by Obadiah Eaves to the perfect projections by Tal Yarden to her simple and yet colorful costume by Jess Goldstein – the entire creative team has come up with an enveloping wrap that Charlayne Woodard wears with love and affection in her most original take on motherhood.

DC Theatre Scene A+
(Richard Seff) When imaginations are afloat of the caliber of Ms. Woodard and Carrie Fisher, I begin to soften my stand against one-person plays. I’m always afraid I’ll be stuck watching an actor sit in a chair for 90 minutes and preach to me. Even the incandescent Vanessa Redgrave doing just that with Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking failed to keep me from squirming, and I thought with that marvelous material and Ms. Redgrave’s never failing talent, it must be the fault of the form. Though I’d much enjoyed Robert Morse in Tru and Mary Louise Wilson in Full Gallop, I was still apprehensive about another “lecture”. I may be an old codger, but I’m happy to learn that I can still recant. I’ve discovered that if the writer (especially when he/she is also the actor) can fill the evening with other characters, all impeccably trotted out in their full dimension, when they are placed in a set that conjures up the world in which they have lived out their stories, I can be hooked as completely as though I were watching a stage full of live actors performing an epic.

Backstage A
(Leonard Jacobs) Director Daniel Sullivan's pacing is superb. Wisely, Woodard opts not to impersonate her galaxy of characters so much as furnish a flavor of them. At its core, "The Night Watcher" is her internal debate: Was it right for her and her husband to remain childless? Followed by her realization, in the fullness of time, that parenting is a matter of personal intuition, not genetic disposition. Forgoing a family doesn't mean avoiding painful and hilarious moments: A razor-sharp scene in which Woodard buys her Maltese, Atticus Finch, a chocolate shearling coat while her mother chastises her childlessness delivers both. Still, it's knowing that parenting has no one-dimensional job description that gives Woodard peace of mind. If it means playing the "night watcher" so Nala, her terrified nephew, can sleep, that's okay. At the end of the play, as Tal Yarden's projections fill upstage screens with images of the kids whose lives Woodard has enriched, her smile is all the judgment she needs.

TheaterMania A
(Andy Propst) The show unfolds on a stage that's outfitted with just a chair (Charlie Corcoran and Thomas Lynch provide the spare scenic design that's augmented beautifully by Tal Yarden's projections), and as it unfolds, Woodard does not so much transform herself into the characters of her stories as indicate their essences. In some instances, her fluid characterizations create an intriguing prism of individuals. This happens most prominently during a segment about a woman who is trying to raise a grandchild -- the fifth that she's been put in charge of. There are moments when it almost seems as if Woodard is portraying the elderly woman playing her son and his girlfriend, and the result makes the tale -- which haunts from the start -- even more discomfiting. There are other moments like this throughout Night Watcher, but more often than not, the show is filled with the warm and comforting glow of a loving woman and the talent of an engrossing storyteller.

Variety A
(Marilyn Stasio) The children aren't always so amusing. Some of them are desperate for love -- like Kya, a throwaway child who makes a pathetic bid to replace her Auntie's dead dog. Others are trouble -- like Nala, who brings the cops to the door. In Woodard's warm hands, they are all loved. And under Daniel Sullivan's direction, their individual portraits come across with crispness, clarity -- and humor. Woodard is such a dazzling performer, she almost makes us forget the unspoken question of why her own home is childless. Late in the play, recalling that crucible moment when she and her husband decided to postpone parenthood, she allows herself to sound wistful: "That tiny bit of time I had to have a child, it flew away. I ran out of time. I missed that." That quiet expression of disappointment, along with a few elliptical references to the reasons why that precious time just "flew away," wouldn't satisfy the expectations of emotional bloodletting raised by any conventional autobiographical show. Here, that modest hint of a wounded ego is more than enough.

Talkin' Broadway A-
(Matthew Murray) Charlayne Woodard may not have any children of her own, but she’s got more than enough maternal spirit to light up a theater for a year. Given the relatively short lengths of its plays’ runs, that theater will probably not be Primary Stages, where Woodard’s new solo show, The Night Watcher, just opened. But it should be. Woodard's personal and affecting memoir about the children she’s helped shepherd through life is heartwarming and lovely enough to sustain a healthy run for audiences filled with parents with children, children with parents, or those who are neither but wish they were. Over a series of 10 scenes, which have been directed with intense sensitivity and a buoyant light-comedy flair by Daniel Sullivan, Woodard tells of her own numerous just-missed-it brushes with motherhood.

The New York Times A-
(Charles Isherwood) Good lighting is even more necessary onstage than it is in life. But a few fortunate actors require little in the way of flattering illumination. Instead of reflecting light, their faces seem to emit it. Charlayne Woodard is among them. I don’t want to steal any credit from her lighting designer, Geoff Korf, but in her latest solo performance, “The Night Watcher,” Ms. Woodard roams the stage of the 59E59 Theaters like a human searchlight, casting a permanent glow that reaches all the way to the back rows. Perhaps a porch light is a better analogy, for Ms. Woodard is a performer as warm and inviting as she is luminous.

The Village Voice C-
(Miriam Felton-Dansky) Despite Woodard's nimble energy, her imitations of the children are flat: Though many are troubled teens, she renders them all as lisping, whiny pre-schoolers. And in the end, she can't decide whether to aim for stand-up comedy or heartwarming self-help story; the show's last moments detail a sappy personal breakthrough. A final photomontage collages the tykes' real faces, glowing and joyful—reassuring Woodard (and us) that her unconventional stewardships have not been in vain.

CurtainUp C-
(Paulanne Simmons) The Night Watcher is certainly inspirational. Who could resist all those needy, innocent children? Who would be so cynical not to admire Woodward for the caring and comfort she offered them between gigs? What's more, Sullivan has augmented the story with appropriate music and projections that bring Woodward back to the time she is telling us about. But what is the purpose of this two hour (with intermission) monologue? Is it to convince the audience to take better care of children? Is it to give Woodward a chance to feel better about her decision not to bear children? At the end of the two hours, she lists all the reasons she and her husband never had children: her parents' life issues, health issues and money issues; their own busy schedule. She concludes by informing an African man she meets in the subway, ". . .the world doesn't need more kids, mister, as much as it needs more people to step into the gap and help the kids who are already here." Maybe that's why at times The Night Watcher seems as if it might be more appropriate for a therapist than an audience.

New York Post D
(Frank Scheck) To be sure, there are moments that are highly involving. Particularly strong are the episodes in which a friend's daughter comes to Woodard for advice after getting pregnant, and another seeks her out after being sexually molested by a relative. The segment that gives the play its title, in which Woodard tries to comfort her 9-year-old nephew after he's been terrorized by his alcoholic father, is also deeply moving. But for each weighty anecdote, there's another that's trivial and self-indulgent. A scene in which Woodard relates buying a shearling coat for her beloved Maltese terrier is related with the same breathless intensity as everything else.

The New Yorker D-
(Unsigned) A high-wattage performer, Woodard nevertheless runs into trouble: by recounting one successful intervention into a young life after another, she appears to be implicitly disparaging her friends’—and, by extension, the black community’s—parenting skills. But the show seems less a social critique than a platform for Woodard to be applauded for her personal virtue.

The Daily News A+ 14; Talk Entertainment A+ 14; DC Theatre Scene A+ 14; Backstage A 13; TheaterMania A 13; Variety A 13; Talkin' Broadway A- 12; The New York Times A- 12; The Village Voice C- 6; CurtainUp C- 6; New York Post D 4; The New Yorker D- 3; TOTAL: 124/12 = 10.33 (B)

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