Thursday, March 19, 2009

Red-Haired Thomas


By Robert Lyons; Directed by Oliver Butler. At the Ohio Theater. (CLOSED)

Playwright and downtown mainstay Robert Lyons goes through the looking glass in his fractured (post)modern fable of American Exceptionalism. Some reviewers are happy to take the trip with him, others not so much. Boosters enjoy the daffy imagination, inventive staging and in particular Alan Benditt's performance as a cantankerous, nebbishy migraine suffering Thomas Jefferson(!). Detractors find the play incoherent and the production tonally inconsistent. Full Disclosure: While Oliver Butler is no relation of mine, we are close friends and I serve on the board of his theater company, The Debate Society.

Backstage B+
(Ronni Reich) Overall, though, Red-Haired Thomas, with its takes on the weathered topics of foreign relations, brotherhood, and raising children -- plus its riffs on Jefferson's words -- is intelligent, engaging, and absolutely fresh.

That Sounds Cool B
(Aaron Riccio) In the end, it's the freedom Red-Haired Thomas touts that saves it. Lyons's script jumps around in an entertainingly comic way (thanks to the breathless Sprague, exasperated Benditt, and endearing Raphael), and Butler's direction accomodates it, using the entire Ohio Theater to emphasize the importance of location.

NYTimes B
(Anita Gates) The pace of Red-Haired Thomas, a one-act presented by the Soho Think Tank, lags every now and then. But for the most part, the director, Oliver Butler, keeps things zipping along with eclectic humor (Ms. Skraastad’s musical number is ingeniously daffy) and the occasional gut punch to remind us of what a frightening world we live in. Let’s just say that there’s a hostage-video scene. Also, two touching speeches contrasting Abby’s future with the fate of Iftikhar’s daughter.

OffOff Online B
(William Coyle) Red-Haired Thomas is a frequently pleasant but sometimes slight topical romp through the mind of Mr. Lyons. You may alternate, like I did, between thinking you understand it all and thinking it’s all a clever red herring. In the end, though, you can’t help but think that you have been uniquely entertained.

NYTheatre C
(Martin Denton) Red-haired Thomas is a flight of fancy; Cliff's fever dream through a panoply of current American anxieties. Lyons has written a play that's funny—zany, even—but it's not well-served, I think, by this production. Director Oliver Butler is taking the thing too seriously, staging the piece as naturalistically as it will allow (on a puzzling set defined by piles of newspapers) at a pace too slow to represent the anarchic disarray taking over Cliff's psyche. Peter Sprague's Cliff comes across as too mild to convey the stormy dreamscape he's traversing in this play. Danny Beiruti (Ifthikar), Alan Benditt (Thomas Jefferson), and Danielle Skraastad (Marissa, Cliff's wife) fare better, but acting honors clearly go to Nicole Raphael for convincing us roundly that she's a precocious but ordinary and loving 11-year-old as Abby.

Village Voice C-
(Alexis Soloski)
Red-Haired Thomas
is a play about everything and nothing. It encompasses discussions of financial uncertainty, global unrest, domestic terrorism, even New York housing laws. But the characters never fully emerge, nor do the relationships engage, save for appealing interactions between Cliff and his precocious daughter, Abby (Nicole Raphael). The tone volleys uneasily between realism and absurdism—at times verging on parody—as when Ifthikar orders Cliff to "Denounce the Electoral College!"

TheaterMania C-
(Andy Buck) Lyons raises some worthy questions about who the true heirs of Jefferson are in this new millennium. Who are the freedom fighters and who are the terrorists? What are we prepared to sacrifice for our countries, our families, and ourselves? What are the risks in trying to export Jeffersonian democracy to volatile corners of the earth in order to serve our own economic interests? And when, in the words of Leonard Cohen, is democracy coming to the U.S.A.? Unfortunately, this isn't to say that Red-Haired Thomas manages to answer these questions in any satisfactory way, or frankly to even ask them, except in isolated moments. The play's somewhat shallow dialogue tends to sink under the weight of its own metaphors

Time Out NY D+
(Helen Shaw) Even though Lyons occasionally succeeds in prodding us into laughter, his gentle barbs strike home with all the propulsive force of a ball on its fourth bounce... Lyons does bare teeth—he wants to suggest that all freedom fighters can consider Tom a founding father, and he clearly has some tart things to say to his local school board. But unaided by a mostly undistinguished cast, diffidently steered by Oliver Butler, Lyons doesn't exactly whimper, but he does bore.

BS B+ 11; TSC B 10; NYT B 10; OOO B 10; NYTR C 7; VV C- 6; TM C- 6; TONY D+ 5; TOTAL =65/8= 8.12 (C+)

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