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Three Solo Shows at Playwrights Horizons

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - November 20, 2023

Milo Cramer
Photo by Chelcie Parry
With Stereophonic blaring happily away on its mainstage, Playwrights Horizons is attempting an intriguing experiment upstairs at the Peter Jay Sharp: three one-acts, all solo shows, each written by its performer and lasting 70 to 90 minutes. To cut to the chase, and in no particular order, because there isn't any:

School Pictures. Milo Cramer, bless him, has toiled in an environment many of us would find intimidating: as a private tutor in New York City public schools. Ten of his students are profiled here, though, as he confesses in his script intro, "all details, names, and stories have been extrapolated, exaggerated, collaged, invented and transformed beyond recognition." That doesn't stop them from being believable, or us from caring about them. But he does go on.

Most of the kids are in high school or junior high, and, judging from Cramer's retelling, are stuck in a barely functioning system–one that favors the wealthy and white, encourages competition where it isn't needed, and fails its students on so many levels. As Cramer, who's in his 30s and has a gentle, willowy voice, says, more than once, "The people with urgent stories to tell don't have the means to tell them. The people with the means to tell stories don't have urgent stories to tell." So, some of the more stirring stories: Leigh, smart but miserable, stuck with a bullying teacher and a chardonnay-swilling mom, trying, not very hard, to lift her C- in science to at least a C+. Javier, convinced climate change will prevent him from ever seeing 30, so he's resistant to any tutoring; like, what's the point? Divya, who has to write an essay on whether Othello is racist, and can't come up with anything beyond "the story is really crazy and the language is really pretty." And a long diversion into the SHSAT, the competition to get into elite NYC schools, and Cramer's surprising interaction with Bill de Blasio and inability to have any effect on the mayor's ineffective management of the SHSAT.

I left out one important detail: All of this, or nearly all, is sung. Cramer accompanies himself first on a ukulele, then a tiny toy piano, then an electronic keyboard, and finally a real piano. It doesn't rhyme, it's basically recitative. And it's fun at first, but 70 minutes is a long time to sustain this sort of gambit, and by the end you wish he'd spoken more and sung less. He's a pleasant presence, and if you've ever taught or tutored, you'll probably empathize strongly with Cramer and his feeling of helplessness in a very damaged system. For the rest of us, it's a moderately revealing glimpse into unfamiliar territory.

Alexandra Tatarsky
Photo by Chelcie Parry
Sad Boys in Harpy Land. I didn't comprehend a word of this and have no idea what Alexandra Tatarsky is driving at, so all I can do is describe what I saw. Tatarsky enters as an Orthodox Jew, in a long beard, and soon transforms into Wilhelm, the young hero of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, and also Oskar; it's not clear whether Oskar is also Wilhelm. They (Tatarsky's preferred pronoun) sing Oskar's mother's song about poisoning herself on tinned fish. Becoming Wilhelm again, they ruminate about hell, jiggle, and eventually expose their breasts, and pun a lot ("Sign Felt" for Seinfeld–meaning what?–and "we are all now trapped together inside this ongoing and doomed gesamtkunstwerk, and sometimes the gesamtkunst isn't werking"). Then they become a harpy, half-human, half-bird. Briefly, they're an opera singer, giving out with an aria about pain. Then there are quick sidebars on Günter Grass's "The Tin Drum" and Wagner's The Flying Dutchman.

About two-thirds of the way we're encouraged, no, forced, to get up, sing, wave our arms, and follow Tatarsky onstage, as a curtain closes to shield us from the seats we just vacated. Then more Oskar and/or Wilhelm, then Tatarsky transforms into an earthworm, and expresses a wish to turn into a tree, evoking a Playwrights Horizons horror from last season, The Trees. Finally, they dance out of the auditorium and into the lobby, and we are left to return to our seats and gather our things. I should add, Tatarsky clearly has a following, and many of them cheerfully whooped through all this and gave Tatarsky an instant standing O. Maybe they're more up on their Goethe.

Ikechukwu Ufomadu
Photo by Chelcie Parry
Amusements. Best for last! Ikechukwu Ufomadu is, to put it plainly, a master. I'd forgotten I'd seen him previously at Playwrights in Dance Nation, but that didn't afford him a fraction of the opportunity he has here, and he seizes with relish.

Ufomadu enters through the audience, spiffy in a fedora, scarf, and overcoat hiding a tux. What he does next, and for the next 75 minutes, isn't easily characterized, but it's hilarious. Immediately ingratiating himself with the crowd, Ufomadu affects the persona of a slick, mid-century TV white guy, maybe a Johnny Carson or a David Susskind. His drawn-out white-guy elocutions are flawless, and even more drawn-out and flawless when he briefly switches to JFK-esque Bostonese. Like Tatarsky, he breaks the fourth wall, but in a much more benign, less pushy way. And he lapses into instant absurdity, funnier through his delivery and Nemuna Ceesay's direction than can be conveyed here: "I understand that many of you out there are here tonight. By show of hands, who's here?" Or, "What's everybody doing after this? I don't mean the show, I mean existence."

From there he flies off into unrelated tangents that somehow hang together, whether reading the opening of "Moby Dick," extending Stanislavsky's "there are no small parts, only small players" utterance into an improvised essay of at least 400 words, or leading a singalong of some unexpected songs that you surely will know. Merrily parodied along the way are cheap audience-pleasing tactics of the "give it up for yourselves!" variety, audience one-on-ones of the sort Carson used to do, and needless nods to religion: "Happy Saturday, by the way, to those who observe."

The show-biz platitudes pile up, recalling the less inclusive, more white-bread America of decades past, and gain force as they do; one lady down the row from me was really losing it, and I can't remember the last time I laughed so much in so short a time. "I'm not a comedian, but I play one on stage," Ufomadu says. He sure does!

School Pictures, Sad Boys in Harpy Land, and Amusements
Through December 3, 2023
Playwrights Horizons
Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 W. 42nd St.
Tickets online and current performance schedule: