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Theater of All Stripes

Pointed satire, a uniquely Central Park experience, and a wonderfully insane rock show

Jelani Alladin (foreground) and the company of the Public Theater’s Public Works musical adaptation of “Hercules” at the Delacorte Theater.
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“Eureka Day,” the shiny, new play by Jonathan Spector getting its New York debut at Walkerspace downtown, is a stealth satire. Ostensibly, it’s a send-up of the torturously politically correct lingui-nastics people put themselves through to avoid offending anyone, be inclusive to a fault, and never imply that their ideas or identity might be intrinsically better than another’s. But on a deeper, darker, and far more interesting level, “Eureka Day” suggests that no matter how language is decorated or how one wears a mantle of sensitivity, the human animal is — and will always be — fiercely competitive, egotistical, power-grabbing, and hierarchical. Part of the icy, deliciously cynical comedy of Spector’s piece is the message that passive aggression is still aggression. And, that, in the end, money wins.

The plot concerns a private school, the eponymous Eureka Day, where the executive committee confronts an outbreak of the mumps and its policy of not forcing vaccinations — complicated by an order handed down requiring it to send out a notice of mandatory vaccination. Don, the white headmaster, in cargo shorts and Teva sandals, moderates the proceedings, and the members of the committee — Suzanne, a white full-time mom; Meiko an Asian single mother; Eli, a white, stay-at-home tech millionaire dad; and Carina, the new member, a black lesbian — come to blows when Carina refuses to agree to continue allowing unvaccinated children to attend. She butts heads with Suzanne, a committed anti-vaxxer based a personal experience who assumes that because she’s a long-time parent and an original school supporter she will be accommodated. But Eli disagrees with Suzanne and his money is important to the school, so she is sidelined.

Throw into the mix the racist assumptions that Suzanne makes about Carina, Eli’s son contracting the mumps and suffering complications, and the school having to be closed, which occasions a hilarious Facebook Live meeting where Don tries to control the self-absorbed parents.

All of this plotting and topicality come at a cost — specifically the unsurprising fact that the characters are largely one-dimensional. But they and the piece remain interesting — though more in a cerebral than emotional sense — and the cast is excellent. Tina Benko as Suzanne and Elizabeth Carter as Carina as especially well-matched in their conflict. As Don, Thomas Jay Ryan is, as always, detailed in his acting, creating a well-meaning man in the crosshairs of an affluent, self-involved crowd. K.K. Moggie is a wry Meiko, carrying on an affair with the married Eli, who is played by Brian Wiles in a charming parody of the rich, white man constantly interrupting women to spout his own views. But, given that it’s his son who falls ill, his character is also the most complex.

The preschool library set by John McDermott is perfect down to the smallest details. The innocence and primary colors it portrays become a trenchant metaphor for the conflict between the world we think we want and the harsh reality of life as it is.

Among my favorite events each summer are the Public’s Public Works productions. Founded by Lear deBesonnet, the program’s goal is bringing together communities to collaboratively create theater, blurring the lines between performers and audiences. The annual productions are the result of a full year of classes, workshops, and smaller performances that engage people in making theater.

The program’s current production, an adaptation of the Disney film “Hercules,” features more than 200 performers from the five boroughs, several community groups, a puppet corps, and even a marching band. With Broadway stars James Monroe Iglehart, Krysta Rodriguez, Jelani Alladin, and Jeff Hiller, among others, handling the major roles, the cavernous stage of the Delacorte is nearly filled to capacity with the cast. Serious kudos to director deBesonnet and choreographer Chase Brock for managing all this — and telling the story well.

Over and above the show, the sheer joy of all involved radiates beyond the lights and captivates the audience in a uniquely New York experience. It is truly — as the Public’s mission has stated for more than 50 years — theater for the people. But don’t tarry, people. The show runs through Sunday only.

“Bat Out of Hell” is a raucous, ear-splitting celebration of rocker Meat Loaf’s music. Those in the know will have a hard time not dancing in their seats. And even for those of us only marginally aware of the music — a distinct minority at the performance I saw — the show is exuberant fun that knows what it’s up to and makes no apologies for being an amped up rock concert with a thin trail of storyline. The plot is a ridiculous mash-up of “Romeo and Juliet,” “Peter Pan,” and “On the Road” that sort of makes sense, though that’s not the point. Angsty teens try to get by in a dystopian hellscape as they battle an evil corporation, their parents regain their lost ability to rock out, and there is so much light, sound, and smoke it’s impossible not to be dazzled.

Oh, and there’s an insanely talented cast. The vocal technique and star power required to put over these songs is consistently amazing. Andrew Polec plays Strat, the lost boy leader of a pack of mutants who will always be 18 thanks to exposure to some toxic chemical. He sings flawlessly with a powerful rock edge. Christina Bennington play Raven, Strat’s love interest who will age normally, and she’s just thrilling. As the adults, Broadway veterans Bradley Dean and Lena Hall are outstanding — and every bit a match, physically and vocally, for the company’s tireless younger members.

As Strat says, “If you don’t go over the top, how will you see what’s on the other side.” That bit of rocker philosophy is clearly the animating principle of “Bat Out of Hell.” If that works for you, you’re in for a very good time. But only for a short time — the current comes down this Sunday!

EUREKA DAY | Walkerspace, 42 Walker St., btwn. Church St. & Broadway | Through Sep. 21: Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m., Sun.-Mon. at 7 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $65-$80 at artful.ly/store/events/18103 | One hr., 40 mins., with intermission

HERCULES | Public Theater at the Delacorte, Central Park | Through Sep. 8 at 8 p.m. | Free; ticket information at publictheater.org/productions/season/1920/Hercules | One hr., 40 mins., no intermission

BAT OUT OF HELL | City Center, 131 W. 55th St. | Through Sep. 8: Thu. & Sun. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 1:30 pm. | $45-$225 at nycitycenter.org/pdps/2019-2020/bat-out-of-hell | Two hrs., 40 mins, with intermission

Updated 12:21 pm, September 12, 2019
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