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NYC Theater reviews: Broadway & Off-Broadway

Side Show, Soul Doctor, Sleep No More, more

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Shoveling snow isn't my idea of great fun, so I decided to acknowledge the cruel lessons I've learned over the past two Februarys, when my wife and I had the hubris to drive up to New York into the teeth of winter. This year, we started out on the fourth day of Chanukah, arrived on the second day of winter, and gorged on Broadway, off-Broadway, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, and a double dose of Brooklyn through January 10.

We were rewarded beyond our expectations — before seasonal weather kicked in during our second week. Outside while we were enjoying Side Show as our first afternoon matinee, the mercury peaked at over 600F. When the evenings came, neither of us had a scrap of appropriate outerwear, having packed for winter instead of the early days of autumn.

Climate change was even more acute on Broadway, where the economic paradigms of the middle '90s have been turned upside down. Yes, it was just over 20 years ago that Neil Simon forswore Broadway, saying that his next opening night in New York would be on an off-Broadway stage. Alarmists covering the scene — okay, that was me — were predicting that the two parts of Tony Kushner's Angels in America, about to close without recouping its investment, would be the last new play to open on the Great White Way.

Fast forward to 2014-15 and, as I headed for the return trip home on the Jersey Turnpike, not a single new musical that opened this season was going to survive into February. Side Show had posted a closing date of January 4, and Sting's valiant effort to keep The Last Ship afloat had foundered, posting a January 24 closing date. Even a relatively successful revival, On the Town, was limping. Publicity agents said they'd be happy to have me review the production when spring rolled around. Meanwhile, heavily discounted tickets were available at the Times Square ticket kiosks throughout our stay.

Seats for straight plays — comedies and dramas — turned out to be tougher Broadway tickets on our most recent trip. Among the plays that have opened this season and will have longer legs than the two new musicals are Disgraced, It's Only a Play, The River, and revivals of You Can't Take It With You and A Delicate Balance. All of these opened for limited runs, so the financials will probably look sunnier for investors. They won't be $660K in the red as backers were in 1994 when Angels in America closed its open-ended run after 83 weeks.

And yes, we already have an open-ended success story among the new crop. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has been consistently filling the house since its opening back in October — without a single big name in the cast.

I found plenty of interesting fare to review on Broadway and off. I hadn't reviewed any of the site-specific productions that have gradually grown trendier since Sleep No More invaded the McKittrick Hotel nearly four years ago, so I think this year's roundup catches up nicely with the evolution of that new form. We'll do it as we usually do, theatre in this installment, opera and symphony next time around.

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Disgraced (***1/2 out of 4) — In his Pulitzer Prize drama, playwright Ayad Akhtar whips a mix of ethnicities, business politics and sexual betrayals into a powerful series of explosions within 84 minutes. Amir, a successful lawyer of Pakistani descent who rejects his Islamic heritage, is married to a rising lily-white visual artist whose paintings strongly reflect the past glories of Moorish art. Tempted by his wife Emily and his radical nephew Abe to look into a case of an imam accused of supporting terrorists, Amir gets in trouble at his Jewish law firm — and thrown off the track toward becoming a partner — when the media mistakenly links him with the imam.

This stew grows more exquisitely complex when an African-American lawyer at Amir's firm, Jory, shows up for dinner with her Jewish husband, an art dealer who is intensely interested in Emily's new paintings. As the topics of Islam, Israel, 9/11, the Koran, and Ahmadinejad stir up tensions, what becomes apparent at this dinner party is that Amir is surrounded by duplicitous snakes. Most catastrophically, there's a snake lurking inside him — the harsh teachings of the Koran, hammered into Amir when he was a child — waiting to pounce with barbaric violence.

Nobody really holds the moral high ground as amiability implodes, and the cast under Kimberly Senior's direction deliver wonderfully rounded high-energy portraits of the four major combatants. Hari Dhillon has the necessary GQ polish for Amir, smoothly marbled with intellectual brilliance and emotional volatility, while Gretchen Mol (of Boardwalk Empire fame) is a sexy mix of artsiness and outward purity. Karen Pittman has all the dignity of Jory, the most self-righteous of the quartet, but we know that her teeth will be bared when she smells blood in the water. A longtime TV fixture on How I Met Your Mother, Josh Radnor demonstrates that he can be a compelling actor when he isn't on cruise control.

Frenzied pacing allows Akhter to scratch the surface of numerous vital issues without really drawing blood on any of them. Now that he's won an audience — and a Pulitzer — we can hope that Akhtar will pound harder with his thoughts and go further in sorting out some of the quandaries he presents. (Through March 1)

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Side Show (***1/4) — First premiered on Broadway in 1997, the musical biography of the Hilton Sisters was considerably overhauled by songwriter Bill Russell and composer Henry Krieger, with noticeable input on the book from the new director, Bill Condon. The original, featuring stunning performances by Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner as the Siamese twins, was a seedier, gloomier, and less enlightening piece.

Condon's makeover gave us far more background in Act 1 during the unfolding story of how Violet and Daisy ascended from their degradation and enslavement as circus freaks to vaudeville superstardom. As we reached the denouement, when Violet was to be married before a stadium crowd as part of the Texas centennial celebration, we were treated to more historical accuracy.

Five of the six new songs came in the much-improved opening act, but two of the original score's best numbers, "Rare Songbirds on Display" and "Tunnel of Love," were axed after intermission. While the alterations of the book — if not the Phantom of the Opera vibe — accounted for the demise of "Tunnel," it's safe to say that the showy "Songbirds" will be resurrected in future productions by directors who can cherrypick the two scores.

Emily Padgett as Daisy and Erin Davie as Violet weren't as vibrant as Skinner and Ripley — or any better than the duo connected at the hip in the Queen City Theatre Company version at Spirit Square in 2008. But the guys around them, far more humanized in the new book, more than made up for the difference. Particularly impressive was David St. Louis as Jake, the fearsome cannibal who genuinely cares for the sisters during the side-show captivity and afterwards. (Closed on January 4)

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The Last Ship (***) — Rock hall-of-famer Sting has written a surprisingly sturdy score for his first stage musical, redolent with the salt of the sea and the camaraderie of rugged working men — with the odd waltz tossed in. If that weren't enough, he heroically stepped in to play a substantial supporting role onstage when his ship appeared to be sinking at the box office. Sadly, the rock great's valiant effort couldn't keep this winsome production afloat.

Perhaps that's because Sting didn't write a rock musical. Or perhaps the word was out that the book by John Logan and Brian Yorkey wasn't nearly as unique or personal as the music, just another British yes-you-can yarn in the mold of Billy Elliot and Kinky Boots. Yet there is stomping electricity when Sting's songwriting hits peak form, as in the anthemic "We've Got Now't Else."

Nor was there any lack of fire in the two leads, Michael Esper as Gideon Fletcher and Rachel Tucker as Meg Dawson. Gideon begs Meg to sail away with him and escape their dreary, declining shipbuilding hometown before it succumbs to foreign competition, but she lingers behind while he lingers too long at sea. When he returns after his father's death to settle the meager estate, he discovers that Meg has a serious beau and a teenaged boy. Gideon is a bit slow on doing the math and slower on accepting his parental responsibilities.

So there's some fire left over for Collin Kelly-Sordelet in the role of Gideon's son, Tom Dawson. Meanwhile, the love triangle intersects with the labor unrest brewing in Wallsend when an outsider takes over the shipbuilding company, with Gideon on the side of the rebellious workers and Meg's beau, Arthur, on the side of management. Interestingly enough, Logan and Yorkey spurn the conventional happily-ever-after romantic conclusion in favor of a more mythic Rainmaker-like resolution, with a light dusting of Peter Pan.

The more crippling flaw in the book might actually be its profusion of elaborately drawn characters vying for focus. Along with the labor leader, Jackie White, portrayed with such moving nonchalance by Sting, there's Wallsend's spiritual leader, Father O'Brien, who imbibes as much spirit at the local pub as he radiates from the pulpit, giving good old Fred Applegate a chance to warmly inspire the whole last ship uprising. (Closed on January 24)

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Then She Fell (***3/4) — Among the site-specific, environmental stagings I've seen, this imaginative exploration of the life and works of Lewis Carroll is the most surreal, personal, and off-the-beaten-track. Third Rail Projects has taken over an old three-story ward next to a modest Brooklyn church, and they've turned its various rooms into a mix of Victorian living quarters, scenes from Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and clinical rooms in an asylum.

Only 15 ticket holders are admitted into the building for each performance, and every one sees the events in a different order. You must remain silent unless spoken to as the asylum attendants or character actors lead you from one scene to another in groups that are never larger than three. A good portion of the evening is spent one-on-one, most memorably for me when I was invited by a grim-looking doctor to paint a white rose red for the termagant Queen of Hearts. At that moment, I was being treated like a clinically insane Lewis Carroll.

You see, the fulcrum of this fantasia is the estrangement between Carroll and the real-life Alice's family, the Liddells, which in this version of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson's biography, sent the author of the Alice books into a deep depression and caused him to be institutionalized. That's why Looking Glass is darker than its predecessor. There are also many who believe that the episodes in these books actually reflect how Carroll saw the world through the distorted lens of his maladies, which likely included migraines and epilepsy.

Taking tea with Alice, the Mad Hatter, the harried White Rabbit, and another audience member, you can feel like a Wonderland reader who has tumbled down the rabbit hole. Or you can imagine yourself to be the author as you receive peremptory orders from the Mad Hatter to change seats at the table. Tea will be one of multiple beverages you'll be asked to imbibe. Others come in vials concocted by a reputed mixologist with sponsoring wines and artisanal ingredients.

Perhaps the most mind-blowing aspect of the experience is that the actors and attendants, strictly synchronizing with a marvelous soundtrack heard throughout the building, manage to individualize 15 experiences — so much so that I never came across a single member of the audience who wasn't in my party during the entire two hours. Clearly these are exemplary actors, dancers, and stage managers at work, abetted by tech wizards responsible for multiple looking-glass scenes with their ghostly mysteries. (Through June 28)

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Tamburlaine (***1/2) — Back in 2001, when the Twin Towers had crumbled, it was still probably too soon to revive the specter of Christopher Marlowe's bloody two-part portrait of Tamburlaine the Great, written a couple of years before Shakespeare began toiling at his first comedies and histories. Bin Laden, after all, was a cowardly terrorist who communicated via webcasts and hid out in caves. Tamerlane, or Timur the Lame, was one of the great warriors of the Middle Ages, ruler of empires and never defeated in battle. It was like comparing a lion to a cockroach, for the fearsome Timur and his hordes butchered 17 million people, or 5 percent of the world's population.

But with the rise of ISIS last year, comparisons seemed more apt. This new scourge still relies on clandestine manifestos, but they are far more graphic and barbaric. Their weapons are swords and machine guns rather than bombs strapped to cars, women, and children; they attack territory in the light of day and hold onto it; there seems to be no limit to their thirst for power; and they haven't been stopped.

Theatre for a New Audience took the two parts of Tamburlaine the Great and chipped away half, so that it ran for three-and-a-half hours, including a half-hour intermission. They staged it at the beautiful Polonsky Shakespeare Center, a spanking new facility one block away from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in a 299-seat space that reminds me of London's Almeida Theatre in size and Broadway's Circle in the Square in ambiance.

New Audience certainly didn't take any prisoners in rendering the bloodiness and barbarity of the script as Tamburlaine humiliated the Persians and the Turks. Ruthlessness, treachery, cruelty, and heartlessness were all part of John Douglas Thompson's unforgettable portrait of the warlord. When a besieged governor of Damascus sent out a delegation of virgins to appease Tamburlaine's wrath, he had them all impaled; and when he conquered the Turkish Empire, he put the Emperor Bajazeth in a cage and used him for a footstool.

It was a mighty triumph of a performance for Thompson, capped with breathtaking hubris when he desecrates the Koran and declares himself divine. Yet there were also eye-opening moments for Chukwudi Iwuji as Bajazeth, culminating in his suicide when he ended his sufferings by "braining" himself against the bars of his cage. Few dribbles of comic relief were embedded in the script, mostly provided by Paul Lazar as the effete King of Persia and later as an inept jailer. The wives of the key antagonists were a fascinating study in contrasts, Merritt Janson pointing up the moral ambiguities of Tamburlaine's queen and Patrice Johnson Chevannes extracting every bit of pathos from the nobility and devotion of Bajazeth's empress. (Closed on January 4)

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Queen of the Night (***1/2) — Staged at the Diamond Horseshoe Hall at the Paramount Hotel on 46th Street, this confection is the most unabashedly mindless, sensuous, decadent — and spectacular — of all the nightlife entertainments I've seen. The floor show combines the familiar Cirque du Soleil blend of circus and comedy in a themed design concept by Randy Weiner with infusions of pageantry, magic tricks, and dance.

The statuesque Katherine Crockett presides over the revels as the Queen of Night, proving late in the evening to be an astonishingly lithe dancer when freed of her glittering royal robes. There also seems to be a Pamina virgin that the Queen is protecting, a Tamino pursuing her, and a Sarastro who occasionally emcees, but connections with Mozart's Magic Flute are no more substantial than those of Sleep No More to Macbeth.

Yet this experience is so much richer and seductive because so much more is going on — and because the performers engage the audience so much more directly, beginning with the flute of champagne you're given after you've made your way down the old ornate staircase into the hall. Canapés and badinage are dispensed to all by wait staff and performers before you're eventually guided to your table, which will depend on whether you've opted for the gala, the premium, or the ultimate package.

At a dramatic midpoint of the floor show, to a loud clanging of percussion, dinner is paraded out to the audience. The main attractions — choose one or all — are lobsters in cages, hickory smoked short ribs with marrowbones, and a phalanx of suckling pigs roasted on skewers. Carving and serving are all handled by the corps of servers, supervised by director of food performance Jennifer Rubell. Salad, white and red wines, and dessert are also in every package.

Disposal of the feast is a decadent delight but not nearly as naughty as dessert service. I was summoned by a comely waitress to the ramp connecting the main stage to the acrobats' circle before I knew what would happen. Between her dangling legs I stood obediently as she spoonfed me from a gooey chocolate hazelnut cake — while the rest of the folk seated at our table formed a line behind me.

As for the acrobatics, anyone who saw Traces when it originated here in Charlotte seven years ago — or afterwards when it resurfaced in Chicago, off-Broadway, and at Spoleto Festival — doesn't need my recommendation of the formidable Les 7 Doigts de la Main troupe, whose praises I've also sung in the recent Broadway revival of Pippin. Most spectacular for me was a running, somersaulting plunge through a narrow hoop that itself was spinning slowly in the center of the circle at the end of that ramp. Just to underscore the difficulty of this feat, the acrobat narrowly missed on his first attempt, presumably on purpose. (Through March 29)

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Every Brilliant Thing (***1/4) — If you're reading this online, what I'm about to say won't surprise you: lists are very popular. The title of Duncan Macmillan's little play refers to the name of a list his hero gives to his mother when he is seven years old – after her first suicide attempt. Each item on the list – ice cream, rollercoasters – is something that makes life worth living, and his mother's chronic depression is a prime reason the list must continue to grow. For if you haven't experienced a battle with depression, he tells us, you haven't been paying attention.

So as the years pass, the list becomes an increasingly voluminous talisman in our narrator's own life. Jonny Donahoe, who also helped with the writing, plays him – and assorted other characters – with a winsome affability and tenderness, breaking the fourth wall so often that Every Brilliant Thing doesn't seem like a one-man show.

Before we even begin, Donahoe is out in the audience distributing a considerable number of individual brilliant things from his list to various audience members, who will read them on cue when Donahoe calls out their numbers. Several others take on supporting roles in the story – with some comically fussy directing from the star – including a school counselor, the vet who puts down the boy's puppy and, in an engaging reversal, the boy himself as Donahoe switches to his dad.

Two actors whom I recognized turned down the opportunity to participate, which takes me to the chief defect of this kind of approach as directed by George Perrin. More than one of the audience members who did play cameos during the 60-minute show lacked the self-possession and experience to make themselves consistently heard by the rest of us.

Yet by the end of the hour, the list of brilliant things – with the oldest of them repeated more than once – becomes like a litany. Even before Donahoe reaches the last nostalgic item of his list, the words we've read back to him are as much the responses of a church or synagogue congregation as they are lines in a play. The calls from our list maker are the joys and agonies of living, and the responses, beyond the words and the sound of our voices, are a palpable collective empathy. (Through March 29)

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Soul Doctor (***1/4) — Shlomo Carlebach already had a strong Jewish following in the early 1960s, enough to excite my young classmates at the prospect of a Shlomo concert at our Yeshiva in Queens. So it was a little surprising to discover, in this bio-musical blessed by his daughters, Neshama and Nedara, that opposition and rage against the prolific songwriter by Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn was already highly enflamed. And he had a relationship — musical, platonic, or otherwise — with blues and civil rights icon Nina Simone? I had no idea.

Nor did it occur to me that Rabbi Carlebach was jamming in Greenwich Village with such folkies as Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. Makes sense, though, since he unexpectedly popped at the Berkeley Folk Festival in 1966. Even more shocking, to Hasidic and Orthodox Jews alike, Shlomo went totally West Coast, founding a communal House of Love and Prayer in San Fran during the following year. Reb Carlebach's whole outreach concept was pretty mind-blowing to me at the time, but very '60s.

Notwithstanding the blessings from Neshama and Nedara, Daniel S. Wise's book probably exaggerates the family strife between Shlomo, his father, and twin brother Eli Chaim, ignited when the brothers abandon Dad's Orthodox synagogue and embrace the Hasidic experience. Amped with extra drama perhaps, the whole arc of Wise's storyline is very satisfying and ecumenical — chiming with Carlebach's love-in spirit — opening in pre-WW2 in Vienna before the Nazi invasion and closing there affirmatively at a 1972 concert.

Similarly, David Schechter's lyrics, refitting Shlomo's Hebrew originals with English garments, help make the melodies more accessible. Apocryphal or not, involving Nina Simone in the story adds extra spice to the score, and Dan'yelle Williamson is sensational torching "I Put a Spell on You" and "Sinnerman." My rating for this show, however, presumes you'll have better luck with the casting than we did. On Christmas night, Josh Nelson stepped out for one show. He was replaced in the starring role by Jacob Heimer, the customary Eli Chaim, a bland performer lacking the requisite fervor. As for schmaltzy flavoring, directors Al Samuels and Ron Lindley don't seem even slightly familiar with the concept.

A few of the songs do retain the "mama lashon" in their lyrics. That's most effective when Williamson and Heimer sing "Ki Va Moed" ("The Time Has Come") at a Gospel Church — about as close to Hair as a Hasid could devise. Another rendition of that tune occurs when Shlomo and Nina first meet in a piano bar where she's performing. The weird sexy chastity of that scene is absolutely unique.

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Wiesenthal (***1/4) — Simon Wiesenthal certainly knew that the Holocaust was real. He survived imprisonment in several of the infamous Nazi death camps and lost 89 relatives to the ovens. What distinguished Wiesenthal from other survivors who tried to heal their wartime scars — or who bore witness to the horrors and the inhumanity — was his implacable determination to track down the perpetrators and bring them to justice. Simon notched some 1100 war criminals on his belt before he hung it up.

Instead of the heartless, merciless, vengeful Javert you might expect to see, Tom Dugan has written a one-man show for himself that introduces an enfeebled 94-year-old Wiesenthal at his office in the Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna. This is his last day before he retires, and we are his last group of visitors. Yes, he's feisty and cranky at times. In fact, he's still desperately — and cunningly — working his phone and trying to hunt down one last war criminal before quitting time.

And of course, he's sharing his story with us — plus the odd sandwich, if you're down in first row. Among his most memorable anecdotes, Wiesenthal talks about the disappointing banality of Adolf Eichmann, the most celebrated catch during his Nazi hunting career, and about the infuriating acquittal of The Butcher of Vilna. Weisenthal is unexpectedly proud of how he tracked down the police officer who arrested Anne Frank, because it helped to disprove the naysayers across Europe who would tell their children that Anne and the Holocaust are fairytales.

Besides pacifying a nagging wife over the phone and schmoozing with the audience, Wiesenthal also cracks a few jokes during his last 90 minutes on the job. Most touchingly of all, he ultimately trusts us to carry on his work. So as the screaming of Holocaust deniers grows shriller and the last survivors perish, a poignant question hangs in the air: will we prove worthy of his trust?

After a very convincing and thought-provoking portrayal, Dugan gets out of makeup, straightens his back, and comes out onstage for a talkback after every performance. There can be no doubting his dedication to his educational mission. (Through February 22)

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50 Shades! The Musical Parody (***) — The success of E.L. James's Fifty Shades of Grey has been so ginormous that it has spawned two musical parodies that have already played in Charlotte. I didn't see Spank! The Fifty Shades Parody! until its second go-round in Charlotte back in 2013, so I couldn't warn people how lame and timid it was. This current off-Broadway parody, written and scored by a team of six, only sports one exclamation point in its title, but outshines — or outfilths — its predecessor in every other way.

The frame for this wallow is somewhat similar to Spank! with three matronly women choosing Shades to pep up their book club. But there's no squeamishness about plunging into the story. You're just not going to get a dashing dreamboat as Christian Grey, the S&M dominator who demolishes Anastasia Steele's innocence and virginity. Instead we get an ultra-conceited Jack Boice, a man whose badly distributed bulk can do the most atrocious things to a men's wrestling singlet that I've ever witnessed.

What's so hysterical is that the zaftig Amber Petty as Anastasia still worships and submits to this slightly effeminate butterball as if he were the godly Adonis himself. "There is a hole inside me!" she croons in Act 1. Yet in Act 2, after she has been defiled, dominated, and humiliated, she is a changed woman: "There was a hole inside me!" she croons.

About the only disappointment here, for the men in the audience, is how surprisingly respectful 50 Shades! turns out to be toward the five women in the cast. They are never once objectified or degraded as we might hope. I mean fear. But the 50 Shades! team knows their audience, addressing us at the outset as "Ladies and the gentlemen they dragged here with them." In Alec Varcas, portraying Christian's brother Elliot, the partying women — overwhelmingly, the majority of the crowd — get a hunky Grey as compensation for Boice. Tim Murray as Ana's Latin admirer Jose and Tim Murray as the bodyguard Taylor provide additional pounds of flesh. Or might that be beefcake?

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Drunk Shakespeare (***) — A floor up from 50 Shades! at the bordello-like Times Square Arts Center, you can join "a drinking club with a Shakespeare problem." First, they give you a drink. Then you scramble for seats around coffee tables and cocktail tables on the main floor. Otherwise, you nestle between the two rows of bookshelves surrounding the floor, two or three steps up, which give the room its clubby feel. Fellow members of the Drunk Shakespeare Society, cast members mingle with the audience and make everyone feel welcome before the initiation rites.

A king and queen will preside over the revels, an honor determined by auction. The king can wield his scepter three times during the performance and subject the lead performer to a challenge. Fair enough, since the lead player du jour on the night we went, Whit Leyenberger as Macbeth, issued capricious decrees to the other cast members. Chris Gebauer had to enter as a different Sesame Street character with each new cameo, and Julia Giolzetti had to insert a song lyric into every scene she played.

Before these twists and improvs can commence, the lead player must down three shots of his or her favorite booze, served on a silver platter. An eager member of the audience got to authenticate the octane of the beverage by sampling her choice among the four shot glasses that actually arrived. Penalty for not fulfilling the three challenges during the tragedy was having to pour down another shot. Not enough? The lead witch brewed up a concoction for her Act 4 encounter with Macbeth that included every liquor at our coffee table: a cocktail, the remainder of somebody's beer, the two shots Sue and I hadn't tasted, and another shot or two for good measure.

Yep, by picking up order cards at the bar, you satisfy your ethanol needs during the mock tragedy without the slightest inconvenience to the players or the bartenders. Interaction between actors and audience — er, club members — keeps flowing throughout the performance, as the beer-bellied guy who obligingly stripped to his waist would attest. Unlike the Reduced Shakespeare lampooners, who pretend to be ignorant of the Bard, these Drunken Shakespeare cut-ups will actually hit you with genuine iambic pentameters from time to time. The set pieces are often wildly hip and imaginative, especially Lady Macbeth's mad scene, when only the flashlights on the audience's cell phones light the darkened room.

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Sleep No More (**1/4) — Granddaddy of the trendy new nightlife shows, produced at the reclaimed and renovated McKittrick Hotel down on West 27th Street, Sleep No More was wildly acclaimed when it first opened in 2011. This dimly-lit, elaborately choreographed fantasia inspired by Macbeth still retains considerable cachet among the youthful audience it serves, but it really has been eclipsed by its more audience-friendly descendants.

As you enter a cozy little jazz club that serves as a holding area for the massing audience, you're given a somewhat surreal duck mask to wear. After vowing silence, you're turned loose into a three-story space and left to experience the creation of directors Felix Barrett and Maxine Doyle on your own — in any order that you please. Until you encounter the dancers choreographed by Doyle, you're immersed in an elaborate installation that combines an on-target evocation of gloomy Birnam Wood with an off-kilter restoration of mundane institutional living quarters and offices — the sort of thing that's actually relevant in Then She Fell.

When you do encounter the Shakespearean characters, it's up to you to figure out who's who and what's happening. Not so easy when Barrett and Doyle are constructing back stories that aren't in the text for assorted characters — or twisting the original beyond recognition. You thought Macbeth was slain by Macduff on the battlefield in Dunsinane? Guess again.

A huge banquet scene helps to identify which of the dancers is Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Banquo, and Duncan. When the lights go down on this slo-mo dream, the dancers disperse, and herds of ducks scurry after them through the course of the three-hour production, up the stairs or down the stairs, depending on whom you follow. Cued by Stephen Dobbie's sound design, the dancers don't slow down for stragglers to catch up. For oldsters like me, that meant I occasionally didn't know which floor the herd had been led to, let alone which room.

Clueless about how to take in Sleep No More, I grew frustrated when I found myself at scenes I'd seen before — or at the tail-end of scenes I'd mostly missed. Aside from the grand finale, according to Doyle, the show is run in three "repeat cycles." Somewhere past the two-hour mark, I grew weary of rushing up and down the stairway. After witnessing the ballroom scene for a second time (you didn't know there was a ballroom scene?), I just sat there, finding myself mildly amused by the waves of obedient ducks gliding in different directions through the dark.

What really set my teeth on edge, once the show ended (truly spectacularly, I'll admit), was my experience back at the little jazz club before heading to reclaim my coat. A woman stood by the door brandishing a souvenir program for $20. Purchase a program and you'll find out how to see the show in the correct sequence when you come back! In my case, that's not happening.

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