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Review Roundup: Audra McDonald Stars In OHIO STATE MURDERS On Broadway

Review Roundup: Audra McDonald Stars In OHIO STATE MURDERS On Broadway

Adrienne Kennedy's Ohio State Murders is an intriguing and unusual suspense play, as well as a social pertinent look at the destructiveness of racism in our society.

Ohio State Murders officially opens tonight on Broadway. Starring Emmy, Grammy, and Six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald and directed by Tony Award winner Kenny LeonOhio State Murders is the first show to play at the renamed and renovated James Earl Jones Theatre. Read the reviews!

Ohio State Murders also stars Tony Award Nominee Bryce Pinkham (A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder), Drama Desk nominee Lizan Mitchell (On Sugarland, Trojan Women), Mister Fitzgerald, and Abigail Stephenson, with understudies Brett DiggsBrooke GardnerChristian Pedersen and Gayle Samuels.

When writer Suzanne Alexander (Audra McDonald) returns to her alma mater as a guest speaker, in which she explores the violence in her works, a dark mystery unravels. Adrienne Kennedy's Ohio State Murders is an intriguing and unusual suspense play, as well as a social pertinent look at the destructiveness of racism in our society.

The creative team for Ohio State Murders includes set design by Beowulf Boritt, costume design by Dede Ayite, lighting design by Allen Lee Hughes, sound design by Justin Ellington, projection design by Jeff Sugg, wig/hair/make-up design by J. Jared Janas, original music by Dwight Andrews and casting by Caparelliotis Casting.

 

Thumbs Up Jesse Green, The New York Times: Kennedy, it seems, aims to forbid us the ease and release of a traditional scene, just as she has prescribed a conceptual set that in Beowulf Boritt’s rather stiff interpretation represents all locations and furniture as a tumble of library shelves full of law tomes. But McDonald is incapable of nonemotion; her performance builds to a shattering catharsis that may in some ways be unauthorized. Leon, too, works smartly against the grain of the play. In thoughtfully mimed vignettes, he shows us that the other characters, beautifully enacted if with little to say, are not just puppets of Suzanne’s memory but living creatures with their own struggles. They are lit (by Allen Lee Hughes) and costumed (by Dede Ayite) less forbiddingly than the script might lead you to expect, and accompanied by sound and music (by Justin Ellington and Dwight Andrews) that admits other emotions to the horror. Even the babies are touchingly represented: slips of pink fabric, delicate as scarves and as easily lost.

Thumbs Up Adam Feldman, Time Out New York: In director Kenny Leon’s thoughtful production, Beowulf Boritt’s set suggests a storm of research-library shelves, some suspended in midair and some half-buried in the ground, as though Suzanne existed in both the midst of catastrophe and the ruins of one. The forces stacked against her extend to the back wall of the stage, which is gashed by a craggy ravine—the site of a winter homicide—behind which snow descends continuously. The chills that periodically shoot through this play are part of the same cold front as the steady, muffling whiteness that falls gently in its background.

Thumbs Sideways Greg Evans, Deadline: Unlike previous stagings of the play, Off Broadway and elsewhere, the Broadway production features McDonald as both the younger and older versions of Suzanne, and here the actor is a marvel, conveying a student’s excitement with a heady new world that she’ll soon learn doesn’t want her, and as an accomplished author whose success can’t outrun her grief. It’s in the portrayal of those contrasts that McDonald finds something close to perfection in a flawed production.

Thumbs Up Naveen Kumar, Variety: McDonald is also performing a double role — playing both present-day and college-age Suzanne, where previous productions have cast two actors. It’s another means of showing how fresh decades-old wounds can feel, and their lifelong reverberations, while taking full advantage of McDonald’s versatility. Leon’s production presents a bold, and unmistakable, visual representation of Kennedy’s argument for literature and imagination as both proof of human horror and an essential escape from it. The set design by Beowulf Boritt, a suspended cascade of bookshelves, sharply lit by Allen Lee Hughes, might be too on the nose were it not so startlingly beautiful. By any obvious measure, Kennedy’s arrival on Broadway in her ninth decade is long overdue. Commercial theater has not generally been the most fertile ground for daring, confrontational work that spotlights the voices and experiences of the most marginalized. But when an exception takes root, with a team of artists as visionary as these, it’s certainly worth the wait.

Thumbs Up Charles Isherwood, The Wall Street Journal: I spent a restless, almost sleepless night after seeing the play, haunted by its peculiar, unsettling power. Encountering a great work of art can be as disorienting as it is rewarding. “Ohio State Murders” leaves a lasting imprint—I picture a bloody handprint—on what for lack of a better term I’ll call the soul.

Thumbs Up Johnny Oleksinski, The New York Post: McDonald is an actress who radiates optimism and smiles often. And that positivity makes her agonized characters, such as Suzanne, absolutely fascinating to behold. From start to finish, there is an engrossing battle raging within the academic. Suzanne is desperate not to show her cards, at first, because that means the oppressive world will have won. Even after a terrible event befalls her, she refuses to leave Columbus. She’s full of stoic determination. McDonald smartly finds contrarian moments for her careful professorial facade to crack and each and every one is affecting. When her gleaming face suddenly turns hurt, cold, angry or lifeless, it has a big, wordless punch. The lion’s share of the show is hers, but Pinkham, who’s best known for his roles in musicals, has a striking scene. During another lecture late in the play, as Suzanne looks on with a polar opposite facial expression this time, his eyes are so red and strained it looks like he hasn’t slept in days. It’s simple but scary.

Thumbs Up Robert Hofler, The Wrap: Hers is clearly a performance that goes beyond the written words in the script. McDonald’s performance also has that veracity that comes from basing her character on a living person, in this case, Kennedy herself. The actor replicates the playwright’s halting, carefully modulated delivery. It’s as if McDonald is rewriting every line a few times before she actually says it out loud. “Ohio State Murders” features four other actors, but as powerfully staged here by Leon, it is a one-person show starring McDonald.

Thumbs Up Chris Jones, The New York Daily News: Kenny Leon’s production focuses a bit too much on memory and not enough on the imagined present, to my mind. The tension that Kennedy built into the piece would be more palpable if, for a second, we believe that Hampshire will be good for Suzanne, but the conclusions here always appear foregone. If Pinkham softened his character some in the early stages of the piece, that would help bring about the twisting agony of disappointed expectations. But McDonald, clearly laboring of love here, is just wonderful in this part. On Beowulf Borit’s fractured, dislocated set, she shares her final bow with an image of Kennedy, a prescient writer, perhaps born too soon in America but still having flourished, notwithstanding all that her now regretful university put in her way.

Thumbs Up Brittani Samuel, Broadway News: Kennedy’s script extends beyond institutional racism and delves into the depths of systemic savagery. It exposes the insidious nature of supremacy on Black and white people — neither race spared from madness. But these gargantuan concepts exhaust audiences because of Leon’s unheightened direction. To be fair, “Ohio” is more a play of reactions than action — a challenge to stage effectively. The other characters that populate Suzanne’s memory of the Midwest — roommate Iris Ann (Abigail Stephenson), eventual husband David Alexander (Mister Fitzgerald), landlord Mrs. Tyler (Lizan Mitchell) — only enter to cry, play violin or gaze into the wings. But Leon hardly has McDonald touch her silent scene mates, limiting the potential for onstage intimacy between characters. Instead, his rigid blocking of these extra characters is tiresome. In fact, McDonald’s greatest emotional connection is with two pink scarves meant to symbolize Suzanne’s twin girls.

Thumbs Sideways Gloria Oladipo, The Guardian: With Kenny Leon’s direction, Alexander’s recollections are rarely muddled. Innovative lighting design by Allen Lee Hughes means the story’s weaving timelines remain clear as Alexander moves through the present time of her speech and the past of her memory. Kennedy further teases us along with reminders that Alexander’s remembrances will be expanded on later. But as a piece, Ohio State Murders lacks a higher calling. Ohio State Murders works best as a reflection of Alexander’s emotional experience, not as a “whodunnit” about her daughter’s murder. The murderer central to the play is named halfway through. With such suspense slackened, the focus should be on Alexander’s emotional experience and thinking.

Thumbs Up Bob Verini, New York Stage Review: A Zoom reading of the play during the pandemic immersed McDonald in the material, and director Kenny Leon has planted her amidst a first-rate physical production. Beowulf Boritt’s set incorporates reality and fancy much as Kennedy does. Suzanne is surrounded by law library volumes, for instance, but the shelves are overhead and askew like cards thrown into the air in Alice in Wonderland. It’s a snowy day in Columbus, but we see the constant flakes through a gaping gash in the black back wall, the shavings of a consciousness being deconstructed before our eyes. Allen Lee Hughes’ lighting subtly ushers us through mists of pain and memory, with Jeff Sugg’s deftly chosen projections illustrating historical moments.

Thumbs Up Jonathan Mandell, New York Theater: If I were a producer of this play in a 1,000-seat Broadway theater charging a top ticket price of $200+, I too would surely want to focus as much attention as possible on Audra McDonald, who is an undeniable crowd-pleaser and gives her all, as usual. McDonald is an actress whose emotions emerge from her depths to play out so powerfully and transparently on the surface that we can’t help but share in them. I couldn’t help wondering though: Would a separate, numbed-out Suzanne have been more effective?

Thumbs Up Michael Musto, Village Voice: As directed by Tony winner Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun, with our star), McDonald is pretty much the whole show, and the result is the rare theater outing where I never heard a single cell phone ringing or even a cough. I wish I could say that the entire evening was substantial enough to deserve that kind of reverence, but as an unnerving glimpse into a dark time—and an update on the continuing legend of Audra—Ohio State Murders is still welcome on Broadway. The curtain call climaxes with McDonald, playing the author, pointing to a slide projection of the play’s actual author. Author, author!

Thumbs Up
Average Rating: 80.0%

 

To read more reviews, click here!

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Audra McDonald appeared on The TODAY Show this morning to discuss appearing on Broadway in Ohio State Murders and filming the upcoming second season of The Gilded Age. McDonald also discussed the difference between Ohio State Murders and A Beautiful Noise, in which her husband, Will Swenson, stars as Neil Diamond. Watch the video now!

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While on The View, Audra McDonald discussed Adrienne Kennedy's Broadway debut at 91 and why Ohio State Murders is her hardest role yet. McDonald also discussed why her stage fright as gotten worse, her husband Will Swenson's Neil Diamond impression, and the new season of The Gilded Age. Watch the new interview video now!


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