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Review Roundup: DANA H. Opens on Broadway

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Dana H. runs on a rotating schedule with Is This a Room at the Lyceum Theatre.

Dana H

Dana H., by Obie Award winner Lucas Hnath and directed by Obie Award winner Les Waters, opens tonight, October 17, at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre, playing on a rotating schedule with Is This a Room.

Deirdre O'Connell reprises her Obie Award-winning performance for t. for "Dana H."

Dana H. tells the harrowing true story of a woman held captive in a series of Florida motels for five months. Told in Dana's own words and reconstructed for the stage by her son, playwright Lucas Hnath, this groundbreaking work shatters the boundaries of the art form and challenges our understanding of good and evil.

Let's see what the critics had to say...

Jesse Green, New York Times: Call it Thriller Karaoke, a form in which the story is almost as dangerous as the mode of storytelling. You worry that O'Connell will fall out of sync with the recording, which never stops once the play begins. Gradually, though, as her inerrancy becomes clear, you let go of that concern and switch to related ones: Why tell the story this way in the first place? What do you get from the astonishing feat, besides astonishment, that you wouldn't get if the same material had been acted out as it might be in a typically effective television procedural?

Adam Feldman, TimeOut, New York: Watching Dana H. is like listening to a fascinating true-crime podcast, and part of the interest is in the mysteries that adhere to Dana's account, which may be distorted by trauma and time. There are things she can't explain about what happened to her, and at times you wonder what she is leaving out or, perhaps, what Hnath has chosen not to include; wrestling with your response to Dana as a narrator is part of what makes the play so resonant. This is a woman of resilient Christian faith but also a woman with a dark side-she casually mentions having dabbled in Satanism-and a complicated history. (She was "pretty well prepped" for the physical abuse she suffered at Jim's hands, she says, by the beatings she received as a child.) And she's a survivor, but not completely. By the end of Dana H., you understand why she now works in hospice care, providing final comfort to people on the edge of death. Having been through hell, she carries demons with her still. She's self-possessed.

Greg Evans, Deadline: I mentioned that the actress here - the magnificent Deirdre O'Connell -doesn't speak, but that's not entirely accurate, but I was reluctant to use the phrase "lip-sync" too early. The art form's usual connotation of comedy and/or deception doesn't apply here. Mouthing the words of actual interview tape recordings in which Higginbotham opens up about her ordeal, O'Connell and Dana H. convey both the specifics of one woman's trauma and something universal about the all-encompassing nature of abuse and its survival.

Helen Shaw, Vulture: Despite its well-honed beauty (Paul Toben sends a perfect sunset through those curtains), it's hard to measure Dana H. as a theatrical object. You can say O'Connell's performance is piercing, since it's dazzling on an artistic level, but there's also a quality of witness in what she's doing, which moves it beyond evaluation. The "story" too has suspense, motion, revelation, exposition-all the components that critics like to tick off with their little pencils-though I came away staggered, finding that mode of critique very thin. Yet the truth isn't the whole story here either: This is not just a podcast or a dressed-up episode of This American Life. Waters, Hnath and O'Connell have made something intensely theatrical that reaches devastating emotional heights. All their distancing strategies have the paradoxical effect of drawing us close. We see the mask, but it makes us even more aware that somewhere, reality is crying out beneath it.

Frank Rizzo, Variety: Hnath has expertly crafted a piece of theater that is both raw and authentic yet at the same time one of artifice, and it is in this in-between plane that the audience lives. There is no hiding the fact that this is a lip-synced piece based on the recordings of many days of interviews by dramaturg Steve Cosson. At the show's start, O'Connell is clearly outfitted on stage with an ear-piece and given a quick sound check. There are electronic beeps throughout, as a reminder that this is an edited, recorded work. Supertitles add information and separate the three acts of the narration.

Robert Hofler, The Wrap: Within the first 30 minutes of this 75-minute drama, you may find yourself asking, as I did, "Well, why didn't she do this?" Or "Why did she do that?" to escape earlier. Or, "Is she making this up?" The power of Hnath's play - the playwright adapted the interviews conducted by Steve Cosson - is the dark alternate reality it creates. Soon after her abduction, Dana left the world we know, that she herself knew, to enter another. The old rules of behavior or ways of looking at strangers no longer applied. Dana escaped the Aryan Brotherhood, but has never been able to return to the real world or, at least, the world she knew before her long, horrifying ordeal.

Tim Teeman, Daily Beast: It is not just lip-syncing, though, which implies a very basic act of impersonation or mimicry. For one, O'Connell masters every rustle, movement of the body, caught breath, laugh, rise of emotion. Every sound that is on tape, every pause, everything is replicated by her. But she also inhabits the character of Higginbotham commandingly too, sitting there, facing us.

David Finkle, New York Stage Review: Maybe not the first observation to make about Dana H., playwright Lucas Hnath's new piece, is that it contains an unforgettable feat. All the same, I'm going to observe it. Throughout, Deirdre O'Connell, a New York City actress not nearly as celebrated as she deserves to be, pulls off an unusually astounding accomplishment. (The awards she's already amassed during her career must be near to collapsing a home shelf.) For the overwhelming part of 80 minutes, O'Connell lip-syncs a testimony that playwright Hnath's mother gave some time ago about her life, a life marked dramatically by a terrifying episode from which she still hasn't recovered. For that matter, she isn't entirely convinced it happened.

Melissa Rose Bernardo, New York Stage Review: What if I told you that the best acting on Broadway is coming from a woman who doesn't utter a single word? As you might have heard, in Lucas Hnath's Dana H.-now on Broadway after runs in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York at off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre-the dynamite Deirdre O'Connell lip-syncs every bit of dialogue. In another ingenious turn, that dialogue itself is cut together from multiple 2015 interviews between Hnath's mother, Dana Higginbotham, and Steve Cosson, artistic director of The Civilians.

Jonathan Mandell, New York Theater: "Dana H." is unlike any play you've ever seen on Broadway. It's 75 minutes of an actress sitting on a chair, lip-syncing to a tape of a woman recounting the horrific story of a deranged criminal in Florida abducting her and terrorizing her for five months. Those intrigued by the show might have some basic questions: Is this really theater? Is the story really true? Is it really worth paying up to $199 per ticket to see? I don't have definitive answers for you. But I left the Lyceum exhilarated, thinking: This was an incredible work of theater. Then I thought more about it. What makes "Dana H." exhilarating, I realized, is the performance by Deirdre O'Connell.

Noah Pattillo, Theatrely: O'Connell's performance was unlike anything I've ever seen on the stage. After the initial novelty of the lipsycing wears off, it becomes impossible to believe that O'Connell is not the one speaking these lines. Her performance is nuanced and never passive. Director Les Waters' staging is simple-Dana tells the story sitting in a comfy chair against the backdrop of a classic Floridan motel room (scenic design Andrew Boyce).

Charle Isherwood, Broadway News: Something of a grande dame of Off Broadway - although I suspect she'd roll her expressive eyes at the notion - O'Connell here gives a performance that seamlessly blends an extraordinary technical acting challenge with the earthiness, plucky everywoman humanity and the subtle spirituality that have often been hallmarks of her work. Both play and performance are a gift we are lucky to receive, as this Broadway season shapes up to be a landmark one for its presentation of unconventional new plays and revelatory performances.

David Cote, The Observer: It's hard to imagine a performer more suited than O'Connell for such a meticulous symphony of pain, regret, damage-all grounded in oceanic empathy and strength. O'Connell's trademark aura is Aunt Who Has Seen Some Shit: She's twelve-stepped, gotten out of a cult, probably pulled a gun. This outstanding actress, incapable of an inauthentic moment, uses her repertoire of weary smiles, fleeting winces, grimaces and wry humor to blend seamlessly with the audio track.

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