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Sunday Morning Michael Dale: Witnessing History with All The Mournful Voices and Getting a History Lesson with Citizen Wong

Plus an appreciation for The Minutes' Austin Pendleton and the uproarious humor of To My Girls

I can't recall ever feeling so immersed into the world of a play... I was at Invulnerable Nothings' modestly budgeted but richly effective production of Matthew Gasda's All The Mournful Voices, which plays through Friday at Forgotten Works Studio in Dumbo, Brooklyn. (Tickets, $26)

Staged by C.C. Kellogg in a 19th Century brick building originally used as stables, audience members are seated in cushioned chairs and couches that line three walls of a small room fashioned into a tavern, rarely further than a few feet away from the nearest actor. Set/lighting designer Margot Mayer uses no electricity; just gaslight lamps and candles.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale:  Witnessing History with All The Mournful Voices and Getting a History Lesson with Citizen Wong
George Olesky (Photo: Jordan Tiberio)

It's the evening of April 17th,1865, and newspaper headlines scream out the news that President Lincoln was pronounced dead the morning after being shot by John Wilkes Booth. A wounded Union soldier naps at a barrel used as a table until he's awoken by the rantings of an opinionated judge who's keeping the innkeeper occupied.

Their discussions of the state of the country and wartime experiences are interrupted by the arrival of a flamboyant man who calls himself Brutus, who's in a celebratory mood.

There's no traditional plot to the 75-minute piece, but the discussions involving our shared cultural legacies -- through literature, through politics and through bloodshed -- are always intriguing, with the excellent company (George Olesky, Derrick Peterson, Charlie Munn and Jake Robertson) so perfectly playing the extremely intimacy of the room that I could truly see myself as a nearby customer, sitting in a corner of the bar silently observing the quartet.

Five jokes in JC Lee's To My Girls that made me laugh out loud, but I would feel uncomfortable posting here...

1) The song title used in a character's Little Mermaid drag act.

2) The one about Kellyanne Conway and an armadillo and the comment about Brendan Fraser that followed it.

3) The description of pre-hookup conversation.

4) The stuff about an unusually specific gay dating app.

5) The line about Frederick Douglass. (I didn't actually laugh on that one, but my jaw dropped about three feet.)

There are plenty more. But along with the laughs, it's a very touching piece that opened my eyes a bit wider to many issues and points of view concerning gay men that I'm not generally exposed to.

I met Richard Chang over twenty years ago...

...when we were cast in A Night In Elsinore, Richard Nathan's hilarious rewrite of Hamlet as a vehicle for impersonators of The Marx Brothers (Groucho as Hamlet, Chico as Horatio, Harpo as the Ghost), Laurel & Hardy (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), The Three Stooges (The Players) and other classic comedians. Chang played Polonius with a spot-on impersonation of Jackie Mason and brought down the house every night with, "Oy! I am slain!"

(For the record, I got a few laughs myself playing my walk-on roles as Jack Lemmon and Truman Capote.)

Shortly after, Chang incorporated his borscht belt mimicry into his solo comedy, Goy Vey! Adventures of a Dim Sun in Search of his Wanton Father, premiering with the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre. With a long list of acting and playwriting credits in between, he's now back with Pan Asian Rep as the author of Citizen Wong, an absorbing drama mixing fact and fiction, inspired by the life of journalist, activist and lecturer Wong Chin Foo, a 19th Century celebrity known for introducing the term Chinese American while fighting against the legal discrimination that, after a huge number of Chinese laborers came to America to build the Transcontinental Railroad, outlawed Chinese citizenship and further Chinese immigration.

Sunday Morning Michael Dale:  Witnessing History with All The Mournful Voices and Getting a History Lesson with Citizen Wong
Whit K. Lee (Photo: John Quincy Lee)

Whit K. Lee plays the central character as a charismatic firebrand who undercuts the casual racism of others with subtle jabs of wit. In Chang's telling, Wong has a romance with the suffragist daughter of an American industrialist who got rich off of Chinese labor and is now running for president with an exclusionary platform. The play climaxes with the Supreme Court decision in United States v. Wong Kim Ark, regarding the right to citizenship for anyone born in America, giving the title a double meaning.

Ernest Abuba and Chongren Fan co-direct this world premiere engagement that, at this early stage, is an extremely interesting and entertaining history lesson with the potential to develop into a very fine play.

To say that Austin Pendleton is "Miraculously Funny" in Tracy Letts' The Minutes...

...might be a bit of embarrassing hyperbole; not to mention a cringeworthy reference to his fame for introducing the popular showtune "Miracle of Miracles" as Fiddler On The Roof's original Motel.

Playing the longest-serving member of a seemingly unremarkable community's city council, Pendleton's role is mostly made up of random utterances during a play-length meeting that display an erratic connection to any of the proceedings at hand.

It would be more appropriate to say he gives an acting lesson in underplaying absurdity for its greatest effect, since, along with his lengthy list of credits as a Broadway and Off-Broadway actor and director, Pendleton is also a beloved New York stage figure for his many years as a teacher at HB Studios and The New School, and is sometimes seen around town appearing with in Off-Off Broadway productions and showcases.

In The Minutes, he's part of a fantastic ensemble, that includes the playwright himself, along with Blair Brown, Jessie Mueller, Noah Reid, Sally Murphy, Jeff Still, Danny McCarthy, K. Todd Freeman, Cliff Chamberlain and Ian Barford, under Anna D. Shapiro's pinpoint direction.

I spent most of the play enjoying the comical proceedings as a gentle spoof of local politics, a rather timeless topic of American humor. But then, the subtext of many of the jokes and situations start to surface and the play suddenly turns into something that, while still timeless, is more in touch with the contemporary American conversation. And that's when The Minutes turn from being an enjoyable comedy into an important commentary.

Curtain Line...

He's far too shallow for Wasserstein plays.

He thinks commitment means just a few days.

He likes a wine list that's all beaujolais.

That's why the gentleman is a dope.

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