×

Off Broadway Review: ‘Men on Boats’

With:
Kelly McAndrew, Kristen Sieh, Elizabeth Kenny, Birgit Huppuch, Danielle Davenport, Jocelyn Bioh, Donnetta Lavinia Grays.

The rationale for casting an ensemble of actresses to enact Major John Wesley Powell’s 1869 Colorado River expedition eludes me. But as penned by Jaclyn Backhaus and directed by Will Davis, “Men On Boats” is off-the-canyon-walls funny. A joint Off Broadway production of Clubbed Thumb and Playwrights Horizons, the show combines the playful inventiveness of the former with the theatrical discipline of the latter. Paddle or portage your own boat to the theater — but get there.

Davis’s abstract staging is its own quirky treat. The four boats for the 1869 expedition — undertaken by the one-armed explorer Major John Wesley Powell (Kelly McAndrew, gruff-voiced and authoritative) — are represented by wooden wedges pushed like hand-plows by the lead boatmen. The steep canyon walls are suggested by still photos projected on the side and back walls of the small stage.

That leaves the swells and rapids encountered on this dangerous journey for the actors to create in their amusingly melodramatic readings of lines like:  “Left! Keep left! Rocks! Rocks right! Keep left! Rocks! Rocks!”  This is a lot more exciting — and considerably more fun — than it sounds in print.

The ensemble players really throw themselves, so to speak, into their roles. (In capsizing accidents, the loss of a side of bacon becomes more tragic than the loss of a human life.) The scrappy hunter and trapper William Dunn, who also wants to be remembered as an innovator, is played with a nice swagger by Kristen Sieh. Elizabeth Kenny is delightfully dour as Old Shady, Powell’s older brother and a Civil War vet. Danielle Davenport combines brains and bravado for Hall, the all-important mapmaker. And Donnetta Lavinia Grays has the right stuff to play the adventurer John Colton Sumner, who made a snowshoeing trek in the Rocky Mountains just to say he did it.

Popular on Variety

The playwright says she based her play on Powell’s published journals of his historic expedition, the first sanctioned by the U.S. government, to chart the course of the Colorado. Why this captured her imagination — and why she wrote her play to be performed by actors of “fluid” race and gender — isn’t revealed in the production. But it does give one pause.

One thing must be said, however, about the gender role reversal: It inspired some stunning costumes from Asta Bennie Hostetter. Working from a basic palette of black and gray with white accents, the designer has fashioned a handsome assortment of manly Western outfits, each suited to the characters who wear them. Major Powell wears a blue suit that looks vaguely like a uniform. Old Shady, the battered old soldier, looks like he’s used to sleeping in his clothes. Sumner, who is always ready for action, carries a thick rope on his belt. Fancy vests and striped trousers are worn by more citified types.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why this show is such fun. It could be the cleverly self-aware dialogue. “We have boats, we have somebody who makes us coffee. We have a map-maker. This is cushy frontiering,” Sumner points out to a fellow adventurer.

The deliberately anachronistic language is also good for a laugh. When the men start fighting over the dwindling tobacco rations, Powell takes a head count of the smokers.  One man casts a half-vote:  “I mean, I smoke when I’m stressed.”

It could be the male bluster and bravado, so ridiculous when women are spouting it. “Our eyes, the eyes of hunters and explorers and land rovers like us,” Powell pontificates.  “Our eyes will be old some day, and new eyes will not see the things we see with such a sheen.” He goes on, rather more insightfully:  “This whole country, built on the idea of newness. Eventually it all gets old.”

Old, maybe — but never boring.

Off Broadway Review: 'Men on Boats'

Playwrights Horizons; 128 seats; $65 top. Opened Aug. 1, 2016. Reviewed July 27. Running time: ONE HOUR, 40 MIN.

Production: A presentation by Playwrights Horizons of the Clubbed Thumb production of a play in one act by Jaclyn Backhaus.

Creative: Directed by Will Davis. Sets, Arnulfo Maldonado; costumes, Asta Bennie Hostetter; lighting, Solomon Weisbard; sound, Jane Shaw; production stage manager, Erin Gioia Albrecht.

Cast: Kelly McAndrew, Kristen Sieh, Elizabeth Kenny, Birgit Huppuch, Danielle Davenport, Jocelyn Bioh, Donnetta Lavinia Grays.

More Legit

  • Grand Horizons review

    'Grand Horizons': Theater Review

    Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this one, as you surely must have: A nice, all-American family is in the process of breaking up and trying to make this sad state of affairs seem funny in Bess Wohl’s Broadway outing “Grand Horizons.” After 50 years of marriage, Nancy (the ever-elegant Jane Alexander) and Bill (the [...]

  • Uncle Vanya review

    'Uncle Vanya': Theater Review

    Director Ian Rickson has had success with Chekhov in the past. His exquisitely balanced, tragicomic production of “The Seagull” (2007 in London, 2008 on Broadway) was well-nigh flawless with, among others, Kristin Scott Thomas as painfully vulnerable as she was startlingly funny. Sadly, with his production of “Uncle Vanya,” despite felicities in the casting, lightning [...]

  • The Welkin review

    'The Welkin': Theater Review

    A life hanging perilously in the balance of charged-up, polarized opinions: This courtroom drama could easily have been titled “Twelve Angry Women.” But playwright Lucy Kirkwood (“Chimerica,” “The Children”) is far too strong and imaginative a writer for so hand-me-down a cliché. Instead she opts for “The Welkin,” an old English term for the vault [...]

  • Tina Fey attends the "Mean Girls"

    Tina Fey Announces Movie Adaptation of Broadway's 'Mean Girls' Musical

    It’s good to be mean…the “Mean Girls” musical, that is. Producers of the hit Broadway show announced today that the Tony-nominated production is being adapted for the big screen for Paramount Pictures. The musical is based on the 2004 movie of the same name. “I’m very excited to bring ‘Mean Girls’ back to the big screen,’ Tina Fey, [...]

  • Freestyle Love Supreme

    Watch Lin-Manuel Miranda and 'Freestyle Love Supreme' in Exclusive Clip From Sundance Documentary

    Before turning “Hamilton” and “In the Heights” into musical phenomenons, Lin-Manuel Miranda could have been found on stage, spouting off-the-cuff rhymes with his improv group, “Freestyle Love Supreme.” After performing across the globe, the troupe — founded 15 years ago by Miranda, his frequent collaborator Thomas Kail and emcee Anthony Veneziale — made its Broadway [...]

  • Ariana Grande 7 Rings

    Rodgers & Hammerstein Are Having a Moment Thanks to Ariana Grande, 'Oklahoma!'

    Jaws dropped when it was revealed that the late musical theater titans Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were granted 90% of the songwriting royalties on “7 Rings,” Ariana Grande’s 2019 No. 1 hit. The dominant motif of Grande’s song is taken from “My Favorite Things,” the cornerstone of R&H’s 1959 musical “The Sound of [...]

  • A Soldiers Play review

    'A Soldier's Play': Theater Review

    Now, that’s what I call a play! Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “A Soldier’s Play,” now being revived on Broadway by Roundabout Theatre Company, packs plenty of dramatic tension into smoldering issues of racial justice and injustice, military honor and dishonor, and the solemn struggle to balance their harrowing demands on characters who are only [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content