You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Off Broadway Review: ‘Men on Boats’

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

  • Jagged Little Pill review

    Broadway Review: 'Jagged Little Pill'

    Nearly 25 years after “Jagged Little Pill” hit the shelves of record stores, Alanis Morissette’s innovative 1995 album has arrived on Broadway under the muscular direction of Diane Paulus, who launched this galvanic production at the American Repertory Theater. The show’s supportive book by screenwriter Diablo Cody interprets Morissette’s musical idiom as a universal domestic [...]

  • Claire Warden

    Listen: Let's Talk About Sex Onstage

    The craft of intimacy direction is taking Broadway by storm — and on the latest episode of Variety’s Stagecraft, Broadway’s first intimacy director explains why, and breaks down the ways in which she’s helping to revolutionize how actors get intimate onstage. Listen to this week’s podcast below: Warden, whose credits this season include “Jagged Little [...]

  • Dan Stevens

    Mark Addy, Dan Stevens Head Broadway Cast of 'Hangmen'

    Mark Addy and Dan Stevens will appear in the Broadway premiere of Martin McDonagh’s “Hangmen.” Addy, best known for his work on “Game of Thrones” and “The Full Monty,” starred in the off-Broadway production of the black comedy. It’s the first time Stevens, beloved for his turn on “Downton Abbey,” has appeared on the Great [...]

  • Dear Evan Hansen Jordan Fisher

    Jordan Fisher Joins 'Dear Evan Hansen' in Title Role on Broadway

    Jordan Fisher will be Broadway’s next Evan Hansen, joining the cast of “Dear Evan Hansen” in the musical’s title role. Fisher, best known to theater enthusiasts for his stint in “Hamilton” and playing Mark Cohen in Fox’s “Rent: Live,” will play the role for a limited 16-week engagement starting Jan. 28. “Evan Hansen is a [...]

  • SUBJECTS] seen at the Lincoln Center

    Lincoln Center's David Geffen Hall Set for Major Renovation

    Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall is set to undergo a major renovation that will lead to the facility being closed for months-long stretches starting in 2022. Lincoln Center and the New York Philharmonic announced Monday that the overhaul will require the temporary shuttering of Geffen Hall from May 2022 through October 2022 and again from [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content