Off-Broadway Theater Review: NEW COUNTRY (Cherry Lane Theatre)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on May 20, 2015

in Theater-New York

EVERYTHING OLD COUNTRY FEELS NEW AGAIN

In Mark Roberts’ delightful and moving play New Country, skillfully directed by David Harwell, 25-year-old country music star Justin is up to his usual antics on the eve of his wedding—partying, philandering, and treating everyone around him like crap.

Theater Review: NEW COUNTRY (Cherry Lane Theatre, Off-Broadway)

Good-looking, charismatic and egotistical, Justin (David Lind) has never encountered misfortune, and we can guess that this fact, along with his recently acquired riches and fame, have exacerbated his arrogance and sense of entitlement.

Theater Review: NEW COUNTRY (Cherry Lane Theatre, Off-Broadway)

The victims of his hostile whims include his managers Paul (Malcolm Madera) and Chuck (Jared Culverhouse), who spend much of their time making excuses for him to his bride-to-be, as well as keeping his sycophants—like hotel bellboy Ollie (Stephen Sheffer)—at arm’s length; his gun-toting ex-girlfriend Sharon (Sarah Lemp), who gave Justin his musical start and now shows up in his hotel room to settle some unfinished business; and his dirty old hillbilly uncle, Uncle Jim (Mr. Roberts), who arrives with his clothes in a trash bag and an inflated sex doll under his arm.

Theater Review: NEW COUNTRY (Cherry Lane Theatre, Off-Broadway)

The first part of New Country focuses on Justin and his entourage, and Mr. Harwell admirably manages the precarious balancing act of making these Southern characters funny without making fun of them. The jokes are validated by the logic and drama in the performances; all laughs are earned. Such as when Chuck, who is to be a groomsman, complains about being paired with a fat bridesmaid. In arguing his character’s point, Mr. Culverhouse reveals the anxiety Chuck feels about his own looks—which is why he’s embarrassed to be paired with an unattractive female. This subtext makes Chuck’s quips about her weight funny and worthwhile; without it they’d just be fat jokes.

Theater Review: NEW COUNTRY (Cherry Lane Theatre, Off-Broadway)

The entire cast delivers committed performances that make the show pop. And although there are a few tiny chinks in the acting here and there—issues that likely will work themselves out as the run continues—these are easy to ignore in light of the production’s immense strengths.

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The greatest of these is Uncle Jim. A luckless never-was with bad teeth who carries the shards of his broken life with him, Uncle Jim is the self-effacing jester who tells dirty jokes and grotesque sex stories at Justin’s insistence—the boy is paying his uncle’s expenses and demands that the 60-year-old sing for his supper. But when left alone we discover that there is more to Uncle Jim than we first realized. And it is his character, his tragic life story, that becomes the center of this hilarious, poignant, and at times heart-wrenching comedic drama.

Theater Review: NEW COUNTRY (Cherry Lane Theatre, Off-Broadway)

Mr. Roberts is brilliant in the role; watching him play it is like watching a great fighter patiently, methodically take apart his opponent—not a breath is wasted, not an ounce of energy misspent, and when he opens up it is with furious power while retaining perfect fluidity and precision. Mr. Roberts manages to create a tremendous presence on stage while playing a character who would prefer to keep out of direct sight, delivering a performance that is a gorgeous combination of sublime stagecraft and raw emotion. And although the play’s ending leans a bit in the direction of sentimentality, it takes very little away from the wonderful experience that is New Country.

Theater Review: NEW COUNTRY (Cherry Lane Theatre, Off-Broadway)

photos by Clay Anderson

Theater Review: NEW COUNTRY (Cherry Lane Theatre, Off-Broadway)

New Country
Fair Trade Productions / Rattlestick Playwrights Theater
Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St
ends on June 20, 2015 EXTENDED to June 27, 2015
for tickets, call 212.989.2020 or visit www.newcountrytheplay.com

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