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Ugly Betty’s Mom; Peter Brook’s ‘The Suit’: Jeremy Gerard

'The Suit'
William Nadylam, Jared Mc Neill and Rikki Henry in "The Suit," directed by Peter Brook. It runs through Feb. 2 at BAM. Photographer: Pascal Victor/Brooklyn Academy of Music via Bloomberg

Jan. 26 (Bloomberg) -- Four actors, three musicians and some brightly colored chairs are all that the incomparable director Peter Brook needs to tell the story of “The Suit,” in a short run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

In 85 fleeting minutes his Paris-based troupe combines a morality tale about forgiveness with an intimate glimpse of life under apartheid.

The story concerns Philomen, who earns a meager income as secretary to a lawyer, and his wife, Matilda.

Discovering her in bed with another man, Philomen punishes Matilda by making the lover’s left-behind suit an honored guest she must feed and entertain.

Brook’s productions have helped define BAM, from the magisterial (“The Mahabharata”) to exquisite miniatures like “The Suit.”

Here, the dawn-to-dusk brutality of life in a South Africa shantytown is revealed in simple strokes: Philomen’s urgency as he waits to use a toilet shared by 30 neighbors; Matilda singing “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday’s classic about a lynching.

The open staging sometimes works against the claustrophobia of such society. But the larger message -- never delay forgiveness -- is written indelibly on the faces of William Nadylam’s suave, heartbroken Philomen and Nonhlanhla Kheswa’s crushed Matilda.

Through Feb. 2 at the BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton St., Information: +1-718-636-4100; http://www.bam.org. Rating: *****

Desperate Times

America Ferrera, the star of TV’s “Ugly Betty” and such good films as “Real Women Have Curves,” plays a desperate single mother driven to extreme behavior in “Bethany,” a new drama at City Center presented by the Women’s Project.

She plays Crystal, whose young daughter has been placed in foster care after they were found sleeping in a car.

Now Crystal has a new job, selling Saturn cars, but as yet no income. So she squats in a foreclosed house already inhabited by a delusional ex-soldier (Tobias Segal); she’s determined to look respectable enough to satisfy the social worker (Myra Lucretia Taylor) who will decide when she can get Bethany back.

Ferrera is engaging as a smart woman who, by force of circumstance, makes indefensible choices that include a relationship with a prospective buyer posing as a motivational speaker (Ken Marks, exceptional as a sinister charmer).

Laura Marks’s discomfiting play, somewhat crudely staged by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, effectively notches up the suspense and offers a few surprises, not all of them credible.

Through Feb. 17 at New York City Center Stage II, 131 W. 55th St. Information: +1-212-581-1212; http://www.nycitycenter.org. Rating: ***

Total Darkness

In “Not By Bread Alone,” 11 actors stand at long tables kneading dough and telling their stories. Behind them, plain wooden shelves adorned with loaves suggest your neighborhood Le Pain Quotidien.

In one extraordinary scene during the 80-minute presentation at New York University’s Skirball Center, the stage transmutes into a kind of circus. An actor on stilts walks a steady line while others perch at various levels and music plays in a kind of pinball chaos.

Tel Aviv

The performers are members of the Tel Aviv-based Nalaga’at Theater. All of them are deaf and blind; many are mute as well. Directed by Adina Tal, they take cues from the vibration of a drum or the hand of an aid or colleague.

Their stories are compelling. How could they not be?

Some describe their memory of hearing or seeing, others of lacking even that. Before the performance, theatergoers have the option of dining at Blackout, a pop-up restaurant with food by Danny Meyer in which you dine in total darkness, served by a blind wait staff. I found the experience exhilarating; my wife found it terrifying.

During the show I thought, “If this were a Fellini film with actors portraying these people, it would be hailed as a work of art.”

Debate over whether “Not By Bread Alone” is “theater” seems silly. I didn’t need to categorize the experience to be quietly moved by it.

Through Feb. 3 at NYU-Skirball Center, 566 LaGuardia Place. Information: +1-212-352-3101; http://www.nyuskirball.org. Rating: ***1/2


What the Stars Mean:

*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Good
**     So-So
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include New York weekend and Lewis Lapham on books.

To contact the writer of this column: Jeremy Gerard in New York at jgerard2@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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