By: Darryl Reilly
Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves – And Immortality.
So, intones that fiery acting eminence Elise Stone as she gloriously recites Emily Dickenson’s poem “Because I could not stop for Death”, in British author Glyn Maxwell’s play, Drinks With Dead Poets. The ferocious John Lenartz and the soulful Antonio Edwards Suarez join the luminous Ms. Stone to perform this fantasia which mines the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Frost, Allen Ginsberg, Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Dorothy Parker and Dickinson; these are conjoined with supplementary writings by those authors. Director Attilio Rigotti smoothly orchestrates the grand performances, exquisite poetry and arresting stagecraft, for a stimulating presentation.
The conceit is that we are at a bar in Nyack, New York; two workers there are joined by a traveler. For 75 minutes, we are enraptured by the interactions and recitations of Stone, Lenartz and Suarez. Each of these veteran performers display their substantial stage presence, authority and playfulness.
Drinks With Dead Poets is adapted by the distinguished Mr. Maxwell from his book, Drinks With Dead Poets: The Autumn Term. As the play progresses, we become aware that book burning is taking place in the area, and that people are memorizing poems so that they won’t be lost. The characters allude to this while engaging in oblique political discussions, adding cautionary and dystopian dimensions to the joyous recitals.
Production stage manager Craig Smith has configured an atmospheric spacious runway-style playing area set with an imposing bar, small round tables and an area with a microphone on a stand for open mic portions. Tony Mulanix’s lighting design richly replicates the sheen of a dark tavern through strategic dimness. Sound designer Ellen Mandel artfully amplifies that locational quality by realistically rendering music and effects. Costume designer Debbi Hobson’s clothes the trio with fanciful flair. Buffy Cardoza’s props design consists of colorful key objects.
Maxwell is a Resident Playwright of the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble; Drinks With Dead Poets premiered at the company’s 2023 Phoenix Live Arts Festival in Nyack, at an actual bar, The Hudson House of Nyack. This Manhattan engagement is a welcome opportunity to experience searing performances, provocative ideas, mesmerizing theatricality, and the beauty of poetry.
Drinks With Dead Poets (through February 11, 2024)
Phoenix Theatre Ensemble
Gural Theatre at A.R.T/New York Theatres, 502 West 53rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit www.phoenixtheatreensemble.org
Running time: 75 minutes with no intermission