Fuse Theater Review: In NYC — “The Last Days of Cleopatra” + “Nothing Normal”

Although the production of The Last Days of Cleopatra is at times a bit hard to follow, patient audience members will be rewarded by a profound dramatic payoff.

The Last Days of Cleopatra by Laoisa Sexton, Directed by Tim Ruddy. At Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street, Manhattan, through September 7.

"The Last Days of Cleopatra"

Laoisa Sexton in her play “The Last Days of Cleopatra” Photo: Trevor Murphy.

By Paul Dervis

The Last Days of Cleopatra is a very Irish play. Written by Laoisa Sexton, who also performs in the piece, it is a contemporary look at an urban working-class family in crisis. The mother, clearly the head of the household, has been ill for a long time, and now she appears to be fading. We hear much about her colorful past from her two adult children, Natalie and Jackey, with her ne’er–do–well husband, Harry, supplying details about her dynamic early years. But mom never appears on stage. She is an illusion.

Harry, at one point a musician, now drives a cab when he does anything at all. He has long fancied himself a ladies’ man, but his youth has passed — he is now closer to being a derelict than a lothario. Jackey, the effeminate son, sells magazines on a Dublin street corner. He could have stepped right out of a sketch from the BBC comedy series Little Britain. He lives to dance, expressing his emotions and vulnerabilities through movement and song.

Natalie is the script’s most complex character, a complicated woman/child. At times, she comes across as simply a cigarette-smoking, foul-mouthed angry girl. But she’s also a looking for herself in the roles she plays for children at parties: an angel, a bunny rabbit, and a very amusing version of Elmo. Natalie also strives to make ends meet by performing as a stripper. Clearly, despite the depressing circumstances, she is struggling to make more of her life. She is bitter that her father is never there for her mum when she needs him most. And her brother spends most of his time living in his own private, closed-off world. The care for mother rests heavily on Natalie’s shoulders.

Radical isolation is the key to the play. The Last Days of Cleopatra is essentially a three-character “monologue,” albeit each speech is broken up countless times. The characters are continually interrupting each other’s intersecting stories. During the show’s 90 minutes, the characters connect with each other only on a few precious occasions, and that contact is often ironic. For example, one character will talk to the backside of another. So the script leaves the impression that the figures are talking to us, and this approach asks a lot from the audience. The play’s family members cannot communicate with each other… but at what price? Complicating our answer to that question is the fact that the cast members, Irish-born but with long resumes in the United States, perform The Last Days of Cleopatra with thick working-class accents. This, along with the presence of regional slang, makes the play a challenge to understand on occasion.

Kenneth Ryan, as Harry, seemed to be struggling to find his character early in the play, but as the evening progressed he gained strength. By the finale the actor had become riveting. He created a Harry that was alternately sad and cruel, a bedeviled man who demanded compassion. (Of local interest — Ryan was a founding member of Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater.) Michael Mellamphy’s performance as Jackey was over-the-top, but it worked well for this self-described “black comedy.” He managed to suggest that underneath Jackey’s extremity there was a subtle, emotionally complicated young man.

As Natalie, Sexton was a pleasure to watch as she expressed the figure’s wild mood swings. Her approach to performance is nimbly minimal; she makes superb use of moments of silence, her small movements and expressions conveying the essence of the character. As a dramatist, Sexton is young, but thus far she has been amazingly successful. Last year her play For Love was produced Off Broadway by the Irish Repertory Theatre and garnered a New York Times “Critics Pick.” The script is now being developed into a film.

Although the production of The Last Days of Cleopatra is at times a bit hard to follow, patient audience members will be rewarded by a profound dramatic payoff.


Nothing Normal at the 54 Below club, Manhattan.

In his latest cabaret show, Adam Shapiro charmed with his teasing humor and personal anecdotes. Nothing Normal was a fast-paced evening: Shapiro, with two backup singers and an instrumental trio, deftly entertained us with fourteen musical numbers and an encore. The veteran club performer (whose Guide to the Perfect Breakup won the 2013 MAC Award) and director Peter Napolitano mixed up the show’s material deftly, including standards by the likes of Stephen Sondheim and Marvin Hamlisch along with original songs written by Napolitano and musical director Barry Levitt.

Shapiro, who had a role in the Emmy award-winning HBO production of The Normal Heart, sang a couple of duets with “Special Guest Star” Danielle Ferland. The latter was also in The Normal Heart; Ferland is best known for performing in the Broadway production of Into the Woods.

Of special interest were the three songs from the team of Napolitano and Levitt. The tunes were funny and agilely glib — they more than held their own with the heavyweights on the program. One wonders if a musical might be coming soon from those two.

All in all, Nothing Normal at the swanky 54 Below club was a very nice way to cap an evening in New York City.

Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for hs work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011′s The Righteous Tithe.


  1. Adam Shapiro on September 4, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    Oh Paul, thank you for your kind words! I’m so glad you came and I’m so glad you enjoyed the show 🙂

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