Play With Matches, the latest production by New Haven theater group A Broken Umbrella Theatre, recent winner of the CT Arts Award, fills the production’s very interesting space in a very inventive and appealing way. Installed in an old warehouse, the play is set in the house and on the grounds of the mansion of the actual inventor Ebenezer Beecher, whose home eventually provided the location of the current Mitchell Library in Westville. The fact that the renovators who built the library found secret panels, trapdoors, a hidden drawer in a stair, and a blueprint for the matchstick-making machine that was the source of Beecher’s early fortune led to rumors that Beecher’s unquiet ghost still roams the building. And those stories are, in part, the start of the story ABUT’s Play With Matches, written by Jason Patrick Wells, directed by Ian Alderman, tells.
When, about midway through Matches, the cast ran about the impressive three-story set, up and down secret passageways, out on a catwalk, and around a brick tower while “romp” music played, even enacting that old Stooges standby of two cowardly investigators backing slowly into one another, I couldn’t help thinking of Gene London, the live-action Saturday morning TV show of the 1960s, which sometimes featured visits to the creepy Quigley mansion, complete with Stooges-style slapstick. Of course, the other immediate reference, especially with the introduction of Buddy (Lou Mangini), a hippy-looking dude with a manner reminiscent of Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, was the old Scooby-Doo cartoon which featured Shaggy, an obvious stoner, and spooky goings-on that would find their inevitable cause in a criminal culprit. In fact, the large stone carved by a stream’s current to resemble a dog, that Beecher has hauled from his hometown, Morris, CT, to his estate, bore a bit of a resemblance to the profile of Scooby…and could the fact that Buddy is first encountered driving a classic VW “Bug” be a reference to Buddy Hackett in The Love Bug?
The levels of the set, the levels of reference to CT history and, perhaps, to the bygone shows of youth keep the play entertaining, even as the story it’s telling gets a bit byzantine. We see the rise of Ebenezer with the building of his great mansion (a lovely bit of staging with “hands” hanging windows and doors from the catwalk), and we see his domineering business-dealings with his hapless factory foreman (Matthew Gaffney, looking like a prime piece of Victoriana in his great walrus whiskers), and we see, in a kind of frenetic dumbshow, how EB gets ideas stolen from him, and hear, in Ebenezer’s arguments with his brother Wheeler (Michael Peter Smith, a wall portrait come to life), that there were accidents at the factory, and thus Ebenezer’s fortunes begin to dwindle until he’s a recluse in a basement room reached by secret trapdoors, and his daughter Helena (Jes Mack) presides over his home.
Then, circa late Sixties, come those erstwhile dudes from Cleveland—Buddy and Brandt (Ruben Ortiz). The latter is a man with a mission: to enter the mansion before it gets torn down to see if any secrets—the kind one man of science, from the past, might leave to his equal number in the present—abide within. It’s then that the “ghost story” kicks into gear, ambling toward a kind of “grateful dead” conclusion (no, not the band, but rather the folklore genre in which a ghost can’t rest until some task is performed after which he, dead, gratefully departs).
As Ebenezer, Ryan Gardner has a zestful brio that one associates with madcap inventors in cartoons, as well as ebullient leads in musicals. He sets a tone the play doesn’t quite recover from, especially when efforts are made to make the proceedings more creepy than comic. In his sumptuous get-up, complete with silk top hat and knobbly walkingstick, Gardner’s Ebenezer is the hinge of the show, but it seemed to me an opportunity was lost in not making him become more ghostly. Rather, the play opts for a kind of timeless era within the present where Ebenezer lives as if normally. It’s a more artistic choice, perhaps, but it would’ve been fun to see Gardner haunt as well as rant.
The slowest bit in the proceedings was Brandt’s rambling monologue before the door of the mansion. Ortiz isn’t given much to build up interest in Brandt, forthright and a bit spacey, so we’d rather see him doing something—like trying to get into the house—than simply talking. Fortunately, the play keeps things varied so that there’s a little something for everyone: For talk for talk’s sake the best parts are stories told by Ebenezer’s daughter, with Jes Mack’s patient Helena either high above us or a disembodied voice addressing us. For action, there’s the aforementioned romp, and the activities of the Crew (Michelle Ortiz, Kenneth Murray, Molly Leona) whose movements had the kind of pacing one sees in old movieolas, and for sinister, there’s the Halloweenish effects that overtake the Housekeeper (Mary Jane Smith) and Foreman Gaffney. For comedy, there’s Buddy who, to my mind, could play it broader…talking to his car, speaking in rock music quotations, searching for Scooby-snacks when the rock growls?
A Broken Umbrella Theatre is noted for developing original works to stage in unlikely and/or inspiring places and, with the set and setting in Play With Matches they’ve made a striking match.
Play With Matches conceived and created by A Broken Umbrella Theatre directed by Ian Alderman; written by Jason Patrick Wells 10/21-23; 10/28-30; 11/4-6; Fridays: 8 p.m.; Sat./Sun.: 3 p.m. & 7 p.m. 446A Blake Street, New Haven, CT