Chris Ghaffari

Child's Play

Review of Make Believe, Hartford Stage

Bess Wohl and Jackson Gay, the author and director, respectively, of Make Believe, the opening play of the 2018-19 season at Hartford Stage, worked together early in their careers, collaborating at the Yale Cabaret while students in the Yale School of Drama. That fact seemed significant to me while watching Make Believe, which might work best as a one act (such as one sees at the Cabaret). Here, the play is in two parts without intermission, and it’s the second part, which has to make believe it depicts the present day of the kids we meet in the first part, that suffers from cuteness and an uncertain tone. The first part, played by actors under age 12, is dynamite.

Four kids, ranging from the eldest, Chris (Roman Malenda), to Kate (Sloane Wolfe) to Addie (Alexa Skye Swinton) to the youngest, Carl (RJ Vercellone), who is about five but doesn’t talk, occupy themselves in a huge playroom in a house where the adults are absent. Certainly, that’s meant to make the helicopter-parents among us feel freaked out, and it doesn’t help that we have to keep hearing Mom’s chipper voice on the answering machine (still a relatively novel device in the 1980s when the first part is set) as a series of callers leave messages about missed appointments and, from a distraught husband, a garble of bitterness. Mom’s MIA, in short, and the kids aren’t quite alright.

Kate (Sloane Wolfe), Carl (RJ Vercellone), Addie (Alexa Skye Swinton), background: Chris (Roman Malenda) (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Kate (Sloane Wolfe), Carl (RJ Vercellone), Addie (Alexa Skye Swinton), background: Chris (Roman Malenda) (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

To amuse themselves, the kids—who, we expect, take care of themselves quite a lot—tend to play house, with Chris a funnily morbid pater who likes to let his family know that, eventually, we all get to either rot or get burnt up, we have no other choices. Kate, as the mom, is able to take a right to the jaw and get right back to work on whatever dinner might be. Addie, who has her own baby in the form of a Cabbage Patch doll, is apt to be off in her own world, and Carl is perfectly happy playing the dog, pantomimed pissing included.

The version of life the children get up to is darkly entertaining. We never forget (that damned phone won’t let us!) that they’re on their own for what starts to feel a distressing length of time. A letter Kate writes to the late Princess Grace (not knowing the celebrity has just died) lets us know not only that Kate may be the unknown offspring of the Princess of Monaco (compare the bone structure) but that the kids have eaten most of the food in the house, including the frozen stuff.

Chris (Roman Malenda)

Chris (Roman Malenda)

Wohl’s dialogue is wonderfully sharp and zestfully foul-mouthed as only children—for whom each expletive is a gem—can be. As Chris, Roman Malenda gets several chances to shine: first in an under the sheet-tent tale about a boy he dislikes, then in a call to school—as a British nanny—to excuse the children from attending. At times he has an odd quirk of raising his voice mid-sentence for emphasis, as though a suppressed passion is ready to burst forth. As Kate, Sloane Wolfe is studiedly adult as precocious children often are, and she’s ready to defect. The younger kids are wonderfully physical in their ability to romp as if they aren’t in fact onstage. Playing a young girl at play is something Alexa Skye Swinton does remarkably well.

If the play ended when the child’s portion does, we would have to connect the dots and, who knows, might even have to allegorize a bit what the adults are doing to this insular world we’ve come to know and love. Instead, what a falling-off is there! Enter adult versions of the children, played with a kind of tense familiarity while speaking lines meant to connect things from then to now.

Addie (Molly Ward), Kate (Megan Byrne), Carl (Brad Heberlee)

Addie (Molly Ward), Kate (Megan Byrne), Carl (Brad Heberlee)

As Kate, Megan Byrne is still trying to cope with everything that doesn’t add up. As Addie, Molly Ward is a mom herself (remember that Cabbage Patch doll?) and still trying to be a free spirit. Brad Heberlee’s Carl is at first MIA himself, then arrives to give a speech he was meant to deliver earlier. His extended crying jag that morphs into the howl he exulted in as family pet is a good example of the earnestness of the dot-connecting and underlining going on. Chris (a different one) played by the always presentable Chris Ghaffari is on hand to earn jokes about Millennials, be the object of MILF desire, and, yes, even a lover in mourning. Ghaffari handles it all by being sweet, as his namesake would never be. Thus we lose much of the acid that the irrepressible playacting master of the house interjected into the proceedings. Pity. Meanwhile, there are jokes at the expense of Scandinavians, a demographic (I guess) it’s still okay to otherize.

Chris (Chris Ghaffari)

Chris (Chris Ghaffari)

Wohl, not content with the dysfunction among the adults in this family, has to give us an explanatory moment that adds more distress, from other adults in the past. Kate objects to the way that bit of backstory gets dropped into the scene, and I have to agree with her.

If you ever needed, in the course of one evening, evidence about how sad it is we grow up, find it here. Jackson Gay is to be commended on how seamlessly this show runs, and for having the guts and heart to direct this play on the big stage, with great help from a set both spacious and cluttered by Antje Ellerman, effective but unobtrusive lighting cues by Paul Whitaker, with music by Broken Chord and, no doubt, very vital stage managing by Rob Chikar and Kelly Hardy.

There’s much to think about here in terms of how we portray children, protect and neglect children, and project ourselves onto (and back to) children, as well as how children grow into the world as they find it. A fascinating evening of theater.


Make Believe
By Bess Wohl
Directed by Jackson Gay

Scenic Design: Antje Ellerman; Costume Design: Junghyun Georgia Lee; Lighting Design: Paul Whitaker; Original Music & Sound Design: Broken Chord; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Stage Manager: Rob Chikar; Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Hardy

Cast: Megan Byrne, Chris Ghaffari, Brad Heberlee, Roman Malenda, Alexa Skye Swinton, RJ Vercellone, Molly Ward, Sloane Wolfe

Hartford Stage
September 6-30, 2018



To the Meeting of True Egos

Review of Sex with Strangers, Westport Country Playhouse

Two writers meet at a writer’s retreat in Michigan during a blizzard. She—Olivia (Jessica Love)—is a fortyish novelist whose first novel was mismanaged and sank without a trace. He—Ethan (Chris Ghaffari)—is an internet sensation who has parlayed his blog documenting his record-setting sexual exploits into a New York Times best-seller. We expect some version of the tried and true mixing of oil and water to reach romance. What we get is a talky and unintriguing series of exchanges between two characters who are stuck with each other in Laura Eason’s vapid take on passion and publishing in the internet age in Westport Country Playhouse's revival of her provocatively titled Sex with Strangers, directed by Katherine M. Carter.

Olivia (Jessica Love), Ethan (Chris Ghaffari) (photos: Carol Rosegg)

Olivia (Jessica Love), Ethan (Chris Ghaffari) (photos: Carol Rosegg)

At first Olivia is wary and distant. Ethan barges in on her after she’s become certain no other guest will be joining her. Turns out he has read her only novel, given to him by a mutual friend, and he adores it. The broken ice melts swiftly and the two repeat often the show’s only gag—they begin pawing each other, removing their clothes, and we go to blackout.

It may be amusing that Olivia is so eager for a little loving that she’ll bed a guy who admits he’s an asshole and has told her he writes, in self-serving detail, about every one of the sex-mates he’s had. Ghaffari plays Ethan as a charmer, with a bod to be proud of, and, though he doesn’t know who Marguerite Duras—Olivia’s favorite writer—is, he’s able to sling advertising copy at her book and other works that got through to him. Olivia, though, is old enough to know better, so if she accepts him as sincere when he promises he won’t write about her, well, we suppose she knows what she’s doing.

The main question is: do we care? After the characters were introduced, during which time Olivia’s spikey crust turned soft dough, I had a sinking sensation realizing that, no matter how long this play goes on, no one else is going to come through the door. We get only Olivia and Ethan, and they’re pretty tedious company, and, strangely, not sexy. Director Carter’s approach to the material can be best described as workmanlike. The blocking uses the sets well.

The selling point that this play addresses the difficulty of remaining private in the public world of online self-advertisement seems wishful thinking. Ethan tells Olivia all about who he is, she doesn’t even have to google him. And he knows who she is before he meets her because she’s actually a published author he has read as prep to sweep her off her feet. The play dates from 2011 and the more a work tries to stay on top of the “now” of the internet it risks looking foolish. Ethan, back then, was immediately recognizable as an analogue to that “hope they serve beer in hell” dude. Remember him?

Ethan (Chris Ghaffari), Olivia (Jessica Love)

Ethan (Chris Ghaffari), Olivia (Jessica Love)

What it all comes down to is that Ethan wants to be Olivia’s internet-savvy hero, able to resuscitate the heat in her stalled career through his new book-hawking app, while Olivia is more excited about the prospect of using his agent to get a shot at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, aka FSG. You may wonder if Ethan can be trusted. You may want to see who is using whom more or better. Almost any plot you think you see coming at the close of Act I is bound to be better than what actually does ensue.

Could this play work better with snappier delivery, more chemistry between the two actors, and a surer grasp of pacing? Doubtless, but I’m not convinced any of those factors would offset what is mostly pretentious and interminable dialogue sparked by an occasional laugh. The characters are made to discuss books we likely haven’t read—because only the ones by Duras and Tolstoy exist. Much is made of the celebrity that surrounds Ethan’s “Sex with Strangers” blog and book—which is being made into a movie—but Olivia, like the most naïve of ingenues, wants to believe that such callous events as Ethan narrates are all in the past or were only invented for sensationalism. Love plays Olivia as the sensitive type, ready to swoon if a cute guy takes an interest or if an anonymous Amazon reviewer gives her a thumbs up. All the while, Eason seems to want us to believe that Ethan isn’t really the cad he’s cracked up to be, but is in fact a prospective “brilliant” novelist trying to overcome the problem that he’s become rich and infamous instead of serious and respected. It could happen to anyone.

Ethan (Chris Ghaffari), Olivia (Jessica Love)

Ethan (Chris Ghaffari), Olivia (Jessica Love)

Edward T. Morris’ set for the bed and breakfast looks like a combination of a lodge and college common room, a look entirely appropriate for the collegiate ideas about hooking-up and producing copy that engage these two. In Act Two, the set is converted into a swanky-ish apartment—that circular staircase and the wall of shelves are no doubt desired features—where Olivia, now on her way to the big time, has traded in her dumpy Dell for a sleek Mac, and faces the wounded pride of her paramour. Stay through intermission to see the set change, it’s one of the more interesting features of the show.

There may be some effort on the part of Eason and Carter to saddle these romantic antagonists with emotions beyond lust, pride, and thirst for fame, but not much else has a chance to register. Serious writers, I expect, know that proper names and adjectives don’t help much in expressing ideas. That’s left to blurb writers. For the likes of Olivia and Ethan, online gossip, name-dropping, blog-crit, and jacket copy are the tools of the trade and the best that can be hoped for. That may well be true to life, these days, but Eason hasn’t any idea how to satirize or complicate that state of affairs for the sake of her characters, or of her viewers.

Thanks, but no thanks, in times like these, the griefs of shallow egos aren’t enough. For diversion, I’d rather fire up a Tracy-Hepburn flick.


Sex with Strangers
By Laura Eason
Directed by Katherine M. Carter

Scenic Design: Edward T. Morris; Costume Design: Caitlin Cisek; Lighting Design: Alan Edwards; Sound Design: Beth Lake; Props Master: Karin White; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting; Production Stage Manager: Garrett Rollins; Assistant Stage Manager: Alice M. Pollitt

Cast: Chris Ghaffari, Jessica Love

Westport Country Playhouse
September 26-October 14, 2017

Psychiatric Shenanigans

Review of What the Butler Saw, Westport Country Playhouse

Revivals of ground-breaking work can be tricky business. Once the initial shock is gone, what does the work have to offer? Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw is a ribald, witty, absurd farce and though, for our times, it’s hardly as daring as in 1969, when it debuted, it still puts its cast through its paces. Directed by John Tillinger with a feel for the play’s strengths, the comedy treats marriage, psychiatry, health care professionals, hotel service people, the police force, gender roles, sexual tastes and Winston Churchill to fast-paced, irreverent fun.

The mention of Churchill should tip you off to one main characteristic of Orton’s comedy. It’s British, in the way that Monty Python is British, or the Carry On series is. And that means its form of verbal humor can be a stretch for American ears. It’s not just the accents, it’s the entire grasp of how the language of polite society works. Orton’s characters are articulate to a fault. But most of what they say is potty, loony, off-its-chum. It’s not just the idiom either. The humor, to work, requires an earnest and serious manner among the players. For the most part, the cast is equal to the challenge, but even so. One can only imagine how much better this would play in Britain.

Dr. Prentice (Robert Stanton), Geraldine Barclay (Sarah Manton), Dr. Rance (Paxton Whitehead) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Dr. Prentice (Robert Stanton), Geraldine Barclay (Sarah Manton), Dr. Rance (Paxton Whitehead) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Thankfully, the Westport production benefits from Paxton Whitehead, who specializes in playing the kind of fatuous ass who is not only a send-up of professionalism, psychiatric jargon, get-ahead ethics, and lack of imagination, but of a distinctly British sense of how the establishment works. Indeed, Orton’s zinginess comes from the fact that he’s trying to skewer established norms—particularly about sexuality—that keep the British unflappable, and Whitehead’s Dr. Rance is a walking textbook of self-satisfied credulity.

Mr. and Mrs. Prentice (Robert Stanton, Patricia Kalember) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Mr. and Mrs. Prentice (Robert Stanton, Patricia Kalember) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

His foil is Dr. Prentice (Robert Stanton), the ne’er-do-well who gets the shenanigans off and running by piling silly pretense upon ludicrous lie. He begins by attempting to seduce, in smarmy predatory professional manner (in the days before “sexual harassment” had a name), a dim, accommodating would-be Gal Friday Geraldine Barclay (Sarah Manton, wonderfully manic). Stanton’s Prentice is not a villain so much as an erring human who can’t admit mistakes, so he becomes a kind of Jerry Lewis of escalating miscalculations. He’s married to a philandering female (Patricia Kalember, who enacts the estranged, liberated wife with brittle cool) and is trying to maintain his professional and sexual status in a world that delights in how easily anyone can lose all dignity. Not least Sergeant Match, a forthright constable (Julian Gamble) who ends up in his underwear and later a dress and wig, and Nicholas Beckett (Chris Ghaffari), a game bell-hop who has to go about in drag and, eventually, the altogether.

Nicholas Beckett (Chris Ghaffari), Sergeant Match (Julian Gamble) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Nicholas Beckett (Chris Ghaffari), Sergeant Match (Julian Gamble) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

In a sense, the play is much ado about nothing, with a vengeance. The notion that “deviant” behavior can be analyzed and “helped” is one of Orton’s targets, but that ship has sailed, more or less. The play works because it does what farce is supposed to do: undermine the layers of pretense that people cling to as a means of denying what is happening in front of them. Orton has a knack for the tableau of someone catching someone else in a compromising moment. The point of such take-offs and put-ons is that we’re all of us compromised by our appetites, desires, and petty indulgences. Along the way there is sport with the kind of well-made play that has to tie up all loose ends, with a fond nod to Oscar Wilde’s Earnest.

The detailed set (James Noone) and suitable costumes (Laurie Churba) help create the kind of rational world that will become topsy-turvy as the play goes on, including the various fates of a demure flowered dress and a racier leopard print. There are four doorways and they will all be used with expert timing, as well as a host of apropos props. The challenge here is in keeping up with the verbal and the physical comedy and, while it never achieves complete hysterics, Tillinger’s production at Westport does keep it all bouncing merrily.


What the Butler Saw
By Joe Orton
Directed by John Tillinger

Scenic Design: James Noone; Costume Design: Laurie Churba; Lighting Design: John McKernon; Sound Design: Scott Killian; Dialect Consultant: Elizabeth Smith; Movement and Firearms Choreographer: Robert Westley; Props Master: Karin White; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel CSA; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith

Cast: Julian Gamble, Chris Ghaffari, Patricia Kalember, Sarah Manton, Robert Stanton, Paxton Whitehead

Westport Country Playhouse
August 23-September 10, 2016

A Rocky Path for Lovers

Review of Romeo & Juliet at Hartford Stage

Scenic design is an integral part of the theater-viewing experience. It can be transformative; it can be unobtrusive; it can be a distinctively theatrical environment; it can seem like an actual place you could inhabit. The choices made to convey a play to us take on concrete shape with the set’s design and orientation.

Director Darko Tresnjak’s scenic design for the Hartford Stage’s production of Romeo & Juliet chooses to place “Shakespeare’s most popular play” (as the press packet reads) in a post-war Italy influenced by Neorealist filmmakers, such as Pasolini and de Sica, a decision that gives us a very austere setting, with a backdrop of vertical graves as in a mausoleum, with small vases tended now and then by attendants (one great virtue of this R&J is that it has a cast large enough to have extras). Gone is any sense of Italy's sensuality; in its place is a sterile, barren presence that never lets up.

Kaliswa Brewster (Juliet)

Kaliswa Brewster (Juliet)

Worse, center stage is a pit of gravel. The first time boots tread across the space, accompanied by speech, we become aware of why this wasn’t such a good idea. Do we want our Shakespeare accompanied by noisy rocks and stones and worse than senseless things? After all, these characters aren’t speaking Italian with subtitles, nor are they speaking Fifties-ish lingo. They are speaking Elizabethan poetry, which, generally speaking, we like to hear as clearly as possible, unmarred by unnecessary sound effects. At one point, the pit seems intended as a swimming pool, with Mercutio (Wyatt Fenner) in flippers and bathing suit, and that does add a touch more color, incongruous as it might seem, to the drabness.

Wyatt Fenner (Mercutio), Alex Hanna (Benvolio), Chris Ghaffari (Romeo) and Ensemble

Wyatt Fenner (Mercutio), Alex Hanna (Benvolio), Chris Ghaffari (Romeo) and Ensemble

I could say more about the moving slab that becomes a balcony and the rising and lowering slab that becomes a marital bed for the lovers, but let’s just leave it at: unprepossessing. For some viewers these matters might mean less than nothing as they are transported to another world by their wonder at Shakespeare’s language and control of this very deft plot; I’m not of their number.

Kandis Chappell (Nurse), Chris Ghaffari (Romeo), Charles Janasz (Friar Laurence)

Kandis Chappell (Nurse), Chris Ghaffari (Romeo), Charles Janasz (Friar Laurence)

And that’s not due to the fact that this is an overly familiar play. Watching it, as with most Shakespeare plays, one is surprised that there’s always more to learn. Here, we learn how very important Friar Laurence (Charles Janasz) and Juliet’s Nurse (Kandis Chappell) are, because they are the two best performances in the show. Indeed, Janasz’s tongue-lashing to Romeo is only bettered by his woeful, at-wit’s-end explanation of what went wrong, addressed to a stern Escalus (Bill Christ) at the play’s close. And Chappell’s reactions, even when silent, speak volumes. Her face when she finally realizes Juliet is mourning more for Romeo than for Tybalt registers an almost frightened acknowledgement of youthful passion. The scene when she counsels giving up on Romeo and marrying Paris (Julien Seredowych) as Capulet (Timothy D. Stickney) commands is also fraught with a dissembling that speaks volumes about her underling status.

The principal roles are spottier. As Romeo, Chris Ghaffari is boyish and energetic, able to climb up to and down from the balcony slab with impressive ease, but any sense of Romeo as morose or lovesick—as he should be when we meet him—never materializes. And he’s much better at banter and challenge than he is at the passionate declarations required in the denouement. Kaliswa Brewster fares better as Juliet, swaying her Nurse with the passion of her love for Romeo and finding depth and tears in the “banished” speech, but she also has a tendency to proclaim earnestly more often than find a register that can carry her from pertness to pathos and back. Together they don’t really ignite, and their best scene has them lying on their sides, their body language expressing the yearning that’s stirring them.

Chris Ghaffari (Romeo), Kaliswa Brewster (Juliet)

Chris Ghaffari (Romeo), Kaliswa Brewster (Juliet)

And Mercutio? This time he’s more a nerd—with his pedal-pusher braces and bicycle—than a fop (the typical rendition), and Fenner knows how to deliver the poetry of his speech about Queen Mab, and that makes him a welcome addition here. The Montagues don’t have all that much to do, and, as Juliet’s parents, Thomas D. Stickney enacts fed-up anger well and Celeste Ciulla seems the most at home in the Neorealist trappings, looking like a Rosselini heroine, cigarette and all. Robert Hannon Davis, who plays Romeo’s stiff of a dad, makes more of an impression as a truly scary Apothecary, and Alex Hanna’s Benvolio is apt.

The best things about the look of the show are Ilona Somogyi’s costumes—Juliet’s go-to-be-shrived outfit is quite fetching—and Matthew Richards’ lighting design, which makes for some interesting effects against that somber, tomblike backdrop. The notion that Italy’s war dead serve as those fallen to Capulet vs. Montague intrigues is more suggestive than satisfactory, but the set’s sense of gloom does serve to underline all the misgivings and the willingness to die expressed often enough. This is a Romeo & Juliet where the couple’s brief flame of love seems a stray moment in an enduring culture of mourning. Doom’s the word.


William Shakespeare’s
Romeo & Juliet
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Scenic Design: Darko Tresnjak; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Wig Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Associate Scenic Deisgner: Colin McGurk; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Fight Choreographer: Steve Rankin; Vocal & Text Coach: Claudia Hill-Sparks; Casting: Binder Casting; Productioin Stage Manager: Robyn M. Zalewski; Assistant Stage Manager: Brae Singleton; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast: Callie Beaulieu; Kaliswa Brewster; Michael Buckhout; Kandis Chappell; Bill Christ; Celeste Ciulla; Robert Hannon Davis; Jonathan Louis Dent; Wyatt Fenner; Chris Ghaffari; Alex Hanna; Olivia Hoffman; Charles Janasz; Raphael Massie; Stephen Mir; Ella Mora; Stephen James Potter; Jenna Rapisdara; Alex Schneps; Mac Schonher; Julien Seredowych; Timothy D. Stickney

Hartford Stage
February 11-March 20, 2016





What's in the Stars?

Review of Touch at Yale Cabaret Toni Press-Coffman’s Touch, featured as Cab 5 at the Yale Cabaret, and directed by Elijah Martinez, with a cast of second-year actors in the YSD program, is a play about connecting with others. Its dominant figure is the cosmos and how we are a part of it, and, thus, how the stars are a part of us. This idea has a compelling logic for Kyle (Jonathan Majors), an astronomer who has lost his beloved wife Zoe. Zoe, he tells us, believed in astrology and urged him to add a spiritual dimension to his contemplation of the heavens. For Kyle, that dimension is provided by the verses of John Keats—“the only poet,” Kyle tells us—but we might also say that the entire play is a presentation of Kyle’s effort to find a spiritual dimension in the universe that he can accept.

The dimension comes to him from other people ultimately, and the play mainly uses other characters as catalysts for Kyle’s basic predicament. That predicament is rendered well, in verbal detail, by having Kyle begin the play by addressing the audience in a monologue that goes on for what could be called the entire first act. In that time we learn that Kyle was a physics nerd in high school who met his future wife when she wandered by accident into the wrong classroom. She then became reason enough to be late to class—an astounding discovery for a guy who seems to think more of distant Betelgeuse than of anyone in his immediate orbit. Majors gives Kyle a fast, emphatic delivery, with quirky beats and pauses that show us how easily he might lapse back into his own mind and how much effort it takes to express his enthusiasms. One of his greatest enthusiasms is for Zoe, who he seems to regard as both a miracle and a force of nature. She’s quirky, popular, dresses flamboyantly, and, for some reason he can’t fathom, loves him. All well and good.

So of course tragedy strikes—in the form of an ill-advised solo trip to the market by Zoe. Since we never hear the exact details of the crime that causes her death, we might wonder if there’s more to the story, on Zoe’s side. Was their marriage only what Kyle says it was? That question doesn’t seem to interest Press-Coffman, so instead we get dramatic action when the investigation begins, including the participation of Kyle’s buddy since high school, Bennie (Chris Ghaffari), an engaging “average Joe” type who is allegedly also a science nerd who goes into medicine (though that part is rather hard to believe), and of Zoe’s sister, Serena (Melanie Field) who is anything but serene. She hurls obscenities at the cops, rags on Kyle for shutting her and her family out of his life after Zoe’s disappearance, and for seeking out solace, after Zoe’s dead body is discovered, with a local prostitute—the kind that charges more than $25.

As Kathleen, the cheerful street-walker, Jenelle Chu livens up Kyle’s life and the play and is instrumental for Act 2, “coping with the death of Zoe.” For Kyle, that process has to include sex with a woman if only to drown out the absence of Zoe and the nature of her death. Press-Coffman seems deliberately to place before us—though to what end?—the various forms of sex: marital, as Kyle recalls his honeymoon in New York with Zoe; consensual paid transaction with matter-of-fact Kathleen; rape (off-stage); and as an expression of the discovery of love—or at least deep need—between Bennie and Serena.

The latter pairing makes for a comically awkward ‘why are you fucking my sister-in-law?’ ‘why are you fucking a prostitute?’ scene that quickly gets resolved, leading to Act 3, where closure comes by way of Kyle narrating his meeting with Zoe’s two incarcerated killers. As a memory, the scene is again only what Kyle tells us—and he doesn’t tell us much. But all’s well that ends well because Kyle learns to hope again and finally gets to see that green flash in the sky. As another poet might say (in the voice of a schemer): “the fault is not in our stars but in us.” The play seems to want us to accept a possibly benign universe despite our human failings and griefs, but the ghostly figure of a woman vividly recalled who we never hear or see may beckon to an alternate universe Press-Coffman doesn’t seem to imagine we’ll imagine.

The success of Touch depends on how we take to Kyle, our guide to the story and to his feelings and experiences. Jonathan Major makes him likeable but—as Serena’s favorite poet T.S. Eliot might say—a bit obtuse. Press-Coffman almost makes you believe nothing ultimately separates an astronomer from a prostitute in terms of speech and affective relations, and maybe that’s true. It’s certainly easier to believe when all the characters tend to talk alike—but for Bennie, struggling with words like “denigrate.”

The Cab production uses a wonderful projection backdrop of skies and stars, subtly integrating that with the lighting (all the work of Joey “The Wizard” Moro) to create an ongoing sense of a surrounding cosmos, so important to Kyle, who never is not thinking about the stars. Sound too is highly effective and it’s a pity that Grier Coleman’s costumes never get to include any of Zoe’s fabled hats. Director Martinez has a strong sense of how to make what can seem a rather static play move about and inhabit space, and makes as much of the actors’ physical energy—particularly Field’s and Majors’—as possible.

Viewers who also saw the current Yale Rep production of Arcadia may find extra enjoyment in hearing Byron declared “an oaf” by Kyle, as Bennie recites the very same verse Bernard recites in Stoppard’s play. How’s that for synchronicity?


Touch By Toni-Press-Coffman Directed by Elijah Martinez

Dramaturg: Taylor Barfield; Sets: Izmir Ickbal; Costumes: Grier Coleman; Lights & Projections: Joey Moro; Sound: Ian Scot; Stage Manager: Emily DeNardo; Technical Directors: Kenyth Thomason, Nick Vogelpohl; Production Manager: James Lanius III; Producer : Sarah Williams

Yale Cabaret October 23-25, 2014