Eric Ting

My Idaho Home

Review of Lewiston at Long Wharf Theatre

Family legacy meets national legacy in Samuel D. Hunter’s low-key play Lewiston, now at the Long Wharf Theatre in its world premiere, directed by Eric Ting. Alice (Randy Danson) and Connor (Martin Moran) are old friends, now roommates, who tend a fireworks stand on a stretch of interstate outside the play’s titular town in rural Idaho. The big issue in their world is when to sell Alice’s last remaining plot of land to the developers who are building condos, and for how much—the duo are hoping for a unit by the pool. Into their humdrum lives arrives Marnie (Arielle Goldman), a backpacking traveler who, it turns out, is Alice’s long-lost granddaughter. And she’s here to stay, tent and all.

Alice (Randy Danson) and Connor (Martin Moran)

Alice (Randy Danson) and Connor (Martin Moran)

The best thing about Lewiston is that Hunter’s dialogue plays things close to the everyday, and there are some unique aspects to the relationships revealed as the play goes along. His characters speak with a believable sense of entire lives already lived, so that when exposition is necessary it comes as one character filling another in. For Alice and Marnie, there’s much that has gone missing—the last time Alice saw Marnie was when the girl, now in her mid-twenties, was 8 or so. There’s a lot of water under the bridge, and there’s a lot of land missing from what Marnie remembers as the family spread, including her childhood home. The land has been in the family since Meriwether Lewis, of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition, settled it.

Marnie (Arielle Goldman)

Marnie (Arielle Goldman)

Director Eric Ting’s clear grasp of how these characters should interact means developments take their time: the coolness between Alice and Marnie keeps finding new reasons for sustaining itself. It’s not a question of grudges so much as a question of expectations. We learn piecemeal the story of Alice’s daughter, Marnie’s mother—whose young voice (played by Lucy Owen) we hear on tapes Marnie plays from time to time, recorded when her mother walked the Expedition trail to the Pacific Ocean—and we see why the two women aren’t quite sure what tone to strike with each other. Marnie isn’t so much settling old scores as trying to find a place to start again, arriving at the very moment when Alice is ready to let it all go.

Connor (Martin Moran) and Marnie (Arielle Goldman)

Connor (Martin Moran) and Marnie (Arielle Goldman)

As Connor, Moran’s role is important as an interested witness and sympathetic helper and a surprised host who extends the more effusive welcome to Marnie. The drama of the play is largely about how people can either shut others out or let them in, so that much of the talk isn’t simply about what happened or what will happen, it’s about whether or not characters will confide or find a shared relation. Marnie, played well with understated intensity by Arielle Goldman, had been in Seattle where she devised and sold an urban farm and seems to have been self-sufficient until now. Randy Danson’s Alice is, as Connor says “a bit prickly,” not willing to be knocked off course by a young person’s sudden need for roots. Though for obvious reasons generational differences can be expected to intrude, they do so as contextual details and not simply for cheap laughs.

Then there’s “Mom,” on the tapes. Voiced with an incredible sense of off-the-cuff authenticity by Lucy Owen, the tapes are mostly played in darkness, making their staging a bit disruptive and their desultory commentary more ambient than dramatic. In the end, an experience told on the tape dovetails rather too neatly with the need for some kind of statement to emerge in what seems ready to be a stalemate, though some life-changing decisions are overtaking everyone by the play’s end.

Alice (Randy Danson)

Alice (Randy Danson)

For visual interest, check out the detailed set by Wilson Chin, complemented by Matthew Richards’ lighting and Brandon Walcott’s sound design, while for figural interest there are the fireworks that tend to act as ironic commentary on the lack of excitement and the limited prospects for amusement in this stretch of the interstate. Lewiston is a thoughtful slice-of-life drama that manages to suggest a Chekhovian sense of how time and change leech from us the things we value, unless we do something about it now.


By Samuel D. Hunter
Directed by Eric Ting

Set Design: Wilson Chin; Costume Design: Paloma Young; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Brandon Wolcott; Production Stage Manager: Charles M. Turner III; Casting: Calleri Casting

Cast: Randy Danson; Arielle Goldman; Martin Moran; Lucy Owen

Long Wharf Theatre
April 6-May 1, 2016

Stories that Demand to be Told

Preview of Lewiston at Long Wharf Theatre

Martin Moran is back at the Long Wharf where he has acted before some years ago and also work-shopped one of his own plays. An actor who has appeared in a wide variety of parts in over thirty years in theater, Moran has achieved renown as a memoirist able to recreate personal experience as enthralling monologues on the stage. His first effort, The Tricky Part, based on his prose memoir of the same name, won an Obie Award and two Drama Desk nominations in 2004. It’s a play about a seduction that occurred while he was a youth at a camp and then, years later, his path to confrontation with his abuser, who had been jailed for his sex crimes. Tricky stuff, indeed, but Moran has shown himself capable of finding the human dimension in uncomfortable material. His subsequent play, All the Rage, opened Off-Broadway in 2013 and investigates the problem of anger in a quest to understand his own lack of anger toward his abuser.

Moran first began writing for the stage in his thirties, finding “an imperative to tell certain stories.” His stories tend to draw on themes of forgiveness and redemption that derive their spirit from his Catholic upbringing, while his interest in writing comes from his father, a journalist in Denver where Moran grew up. He was, he says, “always in love with storytelling” and was very conscious of performing as an aspect of storytelling, realizing that “if you can talk it and walk it, you can write it.” Having the confidence that comes with building a successful acting career, Moran found himself able to write parts based on his own experience that he could bring to life on stage. He’s at work now on a commissioned play that, far from being a monologue, has 11 characters, none of which he’s the right age to play.

Martin Moran

Martin Moran

At Long Wharf he’s in rehearsals for the world premiere of a new play by MacArthur prize-winning playwright Samuel D. Hunter, perhaps best known for his play The Whale which won a Lucille Lortel Award for Best Play in 2013. Lewiston, Hunter’s new play, is set in Idaho, and Moran says the mid-west setting is one he feels very familiar with. Alice, an older woman, and Connor, her younger male roommate, played by Moran, live on a farm where they run a fireworks stand and are visited by the woman’s grand-daughter. With Alice and Connor willing to sell off their land for a condo in a new development, one of the issues in the play becomes a generational clash over land and the question of how to develop a plot that dates back to Lewis and Clark’s famed expedition.

Moran attended a reading of Hunter’s script in New York and loved it immediately. “Sam is a wonderful writer for the theater,” Moran said, with characters that “are very complex human beings” drawn with “compassion and empathy.” Long Wharf Artistic Director Gorden Edelstein likened Hunter’s work to staples of American theater such as William Inge and Tennessee Williams “in his delicate empathy with all the characters in his stories.”

The cast had been in rehearsals for a week when I spoke to Moran. When I asked if things were going as he expected, he replied that he expected the cast to dig deep into the characters and that’s exactly what they were doing, led by director Eric Ting who “understands the play and its characters so very well.” When I asked about surprises, Moran cited the presence and input of the fire marshal since there is considerable use of fireworks in the show. He also expressed surprise about which lines get laughs. “It’s a very funny play, very human,” but the laughs aren’t easily predictable.

Moran finds the fate of his character Connor “exciting and frightening.” “A day arrives—and everything changes,” he says. And that’s one of the lasting points of plays like Hunter’s that Moran finds so admirable: they let us see how people change.

Drawing upon the changes he has experienced in his changing career as both actor and writer, Moran, now in his mid-fifties, is well poised to portray the kind of change that gives a new lease on life in middle-age. Lewiston is about the kinds of challenges that come from family and from those around us, and about the kinds of challenges the future presents to the legacy of America.

By Samuel D. Hunter
Directed by Eric Ting

Cast: Randy Danson (Alice), Arielle Goldman (Marnie), Martin Moran (Connor), and Lucy Owen (Female Voice). The creative team includes Wilson Chin (sets), Paloma Young (costumes), Matthew Richards (lighting), Brandon Wolcott (sound), and Charles M. Turner III (stage manager). Casting is by Calleri Casting. The production is sponsored by Whitney Center and the National Endowment for the Arts.

The production runs from April 6 to May 1, 2016 on Stage II. Tickets are $26 to $85. Press opening takes place April 13 at 7:30 p.m.

Mean Streets

Review of Brownsville Song (b-side for Tray) at Long Wharf Theatre

Kimber Lee’s Brownsville Song (b-side for Tray), at the Long Wharf Theatre, directed by Eric Ting, begins and ends with strong speeches that bookend the action of the play. At the outset, Lena (Catrina Ganey), a grandmother, refuses to begin the story—“this doesn’t begin with me,” she insists—while, at the end, Tray (Curtiss Cook Jr.), her grandson, finishes his reading of his college application essay with “this is the beginning.” Between those two speeches, which occur in reverse temporal order, we learn the hopeful and heartbreaking tale of Tray, an enterprising and engaging black boy in Brownsville, an area of Brooklyn known for its high crime rates, who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Lena (Catrina Ganey)

Lena (Catrina Ganey)

We can infer at once that something bad will happen, since Lena’s speech amounts to a protest against the kind of news stories that note the killing of a young black male as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Lena insists that turning Tray into a statistic does additional violence—to his memory and to the facts of his young life.

Devine (Kaatje Welsh) and Tray (Curtiss Cook, Jr.)

Devine (Kaatje Welsh) and Tray (Curtiss Cook, Jr.)

The Tray we meet in the story is a dedicated Golden Gloves boxer, a doting older brother, a sassy but loving grandson, a dogged student trying to figure out how to write an application essay that doesn’t sound like everyone else. To that end, his coach enlists a tutor. And that tutor, Merrell (Sung Yun Cho), happens to be an Asian woman who had been married to Tray’s dad and gave birth to Devine (Kaatje Welsh), Tray’s half-sister. Tray’s father was also the victim of street violence and Merrell became a drug addict. Unable to cope with her husband’s death or to care for her daughter, Merrell has lost all ties to the family until now.

The structural problems with the storytelling in Brownsville Song come into play there. Tray’s story, segments of which are acted out for us, are almost a ‘back story’; add to that the back story of Tray’s father and Merrell, and the play sags a bit with the weight of the past and of some events we only hear about. That effect doesn’t harm the story of Tray, his grandmother and half-sister, because the scenes among them are lively and warm, despite the weight of the sad past and the even sadder future we are moving toward as a fait accompli. But in the case of Merrell, that back story feels unearned. She returns to Tray’s life as if desiring and deserving a second chance, but her earlier failures exist only as comments from Tray and his grandmother, and nothing in Merrell’s demeanor bespeaks the kind of life she has, ostensibly, lived. An attempt to make her likeable by showing her barely managing as a Starbucks’ cashier, a job Tray, a Starbucks manager, gives her, lightens things up a bit but doesn’t do much to help the thinness of the character.

Customer (Anthony Martinez-Briggs), Tray (Curtiss Cook, Jr.), Merrell (Sung Yun Cho)

Customer (Anthony Martinez-Briggs), Tray (Curtiss Cook, Jr.), Merrell (Sung Yun Cho)

Sung Yun Cho’s removed presence is an odd effect when everything else in the play is so vivid. The character of the strict but warm grandma may be a bit of a domestic cliché, but Ganey infuses the role with such vivacity we’re glad to be in her company throughout, including a very touching moment when she concedes that, after all, Tray was a better person that she. As Devine, young Kaatje Welsh shines in her performance of a dance routine that Tray coaxes out of her, and is able to be withdrawn without appearing sulky; we see that her relation with her brother has to do with keeping him focused on what matters—summed up in the simple slogan “hugs not thugs” with which Tray teases his grandma.

Junior (Anthony Martinez-Briggs) and Lena (Catrina Ganey)

Junior (Anthony Martinez-Briggs) and Lena (Catrina Ganey)

The play makes clear the fine line Tray, played with affecting naturalness by Cook, walks between the world he’s trying to hold together for the sake of his own future and his family’s well-being and the world of the streets, which is never without threat. Tray’s buddy, Junior (Anthony Martinez-Briggs) brings those tensions into focus when he tries to account to Lena about what happened to her grandson. It’s a dialogue that feels genuine because the boy wants to assert himself while also sparing the feelings of a woman who knew him as a child. Lena’s tough love toward a self-styled street kid feels very much to the point. The gap between the domestic space of caring and comfort and the unpredictable dangers and pressures of gangland is very real.

Scott Bradley’s set cleverly shows us the kitchen and bedroom of a Brownsville apartment as well as the surrounding streets and alleys, and even a Starbucks, creating an open playing space able to shift time frames as events are recalled and presented. The core of it all is the kitchen table where Lena holds court; in the periphery are the streets where sirens sound and headlights flash, where Tray tries to entertain a dejected Devine, and agrees, warily but sympathetically, to let Merrell back into his life.

Curtiss Cook, Jr., as Tray

Curtiss Cook, Jr., as Tray

The construction of the play is such as to elicit cheers for a young man’s hopes and purpose, even as we know that “the beginning” of which he speaks, in a stirring evaluation of his family and himself, is followed, tragically, by a swift and senseless end. Lee and Ting make us feel the loss but also the positive effects of a life brutally short but never hopeless or pointless. In that sense, Brownsville Song (b-side for Tray) lives up to its intention to pay tribute without flinching from the hard truth at its heart.

Brownsville Song (b-side for Tray)
By Kimber Lee

Directed by Eric Ting

Set Design: Scott Bradley; Costume Design: Toni-Leslie James; Lighting Design: Russell H. Champa; Sound Design: Ryan Rumery; Production Stage Manager: Kathy Snyder; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern, Theresa Stark

Long Wharf Theatre, March 25-April 19, 2015

50th Anniversary Season of the Long Wharf Theatre

Now that the International Festival of Arts & Ideas has come and gone, and even the Yale Summer Cabaret is on a hiatus until it resumes on the 11th, what is a theater person to do? One possibility is start thinking about next season.

Last week at the Long Wharf Theatre, Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein and Associate Artistic Director Eric Ting, in a conversation on stage, situated in two comfy chairs, outlined the coming 50th Anniversary Season of the New Haven theater staple, giving a nearly full house details on the process behind their choices and introducing three dramatic readings from the final three plays to be featured.

Ting, taking the role of interviewer, asked Edelstein “what is the process” in picking plays for a season. There was a charge of applause indicating that many in the audience wonder about that very question. While allowing that the process of selection is the “hardest thing,” Edelstein alluded to his 25 year experience of “picking seasons” both at Long Wharf and in Portland. He mentioned some of the logistics that affect decisions—most notably the “shrinking size of shows,” so that shows with huge casts are harder and harder to put on. And yet Edelstein said he always begins with what he “dreams of doing”—the shows he most would like to put on or see put on. “All our dreams are never realized,” he admitted, but he never loses sight of the main purpose: that a play “say something about what it’s like to be alive now.” And, throwing the question open to the audience a bit, he asked how many would agree that the future of the theater is in new writing and in finding works that appeal to a younger demographic. Most present seemed to agree heartily with this proposition.

Alluding to “the bumpy road and false starts and detours” of a process Edelstein called “complicated” and “non-predictive,” he also spoke of the three main desiderata: that the play be relevant to our local community, that it reflect the times and the country we all live in, and that the season end with a balanced budget. He added that one of the key questions each year is what the centerpiece of the season will be. This year, for the 50th anniversary of the Long Wharf Theatre, he gave that question considerable consideration, with some ideas including works by Arthur Miller, such as The Crucible, which was the first play produced at the Long Wharf, or Death of a Salesman which has never been staged there and which Edelstein would like to direct, though, he added, he felt it was “the wrong statement” at this time.

What play did fit the bill? Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which Edelstein defended (against those who hear the title and think “high school production”) as perhaps the greatest play in the U.S. canon, a play “misunderstood” as “folksy” when in fact it was conceived by its author, who attended Yale and is buried in Hamden, as engaging with avant-garde literature of its time. What’s more, set in “all white” New Hampshire in the early 1900s, Our Town has come to seem a bit of a relic of a more homogeneous America. Edelstein intends to change all that by directed an interracial, multicultural Our Town that “looks like our town now.” He admitted to being “nervous as hell” about tackling this perhaps over-familiar chestnut with new vision as the first play of the season, then added a further wrinkle: the play would be cast using only Long Wharf “alum”—actors and crew who had worked there before. The combination of American classic, Long Wharf familiars, and a more contemporary approach should add up to an Our Town that—if you live in this town—you will not want to miss. Edelstein assured us that we “will not be disappointed.”


Ting, still the interviewer, set up the next play on the bill by restating a “story” he heard that author, comedian, actor, playwright Steve Martin, upon seeing Edelstein’s version of Martin’s The Underpants at Hartford Stage last year decided that he must have the director do Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile. Edelstein recounted how he met Martin at a production of The Underpants and knew that Martin felt the show had been done to perfection. Next thing he knew, he heard that Martin told the producers planning a revival of Lapin Agile that, it’s hoped, may go to Broadway for the first time, that Edelstein was the man for the job. Consequently, Long Wharf audiences will find another clever Martin comedy offered up with a sense of both its verbal absurdities and its slapstick pace, as was The Underpants. And if it does get to Broadway, you can say you saw it here first.


Next is the return of Dael Orlandersmith, the playwright, actress, and poet, whose works have “quite a fan base in New Haven,” where Yellowman and The Blue Album were staged at Long Wharf. Forever will be on its world premiere run, beginning in LA and stopping in New Haven en route to New York. Centered around the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, where, it so happens, American expats such as rock star Jim Morrison and renowned African-American author Richard Wright are buried among French literary figures and other notables, Forever deals with the ghosts of the past, and the sense of family—“the ones we were born into, the ones we create for ourselves”—and is, Edelstein says, Orlandersmith’s “most powerful piece yet.”


Called by the New York Times one of the best comedies of the 2013-14 season in New York, Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews takes up the theme of legacy where two cousins, one male and one female, battle over a religious necklace, an heirloom that their late grandfather, a survivor of the Holocaust, kept concealed on his person throughout his years of captivity. The jousting between the staunchly Hebraic Daphna and her less observant cousin Liam fuels a play of the comic ties and trials of blood relations. The except on stage at the Long Wharf preview readily attested to the comic potential of Daphna’s belligerence and the hapless niceness of Liam’s non-Jewish girlfriend in the face of such superior attitudes.


For the penultimate production of the season, director Eric Ting brings us a play that has its finger on the dismaying news events that continue to surface in the supposedly “post-racial” America of the Obama presidency. Kimber Lee’s brownsville song (b-side for tray) tells of the aftermath, for an interracial family, of the loss of young, engaging and promising Tray. Revealed to us in flashbacks, Tray’s life involves, in the scene enacted for us at the preview, managing a Starbucks where his step-mother, who abandoned Tray and his younger sister to their grandmother’s care, shows up, looking for a job. An “issue play on some level,” Ting said, “at heart it’s about family,” and the role it plays in dealing with tragic events and the hardships of contemporary life.

brownsville song (b-side for tray) BY KIMBER LEE DIRECTED BY ERIC TING CLAIRE TOW STAGE IN THE C. NEWTON SCHENCK III THEATRE A co-production with Philadelphia Theatre Company MARCH 25-APRIL 19, 2015 PRESS OPENING: WEDNESDAY, APRIL 1, 2015

The final play of the season, directed by Edelstein, will be the world premiere of The Second Mrs. Wilson, a play that revisits an interesting historical situation. President Woodrow Wilson’s first wife died while he was in office and he became the first president to woo and wed a woman while president. That would be interesting enough, perhaps, but the situation of the play is more pressing: not long after the wedding, Wilson suffered a stroke and was largely incapacitated. Di Pietro’s play looks at a situation in which a woman, persona non grata to the Cabinet and others trying to run the president’s administration, has to take charge in a man’s world in her husband’s stead as de facto head of the Executive Branch. In the scenes enacted at the preview, we saw Edith Boling Galt, a widow, charm the donnish president Wilson; in the second we watched her take command, delicately but firmly, of a meeting with one of the chiefs of staff. A play about the kinds of tests and resources in life that demand strong resolve, the play is relevant to the changing role of women in American politics.


Subscriptions are already on sale. Single tickets will go on sale Monday, August 4. For more information about the 50th anniversary season, visit or call 203-787-4282.

Split Knuckle Theatre's Connecticut Debut at Long Wharf

An acclaimed theatrical group is relocating to New Haven. Split Knuckle Theatre, founded in London in 2005, will be performing their new show Endurance at the Long Wharf Theatre, June 17-29. According to Greg Webster, one of the founding members and a professor of Movement Theater at UConn in Storrs, the group was formed mainly by American students abroad in England at the London International School of Performing Arts in 2005. Their intention from the start was “to combine activity with complex ideas,” with all members of the troupe “rooted in acting as physical bodywork.” Webster likens the group to the same tradition as Rude Mechs of Texas, where theatrical space is part of the show, with unlikely objects and props put into service, as opposed to the kind of “kitchen naturalism” that is still the basis of most regional theater.

Endurance came about, Webster says, when the group was trying to come up with a new project and he found himself channel-surfing one night and stumbled on what he describes as an excellent BBC documentary on the Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to Antarctica in 1914. Somehow—let’s call it creative ferment—Webster’s impressions of the documentary got mixed with a dream in which an office worker was being attacked by a Xerox machine. Add to the mix the fact that the Split Knuckle show was being developed during the nose-diving economy of 2007-08, with such memorable events as the federal bail-out of AIG and Fannie and Freddie Mac, and you’ve got the makings of a show that treats reality in a rather cavalier fashion as it works between two settings at once: an office where Walter Spivey must rally his troops to survive the blood-letting taking place in a Hartford insurance firm, and the exploratory voyage of Shackleton who, with his ship, appropriately named Endurance, floundering in ice, must keep his crew alive and optimistic—for two years. For Webster, that’s the takeaway: as Shackleton himself said, “we must always remember that optimism is true moral courage.” The play attempts to bring that insight to bear on the everyday workplace to show that it’s true of any endeavor; not only death-defying situations, but wherever the task is to “weather the crisis.”

Webster says that the play moves with the speed of something like The 39 Steps, and all the shifts in scene are done with a collection of objects used as props to suggest the different settings. Trained in the influential methods of Jacques Lecoq, a master of physical theater, Split Knuckle has played in 19 different countries and, though Webster lives now in New Haven and the troupe has become based here, this is its first time staging a show in CT. At a conference trade show, Long Wharf’s PR man Steve Scarpa took an interest in the Split Knuckle’s presentation and went to Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein and Associate Artistic Director Eric Ting, with the result that the show has been brought home, so to speak.

Webster says the name “split knuckle” came from a literal split knuckle he endured during a period when his frustration with theater—don’t get him started on open calls—caused him to punch a door and injure his hand. Out of that frustration came the desire to work with actors who would be in control of the entire venture, rather than lining up at 5 a.m. for “cattle calls” with a host of others all matching the same character description. Rehearsal for the group, Webster says, is “fooling around” to find what works, and likens the troupe’s dynamic to being in a jazz ensemble, albeit one in which every musician can play, potentially, every instrument. The intention is always “organic collaboration” with no “methodology of hierarchy” where one voice dominates or overrides others. Once the piece has evolved into its form, it’s fixed and “runs like a clock, precise and beautiful.” Though it may still appear somewhat improvisational to an audience seeing it for the first time, it has, by then, already shown itself sea-worthy.

Why Shackleton, an explorer often forgotten by history buffs who tend to remember the heroic stories of someone like Scott who lost his entire expedition? For Webster, Shackleton is important because he gave up on his goal of reaching the pole in 1909 when it became clear he couldn’t achieve it without the loss of life. Other explorers were willing to suffer casualties to achieve success; Shackleton’s “no man left behind” ethos might well be a kind of heroism more meaningful in a time when the wounds of employee attrition are still smarting.

Split Knuckle Theatre’s Endurance promises an evening of lively, physically inventive, and entertaining theater, bridging different times and situations—each dire in its own way—to explore the inspiring themes of survival and sacrifice.


Split Knuckle Theatre Endurance

Devised by Jason Bohon, Andrew Grusetskie, Michael Toomey, and Greg Webster, with Nick Ryan, collaborating writer; Ken Clark, musical composition; Dan Rousseau, lighting; Carmen Torres, stage manager

The Long Wharf Theatre Stage II June 17-29

40 Years On: A Preview of Yale Summer Cabaret, 2014

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Yale Summer Cabaret, a theatrical entity separate from Yale Cabaret (or “term time Cabaret”), which began life in 1974.

In tribute to the four decades of its existence, the current Yale Summer Cabaret, led by Artistic Directors Jessica Holt and Luke Harlan, with Managing Director Gretchen Wright and Associate Managing Director Sooyoung Hwang, will be staging plays by living American authors, beginning with Christopher Durang, who was one of the founding members of the Summer Cabaret 40 years ago. Today, of course, he’s celebrated for plays such as his most recent, the Tony Award-winning “Best Play” of 2013, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (which Summer Cab wanted to mount this year but Hartford Stage got there first), but, once upon a time, he was a YSD student working in the Summer Cabaret.

The decision to feature contemporary American playwrights follows nicely on last year’s program, which was a kind of syllabus of world theater, from the neoclassicism of Molière through naturalism, symbolism, and ending with the absurdist and pointed work of contemporary British playwright Caryl Churchill. The note reached at the end of last year’s Summer Cab, with Churchill’s Drunk Enough to Say I Love You looking askance at American dominance since WWII, sets up nicely this year’s program of “voices at the forefront of American theater,” works that encapsulate complex perspectives on our cultural heritage, our place in the world, our self-image, and our values, as a nation.

The shows will, like last year, open sequentially and play for about two weeks each. At midsummer, a break will give the company time to reconfigure the space so that, unlike last year, the seating arrangements will not remain fixed for the entire summer but will alter midway. This, Holt and Harlan feel, gives audiences the best of both worlds: the stage-like setup of last year’s Summer Cab, for two shows, and the more amorphous arrangements typical of term-time Cab for the next two shows. Capping off the two months of contemporary full-length plays will be a four-day program of very recent short plays, all by YSD alums, including the three playwrights currently featured at this year’s Carlotta Festival, Hansol Jung, Mary Laws, Kate Tarker.

The Program

First up, in June, is Christopher Durang’s 2009 absurdist comedy Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them which Holt, who will direct, describes as a “wildly funny, wacky, and zany” comedy about such laughing matters as torture, terrorism, gun violence, domestic dysfunction, male domination, and the fraught nature of interracial or cross-cultural marriage in America. In Holt’s view, the play is “grappling with what it means to be American,” and so, ultimately, fits the Summer program better than Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike would have.

We meet Felicity (Ariana Venturi), a young woman who has apparently married the unsettling Zamir (James Custati-Moyer) while drunk, so that she seems to be meeting him when we do, as she has no previous recollection of him. Then, of course, we go home to meet the folks: father (Aaron Bartz) and mother (Maura Hooper), with support from Aubie Merrylees as the seedy Reverend Mike, Celeste Arias as Hildegarde, dad’s “colleague,” and Andrew Burnap providing the cartoonish voice over. The play takes on most of the things the news keeps Americans fretting about, as stories of violence and the threat of violence are as American as television. From 5 June to 15 June

Next, still in June, Luke Harlan will direct Erin Courtney’s A Map of Virtue (2012), a New England premiere. Harlan calls the play a “journey into darkness” that mixes genres—romantic comedy, horror story, mystery, docu-drama—to keep the audience guessing. Narrated by a bird statue, the play tweaks expectations at every turn, but is also structurally symmetrical, with 6 scenes leading to a major event and 6 scenes following that key moment. With a cast of 7, the play mainly focuses on Sarah and Nate, a stranger named Mark and a house in the woods. An “exploration of evil,” the play, Holt says, is also “charming, brilliant, and ebulliently written,” and addresses the effect on relationships of traumatic events. From 19 June to 29 June

After 11 days off, including the 4th of July weekend, the Summer Cabaret returns with Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Present a Presentation about the Herero of Namibia, formerly known as Southwest Africa, from the German Sudwestafrika, between the Years 1884-1915. Director Jessica Holt calls the play, which played at SoHo Rep in 2012, directed by Eric Ting of the Long Wharf, a “meta-theatrical inquiry into cultural anthropology” as we watch a theatrical troupe in the process of creating a play about the “first genocide of the twentieth century.” Germany, during the inclusive years in the play’s title, controlled what was then called Deutsch-Südwestafrika, which is today the nation of Namibia, and during that time found cause to destroy the Herero tribe. With a ruthless efficiency that seems the prototype for genocide against Jews and Poles in WWII, German soldiers were put in the position of executioners of a native population. But the only record of what took place can be found in the soldiers’ letters home. In Drury’s play, the actors’ difficulties with imagining and inhabiting the roles dictated by the extreme situations—particularly with gaps in knowledge and motivation—leads to obvious analogies to violence against native and slave populations in the U.S. Holt sees the play within the play as an ingenious device to bring the audience into the situation through the comic and seemingly improvised interactions of rehearsal, inviting the audience to consider the implications of their own presence in the room with the actors. From 11 July to 26 July

The final full-length play is Will Eno’s Middletown, the author’s breakthrough play. Eno has been called, by Charles Isherwood, “the Samuel Beckett of the Jon Stewart generation,” and, while I don’t know that many see themselves as defined generationally by watching Stewart, the notion of unsettling existentialism rubbing up against the self-aware ironies of the American media does strike a chord. Eno’s The Realistic Joneses, currently on Broadway, debuted at the Yale Rep in 2012 and was one of the best new plays to show up there in recent memory. Middletown dates from 2010 and is a kind of Our Town for an edgier era. In director Luke Harlan’s view the play asks, as does Our Town for an earlier time, “what does it mean to be alive right now?” Without romanticizing or dismissing everyday lives, but with real “humor and fear,” Harlan says, Eno’s play looks at normal people living normal lives in an “Anytown U.S.A.” but lets them say things no one says aloud. With a cast of 10 actors playing 20 characters, the show will be an opportunity to sample the excellent ensemble work of YSD and Cabaret shows. From 31 July to 10 August

Finally, the Summer Cabaret closes with Summer Shorts, a four-day festival of new short plays by six playwrights “whose work was first nurtured and developed at the Yale School of Drama.” Divided into Series A and Series B, there will be at least three plays in each Series (or evening), and on the last two days, Saturday and Sunday, August 16th and 17th, all the plays will be staged in two sequences, at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., respectively, both evenings. The line-up of plays will be previewed here during the Summer Cab’s July interim. This part of the program should be very interesting, seeing what can be done in a short compass by playwrights that Holt and Harlan regard as the future of theater. From 14 August to 17 August

The Team

Jessica Holt, rising third year directing candidate, and Luke Harlan, rising second year directing candidate, met at the meet-and-greet last spring when Harlan visited Yale as a prospective YSD student. They hit it off then, with their belief in new plays that had been fostered by their work in, respectively, the San Francisco and New York theater scenes. By the time Harlan was midway through his first year, the two had begun to plan a proposal for the Summer Cabaret, where Holt put in time working last summer. Their mission statement focused on the virtues of new and challenging works that had enjoyed successful and highly regarded first or, at most, second runs.

Very aware that they are presenting the 40th anniversary season of the beloved experiment that is the Summer Cabaret, the Co-Artistic Directors wanted to provide a provocative line-up of plays that tell stories. Both directed plays in last year’s term-time Cabaret: Holt directed Edward Bond’s darkly comic dystopian play Have I None, a U.S. premiere, and Harlan reached back to The Brothers Size, an early play by YSD alum Tarell Alvin McCraney that gave Yale Cabaret 46 a strong finish. Holt’s and Harlan’s choices showed the commitment to current plays and youngish playwrights demonstrated by the Summer Cab line-up.

For their Managing Director, Holt and Harlan asked around “and heard and observed good things” about Gretchen Wright, whose background in choreography may afford participation beyond the key role of keeping the Cabaret running smoothly. As regular patrons of the Summer Cabaret know, the summer is a different animal from the term-time Cabaret, becoming a welcome oasis in a college town whose median age ratchets up considerably in the summer months. Other entertainments of the “afterhours” variety may be added later.

With its first offering, the 40th anniversary Summer Cabaret will touch base with its origins before taking us on a journey that will demonstrate some of the contemporary values of theater—bending genres, looking at the problem of historical enactment, re-imagining the “domestic quotidian,” and demonstrating the resources of short but powerful recent pieces.

The key terms for the 40th Summer Cabaret, devised by Holt and Harlan, are Community. Excellence. Imagination. Innovation. Investigation. Wonder. Providing excellent theater to the New Haven community through innovative works that investigate our ways of life with a sense of imaginative wonder, the Summer Cabaret will up and running in three and a half weeks.

Prepare to be challenged.

The Yale Summer Cabaret 2014 Voices at the Forefront of American Theater

Photographs by Christopher Ash

Passes and single tickets are available online at, by phone at (203) 432-1567, by email at, and in person at the Yale Summer Cabaret box office (217 Park Street, New Haven, Connecticut 06511).

Across the Great Divide

Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles is a straightforward family drama, full of a natural empathy for its two main characters, a widow in her 90s and her grandson, a twenty-something newly arrived in New York City after biking all the way from Seattle. After his awkward welcome—he arrives in the wee hours while his grandmother is asleep and she first greets him without her dentures in—Leo settles into life with Vera and both, by play’s end, have come to terms or are coming to terms with change in other relationships in their lives. Key to the play’s charm is its ability to handle relationships with a feel for the complex arrangements of attraction and antagonism that work under the surface between friends and between kin. Herzog is not afraid to make her characters less than admirable at times, but they never wear out their welcome.

One often hears about whether or not male authors can “write women characters”; much less often do we hear about whether female authors can “write men.” Herzog can. Her Leo Joseph-Connell (Micah Stock) has the kind of intense self-regard with efforts at humility and companionability that are hallmarks of the well-intentioned male of his day. Micah Stock plays Leo with the kinds of hesitations and measured responses that speak of the thoughtful male who feels his thoughts should be of general interest. It’s a great, understated performance. Much in this play requires a delicate touch: if the humor is too broad or the characters too stiff, the effect of its natural sympathy will suffer. Eric Ting’s successful rendering of this popular play makes the most of the Long Wharf’s intimate thrust amphitheater to bring us into this home and make us comfortable.

As Vera Joseph, Leo’s welcoming but settled grandma, Zoaunne LeRoy has to provide much of the play’s ultimate feeling. Hard of hearing, hard-headed in some things (such as her judgments on her neighbor and her insistence that Leo’s girlfriend Bec is too plump), at times grasping for the right word, her hands fluttering and gesturing, at times wobbly or wearily surfing her memory banks, at times giddy and a bit girlish, Vera is a subtly written character and LeRoy makes her real. She’s not some generic old lady or someone’s warm or prickly granny. Vera feels like an actual person, with a rather complicated past. A communist, Vera has come through her life with definite principles, the kind that don’t exactly earn her respect from her children’s generation, having to make do with an accepting “Marx is cool” from her grandson. Ting and his cast let silences allow us to imagine the sorts of things Vera might’ve said to her grandson were she younger and the ideas from her long-deceased husband’s lectures fresher in her mind.

As it is, the two find agreeable moments of togetherness—sharing a bowl on the autumn equinox and approaching a level of frankness that, while it happens often enough in plays, here feels merited and plausible. Likewise are Leo’s confrontations with Bec (Leah Karpel), a woman who Herzog shrewdly presents as someone trying to get on with her life without incurring the debts and obligations that a young man’s desires and affections can heap on a young woman. Herzog lets Leo have some of the higher moral ground as he’s still to some degree in shock about and certainly still grieving the bizarre accidental death of his best friend, Micah. A friend that, he feels, Bec praises overmuch. These arguments have the vivid feeling of ongoing discussions in medias res, where we quickly size up the levels of investment that are there to be wounded or repudiated. Most of the scenes in the play take place on the couch, the lack of action requiring that they be very well-written and staged with an easy pacing that is essential to the inviting tone of 4000 Miles.

One possible off-note is Leo’s ill-advised dalliance with Amanda (Teresa Avia Lim), a young Asian-American student from Parsons, an artsy, mostly inebriated character whose mood swings are comical enough as we watch Leo become sympathetic, seductive, chummy, and bored by turns, but one feels that Herzog baulks at creating a caricature for the sake of a laugh (drunk “sluts” are people too), though Amanda’s most pressing reason for being in the play is comic relief (though she’s a little abashed that she doesn’t provide any other relief for such a sweet “mountain man”). The scene isn’t a complete loss: Amanda’s outrage at Vera’s communist allegiances is almost worth the rather pat entry of Vera at exactly the wrong moment, consummation-wise, and the more interesting reason for Amanda’s presence—Leo’s perhaps not solely platonic infatuation with his adopted Chinese sister, Lily—helps to make the scene, as they say, motivated.

The discords of that scene are instructive because they put into relief the fact that, by the time they are preparing a speech for the funeral of Vera’s never seen but intrusive neighbor, Leo and Vera have arrived at the complementarity of real friendship. Vera’s hands waving as she does not speak to say her piece when Bec and Leo part amicably is worth volumes. LeRoy carries the weight of years on Vera well, letting us feel those years when they impart wisdom and resignation as well as frailty and comic lapses. Her dignity in the role does the play proud.

As does Frank J. Alberino’s lived-in looking set, with its couch center-stage, its front door upstage, and its wings for kitchen areas and walk-throughs to the bedrooms, and Matt Frey’s lighting which lets us feel the way daylight and nighttime make moods in even the most familiar spaces. Meanwhile, Ilona Somogyi’s costumes let us register the effectiveness of seeing characters—initially in grimy bikerwear and nightgown, respectively—dressed up and presentable at the play’s close. In its relaxed and unsentimental grasp of these characters and the play's wry humor, The Long Wharf’s 4000 Miles comes close to perfection.

4000 Miles By Amy Herzog Directed by Eric Ting

Set Design: Frank J. Alberino; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: Matt Frey; Sound Design: Matt Tierney; Production Stage Manager: Kathy Snyder; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Casting: Calleri Casting

Long Wharf Theatre February 19-March 16, 2014

Herzog Back in New Haven

Tomorrow night at the Long Wharf Theatre, Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles begins previews, with its official opening next Wednesday, February 26th. Herzog, a graduate of of the Yale School of Drama and Yale College, debuted her play Belleville at the Yale Rep in 2011. Now, the well-respected slightly earlier play 4000 Miles, directed by Long Wharf's associate artistic director Eric Ting, gets its chance in New Haven. Produced at Lincoln Center Theater’s New Works program in 2011, the play won an OBIE Award in 2012 for Best New American Play and was a finalist for a Pulitzer in 2013. The story of an inter-generational odd couple, of sorts, the play depicts the bonds and frictions between Leo, a twenty-one-year-old man, and Vera, his ninety-one-year-old grandmother. That difference in age means that, though family, the two characters have rather different assumptions about the world they live in. Leo has come to New York City, biking 4000 miles cross-country from Seattle to reconnect with Bec, a girl who may be through with him, and is grieving after a friend’s unexpected death, and Vera happens to have some space he can use.

To Herzog, it’s a bit surprising that the play has become so popular in regional theater—besides going up at the Long Wharf, 4000 Miles is currently being staged at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park as well. “It has little plot and is mainly a dialogue-based character piece,” Herzog says, but those qualities may be part of what makes it so popular. Given that character studies are a major interest of theater, a story that brings together different generations in a meaningful way seems tailor-made for regional theater, where the majority of patrons have seen more than a few decades of life and where, as in New Haven, younger theater-goers are apt to be involved in theater themselves.  Set in 2007, 4000 Miles features a character based on a cousin several years younger than Herzog when she wrote the play—Leo's at an age when many are trying to decide their direction in life and what kind of life makes sense to them. Encountering a much older family member with very definite views on the world sets up many opportunities for the characters to reveal and discover things about themselves in small but significant ways. And that tends to make for fascinating theater.

Writing the play, for Herzog, was an effort to pay tribute to her own grandmother, who saw the play more than once, calling it “an eerie out of body experience” to see a character on-stage “lifted from her own stories.” Both Vera and Herzog’s grandmother share a past as communists in the post-World War II era, a time when persons of their political persuasion suffered much “red-baiting” and, when possible, prosecution. While a character like Vera is “necessarily engaged with political questions,” Herzog is uncertain that a domestic drama like 4000 Miles can really be called “political,” as some critics have done. With her own grandmother in mind, Herzog suggests that 4000 Miles and her earlier play After the Revolution “may have gained a political reputation unfairly.” Vera, a character in both plays, espouses communism, while her husband, recently deceased in the earlier play, was blacklisted and an actual Soviet spy. Yet Herzog questions whether her own grandmother’s stress on the importance of political art is met by her granddaughter’s plays. Herzog prefers to avoid “art with a sole message,” and rather considers her plays to be about characters with political views than plays with a particular political agenda. Her grandmother, on the other hand, felt that “art should have a political message.”

Thus part of the interest in the play is in how the values of Vera look to someone who has had none of her experiences—of the Depression, of the Second World War, of communist China, of McCarthyism, of the Vietnam War, of being devastated by the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989-90. For Leo’s generation, born in the mid-Eighties, Leftist sympathies are more likely to take the form of Green environmental issues and concerns with the global economy and its products, or perhaps with sexual freedoms and racial injustice. The play is not so much about a clash of ideologies as it is an observation about how different political climates create different kinds of responses in different generations. More to the point for Herzog, in terms of the play’s dynamics, is the theme of loss, as Leo “faces his first experience of real grief and finds questions about his life to look into.” Herzog intends her play, a comic drama, to be faithful to the kinds of interactions that can occur naturally but meaningfully between relatives thrown together by happenstance.

The other autobiographical feature of the play is that Herzog biked cross-country herself, right after graduation from Yale College in 2000, though, unlike Leo, east to west. While none of her experiences are directly incorporated in the play, she mentions a 4th of July celebration in a tiny town in Kansas that left an impression on her—a resident of the northeast all her life—in showing her a bit of small-town America at a time that was, in many ways, a turning-point in recent history.

With a sense of the vast area—4000 miles—that separates the coasts of our country—and the stretch of time—70 years—that separate the births of Vera and Leo, Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles, contained in one room, offers viewers a chance to stake stock of their own sense of what separates us and joins us as inter-generational Americans.


4000 Miles By Amy Herzog Directed by Eric Ting

Long Wharf Theatre February 19 - March 16, 2014

Long Wharf's New Season Launched

Of course, the big news today is that we have a functioning federal government again . . . sorta, and government workers are returning to work. Whether your inclination is to cheer, jeer, or sneer at our political leadership, here’s news of another happy return taking place today: the Long Wharf Theatre is back. The first show of the new season, Steve Martin’s The Underpants, begins previews tonight, and opens next Wednesday. Derived from a German play of the Expressionist era by Carl Sternheim, Martin’s play is a irreverent farce about marriage, fidelity, temptation . . . and undergarments. When a young woman’s knickers drop to her ankles while she’s out in public—to watch the King on parade—she becomes a major provocation to young men on the prowl. Would-be suitors move into a room for rent in the house where Louise lives with her stuffy husband who is squeamish about sex—because children cost money!—and not at all ready to find himself married to “a sensation.” Directed by Gordon Edelstein, the play’s skewering of dull conformity in the name of racier considerations should make for a lively evening, and Martin’s sense of comic timing is legendary. October 16-November 10.


Next up is a Pulitzer-winning play by August Wilson: Fences, a play that won a Tony for its two lead roles both in its original production in 1987 and in its first Broadway revival in 2010, as well as Tony for Best Play (1987) and Best Revival (2010). Set in the 1950s, the story concerns Troy Maxson, a man who drives a garbage truck but who at one time was a baseball sensation in the Negro Leagues. Set in the time when the color barrier was being broached by black athletes, the play is a character study of a working-class black man struggling with his place in life—which includes a brother with a war injury, two sons, one from a previous marriage, the other from his current marriage to Rose, and a pregnant girlfriend. The Long Wharf’s revival will be directed by Phylicia Rashād, famous since the 1980s for her role as Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show, and a Tony-Award-winning Actress in the revival of A Raisin in the Sun in 2004. November 27-December 22

The first play of the new year is the World Premiere of Heidi Schreck’s The Consultant, a workplace comedy set at the firm of Sutton, Feingold and McGrath, a pharmaceutical advertising company, where downsizing and getting ahead fuel anxieties, and office romance plays its part in the complex sense of “work” in our era of constant Bluetooth and Smartphone access. Long Wharf Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein calls the play “irreverent, a little kooky and very humane.” January 8-February 9, 2014

Associate Artistic Director Eric Ting helms celebrated newer playwright Amy Herzog’s touching family drama 4000 Miles, about the rapport between a twenty-one-year-old and his ninety-one-year-old grandmother, living together in Greenwich Village after Leo bikes across the continent from California. It’s an opportunity for the clash and the coming-to-terms of generations in this highly praised play called both “funny” and “moving” by The New York TimesFebruary 19-March 16

Tony Award-winning South African playwright Athol Fugard has not acted on stage since 1997. It’s exciting news to hear that he will be acting the main role in his new play The Shadow of the Hummingbird in its World Premiere, directed by Gordon Edelstein. Fugard plays a grandfather who unexpectedly plays host to his ten-year-old grandson, truant from school for the day. Following 4000 Miles at Long Wharf, we can say that the interplay between elders and juniors is a big theme in the second half of the 2013-14 Season. In Edelstein’s words, Fugard’s latest is “a great work by a master about living and dying, and how to live one’s life.” Stage II, March 26-April 27.

The final show of the season is the crowd-pleasing musical The Last Five Years, Book, Music, and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, directed by Gordon Edelstein. Playing on Broadway just now is Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, about a marriage and an infidelity, told backwards from the end of the affair to the night it began. Brown’s musical does something similar: Cathy, an actress, tells the story of her marriage to Jamie, a writer, from its end to its beginning; Jaimie tells of his relationship to Cathy from its romantic inception to its collapse. In the center of the play there is a shared song on the night they agree to marry. Using a clever device to explore the “his” and “hers” of stories about relationships, the play is poignant and engaging, with songs of wit and romance. May 7-June 1.

It would seem the Long Wharf has put together another winning season of new work, important revivals, and welcome encores of recent crowd-pleasing theater.  Over 30 Long Wharf productions have transferred to Broadway or Off-Broadway, most recently the highly acclaimed My Name is Asher Lev and the fascinating musical February House.


Plays are staged at the Claire Tow Stage in the C. Newton Schenck III Theatre, unless otherwise stated.

The Long Wharf Theatre Gordon Edelstein, Artistic Director; Joshua Bernstein, Managing Director

222 Sargent Drive New Haven, CT


Welcome to the Neighborhood

Last year, the final play in the Long Wharf season—My Name is Asher Lev—went onto New York and recently won the Outer Critic’s Circle Award for Best New Off-Broadway Play. This year, the final play has already won a Tony Award and is a highly respected and successful play. In other words, Long Wharf patrons will not be making the kind of discovery that thrilled so many last year, but that’s not a complaint. Clybourne Park is so good it’s a welcome cap to an interesting season that began in the fall with the premiere of Satchmo at the Waldorf. Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park takes its impetus from Lorraine Hansberry’s famous play A Raisin in the Sun. As you may remember, that play, from 1959, dramatizes the efforts of a black family named Younger to improve their lot in life—an inheritance may permit them to buy a house in Clybourne Park, an all-white neighborhood formerly off-limits. Karl Lindner, a representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, tries to talk the Youngers out of the purchase.

In Part One of his play, Norris shows us what Russ (Daniel Jenkins) and Bev (Alice Ripley), the couple selling the house, are like, and has Lindner (Alex Moggridge) arrive to try to talk them out of selling. Norris further extends the tensions by introducing a handful of other characters: Jim (Jimmy Davis), a well-meaning priest invited by Bev to talk to Russ who seems unable to overcome his grief for Kenneth, their recently deceased son; Francine (Melle Powers), the black housekeeper and her husband Albert (LeRoy McClain) who arrives to pick her up from work and gets drawn into the goings-on in the house; and Betsy (Lucy Owen), Lindner’s deaf wife who provides some comic relief to the situation.

The situation is that Russ has a considerable chip on his shoulder against his neighbors for their treatment of Kenneth upon his return from Korea. As Russ and Lindner face off, the priest comes between them and Bev tries to keep things civil. Francine and Albert, forced into the role of token representatives of their race, can only be made more and more uncomfortable as the argument unfolds. Key to it all is Lindner’s insistence that people should stay with “their own kind.”

Norris—with deft characterization—makes clear to us what is at stake for each character and lets us be the kind of judges who must throw the first stone, or not. Whose side are we on? It’s easy to be sympathetic to Russ, and Jenkin’s performance is naturalism to the nth degree. He simply is Russ and we’re in his house, watching him barely suffer the others until he finally explodes. Ripley’s Bev is brittle and bright the way such women often are, living mostly behind a façade. Davis as the priest is friendly and likeable, but subtly hard to like. Moggridge’s Lindner is first-rate: earnest, overbearing, aggrieved and comically stilted in his effort to be polite: the scene when he keeps speaking about not being allowed to speak is pitch perfect. The situation is so uncomfortable it’s easy to feel like a silent guest amazed at what unfolds.

As the couple in the hot seat simply because of their race, Powers and McClain register well the roles within roles devised for them—first, as hired help who are supposed to feel like friends, but not too familiar; then, as a different race who are supposed to be appreciative of their social betters, without being servile; then, as a couple who have their own differences about how to represent their difference from Bev’s condescension and Lindner’s racism. It may all sound very complex, but Norris is a wiz at getting it all in, and director Eric Ting makes certain his cast gets it all across. We’re with them every step of the way, without ever feeling like the points are being spelled out.

And if the pace of Part One feels about perfect, the pace of Part Two truly is. Norris is good at giving us the mannerisms of 1959—and Jenkins is a tour de force unto himself—but he is truly inspired in giving us “us”: the liberal, educated, well-meaning, self-consciously enlightened persons of 2009. The dialogue and its performance are so spot on, it’s easy to understand why Ting and the Long Wharf wanted to do the play: one imagines that, in a little while, 2009 may begin to fade away. We deserve to see the thirtyish denizens of the early 21st century while they’re still fresh in our minds.

This is great ensemble work and everyone captures the comic potential of their parts. Particularly effective is Owen’s Lindsey, a super-pregnant woman who crouches splay-legged upon chairs as if ready to drop a litter at any moment. Her delivery has the studied “correctness” of the kind of privilege under duress that may well be the distinctive characteristic of her generation. As her well-meaning partner, Steve, Moggridge is a wonder as the voice of reason in the lion’s den. He wants to take exception to his and his wife’s treatment by Lena and Kevin, a black couple who represent Clybourne Park, now an in-demand black neighborhood slated by economic forces for gentrification via white buyers like Lindsey and Steve. And once Steve starts down the path of picking at what he sees as racist assumptions on the part of the black couple—well, it’s obvious there’s not going to be any graceful way out.

Once the race card gets played it stays played—and can only lead to racist and sexist jokes aimed at nothing so much as the pretense of enlightenment. Lindner, in 1959, could feel entitled to speak for a white consensus—even though it annoys Russ and is an affront to Francine and Albert. But in 2009, the notion of consensus quickly dissipates. Even the couples are not united because sexual politics have a way of coming into play just when you thought it was safe to say “we.”

It’s still the case, even in 2009, that the black characters don’t get as much to say as the white characters—but in 2009 they have even more wherewithal to let us feel it. As Lena, Melle Powers keeps the comic pitch high—she knows how to make graciousness snitty. And McClain, as both Albert and Kevin, gets in digs that go a long way to show a certain amused detachment. Kevin’s anger, when it comes, is the unleashing of a street attitude we know he works hard to hide.

As a play about the social abyss underlying our riven culture’s attitudes about race and rights and belonging and getting ahead, Clybourne Park knows whereof it speaks. Everyone is a bit foolish, everyone is a bit out of their depth. As facilitators to the purchase and renovation that the white couple aim at, Tom (Jimmy Davis) and Kathy (Ripley) bring in further gaffes and gripes to keep things zinging. And then there’s Jenkins as Dan, a garrulous worker dude who has made a discovery in the backyard.

That discovery has to do with a further theme in Clybourne Park. Not only is racism, in one form or another, a staple of American life, so is the demand that some part of our society defend our society—which often means attacking other cultures and political entities for reasons not exactly transparent. Kenneth is not a casualty of war, but a casualty of demobbed socialization. Whether in 1959 or 2009, the conflicted feelings about war, like those about race, remain very much relevant, haunting and possibly shattering any provisional peace.

Clybourne Park is a play as real as any town meeting in New Haven, where the issues of who gets what is liable to come up. Don’t miss it. And if you saw it at Playwright’s Horizon a few years ago, don’t miss Eric Ting’s staging, this inspired cast, Frank Alberino’s wonderful set, and your fellow citizen’s reactions at the Long Wharf.

Clybourne Park By Bruce Norris Directed by Eric Ting

Set Design: Frank Alberino; Costume Design: Linda Cho; Lighting Design: Tyler Micoleau; Sound Design: Elizabeth Rhodes; Production Stage Manager: Charles M. Turner III; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Casting: James Calleri, CSA; ASL Consultant: Karen Josephson; Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis

Long Wharf Theatre May 8-June 2, 2013

Clybourne Park This Week

When Bruce Norris’ Tony-winning Best Play of 2012 Clybourne Park begins its run at the Long Wharf Theatre this week, the play’s relation to Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun won’t only be a matter of the script. LeRoy McClain, who plays the part of Albert in Part One, set in 1959, and the part of Kevin in Part Two, set in 2009, joined the production immediately after playing Walter Lee Younger, the lead character in Hansberry’s beloved play. In Raisin, Walter Lee manages to all but destroy his family’s effort to buy a house in Clybourne Park, a formerly all-white neighborhood in Chicago. Clybourne Park begins with a couple, Bev and Russ, who are trying to sell their home, only to learn that a black family, who turn out to be the Youngers, has made an offer.

McClain, a graduate of the Yale School of Drama, was last seen on-stage locally as Boy Willie in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of The Piano Lesson in 2011. There he was quite likeable as the feckless charmer who wants to sell the family’s heirloom piano. McClain thus has background with roles that focus attention on the weight of the past and on the hopes for the future in African-American experience. A focus Norris’ play very much participates in, giving McClain the opportunity to move from the passion of Walter Lee, whose every feeling is made manifest, to roles in Clybourne Park more detached, though very much centered on the same themes.

In Part One of Clybourne Park, McClain plays the relatively minor, though important role, of Albert, husband of Francine, housekeeper for Bev and Russ. Albert’s presence, as McClain points out, is telling for what Norris does in the play: letting us experience the outlook of 1959 on such things as racial and marital relations before jumping much closer to the present. Albert acts a certain role around white people, and the audience can tell, from his reactions, his discomfort with such social facades. McClain notes that, as an actor, no matter how restrictive the part of Albert might seem, he knows he “gets to have his say” in Part Two.

In Raisin, a man named Karl Lindner, a representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, tries to dissuade the Youngers from moving into the neighborhood. In Norris’ play, in 1959, Lindner is a neighbor of Bev and Russ, and he tries to dissuade them from selling. In 2009, the lawyer handling the effort by a white couple to buy a home in the black neighborhood that Clybourne Park has become is Lindner’s daughter. As Kevin, McClain plays the current representative of the CPIA who argues housing codes with a white couple trying to buy a house in Clybourne Park.

One aspect of Clybourne Park that McClain was very aware of, coming to the production fresh from Raisin, is Norris’ ability to give the audience the “earnest realism” of Hansberry’s characters, as we know them in 1959, without treating them to outright parody. Norris lets us inhabit the period, which is important for the contrast with Part Two, which McClain likens to the terse, overlapping dialogue of someone like David Mamet. The difference in pacing between Part One and Part Two, McClain says, “is like using a different set of muscles. As an actor, you get a thorough workout.”

The play, with its treatment of racial issues in both mid-twentieth century and early twenty-first, offers something of a workout for the audience too, and McClain feels the show is an excellent choice for New Haven, where neighborhoods tend not to be integrated even now. The play, in looking at the changed status of Clybourne Park shows that, while the owners may change, the fact of segregated neighborhoods remains. It’s important to the success of the production, McClain feels, that the audience “be aware of a certain irony” present in both parts of the play. McClain is very impressed with director Eric Ting’s ability to capture such nuances, in fact Ting’s participation was a determining factor in McClain taking the role, as he very much wanted to work with Long Wharf’s Associate Artistic Director.

When I spoke to McClain the cast had been in rehearsals for about three weeks and he spoke of the sense of “absolute collaboration” that was present from the start. The cast “all click and get along, hanging out together at Sullivan’s, spending time together, which is not an everyday thing with actors.” The camaraderie of the ensemble is crucial, McClain says, because of the subtlety of the play and because the actors who dominate Part One are different from the actors who dominate Part Two. The different styles and the different setting make for transformations that everyone must be comfortable with.

In early rehearsals, Ting and his cast would vary the order, sometimes rehearsing Part Two before Part One. The two parts of the play speak different languages, and the cast, McClain feels, are very much alive to the uncomfortable humor of Part One and the more direct verbal humor in Part Two. McClain thinks of the play as a “dramedy”—presenting “prickly themes” in a manner that is “subversive, funny, and passionate.”

Previews of Clybourne Park begin on May 8; Opening Night is May 15.

Clybourne Park By Bruce Norris Directed by Eric Ting

The Long Wharf Theatre May 8-June 2, 2013

Weighty Issues

When it comes to our looks, almost all of us have issues.  Should we battle those issues and strive to overcome them, or should we work to alter our appearance?  That’s one of the questions asked by Laura Jacqmin’s January Joiner: A Weight Loss Horror Comedy, playing at the Long Wharf Stage II, directed by Eric Ting.  Set in a “fat farm” in Florida, the play focuses on three characters dealing with weight issues.  Terry (Ashlie Atkinson) needs to lose weight for health reasons, and she’s adamant about doing so.  Her sister Myrtle (Meredith Holzman) doesn’t feel her weight is an issue, and takes a more quizzical look at the weight-loss program.  The only other enrollee in this off-period is Darnell, or Big D (Daniel Stewart Sherman), a “fat-proud” Minnesota native who comes back year after year “for the people.”

Staged against a long bank of frosted glass, terminating, at times, in a vending machine, January Joiner is streamlined in appearance and in its script.  We get some backstory for each character—particularly in the story told by the main instructor, Brian (Anthony Bowden), that explains where he comes from and why he’s concerned about his body.  Since most of us are concerned with our bodies in one way or another, the stories the characters tell about themselves carry an element of immediate identification.

The stand-out characterization in the play comes from Tonya Glanz as April, an uptight, relentlessly hyper instructor who has the hots for Brian—thwarted—and who seethes with righteousness about her super-trim—“svelte,” as she would have it—form.  The play doesn’t really have a villain, but April is the character we’re not meant to sympathize with—and Glanz brings a brittle, boyish-girl quality to the role that helps with the humor at the character’s expense.

As Darnell, the character who is meant to evince the most sympathy, Sherman is good at giving us D’s forced brightness, a quality he has clearly learned so as to avoid whining, which would be much easier.  We easily believe that the social interactions at Evolve are more important to him and his self-esteem than his weight is, and that’s why the tragedy that befalls him seems a bit unearned.  The blow to the ego that he suffers is important because it works with the play’s theme that improving our appearances doesn’t necessarily improve us, but it’s hard to believe he would take it so hard.

The key character for the “tragic” aspect of the play is Terry.  Played initially by Atkinson, Terry is likeable, easy-going and giggly; in the second half of the play, after she starts to see results, she is played by Maria-Christina Oliveras.  But the fact that the character Oliveras plays is called “Not-Terry” immediately lets us in on the dynamic involved.  Not-Terry is driven, impatient and cutting.  As she “cuts away the fat”—to use the terms April exhorts them with—she also cuts away a lot of her empathy for others and her willingness to see someone like Darnell as a potential boyfriend.

The linchpin of the plot is Myrtle.  She’s the one who initially is troubled by the demonic vending machine and its ominous tendencies, and she is the one for whom Brian, very unprofessionally—in a good comic sequence—develops “hard feelings,” so to speak.  We could be watching a story of true love in weight loss, where only the one not concerned with her body finds love, but Jacqmin’s plot is a little more complicated than that.  Terry, or rather Not-Terry, has her own designs on Brian, and maybe the sister with the more “svelte” body that will get the guy.

If this sounds like it’s adding up to an einy-meiny-miny-moe for Brian—or maybe it’s a judgment of Paris—choosing amongst thin (April), heavier (Not-Terry) and heaviest (Myrtle), that’s because it is.  So when Darnell shows up at one point with wings, we might be meant to think more of Cupid than an angel.  Which is to say the romantic aspects of the play override both its comedy and horror elements, though both are certainly present.

One of the more jarring aspects of the show is the use of the vending machine: it seems to represent all that is fraught with guilt and unease about the process of dieting, but it also has a homicidal side that matches to the idea that “improving” oneself also means “doing away with” an earlier self.  That theme is what keeps January Joiner interesting.  What keeps it amusing is its ability to show us the attitudes we have about weight and make us laugh at them.  The cast, both thin and plus-sized, is very game in that regard, having to do sit-ups—there’s one very funny sequence with Myrtle spotting for Darnell—and work out as well as cavort about in revealing costumes.

There are good effects throughout, via Set (Narelle Sissons), Lighting (Stephen Strawbridge) and Sound (Leah Gelpe)—the scary machine, and the suggestion of a swimming pool, and the beds/counters that rise from the floor.  Some of the dramatic elements don’t fully jell—for all the fun of the evil vending machine, its contribution has little to do with the plot—but what keeps the play appealing is its appeal to situations we can readily recognize.  Somewhere between Darnell’s fatalistic “it’s all in the genes” and Not-Terry’s steely efforts to cut away, through will power, the part of her she doesn’t want is where most of us reside, trying to look better without necessarily also trying to be better.  January Joiner weighs in on the importance of the latter over the former.


January Joiner A Weight Loss Horror Comedy By Laura Jacqmin Directed by Eric Ting

Set Design: Narelle Sissons; Costume Design: Oana Botez; Lighting Design: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Design: Leah Gelpe; Casting: James Calleri, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Matthew Melchiorre

Long Wharf Theatre January 9-February 10, 2013


Weight Watchers, Watch Out

It’s a new year and traditionally the time of resolutions as people make plans to improve their lives.  One staple of the New Year’s Resolution list is the vow to lose weight, and one of the givens of that vow is that it will be accompanied with a lot of drama.  What should be a simple, private decision to alter one’s diet or undertake an exercise regimen becomes fraught with the dynamics of the game show—can she/he do it?—together with the psychic costs of failing—if not, what’s “wrong” with her/him?  We even have TV shows like The Biggest Loser dedicated to the weight-loss ordeal. January Joiner: A Weight Loss Horror Comedy, the new play by Laura Jacqmin  debuting this week at the Long Wharf Theatre, takes on the high anxiety of self-improvement with comedy, horror elements, and a knowing sense of the absurd.  Set in a “weight-loss boot camp” in Florida, it follows the travails of two sisters, Myrtle (Meredith Holzman) and Terry (Ashlie Atkinson).  Terry, the elder, experienced a recent cardiac incident that has sent her scurrying to Total Xtreme, run by Brian (Anthony Bowden) and April (Tonya Glanz).  Myrtle is along to offer moral support, which means that she is both with the program and looking a little askance at it.  And dedication is clearly an issue since a “January Joiner” is the term for the memberships at health spas that begin with New Year’s resolutions and fade by spring.

According to the script, Myrtle and Terry are overweight young women—5'5" and well over 200 lbs. They are joined by Darnell (Daniel Stewart Sherman), a happy-go-lucky heavy person who tips the scale at over 300 lbs. and keeps coming back to make what little adjustments he can.  Thus, among the three dieters we have desperation—Terry claims she will lose 50 lbs. during her stay—acceptance, and indifference.  Then there are creepier elements—such as Not-Terry and Holy Shit Ghost, both played by Maria-Christina Oliveras—that add a touch of the uncanny to the proceedings.

An undercurrent of the play is certainly the question: why is weight an issue, and what’s the solution?  The question of one’s appearance, in our image-conscious world, is not simply physical.  It comes loaded with moral, personal, psychological, and social implications—the kinds of things that plays thrive on.

But the play, in the view of its director, Eric Ting, is more than just a satire on the effect of social injunctions to be thinner, better-looking, or to have such goals. It’s a play about change. “At its heart it is a play about two sisters growing apart, about becoming so different that they don’t recognize each other,” Ting said.

To change one’s appearance—all the ads say—is to change one’s life.  A “new you.”  But what gets shed and lost with the “old you”?  For Laura Jacqmin, its author, the play asks: “What happens to us when the people who are closest to us change?”  What is the effect on our relationships when we take on roles, tasks or goals that change our relations to others already in our lives?

January Joiner: A Weight Loss Horror Comedy runs from from January 9 through February 10, 2013 on Stage II.  Opening night is Wednesday, January 16, at 7:30 p.m.

Looking Ahead at the Long Wharf

One of the most popular of last season’s productions at the Long Wharf Theatre—My Name is Asher Lev—will be produced Off-Broadway at the Westside Theatre, 407 W. 43rd Street, beginning on November 8, with the opening night set for November 28. Director Gordon Edelstein, and Ari Brand and Mark Nelson—both excellent in the Long Wharf show—will reunite in New York to recreate this thoughtful and compact re-telling of Chaim Potok’s novel about a young Jewish painter coming to terms with his faith’s prohibition on images, while also tracing the drama of the artist’s growth within his family and his community.

The play closed last year’s Long Wharf season, offering an autobiographical drama staged as a direct address to the audience.  And this year’s Long Wharf season begins with an autobiographical play that is a direct address to the audience, also directed by Edelstein.

This time the play is Satchmo at the Waldorf, written by Terry Teachout, drama critic for the Wall Street Journal, and the biographer of Louis Armstrong, the subject of the play.  Unlike Asher Lev, Satchmo is a one-man show, with celebrated actor John Douglas Thompson (recently featured in a New Yorker profile) playing the jazz great, known as “Satchmo” (short for “satchel mouth,” a nickname invented because of his wide mouth and the distinctive style of trumpet playing that issued from it).

Unlike the production of Ella in the Long Wharf’s 2010 Season, Satchmo is not about the music.  Teachout has created a play that, set backstage after Armstrong’s last performance, looks at the musician’s life and long career from his perspective, bringing forward the fraught relationship with his controlling manager, Joe Glaser.  Thompson plays Armstrong, Glaser, and at one point Miles Davis.  Teachout said he deliberately avoided the “unchallenging, sweet-tempered exercises in hagiography” that most biographical plays become, wanting to give us an unadorned Armstrong, closer to the actual man than the stage persona beloved by so many. Much of the play’s success, one suspects, will ride on Thompson’s skill at getting us inside the character.

Satchmo at the Waldorf opens tomorrow night, Wednesday, October 3, and runs to Sunday, November 4 on Stage II.

The season showcases Long Wharf’s two resident directors: Edelstein, the Artistic Director, and Eric Ting, Associate Artistic Director, with Edelstein helming Satchmo, and two works on the Main Stage by hard-hitting playwrights: Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class, a drama of a family tearing itself apart to get ahead, and William Mastrosimone’s Ride the Tiger, about the behind-the-scenes sex and shenanigans leading up to the election of 1960, with John F. Kennedy, mob boss Sam Giancarlo, and Frank Sinatra trying to bed the same woman.  Judith Ivey, whose work in Shirley Valentine at the Long Wharf was warmly received in 2010, will be featured in the Shepard play.

Ting will direct Clybourne Park; Bruce Norris’ drama on race in America is set in the house bought by the Youngers, the upwardly mobile black family in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.  The much acclaimed play—it won both the Pulitizer Prize for Drama in 2011 and the Tony Award for Best Play in 2012—will close the season.  Midseason, Ting directs January Joiner, a world premiere, on Stage II; it's a “horror comedy,” by young playwright Laura Jacqmin, set at a weight-loss boot camp (a “January joiner” is someone who joins a weight-loss program in January as a New Year’s resolution, but soon drops out).

The play this season not directed by Edelstein or Ting should be interesting as well: film star and Broadway actress Kathleen Turner will direct herself in The Killing of Sister George, Frank Marcus’s 1964 play, a bristling comedy about a radio-actress unwilling to let her role go off the air without a fight.  The 1968 film of the play played up, rather sensationally, the lesbian relationship between the radio star and her housemate, and it will be interesting to see what spin the play receives today, directed by its star.

Meanwhile, the much-anticipated renovation continues for the mainstage.  The seating is being greatly improved—more leg room!—and the lobby has been redesigned, the bathrooms enlarged, and the façade has had “work done.”

Toil and Trouble

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is the story of a Scottish nobleman’s ambition leading to his downfall; the play follows the transformation of a war hero into a murderous villain and traitor, with, to explain such an extreme change, the influence of baleful supernatural forces in the form of three witches, or “weird sisters.” The power of the play derives from the portrayal of evil as an all-consuming, dramatically compelling force in the human psyche. Macbeth’s lucidity—whether speaking to ghosts or encountering phantom daggers or convincing killers to kill, or, in the grand fifth act, going to pieces in a frenzy of resolution and paranoia—keeps us clued into his vantage point as we watch him, like many an historical personage whose reach has exceeded his grasp, put personal gain above public virtue and go down in flames. Eric Ting’s Macbeth 1969, now playing at the Long Wharf, boldly adapts Shakespeare’s text for a new setting—a Veteran’s hospital during the heyday of the U.S. war in Vietnam—and distributes the various parts amongst a cast of three men and three women. Here, Macbeth/Soldier 1 (McKinley Belcher III) is a traumatized soldier returned from war; he visits a severely wounded fellow soldier—Banquo/Soldier 2 (Barret O’Brien)—at the hospital where his own wife (Shirine Babb) is a nurse. The nurses—1/Matron (Socorro Santiago), 2 (Babb), and 3 (Jackie Chung, pregnant and the wife of MacDuff/Civilian (O’Brien)—a draft deserter)—are also the “weird sisters.” It’s an interesting notion to make nurses—who are often both needed and reviled in their service—“witches” to a soldier not quite in his right mind.

Duncan, the benign king Macbeth kills in Shakespeare’s play, is here a wooden politician (George Kulp) who visits the wounded soldier as a campaign stunt and stays to party with the nurses (it’s Christmas), and it’s a compelling idea to imply that a deranged soldier might take it into his head to kill a politician, blaming him for the carnage of the war. Good Soldier 2 finds this treason insupportable, and so Soldier 1 plots to get rid of him too. And for good measure, thanks to dire hallucinations Soldier 1 experiences while undergoing electro-shock, the wife of MacDuff gets put to the sword too. In the end the draft dodger husband returns from exile and offs the culprit. Which I guess suggests that war wins out over other scruples. If there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no pacifists in a fight to the death either.

For Ting’s Macbeth to work, we have to ignore the fact that the text is speaking of thanes and kings and potions and the English army and a moving wood, but, even if we do, that doesn’t mean we’ll enter this new timeframe easily. The show doesn’t recreate the Vietnam War era to me—not even The Archies and The Guess Who on the radio, nor the suggestion that “the insane root” is a joint. What’s more, we have to be willing to indulge oddities: like the “dagger of the mind” speech transposed from preceding the killing of Duncan to preceding the death of Banquo and interlarded with lines about Macbeth’s misgivings about Banquo, or the mad scene of Lady Macbeth witnessed by Nurse 1 and MacDuff, who then learns of his wife’s death from his enemy’s wife. If you know the play well (and I do), it’s best to forget what you know, but there’s a certain amusement that comes from the cut-up quality of the text—so that Nurse 1, before being smothered under a pillow, spouts lines that belong to Malcolm, otherwise not a character in this version.

Mimi Lien’s set is remarkable—it looks and feels like a hospital, and that’s enough right there to estrange one from Shakespeare’s play, so that when Lady Macbeth scrubs the floor rather than her hands (“yet here’s a spot”) it seems perfectly in keeping with the spic-and-span nature of hospitals. Elsewhere incongruity adds entertainment: it’s funny to have Macbeth “spoil the feast”—a tin of hospital food—and to have Banquo “ride” for the hours before dinner in his wheelchair.

In the cast, O’Brien, Chung, and Babbs are best at the naturalized delivery of the lines, making us almost believe at times that we’re hearing normal speech, and Chung—as a drunken expectant mother (it’s the Sixties, y’know)—has some fun with the Porter’s speech. As Macbeth, Belcher is more clueless than conniving, more shrill and anxious than tragic. It seems that Ting, in asking his actors to play the modern setting, lets them fly quickly over lines packed with the play’s actual import—that Macbeth is in fact a tragic figure at war with himself, and not simply a soldier strung out in nightmare hospital.

Macbeth 1969 is earnest in its efforts to make modern warfare and its traumas relevant to Shakespeare’s play, and it partly succeeds, but it’s much less successful at making Shakespeare’s play meaningful in the context of the Vietnam conflict.

Macbeth 1969 A World Premiere Adaptation by Eric Ting The Long Wharf Theatre

January 18-February 12, 2012

Seasonal Inspiration

Director Eric Ting of the Long Wharf set himself a considerable task this holiday season: how to defamiliarize the overly familiar?  It's a Wonderful Life, the seasonal chestnut roasting on televisions all over the U.S. at Christmastime as a cinematic classic from Frank Capra starring wholesome Jimmy Stewart and winsome Donna Reed, has been re-imagined as a radio play by CT writer Joe Landy.  Added to that is a frame in which Alex Moggridge experiences the radio performers as ghosts of Christmases--and an America--past.  He's alone in a dusty old radio station when performers from the WWII era of Capra's film parade into the place; they enlist him to play the part of the story's hero, George Bailey. The story, as "everyone" in America knows, is about a dark night of the soul for George, the long-suffering director of a Building and Loan concern in Bedford Falls, NY; George is a champion of the 99% in constant battle with the local one percenter, the grasping, covetous old curmudgeon and evil banker Mr. Potter.  When his likeable uncle Billy, a business liability if there ever was one, misplaces a considerable sum, George faces ruin at the hands of Potter.  George's neck is on the chopping-block and he's about to end it all when to his rescue arrives a simple-minded angel called Clarence.  The remedy for George's "life isn't worth living" attitude: a glimpse of what the world would be like had he never existed.

As its fans know, a joy of the film is the supporting roles and the character actors who played them, long since having burned their deliveries into our brain cells.  This Life keeps up a running dialogue with the voices we know so well--Dan Domingues's Old Man Potter is a spot-on recreation of Lionel Barrymore's memorable performance, played for laughs this time.  Moggridge has the more daunting task of delivering his lines without echoing or mimicking or mocking Jimmy Stewart, who owns them, and it's to his considerable credit that he manages to do so.  The "play as cast" aspect of his incorporation into the radio play works to his advantage: he doesn't have to play George Bailey so much as play a guy forced to play George--the pre-existence of the role is a given.  It's an interesting way of underlining the "everyman" (or anyman) aspects of George.

And that's what makes the frame conceit and the radio play staging such brilliant touches.  As a radio play, we're watching superb "voice actors" perform a show that radio listeners would only hear--and that's endless fun in itself thanks to the authentic set by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams, and the radio-era costumes by Jessica Ford, and due particularly to the tirelessly precise and unbelievably busy foley artist (aka, sound effects man) Nathan A. Roberts, an entertaining one-man-show in his own right.  Staging-wise, the show is a lesson in "how do they do that," and simultaneously a "behind-the-scenes" view (what we see onstage) and a successful enactment (what we hear).

But there's a third level: the sights and sounds of the film already implanted in the minds of many in the audience are invoked and distorted by what we see and hear.  No one on stage "is" actually the character they're playing--indeed, it's great fun to see/hear various characterizations, as for instance angel Clarence; Italian bar owner Mr. Martini; an Irish Buildings and Loan boardmember; younger brother Harry Bailey; and a few others, all come from one man: Kevyn Morrow.  Ditto Kate MacCluggage as George's mom, daughter, local goodtime gal Viola, and uncle Billy's bird.

A further spin is provided by Ariel Woodiwriss, as Mary Bailey (née Hatch), the love of George's life; every bit as winsome as Donna Reed, she seems at times to "be"  Mary, in search of her George, who might just be Moggridge.  Indeed, during the segment when George visits a Bedford Falls in which he has never existed, Moggridge is alone on stage, and the voices of the others, and the sound effects, respond to him as though he is haunted by them.  It's a nice Twilight Zone-style touch that makes It's a Wonderful Life become, like the Christmas season itself with its overlay of memories, a space that we might find ourselves inhabiting willy nilly.  The lesson learned there: the richest man is not the one with the most money in the bank but the one with a community behind him.

Warmly nostalgic with a slightly modernist twist, It's a Wonderful Life is enthralling entertainment.

It's a Wonderful Life Stage play by Joe Landy; adapted from the film script by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Jo Swerling, Frank Capra Directed by Eric Ting The Long Wharf Theatre December 7-31, 2011