Eugene Lee

Nicely Put

Review of Endgame, Long Wharf Theatre

Writing my review of this grayest of plays on this grayest of days is deliberate. To have Samuel Beckett’s Endgame onstage at this point in time was a commendable choice on the part of Gordon Edelstein, Artistic Director of the Long Wharf and director of this production. Beckett, famously, was against seeing “symbols where none intended,” and would not welcome allegorizing his play into a commentary on any situation too topical, and yet. The play’s grim sense of how adaptable humans are to what are sometimes called “unthinkable” conditions strikes a certain tonic chord for us now.

Endgame, originally written by Beckett in French then translated into English, dates from the late 1950s, drawing on a post-World War II world of scarcity, death, destruction, and, with the bombs dropped on Japan, a glimpse of what utter destitution might look like. But, more telling perhaps than that general context, the play originated from one of the most minimalist minds to ever emerge in English letters, and that as an Irishman writing in French. Beckett’s writing always keeps in mind the bare minimum of existence, while also imbuing its bleak and prickly situations with the humanity found in Shakespearean moments like Prince Hamlet talking to a skull, or blinded Gloucester recognizing “the trick of that voice,” or a Scots porter rambling on about drink and urine on the morning after a game-changing regicide.

In Endgame, Beckett creates a situation where Hamm (Brian Dennehy), a domineering but dependent, blind old man lords it over a kingdom reduced to a bare, gloomy room and a single factotum, Clov (Reg E. Cathy). Several paces away from Hamm’s chair upon casters and to his right, sit two trash-bins, one for Nagg (Joe Grifasi) and one for Nell (Lynn Cohen), Hamm’s straitened parents. On the wall behind Hamm’s chair are two windows high on the wall, and several paces away from Hamm, on his left, a door to a kitchen.

That set-up is all that Beckett’s play gives us, and the author was adamant about that, so one wonders what he would make of Eugene Lee’s busy set, which fascinates even before the actors appear. In columns towering on either side of the space are chairs upon chairs with books mixed in. They’re the kinds of chairs often found in libraries and seem to exude the weight of a lost, literate culture. On the stage, by the trashbins, is a clutter of detritus—more books, a computer, other bric-a-brac—and a grandly disemboweled and disintegrating chair. Then there’s that door: it’s not a bedroom door or the front door or even backdoor of a house. It’s a door, reinforced with a mesh of steel, such as might be found in a bunker or in a storage room abutting on a dark alley.

This Hamm and Clov exist amidst worthless crap in a final redoubt, and all they’ve got to get by on is their own frail wits and, for what it’s worth, routine. Routine, as in the rituals we each perform each day, of rising and taking stock—of the weather, our health, what we might undertake or not—but also routine as in theatrical routines, the expected shtick of telling stories, making speeches, moving about and using props.

Dennehy’s Hamm is a commanding presence, a great head with cheery white beard and dark glasses that make him seem cool and detached. His manner is rarely querulous or discomfited, as we might expect of the old and infirm, but rather bristles with the grandeur of a man of parts down to his last part. The attraction of the role is in its grasp of how even diminished resources can be milked for all their worth—an actor’s dream, one imagines—and Hamm is a showman very canny about what he’ll show and what he won’t. Impatience is his strongest response, but his enjoyment of a phrase or a reaction soon makes us share his aural space, so to speak. Hamm weighs everything that is said or occurs and wants constant reports on what he can’t see. He is omnivorous intelligence left with nothing to feed on but its own fading powers of discernment and elaboration. Dennehy’s Hamm is easily magisterial, and human and funny, and, in a very important way, utterly unknowable. I don’t think anyone will equal this bravura performance for quite some time.

Brian Dennehy as Hamm (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Brian Dennehy as Hamm (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Hamm’s story of the man who came to see him, on his belly, is, perhaps, the lurking origin story of Clov but is also a bit of theater to divert himself, by an imagined past, from the dark present. He coerces an audience from his father, Nagg, and earns the older man’s ire. Nagg’s memory of Hamm’s own childhood creates a sense of both reversed and perpetual dependencies. Much as the charmingly scattered exchanges between Nagg and Nell play with the dimmest recollections of courtship and the shared joys of a life together. Grifasi’s arch delivery of Nagg’s joke about the tailor easily breaks the fourth wall to enter our space, very tellingly.

Nell (Lynn Cohen), Nagg (Joe Grifasi) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Nell (Lynn Cohen), Nagg (Joe Grifasi) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Beckett, of course, already allows for just such moments, as when Clov peers through a spyglass at the audience and professes to see “a multitude, in transports of joy.” While not quite the vaudevillian style of clown one associates with Beckett, Cathey, with his deep and convincing voice, brings an appealing dignity to the role. His manner adds a sly humor to many of Clov’s exchanges with Hamm that lets us see how the impatience of man with master and of grown child with parent become child again is a condition made bearable only by humor. The pair’s warmest exchange is an unscripted moment of contact that amplifies the strong bond between this antagonistic and mutually dependent duo. It’s indelible and evanescent, as the best theater moments are.

Hamm (Brian Dennehy), Clov (Reg E. Cathey) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Hamm (Brian Dennehy), Clov (Reg E. Cathey) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The presence of sound in the play is also of interest: from the deafening fanfare, with a crescendo of heavy metal guitar and sirens and lord knows what else, that opens the play, to the loud blasts of Hamm’s whistle to summon Clov, to the huge clang of that slamming door. Edelstein and his team have conjured up an Endgame wonderfully cast, perfectly paced, and fraught with an edginess that asks us to think about the resources of theater in uneasy times, the way Beckett himself might imagine them for us.

And yet we know that Hamm, like Lear, is not a figure for what is wrong with the State. He’s a figure for what is never to be righted with the state of humanity. Hamm’s cry, “You’re on earth, there’s no cure for that!” is a reminder of how bleak being here can be. And yet Dennehy gets across the consolation that Beckett’s characters find in speech: nothing’s so bad that it can’t be made better or worse by speaking about it. That’s the only notable human contribution.

Endgame is the business of life reduced to the meanest of circumstances and the business of theater exulting in minimal riches. Mercy upon us, as my Irish ancestors would say.


By Samuel Beckett
Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Set Design: Eugene Lee; Costume Design: Kaye Voyce; Lighting Design: Jennifer Tipton; Production Stage Manager: Kathy Snyder; Production Dramaturg: Christine Scarfuto; Casting by Calleri Casting

Cast: Brian Dennehy; Reg E. Cathey; Joe Grifasi; Lynn Cohen

Long Wharf Theatre
January 5-February 5, 2017

Here We Are in the Years

Review of The Last Five Years at Long Wharf Theatre The odd thing about Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, now playing at the Long Wharf Theatre, directed by Gordon Edelstein with musical direction by James Sampliner, is that, though it’s set in the “beginning of the 21st century” (the show originally opened in the Chicago area in 2001) its main plot tropes seem to date from earlier in the 20th century—say, the Fifties or Sixties.

We meet a couple, Cathy (Katie Rose Clarke) and Jamie (Adam Halpin). For five years they are a couple: he’s rising to success as a novelist; she’s struggling to become an actress. The songs in the show are for the most part soliloquies in which either character muses on where they are—romantically and professionally—at the moment. And, lest that should prove too “he said, she said,” Brown cleverly reverses the order of Cathy’s story, so we see her at the end of the relationship first (“Still Hurting”) and move backwards with her to the end of the couple’s first date (“Goodbye Until Tomorrow”); meanwhile, Jamie takes us in chronological order from his early infatuation with Cathy (“Shiksa Goddess”) to his last goodbye (“I Could Never Rescue You”). If you consider for a moment the titles, just named, of Jamie’s songs, you might see what I mean.

The notion of the Jewish boy enthralled by the blonde goddess who is anything but Jewish comes to us, in literary culture at least, from the likes of Philip Roth—who might in fact be a good model for this rising novelist, learning how to be a womanizer, and whose career got started in the late Fifties. The very notion of the “male hero” novelist—while still alive in our current century—should have felt somewhat dated when the show opened at the turn of the last century. Add to that the notion that, somehow, the man is supposed to “rescue” (or thinks he is) the woman and you can see a sort of “frozen in time” ethic at work here. Granted, that very retro attitude may be one of the things that sinks this relationship—see also Cathy’s “I’m a Part of That” and “When You Come Home to Me”—since it seems predicated on relationship roles elders among us might recall having been exploded in the Seventies and placed, we imagined, under irony thereafter.

My sense of the time warp might not have struck me so strongly if not for the differences in the relative strengths of the performers. Clarke’s voice (“I’m a Part of That”) and sense of comic timing (she’s great in the audition scenes of “Climbing Uphill”) make her the stronger of the two before us, and she has the moral high ground from the first song, so, though it may be a Man’s World, it’s not a man’s play. Halpin puts a lot of hurrah into his performance—he’s best at the narrative comedy of “The Schmuel Song”—but he seems unconvincing as both great success and vacillating cad. Though on the latter score, he gives a sensitive touch to “Nobody Needs to Know” (in his first extramarital fling) and can be stern, when suggesting that Cathy's doubts about their marriage come flavored with sour grapes—“I will not lose because you can’t win.”

What works best in this show is the staging. Eugene Lee’s set decoration gives a sense of the temporary nature of these “five years”: things are boxed up and either yet to be unpacked or yet to be carted off by the movers, depending who is onstage. The large spinning play area in the center of the stage, with numbers at clock positions that glow to remind us that timing is of the essence, provides some nice effects as well, particularly when the couple’s one duet, “The Next Ten Minutes,” happens in an improvised boat moving along a pond in Central Park.

The cast is to be commended for not only singing almost everything they say but also for remaining constantly onstage and for having to provide the props of scene changes. It’s a fascinating show to watch for its fluid use of space and objects—director Edelstein knows how to show-off the stage at Long Wharf—and for some nimble actions, like Halpin’s impressive leap to a table top early in the show. Likewise, the band—led by Sampliner—positioned high above the stage like celestial accompanists earn vigorous applause for the tour de force rendering of the diverse musical score that adds considerably to the evening.

As a tale of a couple—unwinding and rising simultaneously—The Last Five Years affords moments of reflection on how these things go. There’s Cathy’s charming excitement (“I Can Do Better Than That”) as she brings her man home to her parents—dissing on the locals she’s glad to get shut of; there’s Jamie’s realization that a wedding ring on a man is a temptation to a certain type of woman (“A Miracle Would Happen”), all of which makes our heroes rather shallow. There’s an emptiness in the life they seem to imagine they want and in the life they seem to get, and there’s not enough satire to make us laugh at them nor enough real feeling to make us identify with them.  Those who like a good cry at the end of a love affair, may find that, with these two, it all seems no great loss. They’ll be fine.

Likeable enough, I suppose, The Last Five Years only lasts 80 minutes.


The Last Five Years Written and composed by Jason Robert Brown Directed by Gordon Edelstein Musical Direction by James Sampliner

Set Design: Eugene Lee; Costume Design: Paul Tazewell; Lighting Design: Ben Stanton; Sound Design: Leon Rothenberg; Production Stage Manager: Jason A. Quinn; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Casting: Calleri Casting

The Long Wharf Theatre May 7-June 1, 2014

Ecce Puer

Athol Fugard’s The Shadow of the Hummingbird, now in its world premiere at the Long Wharf Theatre, is a short play that enacts a meditation on a number of things that matter: the nature of reality, the nature of the imagination, the ties that bind us to others across generations and the ties that bind us to ourselves across decades, and the “calling” of death.

Fugard, on stage throughout the entire play, plays an aged writer known as Oupa, as his only interlocutor is his ten-year-old grandson, Boba (played by the twins, Aidan and Dermot McMillan). Before Fugard’s play proper, we’re presented an introductory scene, created by Paula Fourie using extracts from Fugard’s unpublished notebooks, in which Oupa, much as does the figure in Krapp’s Last Tape, “replays” his past in his own words, as he searches for a passage about his shadow. The context for the interactions between Oupa and Boba, then, is very much the world as known and encountered by Fugard himself, including his regular attention to birds.

The play could be called a self-portrait, and also a dramatization of the final things, or final lessons. In other words, we are late in Oupa’s life and, while the scenes we witness between the grandfather and his grandson are like any other day, any other visit, there is a finality to them that impresses upon us the point of their interaction.

That point comes from the matter that Oupa discusses with Boba: the question of which is more delightful, the vision of an actual hummingbird, seen outside in the garden, or the vision of the shadow of the hummingbird, hovering on the wall in Oupa’s study. Boba, naturally, prefers the former, but Oupa begs to differ, with recourse to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave from the Republic.

What Fugard and his director Gordon Edelstein stage, then, is not only the very affectionate banter and comic swordplay and rough-housing between a doting grandfather and his grandson, complete with shared cookies and looks askance at Boba’s father for whom Oupa seems to have scant affection, but also a lesson on reality and imagination in which imagination becomes the key figure.

In Plato’s allegory, persons who have lived their entire lives in shackles in a cave, staring at a wall, take the shadows thrown upon that wall—shadows of whatever passes between their backs and a great fire deep in the cave—for real things. They only see the shadows and never what causes the shadows. The question then becomes: what happens if one should escape the cave and get out into the real world of sunlit objects.

Oupa takes Boba along this line—inspired by his memory of Boba, as an infant, trying to pick up a shadow on the floor—to show that the actual hummingbird would be a glorious vision after only subsisting on its shadow. Boba finds the story “not very good,” which irritates the old man. So he has to try again to explain what his own allegorical message might be. With recourse to the words of William Blake, Oupa states his intention: to return to childish wonder, to be like Boba as a child, believing a shadow might be real, to see, as Blake stated the visionary’s gift, “eternity in a grain of sand.”

This is where Fugard would leave us, we might say, trying hard to rediscover “vision.” To see again as children—a prescription for entering “the kingdom of heaven,” in one formulation—but also to regain the sense of a world of mystery and enchantment, a world not “explained” by rationally arrived at properties and given long Latin terms of demarcation.

Oupa himself jokes that this might be a way of interpreting “senile dementia,” when, in Shakespeare’s phrase, “an old man is twice a child,” but by wishing for something else, a moment of belief in the shadow as real, Fugard’s Oupa becomes an apologist for theater and the arts in general, for he would return us to the time when we could believe in fictive things as if they were actual life, maybe more real than life itself, in our imaginations. It is a romantic notion, certainly, but the play, in giving us this disquisition as an elderly man sporting with his attentive grandson, lets us grasp as well how the important lessons of life occur in intimate exchanges, one-on-one.

The sense of the play’s intimacy is one of its strengths. In Eugene Lee’s handsome set, Oupa’s den or study is given a very definite presence, particularly as Oupa spends the introductory scene interacting with its many props—glasses, books, journals, eyeglasses—to create a sense of a man alone at home, performing his personal rituals. The effects of the hummingbird, in the vision that comes to Oupa late in the play, has both the sense of an actual event and of a longed-for fantasy. Such theatrical touches help to make the play live as an actual “day in the life” as well as “in the life of the mind.”

Add to that Fugard’s very natural and reassuring performance as Oupa—in the opening section, it’s as if he might invite us to a seat on the set or stroll into the audience to chat with us. It’s not so much a “breaking of the fourth wall,” as it is a suggestion that this writer feels himself to be always attended by an audience with whom he is on very cordial terms. The McMillan brothers, as Boba, have the grace of youth and clear, distinct voices able to register the kind of patient acceptance that children tend to extend to the very old. Boba, we suspect, is used to his grandfather saying quizzical things, sometimes amusing him, sometimes taking him to task—as here—for not grasping his meaning. What comes across best is the puzzle of existence as Oupa continues to ponder it, trying, late in the day, to impress his vision of it on the youngest mind he can find. Fugard rightly chooses the age of reason—10—to suggest that only the very youngest rational mind might accept without too much question an old man’s fancy.

The Shadow of the Hummingbird is lyrical, wise, and deceptively simple. Not a bad way to go.

The Shadow of the Hummingbird By Athol Fugard Introductory Scene by Paula Fourie with extracts from Athol Fugard’s unpublished notebooks Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Set Design: Eugene Lee; Costume Design: Susan Hilferty; Lighting Design: Michael Chybowski; Sound Design: John Gromada; Production Stage Manager: Jason Kaiser

Photographs by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy of Long Wharf Theatre

Long Wharf Theatre March 26-April 27, 2014

A Tiger by the Tail

I grew up in a household where John F. Kennedy was more or less a sainted martyr, and where Frank Sinatra—when he was with Tommy Dorsey—was looked upon as the soundtrack of my parents’ romantic years.  And where The Godfather was appreciated as a kind of all-American story of every immigrant family’s need to band together in the face of prejudice from the larger community.  My parents weren’t Italian or Irish (ok, a little), but they were Catholic, and so, from the start, I was prepared to be entertained by a play—William Mastrosimone’s Ride the Tiger, now playing at the Long Wharf Theatre, directed by Gordon Edelstein—that brings together JFK, Frankie, and the Mob.  I might also mention that the play begins in the year of my birth. I might also suggest that the play will probably strike a chord even with audiences who don’t have the fond regard for these figures and their era that I inherited—the early, pre-Beatles Sixties got a big spike in popularity after Mad Men debuted, and the romance of the era seems not to have faded quite yet.  Perhaps that’s one of the “tigers” Mastrosimone is intentionally riding.  And you could, y’know, take that more than one way.  As used in the play, the phrase indicates those dangerous pacts we make in order to get somewhere—running the risk of not being able to direct things for long.  This is a play all about deals made and expectations betrayed.  As such, it rides the tiger of a certain romance of America that some of us claim as our birthright.  Can we climb down off that tiger without getting hurt?  And if the tiger we’re riding is our own sense of historical necessity?

The play has much to recommend it: Eugene Lee uses a loose and easily adaptable set that can be the Oval office one minute and a poolside lounge another; there’s a bed to cavort in, a car drives onto the stage, and there are backdrop projections of Vegas, the White House and even a doctored “Mount Rushmore” of presidential portraits (sneaking in “the other Roosevelt,” kinda roguishly).  Jess Goldstein’s costumes are for the most part lounge lizard casual, with Christina Bennett Lind, as Judy (the main female role), boasting the kind of form-fitting dresses that made girdles a necessary evil of the era for many.  The action is episodic—letting us feel like voyeurs, eavesdroppers or bugs able to soak up conversations and encounters that go by terms like “clandestine,” “hush-hush,” “behind the scenes,” and “entre nous.”  The fact that every major character here—except Judy—is (or was) a household name makes it all delicious dirt.

Edelstein trusts the material and lets the talk run the show with little gimmickry.  We’ve got Joe (John Cunningham), very patrician as the Bostonian Irish patriarch trying to launch a political dynasty.  Cunningham is quite adept at registering both the steely convictions of the man as well as the fact that, face it, he’s mostly past his prime.  It’s all riding on second son Jack (Douglas Sills), a war hero and ladies’ man trying hard to do what must be done.  Sills nails some lines with the familiar Kennedy delivery but his character is somewhat underwritten in the early going; he comes off better in the second half where he makes Jack’s rage both frightened and fearsome and lets us see Jack try vainly to be winning via the famed Kennedy wit while being an obvious asshole.

Then there’s Jack’s pal, Frank (Paul Anthony Stewart), the Italian singing sensation from Hoboken who is a key linchpin: he gets Joe cozy with Chicago Cosa Nostra via a political favor involving the Mob’s control of Unions, and he introduces Jack to Judy, the play’s resident femme fatale, who Frankie ditches in a scene Stewart makes redolent of Rat Pack chutzpah.  Things are pretty hunky dory until the main Mob guy, Sam (Jordan Lage), takes a shine to Judy, and, eventually, tires of the high hat he’s handed by Jack and his brother Bobby (aka “the Weasel”) once the White House is gained and favors from unsavory types are best forgotten.  Someone’s cruising for a bruising, and let’s just say no one gets out of this thing unscathed.

The real stunner in this line-up is Lage as Sam: he’s a charming ladies’ man, an unstoppable font of chat, a barrage of little tics and moves, and, when it’s time for the eyes to go icy dead, Lage is your boy.  We’ve all seen (I imagine) this kind of Wise Guy in any number of films about Chicago gangsters, but Lage’s Sam is also very much a creature of this moment: Ol’ Blue Eyes is back, a Catholic boy is gonna be president, and Khrushchev is in for a big surprise.  For Sam, who reads newspapers religiously, the only thing that could make the world sweeter is if Castro would get a fatal calling card.  It’s an entertaining and thrilling portrayal.

Another strength is Lind’s Judy—she harkens to that era when a girl with a head on her shoulders might not get a professional post, but, with enough looks and je ne sais quoi, might manage to position herself in an exciting, and exhausting and, finally, frightening triangle with two extremely powerful and headstrong men.  Judy bounces along from Frank to Jack to Jack and Sam to a paranoid funk, finally losing those can-do “high hopes” so important to an It Girl’s self-esteem.  The best part of the play are the overlaps when Judy goes back and forth between Jack and Sam as the two duel verbally through messages she must deliver.  The late scene of her breakdown seems a bit thin—which is true of her character all along, but you don’t notice so much until she’s given a scene that seems to scream for a revealing statement.  Instead we get revealing nudity.

As a meditation on figures of American romance gazed upon for their history-making status and larger-than-life pretensions—Politicians! Entertainers! Gangsters!—Ride the Tiger mixes up a potent cocktail, though you’ll be stirred more than shaken.  The play is not playing it all for laughs so much as laughing up its sleeve. Mastrosimone cleverly cherry-picks the historical record to slant the action toward its conclusion—which arrives as both a laugh and a shock.  It’s surprising—in its execution—and inevitable in its action, which makes it a satisfying note to end on.  Everyone in this play has a one-way date with destiny and Mastrosimone gets a lot of mileage out of that tiger and this wild ride.


Ride the Tiger By William Mastrosimone Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Set Design: Eugene Lee; Costume Design: Jess Goldstein; Lighting Design: Tyler Micoleau; Original Music and Sound Design: Ryan Rumery; Projection Design: Sven Ortel; Wig Design: Charles Lapointe; Casting: James Calleri, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Lisa Ann Chernoff; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern

Photos by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy of the Long Wharf Theatre

Long Wharf Theatre March 27-April 21, 2013