George Kulp

As On A Darkling Plain

Review of Retreat from Moscow, New Haven Theater Company

One of the more subtle and satisfying aspects of William Nicholson’s Retreat from Moscow, playing for two more shows tonight and tomorrow at New Haven Theater Company, directed by Margaret Mann and John Watson, is the way this play about a fraying marriage of thirty-three years is filtered through the view of the couple’s thirty-two year-old son, an only child who lives alone. At some point—usually when parents are old enough to see their children as adults—offspring see their parents as the results of decisions made long ago. When the key decision made—to marry—comes into question, then everything is up for grabs.

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Because Nicholson and his characters are British, the tone of the play is apt to feel a touch mannered to American audiences. Directors Mann and Watson, with their effectively thoughtful cast, render the tonalities of the couple and son with deft moments of characterization. Kiel Stagno, as Jamie (the son), is quite good at wearing the look of patient attentiveness that his mother, Alice (Susan Kulp), has come to rely on as she sets out one grievance or another. It may be her treatment at the hands of an indifferent serviceperson at a computer store, it may be her husband’s insistence on doing the crossword puzzle when she would rather talk. Alice, who loves to intone classic British poetry, from the Metaphysicals to the Victorians, is what is generally called “high-strung,” which means that, even when she means to be ingratiating she is more likely to be grating.

Edward (George Kulp), Alice (Susan Kulp), Jamie (Kiel Stango) in New Haven Theater Company’s production of The Retreat from Moscow, directed by Margaret Mann & John Watson

Edward (George Kulp), Alice (Susan Kulp), Jamie (Kiel Stango) in New Haven Theater Company’s production of The Retreat from Moscow, directed by Margaret Mann & John Watson

Dad is Edward (George Kulp) who seems the epitome of the unassuming spouse, a kind of silent partner to his wife’s expressive sallies, some at his expense. He tends to be apologetic but also can’t see why his behavior is an issue. Alice is the type of woman who simply assumes she knows better—and so her son can’t really not believe in God, and her husband can’t really find soldiers’ journals written during the Napoleonic retreat from Moscow as fascinating as he claims. Of course there’s a God and going to church is a way to entreat his mercy, and of course Edward’s interests are really just a means to avoid doing something she’d rather he do.

The revelation that Edward at first addresses to his son sets up the play’s main device. Jamie is put in the middle, as go-between, as counselor, as put-upon support staff. That he lives a good drive away, in London, and has little interest in visiting “home” with such regularity is simply a fact. He’s a good son, or trying hard to be, and his patience is laudable. As the play goes on, we begin to understand the extent to which this event—his parents’ estrangement—marks him deeply not only because of what he has to learn about them, but also what that teaches him about himself.

Alice (Susan Kulp), Edward (George Kulp) in The Retreat from Moscow, NHTC

Alice (Susan Kulp), Edward (George Kulp) in The Retreat from Moscow, NHTC

Not particularly witty or acerbic, much of the energy of Nicholson’s play comes from Susan Kulp’s portrayal of Alice as a woman desperately trying to make the past contain the future. Twice she moans about what will become of her when she’s old. On one level she’s the embodiment of the idea of marriage as an insurance policy, taken out in youth, that will pay benefits throughout one’s lifetime. Watching her learn to cope is lively—from changing her wardrobe, to getting a dog, called “Eddie,” that she can command, to wielding a sharp knife with devil-may-care casualness. Edward’s role, in its quieter dimensions, is a harder read. George Kulp gives to Edward’s speeches a uniform intensity of guilty reflection punctuated with breathy hope that seems to give the lie to his view that he’s found new meaning. And that makes us wonder till the end if a rapprochement might suddenly emerge.

The lighting of this spare but attractive set adds to the play’s impact. The feeling of domestic spaces as “sets” for private drama complements Jamie’s role as a stand-in for the playwright, a role that we see Stango grow into before our very eyes. We are made aware of how Jamie’s perceptions of this unexpected development in his parents’ lives becomes a means to doing them homage, in all their messy, human inadequacy.

Once again New Haven Theater Company finds a worthwhile domestic drama that suits their intimate playing space and capably naturalistic actors.




The Retreat from Moscow
By William Nicholson
Directed by Margaret Mann & John Watson

Cast: George Kulp, Susan Kulp, Kiel Stango

Stage Manager/Board Op: Stacy Lupo

Special thanks to Wendy Marans as dialect coach and Liz Saylor, costumes

New Haven Theater Company
October 31-November 9, 2019

New Haven Theater Company Advances on "Retreat from Moscow"

Preview of The Retreat from Moscow, New Haven Theater Company

Edward, a historian, opens the play reading a passage from a soldier’s journal about taking part in Napoleon’s famed retreat from Moscow, and is otherwise engaged in crossword puzzles. Alice, at work on an anthology of love poems, is apt to quote poetry at her family. Jamie, thirty-two, has to drive down from London to be present as his parents celebrate thirty-three years of togetherness. Of course something will go wrong.

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William Nicholson’s The Retreat from Moscow has been on New Haven Theater Company’s Margaret Mann’s mind since she played Alice in a production of the play in Oregon in 2009. The play, which first opened in 1999, was seen on Broadway in 2003 with a dream cast of Eileen Atkins, John Lithgow, and Ben Chaplin. Mann thought to pitch it to the Company five years ago but wasn’t then ready to direct it. Now she is, aided by Co-Director John Watson, who she credited with “all the technical stuff that I don’t do”; the duo directed the searching comedy Love Song at NHTC last season. The Retreat from Moscow starts a week from today with a preview on October 31 (“pay what you like” at the door), then shows on November 1 and 2, and again the following week, November 7-9.

When giving an interview while in the Oregon production with the actor playing Edward, Mann was amused to find that she and her colleague both thought their respective character the main figure. “Every character could say the play is about them,” Mann realized, and says “the play is about what happens when communication stops.” Which may be a way of saying that, no matter how familiar family members are with one another, there’s always the possibility of discovering something new. That “something new” may be a change for the better for one, but also an affront or a disaster for another.

Co-Directors Margaret Mann and John Watson

Co-Directors Margaret Mann and John Watson

Mann likened directing the play—which features NHTC real-life couple Susan and George Kulp as Alice and Edward—to “choreography,” keeping the three characters in play so that none gets slighted. The Kulps, who played a quirky couple in Love Song last fall, here play an intellectual couple who, after many years of settled life, have to look at each other differently. Susan acted with Mann in Marjorie Prime, a futuristic dysfunctional four-character family drama at NHTC last winter, while George directed NHTC’s energetic production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest last spring. Maybe this time the hard-working couple will be getting into a bit of Liz and Dick territory?

Not to worry. The couple in this play—unlike Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which famously starred real-life couple Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Mike Nichol’s Oscar-nominated film—is British. That means that things will be drier, though no less acerbic, perhaps. Nicholson, best known for Shadowlands, his play about late romance in the life of author C. S. Lewis, based The Retreat from Moscow on his parents’ marriage, which means that Jaime’s coping mechanisms could be key to what the playwright is getting at.

Kiel Stango (Jamie), George Kulp (Edward), Susan Kulp (Alice) in William Nicholson’s  The Retreat from Moscow

Kiel Stango (Jamie), George Kulp (Edward), Susan Kulp (Alice) in William Nicholson’s The Retreat from Moscow

Played by Kiel Stango, an art instructor not an NHTC member and a local actor who has worked with Square One, Jamie is caught-up in the altering status quo. His efforts to be supportive to each parent should, Mann said, make him sympathetic. Many in the audience will know what it’s like to be a grown offspring looking on at what happens as parents, aged into what Mann called “the tone deafness of long marriage,” try to cope with change. Jamie’s parents, Mann said, are apt to treat their son, an only child, as “a therapist.” But Mann believes the play strikes “a delicate balance” in not tipping its hand toward one character or another.

The Retreat from Moscow is “beautifully written,” Mann said, and that’s its “main attraction.” With lines of poetry set against metaphors of military disaster, the imagery is apt to be dramatic. For Mann, the play is “about being human” and, to find out more, she said, “you have to see the play.”

To do that, get tickets and more info here.

The Retreat from Moscow
By William Nicholson
Directed by Margaret Mann and John Watson
October 31-November 2; November 7-9, 2019
New Haven Theater Company

New Haven Theater Company Goes Cuckoo

Preview, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, New Haven Theater Company

If you’re a regular at New Haven Theater Company shows, you might remember the time the company built what looked to be a functional luncheonette in their theater space in the back of English Building Markets. That was George Kulp’s set for William Inge’s Bus Stop, which he directed. Last year, there was the set for Neil Simon’s Rumors that turned the space into a two-story living room with numerous doors to slam. That was Kulp’s too.

Beginning this Thursday and running for the next three weekends, the space will be the dayroom at a mental hospital where a host of inmates live placid lives under the purview of a controlling nurse as Kulp directs NHTC’s next offering, Dale Wasserman’s stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Kulp, who says this is “the most ambitious and challenging” play he’s directed yet, seems to like plays with a lot of characters and a very focused set.

If you were around in the 1970s, you no doubt remember the film version of the novel, directed by Milos Forman, which won Oscars for picture, director, actress (Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched), and actor (Jack Nicholson as Randle Patrick McMurphy), and adapted screenplay. Indeed, the role of McMurphy was easily the most famous of Nicholson’s impressive career—until he took an ax to a bathroom door in The Shining.

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McMurphy is a boisterous ne’er-do-well who considers a stint in a mental hospital preferable to prison. His fellow inmates are an odd assortments of “lifers” who prefer the hospital to trying to get along in the outside world. And Nurse Ratched is there to make sure everything runs the way she likes. The confrontations between McMurphy and the nurse become a battleground over the quality of life. In the film, you just have to root for McMurphy as Fletcher’s version of the nurse is so inhumanly impersonal.

Kulp is wary of expectations derived from the film. First of all, the film was adapted from the novel, not from Wasserman’s play. And, while the drama’s trajectory runs much the same, the filmed versions of certain characters sometimes aimed for comic caricature. Kulp stresses that his cast is “very careful” to avoid that pitfall, and that means creating useful backstories for the characters to give them fuller dimension. Which might be a way of saying that Kulp is urging them to put some method in the madness.

McMurphy will be played by Trevor Williams who directed NHTC’s previous offering, Marjorie Prime. Williams acted under Kulp’s direction as the naive cowboy, Bo Decker, in Bus Stop and was one of the two hitman in Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter last season, directed by John Watson. McMurphy’s nemesis, the maternal Nurse Ratched, will be played by Suzanne Powers, who worked with Kulp in Rumors.

Other NHTC members on hand include John Watson as Dr. Spivey, who tends to back the authoritarian nurse; Erich Greene, the other hitman in Dumb Waiter, as Cheswick, an anxious patient; and J. Kevin Smith, the obstreperous neighbor in Rumors and the boozing professor in Bus Stop, as Harding, the patient with the most self-control.

That leaves many parts featuring actors who will be appearing in a NHTC production for the first time, though, in most cases, Kulp has worked with each before. They include: Al Bhatt, Tristan Bird, Ralph Buonocore (who appeared in NHTC’s Urinetown), Robert Halliwell, Ash Lago, Empress Makeda, Joseph Mallon, Jodi Rabinowitz, John Strano, and Aaron Volain.

For Kulp, much of the challenge, with so many characters “and so much going on”—including a basketball game—is to keep the play “moving at the right pace.” His approach, he said, is to tell his actors “to go for the moon and then pull back.” The casting is key and his previous experiences with the cast make for a lot of trust.

The play was chosen in part because of its name recognition, its diverse cast, and because, Kulp said, it’s “an entertaining and timely story to tell.” He suggested that the issue of how our society treats mental illness and the play’s convincing sense of “the misuse of authority” are meaningful in our time, as they were when the novel was published in 1963 and when the film version was released in 1975, both key works of the Vietnam era of American culture.

Is it “cuckoo” to place such a largescale play in the New Haven Theater Company’s intimate space? Get your tickets and find out (the play is running for three weekends rather than two because seating is limited).

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
By Dale Wasserman, from the novel by Ken Kesey
Directed by George Kulp
New Haven Theater Company
April 25-27, May 2-4, May 9-11

For tickets and info, go here

See my review here

The Greatest Thing You'll Ever Learn

Review of Love Song, New Haven Theater Company

The bond between siblings gets an interesting and amusing rendering in John Kolvenbach’s Love Song, in a production by New Haven Theater Company, co-directed by Margaret Mann and John Watson. Beane (Christian Shaboo) seems bipolar, leading a lonely existence in a shabby room. His successful sister, Joan (Susan Kulp), likes sounding off to her husband Harry (George Kulp) about “nincompoops” and incompetent interns at the office, while swilling large wine pours. Harry has a detached complacency, playing devil’s advocate against his wife’s peremptory judgments because “that’s what conversation is.” Beane suddenly appears in their elegant living room and agrees to subject himself to some kind of psychological evaluation Harry pulled, Joan claims, from Cosmo or the like. Soon, the way Beane’s mind works becomes a source of considerable amusement for the audience and a matter of some consternation between the fractious couple.

Beane’s encounter with Molly (Jo Kulp) turns his world upside down. His manic side becomes very much evident as he nearly hyperventilates over a turkey sandwich while at lunch with Joan and engages his waiter (a bemused Erich Greene) with varied queries. The highpoint—a peak for both the play and Beane—arrives when Beane sings the praises of sex and Molly, inspiring a bout of amorous cooing between Joan and Harry. Shaboo—who once played a would-be cult leader in Drew Grey’s The Cult at NHTC—capably takes the energy up a notch and becomes almost rapturous. It’s here that Love Song lives up to its title, with Kolvenbach creating a truly lyrical language for Beane’s flight.

Molly (Jo Kulp) and Beane (Christian Shaboo) in New Haven Theater Company’s production of Love Song

Molly (Jo Kulp) and Beane (Christian Shaboo) in New Haven Theater Company’s production of Love Song

We expect a crash and, sure enough, it comes, but not before we get a wonderful scene of middle-aged lovers rediscovering the spark through playing hooky, role-playing, and becoming enamored with being in love. The Kulps do a fine job of transforming Joan from a workaholic to a borderline alcoholic to a sex kitten, while Harry shows off his knack for fun while also retaining his essential Harryness. It’s a centerpiece matched by a scene between Molly and Beane that takes off in a somewhat different direction, a shared fantasy of meeting naked in the pond in a park, that—perhaps—tries a bit too hard to become poetic but which Shaboo and Kulp orchestrate with spellbinding rhythms.

A late scene between Beane and Joan lets us see what’s been at stake all along. Describing the scene would no doubt make it sound creepier than it is, but Joan’s monologue to Beane takes stock of the arc we’ve traveled. Joan and Beane—neither of whom might be fully wound—share a kind of symbiotic relation that works because Joan keeps Beane in reality just enough, while Beane helps Joan feel the thrill of what lies beyond the safe boundaries. As Molly said earlier, in a toast with Beane, “here’s to the end of literalisms.” A cup, in other words, isn’t just a cup.

Kolvenbach wants to imagine a world where love and passion can illuminate mundane lives with the feeling of flight and freedom. The catalyst might be a glimpse of someone different, or it may involve a sustained fantasy of the ideal soul mate who knows what you could never say. As Molly, Jo Kulp provides much of the spirit here; she’s as demanding in her way as Joan, but also full of an outsider’s sense of purpose, even at times dangerous. Her contempt for the sentimental closets where most people have squirreled away their keepsakes of identity and for the pretensions of minimalists are darkly pointed. When her vision infuses itself into Beane’s naïve outlook it remakes the world for him, and that in turn stretches his sister’s—and perhaps the viewer’s—sense of possibility.

With its set divided between Joan’s and Harry’s comfortable living room and Beane’s derelict room, Love Story even looks bipolar. The soundtrack of musical selections is apt and enjoyable, and the light/sound cue that creates a significant oppression in Beane’s room is handled quite effectively. All in all, there’s a lot to love about Love Song, not least the company’s way with the lyricism and bite of Kolvenbach’s script, the Kulp family’s engaging spirit, and Shaboo’s haunted disconnect from the normality we prize even as it kills us slowly with boredom.

 

Love Song
By John Kolvenbach
Directed by Margaret Mann and John Watson

Cast: Erich Greene, George Kulp, Jo Kulp, Susan Kulp, Christian Shaboo

New Haven Theater Company
November 8-10 & 15-17, 2018

New Haven Theater Company Plays a Love Song

Preview of Love Song, New Haven Theater Company

When it comes to selecting plays, the New Haven Theater Company goes for whatever the entire company approves. The troupe is entirely democratic in its selections, though sometimes a work selected takes a while to get a production. If a play is likely to be done by a bigger theater anywhere in the vicinity, it’s unlikely that the small production capacities at NHTC will get the rights. That’s the case with Love Song, by John Kolvenbach, the first show of their 2018-19 season and the 17th production that the venerable New Haven company has staged at their performance space on Chapel Street. The run begins this Thursday and continues through two weekends.

According to the directors of the show, Margaret Mann and John Watson, the process of choosing a play begins when someone in the company pitches a choice they are willing to direct. And much of the talk at that point, Watson said, is about “our audience, fairly sophisticated people who see a lot of theater and who may also know some of the players.” One feature of that familiarity is that audience members may have ideas for the company. In fact, Love Song was first suggested by a friend of former company member Megan Chenot. Getting the rights caused a delay and now that the time has come, the show goes forward without Megan and her husband Peter, both longtime members of NHTC who have gone west, to the San Francisco area. Never fear, the show, which always seemed a good match for the company, has found suitable casting.

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The Chenots weren’t the only couple in the company. The married couple in the production—Harry and Joan—will be played by the Kulps, George and Susan. And Molly, the love interest for Beane, Joan’s brother, will be played by the Kulps’ daughter, Josey, last seen in Urinetown (2012), the only musical the company has done. Beane will be played by Christian Shaboo, who has often taken leading man or love interest roles, as in Proof (2016), Shipwrecked! (2014) and Our Town (2013). George Kulp directed NHTC’s final show of last season, Neil Simon’s farce Rumors, which featured Susan as one of the more memorable characters. George was responsible for the truly impressive set built in the company’s space at the English Markets building, and part of that set will serve as the living room of the home of Joan and Harry in Love Song.

Susan Kulp and George Kulp

Susan Kulp and George Kulp

The other section of the set is decidedly more derelict, and that’s where Beane lives. The play, which Mann and Watson call, “provocative, funny, sexy,” while eliciting “serious thoughts,” involves the relationship between the siblings and how that plays out when a new person—dubbed a “mystery woman”—comes into Beane’s life. The couple in the play are in a longtime marriage, and their dialogue, Mann said, is “a dance, brittle and amusing.” Watson stressed that the company cannot be held accountable for how playing a couple onstage affects the Kulps as a couple offstage. Both directors praised their cast, actors “with a good grasp of who they are playing” and “how to land it.”

Josey Kulp and Christian Shaboo

Josey Kulp and Christian Shaboo

Speaking of siblings, fans of NHTC will remember that Watson played a single-man looking for love while more than a bit burdened by a sister in The Last Romance, the mature love story that began the 2016-17 season. Mann played the love interest in that one, a single lady with a dog. Together, the two directed last season’s tersely funny two-hander The Dumb Waiter, by Harold Pinter, featuring Trevor Williams and Erich Greene, who returns in Love Song as (wait for it) a waiter.

For Mann and Watson, collaborating as directors seems to work well, since neither felt entirely sure which did what. Watson said that Mann takes care of the more detailed aspects of the show, “a lot of things I don’t handle,” and that she “covers the bases” while he is more reactive. Mann, however, sees Watson as the one “more plotted out beforehand,” while she “likes to see things up and moving.” What it comes down to, on Love Song at least, is that Watson brings “the vision” of knowing how he wants things to play, while Mann is attentive to what’s missing or what needs encouragement.

In any case, they both see the script, which runs through 11 scenes in a continuous 90 minutes, as “funny as hell” and “dark, but not depressing.” The main question, Watson said, is “can Beane be healed” from the effects of some earlier damage, “and how will that affect others?” As Mann said, “there is baggage all over the place” between the siblings, with Harry acting as a strong support for his brother-in-law. In the end, she said, we don’t necessarily know “what then,” and, in a certain sense, it’s “not over,” but we have grounds to be optimistic.

When asked about how they know a play will work for the company, Mann said, “the goal is something really good that we can do a good job with,” a play, Watson said “that’s not fluff, or a sitcom, something with enough to chew on.” Mann complimented Kolvenbach’s ear for dialogue which she characterized as “idiomatically idiosyncratic.” And dialogue, more than action, is what makes the plays NHTC produces work. The main criteria for a play being done by New Haven Theater Company—a troupe of 11 most of whom also direct—is that it suits their company and their audience. Both have grown and changed over the years, but NHTC has maintained a keen sense of how to keep doing what they do well.

 

Love Song
By John Kolvenbach
Directed by Margaret Mann and John Watson

 

New Haven Theater Company
Thursday, Friday, Saturday, November 8-17, 2018

For tickets and more info, go here




Hiding the Host

Review of Rumors, New Haven Theater Company

Neil Simon’s farce Rumors gives the New Haven Theater Company an occasion for formal attire, though it seems a case of all-dressed-up with nowhere to go. Don’t get me wrong: Rumors is a comedy of mature couples and that makes the play a good match for New Haven’s preeminent local acting troupe. Many longtime members find appropriate roles and some former collaborators return to add to the mirth. It’s just a shame that Rumors is far from the sharpest comedy Simon ever wrote.

Everyone is dressed up for a 10th wedding anniversary celebration at the comfortably elegant home of Charlie and Myra Brock. The play calls for a two-story set with stairs to run up and down and several doors to slam. The set itself is a striking assemblage in the NHTC space in the English Building Markets, and it’s not only a prerequisite for the action but almost the star of the show. At any rate, there are no real central characters in the play. It’s an ensemble of dim bulbs circled around an absent host and hostess.

George Kulp's set design for Rumors at New Haven Theater Company

George Kulp's set design for Rumors at New Haven Theater Company

The situations are farcical, but the ‘rumors’ never really fly. The laughs here revolve around bits like well-heeled characters having to make their own dinner and mix their own drinks; a downstairs bathroom too-often occupied; a deaf gag that never gets silly or surprising enough. We’re asked to accept the premise that damage to someone’s BMW promotes hilarity (well, maybe if it were updated to a Range Rover…). And that’s a sign of the low level of wit Simon foists on us, as references to Trivial Pursuit, to uncertainty about the nationality of Asian help, and loose asides about tarnished gentility mark the play as occupying the flaccid late ‘80s where the boorishness and boredom of these characters might pass muster as “clever fun.”

So what can NHTC do with this? They can all look marvelous, play the thing as though they are in fact old friends (they are), and indulge their celebrated ability to orchestrate busy scenes with lots of overlapped chat. The material doesn’t quite match their capacity to be surprising, as each character mainly just seems to test the others’ patience. I kept hoping that Peter Chenot, who plays Ken Gorman, the guy with the hearing problem, was going to get to do more than react. And J. Kevin Smith, as Lenny Ganz, the man with the busted-up BMW, seems more nonplussed at some of his lines than at the bag of pretzels he can’t open.

The women tend to fare better, if only because they don’t have to bluster so much. Susan Kulp, as Lenny’s wife Claire, gets across plenty of long-suffering bonhomie, and her silent reactions can be devastating. And Jenny Shuck, as Ken’s wife, Chris, plays well the kind of once-bright-eyed-bride who has begun to wilt from her husband’s witlessness. A bit where she repeats him word for word after he gets lost in mid-rant is a high point. Then there’s Margaret Mann, in one helluva outfit, as Cookie Cusack, host of a televised cooking show, who is among the more stalwart, letting her doting husband, Ernie (John Watson), coo at her about her back spasms. Suzanne Powers plays Cassie Cooper, the loose cannon here who, finally fed-up by the philandering of her husband Glenn (Jim Lones), is testing just how testy she can be in public.

There’s plenty of rapid fire gossip early on with Smith playing Lenny as an oafish boor who can’t get over someone belonging to the tennis club simply to have lunch there. Yeah. One has the sense that Simon’s friends acted as models for each of these characters and that they might be tickled to see themselves made fun of. Or not. The “reality check” comes from the idea that, since the host seems to have injured himself, slightly, with a gun, there may have been a suicide attempt and no one wants to have to answer questions from the police, least of all Glenn, who is running for the senate—“state senate,” his wife caustically reminds him lest he start living large.

As Glenn, Jim Lones has the furtive patience and glib charm of a local politician. And John Watson’s Ernie regards the company mostly with tongue firmly in cheek. They can afford to be passive; neither of them are part of the cover-up that fails, and they don’t try to make sense of the silliness the way Ken and Lenny are forced to do.

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It’s all harmless light entertainment, but, as a farce, one might sensibly expect there to be some cats let out of the bag and some dirt swept under the carpet. Not really. No one here has much to be ashamed of, and no one even ends up behind any of the doors in a compromising position. The second half devolves into the parlor game called “what do we tell the police” with Donna E. Glen as a cop having fun at getting some respect from these evasive people who work above her pay grade. But Rumors isn’t a comic whodunit, it’s more of a meandering who-done-what.

Director George Kulp keeps it moving—and there’s a lot of movement and a lot of talk—but if it could go faster we would think about it less, and that would help. The big theatrical pay-off comes in Lenny’s 11th hour, up-against-the-wall, tour de force narrative, pulled out of thin air and hanging together like cobwebs. It’s sketchy and shaky but it’s the best he can do under the circumstances. And I guess this was the best Rumors’ author could do at the time.

Rumours
By Neil Simon
Directed by George Kulp

Cast: Peter Chenot, Donna E. Glen, Matthew Kling, Susan Kulp, Jim Lones, Margaret Mann, Suzanne Powers, Jenny Schuck, J. Kevin Smith, John Watson

Crew: Set Design: George Kulp; Lighting Design: Ian Dunn; Stage Manager: Matthew Kling; Board Ops: David Stagg, Erich Greene

New Haven Theater Company
NHTC Stage @ EBM
839 Chapel Street, New Haven
May 10-12, & 16-19, 2018

Prove It!

Review of Proof, New Haven Theater Company

With David Auburn’s four character play, Proof, New Haven Theater Company once again proves that what they do best are plays driven by natural dialogue in a static location. In focusing on Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot), the daughter of Robert (George Kulp), a ground-breaking mathematician, who is trying to cope with her father’s loss, while fielding intrusions from her dad’s one-time grad student, Hal (Christian Shaboo), and her take-charge sister, Claire (Deena Nicol-Blifford), Proof departs from most NHTC offerings by presenting a female main character. And that’s to the good as Chenot is one of the troupe’s most versatile actors. Here, she gets to be prickly and melancholic, romantic and distracted, all while keeping us in tune with what’s going on in Cathy’s interesting head.

Turning 25 as the play opens, Cathy is a young woman who has inherited some of her dad’s math genius, but hasn’t really applied herself, it seems. Worried that mathematical minds tend to peak around 28, she opens the play in a funk, chatting with her already deceased father. It’s a nifty opening because it gets the relationship between Robert and Cathy on the table fast: he doted on her, but, in his last decade or so, he needed her as his companion and attendant because he was, as he puts it, “in the bug house.” From beyond the grave, as it were, Robert’s voice can be encouraging and consoling, but his very presence may suggest perhaps that Cathy might share both the capacity for mental breakthrough and breakdown.

Hal (Christian Shaboo), Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot)

Hal (Christian Shaboo), Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot)

Into the situation comes a possible love interest, Hal, who is dedicated to his mentor’s past greatness and hopes against hope that something worth publishing can be found in the reams and reams of notebooks Robert left behind. Robert, suffering from hypergraphia, tended to write gibberish as though straight from the Burning Bush, and so there’s a lot to slog through. Cathy is both dismissive of Hal’s efforts and a little bit conciliatory, though he may be trying too hard to draw her out. Shaboo seems always to play sympathetic guys, so we probably aren’t as distrustful of Hal’s intentions as Cathy is.

The one to be distrustful about is Claire who is not nearly so star-struck about the old man as Cathy is, and who believes the sisters erred in not turning him over to professional help. Claire has a much more practical mind than either her sister or father so tends to be the wet-blanket to their enthusiasms. It’s important that she be a not-so-sympathetic voice of reason and Nicol-Blifford gets her across as likable and even-tempered, if pushy.

Directed by Steven Scarpa with a good sense of pacing, the NHTC production is strengthened by its ability to make somewhat prosaic situations—bickering well-intentioned sisters, ingratiating but nerdy guy, overbearing has-been paterfamilias—come alive with forthright charm. The flashbacks to Robert while alive let us see both the manic side of his condition and his mellow months of remission. Kulp handles both with a sincerity that shows us Robert from Cathy’s point of view, as someone who was once something extraordinary and then, sadly, could only hope for being normal.

Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot), Robert (George Kulp)

Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot), Robert (George Kulp)

As a play, Proof works by short scenes of two or three characters and keeps its dialogue focused on the back and forth of exchange. Some of the best moments are in the timing between Chenot and Nicol-Blifford as Cathy is apt to verbally undercut her sister’s views, and vice versa. The hot and cold approach to romance between Cathy and Hal feels contemporary enough, though tinged with a romantic comedy tone.

The play’s main issue is whether or not a woman can be a math genius—a plot point that works both for the theme of what we inherit from our forebears and for the theme of the incalculable equation of love. There's also a neat play on proof, as mathematical solution and evidence. In the end, we see that the burden of proof can be too easily assumed by those who don’t know as much as they think they do, and that love is something that has to be proven again and again.

Hal (Christian Shaboo), Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot)

Hal (Christian Shaboo), Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot)

 

Proof
By David Auburn
Directed by Steven Scarpa

Stage Manager: Margaret Mann; Set: George Kulp; Lighting: Peter Chenot; Board Ops: Margaret Mann and Erich Greene

Cast: Megan Keith Chenot; George Kulp; Deena Nicol-Blifford; Christian Shaboo;

New Haven Theater Company Stage
at English Markets Building
839 Chapel Street
May 5, 6, 7 & 12, 13, 14

The Proof is in the Play

Preview of Proof, New Haven Theater Company

Though the New Haven Theater Company has stretched themselves in a variety of directions over the years—including the musical Urinetown, the fantasy Shipwrecked!, and large cast American classics like Our Town and, this past winter, Bus Stop—their bread-and-butter shows are small cast, dialogue-driven plays by playwrights like David Mamet, Conor McPherson, or the company’s own resident playwright Drew Gray. Getting back to where they once belonged after the stretch of Bus Stop, NHTC opens David Auburn’s popular, Tony Award and Pulitzer-winning play Proof next week at their performance space at the English Building Markets.

Directed by Steve Scarpa, who last directed Our Town for the Company, Proof was first considered years ago as an apt NHTC vehicle but they weren’t able to secure the rights. Fittingly, with Scarpa as director and the cast comprised of Megan Keith Chenot, George Kulp, Christian Shaboo, and Deena Nicol-Blifford, the play could be called “classic NHTC”—all four were in Our Town and have been in numerous productions. This time around, Kulp—who directed Bus Stop and typically pulls down “the father figure” parts—will play Robert, a deceased math genius who had mental problems, with Chenot, last seen as the put-upon chanteuse in Bus Stop, playing his daughter Catherine, who inherited his math smarts and, possibly, his mental problems as well. Shaboo, who often gets the romantic leads and was last seen as the harried husband in Smudge last fall, plays Hal, Robert’s former student who is trying to sort out the great man’s papers, among which is a proof that could be game-changing. Nicol-Blifford, who directed Smudge and appeared in The Cult last spring, is the older daughter, Claire, distanced from both her father and sister.

The cast of Proof: Megan Keith Chenot, Christian Shaboo, Deena Nicol-Blifford, George Kulp

The cast of Proof: Megan Keith Chenot, Christian Shaboo, Deena Nicol-Blifford, George Kulp

Chenot feels the play is particularly suited to NHTC because “it’s about family and we’re family.” Scarpa agrees: “It feeds into what we do best—shows with good parts and high stakes. Auburn said he could’ve used anything as the father’s special area; he wanted it to be a solitary undertaking in which one could be brilliant but that also has its burdens, so math here can also be, to some degree, what it takes to be an artist.” Kulp agrees, the play is “about having a certain gift and what it means, a legacy that can be passed on so that children, perhaps, do better than their parents.” Chenot has done some research into the math to sound like she knows what she’s talking about as Catherine, a brilliant woman, but she also takes seriously Catherine’s fears that genius and madness are related, “as they sometimes are for creative artists.”

It’s also helpful, in regard to NHTC’s resources, that the play has one setting: the backyard of a run-down home, where upkeep isn’t the strong point. In Bus Stop, which sold out its run, the setting was a public space where many personal interactions were taking place; this time, it’s a private space, so that the show, Scarpa says, is “even more intimate.” The whole cast is enamored of Auburn’s writing and that, they point out, is what the company looks for first and foremost: “great scripts with a lot of range.”

“We’re about the truth of the story,” Scarpa says, and Kulp adds out that the art of storytelling is ultimately what keeps the Company, who all have other jobs and pursuits, coming back to the back room at the English Building. Kulp, who is an Equity actor, gave up some professional jobs to be involved in Proof, but that’s the attraction of working with familiar friends on pet projects in their own space.

Scarpa, who sees himself as “the enabler of the process” as director, aims to be as supportive as possible of his cast. He knew from the start that Chenot was “perfect for the role” of Catherine, though it couldn’t be more different from the not-too-brainy singer she put across in Bus Stop. This time, Chenot, who has taught theater in high school, will be relying on some of that teacherly poise. As with Bus Stop, though, the drama and the humor comes from people being themselves, in the kinds of interactions that can be intense one moment and more lighthearted the next.

A play about family, genius, madness, fear, rivalry, and with a love story too. To the entire company, all of whom are involved in choosing the plays, it was “uniformly obvious” that Proof is a real New Haven Theater Company kind of play. Need proof? See the show.

New Haven Theater Company is Megan Keith Chenot, Peter Chenot, Drew Gray, Erich Greene, George Kulp, Margaret Mann, Deena Nicol-Blifford, Steve Scarpa, Christian Shaboo, J. Kevin Smith, John Watson, Trevor Williams.

The New Haven Theater Company
Proof
By David Auburn
Directed by Steve Scarpa

The English Building Markets
839 Chapel Street, New Haven
May 5, 6, 7 & 12, 13, 14

Stopping by the Diner on a Snowy Evening

Review of Bus Stop at New Haven Theater Company

William Inge’s Bus Stop, first staged in 1955, portrays a selection of American types with a “classic” glow—like cars with fins, girls in bobby-sox, and the films of James Dean, or Duke Wayne for that matter. You might say the tone of the play manages to navigate both worlds. Like Dean’s films, there’s a sense that something’s not quite right beneath the surface of an apparently everyday world, something that could become dangerous or at least darkly menacing, while, like most of Wayne’s films, it all comes out alright in the end—because people are people and basically decent.

In the New Haven Theater Company production, directed with appealing energy by George Kulp, the feel of the diner as a space and a presence is key. Thanks to materials NHTC borrowed from the Long Wharf Theatre and from the English Markets, the set has an authenticity that goes a long way to make us believe in Grace’s Diner, the familiar haunt of a few of the characters and, for a gaggle of bus passengers, the new surroundings in which they’re temporarily stranded while a blizzard closes the roads just west of Kansas City.

The diner’s owner, Grace Hoylard, played flinty but sympathetically by Susan Kulp, has a soft spot for two of the other regulars: her young, naïve but intelligent teen employee Elma Duckworth (Sara Courtemanche, in a confident debut), and Carl the bus driver (Erich Greene), a nonchalant man on the make. There’s also Sheriff Will Masters (Peter Chenot) who presides over the others with a level tone that Wayne himself would recognize, I reckon.

Then there are the passengers, most of whom are a bit flighty for the staid tones at Grace’s: Dr. Gerald Lyman (J. Kevin Smith), a seedy professor with a past and the blustering manner of someone used to soliloquizing; Cherie (Megan Chenot), a likable “chanteuse,” none too bright but having to learn to assert herself to withstand the self-involved importuning of Bo Decker (Trevor Williams), a prize-winning cowpoke who seems to think he’s a gift to womankind just by being alive. His sidekick, Virgil Blessing, is played by John Watson with a ruminative air that would do Walter Brennan proud.

The plot essentially serves two purposes: to help Bo and Dr. Lyman grow some awareness, and to make the women, Cherie and Elma, gain stature. The diner, as the arena where this happens, never stops being also a diner, which is to say a slice-of-life setting and a public space, and that means that we’re put in the place, almost, of eavesdroppers watching folks interact in public. Such is Inge’s very capable grasp of how theatrical real life can be, and how a public domain is useful to help a grandstanding cowboy see how he looks to others and snap out of his fantasy of himself, and to make a smooth-talking seducer of young girls consider his prey as a person in a community. Meanwhile, the women—who are not exactly what you’d call passive and easily led—have to see the limits of sympathy and excitement where male egos are concerned.

Finally, Inge also gives us a refreshingly non-anxious look at a grown-up man and woman (Carl and Grace) who agree to convenient liaisons without guilt-tripping about it. The pair are not likely to be anyone’s model couple, but Inge has the wherewithal to let them be themselves, without apology.

Kulp keeps his cast rattling along, playing things forthright without worrying too much about lurking nuances. Lyman never seems too creepy, and Bo never too vicious. Cherie and Elma both get grandstanding moments atop the diner’s counter, with Chenot rocking her chanteuse gown and Courtmanche’s high-school-style Juliet providing some welcome comedy, as does Watson’s many scowling reactions to his pardner’s incessant braggadocio.

New Haven Theater Company renders Bus Stop with a becoming purity, strengthened by Megan Chenot’s grasp of Cherie’s earnest manner, a mix of down-home charm and easy-going allure, and by Courtmanche’s dreamy young girl’s wonder about all the types it takes to make a world. With so much real feeling invested in this tale, this Bus Stop is an entertaining place to get stranded.

 

Bus Stop
By William Inge
Directed by George Kulp

Cast: Megan Keith Chenot, Peter Chenot, Sara Courtmanche, Erich Greene, Susan Kulp, J. Kevin Smith John Watson, Trevor Williams

Stage Manager: Margaret Mann; Set Design & Construction: George Kulp; Lighting: Peter Chenot; Board Ops: Deena Nicol-Blifford, Margaret Mann

New Haven Theater Company
March 3-5 & 9-12, 2016

Drop by the Bus Stop

Preview of Bus Stop, New Haven Theater Company

In the backroom of the English Building Markets, there’s a new diner. Or rather, an old diner. Dating from 1955, to be exact. It’s the set—still under construction—for New Haven Theater Company’s upcoming production of William Inge’s classic play of Americana, Bus Stop, and, boy, does it look authentic. Complete with the spinning stools you might remember from your favorite drugstore soda counter (if you remember those at all), a Beechnut Coffee tin, glass bottles of milk, a Frigidaire, and a radio that looks like it was around to broadcast on VE Day, Grace’s diner, where Bus Stop takes place during a freak blizzard in Kansas in March, has ambiance aplenty.

Director George Kulp expressed his deep gratitude to the Long Wharf Theatre, which generously opened its scenery and costume warehouses for the NHTC’s use. Which makes the show a dream come true for Kulp, who played headstrong cowboy Bo Decker in an exam play staged when he was still a theater student back in 1982. “The part was good to me and got me some attention,” Kulp said, and recently, when the process of picking plays for the NHTC season was taking longer than usual, “the play crossed my mind again.” The first thing Kulp realized was that he has the perfect assortment of actors for the play. Kulp asked his fellow NHTCers to read the play and casting fell into place immediately.

First of all, the play brings back Megan Chenot to the NHTC stage—last seen as the Stage Manager in their production of Our Town two years ago—who is taking time off from her busy performance schedule with her band Mission O. She plays Cherie, a small-time show-girl from the Ozarks and the female love interest of Bo, a cowboy trying to get her to marry him and move to Montana, played here by Trevor Williams who has the kind of youthful energy to pass for early twenties. The youngest part in the production—impressionable teen waitress Elma—goes to Sara Courtmanche, in her NHTC debut.

Other roles are filled by some of the familiar regulars in the NHTC family: Megan’s husband, Peter, a welcome addition to any NHTC show, whether as star or support, plays no-nonsense Sheriff Will Masters; J. Kevin Smith, who has had his share of plum roles with NHTC, as for instance in Glengarry Glen Ross and The Seafarer, plays Dr. Lyman, a pontificating ex-prof, who delights a bit too much in a nip from the bottle, among other vices; Erich Greene, often in the role of comic support, plays Carl, the Bus Driver, who has designs on Grace, the owner of the establishment, played forthright and down-homey by Kulp’s wife Susan (the Kulps played the Webbs in Our Town); John Watson gets the role of Bo’s crusty sidekick and father figure, Virgil.

Trevor Williams, Megan Chenot, John Watson, Sara Courtmanche, J. Kevin Smith, Peter Chenot, Susan Kulp, Erich Greene

Trevor Williams, Megan Chenot, John Watson, Sara Courtmanche, J. Kevin Smith, Peter Chenot, Susan Kulp, Erich Greene

“The play is better than I remembered,” Kulp said, and admitted that when he played Bo, “I was only focused on my role and really didn’t see how well the parts fit together. There are a lot of possibilities for us to explore, and a lot of discoveries to make about these characters. And we’re finding the humor.”

Bus Stop, set in a distinct place—a stretch of Kansas on the bus route to Kansas City—and period, is “a really good choice” for the Company, Kulp said. Indeed, NHTC has shown an affinity with classic American theater in its productions of Our Town and Waiting for Lefty. The pacing of naturalist drama suits the NHTC ensemble approach, with everyone contributing to the overall effect. The challenge here is that most of the cast is on stage at the same time, with different configurations taking up the main action. It requires a bit more orchestration than something like Almost, Maine, which the NHTC staged at English Markets in 2013, where the action was parceled out in discrete scenes. Kulp said he finds the challenge exciting, while fans of NHTC who have enjoyed some of their larger cast productions should be pleased by the overlapping interactions.

While Inge might not be a playwright on the tip of everyone’s tongue, there was a revival of his play Picnic on Broadway in 2013, and Kulp feels Bus Stop is just as good, if not better. “Both hail from a more innocent time we can be nostalgic about, but Inge is good at exposing the different layers of his characters.” And, as Smith says, his role, Dr. Lyman, excised from the Hollywood film version of the play (in which Marilyn Monroe played Cherie), lets us hear more of the kind of jaundiced views closer to Inge himself who didn’t set out to write venerable classics.

And what about a blizzard in March? Kulp said the special effects will be convincing, but let’s hope the play’s not prophetic in that regard.

The New Haven Theater Company’s production of Bus Stop opens Thursday, March 3rd and plays March 4th, 5th, 10th, 11th, 12th at 839 Chapel Street.

Casting Doubt

Review of Doubt, New Haven Theater Company

John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, staged by the New Haven Theater Company, directed by George Kulp, is a play about suspicion, rather than “doubt,” and from that a lot follows. The famous play, set at a Catholic school in the Bronx, concerns a priest, Father Flynn (Steve Scarpa), a school principal, Sister Aloysius (Margaret Mann), and a school teacher, Sister James (Mallory Pellegrino), and the title might invite the idea that the play is about doubting one’s vocation within the clergy, or perhaps about faith in general. But Shanley wants to probe touchier topics than that. So he concocts a play in which a priest is suspected by a tough nun of molesting a young student, a black boy we never see. My doubts aren't about the characters but rather about the play.

Since the play was written and first staged after proof of priests’ sexual misconduct and molestation of their students became a scandal and an outrage, the “automatic” assumption for its audience is that Father Flynn, with his longer-than-usual fingernails and tendency to sugar his tea (he must be decadent!), has tried to seduce Donald Muller, a boy who Sister James observed acting “strange” after a private conference with Flynn. She also smelled wine on the boy’s breath.

“Doubt,” as a theme, comes in right there. Do we agree with the unflinching, unbending, humorless and ever-vigilant Sister Aloysius who is certain Flynn is—to use the term of the time of the play’s setting (1964), though the word is never used—a deviant? Or do we doubt it? That is the situation, and, as such, would seem to be a question of evidence rather than conscience. How do we make up our minds about behavior we have not observed? How do we read a person’s character? What do we use as evidence? Can we ever overcome “reasonable doubt”?

I have to confess that much of my doubt, with regard to Shanley’s play, comes from my sense that, in 1964, a nun of Sister Aloysius’s age would not be so likely to jump to such conclusions with such a flimsy pretext. What Shanley banks on is that his audience, in a very different time, won’t find a problem with the way she puts the scant evidence together, and he goes so far as to stack the deck further by providing the boy with a mother (Aleta Staton) all-too-willing to tell a principal and nun that her boy is “that way.” He's twelve years old!

But enough about my problems with what Shanley hath wrought in his Pulitzer and Tony winning play. What about the NHTC production? Since the play is dialogue-driven, with clearly marked situations, Kulp and his actors make the most of the straight-forward nature of the characters, with no attempt to slant us one way or another. Key to that neutral approach is Father Flynn. If he looks a bit guilty, if he acts a bit “questionable,” then we can decide accordingly.

Steve Scarpa as Father Flynn

Steve Scarpa as Father Flynn

Scarpa’s Flynn seems more outraged at insubordination and a nun’s meddling with his attempt to help a minority child, than he is at the allegations. Scarpa, in other words, plays Flynn “straight,” in all meanings of the term. He comes across as what his words suggest: a man who wants priests to be friends to their flocks rather than stern wardens. Would he give a boy wine to calm him? Possibly. Would he touch a boy in a manner that might be deemed (particularly by Sister Aloysius) too intimate—if only to wipe away the pain of the beatings given the boy by his dad? Possibly. Such possibilities float before us, and Shanley wants to use the politics of a later time when same-sex acts were no longer illegal as they were in 1964 to color our perception of the past. But Flynn's best line, that certainty is just an emotion, sounds a bit sophistic when offered in self-defense.

As Sister Aloysius, Mann is particularly well cast. She has a steely gaze able to scan the distance, looking upon the crash of civilization and all that is holy if students write with ballpoints rather than fountain pens or sing “Frosty the Snowman” at Christmas pageants. We have no doubt that, regardless of Shanley’s use of a topical theme, the good Sister would be doing her utmost to bring down her lax and condescending superior, if only because he represents a disturbing trend. She knows what’s best, and that’s that.

At the heart of Doubt—and that’s what makes it good theater—is the clash of wills. Mann’s Aloysius is the kind of quite correct Catholic that gives the others a bad name—and is happy to do so. But for her “evil” assumptions, Sister Aloysius is fully of her time, and not entirely unsympathetic. In her we hear the voice of every elder we’ve ever encountered who believes standards are declining. What's more, given that she truly believes what she assumes about Father Flynn, she must act.

Sister James is also well-conceived by Shanley. She’s the sweet, pretty nun, the kind whose very existence was being revolutionized by the Broadway smash (1959) and subsequent film, The Sound of Music (1965), so that being full of feeling and enthusiasm was deemed the best way to reach children raised with television. Aloysius is against all that, of course, and Pellegrino does a good job of getting across how Sister James’ meekness wars with her ambition. She wants to be a beloved teacher, but she doesn’t want to flaunt the edicts of her superior. Pellegrino’s very busy eyes say a lot when they’re avoiding all eye contact.

Margaret Mann (Sister Aloysius), Mallory Pellegrino (Sister James)

Margaret Mann (Sister Aloysius), Mallory Pellegrino (Sister James)

Doubt gets right the tensions within the hierarchy of power that make this battle one in which viewers might be tempted to break along gender lines, as priests and nuns follow different orders and the power of the priest is considerable. A telling moment is when Flynn, asked to come to Sister Aloysius' office, sits at her desk to preside over the meeting.

The role of Mrs. Muller, in her private conference with Sister Aloysius, is given a wise “I’ve heard it all before” reading by Aleta Staton, though I find the role as written a bit hard to grasp. What mother volunteers to someone like Sister Aloysius (and can anyone have doubts about her?) that her twelve-year-old son might “want to be caught” by a man like Father Flynn? None would, if she wants to keep the boy in the school. Maybe a mother a bit more dim or desperate might help sell Shanley’s improbable scene.

In the end, as “a parable,” Doubt wants to prod viewers to make up their own minds about the situation and its resolution. It could be said that neither Father Flynn nor Sister Aloysius gets the result desired. You may be pleased with the outcome, but I doubt it.

Doubt (a parable)
By John Patrick Shanley

Directed by George Kulp

Cast: Margaret Mann; Mallory Pellegrino; Steve Scarpa; Aleta Staton; Stage Manager: Erich Greene; Board Operator: Ally Kaechele

The New Haven Theater Company, March 5-7 & 12-14, 2015

The Seafarer is Coming

As Virginia Woolf knew, a room of one’s own is necessary for a writer, or indeed for any creative endeavor to flourish—say, a studio of one’s own for artists, performers, musicians. The New Haven Theater Company have learned that lesson too. Having a performance space they can count on and call their own—the open area at the back of the English Building Markets on Chapel—has made planning successive shows as a full season much easier and more secure. The troupe of thespians have already used the space for productions of Our Town, Shipwrecked!, Almost, Maine, and The Magician, an original play by NHTC member Drew Gray, and have recently announced three upcoming shows: The Seafarer, by Conor McPherson, Doubt: A Parable, by James Patrick Shanley, and a new Drew Gray play, The Cult. All three shows, interestingly enough, have to do with situations that test beliefs and all three take a metaphysical reality as a given. Tickets for The Seafarer are on sale, and the show will be staged two consecutive weekends in November. A popular play from 2006, The Seafarer is an actor’s show, as are the plays of David Mamet, which NHTC has done well by in the past. Five men play cards in a working-class northern suburb of Dublin, an ordinary occurrence, but what is at stake is extraordinary. NHTC had plans to stage the show earlier, back in their peripatetic days, and have waited for the right time to come back to it. As the show is set on Christmas eve and has occult features, the perfect time of year would seem to be the weeks between Halloween and Christmas.

A five-man play, the production will include most of the male actors who have directed for NHTC in the past. Deena Nicol-Bifford, who played in Almost, Maine, was approached by the guys to direct this time and says she found in the play themes, about fate and destiny, that drew her in. “The more we delved into the stuff, the more we found to work with—like religious iconography, Irish myth and lore.” Working with her fellow NHTC players is always a pleasure, and she quickly saw how the long-term friendships among the troupe aid a play like Seafarer, about kin and friends and drinking buddies who have known each other forever. A serious play with serious themes about the trials of friendship and the need to protect others—even from themselves—the dialogue can be very funny, as all these Irishmen like to put one another on a bit.

Relative newcomer to NHTC Jim Lones (who played in Our Town) plays the eldest among the foursome, Richard Harkin, who has recently gone blind due to a freak accident. His erring brother James “Sharky” (J. Kevin Smith, who played in NHTC productions of Our Town and Speed-the-Plow, and played Tony Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross) returns home to help his brother and finds that Richard likes taking out his frustrations on his younger brother. Also on hand is longtime friend Ivan Curry (Steve Scarpa, recently seen on the Long Wharf stage as a townsperson in Gordon Edelstein's production of Our Town, and who directed NHTC’s Our Town and also played in Almost, Maine and Speed-the-Plow), a kind of generally benign ne’er-do-well who recently lost his glasses and is suffering from myopia, and, arriving in the second act, their friend, the gadabout Nicky Giblin (Peter Chenot, who directed Shipwrecked! and had the main roles in Urinetown and Talk Radio and played Picasso in Picasso at the Lapin Agile), who just happens to have taken up with Sharky’s ex. But that’s not the main plot-point, rather it’s the fellow Nicky has brought along and invited to their card game: a stranger Nicky befriended while on the most recent leg of his drinking binge, a distinguished-looking gent called Mr. Lockhart (George Kulp, who has acted at Long Wharf in Macbeth 1969, directed Speed-the-Plow, and acted in Our Town and Urinetown).

Lockhart and Sharky have a history. Baggage in the form of a wager that took place 25 years ago in Bridewell Prison where Sharky’s winning a card game led to his release and a promise to play Lockhart again. Lockhart is back to make sure Sharky fulfills that promise. So while the others think it’s just a friendly game of cards, we know different.

The whole cast cites the “wonderful writing” as a main attraction of the play, but also feel that it is an “uplifting play, that makes you want to cheer in the end,” as Scarpa says. The cast is well-selected and when Chenot and Kulp enter drunk together in the second act, you may recall seeing them as steady drinkers together in last season’s The Magician. Indeed, Kulp seems to get the “distinguished gent” roles rather regularly, while Chenot can always be counted on to be somewhat brash and outgoing. To Smith often goes the thornier and weightier roles and Scarpa generally provides key support roles. That situation will change next time when Scarpa will play the conflicted and possibly guilty priest in Doubt, with Margaret Mann, who directed Almost, Maine and played Mrs. Soames in Our Town, and Mallory Pellegrino, who played Emily in Our Town, as his accusers. Kulp directs.

The Seafarer takes its title from an Old English poem in which the hazards that threaten our faith are figured as the trials of seafaring in winter and in which we are exhorted to oppose the devil. The play was nominated for a Tony as Best Play of 2006 in its premiere New York run and has been called by the New York Times, “a long night’s journey into day.” The NHTC says it’s “an uproariously funny, charming, and chilling play” and shows “that redemption can come from the most unlikely of places.”

For tickets and more information: NHTC

The New Haven Theater Company present The Seafarer By Conor McPherson Directed by Deena Nicol-Bifford

The NHTC Stage at The English Building Markets 839 Chapel Street

8 p.m., November 13-15 and 20-22

The New Haven Theater Company is: Megan Keith Chenot, Peter Chenot, Drew Gray, Erich Greene, George Kulp, Margaret Mann, Deena Nicol-Bifford, Mallory Pellegrino, Steve Scarpa, Christian Shaboo, J. Kevin Smith, and John Watson

The Show Must Go On

Drew Gray’s The Magician, an original play produced by the New Haven Theater Company, possesses the qualities that have made for past successful productions by the group: minimal setting, dialogue-driven scenes, and a feel for the nuance of relationships. The principal characters in the play are Mark Wonderton (George Kulp), a magician on a strip outside Vegas, and his manager, Ronnie (Peter Chenot). The main drama in the play is what, in the course of a whiskey-soaked interim between a matinee show and the evening show, these two friends and verbal-sparring partners will reveal about themselves and, the real suspense, what will happen in the evening show.

The play is risky not only in its minimalism—if we don’t like Mark and Ronnie, no one else is going to show up to relieve them—but especially in its willingness to dramatize that perhaps most pathetic of all performers, the bombing magician. A bombing comic, after all, becomes comical via failure, but how comical can a magician be who no longer wants to make a good impression?

Much of the success of the play depends on the actors finding the right pace for their roles. In the early going the words may fly a bit too fast, a sign, perhaps, that these characters have a private intonation between them that we will gradually become attuned to, but it might also mean that the actors need a little time to naturalize their patter. Have no fear, they do, and we begin to hear very clearly the signals between Mark and Ronnie: what’s off limits, what can be joked about, what is territory they’d rather not explore. There’s a certain air of backstage superstition surrounding it all which suits magic certainly but which also extends to Vegas generally. Don’t bad mouth the Lady is the main injunction. Both Wonderton and Ronnie are not doing badly, or, well, it could be a lot worse.

Because so much is made of the general standing of Wonderton’s act in the first part of the play, as the drinks keep being downed, we may find ourselves skeptical that he’s going to pull off the second part of the play when, mostly alone on stage, he faces . . . us, the audience. One suspects that Wonderton’s inability to produce any magic would meet with a rather more hostile reception in Vegas than the enactment of that inability meets with in The Magician, so that the suspension of disbelief comes not from seeing “magic” performed but in believing a man so incapable of magic would remain on stage.

That’s where the real guts in this play come in. Mark insists on a point that Ronnie disputes: “the box will play.” What he’s referring to, we find, is a box containing, rather than tricks and magical implements, the detritus of his own life. Would revealing the contents of this box “play” for a Vegas audience gathered to see magic? Unlikely. Does it play for an audience gathered to see a play? Uncertain.

Gray’s point seems to be that the sad accumulation of stray bits mirrors anyone’s little pile of keepsakes and that, in the end, these talismanic collections don’t mean a thing. Wonderton, hitting a professional low, is willing to reveal what’s “behind the scenes” or “in the box,” and that plays only so far as what he reveals does indeed reveal something. That’s where I’m not so sure. The collection of things are too generic to sketch for us Wonderton’s individual life, and too minor to inspire in us much identification. We may well find ourselves wondering not only why anyone would keep such things but why he would bother to tell us he did.

More revealing, dramatically, is the relation between Ronnie and Mark. Even after this epic failure on the part of Mark, the give-and-take of manager to performer goes on. There’s a sense that what The Magician aims at is the peculiarities of a life on stage and a life behind the scenes, and the interest in the relation between Ronnie and Mark is in the way they have to remain “in character” with one another no matter what. Gray’s characters are figures “in the life,” in the way that David Mamet’s characters so frequently are, and Chenot is able to give Ronnie both charm and a certain mannered “been-there, done-that” air. Mark is a harder read, and Kulp lets us see some of the cracks in the façade of the seasoned performer, a man for whom “ladies and gentlemen” are forever looking on, and who finds, to his chagrin, he hasn’t let anyone really get “backstage” or into his private life.

Entertaining and risky, The Magician conjures up the tensions between work and life and between public and private, as well as the long-term friendships that, at the end of the day, are the only thing that make it all worthwhile.

 

The Magician A new play written and directed by Drew Gray The New Haven Theater Company

Mark: George Kulp; Ronnie: Peter Chenot; Samantha: Jessica Donofrio

Design: Drew Gray; Stage Manager/Light Board OP: Mallory Pellegrino; Sound Board OP/Production Assistant: Deena Nicol; Photographs: Susan Kulp

The English Building Markets March 6-8 and 13-15, 2014

Making Magic

The New Haven Theater Company has had a run of revivals, with the two most recent—Our Town and Almost, Maine—staged at the English Markets. Next month—actually, next week—finds them going for something the company, in its twenty year history, has never done: an original play. The Magician, written by NHTC member Drew Gray, was given a staged reading last August and is now ready for a full premiere.

The story of a magician, Mark Wonderton, working “the big time” in a casino on the outskirts of Las Vegas, the play is one of a trio of plays that Gray has written about three brothers—one a thief, one a magician, one a gambler—and, for The Magician, was drawn to the idea of a play that would portray a performer onstage. Thus the staging of Act II—when Wonderton is onstage—entails the interesting doubling that takes place when a play’s audience doubles as the audience to a show in the play. To that end, NHTC has had to find a few tricks up its sleeve in order to pull off some actual magic tricks.

“Some will fail,” Gray says, but the audience should have a sense of Wonderton as “a polished performer having a bad night,” rather than, say, a middling magician. One of the reasons for Wonderton’s lackluster performance of his routine has to do with his own crisis, another has to do with news of one of his brothers. In the reading in August, Gray says, most of the audience emerged from the experience feeling “the emphasis of the play” was on Wonderton’s reaction to his brother’s fate. For Gray, the story to be told uses that event as “an instigating act,” the catalyst that causes the magician’s state of mind, but not the dominant feature of the play or of Wonderton’s situation.

“There’s a different ending entirely” now, Gray says, thought the emphasis is still on Mark Wonderton as a guy onstage having to go on with the show though his heart isn’t in it. It’s a situation with interesting dramatic parallels to the situation of acting. Gray, who is also directing the play and is responsible for scenic design as well, does everything—we can say—but act. The Magician explores the plight of the showman stuck in his show, no matter what.

Much of the play’s success, Gray feels, depends on “educating the audience in the first ten minutes about what is possible and potential with Mark.” Act I is mostly backstage, a dialogue between Wonderton and his voluble manager, Ronnie. Gray has cast two of the more versatile actors of the company, with George Kulp as Mark and Peter Chenot as Ronnie. Much relies on Kulp’s ability to balance the unhinged qualities that Wonderton develops as the show goes on with the more staid and steadfast character that Kulp is a natural at rendering. The NHTC has a thing for dialogue-driven plays—the plays of David Mamet are a key inspiration—and The Magician is right up their alley in that regard with Mark and Ronnie trading off insults, wise-cracks, and comments on the state of the act and the state of their working relationship.

From an audience perspective, we may find ourselves hoping that Wonderton will succeed—after all, no one wants to see a performer bomb, not even if an actor is doing a good job of playing just that. Gray looks to “the unique experience of live theater” to provide “a true and interesting experience,” so that such tensions add to the play’s realism. The audience, like Wonderton himself, have to find out that “disappointment is acceptable.”

The Magician plays for the first two weekends in March at the English Markets on Chapel Street.

 

The New Haven Theater Company The Magician By Drew Gray Directed by Drew Gray

March 6-8 and 13-15 The English Markets 839 Chapel Street, New Haven

The Changing Same

Like more than a few of us, I suspect, I had never seen a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. It’s one of those classic texts that it’s easy to be pretty sure we know all about without bothering to see it. I do recall reading it aloud, round-robin style, in English class in 11th grade. A budding literary sophisticate, I scorned much of it, and I can still remember my main objections: its normative assumptions about what makes for “regular folks” in the good ol’ U.S. of A. seemed to me not only dated but insufferably corny. If you went to school any time after 1964, it was simply too hard to accept a town that’s all-white, and where the “other” is signified by Polish Catholics across the train tracks. Sure, the actual setting of the play is the end of the 19th century to the eve of World War I (and it was first produced in the era of fascist sympathies pre-WWII), and Wilder is quite aware that the world he is depicting was already history. Still, for any child of the Sixties, the play was simply too retrograde, its fond evocation of how parents repeat themselves in offspring just, y’know, Squaresville, man. And that’s one of the things about Our Town—it tends to, and is intended to, inspire thoughts about how time passes and about the changes and the sames of ye olde status quo. There’s a priceless moment where the elderly presider over the local soda fountain reminisces about how it was once possible for a dog to take a nap in the middle of Main Street in the middle of the afternoon, undisturbed. Ah, the good old days—now there’s horses and carriages everywhere and even those encroaching horseless carriages! While no one in a contemporary audience would remember anything like that, we all have similar recollections that date us. Who still remembers milk delivered to the door? Newspapers routes? Wilder wrote the play not to preserve the past, conservatively, but to show that whatever we know as “normal” is going to go the way of all flesh right into the graveyard, eventually.

Which is a way of saying: Don’t judge a play by its first Act. Sure, Our Town starts homey enough to fit squarely in some kind of Will Rogers-type recollection about what life was like when everyone in town knew everyone else’s ancestors, but by the end it has let in the space of the beyond. Back before outer space was the answer to our striving beyond the quotidian earth, it was possible to let “eternity” be the common Unknown looming over us all, and Wilder does a good job of bringing the time beyond time into the play—by making it just as homely and familiar, but with a key difference. The dead know what we don’t know, and what they know reveals at last what has been implicit all along: the perspective of the Stage Manager is “from beyond the grave”—like poets and saints, seeing the length of an individual human life as the speck in the span of the ages that it is.

The New Haven Theater Company’s production, directed by Steven Scarpa, in a spare playing space in a big, high-ceiling room at the English Building Market, its set consisting of two groups of three chairs and a quartet of black monoliths that look like pillars holding up the sky and like monuments to the dead, gives us a straight-forward rendering of Wilder’s script that lets us appreciate how much specificity there is in the play’s seemingly generic approach. Grover’s Mill is a town with an identity, and it's great the way the NHTC production lets us imagine the town the way the play wants us to.

Helping greatly with that task is our Stage Manager (Megan Chenot). Rather than the usual benign old codger who is supposed to keep us apprized of the whos and whats of the town, Chenot has the fresh forthrightness of those tour guides you might see leading a bunch of prospectives, their families, and random shutterbugs around Yale’s campus. She’s got the skinny on everything and delivers it all with the kind of amused forbearance we expect from grade school teachers. It’s like the whole town is her “class” (us too) and she wants to lead them along the path to greater knowledge, no matter how painful it may be. Chenot creates a very warming, reassuring effect, and that helps, particularly as there’s likely to be much sniffling and wiping of eyes by the time Act Three ends.

Other reflection on this well-cast show—special mention of the perfect match of Mallory Pellegrino for the role of Emily Webb. The heart of the play comes in Act Two when Emily and George Gibbs, the boy next-door, finally realize what their lives have been leading to. Pellegrino shows just the right mix of bashfulness and smart-girl knowingness not only to win over George—the town’s top athlete, bound for agricultural college—but everyone else as well. It’s a moment that seems so sincere and intimate it justifies everything the Stage Manager is trying to show us.

Other fine touches from this familiar ensemble: Margaret Mann’s comic turns as a professor eager to take us back to the Pleistocene in explaining the town’s interest, and as everyone’s maiden aunt in the wedding scene, gushing with the kind of fulsomeness that makes cliché both comical and real; Christian Shaboo, as George, seems young enough to be as unselfconscious as George is; George Kulp and Susan Kulp play the Webbs with a familiarity that seems as if we’re actually in their home, and the awkward, prenuptial visit of George to his future father-in-law is comic, and almost lets in lots of things best left unsaid; as Doc Gibbs and his wife, J. Kevin Smith and Deena Nicol have a more weary hominess than the Webbs—with the Doctor having to make housecalls (who remembers that ancient custom?), and his wife fantasizing about a trip to Paris as though it were on the other side of the earth; the families’ breakdown at the graveyard feels genuine rather than stagey, a big plus; Peter Chenot, as deliveryman-about-town Howie Newsome, is as real as the imaginary (to us) carthorse he leads around.

Perhaps the most forward-looking aspect of Wilder’s play is when George and Emily, in their respective bedrooms in their respective parents’ next-door houses, try to set up a means of surreptitious communication, if only to study together. Do we need look any further for an early version of the urge to text and share files? And when the Stage Manager comments on the fact that most people end their lives married, it’s a rather obvious reflection that—in these parts, anyway—more people than ever, even those who eschew heterosexual coupling, have that opportunity.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, I reckon.

 

Our Town By Thornton Wilder Directed by Steven Scarpa Produced by George Kulp Production Design by Drew Gray Stage Management by Mary Tedford

Cast (in order of appearance): Megan Chenot; J. Kevin Smith; Sam Taubl; Peter Chenot; Deena Nicol; Susan Kulp; Christian Shaboo; Josie Kulp; Spenser Long; Mallory Pellegrino: Margaret Mann; George Kulp; Donna E. Glen; Erich Greene; Jim Lones; Rick Beebe; Jesse Jo Toth

English Building Market 839 Chapel Street

2013, September 19, 20, 21; 26, 27, 28 8 p.m.

Theater News: Keeping Company

The New Haven Theater Company has built up a local reputation for their staging of economic and effective productions of well-known plays—Urinetown, in 2012, is still a high-point, as well as some grab-ya-by-yer-lapels Mamet plays like Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow, not to mention slices of vintage Americana like Waiting for Lefty. Rarely, it seems, do they show off brand new plays. But tonight, thanks to newish member Drew Gray, a product of Bard College, key players in the NHTC family—George Kulp, Peter Chenot, Megan Chenot, Steve Scarpa, Hallie Martenson—will give staged readings of two brand-new plays written by Gray and being work-shopped by NHTC for eventual production. The reading is free, open to all, and takes place at The Luck & Levity Brewshop at 118 Court Street at 8 p.m., preceded by a reception at 7:30.

The new full-length play is “The Magician,” about a less-than-stellar magician on the less-than-five-star Vegas circuit. It’s after another lackluster performance and Mark Wonderton is shooting the shit with his manager Ronnie when he receives news that, as they say, "changes everything," leading to a new performance ethic that might just knock ’em dead. Billed as being akin to “two Mamet characters stuck in a Beckett play,” “The Magician” sounds like the kind of pithy little confrontational drama NHTC can really rock.

The play is paired with a short called “A Tall Hill… …A Warm Day,” in which a somewhat sad-sack character mourns a lost love, a sort of poetic coming to terms with the one that got away.

Both plays will have brief talk-backs with the playwright.

And, in case you’re worried that NHTC will shun their task of giving us grassroots theatrical evenings of American classics, how’s Our Town in the fall strike you? Thornton Wilder’s text has bedeviled many a high school English class to say nothing of all the high school stages it has graced with its winsome, wholesome charm. And yet. Wilder was something of a modernist who did things like read Finnegans Wake in his free time (or “Work in Progress,” as it was known then), so maybe NHTC will bring out the avant-gardey hi-jinx rather than the cuddly Grandpop Walton aura. Wilder attended Yale and ended his days in Hamden, and the play is 75 years young this year. All good reasons—coupled with NHTC’s way of doing this kind of thing, as directed by Steve Scarpa, who directed Clifford Odets’ Lefty in the midst of the OWS winter—to roast this chestnut yet again.

Manic Mamet

The Yale Cabaret is unexpectedly dark this weekend, so what’s a fan of New Haven theater to do? Answer: go see The New Haven Theater Company’s production of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, delivered in quick and dirty fashion by director George Kulp at UpCrown Creative Studios on Crown Street. The play builds upon triads to create a dilemma: three characters, three scenes, and a choice: which of two films to “green light.” For recently promoted movie producer Bobby Gould (J. Kevin Smith, anxiously expansive), it’s not simply a choice about which film would do better or make more money, it’s also a choice about loyalties, about love and lust, about—yes, even in Hollywood—responsibility. The situation also carries implications of sexual politics and office politics. With the Petraeus scandal currently running amok in the press, the NHTC has yet again pulled out of its hat a play that speaks to its moment.

Of the two films, one is a sure-fire blockbuster—a buddy prison picture that would be a vehicle for Doug Brown, a big-name star—while the other is a do-gooder: a film about “the end of the world” through a nuclear disaster (think: The Morning After). The first film is pitched by Charlie Fox (Steve Scarpa, aggressive and fast-talking).  Sweaty and dying for a coffee, Charlie is a friend and colleague of Bobby’s from way back, who now is poised to deliver the coup that will make them both rich men and set them on to bigger and better things. The Brown film is the proverbial pot of gold the rainbow’s end always promised.

When Charlie enters, Bobby is giving a “courtesy read” to the nuclear disaster novel and scorning it. The idea of making it into a film is poised to be a joke until. . . . Male sexual one-upmanship rears it head when the two men bet on Bobby’s ability to seduce his pretty, temporary secretary, Karen (Megan Keith Chenot, lithe and blithe), who seems to know nothing about the film business and not much about being a secretary. Seemingly guileless, in other words. And, in Charlie’s view, not slutty enough to sleep with Bobby “just because,” and also not ambitious enough to sleep with him just to get ahead. So, the wager: if Bobby can get her into bed, it will have to be on the basis of his own charms.

The play’s middle scene, then, is the seduction scene at Bobby’s place, and the final scene is the fall-out, so to speak, on the morning after (10 a.m., time for the do-or-die meeting with Ross, the man upstairs whose OK is needed for the Doug Brown project). Bobby is only going to pitch one film and his new “change of heart” (if we can call it that) is leaning toward the disaster picture. What about friendship?

The strength of this production is that it moves at a fast and furious pace—Scarp and Smith are gangbusters at delivering the rapid-fire speech Mamet is famous for, talking over each other, responding to cues before the other has finished speaking. The technique creates a believable social friction between two colleagues, also friends, who know each other’s moves and are happy to be on the same page. Things slow down a bit with Karen, who at first, seen through the men’s eyes, seems like the kind of prize that goes with being newly made kings. Chenot plays Karen with detached intelligence: she doesn’t fawn over the men nor try to entice, but in the scene at Bobby’s place, all comfy on the couch, we see that her matter-of-factness about the quid pro quo seduction surprises Bobby, who still thinks you have to use subterfuge in these matters.

It’s the sort of thing you don’t expect to find in Mamet: the scene is almost sweet and is gently comical. It also shows how easily the manipulator becomes the manipulated. Karen, you see, believes passionately in the nuclear disaster picture, called The Bridge. And that passion, now shared suddenly by Bobby, becomes the bridge between them.  This part of the play would benefit from Smith switching gears a little more to convince us Bobby is convinced.

The play’s outcome can be read various ways, and one of the demands of Speed-the-Plow is that the production has to decide which way it’s going to go. Are we meant to side with Charlie or with Karen? Which film is in the “best interests” of Bobby, and what exactly are those interests and when should personal interest in a project be set aside for some other criteria, more neutral or more noble, as the case may be?

Is The Bridge part of a temptation best set aside, or is it the path to salvation?

Kulp's direction goes for the pragmatism of the play, which makes sense since it's hard to see a moral high-ground in Mamet's vision. The final scene climaxes with gripping precision: Scarpa explodes without making a mess and Smith manages to salvage Bobby’s dignity even as we see that he has ceased being his own man.

This is entertaining Mamet, and the NHTC keeps its eye on the ball throughout, delivering a speedy Speed-the-Plow.  It goes by fast, and you might have to lean forward a little to catch it all.

The play shows for two more nights, three performances: Friday, 7 p.m.; Saturday, 4 & 7 p.m.

Speed-the-Plow By David Mamet Directed by George Kulp Produced by Drew Gray

Stage Manager: Erich Greene; Lighting Technician: Tom DeChello

New Haven Theater Company at UpCrown Creative Studios 216 Crown Street, New Haven

November 14, 16, 17, 2012

Mamet Revisited

STP Postcard

Next Wednesday, November 14, The New Haven Theater Company kicks off its four show run of David Mamet’s edgy and entertaining play, Speed-the-Plow.  The director, George Kulp, and two of the three cast members were involved in the troupe’s production of the playwright’s Glengarry Glen Ross in 2010.  It’s good to see a return to Mamet as his dialogue-driven dramas bring out the strengths of the Company, letting them show off their ability with close ensemble work.  The key to good Mamet is pacing, and Kulp feels that his actors—J. Kevin Smith as Bobby Gould, a recently risen movie studio bigwig, Steve Scarpa as Charlie Fox, a lower-level associate but friend of long-standing, certain that he has a property that will be his big break, and Megan Keith Chenot as Karen, a temporary secretary new to the world of movie-making who might represent other values, or who might be a hustling go-getter—are finding new and interesting aspects of the play.

The NHTC’s recent productions have offered a certain degree of timeliness in this uncertain era of economic downturn.  I remember seeing their Glengarry Glen Ross on a night when the stock market hit a new low and the desperation of real estate salesmen in the play could easily extend to Wall Street traders.  Smith played the loquacious Ricky Roma, Scarpa was Williamson the less-than-savvy office manager, and Kulp played Shelly “Machine” Levine, the hinge for much of the pathos in the play.  All three actors were also involved in Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty, which Scarpa directed with a relevant sense of solidarity and struggle at a time when there were OWS tents on the New Haven Green.  Then came their big production of Urinetown, the musical by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, a show with a theme of straitened circumstances and the tensions between haves and have-nots.  Kulp played Caldwell B. Cladwell, the resident big-wig, and Chenot played his daughter, Hope, who falls in love with Bobby Strong, a rabble rouser.  Scarpa played Officer Barrell, a bullying cop who had more than a buddy’s affection for his partner Officer Lockstock.

Scarpa, a big fan of Mamet, initially proposed that the group tackle another of the playwright’s works, known for their bristling dialogue, earthy vocabulary, fast, overlapping exchanges and arresting non sequiturs.  Kulp offered to direct when he saw that Scarpa and Smith and Chenot were perfect for the roles.  “It’s great when we can find a play that matches us and what we do,” Kulp said, “I think people who have seen Kevin, Steve, and Megan in other plays will be impressed to see them stretch themselves as actors, as they do in this play.  I’m very honored to be working with them.”

The play will be staged at Upcrown on Crown Street, a new space for NHTC, but one with, Kulp says, an upscale classiness that makes it suitable for the slick office of a Hollywood movie producer.  Because NHTC doesn’t have a permanent theatrical space and makes do with what’s available, or what best suits (as in their staging of Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio at Ultra Radio station on College Street), plays like Mamet’s, which don’t demand elaborate sets and can be produced almost anywhere, are ideal.

What might the play—which Kulp describes as a drama about one’s priorities and the decisions that make one question one’s loyalties—have to say to us following so closely on the heels of a major election?  The idea that someone might have second thoughts about a sure way to make money, in favor of a goal more worthwhile, could have some relevance.  Though Kulp and company are doing the play in the present day, Speed-the-Plow initially appeared in the Eighties, at a time when Hollywood was in search of bigger and bigger blockbusters.  One of the plot points is that Gould asks Karen to read a novel about the end of the world and then report on it—at his place. It’s a seduction ploy on his part, but he ends up swayed by her enthusiasm for the project.  Certainly, today, apocalyptic film scenarios are a dime-a-dozen and we might have reasons to question Karen’s sincerity; then again, the real concern isn’t the topics of the films pitched by Charlie and Karen, but rather the stakes of the “old boy” camaraderie between Bobby and Charlie and the more intangible and probably less enduring sex appeal between Bobby and Karen.  Still, at a time when more women are directors and producers and in politics than was the case in the Eighties, it will be interesting to see how Mamet’s power struggle plays out. What carries the day, in the end?  What, if anything, is Gould committed to?

The New Haven Theater Company is back, and they’re doing Mamet.  God speed the play.

David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow Directed by George Kulp

Upcrown Creative Studios 216 Crown Street, 2nd Floor November 14 & 16 at 7 p.m. November 17 at 4 p.m. &  7 p.m.

For tickets and info visit: New Haven Theater Company

Power To The Peeple

Prognosticators sometimes write about the future threat of world-wide drought.  But how often does anyone speculate about the fate of private toilet facilities in such a world?  Urinetown, Book and Lyrics by Greg Kotis, Music and Lyrics by Mark Hollmann, dramatizes, in comic, cartoonish fashion, that very situation.  In the world it depicts, human waste elimination is permitted only in public facilities, run by a ruthless corporation, UGC, and everyone must pay for the privilege to pee.  Then along comes trouble, trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for . . . pee. As staged by the New Haven Theater Company in their performance space on Court Street, the Tony-Award-winning Urinetown is lively grassroots theater, a showcase that allows the entire company—expanded with some new recruits to achieve a cast of 17—to show off singing voices and dance moves and comic timing we didn’t even know they had.  The company has always shown a strong propensity for ensemble work, but what they’ve achieved this time may surprise—and should certainly delight—their audience.

The musical itself, which has been popular since its Off-Broadway debut in 2001, around the time of 9/11, isn’t just romantic silliness, as so many musicals are, but has points to score, in rather broad fashion, against unsustainable lifestyles, corporate malfeasance, political chicanery, greed, totalitarian laws, and even the limits of heroism.  In other words, it’s a play that, like NHTC’s Waiting for Lefty last winter, has the kind of timeliness that should only add to its popularity.

Another strength of the play itself is its ability to provide songs that have immediate access as “show tunes.”  Hollmann and Kotis have created a great pastiche, recalling any number of other musicals and commenting upon the very business of musical theater, and of self-conscious, avant-garde touches, through the use of one of those stock narrators (Jeremy Funke) familiar from such small-time theater chestnuts as Our Town.  (Indeed, the title “Urinetown” could be taken as a play on the latter title: from our town, to your town, to “your in town”—a play on the identity of Urinetown as a place).  Funke, as Officer Lockstock (of course his partner, played by producer Steve Scarpa, is named Officer Barrel), keeps us apprised of the storyline, often interacting with Little Sally (Hilary Brown), a forthright young thing dutifully collecting coins to pay for a pee, and often questioning the underlying logic of the production.

Some stand-out bits: the performance of “It’s a Privilege to Pee” by Off-Broadway veteran Sabrina Kershaw, as Penelope Pennywise, the no-nonsense enforcer of regulations about urination; the songs introducing us to the Bad Guy Big Wig, Mr. Caldwell B. Cladwell (George Kulp, exuding the greasy charm one expects from small-town potentates, and not above a little hoofing), and “Cop Song,” giving us the viewpoint of the Law with fast-paced choreography;

the song in which our hero, Bobby Strong (Peter Chenot), a civic servant at Public Amenity #9, develops a conscience, finding himself smitten with Cladwell’s winsome daughter Hope (Megan Keith Chenot, also musical director) who tells him “Follow Your Heart,” and the song in which Bobby gives hope to the poor (before literally giving Hope to the poor): “Look at the Sky,” a rousing paean to peeing freely; and my favorite number, “Don’t Be the Bunny,” in which Cladwell and his staff (including very watchable comic turns by Ralph Buonocore, as Mr. McQueen—the name says it all—and Josie Kulp as Miss Millennium) spell out how to crush the rabble.

In Act II, the rebellion that closes out the first Act risks violent confrontation; Bobby rallies the rabble with “Run, Freedom, Run!”,

a jaunty gospel-tinged song that sounded to me like it would’ve been right at home in one of those old Elvis movies, and there’s also a touching number (“Tell Her I Love Her”) due to some bad news.  Without spoiling the ending, I’ll just say that another strength of Urinetown is that it has the courage of its convictions, avoiding the kind of neat happy ending that is the trademark of most musicals in favor of something much darker.  Suffice to say, just because you’re pissed off, doesn’t mean you have a plan. 

The guys do fine—Chenot, Kulp, Funke, Erich Greene, all manage to belt their songs with enough force to overcome the fact that acoustics are not the space’s strong suit—but the real treat is listening to the ladies—Kershaw, Chenot, Brown, all able to give great uplift to their musical numbers.

Special mention as well to the indispensable musicians who make the spare arrangements work—the whole score is played on drums and keyboard by David Keith (drums) of Mission O and The Chrissy Gardner Band and Jeremy Hutchins (keyboard) of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony and St. John’s Church.

Urinetown tells the tale—with songs, clowning, and speeches—of a world reduced to dire restrictions.  NHTC, under director Hallie Martenson, has created a stripped-down, bare bones production that matches the show’s singing and dancing on the edge of the apocalypse feel.  Like a latter day Moses, Bobby Strong says, “let my people go,” but the right to relieve oneself at will comes with a price.  For all its silliness, Urinetown has a lot on its mind, and NHTC’s production does the show proud.

The folks of NHTC choose shows well to show off their strengths, but with Urinetown they show that their strengths are greater than imagined.  Go, while you still can: four more shows: May 16-19, 8 p.m.

www.newhaventheatercompany.com

New Haven Theater Company presents

Urinetown: The Musical Book and Lyrics by Greg Kotis; Music and Lyrics by Mark Hollmann Directed by Hallie Martenson

May 11-19, 2012