Gordon Edelstein

A Story of Fathers and Sons: The Chosen Comes to Long Wharf

Preview of The Chosen, Long Wharf Theatre

Novelist Chaim Potok is best-known for stories about the clash of values between fathers and sons, particularly within the codes that govern conduct among modern Jews. His novel My Name is Asher Lev, adapted into a play by Aaron Posner, centered on a young Hasidic man trying to follow his creative inclinations as an artist within a religious tradition that forbids figural representation. Directed by Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, the show was a strong close to the 2011-12 Long Wharf Theatre season and went on to win an Outer Critics Circle Award as Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play at New York’s Westside Theater.

The Chosen, in a new revival at the Long Wharf, may be following a similar path. The play is based on Potok’s best-known novel; in fact it made his name upon its publication in 1967. Adapted into a film and a short-lived musical, The Chosen, as a play, was first produced in 1999 at the Arden Theatre in Philadelphia, much as Asher Lev received its first production there. The current show repeats the teaming of Aaron Posner’s text and Gordon Edelstein’s direction, but The Chosen is less about the restrictions of remaining faithful to Judaic tradition and more about how paternal expectations find or miss their fruition in the sons of willful men.

The focus of the play is on two young men, Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter, who begin as rivals on the baseball field and then become friends as they grow. Their fathers, Reb Saunders and David Malter, represent two opposing value systems. Reb Saunders wants Danny to become a religious leader, but Danny wants to be a psychologist. David, a Zionist, wants his son to become a mathematician, but Reuven has interest in becoming a rabbi. Director Edelstein sees the play as “a beautiful story about the complicated relationship between parents and their children and how a friendship grows.” The tensions between the Saunders and Malter households illustrate how we sometimes “seek our fathers in places other than our own homes.”

Steven Skybell plays David Malter. A graduate of the Yale School of Drama in 1988, Skybell has been nominated by the Connecticut Critics Circle for recent performances in the area, in Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass at Westport Country Playhouse, where he gave a very nuanced performance as Phillip Gellberg, and in Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, at Yale Repertory Theatre, where he was the Narrator and Azdak, a comical judge with perhaps a touch of Groucho. Though he has acted in the state several times, this is his debut on the Long Wharf stage.

Steven Skybell

Steven Skybell

While growing up Jewish in a small town in Texas, Skybell “knew of” the novel The Chosen without being familiar with it, but when he read the part he immediately wanted to do it. Gordon Edelstein, Skybell said, “was delighted to find out that I’m Jewish,” because it means less work in trying to explain the context of the play. And yet, Skybell added, “it’s not simply a play about Jewish issues, it’s a story about a father and a son. A moving drama about distance and closeness between generations.”

The challenge of David Malter, as a part, Skybell said, is that he’s very likeable—“almost the perfect father” who wants everything to be “beautiful and right for his son.” The script, he said, “is detailed in reality,” so that Malter, as a character, is “fully written” and not simply a foil to Reb Saunders.

Malter, through a chance meeting with Danny Saunders, becomes “almost a surrogate father” to the boy. It’s not an effort to undermine Danny’s father but rather to support Danny’s own interests. “It’s the age-old question in families. You want to like what your parents’ like but you also want to do what you want with your life.”

“Each son, in a way, desires what the other’s father wants.” A situation that Skybell sees as having great significance for the intolerant times we live in now. “The play shows the positions of two different types of Jewishness, within Judaism. And it shows that someone can be quite diametrically opposed to someone else and that there can be truth in both views. It’s not necessary to obliterate the other view.”

Previews begin this Wednesday, November 22, with the press opening on the 29th.

Long Wharf Theatre

Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, adapted for the stage by Aaron Posner, directed by Gordon Edelstein, with Ben Edelman, George Guidall, Steven Skybell, Max Wolkowitz

Come On A My House

Review of Fireflies, Long Wharf Theatre

The kitchen of an aging spinster in a small town in Texas may be an unlikely place to find romance, and that’s the challenge of Fireflies, Matthew Barber’s adaptation of a novel by Annette Sanford, now playing at the Long Wharf Theatre. The school-marm, the nosey neighbor, the drifter / hired man are figures almost archetypal in their familiarity, and in their evocation of a certain kind of nostalgic Americana. To instill such types with believable, three-dimensional reality is not easy, but that’s what a trio of top flight actors does with these roles, directed by Gordon Edelstein.

Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey), Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander) (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey), Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander) (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Jane Alexander, a superlative character-actor her entire career, makes Eleanor Bannister, a retired school-teacher, a study in impulse at war with set-in-her-ways certainty. Eleanor spends all her time in her expansive kitchen in a house built by her daddy in a town with a population under 2,000. Alexander Dodge’s homey set has the character of a place and style that suits the folks who live there. Its appliances all look lived with and serviceable and definitely not “remodeled”—a word that would probably seem a neologism to Eleanor’s fine—and fussy—sense of correct English.

Eleanor is a taciturn woman who likes to keep to herself. Her busy-body neighbor Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey, pitch perfect) is always dropping by to borrow something and to dispense reminders and warnings. The latest involves a mysterious “drifter” who has hit town, going around—as Grace sees it—looking for soft-touch elderly ladies living alone to bilk of anything they’ve got.

Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey)

Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey)

Judith Ivey, a favorite with Long Wharf audiences, plays Grace with a wonderfully sympathetic grasp of how seemingly oblivious the lady is to Eleanor’s weariness with her intrusiveness and unwanted advice. She knows Eleanor isn’t the gossipy sort, but she’s got to try. She’s the very epitome of the phrase “means well,” and anyone who comes beneath her care—as her solitary neighbor does, perforce—will be a recipient of endless nuggets of local news, queries, and remarks full of outright incredulity at the slightest departure from custom and good sense. In effect, this is Grace’s lucky day because Eleanor is departing from both with an almost reckless abandon.

Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey), Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander)

Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey), Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander)

Almost. And that’s the great charm of Barber’s simple tale. The way Alexander’s Eleanor moves with a spirit she never really knew, then reins it in again with doubts and suspicions and, characteristically, a tendency to think she knows better than anyone. It’s that conviction that keeps coming under scrutiny as she wonders if there might be a bit more to life than she’s already known. An idea that gets met with panic or is the product of panic.

The titular fireflies get invoked a few times, not least in a brief dream sequence that feels steeped in a bit of hoary Our Town-style modernism (Edelstein directed a fine revamp of that familiar American theater chestnut a few years back). Eleanor, in Alexander’s portrayal, is the real firefly, winking on and off in response to the one thing this town rarely sees: a stranger.

Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander)

Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander)

As Abel Brown, the stranger, Denis Arndt is ingratiating and obliging. In the show’s first Act, he seems genuine enough, deliberately not living up to what the wagging tongues would make of him. His interest in Eleanor's “honeymoon cottage” may be self-serving or it may be at her service, and that's the question. In the shorter second Act, Arndt’s Brown really comes into his own, driven to exposition by the fact that he has been compromised. He gives a nicely calibrated aria of admission from a man who never willingly explains himself. His aggrieved sense of why he’s being driven to such ends—that he is in fact in a love story—lands with a fine sense of how some things must be so because they are.

Abel Brown (Denis Arndt)

Abel Brown (Denis Arndt)

Fireflies is not cutting edge theater and it’s not out to set the world on fire. It works the complacent rhythms of romantic comedy quite well, and lets our familiarity with small-town drama provide a context that could be more sinister. Barber shrewdly builds in a little suspense by having an intermission provoke guesses about where we’ll wind up. As the second Act opens, the presence of a police officer—a former pupil of Eleanor’s—makes us wonder about the interim. He also provides some background detail that a Google search might turn up, these days. As Officer Claymire, Christopher Michael McFarland adds a touch more comedy to the proceedings, accounting himself well as a local authority presiding over the authority that once stifled him as a child. His impromptu partial recital of a poem Miss Bannister taught him—Coleridge’s rhythmic wonder “Kubla Kahn”—says it all.

Eugene Claymire (Christopher Michael McFarland)

Eugene Claymire (Christopher Michael McFarland)

It may be that Fireflies is a passing glimpse of a manner of theater that is dying off, as insects do when the season is over. Yet in showing how actors can make even simple characters compelling, the play provides more sparks of greatness than some other, more contemporary-sounding romances I might name. At least I cared whether or not these two would make up, and the fact that Alexander and Arndt argue like a seasoned couple helps sell the point that they both, indeed, have some skin in the game. Which might be a way of saying that people who have had to face up to a load of things they’ll never do are more likely to be stirred by this last chance Texaco romance.

Thematically, the play made me recall a little gem from the pen of Leonard Cohen: “It’s just that I thought a lover / Had to be some kind of liar too.”


By Matthew Barber
From the novel Eleanor & Abel by Annette Sanford
Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Set Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Jess Goldstein; Lighting Design: Philip Rosenberg; Sound Design: John Gromada; Production Stage Manager: Kathy Snyder, Mary Spadoni; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern, Michelle Lauren Tuite; Casting: Calleri Casting

Cast: Jane Alexander, Denis Arndt, Judith Ivey, Christopher Michael McFarland

Long Wharf Theatre
October 11-November 5, 2017




Restaurant Guide

Review of The Most Beautiful Room in New York, Long Wharf Theatre

The promise of the new musical The Most Beautiful Room in New York, in its premiere at the Long Wharf Theatre, directed by Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, is a tuneful look at the rigors of sustaining a beloved Union Square restaurant in these days of rampant greed and bad taste. Adam Gopnik, a well-known New Yorker author, provides the book and lyrics, and should have a take on New York restaurant culture to entertain and enlighten, particularly as he’s also the author of The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food. With music by composer David Shire, who once upon a time composed the soundtrack for the very gritty New York caper-fable The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, we should be transported to a piquant urban ambiance. Not quite. This battle for the soul of a mom-and-pop eatery offers a main entrée with too much filler, and really only tastes satisfyingly urban in its side-dishes.

The cast of The Most Beautiful Room in New York (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of The Most Beautiful Room in New York (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

David (Matt Bogart, stepping into the role late in the run-up to opening and providing a likeable heart of the story) is the chef and co-owner of “Table,” a small, successful restaurant. Presented as a dreamer, by his more practical wife and business partner Claire (Anastasia Barzee), David’s a “poet” of the food industry who tilts at windmills. He believes he’s solved the problem of the huge mark-up in rent that will otherwise put him out of business: a deal with the devil, sort of. The “devil,” in this case, is the long-haired, rock star of a chef named Sergio (Constantine Maroulis, also likeable though supposed to be dastardly) who has his own agenda. Once “brothers” in their early years of trying to make a name in the food business, Sergio has long since surpassed David in the earning ability of his brand. But he’s always looking for new territory to exploit. Thus comes the Faustian bargain, served up by an entertaining duet “Take My Life.”

David (Matt Bogart), Sergio (Constantine Maroulis) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

David (Matt Bogart), Sergio (Constantine Maroulis) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

If that were all, that might be enough, particularly as “Market Forces,” sung by Phoebe (Darlesia Cearcy), one half of a lesbian couple that manages the co-op farmer’s market in the Square, is one of the best songs delivered by one of the show’s best singers. Maybe we will be treated to a musical unmasking of how capitalism foils all but the most bread-winning choices. Unfortunately, Phoebe’s musings are merely a side-dish. As is the other delicious touch: Mark Nelson’s very welcome comic turn as the proprietor of Carlo’s Anarchist Pizza, a Bensonhurst establishment where each slice is viewed as an individual pie, making the solidarity of each pizza stronger. Carlo is introduced fairly early on, when David and Claire’s son Bix (Tyler Jones, playing a more wholesome version of a Spielberg teen) delivers some fresh mozz. We might for a moment contemplate a musical world filled with off-beat eateries catering to varied political and gustatory manifestos, but this isn’t that show, though Michael Yeargan’s masterful, flavorful sets might keep you hoping.

Anna (Krystina Alabado), Carlo (Mark Nelson) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Anna (Krystina Alabado), Carlo (Mark Nelson) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Instead, it’s a romance. Middle-aging-ish romance served up with jealousy—that eternal spice of the tried-and-true. David realizes that Claire had a weekend that shall evermore remain legendary . . . in Wildwood, New Jersey, with Sergio. Sergio, though jaded by his conquest of the world, or at least the media, can’t seem to get past their night in the fabled “Doo Wop Motel.” If this sounds preposterous, well, it is a musical. The will-she, won’t-she plot line does nothing to help the restaurant story, but it does make that “most beautiful room” seem built on airy nothings. We have to accept that Claire is bored enough with it all, including a teen son courting Anna (Krystina Alabado), the daughter of Carlo, to take up with a sleazy wheeler-dealer who talks like Trump and looks like Bono (indeed, Maroulis hints at being a belter à la Sir Vox, but never really gets to show off the pipes here). Phoebe, always on hand to offer colorful asides, opines that “straight women” almost always prefer the pirate to the poet, and that should be good enough for motivation.

Bix (Tyler Jones), Kate (Sawyer Niehaus), Claire (Anastasia Barzee) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Bix (Tyler Jones), Kate (Sawyer Niehaus), Claire (Anastasia Barzee) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Act Two is shorter than Act One and if the romantic interests grip you, you’ll be satisfied as the plot plays out. For me, songs four—the title song, a lovely duet between David and his daughter Kate (Sawyer Niehaus)—through eight, a charming little riff on the current teen generation, “So, Like, Maybe”—are the best stuff in the show, which includes “Take My Life,” “Market Forces,” and Carlo’s “Espresso!”  All of which arrive before the love triangle rears its hoary head. Carlo comes back in Act Two—thankfully!—with the nicely turned “Slice of Life,” but Phoebe and her partner Gloria (Danielle Ferland) try rather doggedly, in “Lucky,” to poke fun at the ideals of marriage.

Through it all, our central family—and they have plenty of songs to prove it—remains so bland we can’t help but wonder if maybe the surly diner Gabe (Allan Washington, another spot-on side) is onto something: pass the hot sauce!

À chacun son goût.

The cast of The Most Beautiful Room in New York (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of The Most Beautiful Room in New York (photo: T. Charles Erickson)



The Most Beautiful Room in New York
Music by David Shire
Book & Lyrics by Adam Gopnik
Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Musical Staging: John Carrafa; Music Director & Supervisor: John McDaniel; Orchestration: Jonathan Tunick; Additional Musical Arrangements: John McDaniel; Set Design: Michael Yeargan; Costume Design: Jess Goldstein; Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind; Sound Design: Keith Caggiano; Associate Music Director: Jesse Kissel; Associate Choreographer: Jenn Rapp; Production Stage Manager: Linda Marvel; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Casting by Calleri Casting

Cast: Krystina Alabado, Anastasia Barzee, Matt Bogart, Darlesia Cearcy, Ryan Duncan, Danielle Ferland, Anne Horak, Tyler Jones, Constantine Maroulis, Mark Nelson, Sawyer Niehaus, Allan Washington

Musicians: Conductor/Keyboard 1: John McDaniel; Keyboard 2: Jesse Kissel; Trumpet: Dan Duncan; Reed 1: Tim Moran; Reed 2: Andrew Studenski; String Bass/Electric: Dave Daddario; Drums/Percussion: Ed Fast

The Long Wharf Theatre
May 3-28, 2017

Nicely Put

Review of Endgame, Long Wharf Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


By Samuel Beckett
Directed by Gordon Edelstein

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

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

Long Wharf Theatre
January 5-February 5, 2017

Business Ethics, an Oxymoron?

Preview of Other People’s Money, Long Wharf Theatre

When I spoke to Steve Routman, who plays Coles in the Long Wharf’s upcoming production of Jerry Sterner’s Other People’s Money, the election hadn’t happened yet, but was impending. That fact colored somewhat our chat about the play, which features the efforts of a corporate raider, Larry “The Liquidator” Garfinkle, played by Jordan Lage (last at Long Wharf in Ride the Tiger), to buy up New England Wire and Cable. Garfinkel’s scheme conflicts with two other interested parties: the factory owner Jorgenson (Edward James Hyland) and Coles, the owner of the company. As Routman puts it, the three characters, “each selfish in their own way,” are “trying to navigate different possibilities of capitalism,” and that gives the show its main theme.

As Routman sees it, Jorgenson represents the past and a focus on a business model that was passing away when the play first appeared in the late 1980s; Coles, somewhat “judicious” in Routman’s view, is “considering the long term” and what kinds of economic opportunities will be available for future generations. Between the two, Garfinkle is a fast-and-loose conniver who lives in “the now,” trying to make a score to plump up his portfolio. In taking us back to the days when the ostensible president-elect was a hot young wheeler-dealer in real estate investment, the play “still feels current,” though some of its references “are ripped from the headlines” of the time. Garfinkle is “not Trump”—either then or now—Routman stresses, but we may see some similarities: the charisma, the misogyny, the emphasis on making money that all seems to go with the territory.

Steve Routman is a familiar face at Long Wharf. In my years covering plays there, he has added richly realized supporting roles to three shows, all directed by Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein. Probably Routman's most memorable role was as Cohen in Steve Martin’s The Underpants where he got to display his comic, slapstick abilities. In the Long Wharf’s updating of Our Town, he played Professor Willard, and, in The Second Mrs. Wilson, Routman brought a bristling irony to the role of Thomas Marshall, Wilson’s Vice President who found himself out of the loop when the president became ill.

Steve Routman as Thomas Marshall in The Second Mrs. Wilson (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Steve Routman as Thomas Marshall in The Second Mrs. Wilson (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Routman, a Connecticut resident, is “extremely grateful” to Edelstein for regularly finding roles for him to play. With a 4-year old child, Routman is glad not to have to spend long months away. He feels like “a member of the [Long Wharf] family. For the bulk of my career I played in regional theater all around the country,” but his first equity job, back in 1985, happened to be at Hartford Stage. So Connecticut, which “has more regional theater than most states,” has been good for him with many “likeable” roles and venues.

Since I tend to think of Routman in comic turns, as in The Underpants and to some extent The Second Mrs. Wilson, I asked about his preference in roles. He loves comedy and “the challenge of the technical aspect of comedy,” but is glad to have played a variety of roles to show his range, including Chekhov, and film and TV roles. He referred to the great opportunity for The Underpants, in moving from Long Wharf to a later run at Hartford Stage, to perfect its timing and staging. “It grew tremendously,” he said, as finding what's funny can require trial and error in front of audiences.

Steve Routman as Cohen in The Underpants (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Steve Routman as Cohen in The Underpants (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

While there is humor in Other People’s Money, Routman said, the actors and director Marc Bruni “are still finding it.” The play is “not pure drama, nor comedy.” It’s “darker than the movie” version, starring Danny DeVito, that came out in the 1980s. Though Routman hasn’t seen a production of the play, he was aware of it having “a regional life” in the early ‘90s, with its single set and strong five character cast—another key role is that of a female lawyer, Kate (Liv Rooth), who must decide how to meet the challenge of Garfinkle.

Coles’ appeal as a character, Routman said, is in his “complexity. He seems to have a good heart and wants the best, even while looking out for himself.” Routman sees him as “the voice of reason to some extent.” For Routman, much of what is at stake in the play is a question of values: The difference between business as a way of life that makes products of value, or as simply a way to “make a killing” in some market, then move on. With such a clash, Routman said, “there’s no way to not see today in this play,” and he “looks forward to seeing what the audience finds in it.”

With the country experiencing the change that comes from moving to a Republican administration after eight years of a Democratic president, it’s timely enough to revisit an earlier Republican era. Sterner, who died in 2001, wrote the play after seeing what happened to a company, whose stock he sold to a corporate raider, and to the surrounding community after the company was sold off and closed down.

Other People’s Money runs from November 23 to December 18, with a press opening on November 30. Tickets start at $29. www.longwharf.org

Long Wharf Theatre
Other People’s Money
By Jerry Sterner
Directed by Marc Bruni

Guilt by Association

Review of Disgraced at Long Wharf Theatre

In the U.S., everyone’s people came from somewhere else. Somewhere back there, whether recently or many generations ago, there lies a place where outsiders were treated as “others”: a “they” who don’t dress, eat, speak, worship, or behave as “we” do. In the U.S., for some, strong identification continues with those in the “old country”; some even bring to this country many of the same customs and they flourish here, putting down “hyphenated American” roots, and celebrating an identity that isn’t simply, generically, “American.” For others, their background is an embarrassment or an association they have tried hard to leave behind, in an effort to “americanize” and assimilate. Sometimes, the civil nature of our generalized American identity suffers major shocks from what most Americans consider “them” “out there”: those other countries and cultures some of us still identify with and that are still an “us.” Then look out.

Ayad Akhtar’s sharply written Disgraced, now playing at the Long Wharf Theatre, directed with great sureness of pacing and staging by Gordon Edelstein, very cunningly makes contentious drama out of the inevitable, American clash between “us” and “them.” Here, the clash isn’t on a battlefield; it occurs in that staple of American drama, the living room, and it’s amongst people who work together, are very articulate and quick-witted, and generally capable of putting differences aside for the sake of a convivial evening. Before we get to that Götterdammerung of a dinner party, there is an important prelude.

Rajesh Bose (Amir), Nicole Lawrence (Emily)

Rajesh Bose (Amir), Nicole Lawrence (Emily)

We meet successful New York lawyer Amir (Rajesh Bose) and his wife Emily (Nicole Lawrence), a visual artist, as she sketches him standing in an expensive shirt and jacket and his skivvies in their swanky apartment. She’s been inspired to do his portrait in the manner of Velasquez’s portrait of his assistant, a former slave. That should raise eyebrows right there, but the possible domestic issues in that comparison are smoothed over by the couple’s obvious chemistry. She’s doing it, you see, because Amir was “profiled” in a certain way at a restaurant and impressed her with how he handled it. The doorbell rings and before you can say “Allah,” Amir is being profiled by his nephew, Abe (Mohit Gautam)—formerly Hussein—as someone who should help an imam, imprisoned for allegedly raising funds for the Taliban, because they are both Muslim.

And here’s where Amir—who changed his name to Kapoor (it was Abdullah) and makes the most of the fact that his father was born in India before that region became Pakistan—tries to disavow his background while his wife, who has commenced a series of paintings based on the art of Islam, tries to assert, with the secular detachment of intellectuals, that he should value Islam as she does, as a culture that, like Greece and Rome, can be added to the grab-bag of Western influences. Amir sees it differently, but ultimately, in the interest of family ties or domestic tranquility, does attend the imam’s hearing, though not as counsel. Still, he is quoted in support of the imam in the New York Times, no doubt because he alone, of the battery of attorneys present, “looks like” the imam. His support thus quoted, Amir fears, might raise hackles with the Jewish partners of the firm where he has worked for twenty years and hopes to make partner.

All this is played out with the natural rhythm of a give-and-take where all that seems to be at issue is the right to say “no.” As audience, we tend to sympathize with the put-upon and profiled Amir, and that identification will be tested by what follows.

Mohit Gautam (Abe/Hussein), Nicole Lawrence (Emily), Rajesh Bose (Amir)

Mohit Gautam (Abe/Hussein), Nicole Lawrence (Emily), Rajesh Bose (Amir)

Without going into plot points and revelations that come about during a dinner that almost comes to blows on an evening that ends in violence, it is clear that Amir’s conviction that he is not one of “them”—a Muslim, much less an anti-American terrorist or “Islamo-fascist”—becomes harder to sustain in the light of his attempt to protest to his wife and guests—Jory (Shirine Babb), a colleague at the firm, and her husband Isaac (Benim Foster), a curator at the Whitney Museum who has taken on Emily’s work—that the Koran and its teachings are inimical to the cultural smorgasbord they believe in. What begins, on Amir’s part, as an effort to disabuse their naïveté with a hectoring lecture becomes a calling-out, particularly when author Akhtar piles up the indiginities Amir must suffer, coming from both workplace and home (Bose’s balanced performance makes Amir not always likeable but at least understandable).

While some of the blows to Amir’s sense of worth seem, in retrospect, a bit contrived, it’s important to stress how effectively it all works in the moment. And that’s because plot developments come to light though characters playing their respective hands with perfectly structured timing, and because reactions are quick and definite. The play might feel talky but rarely does; instead, it feels like we’re spectators of a verbal sporting event that suddenly gets far too personal. Sooner or later, you’re going to take sides.

Shirine Babbs (Jory), Rajesh Bose (Amir), Nicole Lawrence (Emily), Benim Foster (Isaac)

Shirine Babbs (Jory), Rajesh Bose (Amir), Nicole Lawrence (Emily), Benim Foster (Isaac)

The cast is uniformly excellent in carrying off Akhtar’s dialogue, with its very sharp transitions from friendly chatter to spousal joshing to personal slurs with a great feel for how to make clear the stakes and to keep it entertaining. Disgraced joins other recent top-notch Long Wharf productions of successful plays—Clybourne Park, Bad Jews—that specialize in uncomfortable confrontations that can arise when people, here with the aid of much alcohol, begin to say what they really think, or try to make distinctions or demand agreement on ethical or ethnic grounds. Akhtar’s play gets at the underside of America’s lip-service to accepting everyone and at the particular tensions that might surface in mixed race gatherings (Isaac is Jewish; Jory, black; Emily, white and blonde) whenever an issue raises its ugly head.

With its handsome set and costumes and its rigorous grasp of how to use every minute of its under 90-minute running time, Disgraced is a gripping night of theater that has much on its mind. Ultimately the play is about how one decides which “us” to remain true to. To be an American is to be a mutt, and the world is dog eat dog.

Shirine Babb (Jory), Benim Foster (Isaac), Nicole Lawrence (Emily), Rajesh Bose (Amir)

Shirine Babb (Jory), Benim Foster (Isaac), Nicole Lawrence (Emily), Rajesh Bose (Amir)

By Ayad Akhtar
Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Set Design: Lee Savage; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: Eric Southern; Sound Design: David Van Tieghem; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Hair & Wig Design: Charles LePointe; Production Stage Manager: Jeff Brancato; Assistant Stage Managers: Amy Patricia Stern, Michelle Tuite; Casting by Calleri Casting; Photographs: T. Charles Erickson

Cast: Rajesh Bose; Nicole Lawrence; Mohit Gautam; Benim Foster; Shirine Babb

Long Wharf Theatre
October 14-November 8, 2015

A League of Their Own

Review of The Second Mrs. Wilson at Long Wharf Theatre

A play about loyalty, love, and deception should strike a few nerves, and when the story unfolds in what are often called “the corridors of power,” we have not just a story about how a couple weathers a storm, but about the fraught relation between public and private worlds. Joe DiPietro’s involving The Second Mrs. Wilson, directed by Gordon Edelstein at the Long Wharf, with a sumptuous set by Alexander Dodge and a stellar cast, lets us contemplate both a powerful romance and a unique historical situation.

Margaret Colin (Mrs. Galt) and John Glover (Woodrow Wilson)

Margaret Colin (Mrs. Galt) and John Glover (Woodrow Wilson)

When President Woodrow Wilson (John Glover), a widower, becomes sweet on Mrs. Edith Galt (Margaret Colin), a widowed lady of his acquaintance, the tongues of his advisers begin to wag and their visages to frown. Kept onstage throughout the play as a kind of an Old Boys’ Club version of a Greek chorus, Colonel Edward House (Harry Groener), Secretary Joe Tumulty (Fred Applegate) and Dr. Cary Grayson (Stephen Baker Turner) look on and trade misgivings about the lively romance we see unfolding between Glover’s Wilson, lathe-thin and boyish, and Colin’s Mrs. Galt, an engaging matron sincerely flattered at this new flame. DiPietro’s script keeps the flirtation within the bounds of propriety while flaunting the charms of a second chance for the middle-aged.

Harry Groener (Colonel House), Stephen Baker Turner (Dr. Grayson), Fred Applegate (Secretary Tumulty)

Harry Groener (Colonel House), Stephen Baker Turner (Dr. Grayson), Fred Applegate (Secretary Tumulty)

Early on, one of the best scenes features Mrs. Galt and House facing off on how a new bride could affect the president’s bid for a second term. In The Second Mrs. Wilson, dialogue is at its best when, as here, a game is afoot: who will best whom in the give and take of looking after Wilson’s interests and maintaining an interest in Wilson?

Mrs. Wilson (Margaret Colin) and Colonel House (Harry Groener)

Mrs. Wilson (Margaret Colin) and Colonel House (Harry Groener)

That note, once sounded, becomes the key note of the second act when Wilson, struck down by a crippling stroke at the end of Act One while hawking his League of Nations legislation across the country, comes fully under his wife and his doctor’s care—much to the consternation of his advisers, his Vice President Thomas Marshall (Steve Routman) and his staunchest opponent, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (Nick Wyman). The deception by which press and public and political interests are kept at bay seems rather astounding to our heavily surveyed times. As the weeks stretch into months, the brave front of Mrs. Wilson comes to seem as cut-off from political reality as her husband’s adamant upholding of “God’s will,” i.e., his plan for the League.

Mrs. Wilson (Margaret Colin) and President Wilson (John Glover)

Mrs. Wilson (Margaret Colin) and President Wilson (John Glover)

And that’s where The Second Mrs. Wilson becomes a starker and braver play than might be expected from what seems at first a romantic-historical melodrama with comic overtones. The first act gives us a play about the importance of a wife for Wilson and makes us see that, despite what her detractors think, Mrs. Wilson is equal to the task of being First Lady, a strong historical point.

But, once the president is incapacitated, the romantic elements move from the couple’s love to a romance with Wilson’s ideals as Mrs. Wilson struggles to keep her husband in power. For those who are not of Wilson’s party or, like his VP, are simply disliked by the president and his wife, exclusion from the inner circle becomes a study in frustration. Eventually we find ourselves looking on at the playing out of a folie à deux, one that, depending what one makes of a missive from House never opened, had considerable historical consequences.

Margaret Colin as Mrs. Edith Wilson

Margaret Colin as Mrs. Edith Wilson

The staging of the play at Long Wharf is exemplary. The thrust stage has been decorated with handsome wings where the “chorus” take a seat in comfort. A pool table adds the feeling of male camaraderie among the background players, while the striking touch of an ornate convex mirror seems to show us history in a glass.

President and Mrs. Wilson (John Glover, Margaret Colin)

President and Mrs. Wilson (John Glover, Margaret Colin)

Center stage is Colin’s Mrs. Wilson, by turns girlish, steely, clever, and never anything but loving toward her fallen hero. Glover’s Wilson is a defining role as well, played with winning brio—a labored delivery of a satirical limerick while partially paralyzed pretty much sums up the man’s character under duress. The president’s bonhomie is fully registered here, countering any sense of him as severe and stiff, and his almost fanatical pursuit of his grand ideal of the League, spurred by the horror of the Great War, becomes increasingly plaintive the more doomed.

President Wilson (John Glover) and adversary Henry Cabot Lodge (Nick Wyman)

President Wilson (John Glover) and adversary Henry Cabot Lodge (Nick Wyman)

As Cabot Lodge, Wyman has a brooding tenacity and the measured cadences of an old school politician, making hay while the sun shines. Applegate is steadfast as the pragmatic Tumulty, and Turner, as Dr. Grayson, suitably torn between the recovery he hopes for and the deterioration he fears. Two other standout roles: Routman as the wary VP who wants what’s best so long as he doesn’t have to run things and who bristles like any man kept waiting too long for an audience, and Groener as House; seen as a Judas by “the saint” Wilson feels on his way to becoming, House is conflicted by his great admiration for Wilson and by his sense of the political situation they are caught in. His admonition about Mrs. Galt, that it is political novices who take personal affront at matters of policy, becomes something of a hoist on his own petard, as his personal affront to Wilson’s policy-making loses him both friend and position.

Secretary Tumulty (Fred Applegate) and Vice President Marshall (Steve Routman)

Secretary Tumulty (Fred Applegate) and Vice President Marshall (Steve Routman)

Full of fine performances that unroll with well-paced precision, The Second Mrs. Wilson shows that the person closest to the one in power may also be said to be in power. A fact about First Ladies that has not been often enough acknowledged, perhaps. DiPietro and Edelstein should also be commended for not dressing the situation up in a post-feminist view of woman’s obvious equality, but hewing to the era’s sense of the personal prestige “a lady” could manipulate as, simply, not a man. Mrs. Wilson, we see, knows how to make the most of forbearance and how to turn her opponent’s skepticism into respect. Her great fault, in the end, may be her protective effort to keep her ailing husband from playing politics with the boys.

The Second Mrs. Wilson
By Joe DiPietro

Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Cast: Edith Wilson: Margaret Colin; President Woodrow Wilson: John Glover; Colonel Edward House: Harry Groener; Dr. Cary Grayson: Stephen Barker Turner; Secretary Joe Tumulty: Fred Applegate; Senator Henry Cabot Lodge: Nick Wyman; Vice President Thomas Marshall: Steve Routman; Attendants: Harvey Martin & Mark Heinisch

Set Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Linda Cho; Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind; Sund Design & Original Music: John Gromada; Wig & Makeup Design: Leah Lucas; Production Stage Manager: Peter Van Dyke; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern

Long Wharf Theatre
May 6-31, 2015

A Meeting of the Minds

Review of Picasso at the Lapin Agile at Long Wharf Theatre “So, a guy walks into a bar . . .” is a familiar opening of many jokes. In the case of the play currently showing at the Long Wharf Theatre, directed by Artistic Director Gorden Edelstein, it’s not just a bar—it’s the famous Lapin Agile in Paris in 1904; and it’s not just any guy—he’s the young Albert Einstein (Robbie Tann), and, what’s more, he has arrived onstage ahead of his cue, as the bar’s proprietor, Freddy (Tom Riis Farrell) eventually reminds him, snatching up a program from an audience member to show him he should arrive fourth and not third.

Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile is a playful play, but just when you think it's all tongue-in-cheek it gets cheeky enough to make a point. It fools about with the conventions of plays, and with famous men in the past—Picasso (Grayson DeJesus), of course, and Einstein—before they’re famous but when everyone is pretty much convinced they will be. It flings in comic disruptions—from a self-important inventor figure named Charles Dabernow Schmendiman (Jonathan Spivey) who is convinced he will be famous—and a genius-inflamed sexpot for each of the three, all played mercurially, and with fetching costumes, by Dina Shihabi, who put me in mind, pleasantly, of the late, great Madeline Kahn.

There’s also sport at the expense of Matisse (he’s not present though one of his paintings is), and amazement at Einstein's astoundingly quick mathematical calculations. There are witticisms and bad puns, and far too many bathroom breaks for Gaston (David Margulies, a great asset of this production), a bemused barfly who is on hand as a kind of ruminative witness to what would have been a legendary meeting. But don’t get too carried away by the stature of these imagined interlocutors. Aren’t avant-garde art and groundbreaking theory, Freddy’s consort Germaine (Penny Balfour) posits, simply a means to pick up girls?

Martin isn’t afraid to play it lowbrow with highbrow figures like Picasso and Einstein and that gives us a generally middlebrow evening, full of banter and comic grace notes. There are asides—from Schmendiman no less (who could be a bit more manic)—about the difference between talent and genius: “Talent sells a million a year, but genius sells five thousand a year for two hundred years!” And there are reflections on unsaleable subject matter in paintings (Jesus and sheep) from Picasso’s unflappable art dealer Sagot (Ronald Guttman), as well as a pithy takedown of Picasso’s womanizing ways by Germaine. There is even poetry, in the end, and moments reaching for symbolism, as in Suzanne (Dina Shihabi) describing Picasso with a pigeon, and, in Freddy’s punchline-less joke about a pie, a hint of Dada.

Though the talk isn’t always as vigorous as one might hope, the staging is all it can be. While not as inspired as last year’s Martin play at the Long Wharf, The Underpants, Picasso at the Lapin Agile is paced just about right. Additional help comes from a late arrival—Jake Silbermann as a Visitor from the future who adds to the group the “genius” of charisma.

The set, by Michael Yeargan, looks like the kind of place one wouldn’t mind hanging out in for a few drinks, and what’s more it’s period-appropriate and appealing in a bohemian way, flanked on either side by Impressionist-like nocturnes of the city that help sell the idea that Paris in 1904 should always look like it does in paintings. And at one point, as Einstein expounds upon his vision of the universe, the entire rear wall becomes a stellar field and what had seemed corporal melts into the vasty reaches of space. It’s a great effect and rather steals the thunder from a slide of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, projected to suggest the leap of the Master’s imagination three years on.

Not that this is a contest, but Einstein does seem to carry the day in this encounter, having a more comic and engaging manner in Tann’s likeable performance and a more stylish and sophisticated female admirer (Shihabi again) than Picasso attracts here. When Martin runs out of gags, the play ends though not without some high and mighty projections about how these two worthies will remake the future. A toast to the twentieth century fourteen years after the century ended, and a decade and a century after the play’s setting, might cause us to feel a bit nostalgic for the ideas of art and the art of ideas as they circulated in the fertile modernist period. For all the comic chutzpah on display, Martin lets a certain melancholy into the mix with the notion that a genius’s grasp might coincide with his utmost reach only now and then. The secret, as every comedian knows, is in the timing, and that’s something Edelstein and company have a genius for.


Picasso at the Lapin Agile By Steve Martin Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Set Design: Michael Yeargan; Costume Design: Jess Goldstein; Lighting Design: Donald Holder; Sound Design: David Budries; Hair and Wig Designer: Leah Loukas; Dialect Designer: Amy Stoller; Movement Consultant: Tim Acito; Production Stage Manager: Rebecca C. Monroe; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Casting: Calleri Casting; Photography: T. Charles Erickson

The Long Wharf Theatre November 26-December 21, 2014

On the Town

Review of Our Town at Long Wharf Theatre

A lasting impression made by the current production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, directed by Gordon Edelstein, at the Long Wharf is the sheer size of the cast. With 21 speaking roles fleshed-out with at least 13 local extras, Edelstein marshals crowd scenes that indeed look like a town. This Our Town is based on the ideal of community as people who share a location and a way of life, such as those who have sustained the Long Wharf Theatre for 50 years in the same location.

As the Stage Manager, Myra Lucretia Taylor has the cadence of natural speech, and comes across like a friendly tour guide and a familiar presence—like a neighbor, in short. She’s proud of her town but she’s not blinded to its lack of excitement, nor is she apologetic. The tone of her narration and asides comes into focus when she states that a time capsule is being put together to be imbedded in a foundation, and says she wants a copy of “this play” to be included. The play we’re watching has the ambition to be “representative”—to tell, to the ages, what it was like, then and there. Early twentieth-century in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. But is that really still an “Anytown, U.S.A.”?

Perhaps not, but Edelstein’s decision to cast the play “color blind,” means that the demographic of Grover’s Corners has shifted rather radically from the all-white enclave Wilder doubtless envisioned. We might be surprised that, in the listing of local places of worship, there’s no mention of a synagogue, but that just goes to show how segregated by geography much of the U.S. was. Not so much now, and that’s what makes Our Town risk seeming more of a “quaint” history lesson than it should be. Notice how only “the Polish” are given their own “town” within Our Town—an immediate indication of where the play occurs within the waves of immigration to the States and migration to the north. Of course, all this is deliberate by Wilder who wants to depict Yankee rectitude and its long-standing ties to a place where, as we’re told, the indigenous population—Cotahatchee tribes—has long since disappeared, but for genetic material carried by “maybe three families.”

Ethnic diversity—this production makes clear—is something that we can’t help notice, whether as presence or absence, and that may be the strongest message in the Long Wharf’s Our Town. If we still want Grover’s Corners to represent us, as a generalized, idealized image of the U.S. small town, for that time capsule, then we have to alter Wilder’s vision willfully and adapt the image, and that’s what Edelstein’s production does. A truly “post-racial” U.S. won’t think of the couples before us on stage as “mixed.” We’re not there yet, and that’s one of the strongest arguments for Edelstein’s approach: his Our Town says something about where we, as a nation, were in Wilder’s time and where we are now.

And that is very much Wilder’s intention: to look at the local fauna sub specie aeternitatis, to see how the customs of any given time look pretty paltry when looked at from eternity. That’s a big call and the play’s wherewithal to do so is what keeps us in the grip of Our Town to the end. And we note the little touches that keep prodding us toward realizations about what is generally called “the human condition”—which, the Stage Manager would probably say, is just a grand way of saying “how folks live.” Her mention of scenery—“for those who feel there should be scenery”—highlights the stripped down nature of this make believe, so that we’re free to imagine the town, especially in the early going when the rhythms of the town’s “day in the life” are the main concern.

Later, there’s a wedding that looks like the kind of non-denominational ceremonies we meet with more often these days, and finally, in the most affecting segment, Act 3, the rendition of a graveyard subtly mirrors us—the audience—to ourselves. We’re all people in chairs staring straight ahead, very much inside the moment out of time Wilder’s play strives for. Death looks like a Town Hall meeting, and there’s a certain human comedy to seeing Joe Stoddard (James Andreassi) and Mateo Gomez (Sam Craig) as undertaker and mourner stumbling about among “the graves.” Wilder wants to show us how simple and likeable people are when trying to grasp the ungraspable. And it’s only in Act 3 that the play really becomes the story of Emily (Jenny Leona) whose awed grasp of what it means to be alive and to no longer be alive moves the play’s tone—as it must—beyond the tragic to the cosmic.

Along the way, there are many nicely done moments to enjoy: the gentle fun at the expense of the pedantic Professor Willard (Steve Routman) and Taylor’s curt nod when the Prof describes the racial make-up of the majority; the McMillan twins as what comes to seem the Crowells’ monopoly on paper delivery in the town; Don Sparks giving Doc Gibbs some Jimmy Stewart inflections, adding a touch of the Capraesque; Leon Addison Brown, as Editor Webb, fielding questions from the audience with the folkiness of a fireside chat; Linda Powell delivering Mrs. Gibbs’ unsentimental view from beyond the grave; Christina Rouner’s harried Mrs. Webb, who tells us rather breathlessly that she didn’t know how to prepare her daughter for her wedding night—something elders in the audience may still recall—and lets us know that weddings are horrible; Rey Lucas as George Gibbs, flashing a winning smile back at the Stage Manager after he woos Emily, having admitted he’d rather stay in Grover’s Corners for her sake than go off to college, and the well-played silent comedy before his uneasy chat with his soon-to-be father-in-law; Jenny Leona is a fresh and blonde Emily, the town’s golden girl whose tragedy—if you like—is that she hasn’t a thought to do anything, barely out of high school, but marry a teenage boy and add to the town’s population. Indeed, the mothers in the play—Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb—keep before us the almost endless domestic activity that was simply the way of things back before anyone had even invented the term “household drudgery.” Leona gives us an Emily sharper than George, who Lucas plays with much more charm than smarts, but who is smart enough to know he can’t do any better. Ethnic diversity may have come to Grover’s Corners; feminism still seems a long way off.

Wilder’s important breakthrough in Our Town is setting naturalistic action in a context that foregrounds the playacting, a technique—which the Long Wharf production keeps firmly in view—that should reveal to us how much of our own lives are just that. We are players who strut and fret upon the stage of our town, wherever that happens to be, just like the players in Our Town. If the point of theater is, as Hamlet says, to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature, then the Long Wharf’s Our Town fully achieves that purpose. You may leave the play wondering what you’ve done with your life.


Our Town By Thornton Wilder Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Set Design: Eugene Lee; Costume Design: Emily Rebholz; Lighting Design: James F. Ingalls; Sound Design/Composer: John Gromada; Production Stage Manager: Hope Rose Kelly; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Assistant Stage Manager: Michelle Lauren Tuite; Casting: Calleri Casting; Photos: T. Charles Erickson

Long Wharf Theatre October 8-November 2, 2014

Our Town Opens

This Wednesday, October 8, previews for the first show of the Long Wharf Theatre’s 50th anniversary season begin. And that first show is an American classic: Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Not only an American classic that many probably think they already know, the play has direct links to “our town” (i.e., New Haven) because Wilder lived here and is buried here. Not that Grover’s Corners should remind us of New Haven exactly. The play is actually set in a fictional New Hampshire town, and yet: Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, who directs the play, has conceived of his cast as representing our local demographic more than any small town in Wilder’s day would have. That means that his cast is of diverse ethnicity, and, what’s more, his Stage Manager—a role associated with lean-jawed white actors such as William Holden, Hal Holbrook, and Paul Newman—is a black woman (Myra Lucretia Taylor).

That fact alone should make for an out-of-the-ordinary Our Town. And, to make the production even more “ours,” Edelstein has cast it with Long Wharf alums. So, if you’ve been going to the LW with any degree of regularity in its 50 year existence, you’re bound to see someone up there you’ve seen before.

Two such returners glad to be back are Jenny Leona, who will play Emily, and Rey Lucas, George. These two roles are, of course, the “romantic interest” characters in the play, who begin as neighbors and high school classmates who then become sweethearts and then . . . .

Both Leona and Lucas have experience playing younger than their years. In fact, Leona has played an adolescent boy on more than one occasion, and Lucas played the Boy in Eric Ting’s well-received adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea in 2009. Leona, on the other hand, was anything but boyish in last season’s The Underpants, also directed by Edelstein.

When I talked to the two actors about Wilder’s play and their roles, both admitted that Our Town was a play they’d had youthful familiarity with—as most of us do, they encountered it in high school. Leona saw the TV version at some point and says “it stuck with me.” Returning to work with Edelstein, she says, is a “great opportunity” and found that, reading the play again—it had been about 10 years—she found it truly beautiful and thought she would be “perfect for Emily.” And why not? Leona comes by the quaintness of Our Town naturally—she spent 7 years of her childhood in Ardsley, an idyllic little village in West Chester County, and says it has remained a touchstone for her sense of small-town life.

For Lucas, a YSD grad raised in Queens by Dominican parents, Our Town brought to mind “folksy” TV shows like My Three Sons or Capra films like It’s a Wonderful Life—“a little cheesy.” Invited to take part in the show, he was intrigued by Edelstein’s color-blind casting and deliberate effort to diversify the cast ethnically. What’s more, he sees Edelstein’s approach as “more moving and compelling” than what Lucas may have formerly thought of the show. “If we forget what we’ve seen” the play’s truth will be more direct, he says. The play shows us “real families, with struggles and troubles.” Following Wilder’s intention, Lucas says, should give us a play that “combines Norman Rockwell and Pablo Picasso.” An apt expression of the everyday charm of the play contained within its sense of the more abstract and mythic possibilities of human life.

Both Leona and Lucas are excited by the opportunity to play romantic leads, and both find that there is unexpected comedy in the relationship of George and Emily that comes from inviting the audience to think back to their own introduction to teen-age love, to grasp how awkward and thrilling is the experience for these two. Lucas notes that Emily “calls George on his arrogance” and he responds quickly by falling in love with someone who cares enough to want him to improve—“not the sort of thing I was looking for in high school,” Lucas chuckles. Leona finds the awkwardness of the young lovers “adorable” and is glad of the opportunity, thanks to Edelstein’s search for “the true moments in the play and its spirit,” to find the humor in the early situations in the play. The later parts of the play, where things grow more troubled and dark, Leona says, are where she feels her strengths as an actress lie. Which may come as a surprise to anyone who saw her broadly comic role in The Underpants. That role, for Leona, was something of a surprise, and Our Town gives her an opportunity to show a full range of emotions.

The camaraderie of the cast should be expected, since all have worked at Long Wharf before and many with Edelstein, but, even so, both actors remarked on how quickly the process of bonding as a cast occurred on this production. When I spoke to Leona and Lucas, the rehearsals had not yet gone into tech, with scenery and so forth, but both pointed out that the sets will be unusually spare. Though both have had training with minimal sets, the challenge of acting out interactions with non-existent props presents another interesting aspect of the staging of Our Town.

For audiences who may think they know all there is to know about Grover’s Corners, Leoana suggests that this production will be “eye-opening” and Lucas points out the play’s satisfying sense of, as it were, “telling the stories behind the photo albums” most of us keep of our lives. The Long Wharf 50th Anniversary production of Our Town invites us to look a little closer at the “givens” we live with and our assumptions about the significance of our own lives. “Our town” has changed, and, with this cast, so should Our Town.


Our Town By Thornton Wilder Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Long Wharf Theatre October 8-November 2, 2014

Tickets and info: Long Wharf


50th Anniversary Season of the Long Wharf Theatre

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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

Split Knuckle Theatre's Connecticut Debut at Long Wharf

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

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

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

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

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

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


Split Knuckle Theatre Endurance

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

The Long Wharf Theatre Stage II June 17-29

Here We Are in the Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Long Wharf Theatre May 7-June 1, 2014

A Challenging Musical Comes to Long Wharf

For James Sampliner, musical director for Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, which opens previews May 7 at the Long Wharf, directed by Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, taking on the assignment is “a major milestone.” Sampliner, who will be performing the show eight times a week, conducting from his piano’s keyboard, sees the complicated and varied score as both an immense pleasure and a challenge.

In Sampliner’s view, the show is a test of a musician’s stamina as, among devotees of musical theater, The Last Five Years is known for its demanding piano score. What’s more, the show is a “two-hander,” meaning that there are only two characters on stage throughout, and the entirety of the show consists of the songs each character sings about their relationship. For Cathy (Katie Rose Clarke), the story of her relationship with Jamie (Adam Halpin) is told from their break-up backwards to her first date with him, while for Jamie the sequence follows a chronology of first to last.

The challenges of the show, for a musical director, entail not only the physical task of playing the show each night—which Sampliner views as a good cardiovascular workout—but also reacting sensitively, even intuitively, to the singers/actors as they tell their parallel stories in song. Sampliner has never worked at the Long Wharf before but has worked with Brown on the latter’s Honeymoon in Vegas adaptation, and feels that his grasp of Brown’s music is important to the show’s delicate dynamic.

“Jason’s music is very carefully written,” Sampliner stresses, so that the musical director’s task is not so much interpreting the music as communicating to the other musicians the different emphases of the actors in performance. One begins to see at once what he means by “complicated.”

Drawing on blues, jazz, rock’n’roll, and classical techniques—all the musical forms he and Brown share a love for—the show, Sampliner says, is “one I needed to do.” Rehearsing with Edelstein, Clarke and Halpin, they have been asking lots of questions of the material, finding their unique way of bringing the show to life. “It’s not so much a question of new layers that other productions haven’t discovered, but asking ‘what do you think this is about,’” finding their own answers to the questions that arise.

The play’s structure is “a brilliant idea,” Sampliner finds, with Cathy moving from her lowest point to her highest and Jamie following the opposite trajectory. “They sing together at the middle point between the two extremes,” and each song offers its individual challenges, so that, for Sampliner, it’s not a question of finding the show’s highpoints, as each song has its highpoints and its rewards. “In so many ways,” Sampliner says, “The Last Five Years is Brown’s magnum opus,” the kind of musical that has musical directors “champing at the bit” for a chance to perform it.

When it comes to conducting, Sampliner finds that being able to conduct his ensemble of six players from the keyboard is the kind of skill necessary at a time when theater demands versatility and smaller orchestras. “It’s not uncommon,” he says and rising to the challenge of playing as well as conducting has him very excited by the opportunity to be, as he says, “the bus driver.”

“At the meet-and-greet when rehearsals began, everyone asks one another what they do, and I like to say ‘I’m the bus driver.’” Making sure the show gets where it needs to go and that all parts of this tuneful, challenging, funny, and moving show get there in concert is not unlike the task of steering an unwieldy vehicle to its proper destination, come what may.

Meanwhile, fans of musical theater and of Jason Robert Brown—currently enjoying a hit on Broadway with The Bridges of Madison County, and likened to Stephen Sondheim in his crowd-pleasing grasp of musical theater—should be lining up to take the ride.


The Last Five Years Written and composed by Jason Robert Brown Directed by Gordon Edelstein

The Long Wharf Theatre

May 7-June 1, 2014

Tuesdays and Wednesdays: 7 pm Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays: 8 pm Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays: 2 pm

Ecce Puer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long Wharf Theatre March 26-April 27, 2014

Consulting Heidi Schreck

The new year has begun, and snow and cold have come to New Haven. But have no fear: The theater season resumes this week with the world premiere of The Consultant at the Long Wharf Theatre, the third full-length play by Heidi Schreck. Long Wharf patrons who saw the production of The Old Masters in 2011 may remember Heidi Schreck as Nicky Mariano. Schreck, an Obie Award-winning actress, has divided her time between acting and playwrighting since her days acting in her own plays at the Seattle Theatre Company. That’s where she got to know Gordon Edelstein and his welcome support of her projects, so that coming to the Long Wharf with a new play is much “like coming home”; The Consultant is directed by Schreck’s husband and former colleague at the Seattle Theatre Company, Kip Fagan.

Outside of theater, Schreck has held a number of positions that have played into her work. A stint as a journalist in Russia fueled her play There Are No More Secrets, and, after moving to New York with Fagen in 2003, a job as an ESL teacher and a coach for persons making business presentations became the basis for The Consultant. In the play, Amelia finds herself with the task of helping Jun Suk, a talented but insecure designer, present his designs at a New York pharmaceuticals company. She learns he has reasons for his insecurity as no one at Sutton, Feingold, and McGrath is quite sanguine about their future. Though Schreck’s experience in the corporate world predates a bit the attrition of the Great Recession, the sense of paranoia and pressure in her play certainly resonates with our times of high unemployment and jobs that are apt to disappear at a moment’s notice.

To Schreck, Amelia “is a lot like I was,” a bit detached from the corporate world, encountering people like Tania, an office assistant “over-educated for her job,” who seems to use the job simply to make ends meet, rather than pursuing a career. As a consultant, Schreck found that a lot of people “just want to talk, and are looking for a good listener” as a way to reflect on what’s happening with them. Amelia doesn’t play therapist, but is rather “our entry into this workplace,” as we begin to grasp its dynamic, perhaps with more clarity than she does. Amelia is only “looking for an opportunity to use her skills,” but, as Schreck sees it, “disaster”—like losing a job—“can sometimes be the opening to other opportunities.”

Watching the talented cast at the Long Wharf—Schreck says everyone is “exactly right” for their parts—Schreck has come to see a struggle in the play: “who’s play is it?” There are back stories to the male parts—Jun Suk (Nelson Lee) and Mark (Darren Goldstein)—that only come out bit by bit, and a certain recklessness in the air at times, particularly for Tania (Cassie Beck). Jun Suk is going through an awful time that has nothing to do with his job, but which has impact on his performance at work. Each character’s situation changes in the course of the play, and perhaps it’s Tania who changes the most, leading us to see that Amelia (Clare Barron) may be more witness than catalyst.

Rather than look to the kind of popular office comedies that have been on TV for decades—particulary the kinds of satire found in The Office—Schreck looks to the work of María Irene Fornés, finding inspiration in her off-beat, avant-garde productions that showcase the challenges women face in male environments. Schreck says she’s not interested in the absurdity of the workplace but rather in “the strange and surprising forms of tenderness” that can arise between workers facing similar challenges. No one is really at home in the work environment of The Consultant and all are coping in different ways. Part of the challenge of coping has to do with the possibilities of “self-invention and of finding one’s true values.”

The Consultant gets much of its comedy from the loose ends and unfinished business we sense in Schreck's characters. They are people not yet completely formed, not quite willing to be only what their jobs make of them, but also not really focused on what else to do with themselves. From her first play, Creature, about the medieval memoirist Margery Kempe’s decision to become “a saint” by living a spiritual life despite her bourgeois background, to her next play about work in a soup kitchen in the Bronx, Schreck continues to explore the question of faith, including “faith in other people.” She sees all her plays as asking questions about “figuring out how to live”—both at the level of how to get by, when one’s interests might be more spiritual or creative than most day jobs expect workers to be, and at the level of how best to live up to one’s potential and to do what is best for all in the kinds of imperiled environments we all cope with.

The Consultant premieres on Wednesday, January 8, with an official opening the following Wednesday, January 15, and runs til February 9.

Long Wharf Theatre 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven

203.787.4282 or longwharf.org

Panting for Something

Whether or not Louise Maske is hot to trot, her unpremeditated exposure of her underpants—sometimes called, rather anachronistically here, “panties”—while out to view the King on parade sets off the comic shenanigans in The Underpants, famed comic Steve Martin’s adaptation of a 1911 play by Carl Sternheim. Louise, a fetching young woman married to Theo, doesn’t even know she’s repressed, but, due to a loose tie, her knickers drop to her ankles in public, exposing her to a certain kind of male attention lacking in her life before. She stoops—to take off the underpants—and conquers, sparking the riveted attention of a pair of bachelors: one, Frank Versati, a proudly unpublished poet ready to rhapsodize her into bed; the other, Benjamin Cohen, a nebbishy barber who wants to worship her underthings.

With the well-timed intrusions of Gertrude Deuter, the nosy upstairs neighbor playing the part of eager duenna, we’re given a farce where cuckolding the self-possessed and rather clueless bourgeois husband is a comic given. Or, almost. In the end, the play is about the elasticity of marriage rather than the elation of adultery: the men who show up, beckoned by a glimpse of bloomers, are no better than the callous father-figure husband who, after all, has set Louise up as a perfectly respectable middle-class Hausfrau.

The play’s situation is primarily an excuse for arch innuendo, for comic turns by a sparkling cast, for jibes at Germans and their notorious attitude toward Jews, and for the kind of situations that, in a Frenchman’s hands, would’ve resulted in spicier bedroom schtick. Martin throws in the occasional racy bit—mostly coming from Gertrude, an eager onlooker panting to live vicariously through her very beddable neighbor—and we do get to see lacy underpants that are less revealing than a pair of boxers. To the extent that there’s an idea behind it all, it seems to be that our objects of desire—those random occasions for our libidinal spikes and fetishistic fervor, some even quite famous—can be remarkably short-lived, whereas baby-making, when all’s done, is what the fuss is inevitably about. Family values—“a man’s got to take care of someone”—and all that. Martin, as the playbill points out, realized in writing his adaptation that the bourgeoisie are us—regardless of politics.

As Louise, Jenny Leona is perfect. She’s cute, lively, demure but not dumb, not easily cozened, but willing to stray. It’s a performance so natural you have to stop to think about how badly it might be done. What director Gordon Edelstein gets across is that this blonde bombshell can be both the “angel in the house” that stands behind her man, as well as the object of those looking for a “geile Hausfrau.” The men are another matter. All clearly no match for her, or for Gertrude’s sense of possibility, we get to laugh at all of them, and each for a different reason.

Jeff McCarthy as Theo Maske is overbearing in that oblivious manner of the manly male. His wife is one of the things in his possession, not really a partner. As played here, he’s not really despicable, nor really hopeless. He’s the man of the house and the man Louise married, for better or worse, as the saying goes, and she (and we) might be forgiven for thinking he might get better. To Frank, played with pompous self-regard by Burke Moses, Louise is a source of inspiration—his best scene is when he lights her fire only to rush off to pen some lines, inspired by a conquest he never consummates. Much of the really funny stuff falls to Steve Routman as “Cohen with a K,” who gets to present us with the caricature that might be nearest Martin’s heart, or maybe it’s just a tribute to the kind of schlemiel and ambivalent Jew—humming Wagner and wondering aloud how anyone who cites Herder or Schiller could ever be less than humane—that Woody Allen established himself playing early in his career.

Routman’s rubber-legged departure after swallowing a sleeping draught is great fun, as is his slide across stage on a pillow while clutching a mirror to see up his hostess’s dress. The other comic standout is Didi Conn’s Gertrude, playing up moments like fanning her pelvis with the refrigerator door—after Theo turns her on—or miming a husband “doing his job.” It’s a role that requires charm to avoid crudity, and Conn certainly charms the audience.

Indeed, charm is a large part of what makes the Long Wharf production work. Start with Lee Savage’s set, with the Old World charm of its kitchenette, its double-door perfect for well-timed entrances and exits, its stairs and settees begging for the kind of physical comedy Edelstein’s production showcases. Jess Goldstein’s costuming—including Louise’s stripped-for-fun period underclothing, a pair of German flag underpants, and Kaiser regalia—is bright and eye-catching, and the play’s timing mostly on point.

A bit understated, perhaps, The Underpants is a brisk and benign evening of fun. “That’s where the danger lies. Under,” opines Theo early in the play, certainly a worthy thought in the play’s Freudian era, but, despite gestures to Nietzsche and Einstein, The Underpants, though willing to catch its characters with their pants down, and even off, doesn’t give any character the wherewithal to get down to it.


The Underpants By Steve Martin Adapted from Carl Sternheim Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Set Design: Lee Savage; Costume Design: Jess Goldstein; Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel; Wig and Hair Design: Charles LaPointe; Fight Consultant: Tim Acito; Production Stage Manager: Melissa M. Spengler; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Hardy; Casting: Calleri Casting; Photographs: T. Charles Erickson

The Long Wharf Theatre October 16-November 10, 2013

Long Wharf's New Season Launched

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

222 Sargent Drive New Haven, CT

203.787.4282 www.longwharf.org

A Tiger by the Tail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Ride the Tiger By William Mastrosimone Directed by Gordon Edelstein

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

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

Long Wharf Theatre March 27-April 21, 2013

The Rural Absurd

The Long Wharf production of Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class, directed by Gordon Edelstein, presents us with a living classic. Shepard’s play dumps us in an America that always seems to be vanishing while remaining still tangible. It’s rural California, beloved of Steinbeck in the Depression Era, and of “back to nature” hippies in the Sixties.  By the late Seventies, when the play was first produced, the region is on its way to becoming strip malls and apartment buildings.

With a stripped-down kitchen surrounded by prairie-like earth, Michael Yeargan’s set speaks of archetypes even before the play begins.  What could be more emblematic of family life than a refrigerator, sitting near center stage?  And what could be more enigmatic than a tall door frame with no door, attached to no wall?  Emblems.  Enigmas.  The theater of Sam Shepard makes the most commonplace things bristle with crazy possibilities.  It’s the nightmare of the everyday.

The first half of the show, while able to keep us off-guard with the oddity of the Tate family, is mainly comic.  Much of the humor derives from Judith Ivey’s delivery as Ella, the mother.  She has mastered an emphatic tone that plays it slow as if considering possible replies, coming out with comments that can be prickly or non-committal.  Ivey’s pitch is perfect, as she transforms from a frumpy housewife into a woman on the make, trying to sell the family property out from under her drunken, abusive husband Weston (Kevin Tighe).  It’s he who broke down the door and, listening to her comments, we might readily take her part in what might seem a play of domestic disturbances.  That is until we meet the smarmy lawyer Taylor (John Procaccino) with whom she may be doing more than business.

Shepard is the poet of the proles—his grasp of the intonations and rhythms of the everyday Americans we find in trailer parks and malls and on ranches and rural hang-outs is as distinct to him as flowery Southern politesse is to Tennessee Williams.  Hearing the lines of the play delivered with a feel for its curious mix of the lyrical and the laconic is reason enough to see this production.  But Shepard is also the kind of playwright who wants the theatrical experience to be off-putting.  And so there’s a live lamb onstage at times, in a pen; there’s urination, nudity, an explosion, an appalling episode of binge eating, and a creepy carnivalesque feeling that makes the Second Part seem a descent into an accursed place indeed.  Edelstein’s production delivers all the unpleasantness with a casual absurdity that benefits from the Long Wharf’s thrust stage.  It’s a fascinating show.

Much of the unsettling nature of the play comes from Wesley (Peter Albrink), the eldest child and only son of the Tates.  Wesley is unpredictable, surly and rather unsettled himself.  A tour de force speech delivered early in the play establishes the kind of dread he feels in relation to his father.  Wesley seems attached to the farm while the others are determined to sell it or leave it or both, but his attachment may be based on neurotic frustrations.  Of all the characters, he is the most enigmatic, and Albrink has a command of the character’s shuffling uncertainty and morose sarcasm.  We might easily take the younger generation’s side against the elders if it weren’t that Wesley is so brooding.  Urinating on his sister’s 4-H posters is the kind of callow act that keep us distanced from him.

As the daughter, Emma, Elvy Yost is tomboyish and pert.  She wears a 4-H outfit at first and seems girlishly forthright—as her mother lectures her about getting her first period—but, later, in a cowboy hat and chaps, she begins to transform into the kind of figure we might assume Shepard wants to pin our hopes on.  She is clear-eyed enough to see through Taylor—Procaccino gives Taylor’s efforts to put her at her ease a nice, slowburn comic tension—and determined enough, perhaps, to get away from the family vacuum.  Yost sounds perhaps a bit too contemporary in her tone, but that only underscores that she, if anyone here, is the future.  Her fate says much about what Shepard thinks about that.

As Weston, the irascible patriarch, Kevin Tighe is commanding.  Our early view of him finds him even more surly than his son.  He has nothing but disdain for his family and their home.  His humor is of the kind that comes close to abuse, and yet he compels a kind of natural respect.  He is the man of the house, regardless.  Later, he sobers up, and Shepard gives the character a great speech about how he got into debt that rings with right-on familiarity in Fiscal Cliff America.  Seeing Tighe cooking breakfast at the stove and lecturing his son and wife takes us close to the “father knows best” America we once grew up with.  Of course it will all go bad.

And don’t forget the lamb.  As a sacrificial victim, scapegoat, what-have-you, the symbolism is a bit too overt, but, in her actual presence, Edie steals her scenes—on Opening Night, she reacted to Ella’s insistence that the creature be removed from the kitchen with a perfectly timed bleat, and seemed to hush up contentedly while the man-of-the-house maundered about, talking to her as to himself.  It made the audience laugh and play to see a lamb on stage, too much perhaps, but I suspect that its antics will be the one heart-warming moment people take away from this harrowing, at times hilarious, at times grotesque production.


Curse of the Starving Class By Sam Shepard Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Set Design: Michael Yeargan; Costume Design: Clint Ramos; Lighting Design: James F. Ingalls; Sound Design: Fitz Patton; Composer: Doug Wieselman; Animals: William Berloni; Stage Manager: Bryce McDonald; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Assistant Stage Manager: Sara Cox Bradley; Casting: James Calleri, CSA

Long Wharf Theatre February 13-March 10, 2013