J- Kevin Smith

For Cult's Sake

Review of The Cult by New Haven Theater Company

Drew Gray’s The Cult, the latest offering by the New Haven Theater Company at their home in The English Building Markets, is a play about making connections and the effects such connections can have. Anyone might want a wider circle of friends or maybe different friends, but few of us form or join a cult for the sake of company. Perhaps the most lasting effect of the play is that it makes doing so seem not so bizarre or absurd as one might have thought.

When the play starts, many of the characters in The Cult have already found belonging in a group—the members don’t call it “a cult” themselves—formed by Tyler (Christian Shaboo), an earnest young man who seems to believe he hears the words of an entity called “Albean.” As with any religious ritual, the reasons for what the members believe and the purposes of the acts they perform can be a bit vague—or even silly—to outsiders. While at times Gray, who also directs and designed the show, wants to explore the comic possibilities of the cult situation, most of the attempts at humor seem like pandering to a dumbed-down sit-com. The story, as it develops in Act Two, is stronger than that.

The uneven mix of comedy and drama keeps the tone of the initial going a bit undecided. We don’t laugh at sad or pathetic people, and that’s what the cult members seem to be. Jared (Rick Beebe) is an introvert, Sally (Lauren Young) is an airhead, Alan (Erich Greene) is after sex, and so forth. The new business is that Tyler’s co-worker, Roger (a fidgety J. Kevin Smith), whose get-ahead wife (a fun cameo from Mallory Pellegrino) just dumped him, is curious about what Tyler’s into. Rather than laugh it off as too weird, Roger is intrigued, and wants to wear a robe and join “the cult.” The other development for potential drama is that Tyler manages to score a date with Rachel (Katelyn Marie Marshall), a shy co-worker who stays at home with her cats while he’s home changing the lives of his followers. Then there’s the issue of the farm.

A cult must have a goal, one supposes, and the goal here is not to await the Rapture or a Second Coming of Albean, but to live together in peace and harmony on the farm Tyler lived on as a boy. It was there he first heard the voice of Albean and, he believes, a return there will be like a return to Mecca. But first they must raise the money to buy what isn’t for sale. The various plot points get furthered when Tyler takes Rachel on a drive to the farm, and we meet Will (Trevor Williams), the man in possession of the place who, it turns out, is Tyler’s brother. Meanwhile, Jared has some distressing news.

Once Jared’s medical condition comes to light, the play, for the most part, drops its half-hearted attempts to be funny. The other thing that happens is that the longer we’re in their company, the more we begin to believe in these people who believe in Albean. And that shift in perspective is worth sticking around for.

In addition to our growing acceptance of the cult members, the play’s pay-off comes in how the other people in Tyler’s life—Will and Rachel—react to his followers. The stress that memberships can cause one’s relationship with non-members plays out in well-acted scenes. What’s more, the fact that neither Will nor Rachel can stomach the implications of Tyler as a “prophet of Albean,” preferring to see him as emotionally disturbed (Will) or some kind of snake-oil salesman (Rachel), ratchets up the tensions of belonging and believing in the face of naysayers.

The Cult is at its best in one-on-one moments where characters can be revealed, such as the awkward dating between Tyler and Rachel, Tyler’s patient appraisal of Jared’s anxious revelations, or—a scene that suggests interesting back-story—the sibling rivalry of Tyler and his fed-up brother. The cult members themselves are at their best when reacting to Tyler—played by Shaboo without an ounce of guile or irony—though a surer hand with comic pacing and timing could have us laughing at them before we start taking them seriously.

 

New Haven Theater Company
The Cult
Written, directed, and designed by Drew Gray

Produced by Peter Chenot; Original Music by Drew Gray; Stage Managed by Drew Gray; Audio Supervision by Ray Stephens; Props by Drew Gray, Margaret Mann, Trevor Williams

Cast: Rick Beebe (Jared); Erich Greene (Alan); Katelyn Marie Marshall (Rachel); Deena Nicol-Blifford (Jane); Mallory Pellegrino (Veronica/Samantha/Ellen); Sandra Rodriguez (Charlie); Christian Shaboo (Tyler), J. Kevin Smith (Roger); Tim Smith (Tommy); Trevor Williams (Will); Lauren Young (Sally)

New Haven Theater Company
The English Building Markets
839 Chapel Street, New Haven

May 28, 29, 30 and June 3, 4, 5, 6, 2015

The Seafarer is Coming

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

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

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

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

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

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

For tickets and more information: NHTC

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

The NHTC Stage at The English Building Markets 839 Chapel Street

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

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

The Changing Same

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

English Building Market 839 Chapel Street

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

Manic Mamet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stage Manager: Erich Greene; Lighting Technician: Tom DeChello

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

November 14, 16, 17, 2012

Mamet Revisited

STP Postcard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For tickets and info visit: New Haven Theater Company