J. Kevin Smith

New Haven Theater Company Goes Cuckoo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For tickets and info, go here

See my review here

No Request Is Too Extreme

Review of A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney, New Haven Theater Company

New Haven Theater Company’s current offering is the kind of play that intrigues almost as much as it amuses. Why Walt Disney?, we might ask. The answer seems to be that he’s larger than life—or at least his legacy is—and everyone knows his name, whether or not they know anything else about him. And name recognition is the name of the game, in show-biz.

It’s also the case that author Lucas Hnath includes some choice bits from the rumors circulating about “Uncle Walt.” Like that bit about the lemmings being catapulted off a cliff by turntables for a nature documentary. Or his interest in the ability of cryogenics to freeze a human head and resuscitate it after a synthetic body could be created for its use. Or the way he treated his brother Roy, or daughter Diane and her husband Ron. Or the problem of the tree that had to remain on the site of Disney World.

In A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney, Disney is a colorful character, to say the least, and, as enacted by J. Kevin Smith, he’s a hoot. Not a figure of fun so much as a figure for something we might imagine to be indicative of American tastes and interests. He’s a wry example of our need to be the best at something, and to make our achievements seem important and unprecedented.

Walt Disney (J. Kevin Smith)

Walt Disney (J. Kevin Smith)

In Hnath’s play, directed by Drew Gray, Walt is a successful man who is remarkably insecure, a family man who is remarkably alone, a creative person who feels that his trademark works—that famous mouse, for instance—aren’t really serious or enduring, a creator of films known for their emotion and humor who often seems unfeeling and lacking in any sense of humor. He’s complex and a spout of words and attitudes, and Smith’s rendering is a high-water mark in this actor’s work with NHTC. Smith often plays a bristly type and here he gets to take that as far as it can go. Smoking, drinking, pill-popping, pacing, Smith’s Disney is a wreck waiting to happen.

The play isn’t really about finding out what makes Walt tick so much as it’s about seeing how Walt winds down bit by bit, his health failing and his will to go on causing him to flail about, seizing upon his staunchly stoical brother Roy (Steve Scarpa, mostly poker-faced or pained) or his servile son-in-law Ron (Trevor Williams, a cipher trying to be whatever Walt wants him to be). Of course, Disney’s insistence on a male heir apparent means he passes over his daughter (Melissa Smith, tensely tried by her ties to the old man). Her refusal to name any of her sons—she has three—after her father pretty much says it all, but then there’s her reasoning about it, which liberally rubs salt into the wound. We could say she has some issues with her dad, but it’s more like being his daughter is simply a test, always.

Daughter (Melissa Smith), Ron (Trevor Williams), Walt (J. Kevin Smith)

Daughter (Melissa Smith), Ron (Trevor Williams), Walt (J. Kevin Smith)

We might, reasonably, wonder why we should care about a man so long gone. His brand went on without him, hit the skids a bit and then revived to, basically, conquer all of entertainment in our time. Besides owning all those lucrative properties originated by Disney and his studios and affiliates, the company now also owns the Star Wars franchise and the Marvel Comics franchise. Which means that the company Disney founded generally commands the top three, or more, of the top grossing films in just about any year.

And that may be Hnath’s point: we can’t escape him, if we care at all about American filmed entertainment, and so there must be some way to cut him down to size, to humanize him, to get his blood—literally, as we see him cough mouthfuls into hankies—and guts on the stage. Disney comes across as a relentless striver, driven to do what only he can do. His list of who watches his films includes the all-American actress Doris Day and fascist enemies like Mussolini and Hitler. He’s proud of it all. It’s not about Right or Left, or right or wrong, it’s about global reach.

The conceit that we’re watching a reading of a screenplay means that, first of all, everyone is still “on book,” ostensibly, and it also means that there’s plenty of use of phrases like “cut to”—not a stage direction but a screenplay direction. And yet the “cuts” aren’t really cuts and the film that may or may not be in Walt’s head rarely resorts to visual language. There are a few moments, most notably the close, where the screenplay idea works best. Otherwise, it just seems an odd tic of the dialogue; at best, a way of helping the actors keep the pace, at worst a gimmick.

Daughter (Melissa Smith), Roy (Steve Scarpa), Walt (J. Kevin Smith)

Daughter (Melissa Smith), Roy (Steve Scarpa), Walt (J. Kevin Smith)

Smith and Scarpa get the rhythmic patter dead on, a kind of snappy overlapping of verbal cues and reactions where the comment of one often gets finished or deflected by the other. With the younger generation, Smith’s Disney is more contentious because more determined to have his way. As Disney’s daughter, Melissa Smith gives as good as she gets, seeming to be a sore spot for her father and able to use that to advantage. Williams’ Ron seems mostly to be trying to keep his head above water, finding himself primed for the job of studio head when Walt needs to use Roy as a fall guy.

Somewhere in all the give-and-take, we may suppose a lesson about the carnage that lurks behind even the most beloved accomplishments. And yet the play isn’t a character assassination of Disney, it’s more like a cartoon treatment, comparable to his early creations. Disney is as irascible as Donald Duck, as flighty as Goofy, and as challenged as Mickey’s generally chagrined efforts at control. In other words, Disney gets the Disney treatment and, to quote the creation of a rival studio, “th-th-that’s all, folks!”

 

The play has four more showings, this Wednesday through Saturday. Wednesday's show is "pay what you can."

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney
By Lucas Hnath
Directed and designed by Drew Gray

Cast: Steve Scarpa, J. Kevin Smith, Melissa Smith, Trevor Williams

New Haven Theater Company
NHTC Stage @ EBM 839 Chapel Street, New Haven
November 8, 9, 11, 15, 16, 17, 18, 2017

Exhuming Walt Disney

Preview of A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney, New Haven Theater Company

What does the name “Walt Disney” make you think of?  Cute little animated figures? The Mickey Mouse Club? The founder of a vast entertainment conglomerate? An affable old gent on Sunday night television? Architect of state of the art amusement parks? Eccentric who wanted to freeze his corpse for eventual resurrection? A cipher behind a brand?

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To J. Kevin Smith, playing a guy most people call “Walt,” in the New Haven Theater Company’s latest production, Lucas Hnath’s A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney, brings to mind the phrase “creative genius.” Walt, for Smith as for most of us, is the figure behind “beautiful animation, classic films, and also a fatherly figure” on The Wonderful World of Disney, which ran for decades but, if you were alive before Disney’s death in 1966, chances are you saw Walt himself on the show.

That kindly view of Disney is one Smith shares with most people; he fondly mentioned the Mouseketeers and those great theme parks. But Smith, who for years in the 1980s worked as a sales rep/manager/director handling video-cassette distribution, the Disney company stands for a very “aggressive” approach to protecting copyrights and maintaining “the image of the brand.” “And for good reason,” Smith pointed out, “Disney lost the rights to some of his early cartoon shorts,” so the need to protect his intellectual property from theft by his studio’s many competitors was quite real.

For Smith, though, it’s important to see how that level of commitment “permeated his creative life, and caused fall out with his family,” making Disney “not always the most likeable guy.” Smith sees him in the company of other of our favorite “driven” success stories, men like Steve Jobs, Nicholas Tesla.

J. Kevin Smith as Walt Disney

J. Kevin Smith as Walt Disney

Lucas Hnath, an up-and-coming playwright who won an Obie award for his best-known play Red Speedo, grew up minutes from Disney World in Orlando, Florida. His play gives us a comic take on a family drama in which Disney gathers relations together to prepare them for his death. “In a sense,” Smith says, “the play is about Disney, as written and performed by others, and it’s also a script as if written by Disney for his family.” The cast consists of Smith as Disney, Steve Scarpa as Walt’s brother Roy, Melissa Smith as Walt’s daughter, and Trevor Williams as her husband Ron Miller.

The script, Smith said, is “mostly dialogue in which characters speak back and forth and past each other in short bursts.” The challenge, he said, is “to get and keep the rhythm, to figure out how to make the stylized speech natural to [the characters] and keep it consistent.” The conceit of the play is that Disney is actually reading the script with his family, but the audience may not be sure when something is in the alleged script or not.

The play is directed by the NHTC’s resident playwright Drew Gray who did a great job directing Trevor, the troupe’s most off-beat offering thus far, last spring. The kinds of plays that attract NHTC can’t really be pigeon-holed. They’ve had great success with classics like William Inge’s Bus Stop, with more contemporary plays like Will Eno’s Middletown and Rachel Axler’s Smudge, and with small-cast plays like Proof and Doubt and Speed the Plow. They’ve also succeeded with big cast plays like Our Town and Urinetown. Last fall, the troupe gave a special staged reading of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy, an aptly chosen offering. Now, they are back with another “reading” of sorts. The focus on a rich, successful man, something of a megalomaniac, may seem all too apt as well.

Disney, as Smith reminded me, “named names” to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 and expressed his view that the union that tried to mount a strike at Disney Studios was organized by Communists. Smith called Disney “a complicated guy,” and said the play shows “the downside” of his success “but does not limit its view to that.” Smith mentioned that “things included in the script are not necessarily factual” but derive “from the folklore” of “Uncle Walt.”

Smith said his performance is not a mimicry of Disney and that he’s eager to have a lead role in a production, which hasn’t been the case since his performance as the satanic stranger in Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer. Steve Scarpa read Hnath’s play two years ago and said it was “like nothing I’ve ever seen before” and “something we could do really well.”

Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to work they go.

 

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney
By Lucas Hnath
Directed by Drew Gray
New Haven Theater Company
November 8th, 9th, 11th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th
The NHTC stage @ English Building Markets, 839 Chapel Street

A Timely Incident

Preview of Incident at Vichy, New Haven Theater Company

This week the New Haven Theater Company tries something a little different. This is the first time they’ve held a staged reading as part of their season. According to NHTC member J. Kevin Smith, who directs the reading of Arthur Miller’s unduly neglected play Incident at Vichy this weekend, the “idea [of staged readings] has been kicked around” by NHTC for some time, but until now it hasn’t happened.

The reason, Smith says, is that the shows NHTC does produce are always “passion projects” proposed by one of the members who then gets the others on board. Though the idea of staged readings of plays that might be new or overlooked may be a good one, no one had come up with a particular play that was a clear choice.

It so happened that Smith saw a PBS broadcast of Signature Theater’s production of Vichy, and that got him thinking about how he would want to do this particular play, “how it should look and be played.” Smith, who hasn’t directed a play since a Yeats one act in college, said his fellow NHTCers were very supportive of his idea, especially as they could all see the relevance of doing the play now, in this fall’s run-up to a very key national election. So much so that The League of Women Voters of New Haven—a non-partisan group, Smith points out—will be on-hand to register voters before and after the show.

The play will be given “an enhanced staged reading,” Smith says, which means there will be some limited use of lights and sound, as well as entrances and exits of characters. The cast, which numbers 16, will comprise all the male actors in the company, supplemented by other local actors. As part of his pitch, Smith “wanted everyone [in NHTC] to be involved.” The difficulty of coordinating the entire company for the usual 8 weeks of rehearsal for a full show would have been enormous. Which is one benefit of the staged reading approach. Mainly, though, for Smith, the main benefit is about timeliness.

Watching the PBS broadcast, he said, “sent shivers up my spine: the references to the power of the 1%; the wonder at the raw power of cults of personality; the demonization of ‘The Other’—the language is amazingly current.” Indeed, the play “is the ultimate collaborator story,” showing how fear and despair can undermine political courage. For Smith, the play’s main message is one of “vigilance.” “It reminds us we have to be firm in knowing what we’re willing to do to confront oppression.”

While not one of what Smith calls “the trifecta” of staggeringly great plays Miller wrote—The Crucible, A View from the Bridge, Death of a SalesmanIncident at Vichy is a commanding work. Smith also notes that NHTC has held off from doing the great playwrights of the American canon—Miller, O’Neill, Williams—so that this short three-day run is kind of “testing the waters.” The company has done very well by such classics as Inge’s Bus Stop, Wilder’s Our Town, and Odets’ Waiting for Lefty, so maybe a full production of one of the major American dramatists will happen in the future.

For now, this Thursday through Saturday—days after the first of the three presidential debates—NHTC offers a chance to consider the implications of a chilling work about the effects of evil in power and about the moral test of resisting corruption and oppression.

Like Zappa’s old Mothers of Invention tune sez, with knowing irony, “it can’t happen here.”

Monceau (George Kulp), Old Jew (Erich Greene)

Monceau (George Kulp), Old Jew (Erich Greene)

The New Haven Theater Company presents a special staged reading of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy, directed by J. Kevin Smith, running for one weekend only; Thursday, September 29 – Saturday, October 1. Performances are at 8pm at the NHTC Stage at the English Building Markets, located at 839 Chapel Street, New Haven. Tickets are $15, at www.NewHavenTheaterCompany.com

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