James Andreassi

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

Trial By Friendship

American Buffalo, first produced in 1975 in Chicago, then on Broadway in 1977, is noted as the play that established playwright David Mamet as the premiere poet of American speech—emphatic, riddled with profanity, full of vague nouns with referents that change according to context, with meaning guided always by inflection.  Mamet’s influence has been so pervasive that it’s hard to say at times whether he simply found the means to convey the way we talk or in fact invented a mannerism we now recognize as our own.  It does seem to be the case that the dialogue in his plays has ceased to be unsettling and become “normal.” Staged in Westville’s Kehler Liddell Gallery, the Elm Shakespeare production of America Buffalo, directed by Mark Zeisler, could be said to offer an immediate contradiction: Mamet’s trio of seedy shop flies in an art gallery?  Could it be that Mamet’s style of visceral, streetwise theater has become a museum piece?   Perhaps, as there’s no denying that the used goods shop that comprises Elizabeth Bolster’s spare but effective set is situated in a setting that is genteely artsy.  It might’ve been interesting to have staged the play in some abandoned New Haven retail space, but, that said, the fictional shop the characters inhabit wouldn’t be out of place on Whalley Avenue, home of the gallery, and so the immediate locale lends a certain aura of authenticity to the production.

The play itself is dialogue driven, so there’s no problem staging it in a confined space, and the closer the audience is to the action, the better.  We hover on the periphery of the card table, small desk and display case of the shop, watching interactions that could be taking place in our midst.  With no great distance to overcome in the staging, this American Buffalo finds its virtues in being intimate and realistic, its scale measured to a confined space we share with its characters.

The cast is uniformly excellent.  As Donny Dubrow, the proprietor of the store, Tracy Griswold looks perfect for the part—lean, experienced, accommodating.  He appears as a small-time businessman, essentially trusting, but also on the lookout for weaknesses in others that may be to his benefit: the kind of man who could strike a hard bargain or choose to be generous, as he sees fit.  His plan to pull off “a score” on an unsuspecting well-heeled guy who visited his shop earlier and paid $90 for an American buffalo nickel is the dramatic focus, and, though criminal in his intentions, Donny is the good heart of the play.  Donny’s effort to remain simpatico with his confreres, even when they lie to him and bully him, is of the essence of Mamet’s vision of the odd sincerities found in the midst of the dog-eat-dog world of daily life, an essence that Griswold’s face is able to express as he listens to the others.

As Bob, an addict who Donny would like to help, by employing him as his errand boy, and who he tries to mentor in a small way, Ryan Barry owns the part.  He’s got the requisite slow speech, seemingly of one not all there, but he also can convey the idea that Bob is sharper than we—and his friends—think he is.  Bob is a man of few words, almost everything he says is pulled out of him by Donny, and Barry is terrific at making Bob’s minimal words carry the weight and ambiguity Mamet requires.  He has a tendency to repeat what’s said to him, a buying-time device that also seems to question everything he’s told, and, often, even what he himself says.  This is important because how the plot “resolves” has to do with when Bob is lying and why.  Zeisler’s actors are able to express a lot about their characters when they are silent as much as when they speak.

As Teach, the friendly nemesis of the slow-talking duo, a garrulous ne’er-do-well with an inflated opinion of himself, James Andreassi is a live wire.  He pitches his voice to achieve what seems always to be a reasonable tone, even when he’s spouting nonsense or berating others for situations he himself creates.  He has the ability to apologize and accuse in the same breath.  In Teach, Mamet creates an important American type: the mastermind of speculative supposition.  Teach has an explanation for everything, a way of creating narratives that suit his turn of mind, usually based on suspicions, irritations, gripes and grudges.  Constantly wiping back his longish hair, throwing his size around, restlessly grabbing chairs, checking himself in the mirror, looking musingly or anxiously out the storefront at the street, Andreassi’s Teach is a man of useless activity, all his energy in service to a fantasy in which he makes a big score or saves the day.  The drama of the play is to watch how his reckless need for control and self-assertion brings everything to a standstill, and, as Donny says, spreads “poison.”

American Buffalo is about small-timers in hard times, grasping at straws.  The bleakness of these characters’ lives comes out slowly, allowing us to sympathize with their criminal plot, if only to see something go right for them.  A working assumption of the play is that when “bad guys” are our “heroes,” someone will have to be worse than bad.   Rather than scaring us with ruthlessness, the method of Zeisler’s production is to make these guys, even Teach, likeable enough and typical enough—and funny enough—to keep us on their side, sort of, to make us relax and accept them, so that their moral lapses and failures of imagination are ours as well.

Local in feel, relentless in pacing, familiar in its hard truths, Elm Shakespeare’s American Buffalo delivers.

American Buffalo By David Mamet Directed by Mark Zeisler, with: Dave Stephen Baker (Sound & Original Music), Elizabeth Bolster (Costume & Set Design), Jamie Burnett (Lighting), Emily DiNardo (Stage Manager), Emmett Cassidy and Liz Cecere (Tech Crew)

The Elm Shakespeare Company May 10-13 and 17-20

The Kehler Liddell Gallery 873 Whalley Avenue, New Haven

For tickets and information: www.elmshakespeare.org / 203.393.1436 / info@elmshakespeare.org