John Watson

New Haven Theater Company Goes Cuckoo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For tickets and info, go here

See my review here

The Greatest Thing You'll Ever Learn

Review of Love Song, New Haven Theater Company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

New Haven Theater Company Plays a Love Song

Preview of Love Song, New Haven Theater Company

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

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

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

Susan Kulp and George Kulp

Susan Kulp and George Kulp

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

Josey Kulp and Christian Shaboo

Josey Kulp and Christian Shaboo

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

For tickets and more info, go here




Glum Waiters

Review of The Dumb Waiter, New Haven Theater Company

Meet Gus (Erich Greene) and Ben (Trevor Williams), two guys hanging out in a basement room, bare but for two cots, that looks like a holding tank. There is a door to a kitchen, and sometimes Gus meanders down the hall to confront the not-quite-adequate range and the task of making tea. Meanwhile, Ben, rather truculent, reads the newspaper, his eye caught by any gory story he can share as an outrage to all good sense. They are waiting for their orders sort of the way that Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for Godot. Eventually we catch on: they are flunky hit-men and their next target should be arriving any time now.

Harold Pinter’s early career abounded in testy confrontations that are funny, in a deadpan, absurdist, almost realist way. Remember the chitchat of the hit-men (played by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson) in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and the kinds of critical praise it earned? That kind of thing is a page out of Pinter’s playbook. Except that, in The Dumb Waiter, directed by New Haven Theater Company’s John Watson, we’re not in a work of “pulp,” per se. Nor Pop. We’re in a theatrical tradition that goes back to vaudeville and the English music hall, pitting feckless Anymen, somewhat down but not out, against the affronts to dignity that every clown who ever trod the boards has had to endure (think: Laurel and Hardy). But Ben and Gus also inhabit a recent tradition—Godot was only two years old, in English, when The Dumb Waiter appeared—of dark absurdism and the sense that any system—even one that is violent and pointless and tedious and dumb—is better than nothing. Gus and Ben aren’t exactly “stiff upper lip” material, though they do take pride in their efficiency, and that’s something.

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With a playing time of under an hour, Pinter’s script lets its cast take its time. The pacing by Watson and company has a respect for the calculated pauses, drops, and musing boredom that comprises most of this duo’s time on the job. The junior partner though he appears older, Gus is played by Erich Greene as a kind of annoying little brother. Having him on hand means putting up with a ponderous case of the fidgets, emblematized by his first actions: putting on his shoes, laboriously, only to find, repeatedly, that something has gotten into one or the other and must be removed. The sequence sets the tone. These two aren’t too swift, but, after their fashion, they are thorough.

This becomes more and more oddly the case as we see them wrack their brains to deal with a series of messages—orders for food—that get delivered by the play’s titular device. The dumb waiter’s presence makes Ben—who likes to speak with authority whether or not he knows what he’s talking about—assert that this locale was once some sort of café and someone upstairs still thinks it is active. The range of foods requested—Greek dishes, noodles and water chestnuts, Scampi—could almost be seen as cryptic messages, but the pair simply offer what Gus has got in his sack. Their servile aim to please is endearing, and yet there’s a keen menace behind it all—at least, we’re not sure there’s not, and so tension mixes with the silliness.

And that’s the key note of the show. Laughs are always a little uneasy when there are guns on hand. Both Gus and Ben, we see early on, have revolvers and stand ready to use them. Meanwhile there’s the question of how to kill time and what to do with the food orders and, in a mysterious segment, how to react to an envelope of matches that gets slid under the door. The obvious meaning in the packet’s arrival is that it has been supplied by their unseen boss, Wilson, and that the matches are for lighting the range to make tea, but the fact that the gas isn’t working makes the gesture pointless if not a deliberate joke on the hapless duo.

The jokes we’re sure of here are like that, basking in a rich sense of how “things in general” play tricks on us, sometimes quite awful ones, like the newspaper story of a gent who took shelter under a lorry only to have it run over him. We might suspect that there’s a lurking lorry here somewhere, ready to take our heroes unawares—whether in the form of the target, or the boss, or the gas range, or, maybe, Ben’s temper as he berates Gus about the aptness of the expressions “light the gas” and “light the kettle.” It’s enough to make a cat laugh, as Gus says at one point.

In any case, here is a nice kettle of fish to be pickled in. In Gus, Greene has a character that lets him exploit a sad-sack resilience; ill-kempt and beleaguered, his Gus might be more sympathetic if he weren’t so dim. Meanwhile, Williams’ Ben maintains a slow-burn testiness that always threatens to explode, like Abbott at Costello. It's good to see NHTC tackle something dialogue-driven but without the manic tempo of Mamet. The best thing about Pinter’s dialogue is how artfully artless it is, and Greene and Williams deliver it in an invented accent that fluctuates but keeps up the necessary estrangement. These two mates seem mated, for better or worse, and till death do they part.

 

The Dumb Waiter
By Harold Pinter
Directed by John Watson

Stage Manager/Assistant Director: Margaret Mann; Lights: Peter Chenot; Sound: Drew Gray; Board Op: Ian Dunn

Cast: Erich Greene, Trevor Williams

New Haven Theater Company
839 Chapel Street
February 1-3 & 8-10, 2018

 

 

Mature Attraction

Review of The Last Romance, New Haven Theater Company

Joe DiPietro’s The Last Romance is a quiet little drama about taking a chance, late in life. Its best feature is attention to the kind of small distinctions that can make a big difference in how people learn to accept and trust one another.

NHTC member John Watson plays Ralph Bellini, an Italian-American widower who suddenly, in his 80s, becomes sweet on a woman he sees with her pet dog in a park he ventures into by chance. Soon he’s trying his best to chat her up, using all his resources of gentle joshing and kidding, turning on the charm. The object of his interest, Carol Reynolds, played by NHTC member Margaret Mann, is not so warm or inclined to be charmed. She’s a bit prickly, a bit distracted. But she’s not indifferent to the attention.

As played by Watson, Ralph is indeed a likeable guy, the kind we would expect to have many casual friends. In fact, the only other major person in his life at this point is his sister Rose Tagliatelle, played by Janie Tamarkin, a bossy but also needy woman who never married. Ralph and Rose are the only siblings left of a large family. They’re settled in their ways and Rose can’t help wondering what’s up with her brother in taking a shine to a complete stranger.

And it’s not just doubts about the value of romance so late in life that Rose shows. There’s a subtle sense of this odd couple coming from different walks of life that she is well aware of. Mann’s Carol is WASPY and more than a bit uptight—her repeated phrase “for shame!” should give you an idea. She speaks of having cared for a husband struck down by a stroke. The main connection between her and Ralph seems to be that they are survivors. They paid their dues in marriages, and they’re still here, and that means, maybe, that something good may yet come their way.

For Ralph, dreams of romance seem to always come back to opera. He auditioned once at the Met, and director Trevor Williams handles effectively the operatic moments in the play, so that we get a strong impression of the youth and gifts that Ralph looks back on (with thanks to a cameo from Christian Shaboo). Mann’s Carol is a harder sell. It’s not clear exactly what she sees in Ralph, since she’s so slow to open up. But she does make it clear—and here changes in her wardrobe help to make the case—that she greatly appreciates being romanced again, after having pretty much given up on it.

As such there’s a nice contrast between Carol and Rose, both still hopeful—in Rose’s case, it’s hoping that the husband who left her will return—and both trying to live without illusions. Which generally means they’re quick to spot others’ unreal hopes. The question hovering in the air, as with any romance, is whether this is going to end happily ever after or whether some kind of deal-breaker will surface.

New Haven Theater Company finds in this simple and direct story a good vehicle for its actors, with Janie Tamarkin’s support adding a touch of authentic Brooklyn. In the end, DiPietro’s play seems to suggest we’re creatures of habit, but if so, it shows how some habits come from stronger ties than others. The Last Romance is a realistic romance that shows that getting what you hope for might not be for the best.

Three more shows: tonight, tomorrow and Saturday.

The Last Romance
By Joe DiPietro
Directed by Trevor Williams

Cast: Margaret Mann, Janie Tamarkin, John Watson

Additional voices and video by Christian Shaboo & Peter Chenot
Lighting Design: Peter Chenot

New Haven Theater Company
November 10-19, 2016

A Chance for Late Romance

Preview of The Last Romance, New Haven Theater Company

The New Haven Theater Company returns this week with their fall offering. The play chosen by the democratic company, Joe DiPietro’s The Last Romance, was proposed by NHTC member Margaret Mann, last seen in the NHTC production of Doubt. Like Doubt, The Last Romance is a play for a small ensemble, in this case three actors: Mann, as Carol Reynolds; NHTC member John Watson—last seen in the staged reading of Incident at Vichy a few weeks ago, and in last season’s celebrated run of Bus Stop before that—as Ralph Bellini; and Equity actor Janie Tamarkin as Rose Tagliatelle.

As Mann well knows, it’s not easy finding good parts for actors over 60. And to find a play in which all the characters are well above middle-age is even more unique. Most theater-goers in the New Haven area seem to fit that demographic, so why not a play that, as Mann says, treats the possibility of romance between elders as “the same as between much younger people.” She describes the play as “a small play about the one thing that can change everything.” Finding someone is never easy, and DiPietro’s play shows both the luck and chance involved, as well as the obstacles.

Ralph is an opera-lover who once even got a call-back to sing at the Met—the kind of thing one is liable to look back on in later life as a big, lost chance. Now a widower who takes a walk every day, Ralph happens to take his walk at a different time, in a different direction, and that small change causes him to meet Carol, a widow who likes to take her beloved chihuahua to a particular dog park. Mann sees the play as taking a serious—though at times funny—look at “the intersection of lives, later in life,” with “a little bit” of class considerations as well. The play’s setting is not really specified, Mann says, but the NHTC team are thinking of it “as happening in Wooster Square.”

Directing the show is NHTC member Trevor Williams, also seen in Vichy and Bus Stop, who hasn’t directed for NHTC before, but who, still in his thirties, is bringing a more youthful view to the play, according to Mann. Mann directed Almost, Maine for the company in November 2013 and, like that play, Last Romance takes place in “an imagined space” that represents different settings—in this case three, though mostly the dog park.

Margaret Mann, John Watson, Janie Tamarkin, The Last Romance

Margaret Mann, John Watson, Janie Tamarkin, The Last Romance

For Mann, acting is “a chance to step out of my own skin” while enjoying the pleasure of working with other actors. She admits she had “to sell” the play a bit to her colleagues in NHTC, but Watson was also intrigued with the play, and the chance to “play our age” as characters with distinct, “well-written speech patterns.” There’s “a lot of talking over” in the dialogue, and much of the play’s effect should be in its naturalness.

“The characters feel like people you’ve met,” Mann says, and, while the play touches on “aging, illness and loss,” it’s decidedly “not morbid but realistic and touching.” The humor, she says, is “not silly or nasty, but sweet.”

“It’s about trying something new, when you’re stuck,” Mann says of the interactions between the characters, and the risks and rewards of getting to know new people after a lifetime amidst familiar ways.

Any show with “last” in the title is apt to make us think about how much time we have left, but that question is even more relevant to those who have already lived most of their lives. Don’t miss out on last chances, and don’t miss out on New Haven Theater Company’s The Last Romance, showing for the next two weekends at the English Building Markets, November 10-12 and 17-19, at 8 p.m.

 

The Last Romance
by Joe DiPietro
Directed by Trevor Williams
New Haven Theater Company