Long Wharf Theater

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

Mean Streets

Review of Brownsville Song (b-side for Tray) at Long Wharf Theatre

Kimber Lee’s Brownsville Song (b-side for Tray), at the Long Wharf Theatre, directed by Eric Ting, begins and ends with strong speeches that bookend the action of the play. At the outset, Lena (Catrina Ganey), a grandmother, refuses to begin the story—“this doesn’t begin with me,” she insists—while, at the end, Tray (Curtiss Cook Jr.), her grandson, finishes his reading of his college application essay with “this is the beginning.” Between those two speeches, which occur in reverse temporal order, we learn the hopeful and heartbreaking tale of Tray, an enterprising and engaging black boy in Brownsville, an area of Brooklyn known for its high crime rates, who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Lena (Catrina Ganey)

Lena (Catrina Ganey)

We can infer at once that something bad will happen, since Lena’s speech amounts to a protest against the kind of news stories that note the killing of a young black male as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Lena insists that turning Tray into a statistic does additional violence—to his memory and to the facts of his young life.

Devine (Kaatje Welsh) and Tray (Curtiss Cook, Jr.)

Devine (Kaatje Welsh) and Tray (Curtiss Cook, Jr.)

The Tray we meet in the story is a dedicated Golden Gloves boxer, a doting older brother, a sassy but loving grandson, a dogged student trying to figure out how to write an application essay that doesn’t sound like everyone else. To that end, his coach enlists a tutor. And that tutor, Merrell (Sung Yun Cho), happens to be an Asian woman who had been married to Tray’s dad and gave birth to Devine (Kaatje Welsh), Tray’s half-sister. Tray’s father was also the victim of street violence and Merrell became a drug addict. Unable to cope with her husband’s death or to care for her daughter, Merrell has lost all ties to the family until now.

The structural problems with the storytelling in Brownsville Song come into play there. Tray’s story, segments of which are acted out for us, are almost a ‘back story’; add to that the back story of Tray’s father and Merrell, and the play sags a bit with the weight of the past and of some events we only hear about. That effect doesn’t harm the story of Tray, his grandmother and half-sister, because the scenes among them are lively and warm, despite the weight of the sad past and the even sadder future we are moving toward as a fait accompli. But in the case of Merrell, that back story feels unearned. She returns to Tray’s life as if desiring and deserving a second chance, but her earlier failures exist only as comments from Tray and his grandmother, and nothing in Merrell’s demeanor bespeaks the kind of life she has, ostensibly, lived. An attempt to make her likeable by showing her barely managing as a Starbucks’ cashier, a job Tray, a Starbucks manager, gives her, lightens things up a bit but doesn’t do much to help the thinness of the character.

Customer (Anthony Martinez-Briggs), Tray (Curtiss Cook, Jr.), Merrell (Sung Yun Cho)

Customer (Anthony Martinez-Briggs), Tray (Curtiss Cook, Jr.), Merrell (Sung Yun Cho)

Sung Yun Cho’s removed presence is an odd effect when everything else in the play is so vivid. The character of the strict but warm grandma may be a bit of a domestic cliché, but Ganey infuses the role with such vivacity we’re glad to be in her company throughout, including a very touching moment when she concedes that, after all, Tray was a better person that she. As Devine, young Kaatje Welsh shines in her performance of a dance routine that Tray coaxes out of her, and is able to be withdrawn without appearing sulky; we see that her relation with her brother has to do with keeping him focused on what matters—summed up in the simple slogan “hugs not thugs” with which Tray teases his grandma.

Junior (Anthony Martinez-Briggs) and Lena (Catrina Ganey)

Junior (Anthony Martinez-Briggs) and Lena (Catrina Ganey)

The play makes clear the fine line Tray, played with affecting naturalness by Cook, walks between the world he’s trying to hold together for the sake of his own future and his family’s well-being and the world of the streets, which is never without threat. Tray’s buddy, Junior (Anthony Martinez-Briggs) brings those tensions into focus when he tries to account to Lena about what happened to her grandson. It’s a dialogue that feels genuine because the boy wants to assert himself while also sparing the feelings of a woman who knew him as a child. Lena’s tough love toward a self-styled street kid feels very much to the point. The gap between the domestic space of caring and comfort and the unpredictable dangers and pressures of gangland is very real.

Scott Bradley’s set cleverly shows us the kitchen and bedroom of a Brownsville apartment as well as the surrounding streets and alleys, and even a Starbucks, creating an open playing space able to shift time frames as events are recalled and presented. The core of it all is the kitchen table where Lena holds court; in the periphery are the streets where sirens sound and headlights flash, where Tray tries to entertain a dejected Devine, and agrees, warily but sympathetically, to let Merrell back into his life.

Curtiss Cook, Jr., as Tray

Curtiss Cook, Jr., as Tray

The construction of the play is such as to elicit cheers for a young man’s hopes and purpose, even as we know that “the beginning” of which he speaks, in a stirring evaluation of his family and himself, is followed, tragically, by a swift and senseless end. Lee and Ting make us feel the loss but also the positive effects of a life brutally short but never hopeless or pointless. In that sense, Brownsville Song (b-side for Tray) lives up to its intention to pay tribute without flinching from the hard truth at its heart.

Brownsville Song (b-side for Tray)
By Kimber Lee

Directed by Eric Ting

Set Design: Scott Bradley; Costume Design: Toni-Leslie James; Lighting Design: Russell H. Champa; Sound Design: Ryan Rumery; Production Stage Manager: Kathy Snyder; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern, Theresa Stark

Long Wharf Theatre, March 25-April 19, 2015

Kvetching Cousins

Review of Bad Jews at Long Wharf Theatre Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews, directed by Oliver Butler, brings to the Long Wharf the sharpest comedy I’ve seen there. This is comedy that draws blood, where the situations, so far from smacking of sit-com chuckles or of Woody Allenesque irony, are fraught with the awkward and the unpleasant. Like the stuff that really happens when families get together.

At the basis of Bad Jews is what Jewishness is supposed to mean to the current crop of twenty-somethings. Poppy, the patriarch who survived the Holocaust and kept his father’s heirloom chai pendant—a combination of two Hebrew letters that signifies “life”—beneath his tongue for two years in the death camps, has just passed away. At his daughter’s Upper West Side apartment they’re sitting shiva, but the play takes place in an efficiency the family keeps for guests—in this case, two sons home from college who can’t stay in their parents’ apartment because the bedroom of the younger, Jonah (Max Michael Miller), has become a home office, while the room of Liam (Michael Steinmetz), the older, is hosting a visiting aunt and uncle; also staying in the efficiency is the daughter of the latter couple, Daphna, née Diana (Keilly McQuail), the boys’ cousin. The efficiency, located in the same building as the parental spread, is equipped with a pull-out sofa and two inflatable air mattresses, slumber-party style. And it’s here that a comic drama of blood and guts and laughs unfolds.

When she wants to ingratiate herself, as she does with her video-game-playing, boxers-wearing cousin Jonah, Daphna is gooey and persistent. He seems an easy going sort and no match for her stated intent to have Poppy’s chai for herself, as she, in her hyper-awareness of Jewishness, feels she so clearly deserves. We can assume this isn’t going to go over so well with older cousin Liam, who soon arrives, accompanied by his shiksa girlfriend Melody (Christy Escobar), both fresh from the slopes of Aspen, cutting short a ski trip to pay respects, but not in time for the funeral.

Served up in short order are two amazing dressing-downs: Liam delivers to Melody and Jonah, while Daphna is in the bathroom sullenly brushing her hair, a frantic annihilation of Daphna’s character and pretensions, an avalanche of animosity and aggravation that buries all fellow feeling. It’s both horrible and hilarious. And that’s before he even learns of his cousin’s designs on the chai pendant. The other screed is delivered by Daphna to her cousins, while Melody inhabits the bathroom, tearing apart Liam for everything from studying other cultures—he’s in graduate study on Japan—rather than his own, to his choice of non-Jewish girls who are clearly inferior to him. In the hands of director Butler, who directed Will Eno’s sharp as tacks domestic comedy Open House last year at Roundabout in New York, Harmon’s play gets at the flowing loathing that only people who have resented each other from childhood can level at one another. It’s lethal, and cathartic as only bilious comedy can be.

At the heart of the play—its pained heart actually—is the difficult burden of Jewishness, an ethnic identity that is also ethical, that both imposes and succors. For some, it’s something to be flipped off—as Liam does in the story Daphna tells of him boasting he’s a “bad Jew”—and for others something to be claimed at all cost, as Daphna tries to do, even if it means denying her efforts—revealed by Liam—to identify with Princess Di as a child. In other words, no one holds your follies hostage like your kin, and when one needs ammunition, growing up together will always provide it.

Most of the interactions turn on Daphna’s commitment to outrage—and McQuail is exquisite at registering it: outrage not only at the indignities that have been visited upon the Jewish race since time immemorial, but particularly—pointedly—relentlessly—the indignities perpetrated by the uncaring assimilationists and cultural relativists among the Jews of her generation. Hers is an indignation that bristles in every pore. And the symbol not only of Jewishness as she conceives it—as family, tradition and respect for the ages—but also of the indifference to all of that by her superior and financially better-off elder cousin is Poppy’s talismanic chai. It’s also the pendant penniless Poppy used to propose to his bride; Liam insists he has received both Poppy’s chai and his blessing for his own proposal to Melody. Thus, the actual meaning of the chai gets further complicated. Is it meant to represent the past and all those murdered Jews, and to be handed down now as a keepsake of commemoration? Or, is it meant to represent the future, an heirloom for the eldest among Poppy’s grandchildren as he begins a family—even if with a woman who says her people have “always” been in Delaware and has a hard time imagining the meaning of ancestors?

Bad Jews makes us consider these themes as they surface in the give-and-take of these somewhat spoiled cousins. As Jonah, the quiet one who wants to stay out of the squabbling, Max Michael Miller offers a range of pained reactions and non-reactions and, in the end, more intensity than one would suspect of him. As Melody, blithe and polite, who happens unwittingly into this upper West Side minefield, Christy Escobar plays up Melody’s fecklessness but has the guts to silence headstrong Liam when necessary; she also gets a show-stopping turn doing a good job of singing badly “Summertime,” from Porgy and Bess (a moment full of comic implications). As Liam, Michael Steinmetz, besides investing his diatribe against Daphna with all the agitated scorn it requires, is often at his best when silent. He hears out Daphna’s harangue with the stoical superiority that seems his birthright in a family that has both suffered and prospered, and his dogged gathering of his and his fiancée’s things, after she proves something more of a princess than he perhaps thought, speaks volumes. Good as all that is, it’s Keilly McQuail’s show all the way. Her Daphna is a constant barrage of mannerisms—preening, undulating, striking poses, hanging fire with one of the most exaggerated glares conceivable. Impossible to live with as she is, Daphna also manifests the impossibility of living up to a past that her generation has only a tenuous relation to through elders who, as Liam says, will forever only be part of the fuzzy feelings of childhood.

It may be that Harmon’s play is a bit insular for a general audience, but the force of the personalities on view here place such spectators in the place of Melody, well-meaning and aghast at how vicious spinning the truth can be. Bad Jews writhes with galvanic comedy, full of the flash of wit and the clash of wills. It zings and bites and goes for the throat—and has a lot of fun doing it.

[Full disclosure: I’m from Delaware, and am the product of the kind of northern European mix that Melody eventually claims, but I also spent a fair amount of time, for a time, around the Wilmington JJC, on Garden of Eden Road, and I was gripped, and in stitches, throughout this serious comedy.]

 

Bad Jews By Joshua Harmon Directed by Oliver Butler

Set Design: Antje Ellermann; Costume Design: Paul Carey; Lighting Design: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Design: M. L. Dogg; Hair & Makeup Design: Dave Bova; Fight Director: Tim Acito; Production Stage Manager: Lindsey Turteltaub; Photography: T. Charles Erickson

Long Wharf Theatre Februrary 18-March 22, 2015

Ghost Dance

Review of Forever at Long Wharf Theatre Forever, the latest play by playwright/performer Dael Orlandersmith, invites its audience to consider what happens when a born storyteller undertakes what she calls “the ‘dreaded first person,’” shaping theater from her own experience. In the playbill, Orlandersmith points out that the play “is not verbatim; it is a memoir play versus an autobiographical play,” a way of cautioning us against taking everything said as “fact,” but also a way of highlighting how subjective a young person’s perspective is, how tied to impressions that can never pretend to omniscience.

Onto a handsome wooden stage, flanked on three sides by photos of her family and her young self, the imposing and riveting performer enters in an offhand manner, to the strains of Marianne Faithful’s version of Patti Smith’s “Ghost Dance,” its incantatory vocal insisting “we shall live again.” Setting the scene, Orlandersmith invites us to famed Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, where she, like so many others, finds herself on a pilgrimage to the graves of the many greats buried there. She claims kin with many of the interred artists and writers—Edith Piaf, Richard Wright, Chopin, Colette, Proust, Apollinaire—and gravitates to the auratic burial place of The Doors’ charismatic leader Jim Morrison, whose music inspired her in her girlhood in a Harlem ghetto. With that gesture to her formative years, Orlandersmith opens her monologue to the unquiet ghost that haunts Forever: Beula Camradora Smith, the playwright’s abusive, manipulative, alcoholic mother.

What ensues in this well-paced memory play is a form of psychic wrestling. Orlandersmith evokes the ghosts of her past to grapple with them before us. So close to the bone is her narrative, it’s easy to imagine she’s telling the story as she goes, verbalizing events as she recalls them. Orlandersmith’s ease on the stage lets us know this has all been worked out beforehand but her manner—confiding, considering, pondering, reliving—makes the script feel spontaneous and open-ended. As with any social encounter that takes its direction from the personal and anecdotal, Forever uses reminiscence to give the audience a sense of who this character is, as we piece together the events that shaped her.

One such event is a harrowing rape, recounted with a dramatic shift of lighting and register, that not only attests to the narrator’s personal strength in overcoming such trauma, but also creates a fully re-imagined world of vulnerability and innocence as the young girl fixes upon a kind and sympathetic Irish policeman as a sort of knight of saving grace. Ultimately, even such an appalling crime, an affront to both mother and child, is grist for the struggle with the mother’s memory, found wanting at each new stage. As the play goes on, we begin to sense a subtle shift from the perspective of a girl or a young woman as Orlandersmith, in her mid-fifties, moves toward a mature consideration of her mother, dead for 20 years.

The turning point arrives through a series of richly imagined scenes; the mother holding court sweetly to “surrogate daughters,” her nurses at the hospital, while unable to stop herself belittling her actual daughter, leads to a scene with the mother’s corpse in the morgue, where the attendant’s line “the dead can’t hurt you” sets up the long untangling of how one comes to terms with the ghosts of one’s past. Ultimately, the living are the victors, and, as author, Orlandersmith is able to shape a past that puts the mother’s dramas and untold stories into the context of the daughter’s self-invention. And yet Orlandersmith, in the play’s close, seems conflicted enough to let us know that even an entire work devoted to a major relationship isn’t enough to say all that was unsaid in life or to lay to rest all that still perplexes and discomfits.

A tour de force of the art of monologue, Forever is a brave memory play that presents sad facts, harsh truths, and joyful inspirations with a keen grasp of how malleable such things become in the remembering and in the telling. With her penetrating gaze and captivating manner, Orlandersmith plays thoughtful hostess to some formidable objects of her inner landscape, offering the insights that come with clear-eyed self-appraisal. Orlandersmith’s work has long found favor with the Long Wharf Theatre, and it’s fitting that this most personal of her works should be staged as part of the 50th anniversary of the theater, attesting to the value of the living presence of theater in so direct a way.

Forever By Dael Orlandersmith Directed by Neel Keller

Set Design: Takeshi Kata; Costume Design: Kaye Voyce; Lighting Design: Mary Louise Geiger; Sound Design: Adam Phalen; Dramaturg: Joy Meads; Production Stage Manager: Lloyd Davis, Jr.

Long Wharf Theatre January 1-February 2, 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

 

Bygone Tunes of Boomer Summers

The Bikinis, a 60s Musical Beach Party offers a fun night tripping down Memory Lane—a lane paved with some of the big hits of the era. The four women—Annie (Valerie Fagan), her sister Jodi (Lori Hammer), Barbara (Regina Levert) and Karla (Karyn Quackenbush)—from the Jersey showr have a mission: to stir up memories of beloved Sandy Shores, a trailer park—er, mobile home resort—at the beach that has been given a big money offer from major developers. Will the locals sell out on their past? That question seems to put us firmly in the Eighties, when “the legacy” of the Sixties was a going concern in the era of rampant corporate glut and the lifestyles of the rich and predatory. Indeed, the most recent song in this nostalgic trip back in time is from 1982—and that’s where the conceit of all this begins to flag a bit. The songs from the Sixties have almost talismanic familiarity, but the later songs—do they catalyze a sense of time and place in the same way?

In the first half, the songs sustain the fantasy well. The four women formed a purely local girl-group dreaming of producing “a 45” (“remember 45s?” Karla asks soulfully) to get on American Bandstand. This plot lets the four take turns leading us through some of the best fun-time music available: “It’s In His Kiss (The Shoop Shoop Song),” “Heat Wave,” “ Be My Baby,” “Shop Around,” “Under the Boardwalk.” If such music brings with it visions of “beach blanket bingo,” so be it. The game girls enact for us the risible plot of a favorite beach bimbo film—including the risqué theme song “Beach Blankets, Boards and Balls”—that includes a “Secret Agent Man,” and cameos by Nancy “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” Sinatra, and Elvis himself, “Shakin’ in the Sand.” The story moves between retrospect—as the girls tell the tale of their “act”—and the present, where a vote for sell or stay has been placed before us (aka, the good people of Sandy Shores), while sisters Annie (stay) and Jodi (sell) vie for swaying our sympathies.

By the time The Bikinis realize their dream—in the Second Part—the changing times have produced psychedelia and groups of girls singing together are “an endangered species.” I’m assuming “The Age of Aquarius”—the go-to song for that Summer of Love era—was unavailable, so we get “Time of the Season,” “Incense and Peppermints” (the statement about girl groups no longer cutting it is apropos), and then Annie—the one with the hippie gleam in her eye—gives us a rousing evocation of Melanie, a performer at Woodstock and a girl from Queens, who was a familiar hippie chick for a time. Also in this segment, Karla sings “Dedicated to the One I Love” for all the boys overseas. The bridge between the unabashed silliness of the First Part and the changing fortunes in the Second is the simple fact that “where the boys are” went from being the shores of Jersey to being the jungles of Nam.

This aspect of the show—trying to interject a tribute to soldiers as well as demonstrating the “make love, not war” enthusiasms of many of the young at the time—stretches a bit thin the show's aim at a generational credo. And yet it’s commendable that the show’s authors, Ray Roderick and James Hindman, with musical arrangements and additional music and lyrics by Joseph Baker, try to work in one of the mainstays of the Baby Boomers’ youth: the war. It’s impossible to understand how youth culture developed without keeping in mind the draft and the increasing unpopularity of the military commitments in Southeast Asia, symbolized here by a telling choice: Bobby Darin’s “Simple Song of Freedom.” It’s not that Darin was ever “the voice of a generation,” but when the singer of “Splish Splash” and “Beyond the Sea” starts singing songs with “a message,” then the times were a-changin’ indeed.

The show’s main attention is to the experience of women, and since women weren’t being drafted, theirs is either a “wait and worry” or a “march and protest” experience. Then comes the era of divorce and ERA, and—fittingly to a country-style tune—the songs of feisty women dumping errant men. Linda Ronstadt’s cover of Buddy Holly’s “When Will I Be Loved” is a well-chosen referent point as well, as one of the most successful singers ever showed the purchasing power of women for a woman. The “change” is best expressed by Melissa Manchester’s Easy Listening classic, “Midnight Blue”—“once more for all the old times.”

But even the attempt to cash in on disco—Barbara knows a bouncer at a club—with “Last Dance,” “I’m Every Woman,” and “I Will Survive” falls hard as the phase doesn’t last. It’s at that point that “It’s Raining Men” takes us toward camp. But what about Sandy Shores? Who will decide the fate of the happy hunting ground for the bikinis of tomorrow?

The Bikinis mixes both story-telling and illustration into its playlist and is best at letting the audience relive the appeal of the era's music, which is undeniable. And tying the songs to historical changes—in the country and in the lives of women—gives the show more dimension, though almost more than it can handle. As the story of four women who shared the times together The Bikinis will no doubt be a great night out for any who shared that road as well.

As Barbara, Regina Levert has the best voice for belting and gets to shimmy in a shiny disco dress; as Karla, Karyn Quackenbush does comic turns—such as a “Don” calling for an Italian number, or Annette complete with big . . . mouse ears—and is the most expressive as the ditzy little blonde of the group; as the sisters at loggerheads, Jodi and Annie, Lori Hammel is the more sensible and Valerie Fagan the more idealistic; Hammel adds fun by acting the male parts—take-offs on Elvis and Frankie Avalon. One of the interesting aspects of the show is seeing how the figures of entertainment of earlier eras become tropes for a bygone Americana that is always, from the perspective of the present, a Golden Age of fun and excitement, even when it wasn’t.

As a send-up, a tribute, and a re-cap, The Bikinis keeps it fun and bouncy, with even a touch of vaudeville . . . but no bikinis.

Long Wharf Theatre and Miracle or 2 Productions present The Bikinis Created and written by Ray Roderick and James Hindman Music Arrangements by Joseph Baker Additional Music and Lyrics by Joseph Baker and Ray Roderick Directed and Choreographed by Ray Roderick

Cast: Valerie Fagan; Regina Levert; Karyn Quackenbush; Lori Hammel; Lighting Design: Jamie Roderick; General Manager: James Hindman; Associate Director: Becky Timms; Associate Producer: Nancy Rosati; Musical Supervisor: Joseph Baker; Musical Direction: Dan Pardo

Long Wharf Theatre July 9-27, 2014

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.”

OUR TOWN BY THORNTON WILDER DIRECTED BY GORDON EDELSTEIN CLAIRE TOW STAGE IN THE C. NEWTON SCHENCK III THEATRE OCTOBER 9-NOVEMBER 2, 2014 PRESS OPENING: WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 15, 2014

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.

PICASSO AT THE LAPIN AGILE BY STEVE MARTIN DIRECTED BY GORDON EDELSTEIN CLAIRE TOW STAGE IN THE C. NEWTON SCHENCK III THEATRE NOVEMBER 26-DECEMBER 21, 2014 PRESS OPENING: WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 3, 2014

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.”

FOREVER BY DAEL ORLANDERSMITH DIRECTED BY NEEL KELLER WORLD PREMIERE STAGE II JANUARY 2-FEBRUARY 1, 2015 PRESS OPENING: WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 7, 2015

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.

BAD JEWS BY JOSHUA HARMON STAGE II FEBRUARY 18-MARCH 22, 2015 PRESS OPENING: WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 25, 2015

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.

THE SECOND MRS. WILSON BY JOE DiPIETRO DIRECTED BY GORDON EDELSTEIN CLAIRE TOW STAGE IN THE C. NEWTON SCHENCK III THEATRE WORLD PREMIERE MAY 6-31, 2015 PRESS OPENING: MAY 13, 2015

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.

Keeping Afloat

Review of Split Knuckle Theatre's Endurance When is a Hartford insurance company like a ship stuck in ice in the Antarctic? When they’re both sinking.

Split Knuckle Theatre’s Endurance parallels the travails of erstwhile Walter Spivey (Christopher Hirsh), as he rises from the ranks to take over a drowning insurance claims department, with the voyage of Ernest Shackleton to the South Pole aboard the Endurance, a ship that floundered, then sank, causing the expedition to spend months aboard an ice floe before finally making landfall on a desolate island. In other words, even when your ass is out of the fire, it may still be in the frying pan. That’s the lesson for Spivey as well, as he meets with setbacks, triumphs, and setbacks, all while trying to apply the lessons Shackleton set down in a little book about managing men in unpropitious circumstances.

One of the best aspects of this show’s endlessly inventive staging is the miming or enacting of routine, from rising in the morning to the bus ride and the elevator klatsch to the “assembly line” of the claim division, and the ways in which the small troupe of four play a multitude of roles and voices—a particularly fun moment occurs when Walter journeys to the Hartford library (“no late fees, Walter,” sounding in his head as the command of the higher-ups) and every book glanced into offers its advice in a succession of voices. At that point Walter finds inspiration in Shackleton’s account of how he weathered—without losing a man—the grueling navigation from ice floe to island. The upshot is that what serves in one dire circumstance may well serve in another: for Shackleton the necessary factor is optimism as a moral force.

We see abundant evidence of Shackleton’s sense of optimism—the explorer is played with can-do-or-die pluck by Greg Webster—but it mainly amounts to having the men sing. Indeed, one of the questions Shackleton poses to his prospective crew members is “can you sing?” The songs are authentic-sounding and lively but they don’t go a long way to differentiate the crewmen, though we can easily spot the pessimist of the bunch. Andrew Grusetskie plays him with a sort of hangdog ruefulness and also puts in a good turn as Mark, the ailing elder of the insurance group who finds serenity, to a scary degree, in organization.

As Spivey, Hirsh makes the most of the kinds of nebbishy twitches that put me in mind of Monty Python’s Terry Jones enacting a straight arrow. Then there’s Jason Bohon as Larry, the mama’s boy who knows what’s what about computers, and, finally Greg Webster as Ben Brody, the loose cannon. When he sets about to learn something about his “men” as Shackleton advises, Spivey uncovers little bits of individuality in each—for Brody, it’s the fact that there was a good priest back there somewhere who taught the boy the “Ave Maria.” When all is dark and you’ ve got to sing, you could do worse.

As a way to buoy spirits in a desolate landscape with small hope of survival, Shackleton’s methods make sense. And we might reflect on how “knowing the song” is tantamount to being “one of the crew”—thus making an apt figure for the very notion of “banding together.” But in the modern-day office? That’s where the hopes of Endurance start to seem a bit wishful, even as we much credit the Split Knuckle team for their grasp of the rigors of a day in the life. Any breakthrough must make the right mark on the balance sheet and Spivey and his team could be cast adrift at any time. Shackleton, you see, was master and commander of his vessel, answerable to none but the Almighty. Spivey and his group are answerable, at last, to the almighty buck.

The parallel between these perilous journeys may break down a bit, but the imaginative physical theater of this four man troupe—new to New Haven—never does, creating a fun and varied theatrical experience.

 

Split Knuckle Theatre Endurance

Jason Bohon: Larry, Orde-Lees, etc.; Andrew Grusetskie: Mark Mercier, etc.; Christopher Hirsh: Walter Spivey, etc.; Greg Webster: Shackleton/Ben Brody

Playwright: Nick Ryan; Costume Designer: Lucy Brown; Lighting Designer: Dan Rousseau; Music: Ken Clark; Dramaturg: Dassia Posner; Stage Manager: Carmen A. Torres

Long Wharf Theatre June 17-29, 2014

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

Library Event: Master Harold...and the Boys Film and Discussion

Mitchell Library, 37 Harrison Street, New Haven Saturday, April 12 @ 2pm

 

Join us for a film screening of Athold Fugard’s Master Harold… and the Boys, adapted from his play into a television movie in 1985. Directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg and starring Matthew Broderick, Zakes Mokae, and John Kani, Fugard’s play was produced at Yale Repertory Theatre in 1982 prior to its Broadway premiere, where it ran for 344 performances.

Taking place in South Africa during apartheid era, Master Harold shows how institutionalized racism, bigotry or hatred affects those who live under it.

Discussion facilitated by Long Wharf Theater staff will follow screening.

Also: Athol Fugard stars in The Shadow of the Hummingbird at Long Wharf Theater, March 26–April 27. Free tickets are available with your library card (first come, first served) at any New Haven Free Public Library branch

Program is made possible by a grant from the William Caspar Graustein Foundation.

 

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

Across the Great Divide

Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles is a straightforward family drama, full of a natural empathy for its two main characters, a widow in her 90s and her grandson, a twenty-something newly arrived in New York City after biking all the way from Seattle. After his awkward welcome—he arrives in the wee hours while his grandmother is asleep and she first greets him without her dentures in—Leo settles into life with Vera and both, by play’s end, have come to terms or are coming to terms with change in other relationships in their lives. Key to the play’s charm is its ability to handle relationships with a feel for the complex arrangements of attraction and antagonism that work under the surface between friends and between kin. Herzog is not afraid to make her characters less than admirable at times, but they never wear out their welcome.

One often hears about whether or not male authors can “write women characters”; much less often do we hear about whether female authors can “write men.” Herzog can. Her Leo Joseph-Connell (Micah Stock) has the kind of intense self-regard with efforts at humility and companionability that are hallmarks of the well-intentioned male of his day. Micah Stock plays Leo with the kinds of hesitations and measured responses that speak of the thoughtful male who feels his thoughts should be of general interest. It’s a great, understated performance. Much in this play requires a delicate touch: if the humor is too broad or the characters too stiff, the effect of its natural sympathy will suffer. Eric Ting’s successful rendering of this popular play makes the most of the Long Wharf’s intimate thrust amphitheater to bring us into this home and make us comfortable.

As Vera Joseph, Leo’s welcoming but settled grandma, Zoaunne LeRoy has to provide much of the play’s ultimate feeling. Hard of hearing, hard-headed in some things (such as her judgments on her neighbor and her insistence that Leo’s girlfriend Bec is too plump), at times grasping for the right word, her hands fluttering and gesturing, at times wobbly or wearily surfing her memory banks, at times giddy and a bit girlish, Vera is a subtly written character and LeRoy makes her real. She’s not some generic old lady or someone’s warm or prickly granny. Vera feels like an actual person, with a rather complicated past. A communist, Vera has come through her life with definite principles, the kind that don’t exactly earn her respect from her children’s generation, having to make do with an accepting “Marx is cool” from her grandson. Ting and his cast let silences allow us to imagine the sorts of things Vera might’ve said to her grandson were she younger and the ideas from her long-deceased husband’s lectures fresher in her mind.

As it is, the two find agreeable moments of togetherness—sharing a bowl on the autumn equinox and approaching a level of frankness that, while it happens often enough in plays, here feels merited and plausible. Likewise are Leo’s confrontations with Bec (Leah Karpel), a woman who Herzog shrewdly presents as someone trying to get on with her life without incurring the debts and obligations that a young man’s desires and affections can heap on a young woman. Herzog lets Leo have some of the higher moral ground as he’s still to some degree in shock about and certainly still grieving the bizarre accidental death of his best friend, Micah. A friend that, he feels, Bec praises overmuch. These arguments have the vivid feeling of ongoing discussions in medias res, where we quickly size up the levels of investment that are there to be wounded or repudiated. Most of the scenes in the play take place on the couch, the lack of action requiring that they be very well-written and staged with an easy pacing that is essential to the inviting tone of 4000 Miles.

One possible off-note is Leo’s ill-advised dalliance with Amanda (Teresa Avia Lim), a young Asian-American student from Parsons, an artsy, mostly inebriated character whose mood swings are comical enough as we watch Leo become sympathetic, seductive, chummy, and bored by turns, but one feels that Herzog baulks at creating a caricature for the sake of a laugh (drunk “sluts” are people too), though Amanda’s most pressing reason for being in the play is comic relief (though she’s a little abashed that she doesn’t provide any other relief for such a sweet “mountain man”). The scene isn’t a complete loss: Amanda’s outrage at Vera’s communist allegiances is almost worth the rather pat entry of Vera at exactly the wrong moment, consummation-wise, and the more interesting reason for Amanda’s presence—Leo’s perhaps not solely platonic infatuation with his adopted Chinese sister, Lily—helps to make the scene, as they say, motivated.

The discords of that scene are instructive because they put into relief the fact that, by the time they are preparing a speech for the funeral of Vera’s never seen but intrusive neighbor, Leo and Vera have arrived at the complementarity of real friendship. Vera’s hands waving as she does not speak to say her piece when Bec and Leo part amicably is worth volumes. LeRoy carries the weight of years on Vera well, letting us feel those years when they impart wisdom and resignation as well as frailty and comic lapses. Her dignity in the role does the play proud.

As does Frank J. Alberino’s lived-in looking set, with its couch center-stage, its front door upstage, and its wings for kitchen areas and walk-throughs to the bedrooms, and Matt Frey’s lighting which lets us feel the way daylight and nighttime make moods in even the most familiar spaces. Meanwhile, Ilona Somogyi’s costumes let us register the effectiveness of seeing characters—initially in grimy bikerwear and nightgown, respectively—dressed up and presentable at the play’s close. In its relaxed and unsentimental grasp of these characters and the play's wry humor, The Long Wharf’s 4000 Miles comes close to perfection.

4000 Miles By Amy Herzog Directed by Eric Ting

Set Design: Frank J. Alberino; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: Matt Frey; Sound Design: Matt Tierney; Production Stage Manager: Kathy Snyder; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Casting: Calleri Casting

Long Wharf Theatre February 19-March 16, 2014

Herzog Back in New Haven

Tomorrow night at the Long Wharf Theatre, Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles begins previews, with its official opening next Wednesday, February 26th. Herzog, a graduate of of the Yale School of Drama and Yale College, debuted her play Belleville at the Yale Rep in 2011. Now, the well-respected slightly earlier play 4000 Miles, directed by Long Wharf's associate artistic director Eric Ting, gets its chance in New Haven. Produced at Lincoln Center Theater’s New Works program in 2011, the play won an OBIE Award in 2012 for Best New American Play and was a finalist for a Pulitzer in 2013. The story of an inter-generational odd couple, of sorts, the play depicts the bonds and frictions between Leo, a twenty-one-year-old man, and Vera, his ninety-one-year-old grandmother. That difference in age means that, though family, the two characters have rather different assumptions about the world they live in. Leo has come to New York City, biking 4000 miles cross-country from Seattle to reconnect with Bec, a girl who may be through with him, and is grieving after a friend’s unexpected death, and Vera happens to have some space he can use.

To Herzog, it’s a bit surprising that the play has become so popular in regional theater—besides going up at the Long Wharf, 4000 Miles is currently being staged at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park as well. “It has little plot and is mainly a dialogue-based character piece,” Herzog says, but those qualities may be part of what makes it so popular. Given that character studies are a major interest of theater, a story that brings together different generations in a meaningful way seems tailor-made for regional theater, where the majority of patrons have seen more than a few decades of life and where, as in New Haven, younger theater-goers are apt to be involved in theater themselves.  Set in 2007, 4000 Miles features a character based on a cousin several years younger than Herzog when she wrote the play—Leo's at an age when many are trying to decide their direction in life and what kind of life makes sense to them. Encountering a much older family member with very definite views on the world sets up many opportunities for the characters to reveal and discover things about themselves in small but significant ways. And that tends to make for fascinating theater.

Writing the play, for Herzog, was an effort to pay tribute to her own grandmother, who saw the play more than once, calling it “an eerie out of body experience” to see a character on-stage “lifted from her own stories.” Both Vera and Herzog’s grandmother share a past as communists in the post-World War II era, a time when persons of their political persuasion suffered much “red-baiting” and, when possible, prosecution. While a character like Vera is “necessarily engaged with political questions,” Herzog is uncertain that a domestic drama like 4000 Miles can really be called “political,” as some critics have done. With her own grandmother in mind, Herzog suggests that 4000 Miles and her earlier play After the Revolution “may have gained a political reputation unfairly.” Vera, a character in both plays, espouses communism, while her husband, recently deceased in the earlier play, was blacklisted and an actual Soviet spy. Yet Herzog questions whether her own grandmother’s stress on the importance of political art is met by her granddaughter’s plays. Herzog prefers to avoid “art with a sole message,” and rather considers her plays to be about characters with political views than plays with a particular political agenda. Her grandmother, on the other hand, felt that “art should have a political message.”

Thus part of the interest in the play is in how the values of Vera look to someone who has had none of her experiences—of the Depression, of the Second World War, of communist China, of McCarthyism, of the Vietnam War, of being devastated by the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989-90. For Leo’s generation, born in the mid-Eighties, Leftist sympathies are more likely to take the form of Green environmental issues and concerns with the global economy and its products, or perhaps with sexual freedoms and racial injustice. The play is not so much about a clash of ideologies as it is an observation about how different political climates create different kinds of responses in different generations. More to the point for Herzog, in terms of the play’s dynamics, is the theme of loss, as Leo “faces his first experience of real grief and finds questions about his life to look into.” Herzog intends her play, a comic drama, to be faithful to the kinds of interactions that can occur naturally but meaningfully between relatives thrown together by happenstance.

The other autobiographical feature of the play is that Herzog biked cross-country herself, right after graduation from Yale College in 2000, though, unlike Leo, east to west. While none of her experiences are directly incorporated in the play, she mentions a 4th of July celebration in a tiny town in Kansas that left an impression on her—a resident of the northeast all her life—in showing her a bit of small-town America at a time that was, in many ways, a turning-point in recent history.

With a sense of the vast area—4000 miles—that separates the coasts of our country—and the stretch of time—70 years—that separate the births of Vera and Leo, Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles, contained in one room, offers viewers a chance to stake stock of their own sense of what separates us and joins us as inter-generational Americans.

 

4000 Miles By Amy Herzog Directed by Eric Ting

Long Wharf Theatre February 19 - March 16, 2014

On the Job

Heidi Schreck’s The Consultant is a thoughtful comedy, a consideration of the kinds of relationships that form in the workplace. In a world where “job security” is a great desiderata, one would expect that meaningful relationships at work would also be desired. Such seems to be not always the case, and that leaves room for a play like Schreck’s, a way of investigating the interplay of personality and opportunity on the job. That’s not to say that The Consultant is a job-based play, as in an exposé of a certain profession. The main players at Sutton, Feingold, and McGrath—such as the boss Harold—are never portrayed. We’re viewing the middle management level but we spend most of our time in the reception area where Tania (Cassie Beck), an NYU grad with a Comp Lit degree, mans the ship, sorta. Tania’s not very good at her job and from that follows much of what happens here. One of the subtle aspects of the play is that it shows us people who, in being themselves, aren’t quite what their job descriptions require. This isn’t a play about the dehumanization that takes place in the workplace but rather about the human situations that fleetingly come and go while the world of work churns on. Sometimes, indeed, work seems to be an inconvenience even while on the job.

SFM is a pharmaceutical ad agency. A business that we might imagine to be fairly flush, as such things go, but even such a major contributor to our collective well-being is feeling the pinch in the “global downturn” of 2009, which is to say that no one we meet feels quite so secure as they might otherwise. In particular, Jun Suk (Nelson Lee), who has taken on the clients of the recently departed Barbara (Lynne McCullough), is having problems. He’s a capable designer but not a capable presenter of his ideas. Enter Amelia (Clare Barron), hired to be “the consultant” who will help him get his act together. Amelia, a student at NYU, is more or less moonlighting here, as her real expertise is ESL tutoring. No matter, Jun Suk is desperate for a helping hand and, while not enthusiastic about her or her coaching, lets it continue, largely because of the earnest efforts of Mark (Darren Goldstein), a manager, to get him some help. Jun Suk doesn’t suffer fools gladly and that’s the sort of thing that can sour your audience in a corporate presentation.

As Amelia, Clare Barron is perfect. She has a girlish earnestness that flirts with cluelessness but comes off as authenticity. Amelia’s not really faking anything and that in itself seems a breath of fresh air in this environment. Barron has a knack for non-reaction reactions that does a lot for her role as witness more than catalyst—though in one key scene she unwittingly helps to bring down the “friends” she has tried to make here, particularly Tania and Mark. Such unwittingness is what keeps this play interesting. Rather than watching for “agendas,” we’re watching how people undermine themselves and others even when trying to be helpful.

As Jun Suk, Nelson Lee has the role with the most leverage, so to speak. Do we warm to him or not? He’s a prickly guy and yet, because he seems the most put-upon, we tend to hope he’ll be ok. This isn’t the kind of play where romance bells are going to sound for Jun Suk and his consultant, so the suspense is in whether or not Amelia’s work with him pays off. Romance might be happening between Tania and Mark, but on the other hand, it could just be a shack-up with consequences, or not.

Schreck’s dialogue has an ear for natural wit, the kind of comebacks that occur normally. It’s not sit-com humor and, as directed by Kip Fagan, everyone is sorta likeable, but also at times questionable. It’s a lot like life in that way. When Amelia, filling in for Tania, meets the formidable Barbara, we get a whiff of life outside the ad agency—Barbara seems to have become some kind of self-help guru and Amelia might be a likely candidate for her teachings. The situations in The Consultant suggest a world where no one is happy with their jobs and everyone is worried about keeping them anyway. Schreck wants to suggest the possibilities that come when things crash.

From that point of view, the play ends on a positive note, as the last scene takes place outside SFM with perhaps the beginnings of a bond between Amelia and Tania, to convey the “family” of co-workers. But the scene that struck me most between the two was when Tania—stressed out at losing her job and losing Mark’s attentions—gives Amelia, who is feeling newly empowered à la Barbara, the cold-shoulder, though Amelia clearly wants to be friends. It’s a moment where all the good will in the world doesn’t work if someone—in this case Tania—won’t let you in. True, that’s part of family and friendships too, not just workplace bonhomie, but it spoke volumes about the difficulty of relationships that take place only “on stage”—on the job.

As a staged space, Andrew Boyce’s set design and Matt Frey’s lighting are very realistic, so much so that when Amelia and Jun Suk go into the conference room we overhear them through miked pick-ups. This has the effect of putting distance between the common space of the reception area and the inner sanctum of the conference room, which made the interactions in the latter seem more forced—it was easy to understand why no one would want to stay in there. Outside, in Tania’s space, is where all the meaningful slippages occur, including the after effects of hard partying by Mark and Jun Suk.

The Consultant has the feel of “a couple months in the life”—just time enough to see everyone’s fortunes change without being able to say for certain “what next.” We begin and end in medias res. Will our jobs still be here tomorrow? Will our relationships? Will we? Heidi Schreck’s play asks us to think about the implications of those questions and the answers that matter.

 

The Consultant By Heidi Schreck Directed by Kip Fagen

Set Design: Andrew Boyce; Costume Design: Jessica Pabst; Lighting Design: Matt Frey; Composer & Sound Design: Daniel Kluger; Production Stage Manager: Sunneva Stapleton; Casting: Calleri Casting

The Long Wharf Theatre January 8-February 9, 2013

Theater News

This week the Long Wharf’s world premiere of Heidi Schreck’s The Consultant opens officially on Wednesday, January 15. See our preview here. This week as well the Yale Cabaret resumes its 46th season with Have I None, a daunting play by British playwright Edward Bond from 2000. Set in 2077, the play darkly imagines a dystopia in which memory, and therefore history, has been erased. Jessica Holt, 2nd-year YSD director and Artistic Director for the Yale Summer Cabaret, 2014, will stage the claustrophobic play with stress on Bond's sense of the absurd. January 16-18.

Next week, on January 23, from 5:30 to 8:30, celebrated local theater troupe A Broken Umbrella Theatre will host a fundraiser at the Eli Whitney Museum and unveil details about their latest venture. As usual, the project is an original play based on historical figures, facts, and locales of New Haven. If You Build It, the new play, focuses on inventor A. C. Gilbert to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his most famous creation: the Erector Set. Director Ruben Ortiz, playwright Charlie Alexander, and cast members will present an excerpt of the work in progress.

The build up of the production will be complemented by an evening of treats and toys: Small Kitchen Big Taste will be serving “architectural food,” including slider and mashed potato stations to build-your-own-cupcakes, Thimble Island Brewery will feature locally crafted beers, and ABU's Chrissy Gardner and the Moody Food Trio will provide musical accompaniment. Guests are invited to try their hand at the engineering feat of Erector Set construction along with ABU’s crew of welders, carpenters and electricians.

A Broken Umbrella Theatre has presented site specific works in New Haven for the last five years and enjoyed perhaps their greatest triumph at last year’s Arts and Ideas Festival with Freewheelers. Come out, sneak a peak at their next production, become a patron, and have fun.

For more information, please visit www.abrokenumbrella.org, or contact Rachel Alderman at: 203.823.7988 or rachel@abrokenumbrella.org

Next week as well will see the 10th show of the season at the Yale Cabaret: 3rd-year YSD actress Elia Monte-Brown’s original play, The Defendant, about the rigors of public school in New York (where Monte-Brown taught); the play aims to recreate some of the anxieties of today’s student, and to question the values of public education in America, using all 1st year actors in the YSD program. January 23-25.

And on the last week of the month, January 31st, previews begin for the Yale Repertory Theatre’s next production: The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls, a world premiere from Whiting-Award winning playwright, and recent YSD graduate, Meg Miroshnik. Miroshnik's play, directed by two-time OBIE-Award-winning director Rachel Chavkin, who previously directed an Off-Broadway production of the celebrated musical Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, is set in 2005 as a twenty-year-old girl named Annie returns to her native Russia. Underneath the glamor of a Post-Soviet Moscow bedecked with high ticket consumer goods, Annie discovers a land of enchantment straight out of a fairytale, with evil stepmothers, wicked witches, and ravenous bears.

The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls opens officially on February 7, and runs til February 22.

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