Long Wharf Theatre

Love American Style

Review of On the Grounds of Belonging, Long Wharf Theatre

Maybe love is always dangerous. It risks exposure, it requires commitment—often life-changing—and it alters, sometimes subtly, sometimes outrageously, the status quo. But when the two lovers are men—one white, one black—in 1950s’ Houston, Texas, love comes with heavy threats.

Ricardo Pérez González’s On the Grounds of Belonging, in its world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre through November 3, directed with a great sense of space and energy and intimacy by David Mendizábal, is a rare achievement in its even-handed treatment of same-sex love and interracial love in a time when both were illegal in the U.S. and, worse, could provoke the kind of vicious hatred that has become highly visible in the twenty-first century. The play registers tellingly the tonality of the Jim Crow era without too much anachronism. It is something of a period play, but fired by the conviction of our own moment. And that makes for a vital evening of theater.

Russell MOntgomery (Calvin Leon Smith), Tom Ashton (Jeremiah Clapp) in Long Wharf Theatre’s production of  On the Grounds of Belonging  (photo T. Charles Erickson)

Russell MOntgomery (Calvin Leon Smith), Tom Ashton (Jeremiah Clapp) in Long Wharf Theatre’s production of On the Grounds of Belonging (photo T. Charles Erickson)

The opening sets the tone. We meet two regulars of the Red Room, a black gay bar: Russell Montgomery (Calvin Leon Smith) a bookish type often the object of the lust of Henry Stanfield (Blake Anthony Morris), a player with a florid manner. As they’re hanging out after a set by Tanya Starr (Tracey Conyer Lee), the kind of diva forever an inspiration to drag acts, with Hugh Williams (Thomas Silcott), a wonderfully canny onlooker, on the bar, a white woman comes to the door unexpectedly. Turns out the woman—to whom everyone present is obsequiously deferential at once—is Tom Aston (Jeremiah Clapp) in drag. He was set to perform at the Gold Room, the white gay bar across the street, but wants to hideout until a raid in progress there blows over.

Russell Montgomery (Calvin Leon Smith),  On the Grounds of Belonging , Long Wharf Theatre (photo T. Charles Erickson)

Russell Montgomery (Calvin Leon Smith), On the Grounds of Belonging, Long Wharf Theatre (photo T. Charles Erickson)

In that first scene, Pérez González demonstrates a great feel for repartee among familiars and among the same when someone new—and socially different—arrives. The scene is engaging on several levels and Tom’s efforts to flirt with Russell are free of camp as they ratchet up the heat between them. We’re hooked on this budding romance, one that’s abetted by Hugh, but which must be concealed from Henry who, though he only trifles with Russell, would be affronted by his friend having an interracial affair. As Russell, Calvin Leon Smith displays a thoughtful intensity that makes his character an instant focus. This is his story, as we see his love for Tom lead him into new terrain.

Mooney Fitzpatrick (Craig Bockhorn),  On the Grounds of Belonging , Long Wharf Theatre (photo T. Charles Erickson)

Mooney Fitzpatrick (Craig Bockhorn), On the Grounds of Belonging, Long Wharf Theatre (photo T. Charles Erickson)

The dramatic stakes are further inflated by Mooney Fitzpatrick (Craig Bockhorn), owner of both bars and a character who is truly singular: a racist Southern gay man. The portrayal of this figure is a good indication of the quality of the writing and acting here. Mooney could be a one-dimensional bully or simply a foil, instead he has sympathetic moments and, like Hugh, a knowing sense of the mores of the area. He makes clear that, while gay bars may be tolerated, with occasional raids and beatings, interracial amours will bring on a lynching. And the way he sucks the air out of the room, treating all blacks as lackeys, lets us know where and when we are.

Hugh Williams (Thomas Silcott),  On the Grounds of Belonging , Long Wharf Theatre (photo T. Charles Erickson)

Hugh Williams (Thomas Silcott), On the Grounds of Belonging, Long Wharf Theatre (photo T. Charles Erickson)

A standout scene occurs late in the play when Hugh, dallying with a baseball bat, finally confronts Mooney in terms that make no bones about their enmity. It’s a satisfying rendering of how longstanding grievance can inspire succinct confrontation. As Tanya, Tracey Conyer Scott enjoys a moment of assertion as well, a key scene that shows how the indignities we see her face find their outlet in a command of others. Scott’s singing is a great plus as well, especially in a number that helps cut tension as the play transitions from lighter to darker.

Tanya Starr (Tracey Conyer Lee), Henry Stanfield (Blake Anthony Morris), On the Grounds of Belonging, Long Wharf Theatre (photo T. Charles Erickson)

Tanya Starr (Tracey Conyer Lee), Henry Stanfield (Blake Anthony Morris), On the Grounds of Belonging, Long Wharf Theatre (photo T. Charles Erickson)

The main set is a comfortable if simple bar with a leafy walkway above. There Tom and Russell have a touching moment of love set against fears of where their romance is taking them. The overtones of other “star-crossed” loves remain in play though without necessarily tending to tragedy. A scene of violence midway through, around a bed that served as the site of Russell and Tom’s first coupling, nicely juxtaposes the two sides of physical interaction—loving and fighting. The conclusion of that scene sets up a plot device that may cause a feeling of being a bit played, in the end. But then again, it’s not the end. Pérez González has said On the Grounds of Belonging is the first installment of a trilogy. Here’s hoping Long Wharf will bring us the next part when it’s ready.

The 2019-20 season finds new Artistic Director Jacob G. Padrón putting his mark on Long Wharf, an enduring theater that began in the mid-1960s (not too long after the period of On the Grounds of Belonging) with its eye on (in Board Chair Laura Pappano’s words) a “social-justice-activism-meets-art-to-spur-conversation vibe.” The breath of new life in the theater was evident on opening night, boding well for the transformation Padrón speaks of in the show’s program, with a season “highlighting an inclusive culture in all its complexities.” The season is off to an inspiring start.


On the Grounds of Belonging
By Ricardo Pérez González
Directed by David Mendizábal

Set Design: Wilson Chin; Costume Design: Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene; Lighting Design: Cha See; Composition & Sound Design: Mauricio Escamilla; Fight & Intimacy Director: Unkledave’s Fight-House; Production Stage Manager: Bianca A. Hooi; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern

Cast: Craig Buckhorn, Jeremiah Clapp, Tracey Conyer Lee, Blake Anthony Morris, Thomas Silcott, Calvin Leon Smith

Long Wharf Theatre
October 9-November 3, 2019

Get In The Act: The Fall Theater Scene in Connecticut

Preview: Fall Theater Season, 2019

Labor Day has come and gone, and “back to school” weather in Connecticut actually felt like early autumn, for a change. And my email inbox’s increase of press releases indicates that the theater season of fall 2019 is tuning up. The “twenty-teens” are coming swiftly to a close, while the next presidential election is barely more than a year away as we start to wonder who is at “20/20” for 2020.

Here is a glance at the upcoming shows on the Connecticut theater scene (touring Broadway shows exempted) for the next four months between now and the beginning of that oddly doubled year—the last one was 1919!

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Yale Cabaret, the black box in a basement on Yale campus where theater leaders of tomorrow make extracurricular theater as students at the Yale School of Drama, begins its 52nd season this week (see Lucy Gellman’s coverage at Arts Paper ); the incoming team are Artistic Directors Zachry J. Bailey, a third-year in Stage Management, Brandon Burton, a third-year in Acting, and  Alex Vermilion, a third-year in Dramaturgy & Dramatic Criticism, together with Managing Director Jaime Totti, a fourth-year joint candidate for an MFA in Theater Management at the School of Drama and an MBA at the School of Management. The 2019-20 season kicks off, September 12-14, with We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, from the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jackie Sibblies Drury, a lecturer in playwriting at YSD, directed by Christopher Betts (Directing, ’21); the play dramatizes the difficulties of authentic representation in a tale of genocide by staging the play’s rehearsal; next, September 19-21, is Waste \\ Land: Climate Change Theatre Action 2019, an anthology mixing short plays by international playwrights and pieces written by students, the show is curated and directed by members of Beyond Borders, a new affinity group for international students at YSD; then, October 3-5, the Cabaret returns with benjisun presents bodyssey, a movement-and-puppetry piece created by Benjamin Benne (Playwriting ’21) and Jisun Kim (Dramaturgy & Dramatic Criticism ’21); first seen in the TBD festival of rough drafts last season, the expanded version further explores themes of the human body and the world it inhabits (review). For a preview of the shows from October 24 through December, go here.

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Goodspeed, the venerable musical theater on the Connecticut River in East Haddam, has had a very successful 2019 season so far: its revival of the classic The Music Man won the CT Critics Circle Award for Best Musical; its new musical Because of Winn Dixie enjoyed an extended run, and now it brings the season to a close with Billy Elliott, Book & Lyrics by Lee Hall, Music by Elton John; an audience choice, the original Broadway show won 10 Tonys, adapting a popular film about a young boy in a tough North England mining town who dreams of becoming a dancer. September 13-November 24 (review).

Originally the first self-supporting summer theater in the country, Ivoryton Playhouse has been running versatile full seasons since 2006 under Executive Director Jacqueline Hubbard; the last two shows of the 2019 season, which began in March, are Sheer Madness by Paul Portner, a lively—and long-running—comedy-mystery in which audience members spot clues, question suspects, and solve the case, complete with improvised topical humor from the cast, September 18-October 6, and Woody Sez – The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie, an involving celebration of the songs of Woody Guthrie, the anti-fascist folk-bard of Depression-era America, devised by David M. Luken, who plays Woody, with Nick Corley, Darcie Deauville, Helen J. Russell, and Andy Tierstein, October 23-November 10.

Like my own reviews of New Haven theater, Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, founded in 2009 by Co-Artistic Directors Sean Harris and Darlene Zoller and Executive Director Tracy Flater, is entering its second decade; the spacious stage in the Playhouse thrust space, which has housed some memorable productions such as The Diary of Anne Frank (2017) and The Scottsboro Boys (2019), will present the “inspired madness” of Dan Goggin’s Nunsense, a spirited musical in which singing nuns raise fun and funds to bury their deceased sisters, September 18-October 13 (review), followed by Barbara Lebow’s A Shayna Maidel; Dawn Loveland Navarro directs the tale of a patriarch and his two daughters—as children, one escaped the Holocaust with him, the other had to survive it—meeting again after many years, an exploration of “family, faith and forgiveness,” October 30-November 17 (review).

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Following the departure of its celebrated Artistic Director, Darko Tresnjak, Hartford Stage opens its 56th season, the exciting first season for new Artistic Director Melia Benussen and new Managing Director Cynthia Rider; first up is Quixote Nuevo by Octavio Solis, a contemporary reimagining of Cervantes’ immortal Don Quixote, now set in a Texas border town, directed by KJ Sanchez; the production is in association with Huntington Theatre Company and Alley Theatre, September 19-October 13 (review); the next two shows will be directed by Rachel Alderman, Artistic Associate (and a founding member of New Haven’s innovative Broken Umbrella Theatre): Molly Smith Metzler’s Cry It Out, a recent comedy about four parents negotiating “the power of female friendship, the dilemma of going back to work after being home with a newborn, and the effect social class has on parenthood in America,” October 24-November 17 (review), and the fun, elegant, and ghostly A Christmas Carol, the traditional holiday favorite of spiritual redemption from Charles Dickens by way of Michael Wilson’s inventive adaptation, November 29-December 28.

Originally a dance hall built in the 1920s, later—in the 1970s—a skating rink, and, since the 1990s, a theater, Waterbury’s Seven Angels Theatre in Hamilton Park, boasts a good sound system, great for concert-style shows such as Million Dollar Quartet (2017) and The Who’s Tommy (2018); the 2019-20 Mainstage season opens with Honky Tonk Laundry, by Roger Bean Take, a tuneful tale of two gals running a laundromat, featuring the music of a slew of female Country Music legends, such as Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Carrie Underwood, Trisha Yearwood, and Reba McEntire, September 26-October 20; then, November 7-December 1, it’s Matthew Lopez’s hilarious, crowd-pleasing tale of how a straight married guy—a struggling Elvis impersonator—must learn to walk the walk of a stylish drag queen in The Legend of Georgia McBride.

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Founded in 1987 as a small, black box equity theater together with a school of the performing arts, Music Theater of Connecticut in Norwalk, just past the Westport border, follows the gripping productions—Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Cabaret—of its strong 2018-19 season with the ambitious musical adapted from E. L. Doctorow’s historical pastiche, Ragtime, with Book by Terence McNally, Lyrics by Lynn Ahern, and Music by Stephen Flaherty, a story of multicultural America, involving African Americans in Harlem, white upper-class suburbanites in New Rochelle, and East European Jewish immigrants, September 27-October 13 (review); then, November 8-24, it’s Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias, the story of small-town life in Louisiana as lived and learned by a group of women for whom the local beauty salon is a kind of clubhouse beyond the purview of the fellas.

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At Westport Country Playhouse, Mark Lamos is in his second decade as Artistic Director, continuing to produce an able mix of sumptuously mounted classics, such as Romeo and Juliet (2017) and Camelot (2016), notable new work like Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand (2016) and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate (2017), and rousing crowd-pleasers like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, which began the 2019 season in April; the season has two more shows: Lamos directs Mlima’s Tale by two-time Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, a fable about a Kenyan elephant, Mlima, a species facing extinction in a world of capitalist greed and economic desperation, October 1-19 (review); and Brendan Pelsue’s new translation and adaptation of Molière’s dark comedy Don Juan about the legendary libertine facing the consequences of his faithless lifestyle, directed by David Kennedy, November 5-23.

ACT (A Contemporary Theatre) of Connecticut opened the doors of its own theater in Ridgefield in June 2018; the stylish, open stage, with amphitheater seating, has so far only five theatrical productions to its credit as founders Katie Diamond, Executive Director, Daniel C. Levine, Artistic Director, and Bryan Perri, Resident Music Supervisor, continue their mission to bring Equity, Broadway-caliber productions to CT’s northwest. The second season opens with Alan Menken and Harold Ashman’s ever-popular and entertaining The Little Shop of Horrors, a macabre musical comedy about a lovable schlemiel, his demanding man-eating pet plant, Audrey II, and the girl he loves, October 3-November 3 (review).

In the northeast part of the state, The Connecticut Repertory Theater is the production component of the Department of Dramatic Arts at the University of Connecticut in Storrs; CRT productions are directed, designed by, and cast with visiting professional artists, mixing Equity actors, faculty members, and UConn’s most advanced theater students. The 2019-20 season of six shows leads off, in the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theater, with Chekhov’s masterpiece The Cherry Orchard, a more apt choice for our times than the playwright’s more oft-produced The Seagull; the production, adapted by Jean-Claude van Itallie and directed by John Miller-Stephany, features Mark Light-Orr as Gayev and Caralyn Kozlowski as Ranevskaya, October 3-13; later in the month, in the Studio Theatre, is Sarah DeLappe’s spirited The Wolves, directed by Julie Foh, in which a girls’ high school soccer team copes with the tensions of coming of age, October 24-November 3; Shakespeare in Love, a stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning romantic comedy film by Tom Stoppard, Lee Hall and Marc Norman, about the young Shakespeare’s writer’s block and inspiring tryst with Viola, a titled woman with an overweening love of theater, plays the Harriet S. Jorgensen theater November 21-December 8, directed by Vincent Tycer, its Equity cast still to be determined.

In New Haven, James Bundy has been the Artistic Director of Yale Repertory Theatre, the theater in residence for the Yale School of Drama, and the Dean of Yale School of Drama since 2002, fostering theatrical talent and showcasing top professionals; the first show of the 2019-20 season is the World Premiere of Girls, the always challenging Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ modern adaptation of Euripides’ The Bacchae, a popular go-to classic of our moment, this time with “a killer DJ, bumping dance music, and live-streaming video,” October 4-26 (review), directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, an inspiring Directing alum of YSD (2012) who teamed with Jacobs-Jenkins for War at Yale Rep in 2014; The Plot, by the always rewarding Will Eno, has its World Premiere November 9-December 21, directed by Oliver Butler, who won the OBIE for directing Eno’s Open House at the Signature Theatre; Eno’s previous play at Yale Rep was The Realistic Joneses (2012).

The first two thesis productions at the Yale School of Drama, in which third-year Directing students work with a cast and technical team comprised of—generally—current YSD students, will run in the closing months of 2019 as well: Kat Yen directs Anne Washburn’s post-apocalyptic Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, in which collective memories of shows on The Simpsons become the basis of an epic myth, October 26-November 1 (preview) (review); and, December 14-20, Danilo Gambini, the Co-Artistic Director of the 2019 Yale Summer Cabaret season, directs Fun Home; Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic-novel memoir of her early life, her coming out, and her fraught relationship with her closeted gay father won the Tony Award for Best Musical of 2015.

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At New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre, last season was still transitioning after the ousting of longtime Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein in 2018; now the implementation of the vision of new Artistic Director Jacob G. Padrón is underway, “Grounded in the past, leaping into the future,” though the season that will be entirely his own won’t arrive until 2021-22 (read Frank Rizzo’s talk with Padrón at Newhavenbiz). The 2019-20 season opens with the World Premiere of Ricardo Pérez González’s On the Grounds of Belonging, October 9-November 3 (review); directed by David Mendizábal, the story tells of a forbidden love between a white man and a black man in 1950s’ Jim Crow Texas; oft-produced actor-playwright Kate Hamill has become a veritable industry of quirky, third-wave feminist adaptations of the kinds of nineteenth-century classics formerly the stuff of Masterpiece Theater productions; her third effort, and second Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice fills Long Wharf’s second slot, November 27-December 22.

In downtown Hartford at the historic City Arts building on Pearl Street, TheaterWorks has been producing theater since 1985; the 2019-20 season will open in the newly renovated but still very intimate theater space, after staging several of last season’s shows at the Wadsworth Atheneum’s auditorium; the opener is American Son, Christopher Demos-Brown’s topical drama, on Broadway last season, about a mixed race couple’s grim night of truth when their son gets stopped by police, October 18-November 23 (review); the last show of 2019 will be “Hartford’s twisted holiday tradition,” Rob Ruggerio’s Christmas on the Rocks in which a battery of playwrights devise futures for the figures many of us spent far too many Christmases with; so here’s to all those for whom “the holidays” were as much—or more—about repeat-viewing of “holiday classics” as about spending time with loved ones, December 1-29.

I’ll be reviewing many of these shows, so stop back and follow links to the reviews as they come in, and make the most of the rest of 2019 . . .

What's Up and What's Coming

Last week, Yale Repertory Theatre opened Carl Cofield’s lively, hilarious, and hi-tech version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night which features a very engaging cast. The show is up until April 6th. My review can be found here.

Sir Toby (Chivas Michael), Feste (Erron Crawford), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Abubakr Ali) in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Twelfth Night, directed by Carl Cofield

Sir Toby (Chivas Michael), Feste (Erron Crawford), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Abubakr Ali) in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Twelfth Night, directed by Carl Cofield

 On Monday, Long Wharf Theatre announced three of the four shows of its 2019-20 season, which will be the theater’s 55th. As the season that precedes 2020-21, which will be the inaugural season of recently hired Artistic Director Jacob G. Padrón, next year was billed as transitional, as Padron spoke of Long Wharf’s will to “lead a revolution that will redefine American theater.” Citing managing director Joshua Borenstein’s comment that “all great movements have local beginnings,” Padrón outlined the three characteristics his team looked for in choosing plays: 1.“Undeniable excellence,” 2. Plays that reflect the demographics of the city of New Haven (which is over 42% white, over 35% black, over 27% Hispanic or Latinx, and over 4% Asian); 3. Plays that are “in conversation with the world.” Padrón said, “the world is on fire,” and he sees theater as “a catalyst for social justice.” In terms of emergent strategies, theater can either be advancing and progressing, or regressing into stagnation. Padrón wants Long Wharf to be known for its inclusiveness, as a theater that welcomes everyone, for its artistic innovation, and for its ability to forge connections with community.

First up, from October 9 to November 3, is On the Grounds of Belonging by Ricardo Pérez González, directed by his longtime collaborator David Mendizábal of the New York-based Sol Project, of which Padrón is founder and artistic director, and which partnered with Yale Repertory Theatre on El Huracán, the opening show of the Rep’s current season. The play is a “breathtaking new story of forbidden love in 1950s’s Jim Crow Texas.”

In the Thanksgiving to Christmas slot is “a modern adaptation of a classic work” (that’s not the title, though sounds as if it might be). The play, yet to be announced, will be one “in conversation with new work,” in a production that “breathes new life” into an important, older work of theater.

The new year begins with I Am My Own Wife, by Doug Wright, a Yale grad, with a director still to be determined. The show is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play “about survival and identity” of a transgender person in East Berlin during and after World War II, with a single actor playing over 40 roles. February 5-March 1, 2020.

Mid-March to mid-April is The Chinese Lady by Lloyd Suh, a member of the Ma-Yi Writers Lab. In its third production, the play, “inspired by the true story of America’s first female Chinese immigrant,” will be directed by Ralph B. Peña, a founding member and current artistic director of Ma-Yi Theater. March 18-April 12, 2020.

Work by a female playwright and a female director will by featured in The Great Leap by Lauren Yee, a Yale grad and member of the Ma-Yi Writers Lab, and directed by Madeline Sayet, a CT native noted for her work incorporating the stories and traditions of the Mohegan tribe. The play is “a thrilling underdog story of basketball and foreign relations in 1980s China.” May 6-31, 2020.

This week the Long Wharf’s current season continues with tonight’s press opening of An Iliad, Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s adaptation of Homer’s Iliad (in Robert Fagles’ translation), directed by Brooklyn-based theater person Whitney White. It’s a two-person play with Rachel Christopher as The Poet and Zdenko Martin as The Muse and runs unti April 14. My review can be found here.

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Tomorrow night, Yale Cabaret opens its fourth annual Satellite Festival, which runs Thursday, 3/28, through Saturday, 3/30. My preview can be found here.

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Tomorrow night, Thursday, March 28, Collective Consciousness Theatre opens its third and final show of the 2018-19 season, Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, directed by CCT’s Jenny Nelson, a play set in the racially segregated world of boxing in the early 20th century. The show runs 3/28-3/30, 4/4-4/6, and 4/11-4/14. For Brian Slattery’s preview go here.

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Online Therapy Onstage

Review of Tiny Beautiful Things, Long Wharf Theatre

Plot and character are intrinsically linked. Often what keeps us watching (or reading) is the question “what will happen?” And what happens tells us something about the people involved. We learn something about them, and they learn something about themselves. Or not, at their peril.

Tiny Beautiful Things, now playing at Long Wharf Theatre, has been adapted for the stage by Nia (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) Vardalos from Cheryl Strayed’s  book of that name. The book is comprised of letters Strayed received, while writing as “Sugar,” the anonymous online advice columnist for The Rumpus, and her replies. The stage show of this material orchestrates the questions and the answers so that there is a flow of lighter and darker elements, and throughout there is the ongoing question of who “Sugar” is. Not simply in the sense of what her real name is (it’s no spoiler to say that it does get revealed onstage), but in the more important sense of who she is, as a dispenser of advice and moral support to the many anonymous authors who query her.

That question, then, is the only element of character revelation the play can offer as dramatic interest. All the writers asking their questions—played onstage by Paul Pontrelli, Elizabeth Ramos, and Brian Sgambati—are presented as one-time-only correspondents. There is no follow-up, no sense of whether or not anyone heeds Sugar’s advice, or changes their minds or behavior, nor of what they might think of what she told them. The queries cover diverse situations, from extramarital crushes to when to tell a woman you love her, from whether or not to reconcile with parents who mishandled their child’s gender divergence to whether or not to tell one’s boyfriend about a rape one suffered long ago, from how to cope with a devastating miscarriage to how to cope with the devastating death of a grown son.

The Cast of Tiny Beautiful Things at Long Wharf Theatre, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll: Elizabeth Ramos, Brian Sgambati, Cindy Cheung, Paul Pontrelli (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

The Cast of Tiny Beautiful Things at Long Wharf Theatre, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll: Elizabeth Ramos, Brian Sgambati, Cindy Cheung, Paul Pontrelli (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

What you might think of what Sugar tells them, I suspect, has a lot to do with how you approach the question of giving advice, based on a one-sided letter, to people you have never met. The key to Sugar’s success is that she thrives at the task and that her many fans loved reading her responses. She sometimes dramatizes, in writing, her difficulty in replying but she always finds something in the well and seems pleased with whatever she comes up with. The queries, even when encapsulating complicated situations, are often impressively succinct. Sugar’s replies rarely are.

The responses are only occasionally advice, in the play. More often they are occasions for Sugar to divulge information about herself. And that aspect—what she confesses—gradually lets us build up a picture of her character, an effect more interesting as simply a voice on the screen, I imagine. Onstage, we see Cindy Cheung play Sugar as a writer and novelist who takes the gig due to some affinity for it, and, one supposes, the attraction of reaching people immediately in writing. As a character, Cheung maintains a certain reassuring stoicism, as her honest self-appraisal is key to how Sugar has endured the trials and errors of her own life. And that’s primarily what she tries to pass along.

At Long Wharf, Kimie Nishikawa’s set design places the action in a comfy, green backyard, outside the rear of a very realistic house. There’s a certain logic to it. Sugar exists for her readers only in words, online. She spends most of her time, as a character, sitting at a picnic table at a laptop, or talking earnestly to people who mime listening as she speaks. Here, she is given a very mundane setting, an image of normality that works, as does Cheung’s steady voice, as a way of holding all the chaos and turmoil of such messy lives at bay. Ken Rus Schmoll’s direction highlights the hominess and the sense of the letter writers as neighbors who “drop by” in Sugar’s mind.

The cast of Tiny Beautiful Things: Brian Sgambati, Cindy Cheung, Elizabeth Ramos, Paul Pontrelli

The cast of Tiny Beautiful Things: Brian Sgambati, Cindy Cheung, Elizabeth Ramos, Paul Pontrelli

How happy Strayed’s readers will be with the Long Wharf production will likely have to do with how well they feel the show catches the call-and-response drama of the exchanges. The most successful, in that view, is Brian Sgambati’s rendering of “Living Dead Dad,” a father whose son was struck down by a drunk driver. Sgambati gives a carefully modulated reading of LDD’s list of how he tries to cope and can’t. The reply finds Sugar mimicking his list structure, trying to push him beyond his settled misery into some other light. There is a small but dramatic gesture at the end of Sugar’s list. The play doesn’t say what became of the real LDD, but lets us take this as a moment of implied catharsis. If only it were that easy.

Occasionally, for the sake of her audience, Sugar will make light of her correspondent’s plight in a good-humored way. Some of the writers seem at least a little tongue-in-cheek. But when she finally responds to “WTF,” whose query “what the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck” is asked “about everything, every day,” she chooses not to treat this as a chance to show her sense of humor (or to advise having one). Instead, she tells a story of her own abuse as a child that puts the burden of making sense on WTF (and everyone listening). Victimization of children is appalling, and Sugar speaks of the experience as somehow intrinsic to her sense of where she wound up (which includes a period as a heroin addict). As a reply to WTF, Sugar’s story might easily inspire a more vehement “what the fuck?” In making “the fuck” be about herself, Sugar says, she wants WTF to see how s/he is also the fuck. One supposes this stopped the query, but one still wonders what the fuck WTF was pissed off about.

Sugar (Cindy Cheung)

Sugar (Cindy Cheung)

In the play, Sugar never connects the dots in her own life; she uses her experience as examples but not as events that contribute to a progressive narrative of how she became who she is. She tells us things that happened. Doubtless there were many other things as well. And many other letters. And more stories of fucked-up situations than there could ever be enough time for. Sugar maintained a connection through the site with the folks out there for two years. Then published a selection of the correspondence which became a best-selling book. Now, a smaller selection has been dramatized for the edification of audiences. What we learn, arguably, is how each querier is generally the same character, a voice trapped in a plot not of its own making and looking for a little clarifying input. As theater, the show strikes me as something like a punishment in Hades: to ask night after night the same question and get always the same reply.

 

Tiny Beautiful Things
Based on the book by Cheryl Strayed
Adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos
Co-conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail and Nia Vardalos
Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll

Set Design: Kimie Nishikawa; Costume Design: Arnulfo Maldonado; Lighting Design: Yuki Nakase; Sound Design: Leah Gelpe; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern

Cast: Cindy Cheung, Paul Pontrelli, Elizabeth Ramos, Brian Sgambati

Long Wharf Theatre
February 13-March 10, 2019

Paradise Missed

Review of Paradise Blue, Long Wharf Theatre

With her trilogy of plays set in different eras in Detroit, Dominique Morisseau is making her mark on Connecticut. First up is Paradise Blue, playing at the Long Wharf Theatre through December 16. At Hartford Stage early in 2019 will be Detroit ’67, followed by Skeleton Crew at Westport Country Playhouse in June. Comparisons to August Wilson, who wrote ten plays, each set in a different decade of the twentieth century, mostly in Pittsburgh (some of which debuted at the Yale Repertory Theatre), are perhaps unavoidable. Like Wilson, Morisseau sets the plays in one town at different eras and writes with a feel for how the people who live there talk, peppering their colloquial tones with references to poets and musicians and significant contextual events—here, the fact that Paradise Valley, a famed strip of businesses and jazz joints owned by African Americans, is perilously close to being razed in favor of “urban renewal,” that catch-all phrase for driving out those unwanted by the city’s vested interests. The play’s dialogue has a robust feel for the people of a unique period, even if the plot invites comparisons to many a noirish B-movie.

P-Sam (Freddie Fulton), Corn (Leon Addison Brown), Blue (Stephen Tyrone Williams) in Long Wharf Theatre’s production of Paradise Blue (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

P-Sam (Freddie Fulton), Corn (Leon Addison Brown), Blue (Stephen Tyrone Williams) in Long Wharf Theatre’s production of Paradise Blue (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

We have Blue (Stephen Tyrone Williams), the inheritor of a jazz club his old man originated, making a go of it with his house band, while his paramour and factotum Pumpkin (Margaret Odette) keeps everything shipshape in the kitchen and in the rooming-house upstairs. As the play starts, the combo’s drummer, P-Sam (Freddie Fulton) is learning to his dismay that their bass player has quit over altercations with Blue. Genial elder piano-player Corn (Leon Addison Brown) tries to strike a conciliatory note. The back and forth of all this establishes that Blue, whatever his actual talents, views himself as the best trumpeter and best leader of a combo in the best club with the best accommodations in the Black Bottom area of Detroit. He can be more than a bit overbearing. Meanwhile, P-Sam seems sweet on poetry-reciting Pumpkin and would be plying her with “I’ll take you away from all this” blandishments, if only she weren’t so dedicated to Blue.

Into this volatile situation strides Silver (Carolyn Michelle Smith), with a walk that has “femme fatale” written all over it. She’s from Louisiana and she’s got money and attitude and a history with jazz clubs. What’s more, she makes no secret of the fact that her Ex met an early demise. Her status as a woman of mystery seems like the main plot point—the men call her a “spider,” and we wonder who’s going to get caught in her web. Meanwhile, Blue, coming to terms with his declining powers as a performer, may be ready to sell the joint to those developers nosing around—and Silver might be interested.

For Morisseau, with the hindsight of what became of Paradise Valley, Blue can be seen as a selfish culprit, engaged in a form of race or at least community betrayal. The possibilities of what will develop keeps us in the play, though there’s no role here that sets the measure of the drama. In this production, directed by Awoye Timpo (previously an Associate Director on Wilson’s Jitney on Broadway), each character functions as part of the plot, but without giving us much sense of inner illumination. The big reveal before the Act One curtain is that Silver’s got a gun.

Silver (Carolyn Michelle Smith), Pumpkin (Margaret Odette) in Paradise Blue (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Silver (Carolyn Michelle Smith), Pumpkin (Margaret Odette) in Paradise Blue (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

What Morisseau delivers—which tended to elude Wilson—is a heart-to-heart between the female characters. If the males here are mostly perfunctory—with Addison Brown fairing best in making his every scene shine—the two women have a chance in Act Two to get some things out on the bedspread. In Silver’s tidy little room, complete with record-player and Lester Young LPs she brought along, the two come to terms with spousal abuse, which Silver suffered in the past and Pumpkin is suffering from now. The scene plays out as an awakening for Pumpkin, a view of how things could be changed with Blue, but we might still wonder about Silver’s motives. That she’s there to undermine Blue is clear from the start; she also romances Corn—their post-coital scene in bed plays well as a frank chat between a woman who doesn’t want to get caught and an aging gent looking for a lover who will stick. And yet, when things get violent—as they must—Silver is off to the side, an onlooker at a situation she helped inspire.

Corn (Leon Addison Brown), Silver (Carolyn Michelle Smith) in Paradise Blue (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Corn (Leon Addison Brown), Silver (Carolyn Michelle Smith) in Paradise Blue (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Without going too far into the dynamics of how that happens, and how docile Pumpkin, a woman who seems genuinely to enjoy serving men (this is 1949, after all), and whose idea of cussing is to say “Fudge!” and “Grits!,” ends up brandishing a weapon, let’s just say that Morisseau determines that the most dramatic outcome will be the least probable. And who can argue with that?

It’s troubling that a few key scenes in this production don’t manage to land with the level of feeling Morisseau may intend. Key to where the play goes is a scene early on between Blue and Pumpkin. Whatever the level of abuse she later admits reluctantly to Silver, in this scene Pumpkin seems fully attached to Blue, despite his “demons.” Those demons take the form of both abuse of others and a devastating memory that gets trotted out like a required traumatic backstory. Williams’ Blue never quite delivers fire, despair or threat, seeming to be a blusterer who likes female sympathy and the sound of his own voice. If there’s anything deeper in this “genius” (so-called by Corn and Pumpkin) it has to make its presence felt.

As Corn, Leon Addison Brown is likeable, with a folksiness that helps us feel the set-in-its-ways tones of the locale. He also delivers the show’s best speech about how being a black man in a white world is a constant check to the ambitions of a big talent like Blue. Freddie Fulton’s P-Sam is volatile, comical, belligerent when drunk, sweet when he tries to be, and he gives a good account of a proud and underappreciated heart. As Pumpkin, Margaret Odette is never quite as mousy as maybe she should be, having a definite point of view. She seems our contemporary, despite her penchant for poetry with antiquated locutions like “nay.” As Silver, or trouble in a tight-skirt, Carolyn Michelle Smith makes some grand exits and entrances, and wears well the sleepwear she’s assigned, but what she’s meant to manifest—other than temptation for the men and a view with no illusions to Pumpkin—never quite arrives.

Some of the fault with this production’s lukewarm temperature comes from the staging. Yu-Hsuan Chen’s set, a club in its off-hours, looks suitable and creates a public yet intimate space for what amount to haphazard encounters. The bedroom slides in over the bar—a production element a bit too slickly distracting—and is an odd box of a space for some major scenes to play out in. For music, we have prerecorded bits that give us the lone, lorn horn of Blue, occasional jazzy background, and accompaniment for a little song-poem from Pumpkin. For a play situated in a beloved and storied center of jazz and blues, it all looks and sounds a bit antiseptic. Given our druthers we might well decamp for another club along the strip well before the show’s over.

 

Paradise Blue
By Dominique Morisseau
Directed by Awoye Timpo

Set Design: Yu-Hsuan Chen; Costume Design: Lex Liang; Lighting Design: Oona Curley; Sound Design: Daniel Kluger; Composer: Alphonso Horne; Hair & Wig Design: Jason Hayes; Fight Director: Unkledave’s Fight House: Original Artwork: Hollis King; Production Stage Manager: Gwendolyn M. Gilliam; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern

Cast: Leon Addison Brown, Freddie Fulton, Margaret Odette, Carolyn Michelle Smith, Stephen Tyrone Williams

Long Wharf Theatre
November 21-December 16, 2018

Switching Gears in Middle-age: The Roommate opens at Long Wharf

Preview of The Roommate, Long Wharf Theatre

Mike Donahue is a Yale School of Drama graduate back in New Haven to direct Jen Silverman’s The Roommate at Long Wharf Theatre, which begins its run tonight until November 4th. Donahue directed the premiere of the play at the Humana festival in Louisville in 2015. Last season he directed Silverman’s The Moors at Playwrights Realm in New York, and his acclaimed production of Silverman’s Collective Rage: A Play in Five Betties recently closed at MCC, New York. So one could say he is familiar with Silverman’s work and her knack for, as he put it, “setting up expectations, then quietly, delicately subverting them.”

During his time at YSD, Donahue served as the artistic director of the Yale Summer Cabaret for two seasons, a good background for the diverse range of plays Donahue has directed. In style, The Roommate could be called a bit of a bait and switch. Sharon, a middle-aged woman, now divorced and living alone in Iowa, takes in a roommate, Robyn. You’re thinking maybe a female Odd Couple? Or maybe a plot with a mysterious man in it—like the late romance of last season’s Fireflies at Long Wharf? Donahue says the play “seems naturalistic” initially, but tends toward the absurdist style of theater he prefers. One thing that interested Donahue in the play is the fact that it’s about mature women and “not vis à vis men, the characters are not defined by relations to men.”

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The play was reworked for its run last year at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, which Donahue also directed. The goal each time, for the director, is to see the work anew, through the process of collaboration. “So much is about the particular chemistry of the two people playing the two characters, finding different layers of who they are.” In the Long Wharf production Tasha Lawrence plays Robyn, the role she originated at Humana, and Sharon is played by Long Wharf veteran Linda Powell (Our Town, A Doll’s House). For Donahue, the play is “about the power of transformation,” what happens when people not alike find something they can share, to find out “how another person sees you.”

While the play is “very, very funny, it goes to places,” Donahue said, “very sharp, with an edge.” Those viewers who saw Silverman’s The Moors at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2016 will remember the play’s surprising comedy, and its dark and rich irony as it subverted a Gothic tale with its wild sense of comic situations. For Donahue, Silverman’s plays have “real heart, and a strong sense of language that is tonally off-kilter,” a quality that attracts him to her work. She’s “incredibly funny and unbelievably talented” and he finds “thrills in the turns her plays take.”

Revisiting the play at Long Wharf’s mainstage takes the play closer to its earliest incarnation at the Actors’ Theatre in Louisville where it was done completely in the round. Each staging “changes the dynamic,” Donahue says, but each new staging has to find the “kind of spark” that makes theater “transcendent and overwhelming.”

Mike Donahue

Mike Donahue


The Roommate kicks off the Long Wharf 2018-19 season, described as “a comedy about what it takes to re-route your life—and what happens when the wheels come off.”

 

The Roommate
By Jen Silverman
Directed by Mike Donahue

Long Wharf Theatre
October 10-November 4, 2018

For my review of The Roommate at Long Wharf, go to the New Haven Independent, here.

https://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/long_wharf_finds_a_likable_roommate/

New Plays, Long Wharf Theatre

Preview: Contemporary American Voices Festival, Long Wharf Theatre, September 21-22, 2018

This year, the fourth annual festival of staged readings at Long Wharf Theatre, curated by Long Wharf literary manager Christine Scarfuto, arrives a month earlier than last year. And that means it’s easier to take advantage of this always interesting sneak peek at plays on the way to major productions, before the New Haven theater season opens.

When I spoke to Scarfuto last week, she was taking a break from watching a staged reading. For her job at LWT, she reads about 150-175 plays a year, for both the Long Wharf season and for the festival. She believes a staged reading of a play is preferable to reading it oneself. And sometimes, I’d add, it can be better than a full production where unrealized factors can distract from a play’s virtues.

The advantage of the staged reading as mounted at the Festival—with actors, a director and some staging—is that not only might we hear the voice of the play more clearly, but, as Scarfuto points out, “audiences get to be ears and eyes in the room” for the ongoing development of the play, as it becomes more solidified. “A Talk Back follows each play and the author and the director of the production are present” to engage with the audience about the play, its process, and to take comments and questions.

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This year, a play that was featured two years ago in the Festival—Boo Killibrew’s Miller, Mississippi—will receive a full production in the Long Wharf Theatre’s 2018-19 season, a development that, Scarfuto said, was one of the hopes for the Festival. While virtually all of the plays featured in the Festival have gone onto productions, this is the first time that a Festival play will be produced by Long Wharf, a gratifying outcome.

The means by which plays come to Scarfuto’s attention varies from play to play, but she’s always on the lookout to “find new voices, different perspectives.” The plays selected for the Festival have generally been worked on, and most have had productions, but, as unpublished plays, the works at the Festival can still be considered in process.

“The purpose of the festival is to introduce our audience to exciting new plays and playwrights and to create a pipeline for future productions at Long Wharf Theatre,” Scarfuto said.

Three playwrights are featured this year: Kevin Artigue, Angella Emurwon, and Torrey Townsend.

Kevin Artigue

Kevin Artigue

Kevin Artigue (Sheepdog) writes plays, TV, and film. Raised in Redlands, CA, he lives in Brooklyn, and his plays have been developed with Page 73, the Public Theater, South Coast Rep, the National New Play Network, New York Theater Workshop, Portland Center Stage, Golden Thread, Theatre of NOTE, the Playwrights Foundation, SPACE on Ryder Farm, Great Plains Theatre Conference, University of Iowa, and the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis. A former member of Interstate 73 Writers Group and the Public Theater's Emerging Writers Group, Artigue holds an MFA from Iowa Playwrights Workshop.

Angella Emurwon

Angella Emurwon

Angella Emurwon (Strings) is a writer, award-winning playwright, stage director, and screenwriter based in Tororo, Uganda. Of her three radio plays (Blackberry Girls!, 2009; The Cow Needs a Wife, 2010; and Sunflowers Behind a Dirty Fence, 2012), two have won BBC Audio Drama Awards. Strings, her first full-length stage play, received a dramatic reading directed by Rogers Otieno at the 2014 Kampala International Theatre Festival. She is a Sundance Institute East Africa fellow, a member of the 2013 Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab, and a Maisha Film Lab screenwriting and youth mentor.

Torrey Townsend

Torrey Townsend

Torrey Townsend (Night Workers) received an MFA in Playwriting from Columbia University. Townsend’s most recent play, The Workshop, was produced by theater incubator SoftFocus, directed by Knud Adams, and starred Austin Pendleton. A New York Times “Critic’s Pick,” The Workshop was described as “an incisive and insightful tale of ambition and envy, inspiration and mediocrity,” and by Sara Holdren at vulture.com as “one hell of an evening of theater.” Other works include A Night Out and Home Universe (Knud Adams, director).

For Scarfuto, “new work is the lifeblood of the theatre, it’s what keeps the art form vital and alive. We’re thrilled to bring these new voices to our audience.”

Strings, by Angella Emurwon, directed by Leah C. Gardiner, kicks off the festival Friday, September 21, at 7 pm. Scarfuto has known of the play for a few years and is very excited to be able to include it this year. Set in a village in Uganda, the play is “a gorgeous, rich family drama,” both “comical and poignant.” A patriarch returns to his family after an absence of 20 years, during which time the image his family has given him of their lives is markedly different from the reality. The play uses different voices in its telling, including African song chants and is, Scarfuto said, ultimately about “coming to terms with what life is, and the choices we make in our lives.”

Sheepdog, by Kevin Artigue, directed by Leah C. Gardiner, is next up, on Saturday, September 22, at 5:30 pm. Artigue is a writer Scarfuto has known since their days at Iowa. Already familiar with his work, she chose Sheepdog because it “speaks to this moment,” particularly in light of a recent killing of a black man in his own home by a white female police officer without apparent cause. In Artigue’s play, set in contemporary Cleveland, an interracial love story between two police-persons, one female and black, the other white and male, becomes fraught with “fall-out” after the male officer, in the line of duty, shoots a black man, raising questions and issues in his lover’s mind. The play, Scarfuto said, “speaks to a lot of the issues America is facing right now surrounding police violence in the black community, both from an intellectual and emotional perspective. It’s also a riveting story. It really pulls you in.”

Night Workers by Torrey Townsend closes the Festival on Saturday, September 22, at 8 pm. Townsend’s play came to Scarfuto through director Knud Adams, who has worked with the playwright on several of his plays. Scarfuto knew of Townsend’s work, as The Workshop “got lots of press,” and she found Night Workers particularly relevant while reading it this summer. Set in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting held in a repurposed bar in Brooklyn, the play, Scarfuto said, is “deeply human and not sentimental” as it treats of “resilience on the road to recovery.” With the dismaying number of overdoses requiring medical intervention on the New Haven Green this summer, the play struck a chord in its sympathetic treatment of substance abuse and the way disparate lives can touch one another through common difficulties.

Each of the plays has distinctive situations to offer audiences and unique perspectives on our times. There will be a Happy Hour with half-off drinks before each reading and other refreshments available. “It’s a great opportunity for people in the community to meet and mingle with artists and fellow theatergoers, to see great work and have a good time. That’s the energy we want to cultivate at the festival,” Scarfuto said.

Tickets are $10 each, or all three readings for $25. Reservations can be made by calling 203-787-4282 or visiting longwharf.org.

The festival is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Burry Fredrik Foundation.

Long Wharf Theatre
September 21-22, 2018

Hats Make the Woman

Review of Crowns, Long Wharf Theatre

With Regina Taylor’s Crowns, playing through May 13, Long Wharf Theatre shows once again that it’s a great venue for a concert. Crowns has a story but that story is mainly an excuse for many lively numbers, invoking gospel, blues, African folk, and hip hop, some original to the show, some traditional. Each song lets the show’s almost entirely female cast win over the audience. The power of the show is in the singing and it’s wonderful.

Lawrence Clayton, Stephanie Pope, Rebecca E. Covington, Shari Addison, Latice Crawford in Crowns (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Lawrence Clayton, Stephanie Pope, Rebecca E. Covington, Shari Addison, Latice Crawford in Crowns (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

After her brother was killed by her boyfriend over drugs in the rough Englewood section of Chicago, Yolanda (Gabrielle Beckford), who tells us her story in an early dramatic rap number, is sent by her mother to her grandmother, Mother Shaw (Shari Addison), in South Carolina. Each woman in the community imparts to the teen a view of how hats make the woman.

Yolanda (Gabrielle Beckford)

Yolanda (Gabrielle Beckford)

It’s not simply a question of fashion, but of the values that sustain the church-going women, making the rules of how to wear hats and how to bring off a certain self-fashioning not only a question of status but also a community expression. People don’t dress up for themselves, after all, it’s for others and that’s the lesson for Yolanda: how to think of others and of herself in finding fulfillment among them.

As Mother Shaw, Shari Addison possesses a voice of such deep feeling, she immediately establishes the bona fides of this collective. She stands for a sense of spiritual heritage that will serve Yolanda in good stead if she gets onboard.

Mother Shaw (Shari Addison), foreground, and the cast of Crowns

Mother Shaw (Shari Addison), foreground, and the cast of Crowns

There are plenty of comic moments, as the culture of hats creates friction among the ladies, and even a certain exasperation on the part of the preacher (Lawrence Clayton) who hears that women are avoiding church because “they don’t have the wardrobe.” Clayton, who plays all the male roles, enacts Yolanda’s teen brother in a late flashback—it’s a surprising transformation.

Wanda (Stephanie Pope), Jeanette (Rebecca E. Covington), Mable (Danielle K. Thomas)

Wanda (Stephanie Pope), Jeanette (Rebecca E. Covington), Mable (Danielle K. Thomas)

Adapted from a book of photographs by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry that portrayed the importance of hats—or “crowns”—in African-American culture, Crowns is rich with a sense of how “a look” and “a sound” combine for theatrical effect. Emilio Sosa’s hats and costumes complement each other well, giving each woman distinctive motifs, supported through songs that tell the tales of their hats.

The distinctions among the ladies as characters can become a little vague, though Stephanie Pope, as Wanda, distinguishes herself as the stickler for rules and lessons. As a vocalist, the stand out is Latice Crawford as Velma, whose show-stopping rendering of “His Eye is on the Sparrow” takes the singing to another level where the passion of faith and showmanship overlap.

Velma (Latice Crawford)

Velma (Latice Crawford)

Choreography by Dianne McIntyre, with dance numbers the entire cast takes part in, keeps the show lively. Danielle K. Thomas, as dance captain and the character Mabel, is particularly impressive, while Beckford’s Yolanda, when she becomes moved by the spirit of her mentors, steps out in good measure.

The musicianship of musical director Jaret Landon, on piano, keyboard and guitar, and David Pleasant, as “Drumfolk Riddim Specialist,” is an entertainment in itself. Pleasant looks the hardest working man in New Haven during the show, so busy is he with any number of percussive implements, while Landon switches nimbly among instruments and keeps the score remarkably diverse. They are a great strength of this production.

 

Mabel (Danielle K. Thomas)

Mabel (Danielle K. Thomas)

While the set design is simple, the graceful stairway at the back of the stage is eye-catching, and Rasean Davonte Johnson’s amazing projections, sometimes street scenes, sometimes banners and lyrics, provide a wealth of visual interest and information.

Crowns requires a welcome willingness to follow the songs more than a plot. While Taylor’s script does present a sense of intergenerational difference—thanks in part to Beckford’s wonderfully expressive Yolanda—the key note is one of communal identity. The young girl learns to drop the high hat and to get in vogue with the high hats these ladies sport.

If there’s a better show around town for Mother’s Day, I can’t imagine what it might be.

Yolanda (Gabrielle Beckford), Mother Shaw (Shari Addison)

Yolanda (Gabrielle Beckford), Mother Shaw (Shari Addison)

 

Crowns
Written and directed by Regina Taylor
Adapted from the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry

Choreographer: Dianne McIntyre
Music Director: Jaret Landon
Original Compositions: Jaret Landon, Diedre Murray, Chesney Snow
Arrangements: Diedre Murray

Set Design: Caite Hevner; Costume Design: Emilio Sosa; Lighting Design: Bradley King; Sound Design: Robert Kaplowitz; Projection Design: Rasean Davonte Johnson; Wig, Hair & Makeup Design: J. Jared Janas & Dave Bova; Production Stage Manager: Alison Cote; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern

Cast: Shari Addison, Gabrielle Beckford, Lawrence Clayton, Rebecca E. Covington, Latice Crawford, Stephanie Pope, Danielle K. Thomas

Dance Captain: Danielle K. Thomas

Musicians: Jaret Landon, piano, keyboard, guitar; David Pleasant, drumfolk riddim specialist

Long Wharf Theatre
April 18-May 13, 2018

Teacher's Threat

Review of Office Hour, Long Wharf Theatre

With every new mass shooting in the U.S., the media explodes with rhetoric aimed at the problem: gun control, mental health initiatives, the anomie of the modern world, the glorification of violence and the fixation on “the lone gunman,” the purview of hatred toward certain groups or toward “the public” in general, the loss of some basic human decency that formerly kept all but the most psychotic under wraps. Clearly, there’s no single solution to apply in each case—and law works on a case-by-case basis—and legislation, whatever it may achieve as deterrent, can’t address the underlying sickness that, it seems, our culture is unable to cure.

In her brave and provocative play Office Hour, Julia Cho aims to put her audience in the crucible. We will spend an hour, or so, with a well-meaning writing adjunct Gina (Jackie Chung) and a troubled student, Dennis (Daniel Chung), who may be at a crisis point. Time was, we might assume little enough drama happens when a teacher calls a student in for a conference,  now, we may fear the worst.

Gina (Jackie Chung), Dennis (Daniel Chung) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Gina (Jackie Chung), Dennis (Daniel Chung) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

In the Long Wharf production, directed by Lisa Peterson, the play’s initial tone—as a trio of adjuncts, Genevieve (Kerry Warren), David (Jeremy Kahn), and Gina, discuss Dennis—establishes a certain sympathy toward the student, if only because we hear two of the three ganging up on him. What’s more, one of the lines Dennis wrote in a poem, quoted by Genevieve, is a scurrilous parody of an Elizabeth Bishop villanelle, far too often used in writing classes. We might suspect that Dennis is a darkly humored misfit his professors don’t appreciate. That view becomes a bit more problematic when David, who teaches screenwriting and is used to violent movie scenarios and who has worked with convicts in writing groups, insists that Dennis is scarier and less engaging than any prisoner he has ever met.

Thereafter comes our—and Gina’s—meeting with Dennis, a second-generation Asian-American in a hoodie with a baseball cap, dark sunglasses, and a stoical silence. Gina, appalled by the screeds of bitterness, violence, rape, and death that Dennis seems to pump out with little concern for his readers in the classes he takes, tries to fling verbal coins into the silence, hoping for an echo.

David (Jeremy Kahn), Genevieve (Kerry Warren), Gina (Jackie Chung)

David (Jeremy Kahn), Genevieve (Kerry Warren), Gina (Jackie Chung)

After some dead-ends she finds a path, and we start off on what seems to be a journey through a minefield in search of rapprochement. Almost. Cho employs a theatrical device that keeps us from getting comfortable, maintaining the tension that any loaded firearm in a room should manifest. Here, the gun is in Dennis’ backpack, and that fact might mean the adjuncts’ worse fears could come true.

One of the strengths of this production is the lightning-fast nature of the blackouts and tableaux that escalate later in the play. We glimpse, with each new flash, the differing climaxes, all violent, of various scenarios, each a kind of remix of the ingredients in the crucible, but each tending to that moment when firearms become “the answer.” As theater, the brief “clips” demonstrate a tremendous shift to action and staging over dialogue. Elsewhere in the play, dialogue is all we get, and, it should be clear enough, it’s all we have to delay or deter the moment when swift and destructive action holds sway.

Another strength of this production is Jackie Chung’s Gina. She uses the full arsenal a teacher has at her disposal: empathy, imagination, challenge, sharing to elicit sharing, command, threat, and even an unforced vulnerability that Chung is able to display without seeming at all premeditated or manipulative. On the other side of spectrum, she tries to face her fears and the kind of knee-jerk biases that—displayed amply by David—only derail any hope of conversation with recalcitrant students.

Gina (Jackie Chung), Dennis (Daniel Chung)

Gina (Jackie Chung), Dennis (Daniel Chung)

As Dennis, Daniel Chung has a gripping slouch and pout. For quite a while Dennis maintains the terse tone of someone who is wary of any and all efforts to break his shell. Whether or not he’s a threat to himself or others, he has worked hard to create an antisocial persona, and Cho’s script is equal to the task of making the chip on Dennis’ shoulder feel tangible. Dennis is too smart to wallow in his misery, and, whether talented or not, he uses writing to “take it out” on the world. The gun, which he claims is for protection against the racists he fears (not without reason), speaks of his acceptance of scenarios of violence with which we are all-too-familiar. At times, Chung’s passionate outbursts feel a bit out of character, but it seems that Peterson and company want us to see Dennis as the type of person—an outsider through the happenstance of birth—set at white heat in our social crucible.

Office Hour treats with seriousness the kinds of topics that might come up in any writing course—the issues of racial and gender identity, the problems immigrant populations face, the conditions for which violence and depression and anger are the fraught symptoms, and of course the questions of how to reach an audience and what kind of language and depictions are appropriate or questionable. We might say that the faith implicit in American talk—in no matter what venue—is that seeing and hearing someone who sees it and says it like we would is the thread that keeps the social fabric together. Letting a democracy air its griefs in public is what makes the public forum worthwhile.

Perhaps we used to assume that homicidal sociopaths don’t sign up for writing courses or maintain a GPA in college. These days, there are no such certainties, but what Gina and Dennis also face in Julia Cho’s aware play is the great uncertainties that have always faced the writer: is anyone listening, does anyone care, and does anyone see things the way I do?

 

Office Hour
By Julia Cho
Directed by Lisa Peterson

Set Design: Matt Saunders; Costume Design: Maggie Morgan; Lighting Design: Scott Zielinski; Original Music and Sound Design: Robert Kaplowitz; Production Stage Manager: Chris Waters; Fight Director: Thomas Schall

Cast: Daniel Chung, Jackie Chung, Jeremy Kahn, Kerry Warren

A Co-Production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Long Wharf Theatre
January 17-February 11, 2018

A Story of Fathers and Sons: The Chosen Comes to Long Wharf

Preview of The Chosen, Long Wharf Theatre

Novelist Chaim Potok is best-known for stories about the clash of values between fathers and sons, particularly within the codes that govern conduct among modern Jews. His novel My Name is Asher Lev, adapted into a play by Aaron Posner, centered on a young Hasidic man trying to follow his creative inclinations as an artist within a religious tradition that forbids figural representation. Directed by Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, the show was a strong close to the 2011-12 Long Wharf Theatre season and went on to win an Outer Critics Circle Award as Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play at New York’s Westside Theater.

The Chosen, in a new revival at the Long Wharf, may be following a similar path. The play is based on Potok’s best-known novel; in fact it made his name upon its publication in 1967. Adapted into a film and a short-lived musical, The Chosen, as a play, was first produced in 1999 at the Arden Theatre in Philadelphia, much as Asher Lev received its first production there. The current show repeats the teaming of Aaron Posner’s text and Gordon Edelstein’s direction, but The Chosen is less about the restrictions of remaining faithful to Judaic tradition and more about how paternal expectations find or miss their fruition in the sons of willful men.

The focus of the play is on two young men, Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter, who begin as rivals on the baseball field and then become friends as they grow. Their fathers, Reb Saunders and David Malter, represent two opposing value systems. Reb Saunders wants Danny to become a religious leader, but Danny wants to be a psychologist. David, a Zionist, wants his son to become a mathematician, but Reuven has interest in becoming a rabbi. Director Edelstein sees the play as “a beautiful story about the complicated relationship between parents and their children and how a friendship grows.” The tensions between the Saunders and Malter households illustrate how we sometimes “seek our fathers in places other than our own homes.”

Steven Skybell plays David Malter. A graduate of the Yale School of Drama in 1988, Skybell has been nominated by the Connecticut Critics Circle for recent performances in the area, in Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass at Westport Country Playhouse, where he gave a very nuanced performance as Phillip Gellberg, and in Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, at Yale Repertory Theatre, where he was the Narrator and Azdak, a comical judge with perhaps a touch of Groucho. Though he has acted in the state several times, this is his debut on the Long Wharf stage.

Steven Skybell

Steven Skybell

While growing up Jewish in a small town in Texas, Skybell “knew of” the novel The Chosen without being familiar with it, but when he read the part he immediately wanted to do it. Gordon Edelstein, Skybell said, “was delighted to find out that I’m Jewish,” because it means less work in trying to explain the context of the play. And yet, Skybell added, “it’s not simply a play about Jewish issues, it’s a story about a father and a son. A moving drama about distance and closeness between generations.”

The challenge of David Malter, as a part, Skybell said, is that he’s very likeable—“almost the perfect father” who wants everything to be “beautiful and right for his son.” The script, he said, “is detailed in reality,” so that Malter, as a character, is “fully written” and not simply a foil to Reb Saunders.

Malter, through a chance meeting with Danny Saunders, becomes “almost a surrogate father” to the boy. It’s not an effort to undermine Danny’s father but rather to support Danny’s own interests. “It’s the age-old question in families. You want to like what your parents’ like but you also want to do what you want with your life.”

“Each son, in a way, desires what the other’s father wants.” A situation that Skybell sees as having great significance for the intolerant times we live in now. “The play shows the positions of two different types of Jewishness, within Judaism. And it shows that someone can be quite diametrically opposed to someone else and that there can be truth in both views. It’s not necessary to obliterate the other view.”

Previews begin this Wednesday, November 22, with the press opening on the 29th.

Long Wharf Theatre

Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, adapted for the stage by Aaron Posner, directed by Gordon Edelstein, with Ben Edelman, George Guidall, Steven Skybell, Max Wolkowitz

Come On A My House

Review of Fireflies, Long Wharf Theatre

The kitchen of an aging spinster in a small town in Texas may be an unlikely place to find romance, and that’s the challenge of Fireflies, Matthew Barber’s adaptation of a novel by Annette Sanford, now playing at the Long Wharf Theatre. The school-marm, the nosey neighbor, the drifter / hired man are figures almost archetypal in their familiarity, and in their evocation of a certain kind of nostalgic Americana. To instill such types with believable, three-dimensional reality is not easy, but that’s what a trio of top flight actors does with these roles, directed by Gordon Edelstein.

Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey), Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander) (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey), Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander) (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Jane Alexander, a superlative character-actor her entire career, makes Eleanor Bannister, a retired school-teacher, a study in impulse at war with set-in-her-ways certainty. Eleanor spends all her time in her expansive kitchen in a house built by her daddy in a town with a population under 2,000. Alexander Dodge’s homey set has the character of a place and style that suits the folks who live there. Its appliances all look lived with and serviceable and definitely not “remodeled”—a word that would probably seem a neologism to Eleanor’s fine—and fussy—sense of correct English.

Eleanor is a taciturn woman who likes to keep to herself. Her busy-body neighbor Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey, pitch perfect) is always dropping by to borrow something and to dispense reminders and warnings. The latest involves a mysterious “drifter” who has hit town, going around—as Grace sees it—looking for soft-touch elderly ladies living alone to bilk of anything they’ve got.

Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey)

Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey)

Judith Ivey, a favorite with Long Wharf audiences, plays Grace with a wonderfully sympathetic grasp of how seemingly oblivious the lady is to Eleanor’s weariness with her intrusiveness and unwanted advice. She knows Eleanor isn’t the gossipy sort, but she’s got to try. She’s the very epitome of the phrase “means well,” and anyone who comes beneath her care—as her solitary neighbor does, perforce—will be a recipient of endless nuggets of local news, queries, and remarks full of outright incredulity at the slightest departure from custom and good sense. In effect, this is Grace’s lucky day because Eleanor is departing from both with an almost reckless abandon.

Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey), Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander)

Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey), Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander)

Almost. And that’s the great charm of Barber’s simple tale. The way Alexander’s Eleanor moves with a spirit she never really knew, then reins it in again with doubts and suspicions and, characteristically, a tendency to think she knows better than anyone. It’s that conviction that keeps coming under scrutiny as she wonders if there might be a bit more to life than she’s already known. An idea that gets met with panic or is the product of panic.

The titular fireflies get invoked a few times, not least in a brief dream sequence that feels steeped in a bit of hoary Our Town-style modernism (Edelstein directed a fine revamp of that familiar American theater chestnut a few years back). Eleanor, in Alexander’s portrayal, is the real firefly, winking on and off in response to the one thing this town rarely sees: a stranger.

Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander)

Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander)

As Abel Brown, the stranger, Denis Arndt is ingratiating and obliging. In the show’s first Act, he seems genuine enough, deliberately not living up to what the wagging tongues would make of him. His interest in Eleanor's “honeymoon cottage” may be self-serving or it may be at her service, and that's the question. In the shorter second Act, Arndt’s Brown really comes into his own, driven to exposition by the fact that he has been compromised. He gives a nicely calibrated aria of admission from a man who never willingly explains himself. His aggrieved sense of why he’s being driven to such ends—that he is in fact in a love story—lands with a fine sense of how some things must be so because they are.

Abel Brown (Denis Arndt)

Abel Brown (Denis Arndt)

Fireflies is not cutting edge theater and it’s not out to set the world on fire. It works the complacent rhythms of romantic comedy quite well, and lets our familiarity with small-town drama provide a context that could be more sinister. Barber shrewdly builds in a little suspense by having an intermission provoke guesses about where we’ll wind up. As the second Act opens, the presence of a police officer—a former pupil of Eleanor’s—makes us wonder about the interim. He also provides some background detail that a Google search might turn up, these days. As Officer Claymire, Christopher Michael McFarland adds a touch more comedy to the proceedings, accounting himself well as a local authority presiding over the authority that once stifled him as a child. His impromptu partial recital of a poem Miss Bannister taught him—Coleridge’s rhythmic wonder “Kubla Kahn”—says it all.

Eugene Claymire (Christopher Michael McFarland)

Eugene Claymire (Christopher Michael McFarland)

It may be that Fireflies is a passing glimpse of a manner of theater that is dying off, as insects do when the season is over. Yet in showing how actors can make even simple characters compelling, the play provides more sparks of greatness than some other, more contemporary-sounding romances I might name. At least I cared whether or not these two would make up, and the fact that Alexander and Arndt argue like a seasoned couple helps sell the point that they both, indeed, have some skin in the game. Which might be a way of saying that people who have had to face up to a load of things they’ll never do are more likely to be stirred by this last chance Texaco romance.

Thematically, the play made me recall a little gem from the pen of Leonard Cohen: “It’s just that I thought a lover / Had to be some kind of liar too.”

 

Fireflies
By Matthew Barber
From the novel Eleanor & Abel by Annette Sanford
Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Set Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Jess Goldstein; Lighting Design: Philip Rosenberg; Sound Design: John Gromada; Production Stage Manager: Kathy Snyder, Mary Spadoni; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern, Michelle Lauren Tuite; Casting: Calleri Casting

Cast: Jane Alexander, Denis Arndt, Judith Ivey, Christopher Michael McFarland

Long Wharf Theatre
October 11-November 5, 2017

 

 

 

Small Mouth Sounds comes to Long Wharf

Preview of Small Mouth Sounds, Long Wharf Theatre

Opening this week at the Long Wharf Theatre is the first stop of the six-city touring production of Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds, which debuted in New York at Ars Nova, 2015, and then ran Off-Broadway at the Pershing Signature Center, where it was a New York Critics’ Pick of 2016. Though intrigued by the show, I didn’t get to either of those productions. So this is a welcome opener for the Long Wharf’s 2017-18 season. The play is directed by Rachel Chavkin, who has directed the show from the beginning, but features an all-new cast. Chavkin was nominated for a Tony and won an Obie for her direction of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.

In the cast at Long Wharf is Brenna Palughi who I remember from her last year at the Yale School of Drama. In the 2009-10 season, she was featured in a show at the Yale Cabaret that was completely wordless and mostly in slow motion. Palughi’s silent scream in response to a catastrophic event has stayed with me for over seven years. It’s fitting, since the show that brings Palughi back to New Haven requires a lot of silent acting. Small Mouth Sounds concerns seven people—including a couple—who undertake a silent retreat in the woods.

Brenna Palughi, Connor Barrett, Cherene Snow, Edward Chin-Lyn, Ben Buckley, Socorro Santiago (photo: Ben Arons)

Brenna Palughi, Connor Barrett, Cherene Snow, Edward Chin-Lyn, Ben Buckley, Socorro Santiago (photo: Ben Arons)

Since her time at the School of Drama, Palughi has had a Broadway debut, as an understudy in A Time to Kill, and has acted Off-Broadway and on TV. She loves doing new plays and sees Small Mouth Sounds as “walking that thin line between comedy and tragedy.” The characters, she said, “really have needs and are willing to grasp at anything” in their effort to change their lives. Alicia, Palughi’s character, “is really sick of herself and how she’s living.”

“The more you invest in the characters’ lives, the more you get from the play,” Palughi said. The playwright’s presence at rehearsals gave the cast “a lot to work with,” as Wohl “dropped great tidbits” for the actors to consider, “opening whole new trains of thought.” Alicia, who Palughi characterized as “not great at being quiet,” is a part that requires, she found, a particular kind of empathy. A key realization for Palughi, in getting into character, is that Alicia “starts where a lot of people end up.” Which means that the back story of Alicia has to be understood by the actor and conveyed with almost no exposition. Alicia “begins in a shitty place” and the play’s situation offers her, perhaps, the means to a better place.

Palughi, who has taught movement classes, said that the play, in its lack of dialogue, involves the kind of physical theater she loves. “The body becomes a tool for storytelling, but in a realistic, naturalistic way. There’s no metaphorical movement, but there is a lot of humor and meaning in the body language of the characters.”

We all might benefit from more silence in our highly articulate world. Wohl’s play lets us see how complicated confronting one another and ourselves can be without words to help or to get in the way. At the retreat, where they are addressed by an unseen teacher, the characters are “supposed to exist with but not interact with each other,” Palughi said, which might be easier said—or not said—than done.

Small Mouth Sounds opens August 30 and runs to September 24.

For my review at the New Haven Independent, go here.

http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/in_small_mouth_soun/

For a podcast on the play featuring myself and Lucy Gellman and Brian Slattery, go here.

https://www.artspaper.org/audio/2017/9/15/introducing-our-podcast?rq=podcast

Long Wharf Theatre

 

Restaurant Guide

Review of The Most Beautiful Room in New York, Long Wharf Theatre

The promise of the new musical The Most Beautiful Room in New York, in its premiere at the Long Wharf Theatre, directed by Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, is a tuneful look at the rigors of sustaining a beloved Union Square restaurant in these days of rampant greed and bad taste. Adam Gopnik, a well-known New Yorker author, provides the book and lyrics, and should have a take on New York restaurant culture to entertain and enlighten, particularly as he’s also the author of The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food. With music by composer David Shire, who once upon a time composed the soundtrack for the very gritty New York caper-fable The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, we should be transported to a piquant urban ambiance. Not quite. This battle for the soul of a mom-and-pop eatery offers a main entrée with too much filler, and really only tastes satisfyingly urban in its side-dishes.

The cast of The Most Beautiful Room in New York (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of The Most Beautiful Room in New York (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

David (Matt Bogart, stepping into the role late in the run-up to opening and providing a likeable heart of the story) is the chef and co-owner of “Table,” a small, successful restaurant. Presented as a dreamer, by his more practical wife and business partner Claire (Anastasia Barzee), David’s a “poet” of the food industry who tilts at windmills. He believes he’s solved the problem of the huge mark-up in rent that will otherwise put him out of business: a deal with the devil, sort of. The “devil,” in this case, is the long-haired, rock star of a chef named Sergio (Constantine Maroulis, also likeable though supposed to be dastardly) who has his own agenda. Once “brothers” in their early years of trying to make a name in the food business, Sergio has long since surpassed David in the earning ability of his brand. But he’s always looking for new territory to exploit. Thus comes the Faustian bargain, served up by an entertaining duet “Take My Life.”

David (Matt Bogart), Sergio (Constantine Maroulis) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

David (Matt Bogart), Sergio (Constantine Maroulis) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

If that were all, that might be enough, particularly as “Market Forces,” sung by Phoebe (Darlesia Cearcy), one half of a lesbian couple that manages the co-op farmer’s market in the Square, is one of the best songs delivered by one of the show’s best singers. Maybe we will be treated to a musical unmasking of how capitalism foils all but the most bread-winning choices. Unfortunately, Phoebe’s musings are merely a side-dish. As is the other delicious touch: Mark Nelson’s very welcome comic turn as the proprietor of Carlo’s Anarchist Pizza, a Bensonhurst establishment where each slice is viewed as an individual pie, making the solidarity of each pizza stronger. Carlo is introduced fairly early on, when David and Claire’s son Bix (Tyler Jones, playing a more wholesome version of a Spielberg teen) delivers some fresh mozz. We might for a moment contemplate a musical world filled with off-beat eateries catering to varied political and gustatory manifestos, but this isn’t that show, though Michael Yeargan’s masterful, flavorful sets might keep you hoping.

Anna (Krystina Alabado), Carlo (Mark Nelson) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Anna (Krystina Alabado), Carlo (Mark Nelson) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Instead, it’s a romance. Middle-aging-ish romance served up with jealousy—that eternal spice of the tried-and-true. David realizes that Claire had a weekend that shall evermore remain legendary . . . in Wildwood, New Jersey, with Sergio. Sergio, though jaded by his conquest of the world, or at least the media, can’t seem to get past their night in the fabled “Doo Wop Motel.” If this sounds preposterous, well, it is a musical. The will-she, won’t-she plot line does nothing to help the restaurant story, but it does make that “most beautiful room” seem built on airy nothings. We have to accept that Claire is bored enough with it all, including a teen son courting Anna (Krystina Alabado), the daughter of Carlo, to take up with a sleazy wheeler-dealer who talks like Trump and looks like Bono (indeed, Maroulis hints at being a belter à la Sir Vox, but never really gets to show off the pipes here). Phoebe, always on hand to offer colorful asides, opines that “straight women” almost always prefer the pirate to the poet, and that should be good enough for motivation.

Bix (Tyler Jones), Kate (Sawyer Niehaus), Claire (Anastasia Barzee) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Bix (Tyler Jones), Kate (Sawyer Niehaus), Claire (Anastasia Barzee) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Act Two is shorter than Act One and if the romantic interests grip you, you’ll be satisfied as the plot plays out. For me, songs four—the title song, a lovely duet between David and his daughter Kate (Sawyer Niehaus)—through eight, a charming little riff on the current teen generation, “So, Like, Maybe”—are the best stuff in the show, which includes “Take My Life,” “Market Forces,” and Carlo’s “Espresso!”  All of which arrive before the love triangle rears its hoary head. Carlo comes back in Act Two—thankfully!—with the nicely turned “Slice of Life,” but Phoebe and her partner Gloria (Danielle Ferland) try rather doggedly, in “Lucky,” to poke fun at the ideals of marriage.

Through it all, our central family—and they have plenty of songs to prove it—remains so bland we can’t help but wonder if maybe the surly diner Gabe (Allan Washington, another spot-on side) is onto something: pass the hot sauce!

À chacun son goût.

The cast of The Most Beautiful Room in New York (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of The Most Beautiful Room in New York (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

 

 

The Most Beautiful Room in New York
Music by David Shire
Book & Lyrics by Adam Gopnik
Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Musical Staging: John Carrafa; Music Director & Supervisor: John McDaniel; Orchestration: Jonathan Tunick; Additional Musical Arrangements: John McDaniel; Set Design: Michael Yeargan; Costume Design: Jess Goldstein; Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind; Sound Design: Keith Caggiano; Associate Music Director: Jesse Kissel; Associate Choreographer: Jenn Rapp; Production Stage Manager: Linda Marvel; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Casting by Calleri Casting

Cast: Krystina Alabado, Anastasia Barzee, Matt Bogart, Darlesia Cearcy, Ryan Duncan, Danielle Ferland, Anne Horak, Tyler Jones, Constantine Maroulis, Mark Nelson, Sawyer Niehaus, Allan Washington

Musicians: Conductor/Keyboard 1: John McDaniel; Keyboard 2: Jesse Kissel; Trumpet: Dan Duncan; Reed 1: Tim Moran; Reed 2: Andrew Studenski; String Bass/Electric: Dave Daddario; Drums/Percussion: Ed Fast

The Long Wharf Theatre
May 3-28, 2017

Let's Talk About Race

Preview of Smart People, Long Wharf Theatre

So far this season, the Long Wharf Theatre has presented a somewhat surreal couples comedy (Meteors by Steve Martin); a re-vamp of an Eighties comedy-drama that was surprisingly relevant around election time (Other People’s Money by Jerry Sterner); a strong revival of a great achievement in twentieth-century drama (Samuel Beckett’s Endgame); a brand-new play with a fresh voice about Italian immigrants (Napoli, Brooklyn by Meghan Kennedy), and now, next up, a newish play that takes us back to a moment in the recent past that’s seeming more “historic” every day: Smart People by Lydia R. Diamond is set uring the campaign and election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States in 2008. The play purports to follow up recent Long Wharf successes in presenting abrasive plays that feature people in polite situations having to handle ugly truths.

Ka-Ling Cheung, who plays Ginny Yang in the play, saw the production at Second Stage a year ago in New York, and found it “a sexy play about race” that caused her and the friend she saw it with to talk about it afterwards. It’s a play that “asks important questions” about the puzzle of race relations and the problem of status, and she found she had some questions herself after seeing it. In working on the play with her fellow cast members and director Desdemona Chiang, some of those questions are being answered, and some “will be left to the audience.”

Cheung, who has been working mostly in “classical stuff” since her MFA days at the American Conservatory Theater, welcomes a change to “the fun of contemporary language” with a small cast of four who are all playing characters around the same age. All four characters work in Boston with some connection to Harvard, a setting that one imagines will transfer easily to New Haven and that other big Ivy in our midst. The play focuses on highly educated professionals who, we might imagine, are less tainted with racist ideas than people more regionally based and less educated. But that comfortable assumption is precisely what Diamond’s play wants to question, with humor and with added romance elements.

left to right: back row: Peter O'Connor (Brian); director Desdemona Chiang; front row: Tiffany Nichole Greene (Valerie), Ka-Ling Cheung (Ginny), Sullivan Jones (Jackson)

left to right: back row: Peter O'Connor (Brian); director Desdemona Chiang; front row: Tiffany Nichole Greene (Valerie), Ka-Ling Cheung (Ginny), Sullivan Jones (Jackson)

Ginny is “an Asian-American professor who has worked hard to be tenured.” She is a psychologist who mainly does research and a little teaching. Cheung sees her as somewhat “hard and brittle” because, as a woman of color, she’s had to prove herself where a white man would get the benefit of the doubt. Though this is academia, Ginny’s situation extends to almost any profession where women are denied the same status and compensation that men receive. Ginny adds comedy to the plot—deliberately acting-out a stereotype at one point—and Cheung likes the challenge of comedy, which is “harder” than serious roles. She’s also intrigued by the way the ensemble cast will also “play crew” during the set changes, which, she says, creates a level of participation by all that adds to the closeness of the characters’ interactions.

“All the characters are provocative and have strong opinions about racism,” and the play handles the “hot topic” as an aspect of both the personal and professional aspect of the characters. When she first saw Smart People, Cheung was excited, as a young Asian-American woman, that the play “had a part for me”; now, she’s excited by how timely the play seems and by the fact that it should give audiences, as it did for Cheung and her friend, “a lot to talk about.”

Smart People opens this Wednesday, March 15, in previews, at Long Wharf Theatre; the official opening is next week, Wednesday, March 22, at 7:30 p.m.

 

Smart People
By Lydia R. Diamond
Directed by Desdemona Chiang

Winner Take All

Review of Other People’s Money, Long Wharf Theatre

The sign of a good play is that viewers can read different things into it at different times, and directors can find new relevance in it. Jerry Sterner’s Other People’s Money, at Long Wharf, directed with sharp transitions by Marc Bruni, could easily seem a trip back to the late 1980s when business liquidators were an up-and-coming breed, “mergers and acquisition” became practically a household phrase, and old production standbys like automobile manufacture became ailing dinosaurs of the corporate world. While the period aspect of the play is still very much prevalent, it’s hard to watch the play in 2016 and not think of the recent election. Allegory may be in the eye of the beholder, but I think not.

We’ve got Wire and Cable, an all-American company that cares about its employees and their families, owned by Mr. Jorgenson (Edward James Hyland), a conscientious and somewhat loquacious elder who admires Harry Truman and treats the business like family. He’s got a very loyal assistant, Bea (Karen Ziemba), who sees no divide between work and her personal life. Both are dedicated to “the American Dream” as a solvent business that makes a good product and provides decent lives for all involved, debt-free. They don’t even have any outstanding fines with Environmental Protection. The manager, Coles (Steve Routman), is a canny heir apparent, serving his time until the old man steps down and he can take over and modernize a bit.

Garfinkle (Jordan Lage), Kate (Liv Rooth) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Garfinkle (Jordan Lage), Kate (Liv Rooth) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Into their cozy little world comes crass, big league player Garfinkle (Jordan Lage), a self-satisfied man of business who exists to make money, legally. He’s rapacious, avaricious, and even charming in a cold-blooded way. He’s buying up shares not because he wants Wire and Cable to make him money as a satisfied stockholder, but because he wants to gut the still breathing carcass and make his money off its dismemberment. The only person who might figure out a way to stop him is a blonde female lawyer, Kate (Liv Rooth), Bea’s daughter, who dresses sharply and is tough-as-nails, and who is more than equal to any “grab ‘em by the pussy” innuendo that might come her way. In an amusing sequence, she gets Garfinkle to grab his own crotch and give it a stern talking to.

What’s at stake? Well, if you’ve been wondering what it means to put the fox in the henhouse, by democratic consent, then this play might be the kind of entertainment to light your day. It shows us how vulnerable are core values—like loyalty and dedication—in the face of the almighty buck and the historical inevitability. A world where naked self-interest makes the wheels go round, and the devil take the hindmost. And, though Wire and Cable is in Rhode Island, we’re watching the predatory tactics that helped destroy jobs in the dissatisfied Rust Belt.

In Bruni’s taut direction, the play is even better than the script, and that’s because his crackerjack cast has a sense of the pace of TV drama, say, The Good Wife. There are still speeches that fall a little short of crisp, and the second act has too many scenes and way too much speechifying, but this cast does all it can to sell it. And the set by Lee Savage makes it all feel real.

Bea (Karen Ziemba), Jorgenson (Edward James Hyland), Garfinkle (Jordan Lage) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Bea (Karen Ziemba), Jorgenson (Edward James Hyland), Garfinkle (Jordan Lage) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

As Garfinkle, Lage is no doubt way better-looking than Sterner envisioned—the script seems to call for a bit of a donut-popping schlub, maybe even with a bad toupe—but he plays the part with a kind of greased ease that recalls, at times, Pacino as Roy Cohn. Garfinkle is never quite that foul, but he tries. And he gets to comment, in a winning, “get a load of this” way, on the other team’s efforts to undermine his intentions (it’s almost like he’s hacking their strategy). Lage plays large, but there are lots of nice touches, as when he first takes in and sums up in a glance the proud but unpretty site and Jorgenson’s sentimental grasp of business.

Hyland is quite good as Jorgenson, giving the head man a very lived-in feel. He seems sort of doddering but can lead when his back’s to the wall. It’s clear that Sterner wants us to feel something more is at stake than a “seen better days” business, and Hyland makes us feel the heat of the man who watches what little legacy he had go under.

Kate (Liv Rooth) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Kate (Liv Rooth) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Best of all may be Rooth, who acts the hell out of Kate. It’s a role that requires considerable presence of mind as Kate plays the pressured go-between, trying to outsmart Garfinkle, while shamelessly flirting with him, and trying to get Jorgenson to fight for his life with strategy, even if it means going low when the other side goes low.

The scene where Kate gives the other three the what’s-what on how to survive—with “shark repellent” and “poison”—is a masterful riff on how the system can be worked to advantage. Typically, the good guys think of themselves as too good to think of even playing at bad. And then there’s the possibility that, good or not, some will sink the ship to save themselves.

Garfinkle (Jordan Lage), Coles (Steve Routman) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Garfinkle (Jordan Lage), Coles (Steve Routman) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Coles gets the first and last word, and Routman plays it with the clear sense of a man who never takes his eye off the balance sheet, managing to humanize the pro who supports a thing not because it’s right or better than another thing, but because he’s paid to. Ziemba’s Bea is the other side of the coin; she supports Jorgenson, not because he’s right, nor because she’s paid to, but because she loves him, giving a venerable veneer to the office romance.

Sterner draws the lines of attack and retaliate very carefully for all the characters and it’s a treat to see them treated to such well-crafted performances. Sure, it’s fun to spend other people’s money, and it’s also fun to spend time with Other People’s Money.

So, what d’ya think of that payoff?

Bea (Karen Ziemba), Jorgenson (Edward James Hyland) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Bea (Karen Ziemba), Jorgenson (Edward James Hyland) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

 

Other People’s Money
By Jerry Sterner
Directed by Marc Bruni

Set Design: Lee Savage; Costume Design: Anita Yavich; Lighting Design: David Lander; Sound Design: Brian Ronan; Production Stage Manager: Peter Wolf; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Casting by Calleri Casting; Assistant Director/Drama League Directing Fellow: Jesca Prudencio

Cast: Edward James Hyland; Jordan Lage; Liv Rooth; Steve Routman; Karen Ziemba

Long Wharf Theatre
November 23-December 18, 2016

New Plays Showcased Next Weekend

Preview of Contemporary American Voices Festival, Long Wharf Theatre

This week the Long Wharf Theatre opens its 2016-17 season with the Contemporary American Voices Festival, a two-day presentation of new plays. In its second year, the Festival seeks to introduce “adventurous and innovative” new work by emerging playwrights whose plays have not been seen in the area. This year the plays featured are Boo Killebrew’s Miller, Mississippi, on Friday, September 9th at 7 p.m., Jeff Augustin’s Last Tiger in Haiti, on Saturday, September 10th, at 5 p.m., and Clare Barron’s Dance Nation, on Saturday, September 10th, at 8:30 p.m. The Friday and Saturday evening presentations will be preceded by a Happy Hour reception, featuring a cash bar with beer from Thimble Islands Brewery, and food for sale from Katalina’s Bakery and Stellato’s.

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In preparation for the Festival, Long Wharf’s Literary Director Christine Scarfuto read over 100 scripts, looking for the kind of plays that would add significantly to the Long Wharf season, then she and Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein chose the finalists. The staged readings have directors and involve actors, who will be at music stands giving dramatic readings of the script. The amount of staging, Scarfuto says, varies but “all three plays are narrative-driven and beautifully told.” All share an emphasis on stories worth telling and the power of the stories is what drew Scarfuto to them.

The featured plays are very different, but all involve young characters. Boo Killebrew’s Miller, Mississippi is a play of multiple generations within a family, set in the Deep South and spanning the 1960s to the 1990s so that we see characters at different ages, from teens to adults. Looking back on issues of Civil Rights through one family’s experiences and “descent into ruin,” the play explores, Scarfuto says, a subject very relevant to our contemporary times. Scarfuto describes the play as “heartfelt, with lots of emotion and life.” The play won the 2015 Leah Ryan Prize. Among Killebrew’s awards are two New York Innovative Theater Awards and two Fringe Excellence Awards. Miller, Mississippi is directed by Lee Sunday Evans.

Last Tiger in Haiti, by Jeff Augustin, is set on the final night of Kanaval in Haiti, when a group of restaveks—abandoned children living in servitude—share imaginative stories; the play then takes us to 15 years later and the way reality and fantasy interacts. Scarfuto describes the play as “wildy imaginative” and “a very important story to tell” that looks at the cultural value of storytelling. The play will be given several productions in the coming year and Augustin is the Skank Playwright-in-Residence at Playwrights Horizon; his work has been produced at Roundabout Underground and Humana and elsewhere. Last Tiger in Haiti is directed by Yale School of Drama alum and former Yale Cabaret Co-Artistic Director Lileana Blain-Cruz.

Dance Nation, by Clare Barron, centers on a pre-teen dance competition and looks at “ambition, competition, and growing up.” It’s a play, Scarfuto says, that looks at competition as an element of female empowerment but also at “unpopular truths” about teens in our day. While “not necessarily realism,” the play is contemporary and casts actors of all ages and races to play the young girls. Barron is a playwright and an actor, and Long Wharf theater-goers may remember Barron from her performance in Heidi Schreck’s The Consultant. Dance Nation co-won the inaugural Relentless Award, established in honor of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, and is directed by Lee Sunday Evans, an OBIE Award-winning director.

The Contemporary American Voices festival reflects Long Wharf’s commitment to new play development, a mission that, Scarfuto says, was difficult to pursue during the recession and its drop in arts funding. “New plays can be risky, commercially,” Scarfuto says, but, as the Long Wharf’s literary manager since March, with an MFA in Dramaturgy from the University of Iowa, she sees the Festival as the “first step in introducing new playwrights and plays and helping to build audience interest.” As Edelstein says, “receptivity to new writing represents the very best of remedies for spiritual, emotional, and intellectual stagnation.”

Staged readings are excellent opportunities to become familiar with new playwrights and to experience a play in the early stages of its path to production. Each reading will be followed by a Talk Back that will include the playwright, giving audiences a rare chance to ask questions about a play’s themes and background and gestation. Suggested donation, $5.

For more information: Long Wharf Theatre

Contemporary American Voices Festival
September 9 and 10, 2016
Long Wharf Theatre

My Idaho Home

Review of Lewiston at Long Wharf Theatre

Family legacy meets national legacy in Samuel D. Hunter’s low-key play Lewiston, now at the Long Wharf Theatre in its world premiere, directed by Eric Ting. Alice (Randy Danson) and Connor (Martin Moran) are old friends, now roommates, who tend a fireworks stand on a stretch of interstate outside the play’s titular town in rural Idaho. The big issue in their world is when to sell Alice’s last remaining plot of land to the developers who are building condos, and for how much—the duo are hoping for a unit by the pool. Into their humdrum lives arrives Marnie (Arielle Goldman), a backpacking traveler who, it turns out, is Alice’s long-lost granddaughter. And she’s here to stay, tent and all.

Alice (Randy Danson) and Connor (Martin Moran)

Alice (Randy Danson) and Connor (Martin Moran)

The best thing about Lewiston is that Hunter’s dialogue plays things close to the everyday, and there are some unique aspects to the relationships revealed as the play goes along. His characters speak with a believable sense of entire lives already lived, so that when exposition is necessary it comes as one character filling another in. For Alice and Marnie, there’s much that has gone missing—the last time Alice saw Marnie was when the girl, now in her mid-twenties, was 8 or so. There’s a lot of water under the bridge, and there’s a lot of land missing from what Marnie remembers as the family spread, including her childhood home. The land has been in the family since Meriwether Lewis, of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition, settled it.

Marnie (Arielle Goldman)

Marnie (Arielle Goldman)

Director Eric Ting’s clear grasp of how these characters should interact means developments take their time: the coolness between Alice and Marnie keeps finding new reasons for sustaining itself. It’s not a question of grudges so much as a question of expectations. We learn piecemeal the story of Alice’s daughter, Marnie’s mother—whose young voice (played by Lucy Owen) we hear on tapes Marnie plays from time to time, recorded when her mother walked the Expedition trail to the Pacific Ocean—and we see why the two women aren’t quite sure what tone to strike with each other. Marnie isn’t so much settling old scores as trying to find a place to start again, arriving at the very moment when Alice is ready to let it all go.

Connor (Martin Moran) and Marnie (Arielle Goldman)

Connor (Martin Moran) and Marnie (Arielle Goldman)

As Connor, Moran’s role is important as an interested witness and sympathetic helper and a surprised host who extends the more effusive welcome to Marnie. The drama of the play is largely about how people can either shut others out or let them in, so that much of the talk isn’t simply about what happened or what will happen, it’s about whether or not characters will confide or find a shared relation. Marnie, played well with understated intensity by Arielle Goldman, had been in Seattle where she devised and sold an urban farm and seems to have been self-sufficient until now. Randy Danson’s Alice is, as Connor says “a bit prickly,” not willing to be knocked off course by a young person’s sudden need for roots. Though for obvious reasons generational differences can be expected to intrude, they do so as contextual details and not simply for cheap laughs.

Then there’s “Mom,” on the tapes. Voiced with an incredible sense of off-the-cuff authenticity by Lucy Owen, the tapes are mostly played in darkness, making their staging a bit disruptive and their desultory commentary more ambient than dramatic. In the end, an experience told on the tape dovetails rather too neatly with the need for some kind of statement to emerge in what seems ready to be a stalemate, though some life-changing decisions are overtaking everyone by the play’s end.

Alice (Randy Danson)

Alice (Randy Danson)

For visual interest, check out the detailed set by Wilson Chin, complemented by Matthew Richards’ lighting and Brandon Walcott’s sound design, while for figural interest there are the fireworks that tend to act as ironic commentary on the lack of excitement and the limited prospects for amusement in this stretch of the interstate. Lewiston is a thoughtful slice-of-life drama that manages to suggest a Chekhovian sense of how time and change leech from us the things we value, unless we do something about it now.

 

Lewiston
By Samuel D. Hunter
Directed by Eric Ting

Set Design: Wilson Chin; Costume Design: Paloma Young; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Brandon Wolcott; Production Stage Manager: Charles M. Turner III; Casting: Calleri Casting

Cast: Randy Danson; Arielle Goldman; Martin Moran; Lucy Owen

Long Wharf Theatre
April 6-May 1, 2016

Walking the Lion

Review of The Lion at Long Wharf Theatre

Though you might not think it to look at him, slim, blonde, and boyish singer-songwriter Benjamin Scheuer has suffered, and of that suffering he has made a song cycle, or cabaret-style musical, called The Lion, which debuted at Manhattan Theatre Club in 2014, and earned him the 2015 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Solo Performance, and is now at the Long Wharf Theatre.

On stage, it’s just Scheuer, several guitars (one electric, the rest acoustic), some chairs, and a kind of distressed-looking backdrop that could pass for a room in a worn recording-studio or a low-key folk nightclub. The story he has to tell runs the gamut from childhood inspiration—his father, a mathematician, played guitar and made young Ben a toy banjo from a cookie tin, a necktie, and rubber bands—to familial dysfunction, loss, young love found and lost, a very scary and unpleasant disease—Hodgkin Lymphoma—and, ultimately, personal redemption via music, particularly the guitar.

Benjamin Scheuer in The Lion

Benjamin Scheuer in The Lion


As such, the show is about the conditions of its own creation. All the songs and Scheuer’s between-song narrations contribute to the unfolding story of how Scheuer became the author and performer of The Lion. It’s a true story, but like all true stories, it has to be adapted to be made the stuff of art. We tend to believe there is some kind of real experience as the basis for the lyrics of most songs we hear—sometimes that connection between the singer and the song is made explicit, at other times there’s more detachment from what’s being told—but The Lion makes sense only as the story of Benjamin Scheuer, its narrator-protagonist. In that light, but for “Weather the Storm,” a song young Scheuer learns from his dad, and the only one here that could inspire a sing-along, it’s not filled with folk songs but rather the kind of first-person songs that tend to be sung by characters in musicals.

But these are also not the kind of catchy, hummable tunes one associates with musicals; the song of The Lion mostly have to have narrative force, and Scheuer is quite adept at finding a way to sing about upsetting experiences. The songs, though, are not just a bid for sympathy. Scheuer strives to make his personal experience exemplary of the kinds of things that can break up families, the kinds of things that go wrong with overly naïve love affairs, the kinds of things that can afflict our health with little warning, and, particularly, the guilt we feel about how we treated our parents and our ongoing resentment of how they treated us.

If that sounds like song-writing as therapy, it should, because at times that’s what listening to The Lion feels like. While listening, we can wonder where the story’s going—will “Ben” be cured of his illness, will he find true love, will his mom stop being so snippy, will he land a big recording contract and show everybody—but, as with any album of related songs you might care to think of, what we’re mainly doing is experiencing each song as its sung and played for us. The intimacy of a solo performer with a guitar has a certain inherent theatricality, and the songs—which are very well-structured—show the variety of Scheuer as singer/musician as well as the many shades of Ben, the guy who seems to keep groping at getting a handle on his life. Except that the songs are the handle the guy they’re about doesn’t quite get. Yet.

Ultimately, that’s what makes The Lion gripping: its candor. To quote a line from a Dylan song: “I know you’ve suffered much, but in this you are not so unique.” The slings and arrows of Ben’s life may be easily comparable to what many have endured, particularly those who write and sings the blues, to say nothing of those who favor tell-all memoirs, but what is unique is getting up night after night to sing that story for the edification of others. Particularly as the heart of the show has to stand in the uneasy space between the early warm and fuzzy evocation of Dad making that cookie-tin banjo and the effort to connect across time with “Dear Dad,” in a song that tries to assuage what can never really be laid to rest.

You have to respect Scheuer for trying, though, with what talents he has. He’s a better guitarist than singer and better singer than actor, but there’s dramatic interest in his ability to recall to mind versions of himself—or of Ben—that can seem quaint or touching or simply clueless. The line that The Lion walks is between the effort to make us share in the hurts and happiness felt by Ben, and, for Scheuer, to find some kind of transcendence by singing his heart out about himself, his dad, his siblings and mother, his old girlfriend, his illness, his music, each night. While not wise and witty about pop star life (and sexual identity) like a fictional musical memoir such as Hedwig and the Angry Inch, The Lion, in its earnest bid for empathy, does approach hard-won insight about the long, strange trip that is life in general and the mystery of other people.

The show’s title comes from a song that asks “What makes a lion a lion?” One of those imponderables that can also be extended to the show itself. What makes The Lion The Lion? Is it the presence of Scheuer himself, or could his part be taken by someone else? If so, the songs transcend their maker; if not, then the show is really all about what it means to be Benjamin Scheuer.


The Lion
Written and performed by Benjamin Scheuer
Directed by Sean Daniels

Scenic Designer: Neil Patel; Lighting Designer: Ben Stanton; Sound Designer: Leon Rothenberg; Costume Consultant: Jennifer Caprio; Production Designer: Dom Ruggiero; Technical Supervisor: Mind the Gap; General Management: Maximum Entertainment

Long Wharf Theatre
January 6-February 7, 2016

Taking the Measure of Shakespeare

The Fiasco Theater’s Measure for Measure begins previews this week at the Long Wharf Theatre’s Claire Tow Stage in the C. Newton Schenck III Theater. First performed by Fiasco in 2013, the Long Wharf production will be the company’s first revival of this play, often considered a bit of a slog in its tale of corruption, strict moral codes, and deus ex machina Duke. On the contrary, Fiasco’s version has been called “charming.”

Fiasco's Noah Brody

Fiasco's Noah Brody

Noah Brody, one of the founding members of Fiasco, which formed in 2009 and launched its inaugural production of Cymbeline in 2010, is “honestly thrilled” to be able to remount Measure for Measure for the Long Wharf’s intimate thrust-style theater. When played previously, the show was done in a standard proscenium setting and that means the new version will have to adapt, a challenge that is part of the governing aesthetic of Fiasco. Brody sees this as an opportunity to “reach out” to the audience, stressing that both players and viewers “are in the same place, breathing the same air.”

A cast of six actors plays all the parts in Measure for Measure, with a set that mainly consists of six doors and some benches. It’s a minimalist approach, perhaps, but as Brody says, “when there’s not a lot of money, you concentrate on what you really need,” and that promotes inventiveness, to use everything at one’s disposal and to make the most of it.

As all the members of Fiasco were trained as actors in the MFA program at Brown/Trinity, a key term for their approach is “actor-driven” stagings. What this means, Brody says, is that every production is achieved by the ensemble, and every decision comes from the ensemble. Decision-making is “not hierarchical.” The director—for the Long Wharf production, Brody and Ben Steinfeld are co-directing—“is responsible for leading the conversation,” but does not dictate the approach. And that means the troupe gets to completely rethink their previous decisions about every aspect of Measure for Measure, not only for changes in design determined by the changed space, but also the differences due to the times and the situations that apply to the creative process. “We’ll say, ‘last time we did this: why did we do that? Do we still want to do it that way?’” The “this” could be anything from costumes to blocking to the delivery of a line to cuts and edits in the material.

Since “fun” is not always associated with Measure, often deemed Shakespeare’s darkest, least likable comedy, I had to ask why it was the play they chose. Brody cited the play’s language, its “great scenes” with “wonderful parts to play” for a “uni-generational cast.” Its content—which he characterized as “how to rule a just state”—is thoughtful, particularly in tensions “between the spiritual and secular life.” In his view, much of the darkness of the play comes from productions not seeing how “playful” the text is, whereas Fiasco highlights the “seriousness in the comic relief and the ironies in the serious parts.” “There’s great comedy and seriousness at all times in the same scene and in the same line,” Brody says. Bringing out those nuances, finding the fun in the whole, is one of the aims of the Fiasco approach.

Brody says the Fiasco team didn’t graduate from the acting program with intentions to form their own company. As actors, they’re used to being hired as “a small cog in a large machine.” “You hope to bring something to the vision of a play,” but are rarely in control of what parts you get or the style of the production. And most actors accept that they have “to sink or swim as an individual,” competing for the best parts available. To form a troupe of actors, able to devise and implement their own productions, is a “dream come true,” and moving the show to Long Wharf a “great opportunity” to revisit the production for a new audience, with possibilities for new, surprising events.

Fiasco is far enough along in their development to have learned that putting on new productions and devising new productions are hard to do simultaneously. After this season—which consists of an acclaimed Two Gentlemen of Verona last spring and now Measure in the fall—they will be at work on planning the brand new productions they will be offering in 2016 through 2018. The team’s “core passion,” Brody says, is in classical theater—so far, Shakespeare—and musicals, such as their production of Into the Woods, which won the Lucille Lortel Award for Best Revival of 2015, so they are certainly looking at “more Shakespeare and more musicals” that fit their requirements, and “we’re also looking at Restoration plays,” and are planning their “first original piece” as well as considering stage adaptations of novels.

Whatever the new productions will be, they will be devised by a troupe of actors with no fixed theatrical abode, but driven by a commitment to making theater together, benefiting from the troupe’s familiarity with one another, and to finding their own unique way into a play, providing audiences with memorable productions full of a love of the challenge of discovery.

Measure for Measure, by the Fiasco Theater, begins in previews at the Long Wharf Theatre Wednesday, November 25, and opens Wednesday December 1.

Guilt by Association

Review of Disgraced at Long Wharf Theatre

In the U.S., everyone’s people came from somewhere else. Somewhere back there, whether recently or many generations ago, there lies a place where outsiders were treated as “others”: a “they” who don’t dress, eat, speak, worship, or behave as “we” do. In the U.S., for some, strong identification continues with those in the “old country”; some even bring to this country many of the same customs and they flourish here, putting down “hyphenated American” roots, and celebrating an identity that isn’t simply, generically, “American.” For others, their background is an embarrassment or an association they have tried hard to leave behind, in an effort to “americanize” and assimilate. Sometimes, the civil nature of our generalized American identity suffers major shocks from what most Americans consider “them” “out there”: those other countries and cultures some of us still identify with and that are still an “us.” Then look out.

Ayad Akhtar’s sharply written Disgraced, now playing at the Long Wharf Theatre, directed with great sureness of pacing and staging by Gordon Edelstein, very cunningly makes contentious drama out of the inevitable, American clash between “us” and “them.” Here, the clash isn’t on a battlefield; it occurs in that staple of American drama, the living room, and it’s amongst people who work together, are very articulate and quick-witted, and generally capable of putting differences aside for the sake of a convivial evening. Before we get to that Götterdammerung of a dinner party, there is an important prelude.

Rajesh Bose (Amir), Nicole Lawrence (Emily)

Rajesh Bose (Amir), Nicole Lawrence (Emily)

We meet successful New York lawyer Amir (Rajesh Bose) and his wife Emily (Nicole Lawrence), a visual artist, as she sketches him standing in an expensive shirt and jacket and his skivvies in their swanky apartment. She’s been inspired to do his portrait in the manner of Velasquez’s portrait of his assistant, a former slave. That should raise eyebrows right there, but the possible domestic issues in that comparison are smoothed over by the couple’s obvious chemistry. She’s doing it, you see, because Amir was “profiled” in a certain way at a restaurant and impressed her with how he handled it. The doorbell rings and before you can say “Allah,” Amir is being profiled by his nephew, Abe (Mohit Gautam)—formerly Hussein—as someone who should help an imam, imprisoned for allegedly raising funds for the Taliban, because they are both Muslim.

And here’s where Amir—who changed his name to Kapoor (it was Abdullah) and makes the most of the fact that his father was born in India before that region became Pakistan—tries to disavow his background while his wife, who has commenced a series of paintings based on the art of Islam, tries to assert, with the secular detachment of intellectuals, that he should value Islam as she does, as a culture that, like Greece and Rome, can be added to the grab-bag of Western influences. Amir sees it differently, but ultimately, in the interest of family ties or domestic tranquility, does attend the imam’s hearing, though not as counsel. Still, he is quoted in support of the imam in the New York Times, no doubt because he alone, of the battery of attorneys present, “looks like” the imam. His support thus quoted, Amir fears, might raise hackles with the Jewish partners of the firm where he has worked for twenty years and hopes to make partner.

All this is played out with the natural rhythm of a give-and-take where all that seems to be at issue is the right to say “no.” As audience, we tend to sympathize with the put-upon and profiled Amir, and that identification will be tested by what follows.

Mohit Gautam (Abe/Hussein), Nicole Lawrence (Emily), Rajesh Bose (Amir)

Mohit Gautam (Abe/Hussein), Nicole Lawrence (Emily), Rajesh Bose (Amir)

Without going into plot points and revelations that come about during a dinner that almost comes to blows on an evening that ends in violence, it is clear that Amir’s conviction that he is not one of “them”—a Muslim, much less an anti-American terrorist or “Islamo-fascist”—becomes harder to sustain in the light of his attempt to protest to his wife and guests—Jory (Shirine Babb), a colleague at the firm, and her husband Isaac (Benim Foster), a curator at the Whitney Museum who has taken on Emily’s work—that the Koran and its teachings are inimical to the cultural smorgasbord they believe in. What begins, on Amir’s part, as an effort to disabuse their naïveté with a hectoring lecture becomes a calling-out, particularly when author Akhtar piles up the indiginities Amir must suffer, coming from both workplace and home (Bose’s balanced performance makes Amir not always likeable but at least understandable).

While some of the blows to Amir’s sense of worth seem, in retrospect, a bit contrived, it’s important to stress how effectively it all works in the moment. And that’s because plot developments come to light though characters playing their respective hands with perfectly structured timing, and because reactions are quick and definite. The play might feel talky but rarely does; instead, it feels like we’re spectators of a verbal sporting event that suddenly gets far too personal. Sooner or later, you’re going to take sides.

Shirine Babbs (Jory), Rajesh Bose (Amir), Nicole Lawrence (Emily), Benim Foster (Isaac)

Shirine Babbs (Jory), Rajesh Bose (Amir), Nicole Lawrence (Emily), Benim Foster (Isaac)

The cast is uniformly excellent in carrying off Akhtar’s dialogue, with its very sharp transitions from friendly chatter to spousal joshing to personal slurs with a great feel for how to make clear the stakes and to keep it entertaining. Disgraced joins other recent top-notch Long Wharf productions of successful plays—Clybourne Park, Bad Jews—that specialize in uncomfortable confrontations that can arise when people, here with the aid of much alcohol, begin to say what they really think, or try to make distinctions or demand agreement on ethical or ethnic grounds. Akhtar’s play gets at the underside of America’s lip-service to accepting everyone and at the particular tensions that might surface in mixed race gatherings (Isaac is Jewish; Jory, black; Emily, white and blonde) whenever an issue raises its ugly head.

With its handsome set and costumes and its rigorous grasp of how to use every minute of its under 90-minute running time, Disgraced is a gripping night of theater that has much on its mind. Ultimately the play is about how one decides which “us” to remain true to. To be an American is to be a mutt, and the world is dog eat dog.

Shirine Babb (Jory), Benim Foster (Isaac), Nicole Lawrence (Emily), Rajesh Bose (Amir)

Shirine Babb (Jory), Benim Foster (Isaac), Nicole Lawrence (Emily), Rajesh Bose (Amir)


Disgraced
By Ayad Akhtar
Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Set Design: Lee Savage; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: Eric Southern; Sound Design: David Van Tieghem; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Hair & Wig Design: Charles LePointe; Production Stage Manager: Jeff Brancato; Assistant Stage Managers: Amy Patricia Stern, Michelle Tuite; Casting by Calleri Casting; Photographs: T. Charles Erickson

Cast: Rajesh Bose; Nicole Lawrence; Mohit Gautam; Benim Foster; Shirine Babb

Long Wharf Theatre
October 14-November 8, 2015