Maxwell Williams

Strangers in the Night

Review of Reverberation at Hartford Stage

Reverberation, the new play by Matthew Lopez now playing at Hartford Stage, directed by Maxwell Williams, presents a story of coping with trauma. It’s been a year since a terrible thing happened in the life of Jonathan (Luke Macfarlane), an illustrator of condolence cards, who has been living in the same apartment building in Astoria for 15 years. In fact, he lived for all but the last year with his partner Gabriel in the apartment above his current domicile. The change in apartments was his first act in trying to cope.

Claire (Aya Cash),  Jonathan (Luke Macfarlane)

Claire (Aya Cash),  Jonathan (Luke Macfarlane)

We learn this before the end of the Act I, but when we first meet him, Jonathan seems merely a withdrawn loner. He hates leaving his apartment after dark and his only contact with others comes via down-and-dirty hook-ups via Grindr (an app for males prowling for other males). The play opens in medias res—in the midst of intense coupling between Jonathan and a younger man, Wes (Carl Lundstedt). Wes is more or less blown away by the sex and actually tries to be sincere about it afterwards. Jonathan just wants him out of there.

Wes (Carl Lundstedt) and Jonathan (Luke Macfarlane)

Wes (Carl Lundstedt) and Jonathan (Luke Macfarlane)

Next, Jonathan similarly blows off his upstairs neighbor, Claire (Aya Cash), a female gadabout in her late twenties. Claire, who rightly claims she’s “barely domesticated,” leads what seems a party-girl lifestyle. About the only things she owns are an inflatable mattress, a tube TV, a camp chair and, most importantly, a clothes-rack full of designer stuff—and when she really needs something high end, she “borrows” it from the department store where she works. A need for help with a zipper on one such to-die-for dress is what first sends her to Jonathan’s apartment where she doesn’t attempt to seduce him so much as attempt to induce sex. It gets awkward fast and soon she’s out the door and Jonathan is onto his next anonymous coupling.

Of course, this is going to be about how getting to know the girl next door turns things around for this guy, at least for that lonely time of year, from pre-Thanksgiving to just before Christmas, that occupies the play. By the end of Act I, after he spills to her the horrible hate-crime killing of his lover Gabriel, Jonathan and Claire are actually sleeping together—just sleeping. It’s sweet, and that’s what Claire thinks Jonathan is. He knows better, and tries to warn her. The question hanging in the air at the end of Act I is: is this a play about redemption through connection, as a gay man learns to overcome a traumatic event that cost him the love of his life, or is it about how the dark side can destroy even the best of provisional buddies?

Claire (Aya Cash) and Jonathan (Luke Macfarlane)

Claire (Aya Cash) and Jonathan (Luke Macfarlane)

When Act II opens we feel like we’re in some zippy rom-com where Jonathan becomes more or less a mothering “girlfriend” to mostly friendless Claire—her only contacts apart from Jonathan, despite her age, appearance, and keen fashion sense, are married men who take her out and then expect to bed her. Life for these urban anyones is all about quid pro quo sex acts until Claire and Jonathan begin to care for each other because they get to know each other—and a dreamy Christmas in a cabin in Vermont is, no lie, what they have in mind for a getaway. And we may be hoping that’s where Lopez wants to take us, showing how “two lonely people, strangers in the night” can share a dance and a kiss and flirt with the notion that they can be in love with each other and not be lovers. Sure.

Jonathan (Luke Macfarlane) and Claire (Aya Cash)

Jonathan (Luke Macfarlane) and Claire (Aya Cash)

Off-stage is a “Real Real Boy” who seems the kind of Gentleman Caller our Claire has been awaiting all this time, though we might suspect she’s also been dodging such in her knocking about with dealers—cards in Vegas, drugs in L.A.—as well as time in Paris and London, to say nothing of “way too long” in Orlando. In other words, Claire keeps on the move, and when she stands up Real Real Boy, it echoes the story Wes, who returns to Jonathan, fatefully, to try once more, tells about the reason he was on Grindr in the first place: he got stood up by friends on his birthday. Lopez’s characters are the people romantic comedies are never about. They’re the people who know that relationships don’t work out or that, when they do, someone comes along and bashes it.

Luke Macfarlane as Jonathan in  Reverberation

Luke Macfarlane as Jonathan in Reverberation

I’ve stressed the importance of trauma in the character of Jonathan because it’s easy to be fooled by his coping mechanisms. And everything he does is a coping mechanism. Somewhere underneath it all—the hiding and the warmth—is a very, very raw nerve ready to snap. Macfarlane plays Jonathan quite believably as the sort of guy who is wrapped so tightly he’s a mystery even to himself. Early on, a clichéd phonecall from Mom and Dad, anxious about whether he’s coming home for Thanksgiving, could have been used to give us something more than irked refusals to share, but, even so, Macfarlane lets body language and very neutral tones tell us a lot more than his words do, as we spy upon this man.

And looking on as voyeurs is key to the theatrical experience here. Andromache Chalfant’s amazingly detailed set creates two completely different spaces: the Spartan look of Claire’s contrasts the lived-in clutter—complete with huge paintings by the late Gabriel on every available wall—of Jonathan’s space. And Matthew Richards’ lighting acts almost like another character or at least a narrator. We see how eerie the dark spaces can be at night, as Jonathan’s nightmares make him call into uncertain shadows in his own apartment and the darkness above in Claire’s, while morning light makes everything feel homey and communal. The stairs outside the apartments' doors also plays its part, not simply as connection between two floors and, initially, two worlds, but also as a space of impromptu encounters. Williams’ direction and the set design make great use of open and closed doors.

Claire (Aya Cash) and Jonathan (Luke Macfarlane)

Claire (Aya Cash) and Jonathan (Luke Macfarlane)

As Claire, Aya Cash doesn’t play to the Holly Golightly or Sally Bowles comparisons one might be tempted to make; she’s not a loveable kook nor a sly charmer. She’s just an average youngish woman who considers herself too ordinary to expect anything extraordinary from life. Lopez wisely keeps her from ever becoming a succoring figure in the relationship, a fact that’s important to the play’s ending. And as Wes, Carl Lundstedt plays with perfect pitch the hardest scene of all: a smitten lover trying to be real rather than charming or clever or sexy.

Wes (Carl Lundstedt), Jonathan (Luke Macfarlane)

Wes (Carl Lundstedt), Jonathan (Luke Macfarlane)

Reverberation is a sensitive and provocative play, often entertaining in its speech rhythms and interactions, fun to watch in its use of movement and space and light, and full of the cadences of people dropping their façades and picking them up again. Even the lines that don’t quite work—there’s a particularly egregious use of the “sympathy card” idea at a key point—are within the realm of what these characters might attempt for a laugh or a stab at depth or as avoidance. Elements such as the right song at the wrong time may seem heavy as “triggers,” and the play’s dramatic outcome too sudden, but the final tableau takes us and Jonathan back to where he’s been all along.

Reverberation
By Matthew Lopez

Directed by Maxwell Williams

Set Design: Andromache Chalfont; Costume Design: Linda Cho; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Tei Blow; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Stage Manager: Marisa Levy; Assistant Stage Manager: Arielle Goldstein; Assistant Director: Sarah Hartman; Production Assistant: Chandalae Nyswonger

Hartford Stage, February 19-March 15, 2015

A Christmas Present

Review of A Christmas Carol at Hartford Stage First of all, full disclosure: I’m an A Christmas Carol enthusiast. Annually, “at this festive season of the year,” I watch Scrooge, the 1951 film starring Alastair Sims. And, depending upon circumstances, I sometimes manage viewings of the remake starring George C. Scott, and the charming cartoon version featuring Jim Backus as Mr. Magoo, and I’ll no doubt catch Bill Murray in the edgier Eighties update, Scrooged! I’ve also read the novella aloud several times and will gladly do so at the drop of a hat—preferably a Dickensian topper. The transformation of the world’s most famous miser into a benevolent figure full of good will is one of my favorite stories. What’s more, it’s a great ghost story too.

Others must feel the same way, which is why Michael Wilson’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic—generally called “immortal”—is enjoying its 17th seasonal production at Hartford Stage, directed by third-time director, and Associate Artistic Director, Maxwell Williams. Indeed, it’s the sort of production that has no doubt become a holiday tradition for many in the Hartford area.

Begin with Bill Raymond—who you might know from The Wire where he played “The Greek,” but who I remember as a drunken, irascible Santa in The Ref (another seasonal favorite)—as Ebenezer Scrooge. Raymond has a lock on this part at Hartford Stage and it’s fun to watch him vary his rhythms and reactions in a role that many of us could probably recite along with him. His Scrooge is more cantankerous than mean, a crotchety cuss who likes to mock well-meaning folk and dismiss heartfelt effusions. He—and maybe you know the feeling—simply has no patience with his fellowman any longer. But he’s also, and this Raymond gets across well, very self-satisfied . . . until those ghosts start puncturing his insularity. Then we watch him start questioning everything he thought he’d made up his mind about.

And this production, while keeping the three Ghosts—of Past, Present, and Future—mostly as Dickens conceived them, also throws at Scrooge a battery of skull-headed ghosts, lit with funhouse colors, that put a touch of Tim Burton into the proceedings. And Noble Shropshire, airborne and woebegone, makes for a great Marley, brandishing those chains he “forged in life” as though a lifeline keeping him tethered to the world. One of Dickens’ great ideas was the notion that cashboxes on chains would be the fetters of the man of business once his truck with the corporal world was done, and seeing Marley thus chained to the stage brings that idea home.

Wilson’s adaptation adds a touch of Wizard of Oz wherein three debtors Scrooge encounters on Christmas Eve are transformed into the ghosts who haunt his night. Johanna Morrison plays plaintive Bettye Pidgeon, a vendor of antique dolls, who becomes, arrayed in a vast sleigh, a matronly Ghost of Christmas Past, while Alan Rust plays a whimsical vendor of treats who becomes, in eye-popping finery, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and Michael Preston plays Mr. Marvel, a comical vendor of gadgets and notions who may or may not become the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, who arrives atop a steam-machine cycle. From each vendor, Scrooge grabs a prop by way of payment—antique doll, bottle of cheer, steam-driven clock—that dovetail with what the night holds in store. It’s a narrative device that helps to give motivation to all Scrooge’s encounters, and this is a show that, with its wide open space serving to support a lot of movement, recreates Dickens’ world as a world of meetings in the street.

But all that set-up does make the First Part of the show slower and a bit more expository than the Second Part, and the segments in the Past aren’t perhaps as chastening as they might be, though the Fezziwigs (Charlie Terrell and Rebecka Jones) are as lively as we’d hope and the parting between Ebenezer (Curtis Billings) and his beloved Belle (Gillian Williams) adds a dramatic focus amid the many comings and goings. Part Two is more concerned with what’s happening inside Scrooge; it features a very lively and enjoyable Victorian dinner party, that acts as a set-piece for holiday gatherings, at the home of Scrooge’s nephew (Billings again, who plays both the warmhearted Fred and the fatuous “Scrooge at 30” with a deft sense of presence, much as the lovely Williams, as both Belle and Fred’s wife lets Scrooge contemplate his nephew's life as what might have been his own happier life).

The costumes are all quite becoming and sumptuous, and the production’s many child actors charming in their roles as urchins and ghostly companions. At times Wilson’s script keeps faithful to the 1951 movie version—retaining the use of “Barbara Allen,” one of the loveliest tunes ever written—and at other points interacts with well-known wording in Dickens’ original, such as that bit about “dead as a doornail.” The play’s ending eschews the alternate endings of most filmed productions—either Scrooge springing his new self on Cratchit when the latter returns to work the day after Christmas (Dickens’ ending), or at the Cratchit’s home where he calls with his new found good cheer—in favor of Scrooge hosting a get-together of his own, after touching base with everyone he had oppressed on Christmas Eve. The change makes sense since “sets” in this busy production tend to consist of one or two handsome devices, such as Scrooge’s magnificent fourposter bed with canopy and curtains, or the cramped little table shared by all the Cratchits—with Robert Hannon Davis, a suitably buoyant Bob Cratchit.

All in all it’s an entertaining production that, no matter how familiar you may be with the story, offers much visual attraction, many lively vignettes, lots of capable touches and, at its heart, a mercurial character who, through a critical retrospective on his own life, comes to see a reason to change for the better. And, as the voice at the end of the 1951 film says, “may that be said of all of us.”

 

A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas By Charles Dickens, adapted and originally directed by Michael Wilson Directed by Maxwell Williams

Choreographer: Hope Clarke; Scenic Design: Tony Straiges; Costume Design: Alejo Vietti; Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel; Original Music and Sound Design: John Gromada; Original Costume Design: Zack Brown; Wig Designer: Brittany Hartman; Flying Effects: ZFX, Inc.; Music Director: Ken Clark; Associate Set Designer: Catherine Chung; Associate Lighting Designer: Robert W. Henderson, Jr.; Production Stage Manager: Martin Lechner; Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Hardy; Youth Director: Kristy Chambrelli; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe

Hartford Stage November 28-December 28, 2014