Megan Keith Chenot

Prove It!

Review of Proof, New Haven Theater Company

With David Auburn’s four character play, Proof, New Haven Theater Company once again proves that what they do best are plays driven by natural dialogue in a static location. In focusing on Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot), the daughter of Robert (George Kulp), a ground-breaking mathematician, who is trying to cope with her father’s loss, while fielding intrusions from her dad’s one-time grad student, Hal (Christian Shaboo), and her take-charge sister, Claire (Deena Nicol-Blifford), Proof departs from most NHTC offerings by presenting a female main character. And that’s to the good as Chenot is one of the troupe’s most versatile actors. Here, she gets to be prickly and melancholic, romantic and distracted, all while keeping us in tune with what’s going on in Cathy’s interesting head.

Turning 25 as the play opens, Cathy is a young woman who has inherited some of her dad’s math genius, but hasn’t really applied herself, it seems. Worried that mathematical minds tend to peak around 28, she opens the play in a funk, chatting with her already deceased father. It’s a nifty opening because it gets the relationship between Robert and Cathy on the table fast: he doted on her, but, in his last decade or so, he needed her as his companion and attendant because he was, as he puts it, “in the bug house.” From beyond the grave, as it were, Robert’s voice can be encouraging and consoling, but his very presence may suggest perhaps that Cathy might share both the capacity for mental breakthrough and breakdown.

Hal (Christian Shaboo), Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot)

Hal (Christian Shaboo), Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot)

Into the situation comes a possible love interest, Hal, who is dedicated to his mentor’s past greatness and hopes against hope that something worth publishing can be found in the reams and reams of notebooks Robert left behind. Robert, suffering from hypergraphia, tended to write gibberish as though straight from the Burning Bush, and so there’s a lot to slog through. Cathy is both dismissive of Hal’s efforts and a little bit conciliatory, though he may be trying too hard to draw her out. Shaboo seems always to play sympathetic guys, so we probably aren’t as distrustful of Hal’s intentions as Cathy is.

The one to be distrustful about is Claire who is not nearly so star-struck about the old man as Cathy is, and who believes the sisters erred in not turning him over to professional help. Claire has a much more practical mind than either her sister or father so tends to be the wet-blanket to their enthusiasms. It’s important that she be a not-so-sympathetic voice of reason and Nicol-Blifford gets her across as likable and even-tempered, if pushy.

Directed by Steven Scarpa with a good sense of pacing, the NHTC production is strengthened by its ability to make somewhat prosaic situations—bickering well-intentioned sisters, ingratiating but nerdy guy, overbearing has-been paterfamilias—come alive with forthright charm. The flashbacks to Robert while alive let us see both the manic side of his condition and his mellow months of remission. Kulp handles both with a sincerity that shows us Robert from Cathy’s point of view, as someone who was once something extraordinary and then, sadly, could only hope for being normal.

Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot), Robert (George Kulp)

Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot), Robert (George Kulp)

As a play, Proof works by short scenes of two or three characters and keeps its dialogue focused on the back and forth of exchange. Some of the best moments are in the timing between Chenot and Nicol-Blifford as Cathy is apt to verbally undercut her sister’s views, and vice versa. The hot and cold approach to romance between Cathy and Hal feels contemporary enough, though tinged with a romantic comedy tone.

The play’s main issue is whether or not a woman can be a math genius—a plot point that works both for the theme of what we inherit from our forebears and for the theme of the incalculable equation of love. There's also a neat play on proof, as mathematical solution and evidence. In the end, we see that the burden of proof can be too easily assumed by those who don’t know as much as they think they do, and that love is something that has to be proven again and again.

Hal (Christian Shaboo), Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot)

Hal (Christian Shaboo), Cathy (Megan Keith Chenot)

 

Proof
By David Auburn
Directed by Steven Scarpa

Stage Manager: Margaret Mann; Set: George Kulp; Lighting: Peter Chenot; Board Ops: Margaret Mann and Erich Greene

Cast: Megan Keith Chenot; George Kulp; Deena Nicol-Blifford; Christian Shaboo;

New Haven Theater Company Stage
at English Markets Building
839 Chapel Street
May 5, 6, 7 & 12, 13, 14

The Proof is in the Play

Preview of Proof, New Haven Theater Company

Though the New Haven Theater Company has stretched themselves in a variety of directions over the years—including the musical Urinetown, the fantasy Shipwrecked!, and large cast American classics like Our Town and, this past winter, Bus Stop—their bread-and-butter shows are small cast, dialogue-driven plays by playwrights like David Mamet, Conor McPherson, or the company’s own resident playwright Drew Gray. Getting back to where they once belonged after the stretch of Bus Stop, NHTC opens David Auburn’s popular, Tony Award and Pulitzer-winning play Proof next week at their performance space at the English Building Markets.

Directed by Steve Scarpa, who last directed Our Town for the Company, Proof was first considered years ago as an apt NHTC vehicle but they weren’t able to secure the rights. Fittingly, with Scarpa as director and the cast comprised of Megan Keith Chenot, George Kulp, Christian Shaboo, and Deena Nicol-Blifford, the play could be called “classic NHTC”—all four were in Our Town and have been in numerous productions. This time around, Kulp—who directed Bus Stop and typically pulls down “the father figure” parts—will play Robert, a deceased math genius who had mental problems, with Chenot, last seen as the put-upon chanteuse in Bus Stop, playing his daughter Catherine, who inherited his math smarts and, possibly, his mental problems as well. Shaboo, who often gets the romantic leads and was last seen as the harried husband in Smudge last fall, plays Hal, Robert’s former student who is trying to sort out the great man’s papers, among which is a proof that could be game-changing. Nicol-Blifford, who directed Smudge and appeared in The Cult last spring, is the older daughter, Claire, distanced from both her father and sister.

The cast of Proof: Megan Keith Chenot, Christian Shaboo, Deena Nicol-Blifford, George Kulp

The cast of Proof: Megan Keith Chenot, Christian Shaboo, Deena Nicol-Blifford, George Kulp

Chenot feels the play is particularly suited to NHTC because “it’s about family and we’re family.” Scarpa agrees: “It feeds into what we do best—shows with good parts and high stakes. Auburn said he could’ve used anything as the father’s special area; he wanted it to be a solitary undertaking in which one could be brilliant but that also has its burdens, so math here can also be, to some degree, what it takes to be an artist.” Kulp agrees, the play is “about having a certain gift and what it means, a legacy that can be passed on so that children, perhaps, do better than their parents.” Chenot has done some research into the math to sound like she knows what she’s talking about as Catherine, a brilliant woman, but she also takes seriously Catherine’s fears that genius and madness are related, “as they sometimes are for creative artists.”

It’s also helpful, in regard to NHTC’s resources, that the play has one setting: the backyard of a run-down home, where upkeep isn’t the strong point. In Bus Stop, which sold out its run, the setting was a public space where many personal interactions were taking place; this time, it’s a private space, so that the show, Scarpa says, is “even more intimate.” The whole cast is enamored of Auburn’s writing and that, they point out, is what the company looks for first and foremost: “great scripts with a lot of range.”

“We’re about the truth of the story,” Scarpa says, and Kulp adds out that the art of storytelling is ultimately what keeps the Company, who all have other jobs and pursuits, coming back to the back room at the English Building. Kulp, who is an Equity actor, gave up some professional jobs to be involved in Proof, but that’s the attraction of working with familiar friends on pet projects in their own space.

Scarpa, who sees himself as “the enabler of the process” as director, aims to be as supportive as possible of his cast. He knew from the start that Chenot was “perfect for the role” of Catherine, though it couldn’t be more different from the not-too-brainy singer she put across in Bus Stop. This time, Chenot, who has taught theater in high school, will be relying on some of that teacherly poise. As with Bus Stop, though, the drama and the humor comes from people being themselves, in the kinds of interactions that can be intense one moment and more lighthearted the next.

A play about family, genius, madness, fear, rivalry, and with a love story too. To the entire company, all of whom are involved in choosing the plays, it was “uniformly obvious” that Proof is a real New Haven Theater Company kind of play. Need proof? See the show.

New Haven Theater Company is Megan Keith Chenot, Peter Chenot, Drew Gray, Erich Greene, George Kulp, Margaret Mann, Deena Nicol-Blifford, Steve Scarpa, Christian Shaboo, J. Kevin Smith, John Watson, Trevor Williams.

The New Haven Theater Company
Proof
By David Auburn
Directed by Steve Scarpa

The English Building Markets
839 Chapel Street, New Haven
May 5, 6, 7 & 12, 13, 14

New Haven Maine-stays

The New Haven Theater Company’s production of Almost, Maine makes a virtue of its minimalist set to create a kind of fantasy space where all the action takes place. That’s fitting because Almost, Maine almost takes place in a real place, but John Cariani’s script likes to interject little fabulistic touches that let characters be symptoms as much as people. Which is a way of saying that the point of each of the nine vignettes that comprise the play is that love makes everything different. We might think we’re normal people in normal situations, but when love gets involved, magical or bizarre or at least unusual things happen, and the way we talk about what we’re going through has to make use of metaphors and imagery. So if Glory (Jenny Schuck) is carrying a broken heart, or a man (Erich Greene) has been reduced by the loss of hope, well, Cariani’s play is going to treat such things literally. Which means you may be like Phil (Steve Scarpa) and Marci (Anna Klein), who have come to the end of their relationship—waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The NHTC has the knack of playing things with a straight-forward gusto that lets us in on the joke while also being as forthright as these characters need to be. It’s fun to watch pratfalls of emotion (fall in love, get it?) overtake two beer-drinking buddies, Randy (Peter Chenot) and Lendall (Christian Shaboo) because the guy-ness of these guys is so vivid. It’s fun to watch Steve, a guy who can’t feel pain (Scarpa) get hit with an ironing board by someone else’s wife (Deena Nicol) who has just the right air of annoyed woman doing laundry on a Friday night. Scarpa takes a page from Dustin Hoffman’s autistic fellow in Rain Man to make us feel both sympathy and amusement.

And that’s the key note of the evening. Every one of these characters is suffering in some way—I particularly liked Chenot as Jimmy, the sad sack behind a wall of downed Buds who cheerily confronts Sandrine (Anna Klein) who ditched him months ago and is now on the way back to her bachelorette party (ouch!)—and yet the comedy is always there too. So whether it’s a couple (Mallory Pellegrino and Christian Shaboo) whose bags full of love seem rather wildly disproportionate or two snow-sports friends (Jenny Schuck and Peter Chenot) who suddenly discover there are such things as indoors sports, there is usually an outcome that seems for the best.

Directors Megan Chenot and Margaret Mann should be happy with the pacing of their evening, and the Chenots’ incidental music adds very appropriate touches to backgrounds and transitions—I particularly liked the banjo that adds a jauntiness to the proceedings. Nothing goes on too long, though some scenes are more developed than others—Scarpa and Klein’s scene felt the most real—and not all the scenes end with love triumphant: Greene’s Man gets the most biting lines in the play about how leaving someone with just a little hope can be like stealing their oxygen bit by bit, and Deena Nichol dragging a wheelie suitcase away while saying “yes, yes” stabs as well.

NHTC have found another dialogue-driven entertainment that showcases their grasp of regular folks in irregular circumstances—a strength of their Our Town as well. Added to the regulars of the company are newcomers who add a lot, replacing some who have left our town for other horizons.

Almost, Maine plays again tonight at 8 p.m. and next Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the English Building Markets on Chapel Street.

Almost, Maine Written by John Cariani Directed by Megan Chenot and Margaret Mann

Peter Chenot, Erich Greene, Anna Klein, Deena Nicol, Mallory Pellegrino, Steve Scarpa, Christian Shaboo, Jenny Schuck

Original music written and performed by Megan and Peter Chenot Technical production: George Kulp and Drew Gray

New Haven Theater Company at English Building Markets 839 Chapel Street

Almost, Maine is Almost Here

The latest offering from the New Haven Theater Company goes up this Thursday night and plays for the next two weekends. Following on the warm, fuzzy feeling that their production of Our Town inspired in the fall, the folks at NHTC have jumped into a more contemporary play about a fictitious town: Almost, Maine, by John Cariani. Co-directed by Megan Chenot (the Stage Manager in Our Town) and Margaret Mann (Mrs. Soames in Our Town), Almost, Maine finds NHTC returning to the same space—in the back of the English Building Markets on Chapel—where they staged Our Town, to take us to another “almost” town. Mann says the troupe really “bonded like a family” during the Our Town run, and remarks that she’s never been part of a theatrical group where “the entire company gets along” so well, all committed to making “the best production possible.” The group wanted to find a new vehicle quickly while still riding the good vibes from Our Town, both among the company and from the NHTC’s fans and supporters. Megan Chenot knew of the popular winter play Almost, Maine, having staged it with high school students during her time at Cheshire Academy. It’s a family friendly play, language-wise, and Mann calls it “funny and refreshing.” And it’s one of the most staged plays in our nation’s high schools since its first successful run—in Portland, Maine—in 2004. The play was recently staged at TheatreWorks in Hartford.

Set in a small town in Maine, the play brings together 8 different vignettes, 4 in each act, framed by a prologue, interlogue, and epilogue. Each of the segments presents a couple finding love, losing love or grappling with love in some way, and all are happening more or less simultaneously on a winter’s night around 9 p.m. Mann characterizes the dialogue as “charming and real,” and Chenot—who is also a member of the musical duo Mission O—has written incidental music to help with the transitions.

Mann volunteered to work with Chenot when the latter proposed the play but didn’t want to direct it solo. Mann has found that the process of working with her NHTC colleagues in this capacity has let her “direct the way I would like to be directed.” Which is a way of saying that she doesn’t see this as a production she controls but rather one where collaboration is the method. It’s all about “encouragement, and trying things.” Chenot praises her co-director for being “patient, kind, and so observant of every important nuance.”

NHTC has developed a great feel for ensemble work as the same dedicated players appear again and again in their productions. Almost, Maine will feature 8 actors playing 17 characters, which means everyone gets at least two roles. That element of the staging—seeing actors change roles before your eyes—adds to the entertainment in such an intimate space as the English Building Markets. The scenic design is fairly minimal—with some of the props for sale in the Market itself—but there will be a scrim for an important special effect: the Aurora Borealis.  And, of course, snow.

According to Mann, the play is very definitely set in Maine—way up in Maine. Maybe to the point where our sense of “north” becomes somewhat mythic. In any case, it’s a play that seems to strike a chord with contemporary Americans, especially—perhaps—those who know what cold is. And those are the people who might enjoy a warm night of theater with the friendly faces of the New Haven Theater Company.

 

To add to the warmth: NHTC invites its audience to bring new or gently used winter clothing, to be donated to a local charity, as well as unopened cat food and clean blankets and towels, to be donated to the Purr Project of New Haven.

Almost, Maine by John Cariani Directed by Megan Chenot and Margaret Mann

The English Building Markets 839 Chapel Street, New Haven

November 14-16 and 21-23 at 8pm Tickets are $20 For more information, visit www.newhaventheatercompany.com

The Changing Same

Like more than a few of us, I suspect, I had never seen a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. It’s one of those classic texts that it’s easy to be pretty sure we know all about without bothering to see it. I do recall reading it aloud, round-robin style, in English class in 11th grade. A budding literary sophisticate, I scorned much of it, and I can still remember my main objections: its normative assumptions about what makes for “regular folks” in the good ol’ U.S. of A. seemed to me not only dated but insufferably corny. If you went to school any time after 1964, it was simply too hard to accept a town that’s all-white, and where the “other” is signified by Polish Catholics across the train tracks. Sure, the actual setting of the play is the end of the 19th century to the eve of World War I (and it was first produced in the era of fascist sympathies pre-WWII), and Wilder is quite aware that the world he is depicting was already history. Still, for any child of the Sixties, the play was simply too retrograde, its fond evocation of how parents repeat themselves in offspring just, y’know, Squaresville, man. And that’s one of the things about Our Town—it tends to, and is intended to, inspire thoughts about how time passes and about the changes and the sames of ye olde status quo. There’s a priceless moment where the elderly presider over the local soda fountain reminisces about how it was once possible for a dog to take a nap in the middle of Main Street in the middle of the afternoon, undisturbed. Ah, the good old days—now there’s horses and carriages everywhere and even those encroaching horseless carriages! While no one in a contemporary audience would remember anything like that, we all have similar recollections that date us. Who still remembers milk delivered to the door? Newspapers routes? Wilder wrote the play not to preserve the past, conservatively, but to show that whatever we know as “normal” is going to go the way of all flesh right into the graveyard, eventually.

Which is a way of saying: Don’t judge a play by its first Act. Sure, Our Town starts homey enough to fit squarely in some kind of Will Rogers-type recollection about what life was like when everyone in town knew everyone else’s ancestors, but by the end it has let in the space of the beyond. Back before outer space was the answer to our striving beyond the quotidian earth, it was possible to let “eternity” be the common Unknown looming over us all, and Wilder does a good job of bringing the time beyond time into the play—by making it just as homely and familiar, but with a key difference. The dead know what we don’t know, and what they know reveals at last what has been implicit all along: the perspective of the Stage Manager is “from beyond the grave”—like poets and saints, seeing the length of an individual human life as the speck in the span of the ages that it is.

The New Haven Theater Company’s production, directed by Steven Scarpa, in a spare playing space in a big, high-ceiling room at the English Building Market, its set consisting of two groups of three chairs and a quartet of black monoliths that look like pillars holding up the sky and like monuments to the dead, gives us a straight-forward rendering of Wilder’s script that lets us appreciate how much specificity there is in the play’s seemingly generic approach. Grover’s Mill is a town with an identity, and it's great the way the NHTC production lets us imagine the town the way the play wants us to.

Helping greatly with that task is our Stage Manager (Megan Chenot). Rather than the usual benign old codger who is supposed to keep us apprized of the whos and whats of the town, Chenot has the fresh forthrightness of those tour guides you might see leading a bunch of prospectives, their families, and random shutterbugs around Yale’s campus. She’s got the skinny on everything and delivers it all with the kind of amused forbearance we expect from grade school teachers. It’s like the whole town is her “class” (us too) and she wants to lead them along the path to greater knowledge, no matter how painful it may be. Chenot creates a very warming, reassuring effect, and that helps, particularly as there’s likely to be much sniffling and wiping of eyes by the time Act Three ends.

Other reflection on this well-cast show—special mention of the perfect match of Mallory Pellegrino for the role of Emily Webb. The heart of the play comes in Act Two when Emily and George Gibbs, the boy next-door, finally realize what their lives have been leading to. Pellegrino shows just the right mix of bashfulness and smart-girl knowingness not only to win over George—the town’s top athlete, bound for agricultural college—but everyone else as well. It’s a moment that seems so sincere and intimate it justifies everything the Stage Manager is trying to show us.

Other fine touches from this familiar ensemble: Margaret Mann’s comic turns as a professor eager to take us back to the Pleistocene in explaining the town’s interest, and as everyone’s maiden aunt in the wedding scene, gushing with the kind of fulsomeness that makes cliché both comical and real; Christian Shaboo, as George, seems young enough to be as unselfconscious as George is; George Kulp and Susan Kulp play the Webbs with a familiarity that seems as if we’re actually in their home, and the awkward, prenuptial visit of George to his future father-in-law is comic, and almost lets in lots of things best left unsaid; as Doc Gibbs and his wife, J. Kevin Smith and Deena Nicol have a more weary hominess than the Webbs—with the Doctor having to make housecalls (who remembers that ancient custom?), and his wife fantasizing about a trip to Paris as though it were on the other side of the earth; the families’ breakdown at the graveyard feels genuine rather than stagey, a big plus; Peter Chenot, as deliveryman-about-town Howie Newsome, is as real as the imaginary (to us) carthorse he leads around.

Perhaps the most forward-looking aspect of Wilder’s play is when George and Emily, in their respective bedrooms in their respective parents’ next-door houses, try to set up a means of surreptitious communication, if only to study together. Do we need look any further for an early version of the urge to text and share files? And when the Stage Manager comments on the fact that most people end their lives married, it’s a rather obvious reflection that—in these parts, anyway—more people than ever, even those who eschew heterosexual coupling, have that opportunity.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, I reckon.

 

Our Town By Thornton Wilder Directed by Steven Scarpa Produced by George Kulp Production Design by Drew Gray Stage Management by Mary Tedford

Cast (in order of appearance): Megan Chenot; J. Kevin Smith; Sam Taubl; Peter Chenot; Deena Nicol; Susan Kulp; Christian Shaboo; Josie Kulp; Spenser Long; Mallory Pellegrino: Margaret Mann; George Kulp; Donna E. Glen; Erich Greene; Jim Lones; Rick Beebe; Jesse Jo Toth

English Building Market 839 Chapel Street

2013, September 19, 20, 21; 26, 27, 28 8 p.m.

We're All Townies

As Steve Scarpa, of the New Haven Theater Company, sees it, Thornton Wilder is “our own.” And if that’s so, his town is our town. That play, one of the truly iconic American plays, is the latest project of the NHTC. Scarpa, who directed the play before in Shelton, finds himself now, five years later, reflecting on how the play’s big theme is the “idea of memory.” And, on that note, it’s worth remembering that Wilder is buried in his family plot in Mt. Carmel Cemetery, marked only by a little plaque, that he graduated from Yale in the class of 1920, that he lived for several decades in our environs (Hamden), and that he was a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and that his classic play, which treats American small-town life sub specie aeternitatis, is, this year, 75 years old.

That’s kind of hard to believe, since the play, in some ways, seems like it should date back much further—to the Twenties, at least, even to the previous century—but, in fact, Our Town represents ideas that Wilder was picking up from that era—the period of late Modernism—including the style of Gertrude Stein’s cubist masterpiece The Making of Americans, and the meditation on the changing same that is James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, then known as “Work in Progress.” Wilder was an early enthusiast of Joyce’s work and penned an essay about it. The idea of evoking a place—for Joyce, Dublin, for Wilder, Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire—through a historied sense of time is a common feature that shows the modernist influence in Wilder’s best-known work.

In staging the play, Scarpa finds himself more than ever aware of how New Haven, where he was born, has changed in his own lifetime, making Our Town’s sense of both a place’s permanence and impermanence very much a hometown concern. As Scarpa sees it, Wilder’s play is about a place that could be any place, but that doesn’t make the town a generic Anytown, U.S.A. Rather it’s a universal place, and reminds us that, no matter where we hail from, we remember a place through a particular sense of time.

For the New Haven Theater Company, that sense of time and place is also important. The close-knit group has lived and worked together for some time now—more than one married couple can be found in the cast, and, in the case of the Kulps, their daughter is also involved. That means the generational sense so important to the play is not only thematic, it’s also an element of the company. That feature of NHTC is important to Scarpa, for, though this production does include non-members who auditioned for parts, the company’s ensemble sensibility—that sense of short-hand between actors who know each other well—makes his job easier and more fun. Fun that extends to the audience—many the friends, families, and co-workers of the NHTC actors, in their regular lives—who can look forward to seeing who so-and-so is this time.

One interesting element of the casting: The Stage Manager—the part Wilder himself played and which is perhaps best known as a vehicle for Hal Holbrook—will be played by a woman: Megan Chenot. Scarpa finds that the change in gender gives the play a different tone—more engaging and personable—but that it also makes the Stage Manager’s managing of Emily’s marriage a more nuanced occasion. The play, Scarpa stresses, isn’t as sentimental as maybe our own memories—many of us read it or saw it produced in high school—make it out to be, and that means adapting the play to our time may well be in order.

Scarpa hit upon the idea of doing the play while researching Wilder’s papers in the Beinecke for an article about New Haven turning 150. That piece provoked another, in the Arts Paper, about Wilder, and the idea of re-staging the play came from there. The New Haven Theater Company tends to be a shape-shifting affair without a permanent performing space, and finding the right spot can be a chore. This time they’ve been able to use a big, empty room at the back of English Building Market, next to the Institute Library, on Chapel Street, a location that is not only a bit of New Haven history but which, by virtue of the antiques and heirlooms it sells, offers a serendipitous step into memories of other times.

Drew Gray, relative new-comer to NHTC, is responsible for transforming the room into a stage-set. Gray expected an easy task as the play famously asks for “no design” and is meant to be a theatrical space, such as would be found in any real theater. Not being in a theater, per se, means “something needs to be there,” Gray says, and he hit upon the idea of musical notes. Music is directly referenced in the play, such as the hymn “Blessed Be the Tie that Binds,” and Gray set out to create “abstract shapes to sculpt the space” so as to recall music.

Gray has also incorporated ideas he first encountered in Super Studio, a conceptual design studio in the 1970s. Their idea of “life without objects” is one that Gray finds serviceable in his design concept where most of the setting takes place in the mind, not in actual furniture and props. He has introduced two ten-foot columns or pillars to break up the space and, with changes in lighting, create shadows for effect. It’s a case of making “the scenery disappear into the scenery” Gray says, and that sounds high concept enough to serve both the modernism of Wilder’s vision as well as its timeless sense of classical civilization.

Both Scarpa and Gray stress that Wilder was about more than just making a feel-good paean to Americana. The play, Scarpa says, is “both funnier and sadder” than many viewers might expect, and that the NHTC’s effort is to “make something beautiful” that will live up to Wilder’s intention to add America’s “moral, decent” values to what Wilder saw as the long march through history to civilized behavior.

Given that Wilder first staged the play 75 years ago—in 1938—with the world on the bring of World War II, it’s worthwhile to reflect on how far along we are on that march, now.

Our Town by Thornton Wilder Directed by Steve Scarpa

English Building Market, 839 Chapel Street September 19, 20, 21, 26, 27, 28 8 p.m.

Theater News: Keeping Company

The New Haven Theater Company has built up a local reputation for their staging of economic and effective productions of well-known plays—Urinetown, in 2012, is still a high-point, as well as some grab-ya-by-yer-lapels Mamet plays like Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow, not to mention slices of vintage Americana like Waiting for Lefty. Rarely, it seems, do they show off brand new plays. But tonight, thanks to newish member Drew Gray, a product of Bard College, key players in the NHTC family—George Kulp, Peter Chenot, Megan Chenot, Steve Scarpa, Hallie Martenson—will give staged readings of two brand-new plays written by Gray and being work-shopped by NHTC for eventual production. The reading is free, open to all, and takes place at The Luck & Levity Brewshop at 118 Court Street at 8 p.m., preceded by a reception at 7:30.

The new full-length play is “The Magician,” about a less-than-stellar magician on the less-than-five-star Vegas circuit. It’s after another lackluster performance and Mark Wonderton is shooting the shit with his manager Ronnie when he receives news that, as they say, "changes everything," leading to a new performance ethic that might just knock ’em dead. Billed as being akin to “two Mamet characters stuck in a Beckett play,” “The Magician” sounds like the kind of pithy little confrontational drama NHTC can really rock.

The play is paired with a short called “A Tall Hill… …A Warm Day,” in which a somewhat sad-sack character mourns a lost love, a sort of poetic coming to terms with the one that got away.

Both plays will have brief talk-backs with the playwright.

And, in case you’re worried that NHTC will shun their task of giving us grassroots theatrical evenings of American classics, how’s Our Town in the fall strike you? Thornton Wilder’s text has bedeviled many a high school English class to say nothing of all the high school stages it has graced with its winsome, wholesome charm. And yet. Wilder was something of a modernist who did things like read Finnegans Wake in his free time (or “Work in Progress,” as it was known then), so maybe NHTC will bring out the avant-gardey hi-jinx rather than the cuddly Grandpop Walton aura. Wilder attended Yale and ended his days in Hamden, and the play is 75 years young this year. All good reasons—coupled with NHTC’s way of doing this kind of thing, as directed by Steve Scarpa, who directed Clifford Odets’ Lefty in the midst of the OWS winter—to roast this chestnut yet again.

Manic Mamet

The Yale Cabaret is unexpectedly dark this weekend, so what’s a fan of New Haven theater to do? Answer: go see The New Haven Theater Company’s production of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, delivered in quick and dirty fashion by director George Kulp at UpCrown Creative Studios on Crown Street. The play builds upon triads to create a dilemma: three characters, three scenes, and a choice: which of two films to “green light.” For recently promoted movie producer Bobby Gould (J. Kevin Smith, anxiously expansive), it’s not simply a choice about which film would do better or make more money, it’s also a choice about loyalties, about love and lust, about—yes, even in Hollywood—responsibility. The situation also carries implications of sexual politics and office politics. With the Petraeus scandal currently running amok in the press, the NHTC has yet again pulled out of its hat a play that speaks to its moment.

Of the two films, one is a sure-fire blockbuster—a buddy prison picture that would be a vehicle for Doug Brown, a big-name star—while the other is a do-gooder: a film about “the end of the world” through a nuclear disaster (think: The Morning After). The first film is pitched by Charlie Fox (Steve Scarpa, aggressive and fast-talking).  Sweaty and dying for a coffee, Charlie is a friend and colleague of Bobby’s from way back, who now is poised to deliver the coup that will make them both rich men and set them on to bigger and better things. The Brown film is the proverbial pot of gold the rainbow’s end always promised.

When Charlie enters, Bobby is giving a “courtesy read” to the nuclear disaster novel and scorning it. The idea of making it into a film is poised to be a joke until. . . . Male sexual one-upmanship rears it head when the two men bet on Bobby’s ability to seduce his pretty, temporary secretary, Karen (Megan Keith Chenot, lithe and blithe), who seems to know nothing about the film business and not much about being a secretary. Seemingly guileless, in other words. And, in Charlie’s view, not slutty enough to sleep with Bobby “just because,” and also not ambitious enough to sleep with him just to get ahead. So, the wager: if Bobby can get her into bed, it will have to be on the basis of his own charms.

The play’s middle scene, then, is the seduction scene at Bobby’s place, and the final scene is the fall-out, so to speak, on the morning after (10 a.m., time for the do-or-die meeting with Ross, the man upstairs whose OK is needed for the Doug Brown project). Bobby is only going to pitch one film and his new “change of heart” (if we can call it that) is leaning toward the disaster picture. What about friendship?

The strength of this production is that it moves at a fast and furious pace—Scarp and Smith are gangbusters at delivering the rapid-fire speech Mamet is famous for, talking over each other, responding to cues before the other has finished speaking. The technique creates a believable social friction between two colleagues, also friends, who know each other’s moves and are happy to be on the same page. Things slow down a bit with Karen, who at first, seen through the men’s eyes, seems like the kind of prize that goes with being newly made kings. Chenot plays Karen with detached intelligence: she doesn’t fawn over the men nor try to entice, but in the scene at Bobby’s place, all comfy on the couch, we see that her matter-of-factness about the quid pro quo seduction surprises Bobby, who still thinks you have to use subterfuge in these matters.

It’s the sort of thing you don’t expect to find in Mamet: the scene is almost sweet and is gently comical. It also shows how easily the manipulator becomes the manipulated. Karen, you see, believes passionately in the nuclear disaster picture, called The Bridge. And that passion, now shared suddenly by Bobby, becomes the bridge between them.  This part of the play would benefit from Smith switching gears a little more to convince us Bobby is convinced.

The play’s outcome can be read various ways, and one of the demands of Speed-the-Plow is that the production has to decide which way it’s going to go. Are we meant to side with Charlie or with Karen? Which film is in the “best interests” of Bobby, and what exactly are those interests and when should personal interest in a project be set aside for some other criteria, more neutral or more noble, as the case may be?

Is The Bridge part of a temptation best set aside, or is it the path to salvation?

Kulp's direction goes for the pragmatism of the play, which makes sense since it's hard to see a moral high-ground in Mamet's vision. The final scene climaxes with gripping precision: Scarpa explodes without making a mess and Smith manages to salvage Bobby’s dignity even as we see that he has ceased being his own man.

This is entertaining Mamet, and the NHTC keeps its eye on the ball throughout, delivering a speedy Speed-the-Plow.  It goes by fast, and you might have to lean forward a little to catch it all.

The play shows for two more nights, three performances: Friday, 7 p.m.; Saturday, 4 & 7 p.m.

Speed-the-Plow By David Mamet Directed by George Kulp Produced by Drew Gray

Stage Manager: Erich Greene; Lighting Technician: Tom DeChello

New Haven Theater Company at UpCrown Creative Studios 216 Crown Street, New Haven

November 14, 16, 17, 2012

Mamet Revisited

STP Postcard

Next Wednesday, November 14, The New Haven Theater Company kicks off its four show run of David Mamet’s edgy and entertaining play, Speed-the-Plow.  The director, George Kulp, and two of the three cast members were involved in the troupe’s production of the playwright’s Glengarry Glen Ross in 2010.  It’s good to see a return to Mamet as his dialogue-driven dramas bring out the strengths of the Company, letting them show off their ability with close ensemble work.  The key to good Mamet is pacing, and Kulp feels that his actors—J. Kevin Smith as Bobby Gould, a recently risen movie studio bigwig, Steve Scarpa as Charlie Fox, a lower-level associate but friend of long-standing, certain that he has a property that will be his big break, and Megan Keith Chenot as Karen, a temporary secretary new to the world of movie-making who might represent other values, or who might be a hustling go-getter—are finding new and interesting aspects of the play.

The NHTC’s recent productions have offered a certain degree of timeliness in this uncertain era of economic downturn.  I remember seeing their Glengarry Glen Ross on a night when the stock market hit a new low and the desperation of real estate salesmen in the play could easily extend to Wall Street traders.  Smith played the loquacious Ricky Roma, Scarpa was Williamson the less-than-savvy office manager, and Kulp played Shelly “Machine” Levine, the hinge for much of the pathos in the play.  All three actors were also involved in Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty, which Scarpa directed with a relevant sense of solidarity and struggle at a time when there were OWS tents on the New Haven Green.  Then came their big production of Urinetown, the musical by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, a show with a theme of straitened circumstances and the tensions between haves and have-nots.  Kulp played Caldwell B. Cladwell, the resident big-wig, and Chenot played his daughter, Hope, who falls in love with Bobby Strong, a rabble rouser.  Scarpa played Officer Barrell, a bullying cop who had more than a buddy’s affection for his partner Officer Lockstock.

Scarpa, a big fan of Mamet, initially proposed that the group tackle another of the playwright’s works, known for their bristling dialogue, earthy vocabulary, fast, overlapping exchanges and arresting non sequiturs.  Kulp offered to direct when he saw that Scarpa and Smith and Chenot were perfect for the roles.  “It’s great when we can find a play that matches us and what we do,” Kulp said, “I think people who have seen Kevin, Steve, and Megan in other plays will be impressed to see them stretch themselves as actors, as they do in this play.  I’m very honored to be working with them.”

The play will be staged at Upcrown on Crown Street, a new space for NHTC, but one with, Kulp says, an upscale classiness that makes it suitable for the slick office of a Hollywood movie producer.  Because NHTC doesn’t have a permanent theatrical space and makes do with what’s available, or what best suits (as in their staging of Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio at Ultra Radio station on College Street), plays like Mamet’s, which don’t demand elaborate sets and can be produced almost anywhere, are ideal.

What might the play—which Kulp describes as a drama about one’s priorities and the decisions that make one question one’s loyalties—have to say to us following so closely on the heels of a major election?  The idea that someone might have second thoughts about a sure way to make money, in favor of a goal more worthwhile, could have some relevance.  Though Kulp and company are doing the play in the present day, Speed-the-Plow initially appeared in the Eighties, at a time when Hollywood was in search of bigger and bigger blockbusters.  One of the plot points is that Gould asks Karen to read a novel about the end of the world and then report on it—at his place. It’s a seduction ploy on his part, but he ends up swayed by her enthusiasm for the project.  Certainly, today, apocalyptic film scenarios are a dime-a-dozen and we might have reasons to question Karen’s sincerity; then again, the real concern isn’t the topics of the films pitched by Charlie and Karen, but rather the stakes of the “old boy” camaraderie between Bobby and Charlie and the more intangible and probably less enduring sex appeal between Bobby and Karen.  Still, at a time when more women are directors and producers and in politics than was the case in the Eighties, it will be interesting to see how Mamet’s power struggle plays out. What carries the day, in the end?  What, if anything, is Gould committed to?

The New Haven Theater Company is back, and they’re doing Mamet.  God speed the play.

David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow Directed by George Kulp

Upcrown Creative Studios 216 Crown Street, 2nd Floor November 14 & 16 at 7 p.m. November 17 at 4 p.m. &  7 p.m.

For tickets and info visit: New Haven Theater Company

Power To The Peeple

Prognosticators sometimes write about the future threat of world-wide drought.  But how often does anyone speculate about the fate of private toilet facilities in such a world?  Urinetown, Book and Lyrics by Greg Kotis, Music and Lyrics by Mark Hollmann, dramatizes, in comic, cartoonish fashion, that very situation.  In the world it depicts, human waste elimination is permitted only in public facilities, run by a ruthless corporation, UGC, and everyone must pay for the privilege to pee.  Then along comes trouble, trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for . . . pee. As staged by the New Haven Theater Company in their performance space on Court Street, the Tony-Award-winning Urinetown is lively grassroots theater, a showcase that allows the entire company—expanded with some new recruits to achieve a cast of 17—to show off singing voices and dance moves and comic timing we didn’t even know they had.  The company has always shown a strong propensity for ensemble work, but what they’ve achieved this time may surprise—and should certainly delight—their audience.

The musical itself, which has been popular since its Off-Broadway debut in 2001, around the time of 9/11, isn’t just romantic silliness, as so many musicals are, but has points to score, in rather broad fashion, against unsustainable lifestyles, corporate malfeasance, political chicanery, greed, totalitarian laws, and even the limits of heroism.  In other words, it’s a play that, like NHTC’s Waiting for Lefty last winter, has the kind of timeliness that should only add to its popularity.

Another strength of the play itself is its ability to provide songs that have immediate access as “show tunes.”  Hollmann and Kotis have created a great pastiche, recalling any number of other musicals and commenting upon the very business of musical theater, and of self-conscious, avant-garde touches, through the use of one of those stock narrators (Jeremy Funke) familiar from such small-time theater chestnuts as Our Town.  (Indeed, the title “Urinetown” could be taken as a play on the latter title: from our town, to your town, to “your in town”—a play on the identity of Urinetown as a place).  Funke, as Officer Lockstock (of course his partner, played by producer Steve Scarpa, is named Officer Barrel), keeps us apprised of the storyline, often interacting with Little Sally (Hilary Brown), a forthright young thing dutifully collecting coins to pay for a pee, and often questioning the underlying logic of the production.

Some stand-out bits: the performance of “It’s a Privilege to Pee” by Off-Broadway veteran Sabrina Kershaw, as Penelope Pennywise, the no-nonsense enforcer of regulations about urination; the songs introducing us to the Bad Guy Big Wig, Mr. Caldwell B. Cladwell (George Kulp, exuding the greasy charm one expects from small-town potentates, and not above a little hoofing), and “Cop Song,” giving us the viewpoint of the Law with fast-paced choreography;

the song in which our hero, Bobby Strong (Peter Chenot), a civic servant at Public Amenity #9, develops a conscience, finding himself smitten with Cladwell’s winsome daughter Hope (Megan Keith Chenot, also musical director) who tells him “Follow Your Heart,” and the song in which Bobby gives hope to the poor (before literally giving Hope to the poor): “Look at the Sky,” a rousing paean to peeing freely; and my favorite number, “Don’t Be the Bunny,” in which Cladwell and his staff (including very watchable comic turns by Ralph Buonocore, as Mr. McQueen—the name says it all—and Josie Kulp as Miss Millennium) spell out how to crush the rabble.

In Act II, the rebellion that closes out the first Act risks violent confrontation; Bobby rallies the rabble with “Run, Freedom, Run!”,

a jaunty gospel-tinged song that sounded to me like it would’ve been right at home in one of those old Elvis movies, and there’s also a touching number (“Tell Her I Love Her”) due to some bad news.  Without spoiling the ending, I’ll just say that another strength of Urinetown is that it has the courage of its convictions, avoiding the kind of neat happy ending that is the trademark of most musicals in favor of something much darker.  Suffice to say, just because you’re pissed off, doesn’t mean you have a plan. 

The guys do fine—Chenot, Kulp, Funke, Erich Greene, all manage to belt their songs with enough force to overcome the fact that acoustics are not the space’s strong suit—but the real treat is listening to the ladies—Kershaw, Chenot, Brown, all able to give great uplift to their musical numbers.

Special mention as well to the indispensable musicians who make the spare arrangements work—the whole score is played on drums and keyboard by David Keith (drums) of Mission O and The Chrissy Gardner Band and Jeremy Hutchins (keyboard) of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony and St. John’s Church.

Urinetown tells the tale—with songs, clowning, and speeches—of a world reduced to dire restrictions.  NHTC, under director Hallie Martenson, has created a stripped-down, bare bones production that matches the show’s singing and dancing on the edge of the apocalypse feel.  Like a latter day Moses, Bobby Strong says, “let my people go,” but the right to relieve oneself at will comes with a price.  For all its silliness, Urinetown has a lot on its mind, and NHTC’s production does the show proud.

The folks of NHTC choose shows well to show off their strengths, but with Urinetown they show that their strengths are greater than imagined.  Go, while you still can: four more shows: May 16-19, 8 p.m.

www.newhaventheatercompany.com

New Haven Theater Company presents

Urinetown: The Musical Book and Lyrics by Greg Kotis; Music and Lyrics by Mark Hollmann Directed by Hallie Martenson

May 11-19, 2012