New Haven Theater Company

New Haven Theater Company Goes Cuckoo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For tickets and info, go here

See my review here

Prime Time

Review of Marjorie Prime, New Haven Theater Company

“We have all the time in the world” is a phrase used by “primes,” synthetic humanoid entities that act as companions and consolations to humans in the, perhaps, not so distant future of Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime, playing through Saturday at New Haven Theater Company. In the play, the first prime we meet is a replica of Marjorie’s husband, Walter (Ryan Hendrickson). Marjorie (Margaret Mann) is in her ‘80s and her husband died some time ago, but his replica has a thirtyish appearance that makes him look younger than Tess (Susan Kulp), Marjorie’s only living child, a middle-aged woman married to Jon (Marty Tucker).

The disparate ages might make for the stuff of futuristic comedy, but that’s not what Harrison is going for. Though there is amusement here, it tends to come from a certain deadpan humor in the face of unpleasant truths. Marjorie is losing her memory and most of her interest in life, and she may be sliding toward dementia. Walter is an aid in trying to keep her focused on events in her life, to maintain the fragile sense of identity that memory gives us. In the care facility where Marjorie resides, conversation with Walter is encouraged. Primes store what they are told and can converse about a past they never lived, based solely on memories imported or inputted from others.

Tess finds it all off-putting. Not only that she’s faced with a father-replica younger than herself, but, worse, that Marjorie may be trusting and confiding in Walter Prime more than her own flesh-and-blood family. Much of the play has to do with the effort to find common ground in lived experience; the way, for instance, that Marjorie, when younger and more herself, disapproved of Jon as a husband for Tess, though now she has warmed to him; or the way the family dog and its replacement—Tony and Tony 2—are remembered; or the way that Tess still feels embattled by her view of her mother, even if that woman is no longer fully present.

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As the play goes on, there will be additional primes, each a bit more surprising than the last. And there’s a traumatic story about Damien, the son Marjorie and Walter lost, that comes up early and returns late in the play. The way little bits of information circulate is key to the effect here, letting us reflect on how we store up facts about others in our lives, and how we trot out stories of favors and slights we received as though they add up to a life. They don’t, and Tess is finding herself up against it: wondering if any of it matters, and what purpose sociability and chatter serve other than as distractions.

Watching her mother’s decline unmoors Tess more and more, and Susan Kulp plays her with grim and pinched features and an irritation that moves toward despair. Her transformation to a selfless serenity, late in the play, without benefit of makeup or costume change, is striking. Margaret Mann gives Marjorie a feisty charm that sets the tone we come to expect from the play, which is why the second act is so unsettling. We see how far a cry a prime is from the being it tries to replicate. In the third act, we might almost begin to believe in primes as substitutes for the troublesome humans we have lost. A factor that comments on the way we tend to sanitize our memories of the deceased.

Jon, played by Marty Tucker with a staunch affability that crumbles effectively in a story of a fateful visit to Madagascar, at one point says that, if he died before her, he would want Tess to find someone new. The possibility of new people never quite intrudes into this somewhat claustrophobic play where characters seem to want only what they’ve already known. Through interaction with humans, the primes strive to become more imbued with their assigned identity. Humans, on the other hand, can only look forward to loss of identity and death. Meant to be consolations and company, primes in Marjorie Prime come to seem an affable memento mori.

As Walter, Ryan Hendrickson has perhaps the toughest role. As the only character we see only as a prime, Hendrickson’s Ryan comes to seem the most “natural,” a way of being unfinished and full of potential that, while true of humans as well, makes the primes seem eternally hopeful beings. In the last scene, aided by significant lighting effects, we might feel that all we are, or were, is fated to end up in an animatronic display case for all time. Is that better or worse than a portrait gallery? Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime lets you make up your own mind about that, and Trevor Williams’ tight production at New Haven Theater Company doesn’t tip its hand, one way or another.

The primes have all the time in the world, to learn facts and to deepen their responses. Our time to determine who we are and achieve it is much more limited, and there’s no way to be sure what will survive, nor even what constitutes who we were in the minds of others. One thing’s for sure: living on as a memory in a mortal being is no way to achieve immortality. The primes may be just what we need as eternal witnesses of trivial existence, as if all our photos of pets and meals and travels and events could exist forever in a searchable database tagged with our individual DNA. Well, why not?

 

Marjorie Prime
By Jordan Harrison
Directed by Trevor Williams

Cast: Ryan Hendrickson, Susan Kulp, Margaret Mann, Marty Tucker

Stage Manager/Board Op: Stacy Lupo

New Haven Theater Company
February 28-March 2 & March 7-9, 2019

Prime Mover: New Haven Theater Company opens Marjorie Prime

Preview of Marjorie Prime, New Haven Theater Company

New Haven Theater Company returns this week with Jordan Harrison’s thought-provoking play Marjorie Prime. Set in an indeterminate point in the future, the play engages with the ways, in the 21st century, technology has become an increasingly intimate part of our lives. The play premiered in Los Angeles in 2014, won the Horton Foote Prize for Outstanding New American Play in 2016 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

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Marjorie, played by NHTC member Margaret Mann, is a widow in her 80s, plagued with failing health and lapses of memory. Her daughter Tess, played by NHTC member Susan Kulp, and son-in-law Jon, played by guest actor Marty Tucker, have enlisted a “prime,” a synthetic humanoid entity, to be Marjorie’s companion. The prime (played by guest actor Ryan Hendrickson) wears the appearance of Marjorie’s deceased husband Walter as he was in his thirties. He serves to focus Marjorie’s memory and help with her grief, though Tess fears an over-reliance on a relationship that isn’t real.

Marjorie Prime runs at the NHTC stage in the English Markets Building, February 28-March 2, and March 7-9, at 8 p.m.

For director Trevor Williams, the play is “very human and sometimes chillingly inhuman.” Williams confesses to be “drawn to nonhuman roles” and that may be the reason directing the play for NHTC fell to him. He was the brains behind “the baby console” in the company’s production of Smudge, and he played the showboating chimp Oscar in NHTC’s production of Trevor. The possibilities of putting onstage characters who aren’t quite people intrigues him. As does Marjorie Prime and the previous NHTC offering, fall 2018’s Love Song, both of those plays featured a sense of a domestic normality made darker and somewhat alarming by the ways the people in the plays cope with what Williams called “some kind of lack: a child, a spouse, memory, sanity.” In each case some potentially workable but also potentially dysfunctional solution is found and made dramatically interesting.

The primes in the play, Williams says, serve “as companionship and as consolations: they interact with their employers and store up memories.” Tell a prime a story from your childhood or from—as in Marjorie’s case—about some events from your marriage and the prime will accept the story as gospel, recalling forever those exact details.

Much of the play revolves around how humans interact with this new class of beings. The misgivings about having one’s life stored in synthetic memory banks—as with our online lives—certainly plays into Harrison’s concerns. That’s the chillingly inhuman aspect that Williams spoke of. But there’s also much attention to how the tales we tell form our identities for ourselves and others. What survives us in the minds of others? What happens when we forget our loved ones, or when contrary recollections are in conflict? At one point Tess, exasperated with Jon, says she might need a “reprogrammable spouse.” That’s the very human side of the story, where the frustrations of mortality and the shelf-life of our memories undermine even our most enduring relationships. There’s also the question of manufactured memories—versions of an event that we pretend to have to avoid recalling the truth.

For Williams, the play “shows us what happens when we choose what facts to record, in our digital lives or in the stories we tell each other. Now, when truth and what it means to be human are all becoming so mutable, for better or worse, this story compels us to reflect on the choices we’ve made and, perhaps, those we’ve yet to make.”

The play, in three acts with an epilogue, runs for approximately 80 minutes and has been given a thrust space unusual for NHTC productions, increasing the sense of intimacy in the company’s black box, which has recently been expanded to include a backstage area.

Marjorie Prime is bound to affect viewers differently depending where they are in their own lifetimes. For some of the cast, the story is almost dystopian, showing us a less-human future that undermines ideas of each individual’s irreplaceable uniqueness. Others stuck up for the optimism of the play, its sense that maintaining human memory through art, through recordings, through artificial intelligence is a positive aspect of the human instinct for survival, making the future more human, whatever we take that to mean.

Tickets can be purchased at the New Haven Theater Company site, here.

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New Haven Theater Company includes Erich Greene, George Kulp, Susan Kulp, Margaret Mann, Deena Nicol-Blifford, Suzanne Powers, Steve Scarpa, Christian Shaboo, J. Kevin Smith, John Watson, and Trevor Williams

 

Marjorie Prime
By Jordan Harrison
Directed by Trevor Williams
February 28-March 2, March 7-9, 2019

 

The Greatest Thing You'll Ever Learn

Review of Love Song, New Haven Theater Company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

New Haven Theater Company Plays a Love Song

Preview of Love Song, New Haven Theater Company

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

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

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

Susan Kulp and George Kulp

Susan Kulp and George Kulp

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

Josey Kulp and Christian Shaboo

Josey Kulp and Christian Shaboo

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

For tickets and more info, go here




Hiding the Host

Review of Rumors, New Haven Theater Company

Neil Simon’s farce Rumors gives the New Haven Theater Company an occasion for formal attire, though it seems a case of all-dressed-up with nowhere to go. Don’t get me wrong: Rumors is a comedy of mature couples and that makes the play a good match for New Haven’s preeminent local acting troupe. Many longtime members find appropriate roles and some former collaborators return to add to the mirth. It’s just a shame that Rumors is far from the sharpest comedy Simon ever wrote.

Everyone is dressed up for a 10th wedding anniversary celebration at the comfortably elegant home of Charlie and Myra Brock. The play calls for a two-story set with stairs to run up and down and several doors to slam. The set itself is a striking assemblage in the NHTC space in the English Building Markets, and it’s not only a prerequisite for the action but almost the star of the show. At any rate, there are no real central characters in the play. It’s an ensemble of dim bulbs circled around an absent host and hostess.

George Kulp's set design for Rumors at New Haven Theater Company

George Kulp's set design for Rumors at New Haven Theater Company

The situations are farcical, but the ‘rumors’ never really fly. The laughs here revolve around bits like well-heeled characters having to make their own dinner and mix their own drinks; a downstairs bathroom too-often occupied; a deaf gag that never gets silly or surprising enough. We’re asked to accept the premise that damage to someone’s BMW promotes hilarity (well, maybe if it were updated to a Range Rover…). And that’s a sign of the low level of wit Simon foists on us, as references to Trivial Pursuit, to uncertainty about the nationality of Asian help, and loose asides about tarnished gentility mark the play as occupying the flaccid late ‘80s where the boorishness and boredom of these characters might pass muster as “clever fun.”

So what can NHTC do with this? They can all look marvelous, play the thing as though they are in fact old friends (they are), and indulge their celebrated ability to orchestrate busy scenes with lots of overlapped chat. The material doesn’t quite match their capacity to be surprising, as each character mainly just seems to test the others’ patience. I kept hoping that Peter Chenot, who plays Ken Gorman, the guy with the hearing problem, was going to get to do more than react. And J. Kevin Smith, as Lenny Ganz, the man with the busted-up BMW, seems more nonplussed at some of his lines than at the bag of pretzels he can’t open.

The women tend to fare better, if only because they don’t have to bluster so much. Susan Kulp, as Lenny’s wife Claire, gets across plenty of long-suffering bonhomie, and her silent reactions can be devastating. And Jenny Shuck, as Ken’s wife, Chris, plays well the kind of once-bright-eyed-bride who has begun to wilt from her husband’s witlessness. A bit where she repeats him word for word after he gets lost in mid-rant is a high point. Then there’s Margaret Mann, in one helluva outfit, as Cookie Cusack, host of a televised cooking show, who is among the more stalwart, letting her doting husband, Ernie (John Watson), coo at her about her back spasms. Suzanne Powers plays Cassie Cooper, the loose cannon here who, finally fed-up by the philandering of her husband Glenn (Jim Lones), is testing just how testy she can be in public.

There’s plenty of rapid fire gossip early on with Smith playing Lenny as an oafish boor who can’t get over someone belonging to the tennis club simply to have lunch there. Yeah. One has the sense that Simon’s friends acted as models for each of these characters and that they might be tickled to see themselves made fun of. Or not. The “reality check” comes from the idea that, since the host seems to have injured himself, slightly, with a gun, there may have been a suicide attempt and no one wants to have to answer questions from the police, least of all Glenn, who is running for the senate—“state senate,” his wife caustically reminds him lest he start living large.

As Glenn, Jim Lones has the furtive patience and glib charm of a local politician. And John Watson’s Ernie regards the company mostly with tongue firmly in cheek. They can afford to be passive; neither of them are part of the cover-up that fails, and they don’t try to make sense of the silliness the way Ken and Lenny are forced to do.

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It’s all harmless light entertainment, but, as a farce, one might sensibly expect there to be some cats let out of the bag and some dirt swept under the carpet. Not really. No one here has much to be ashamed of, and no one even ends up behind any of the doors in a compromising position. The second half devolves into the parlor game called “what do we tell the police” with Donna E. Glen as a cop having fun at getting some respect from these evasive people who work above her pay grade. But Rumors isn’t a comic whodunit, it’s more of a meandering who-done-what.

Director George Kulp keeps it moving—and there’s a lot of movement and a lot of talk—but if it could go faster we would think about it less, and that would help. The big theatrical pay-off comes in Lenny’s 11th hour, up-against-the-wall, tour de force narrative, pulled out of thin air and hanging together like cobwebs. It’s sketchy and shaky but it’s the best he can do under the circumstances. And I guess this was the best Rumors’ author could do at the time.

Rumours
By Neil Simon
Directed by George Kulp

Cast: Peter Chenot, Donna E. Glen, Matthew Kling, Susan Kulp, Jim Lones, Margaret Mann, Suzanne Powers, Jenny Schuck, J. Kevin Smith, John Watson

Crew: Set Design: George Kulp; Lighting Design: Ian Dunn; Stage Manager: Matthew Kling; Board Ops: David Stagg, Erich Greene

New Haven Theater Company
NHTC Stage @ EBM
839 Chapel Street, New Haven
May 10-12, & 16-19, 2018

Glum Waiters

Review of The Dumb Waiter, New Haven Theater Company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Dumb Waiter
By Harold Pinter
Directed by John Watson

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

Cast: Erich Greene, Trevor Williams

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

 

 

No Request Is Too Extreme

Review of A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney, New Haven Theater Company

New Haven Theater Company’s current offering is the kind of play that intrigues almost as much as it amuses. Why Walt Disney?, we might ask. The answer seems to be that he’s larger than life—or at least his legacy is—and everyone knows his name, whether or not they know anything else about him. And name recognition is the name of the game, in show-biz.

It’s also the case that author Lucas Hnath includes some choice bits from the rumors circulating about “Uncle Walt.” Like that bit about the lemmings being catapulted off a cliff by turntables for a nature documentary. Or his interest in the ability of cryogenics to freeze a human head and resuscitate it after a synthetic body could be created for its use. Or the way he treated his brother Roy, or daughter Diane and her husband Ron. Or the problem of the tree that had to remain on the site of Disney World.

In A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney, Disney is a colorful character, to say the least, and, as enacted by J. Kevin Smith, he’s a hoot. Not a figure of fun so much as a figure for something we might imagine to be indicative of American tastes and interests. He’s a wry example of our need to be the best at something, and to make our achievements seem important and unprecedented.

Walt Disney (J. Kevin Smith)

Walt Disney (J. Kevin Smith)

In Hnath’s play, directed by Drew Gray, Walt is a successful man who is remarkably insecure, a family man who is remarkably alone, a creative person who feels that his trademark works—that famous mouse, for instance—aren’t really serious or enduring, a creator of films known for their emotion and humor who often seems unfeeling and lacking in any sense of humor. He’s complex and a spout of words and attitudes, and Smith’s rendering is a high-water mark in this actor’s work with NHTC. Smith often plays a bristly type and here he gets to take that as far as it can go. Smoking, drinking, pill-popping, pacing, Smith’s Disney is a wreck waiting to happen.

The play isn’t really about finding out what makes Walt tick so much as it’s about seeing how Walt winds down bit by bit, his health failing and his will to go on causing him to flail about, seizing upon his staunchly stoical brother Roy (Steve Scarpa, mostly poker-faced or pained) or his servile son-in-law Ron (Trevor Williams, a cipher trying to be whatever Walt wants him to be). Of course, Disney’s insistence on a male heir apparent means he passes over his daughter (Melissa Smith, tensely tried by her ties to the old man). Her refusal to name any of her sons—she has three—after her father pretty much says it all, but then there’s her reasoning about it, which liberally rubs salt into the wound. We could say she has some issues with her dad, but it’s more like being his daughter is simply a test, always.

Daughter (Melissa Smith), Ron (Trevor Williams), Walt (J. Kevin Smith)

Daughter (Melissa Smith), Ron (Trevor Williams), Walt (J. Kevin Smith)

We might, reasonably, wonder why we should care about a man so long gone. His brand went on without him, hit the skids a bit and then revived to, basically, conquer all of entertainment in our time. Besides owning all those lucrative properties originated by Disney and his studios and affiliates, the company now also owns the Star Wars franchise and the Marvel Comics franchise. Which means that the company Disney founded generally commands the top three, or more, of the top grossing films in just about any year.

And that may be Hnath’s point: we can’t escape him, if we care at all about American filmed entertainment, and so there must be some way to cut him down to size, to humanize him, to get his blood—literally, as we see him cough mouthfuls into hankies—and guts on the stage. Disney comes across as a relentless striver, driven to do what only he can do. His list of who watches his films includes the all-American actress Doris Day and fascist enemies like Mussolini and Hitler. He’s proud of it all. It’s not about Right or Left, or right or wrong, it’s about global reach.

The conceit that we’re watching a reading of a screenplay means that, first of all, everyone is still “on book,” ostensibly, and it also means that there’s plenty of use of phrases like “cut to”—not a stage direction but a screenplay direction. And yet the “cuts” aren’t really cuts and the film that may or may not be in Walt’s head rarely resorts to visual language. There are a few moments, most notably the close, where the screenplay idea works best. Otherwise, it just seems an odd tic of the dialogue; at best, a way of helping the actors keep the pace, at worst a gimmick.

Daughter (Melissa Smith), Roy (Steve Scarpa), Walt (J. Kevin Smith)

Daughter (Melissa Smith), Roy (Steve Scarpa), Walt (J. Kevin Smith)

Smith and Scarpa get the rhythmic patter dead on, a kind of snappy overlapping of verbal cues and reactions where the comment of one often gets finished or deflected by the other. With the younger generation, Smith’s Disney is more contentious because more determined to have his way. As Disney’s daughter, Melissa Smith gives as good as she gets, seeming to be a sore spot for her father and able to use that to advantage. Williams’ Ron seems mostly to be trying to keep his head above water, finding himself primed for the job of studio head when Walt needs to use Roy as a fall guy.

Somewhere in all the give-and-take, we may suppose a lesson about the carnage that lurks behind even the most beloved accomplishments. And yet the play isn’t a character assassination of Disney, it’s more like a cartoon treatment, comparable to his early creations. Disney is as irascible as Donald Duck, as flighty as Goofy, and as challenged as Mickey’s generally chagrined efforts at control. In other words, Disney gets the Disney treatment and, to quote the creation of a rival studio, “th-th-that’s all, folks!”

 

The play has four more showings, this Wednesday through Saturday. Wednesday's show is "pay what you can."

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney
By Lucas Hnath
Directed and designed by Drew Gray

Cast: Steve Scarpa, J. Kevin Smith, Melissa Smith, Trevor Williams

New Haven Theater Company
NHTC Stage @ EBM 839 Chapel Street, New Haven
November 8, 9, 11, 15, 16, 17, 18, 2017

Exhuming Walt Disney

Preview of A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney, New Haven Theater Company

What does the name “Walt Disney” make you think of?  Cute little animated figures? The Mickey Mouse Club? The founder of a vast entertainment conglomerate? An affable old gent on Sunday night television? Architect of state of the art amusement parks? Eccentric who wanted to freeze his corpse for eventual resurrection? A cipher behind a brand?

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To J. Kevin Smith, playing a guy most people call “Walt,” in the New Haven Theater Company’s latest production, Lucas Hnath’s A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney, brings to mind the phrase “creative genius.” Walt, for Smith as for most of us, is the figure behind “beautiful animation, classic films, and also a fatherly figure” on The Wonderful World of Disney, which ran for decades but, if you were alive before Disney’s death in 1966, chances are you saw Walt himself on the show.

That kindly view of Disney is one Smith shares with most people; he fondly mentioned the Mouseketeers and those great theme parks. But Smith, who for years in the 1980s worked as a sales rep/manager/director handling video-cassette distribution, the Disney company stands for a very “aggressive” approach to protecting copyrights and maintaining “the image of the brand.” “And for good reason,” Smith pointed out, “Disney lost the rights to some of his early cartoon shorts,” so the need to protect his intellectual property from theft by his studio’s many competitors was quite real.

For Smith, though, it’s important to see how that level of commitment “permeated his creative life, and caused fall out with his family,” making Disney “not always the most likeable guy.” Smith sees him in the company of other of our favorite “driven” success stories, men like Steve Jobs, Nicholas Tesla.

J. Kevin Smith as Walt Disney

J. Kevin Smith as Walt Disney

Lucas Hnath, an up-and-coming playwright who won an Obie award for his best-known play Red Speedo, grew up minutes from Disney World in Orlando, Florida. His play gives us a comic take on a family drama in which Disney gathers relations together to prepare them for his death. “In a sense,” Smith says, “the play is about Disney, as written and performed by others, and it’s also a script as if written by Disney for his family.” The cast consists of Smith as Disney, Steve Scarpa as Walt’s brother Roy, Melissa Smith as Walt’s daughter, and Trevor Williams as her husband Ron Miller.

The script, Smith said, is “mostly dialogue in which characters speak back and forth and past each other in short bursts.” The challenge, he said, is “to get and keep the rhythm, to figure out how to make the stylized speech natural to [the characters] and keep it consistent.” The conceit of the play is that Disney is actually reading the script with his family, but the audience may not be sure when something is in the alleged script or not.

The play is directed by the NHTC’s resident playwright Drew Gray who did a great job directing Trevor, the troupe’s most off-beat offering thus far, last spring. The kinds of plays that attract NHTC can’t really be pigeon-holed. They’ve had great success with classics like William Inge’s Bus Stop, with more contemporary plays like Will Eno’s Middletown and Rachel Axler’s Smudge, and with small-cast plays like Proof and Doubt and Speed the Plow. They’ve also succeeded with big cast plays like Our Town and Urinetown. Last fall, the troupe gave a special staged reading of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy, an aptly chosen offering. Now, they are back with another “reading” of sorts. The focus on a rich, successful man, something of a megalomaniac, may seem all too apt as well.

Disney, as Smith reminded me, “named names” to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 and expressed his view that the union that tried to mount a strike at Disney Studios was organized by Communists. Smith called Disney “a complicated guy,” and said the play shows “the downside” of his success “but does not limit its view to that.” Smith mentioned that “things included in the script are not necessarily factual” but derive “from the folklore” of “Uncle Walt.”

Smith said his performance is not a mimicry of Disney and that he’s eager to have a lead role in a production, which hasn’t been the case since his performance as the satanic stranger in Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer. Steve Scarpa read Hnath’s play two years ago and said it was “like nothing I’ve ever seen before” and “something we could do really well.”

Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to work they go.

 

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney
By Lucas Hnath
Directed by Drew Gray
New Haven Theater Company
November 8th, 9th, 11th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th
The NHTC stage @ English Building Markets, 839 Chapel Street

Right at Home

Review of Middletown, New Haven Theater Company

Will Eno opens Middletown with a speech of welcome delivered by a “Public Speaker.” As played by Megan Chenot, the speaker presents an earnest hope that we will all feel we belong, but her litany of who “we” might be, as audience members or townies, in seeking to be all-inclusive, begins to feel vaguely unreal, a kind of labelling without a sense of precise meanings. Eventually, it starts to sound like double-talk. And that’s how language works in Middletown: it’s ho-hum average, and yet. There’s something a little unsettling about how easily what gets said doesn’t quite equate with what’s intended.

Mechanic (Trevor Williams), Doctor (Megan Chenot)

Mechanic (Trevor Williams), Doctor (Megan Chenot)

Everyone here is a job or role rather than a character. Everyone, that is, except Mary Swanson (Chrissy Gardner), a pregnant woman new to the town, whose absentee husband seems never to arrive, and John Dodge (Steve Scarpa), a local jack-of-all-trades, who reads up on gravity—“the silent killer”—and fixes things, and contemplates ending it all; whether from boredom or frustration or some more insidious malaise is hard to say. Together, these two almost put the town on the map, as it were, seeming to create a possible connection outside of assigned roles.

A key visual device is John and Mary each behind a separate window in separate houses, spied upon by the Cop (George Kulp) on his beat as if making sure they never inhabit the same place. They do, briefly, when John comes to fix the sink and their exchange is the stuff of a suburban Woody Allen where mixed signals are missed signals, and vice versa. It’s one of Scarpa’s best performances, and the promise of romance keeps us hoping, as it may for these two lonely people who would never admit their attraction.

Other characters align in ways that suggest parallel purposes. A librarian (Margaret Mann) is also a kind of welcomer, as is a tour guide (Alynne Miller), characters who have a sense of belonging and an elusive sense of what makes the place itself. A tourist couple (Chaz Carmon and Erich Greene) are played for laughs as the kind of people who are content so long as there’s something to take a picture of, but they're also a version of the unhappy couple, John and Mary. More problematic is Mechanic (Trevor Williams), a ne’er-do-well who loiters on park benches—to the Cop’s irritation—and sulks in the library where his non sequitur are amusing asides, and vice versa. He’s also, sort of, our bridge to the one “famous” person from Middletown, Greg “Something,” who, as an astronaut in space, muses about his hometown and the time he had to tell some kid—the Mechanic, as a child—that his coveted rock was not a meteorite. The dashed hopes of Mechanic are, as it were, the thorn in the side of this complacent town, an indication that beneath the tepid bonhomie there might lurk harsher realities. Or at least nagging disappointment.

Just before the break, we get shown a row of folks watching the play, musing about what things mean and where they may be heading, while also making small talk. A child, Sweetheart (Alynne Miller), repeats words she’s heard, verbatim, which suggests that little insight will be gained by, as more than one character puts it, “moving your mouth and making different sounds.”

In the second half, Middletown becomes less fanciful and the effects of the encounters seem more scattershot. The parallel between John and Mary continues, in a different register, and trees and rocks still remind us that nature is more than us; the Mechanic can be surprisingly soulful, while birth and death are shown to be just stuff that happens. The general tone becomes more quizzical than whimsical, but still holds back from big emotions.

Throughout, director Peter Chenot lets the laughs fall where they may, and the cast does great with the show’s off-beat humor. There are fewer laughs in the second half, and my sense is that Middletown’s first act runs like a dream, but the second act requires more effort. Punching one event or another might help overcome the show’s even, musing tone.

The best thing here is the way the regulars of New Haven Theater Company fit so easily into their roles in Middletown. Maybe too easily.

 

Middletown
Written by Will Eno
Directed by Peter Chenot

Cast: Chaz Carmon, Megan Chenot, Chrissy Gardner, Erich Greene, George Kulp, Margaret Mann, Alynne Miller, Steven Scarpa, J. Kevin Smith, John Watson, Trevor Williams

Sound Design and Original Score: Megan Chenot; Choreography: Jenny Schuck; Props Master: Trevor Williams; Light Board Operator: David Stagg

New Haven Theater Company
April 27-29; May 4-6, 2017

Regular Townies

Preview of Middletown, New Haven Theater Company

New Haven Theater Company tends to thrive on dialogue-driven plays with small casts, but, once a year or so, they go for something bigger and busier. Coming up for two weekends—the last weekend of April, the first weekend of May—is just such a project, third in the unofficial “town trilogy” that the NHTC probably weren’t even thinking about: Urinetown (in 2012), Our Town (in 2013), and now, Middletown.

Written by Will Eno, one of the most consistently interesting and entertaining writers in theater today, Middletown, which was first produced in New York in 2010, has been called a “modern Our Town,” which is to say that its setting—a kind of “Anytown, USA”—recalls Thornton Wilder’s evocation of the perennial attractions of Grover’s Corner, while its view of what makes America tick is infused by a self-conscious irony toward the normative. Then again, in the Our Town at Long Wharf a few years back, the town onstage extended to the audience and vice versa; in Eno’s Middletown, an “audience” is present onstage between acts to let us know we’re right in the middle of the world it portrays. A world that includes an astronaut in outer space and a local n’er-do-well having to serve time portraying a Native American. Both Wilder and Eno have a sense of America as a place older than the United States and with an ethos always somewhat futuristic.

What attracts the Company to “townie” plays we can only surmise, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that NHTC is specific to our town—New Haven—and has a feel for plays with a strong sense of regular folks in a place. This time Peter Chenot directs; he starred in Urinetown, and had a part in Our Town, directed by Steve Scarpa. Now he turns the tables and directs Scarpa, as John, the lead male character, in Middletown. Chenot was also at the helm of one of the non-town-based big productions the troupe has staged: Donald Margulies’ Shipwrecked! in 2014, which was very fluid in its execution of space.

In reading the play for consideration—it was Steve Scarpa who originally proposed Middletown to the Company—Chenot said he saw it as “a challenge, for sure,” as the play calls for various locations and will require reusing the pieces of the set in different configurations. There are “scenes inside houses, outside houses, at a monument, in separate rooms in a hospital and on its loading dock, and in outer space.” It will take some ingenuity to render “so many places in the NHTC’s shallow space, but the challenge is part of the fun.”

From the start, Chenot was attracted by the fact that the play calls for much of the cast to play more than one part, and the play’s deliberate evocation of Our Town struck a chord as well. “We all know that play,” he said, and, like Wilder’s best-known work, Middletown’s “main selling point is that it left me moved and uplifted though I don’t get it yet. There’s always more to know about the best plays where you don’t grasp all the subtleties at once.” Chenot likened working on the play to doing a jigsaw puzzle, getting more of the picture the more pieces fit.

Chenot called the play “human, quirky, and intriguing.” The people in the play are “normal, and speak in a matter-of-fact way that is not lofty” but conveys “what it means to be alive right now. It’s so smart and tackles big mysteries” about the human condition. The play also keeps the audience aware of the provisional aspect of theater as there are deliberate “moments of glitch in the play,” something of an Eno trademark.

Middletown comes along now because, while the company has been considering it for almost two years, the schedules of the NHTCers aligned sufficiently to make it possible. Only three current NHTCers are not appearing in Middletown: Christian Shaboo and Deena Nichol-Blifford, who both appeared in last spring’s production of Proof, and playwright Drew Gray, who directed Trevor, the most recent NHTC project. Otherwise, who you’ll see onstage is everybody who calls NHTC home—Megan Chenot, Erich Greene, George Kulp, Margaret Mann, Steve Scarpa, J. Kevin Smith, John Watson, Trevor Williams, enhanced by a few key non-NHTCers: Chaz Carmon, who played the animal care professional in Trevor; Chrissy Gardner, a composer and player in Broken Umbrella Theatre who plays Mary to Scarpa’s John; and Aly Miller, a child actor who plays “Sweetheart,” a girl in the audience.

Reading through the play convinced Chenot at once that it was a perfect fit for NHTC, as he could imagine a role for everyone. And “since directing is 75% casting, my work is done,” he joked. Part of the fun for regular attendees of NHTC productions is seeing what parts the familiar members take on in each new show, and it’s always a special treat when a play allows almost everyone to find something to do. Plays about towns instill a sense of community, as does the camaraderie of the New Haven Theater Company.

 

Middletown
By Will Eno
Directed by Peter Chenot
New Haven Theater Company
839 Chapel Street, the English Building Markets

April 27-29; May 4-6

Me & the Chimp

Review of Trevor, New Haven Theater Company

Nick Jones’ Trevor, playing tonight for one more show at New Haven Theater Company, directed by Drew Gray, is a rollicking comedy that gets progressively darker. It’s not a bait and switch so much as it’s an absurdist situation that gets real, with potentially unpleasant consequences.

Sandy (Sandra Rodriguez) lives in an apartment that looks as if she shares it with a hyperactive child, filled with toys and activities and stuff not picked up. But her “child” is actually a chimpanzee named Trevor (Peter Chenot) who is getting perilously close to full grown. Like any protective and attached mother, Sandy wants to minimize any problems with her growing “boy.” But as the play opens he has just driven her car to a Dunkin Donuts and back, depositing the auto on the lawn of neighbor Ashley (Melissa Smith). All of which is handled comically as Jones—by giving us access to Trevor’s inner thoughts—keeps us entertained with the monkey business of how a reasonably intelligent chimp might interpret the intentions of humans upset with him. Trevor’s a walking comic aside on everything going on around him, so that the stress we see in Sandy and Melissa, also a mom, becomes a kind of satire of clashing versions of parenting. Water off the duck’s back of Trevor’s self-obsessed charm.

Trevor (Peter Chenot)

Trevor (Peter Chenot)

The comedy is further given a sizeable shot in the arm by the fact that Trevor isn’t just any chimp. In his glory days he was on TV with no less a star than Morgan Fairchild (played in Trevor’s memories and daydreams by Susan Kulp) and he’s convinced that Hollywood will come calling any minute. He also experiences fantasy interactions with Oliver (Trevor Williams), a success story of a chimp who gets to wear a white tux and claims to have a human wife and half-human kids. The interactions between Oliver and Trevor about the monkeyshines of show biz let Trevor take aim at more than domestic dysfunction. The heartache of out-growing home-life is set beside the heartbreak of any minor talent trying to become “somebody.” All this is handled with a light touch by director Gray and company, and in a wonderful manic-slacker manner by Chenot.

How real living with Trevor will become is a question that starts to rear its head when a visit by a police officer (Erich Greene) to Sandy’s home, provoked by Melissa among others, opens up the question of whether Trevor has become a public safety issue (clearly he has, but Trevor is a kind of “local color” celebrity who has been given plenty of leeway, until now). This intervention leads to a visit by Jerry (Chaz Carmon), from an animal protection agency, to evaluate the situation. Carmon gets a lot of mileage out of looking both agreeable and frightened out of his wits at the same time, while Rodriguez begins to let us see the desperation at the heart of Sandy’s plea to be left in peace with her child-pet. The end result is not likely to be what anyone really wants, and that’s real life alright.

Along the way there’s lots of fun with Trevor’s delusions of grandeur, including a glimpse of Morgan Fairchild aping a chimp and, later, surrendering to Trevor’s charms, and with Trevor’s bag of tricks, such as rollerblading and playing toy guitar. Pathos comes from the well-meaning monkey’s efforts to control a situation he doesn’t understand. The scenes without Trevor tend to be a bit flat, lacking the comic intrusion of his point of view, as if Jones couldn’t be bothered to make them either believable or funny, though a breezier overall comic tone might help to sell them. When Trevor is present, the comedy of human behavior, from a chimp’s perspective, keeps the ball bouncing.

In the end, the play, while a fun time in its portrayal of a chimp a lot like us, provokes with the question of whether being humane—and what that means—defines being human. Otherwise, we’re all just a bunch of dumb animals.

 

Trevor
By Nick Jones
Directed by Drew Gray

Cast: Chaz Carmon, Peter Chenot, Erich Greene, Susan Kulp, Sandra Rodriguez, Melissa Smith, Trevor Williams

Board Ops: George Kulp, J. Kevin Smith

New Haven Theater Company
February 23-25; March 2-4, 2017

More Than Monkey Business

Preview of Trevor, New Haven Theater Company

With their next offering, New Haven Theater Company switches gears yet again. Trevor, their winter play, is a “dark farce” by Nick Jones, best-known at the moment as a writer for Orange is the New Black. Drew Gray, who directs the play, which opens for three shows this weekend and plays for three more the following weekend, knew of Jones’ work when the playwright was an upperclassman at Bard. Gray saw the play in its New York debut and “adored it.” The script has been one that the NHTC has been considering for a few years. The main selling-point, Gray said, is that the play offers the kind of situation that is “key to what works” for NHTC: “a resonant center” and a play “with a lot of heart.” In this case, it’s also an opportunity for Gray to work again with NHTC member Peter Chenot, who plays the main character, Trevor, and is on stage the entire time. The last time the two worked together this closely was for Gray’s own play The Magician, at NHTC in 2014.

Trevor (Peter Chenot)

Trevor (Peter Chenot)

Trevor, it should be said at the outset, is a pet chimpanzee. He’s the main focus of a play that takes us into his psyche and relies upon the steady miscommunications between humans and their pets for its “broad comedic stuff,” but also for themes a bit more profound. For Gray the always relevant question of “empathy for the other” suffuses the play. We see how Trevor is both a surrogate child to his owner, Sandra, and, in many ways, a teen who is trying to assert his impending adulthood. The inciting incident, Gray said, is that Trevor has driven Sandra’s car to a local Dunkin Donuts and then crashes it, drawing neighborhood complaints. If that doesn’t sound like a situation a parent might have with a boisterous teen, I don’t know what does.

But Jones has more on his mind than creating an offbeat analog for the dysfunction between parents and growing children. Trevor, you see, once had a life in the limelight. He was featured, in what Gray described as “his glory days,” in commercials with none less than Morgan Fairchild, a TV glamor star of the Eighties. Trevor, in what Gray called “the hopes and dreams of a chimp,” waits for show-biz to “come knocking” again, to relief him of his drab suburban existence.

Set in the domestic space Trevor and Sandra share, the play makes us privy to the internal monologue of a pet animal—an animal that is closest to human of any species. In fact, as Gray stressed, the “closer Trevor gets to being human, the bigger the void or chasm” between man and animal becomes. Like a baby everyone loves in its innocence, Trevor’s role as an indulged local tourist attraction is “starting to become untenable” as the play opens and, Gray believes, the audience will find itself “rooting for the chimp,” hoping he can reconcile with reality.

And that, Gray pointed out, is another theme of Trevor that he finds relevant: Trevor lives in his own world, in a situation that will seem absurd to many of us, but the play’s ability to normalize that situation shows us how “objective reality must be accepted.” And that aspect touches on the incident—known to most Connecticut residents—in which a woman’s pet chimpanzee, Trevis, attacked her best friend. That horrific incident, Gray said, was “the seed idea” for the situation of Jones’ play, but the attack itself plays no part in Trevor’s story. If one would like to place the play in that context, one would likely see Trevor as an effort to understand the simian protagonist of the situation.

That said, it’s easy to see that Trevor looks at how animals in some way reflect our feelings back at us—man’s best friend, and all that—and how they also are unknowable in ways we often don’t reflect upon in our zeal to dress them in human clothes and give them human names, and so on. But it’s also the case that, as with human children, people often misuse—and outright abuse—pets, constructing them as providers of companionship and amusement and protection and thrills of competition and filling a variety of roles, including in show business, that no animal ever chose or agreed to in writing. That special “unspoken” relationship we have with our animal alter-egos is explored by Jones in giving Trevor his own inner voice.

Gray, who previously has directed only his own plays with NHTC, has found working on Jones play to be an appealing experience. He is always “so versed” in his own plays and so certain of his characters’ motivations, whereas, with Trevor, it’s “been fun to find where an idea will pull through,” discovering with his actors how to make sense of Trevor’s world. “Is this world normal? What is under its broad ‘top’?” Gray likened the play’s initial tone as “a little like a sitcom” but one that’s willing to walk a bit in Ionesco’s shoes, making us see surprising connections and relevance in what seems a farcical situation.

In other words, the world of Trevor is not just monkey business.

Trevor
By Nick Jones
Directed by Drew Gray

February 23-25; March 2-4, 2017

New Haven Theater Company
English Building Markets
839 Chapel Street

Mature Attraction

Review of The Last Romance, New Haven Theater Company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three more shows: tonight, tomorrow and Saturday.

The Last Romance
By Joe DiPietro
Directed by Trevor Williams

Cast: Margaret Mann, Janie Tamarkin, John Watson

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

New Haven Theater Company
November 10-19, 2016

A Chance for Late Romance

Preview of The Last Romance, New Haven Theater Company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

A Timely Incident

Preview of Incident at Vichy, New Haven Theater Company

This week the New Haven Theater Company tries something a little different. This is the first time they’ve held a staged reading as part of their season. According to NHTC member J. Kevin Smith, who directs the reading of Arthur Miller’s unduly neglected play Incident at Vichy this weekend, the “idea [of staged readings] has been kicked around” by NHTC for some time, but until now it hasn’t happened.

The reason, Smith says, is that the shows NHTC does produce are always “passion projects” proposed by one of the members who then gets the others on board. Though the idea of staged readings of plays that might be new or overlooked may be a good one, no one had come up with a particular play that was a clear choice.

It so happened that Smith saw a PBS broadcast of Signature Theater’s production of Vichy, and that got him thinking about how he would want to do this particular play, “how it should look and be played.” Smith, who hasn’t directed a play since a Yeats one act in college, said his fellow NHTCers were very supportive of his idea, especially as they could all see the relevance of doing the play now, in this fall’s run-up to a very key national election. So much so that The League of Women Voters of New Haven—a non-partisan group, Smith points out—will be on-hand to register voters before and after the show.

The play will be given “an enhanced staged reading,” Smith says, which means there will be some limited use of lights and sound, as well as entrances and exits of characters. The cast, which numbers 16, will comprise all the male actors in the company, supplemented by other local actors. As part of his pitch, Smith “wanted everyone [in NHTC] to be involved.” The difficulty of coordinating the entire company for the usual 8 weeks of rehearsal for a full show would have been enormous. Which is one benefit of the staged reading approach. Mainly, though, for Smith, the main benefit is about timeliness.

Watching the PBS broadcast, he said, “sent shivers up my spine: the references to the power of the 1%; the wonder at the raw power of cults of personality; the demonization of ‘The Other’—the language is amazingly current.” Indeed, the play “is the ultimate collaborator story,” showing how fear and despair can undermine political courage. For Smith, the play’s main message is one of “vigilance.” “It reminds us we have to be firm in knowing what we’re willing to do to confront oppression.”

While not one of what Smith calls “the trifecta” of staggeringly great plays Miller wrote—The Crucible, A View from the Bridge, Death of a SalesmanIncident at Vichy is a commanding work. Smith also notes that NHTC has held off from doing the great playwrights of the American canon—Miller, O’Neill, Williams—so that this short three-day run is kind of “testing the waters.” The company has done very well by such classics as Inge’s Bus Stop, Wilder’s Our Town, and Odets’ Waiting for Lefty, so maybe a full production of one of the major American dramatists will happen in the future.

For now, this Thursday through Saturday—days after the first of the three presidential debates—NHTC offers a chance to consider the implications of a chilling work about the effects of evil in power and about the moral test of resisting corruption and oppression.

Like Zappa’s old Mothers of Invention tune sez, with knowing irony, “it can’t happen here.”

Monceau (George Kulp), Old Jew (Erich Greene)

Monceau (George Kulp), Old Jew (Erich Greene)

The New Haven Theater Company presents a special staged reading of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy, directed by J. Kevin Smith, running for one weekend only; Thursday, September 29 – Saturday, October 1. Performances are at 8pm at the NHTC Stage at the English Building Markets, located at 839 Chapel Street, New Haven. Tickets are $15, at www.NewHavenTheaterCompany.com

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, and Trevor Williams.

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

Stopping by the Diner on a Snowy Evening

Review of Bus Stop at New Haven Theater Company

William Inge’s Bus Stop, first staged in 1955, portrays a selection of American types with a “classic” glow—like cars with fins, girls in bobby-sox, and the films of James Dean, or Duke Wayne for that matter. You might say the tone of the play manages to navigate both worlds. Like Dean’s films, there’s a sense that something’s not quite right beneath the surface of an apparently everyday world, something that could become dangerous or at least darkly menacing, while, like most of Wayne’s films, it all comes out alright in the end—because people are people and basically decent.

In the New Haven Theater Company production, directed with appealing energy by George Kulp, the feel of the diner as a space and a presence is key. Thanks to materials NHTC borrowed from the Long Wharf Theatre and from the English Markets, the set has an authenticity that goes a long way to make us believe in Grace’s Diner, the familiar haunt of a few of the characters and, for a gaggle of bus passengers, the new surroundings in which they’re temporarily stranded while a blizzard closes the roads just west of Kansas City.

The diner’s owner, Grace Hoylard, played flinty but sympathetically by Susan Kulp, has a soft spot for two of the other regulars: her young, naïve but intelligent teen employee Elma Duckworth (Sara Courtemanche, in a confident debut), and Carl the bus driver (Erich Greene), a nonchalant man on the make. There’s also Sheriff Will Masters (Peter Chenot) who presides over the others with a level tone that Wayne himself would recognize, I reckon.

Then there are the passengers, most of whom are a bit flighty for the staid tones at Grace’s: Dr. Gerald Lyman (J. Kevin Smith), a seedy professor with a past and the blustering manner of someone used to soliloquizing; Cherie (Megan Chenot), a likable “chanteuse,” none too bright but having to learn to assert herself to withstand the self-involved importuning of Bo Decker (Trevor Williams), a prize-winning cowpoke who seems to think he’s a gift to womankind just by being alive. His sidekick, Virgil Blessing, is played by John Watson with a ruminative air that would do Walter Brennan proud.

The plot essentially serves two purposes: to help Bo and Dr. Lyman grow some awareness, and to make the women, Cherie and Elma, gain stature. The diner, as the arena where this happens, never stops being also a diner, which is to say a slice-of-life setting and a public space, and that means that we’re put in the place, almost, of eavesdroppers watching folks interact in public. Such is Inge’s very capable grasp of how theatrical real life can be, and how a public domain is useful to help a grandstanding cowboy see how he looks to others and snap out of his fantasy of himself, and to make a smooth-talking seducer of young girls consider his prey as a person in a community. Meanwhile, the women—who are not exactly what you’d call passive and easily led—have to see the limits of sympathy and excitement where male egos are concerned.

Finally, Inge also gives us a refreshingly non-anxious look at a grown-up man and woman (Carl and Grace) who agree to convenient liaisons without guilt-tripping about it. The pair are not likely to be anyone’s model couple, but Inge has the wherewithal to let them be themselves, without apology.

Kulp keeps his cast rattling along, playing things forthright without worrying too much about lurking nuances. Lyman never seems too creepy, and Bo never too vicious. Cherie and Elma both get grandstanding moments atop the diner’s counter, with Chenot rocking her chanteuse gown and Courtmanche’s high-school-style Juliet providing some welcome comedy, as does Watson’s many scowling reactions to his pardner’s incessant braggadocio.

New Haven Theater Company renders Bus Stop with a becoming purity, strengthened by Megan Chenot’s grasp of Cherie’s earnest manner, a mix of down-home charm and easy-going allure, and by Courtmanche’s dreamy young girl’s wonder about all the types it takes to make a world. With so much real feeling invested in this tale, this Bus Stop is an entertaining place to get stranded.

 

Bus Stop
By William Inge
Directed by George Kulp

Cast: Megan Keith Chenot, Peter Chenot, Sara Courtmanche, Erich Greene, Susan Kulp, J. Kevin Smith John Watson, Trevor Williams

Stage Manager: Margaret Mann; Set Design & Construction: George Kulp; Lighting: Peter Chenot; Board Ops: Deena Nicol-Blifford, Margaret Mann

New Haven Theater Company
March 3-5 & 9-12, 2016

Drop by the Bus Stop

Preview of Bus Stop, New Haven Theater Company

In the backroom of the English Building Markets, there’s a new diner. Or rather, an old diner. Dating from 1955, to be exact. It’s the set—still under construction—for New Haven Theater Company’s upcoming production of William Inge’s classic play of Americana, Bus Stop, and, boy, does it look authentic. Complete with the spinning stools you might remember from your favorite drugstore soda counter (if you remember those at all), a Beechnut Coffee tin, glass bottles of milk, a Frigidaire, and a radio that looks like it was around to broadcast on VE Day, Grace’s diner, where Bus Stop takes place during a freak blizzard in Kansas in March, has ambiance aplenty.

Director George Kulp expressed his deep gratitude to the Long Wharf Theatre, which generously opened its scenery and costume warehouses for the NHTC’s use. Which makes the show a dream come true for Kulp, who played headstrong cowboy Bo Decker in an exam play staged when he was still a theater student back in 1982. “The part was good to me and got me some attention,” Kulp said, and recently, when the process of picking plays for the NHTC season was taking longer than usual, “the play crossed my mind again.” The first thing Kulp realized was that he has the perfect assortment of actors for the play. Kulp asked his fellow NHTCers to read the play and casting fell into place immediately.

First of all, the play brings back Megan Chenot to the NHTC stage—last seen as the Stage Manager in their production of Our Town two years ago—who is taking time off from her busy performance schedule with her band Mission O. She plays Cherie, a small-time show-girl from the Ozarks and the female love interest of Bo, a cowboy trying to get her to marry him and move to Montana, played here by Trevor Williams who has the kind of youthful energy to pass for early twenties. The youngest part in the production—impressionable teen waitress Elma—goes to Sara Courtmanche, in her NHTC debut.

Other roles are filled by some of the familiar regulars in the NHTC family: Megan’s husband, Peter, a welcome addition to any NHTC show, whether as star or support, plays no-nonsense Sheriff Will Masters; J. Kevin Smith, who has had his share of plum roles with NHTC, as for instance in Glengarry Glen Ross and The Seafarer, plays Dr. Lyman, a pontificating ex-prof, who delights a bit too much in a nip from the bottle, among other vices; Erich Greene, often in the role of comic support, plays Carl, the Bus Driver, who has designs on Grace, the owner of the establishment, played forthright and down-homey by Kulp’s wife Susan (the Kulps played the Webbs in Our Town); John Watson gets the role of Bo’s crusty sidekick and father figure, Virgil.

Trevor Williams, Megan Chenot, John Watson, Sara Courtmanche, J. Kevin Smith, Peter Chenot, Susan Kulp, Erich Greene

Trevor Williams, Megan Chenot, John Watson, Sara Courtmanche, J. Kevin Smith, Peter Chenot, Susan Kulp, Erich Greene

“The play is better than I remembered,” Kulp said, and admitted that when he played Bo, “I was only focused on my role and really didn’t see how well the parts fit together. There are a lot of possibilities for us to explore, and a lot of discoveries to make about these characters. And we’re finding the humor.”

Bus Stop, set in a distinct place—a stretch of Kansas on the bus route to Kansas City—and period, is “a really good choice” for the Company, Kulp said. Indeed, NHTC has shown an affinity with classic American theater in its productions of Our Town and Waiting for Lefty. The pacing of naturalist drama suits the NHTC ensemble approach, with everyone contributing to the overall effect. The challenge here is that most of the cast is on stage at the same time, with different configurations taking up the main action. It requires a bit more orchestration than something like Almost, Maine, which the NHTC staged at English Markets in 2013, where the action was parceled out in discrete scenes. Kulp said he finds the challenge exciting, while fans of NHTC who have enjoyed some of their larger cast productions should be pleased by the overlapping interactions.

While Inge might not be a playwright on the tip of everyone’s tongue, there was a revival of his play Picnic on Broadway in 2013, and Kulp feels Bus Stop is just as good, if not better. “Both hail from a more innocent time we can be nostalgic about, but Inge is good at exposing the different layers of his characters.” And, as Smith says, his role, Dr. Lyman, excised from the Hollywood film version of the play (in which Marilyn Monroe played Cherie), lets us hear more of the kind of jaundiced views closer to Inge himself who didn’t set out to write venerable classics.

And what about a blizzard in March? Kulp said the special effects will be convincing, but let’s hope the play’s not prophetic in that regard.

The New Haven Theater Company’s production of Bus Stop opens Thursday, March 3rd and plays March 4th, 5th, 10th, 11th, 12th at 839 Chapel Street.