Oliver Butler

Hometown Blues

Review of An Opening in Time at Hartford Stage

“The purpose of playing,” Hamlet says, “is to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature.” A statement that might lend itself to a support of realism in theater, so that what happens onstage should be very much like what happens in real life. That argument works as a rationale for mimetic works that are based on real people, real places.

In Christopher Shinn’s An Opening in Time, the intention to portray his hometown—Wethersfield, Connecticut—as it was in his youth creates a play that will certainly resonate with local audiences who will recognize place-names and appreciate how deliberately the dialogue recreates the tentative, non-emphatic speech of people accustomed to a certain pace of life. There is a pervasive small town feel to the play—which includes scenes in a local diner and in a Denny's and in a homey farmhouse kitchen—and that helps to sell the small talk that sometimes sounds exactly like real life, which is to say, not really very interesting.

Deborah Hedwall (Anne)

Deborah Hedwall (Anne)

Anne (Deborah Hedwall), a middle-aged woman recently widowed, returns to Wethersfield after selling off the farm to which she, her husband, and their young son had moved about thirty years before. Nothing much has changed in the riverside town, “Ye Most Auncient Towne in Connecticut,” according to its website. We meet Anne first when the boy next door, George (Brandon Smalls), hits her door with a baseball which sets up her neighborly attempt to get to know him. Anne is a retired schoolteacher so that justifies her somewhat needy interest in the young man. Later, we learn she is having problems with her own adult son, due in part to his status as a sex offender (also a teacher, he had an affair with one of his underage students).

George, it turns out, is living with foster parents and there are odd tensions surfacing as Kim (Molly Camp), the mother, at first reaches out to Anne and then seems to avoid her. Or at least that’s how Anne sees it. Meanwhile, Ron (Patrick Clear), who spends most mornings and evenings at the same diner in the same chair at the counter, often trading familiar jibes with Frank (Bill Christ), notices on his friend’s iPad that Anne, with whom he obviously has history, has bought a house in town. Not much more occurs in the first act except someone unknown—George? Anne’s son?—is breaking Anne's kitchen windows when she’s not at home. Ron and Anne take very tentative steps toward one another, sharing one of her pies, meeting for lunch and then . . . nothing.

George (Brandon Smalls), Anne (Deborah Hedwall)

George (Brandon Smalls), Anne (Deborah Hedwall)

Shinn seems to have learned from Chekhov the technique of using an entire act to establish the main narrative lines, that will then alter through significant changes in the later acts. But that’s where the comparison ends. The subplots that drift through the story of Anne and Ron don’t have any urgency, not even the fact that George is on his way to being transgendered. And whatever’s up with Kim plays out in a few scenes of awkward forced neighborliness. Meanwhile, the story of Sam (Karl Miller), Anne’s son, becomes little more than an occasion for Anne to try to get back to some kind of emotional balance.

What Shinn gets convincingly right occurs in the second act when Ron and Anne finally have it out about who remembers what about the time, right before she left town with her family, when he came to her house to let her know how he felt about her. It was an intense evening, full of feeling that, in memory, has become a failed turning point for each, something they both blame the other for. The scene, with its grasp of how people with grudges who cared for each other and would like to continue doing so can spar, catches fire and shows us how, beneath all that simple, everyday chatter, there are real passions and regrets and resentments. And the focus of the interplay between Hedwall and Clear, as they let us into what’s really going on inside these average, unassuming types, has real impact, making the other currents in the story seem force-fed into the tale.

Directed by Oliver Butler, who has shown great facility with Will Eno’s precise and hilariously gnomic version of dysfunctional family life in Open House, as well as a grasp of the scurrilous barbs of a family in each other’s faces in Bad Jews (at the Long Wharf last season), shows a softer, more easygoing side here. The heat between Hedwall and Clear certainly shows his touch, but that’s not enough to make Hedwall’s scenes with Camp and Smalls work.

Antje Ellerman’s wonderful set, showing the classic lines of Connecticut homes adorned with bare trees and artful lighting from Russell H. Champa, urges us to feel the autumnal air that surrounds these characters, but doesn’t do so well when it has to switch to a diner or a Denny’s. With booths and counters rising up from below through trapdoors, only to sink again when not needed, the briskness of the transitions distracts from the dialogue’s deliberate pacing and seems almost a joke at its expense. Or maybe that’s a way of saying that, hoping for something that will interest or amuse, one finds it as one can.

Anne (Deborah Hedwall), Ron (Patrick Clear)

Anne (Deborah Hedwall), Ron (Patrick Clear)

Shinn gets intentional laughs from jibes at Rent—Ron is a semi-retired schoolteacher who puts on the school’s big musical each year and grumbles about Rent as the show the kids want and he doesn’t. Whether Shinn shares any of Ron’s feelings about the popular pseudo-gritty musical, An Opening in Time does allow that, for someone like George, Rent might be a glimpse of a world he needs to know more than he needs a book of Hemingway stories or mollycoddling from Anne.

As Anne, Deborah Hedwall has a wavery voice that cracks with feeling; she speaks like a woman who has made her living talking and is trying to find a way, now, to speak about herself and her feelings. Patrick Clear’s Ron is likeable and very natural, a good neighbor type whom no one would accuse of being an exciting catch. As Frank, Bill Christ adds some male camaraderie where it’s needed. The other parts—a policeman (Mike Keller), a surly Polish waitress (Kati Brazda), George and his mother—come and go without becoming more than sidelights. As Anne’s uneasily guilty thirtysomething son, Karl Miller’s Sam seems bemused at his mother’s attempt to stay connected to him, while the actual logistics of their previous life are hard to fathom from their scene together.

Ron (Patrick Clear), Frank (Bill Christ)

Ron (Patrick Clear), Frank (Bill Christ)

A play of bits and pieces, An Opening in Time needs perhaps more time to find its opening toward a more fully resonant and rewarding slice of Connecticut life.

 

An Opening in Time
By Christopher Shinn
Directed by Oliver Butler

Scenic Design: Antje Ellerman; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: Russell H. Champa; Original Music & Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Vocal Coach: Robert H. Davis; Casting: Binder Casting; Production Stage Manager: Cole P. Bonenberger; Assistant Stage Manager: Arielle Goldstein; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast: Deborah Hedwall; Brandon Smalls; Patrick Clear; Kati Brazda; Bill Christ; Molly Camp; Mike Keller; Karl Miller

Hartford Stage
September 25-October 11, 2015

 

 

Kvetching Cousins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bad Jews By Joshua Harmon Directed by Oliver Butler

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

Long Wharf Theatre Februrary 18-March 22, 2015