Pamela Hill

Gags Galore

Review of The 39 Steps, Music Theatre of Connecticut

Enter the wacky world of spies in England and Scotland between the two great wars of last century. Adapted by Patrick Barlow for the stage, from John Buchan’s 1915 novel by way of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 thriller, The 39 Steps, directed by Pamela Hill at Music Theatre of Connecticut, keeps up a steady pace of escapes and oddball encounters, with the tone of an espionage story jettisoned in favor of skit comedy and slapstick. With all characters played by four actors, and the artifice of theater exposed right on the stage, props get put through their paces and the audience is made to indulge its imagination.

Richard Hannay (Gary Lindemann), Annabella Schmidt (Laura Cable) (photos from Music Theatre of Connecticut)

Richard Hannay (Gary Lindemann), Annabella Schmidt (Laura Cable) (photos from Music Theatre of Connecticut)

MTC likes such stripped down staging, as it has shown with its staged radio shows, and much of the charm of the show comes from a willingness to make theater a frenetic game of make-believe. That starts with Gary Lindemann’s Richard Hanny, a posh Brit who lounges about narrating his ennui before being catapulted into a series of dangerous predicaments by way of an encounter with Annabella Schmidt, a mysterious German woman played with hilarious creepiness by Laura Cable. Lindemann’s Hanny is a kind of unflappable Everyman, even if there’s nothing at all everyday about his adventures.

Pamela (Laura Cable), Richard Hannay (Gary Lindemann)

Pamela (Laura Cable), Richard Hannay (Gary Lindemann)

The acting here is turned up a few notches from the kind of overplaying you’d find—played for real—in B movies, or on radio programs. The situations also smack of radio shows, with visualization a key part of the effect—except, of course, for the sight gags. My favorite features Lindemann and Cable—as Pamela, a skeptical woman pressed into aiding Hannay—handcuffed together and trying to get over a stile. And the bit when she removed her stockings while handcuffed makes comedy of discomfort.

Clown #2 (Matt Densky), Clown #1 (Jim Schilling)

Clown #2 (Matt Densky), Clown #1 (Jim Schilling)

The play is designed to let such tomfoolery go on as long as it can, particularly the many bits furnished by the two clowns, Matt Densky and Jim Schilling. It helps that Schilling bears a resemblance to that great veteran of televised skit comedy, Tim Conway. When Schilling mutters and putters around, setting up chairs for a speech, or has to carry several chairs offstage at once, the gags are vintage Conway. As the other Clown, Matt Densky tends to specialize in outrageous voices—I don’t think I’ll ever forget how his diabolical German says “Mr. Hannay!”

Clown #2 (Matt Densky)

Clown #2 (Matt Densky)

The presence of diabolical Germans and slow-witted Scots (without quite as funny an accent as you’d expect) and bland society types and traveling lingerie salesmen, to say nothing of the many caps Schilling juggles as cop, train conductor, and passenger, lets us experience a parade of characters as matters of costume and voice and mannerism.

The cast of The 39 Steps

The cast of The 39 Steps

The entire cast is having so much fun you might find yourself forgetting what is going on with the story. It doesn’t really matter, and the plot’s flights of fancy are abetted by a number of references to Hitchcock films for the attentive. I have to say though that the production I saw in London’s West End in 2015 seemed more verbally inventive, but that might be the effect of familiarity.

MTC’s version of this screwball caper comedy brings together two of its top comic actors—Schilling, who has played many roles, and Densky, last seen as the irritable department store elf in The Santaland Diaries—with Lindemann and Cable, two other comic talents who work very well together, to provide an evening of inspired silliness with pretty much a gag a minute. Seeing these quick-timed switches in such close proximity to an audience makes for a certain awe at what they get away with.

 

The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barlow
From the novel by John Buchan
From the movie by Alfred Hitchcock
Directed by Pamela Hill

Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Wigs: Peggy de la Cruz; Set Design: Jordan Janota; Lighting Design: Michael Blagys; Sound Design: Monet Fleming; Stage Manager: Gary Betsworth

Cast: Laura Cable, Matt Densky, Gary Lindemann, Jim Schilling

Music Theatre of Connecticut
March 2-18, 2018

Sly Oneupmanship

Review of Sleuth, Music Theater of Connecticut

Two men playing head games in an English country estate may seem far removed from the pressures of our times. Indeed, Sleuth, Anthony Shaffer’s captivating comic drama of sleight-of-hand twists and flexible identities dates from the 1970s and tweaks genteel detective fiction. But it also traffics in something that never ceases to fascinate: power, as in, what you can do to others when you have it, and how to get it from others when you don’t.

Sleuth is a whodunit that has been called, more properly, a whodunwhat. Milo Tindle (David Brickman), a London-based travel agent for well-to-do clientele, visits the very successful and very high-handed author Andrew Wyke, a murder mystery writer, at his Tudoresque pile. Milo has been summoned by the elder man, it turns out, in order to discuss how Milo might successfully keep his mistress, Wyke’s wife, in the manner to which she has become accustomed. The scheme involves burglary and an insurance settlement, but before you can say fraud, Wyke is having Milo choose a costume for a kind of fancy-dress felony. And then he proceeds to complicate matters further.

Milo (David Brickman), Andrew (John Little) (photo: Joe Landry)

Milo (David Brickman), Andrew (John Little) (photo: Joe Landry)

The repartee between the two is swift and sure in Pamela Hill’s well-paced production. As Tindle, David Brickman squirms with poise and even manages to take his host off-guard at times by playing to his vanity. John Little’s Andrew Wyke is a carefully controlled turn as someone who is always toying—with his prose, with his verbal sallies, with his plots and with putting Milo through his paces. Though neither actor plays the scenes of emotional extremity as forcefully as they might, their handling of the quid pro quo jousting over who has the upper hand keeps things lively. The role of Inspector Plodder, in the second act, is particularly well played, and Wyke generally comes off as more cheeky than sadistic, which keeps us a bit sympathetic to his intentions. His is an intelligence always ready to find amusement in the way that events play into familiar patterns of narrative. And it’s Wyke’s level of meta-archness, displayed throughout, that keeps us guessing as to his ultimate motives and even as to how much he is taken in.

How much the audience is taken is is also a key question. For the full effect of the play, it’s best that viewers not already know where it’s going, so if you’ve seen it, don’t tell others much about it beforehand, but do tell them to go. Sleuth, as a play, is a kind of parlor trick that is well worth seeing done well, its ending arriving with all the aptness of a mousetrap’s satisfying click.

Milo Tindle (David Brickman), Andrew Wyke (John Little) (photo: Joe Landry)

Milo Tindle (David Brickman), Andrew Wyke (John Little) (photo: Joe Landry)

The detailed set, by Jordan Janota, makes more of MTC’s modest playing space than one could expect, and the audience’s closeness to the many props and other visual features adds a compelling intimacy. The themes of the play—such as class tensions between an up-and-comer and a lordly eminence—play out with a fluidity of affect so that sometimes we side more with one, then the other. Eventually, the play seems to shift for the underdog, but, even so, how much one sympathizes with the painfully deliberative Plodder over the high-and-mighty ironies of Wyke, the skilled plot manipulator, will be a matter for the individual viewer. Shaffer writes like a dream of self-consciously pretentious prose, so that much of the battle of wits here is verbal, having to do with a cruel eye for characterization, in Wyke, and a canny eye for loose ends, in Plodder. Milo, on the other hand, offends at the start by being too agreeable and one is in hopes that he’ll get his own back.

Milo Tindle (David Brickman) (photo: Heather Hayes)

Milo Tindle (David Brickman) (photo: Heather Hayes)

Cunning and crafty, Shaffer’s Sleuth serves up diverting escapist entertainment.

Sleuth
By Anthony Shaffer
Directed by Pamela Hill

Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Set Design: Jordan Janota; Lighting Design: Michael Blagys; Fight Direction: Dan O’Driscoll; Stage Manager: Jim Schilling

Cast: David Brickman, JohnLittle, Philip Farrar, Harold K. Newman, Roger Purnell

Music Theater of Connecticut
November 4-20, 2016

Only to Go to Norwalk

Review of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike at Music Theatre of Connecticut

An academic couple, obsessed with theater in Bucks County, PA, raise a brood they name after Chekhov characters. When we meet them, the progeny are middle-aged and mom and dad are just a memory. Vanya (Jim Schilling) lives with adopted sister Sonia (Cynthia Hannah) in a house supported by sister Masha (Jodi Stevens)—the way Vanya and niece Sonya live on an estate that supports his academic former brother-in-law, her father, in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Masha, divorced five times, is an aging film star, best-known for the many sequels of Sexy Killer, a slasher movie and cash-cow that sustains her career, though she’d rather be playing classic theatrical roles like her parents did—particularly her namesake Masha, the dissatisfied married sister in Chekhov’s Three Sisters.

Vanya (Jim Schilling), Masha (Jodi Stevens), Sonia (Cynthia Hannah)

Vanya (Jim Schilling), Masha (Jodi Stevens), Sonia (Cynthia Hannah)

Every inch a grand diva in her own mind—like Irina, the grande dame in Chekhov’s The Seagull—Masha returns for a visit to the area with her new boy-toy Spike (Christopher DeRosa), who enjoys disrobing in company. She plans to attend a fancy dress party nearby with a theme she expects everyone to sign onto: Snow White and her attendant dwarfs; Sonia’s insistence on playing Maggie Smith playing the Wicked Queen makes for a delightful battle of sisterly wills.

Cynthia Hannah (Sonia)

Cynthia Hannah (Sonia)

For additional comedy and complications, we have: Nina (Carissa Massaro), an utterly guileless local teen fan of Masha whom Spike may be taking a shine to and who may become Vanya’s muse, as Nina does for Konstantin in The Seagull, and a cleaning woman named Cassandra (Katie Sparer), who, like her namesake in ancient Greek myth, tends to mouth unheeded warnings. The cast enters into the comic spirit with full sails, with Stevens particularly well cast in a role originated on Broadway by Sigourney Weaver.

Jodi Stevens (Masha), Christopher DeRosa (Spike)

Jodi Stevens (Masha), Christopher DeRosa (Spike)

The plot’s thinness makes dialogue drive the play. Durang masters a low-key comedy that winks at the ennui and gloom of the usual Chekhovian drama, while aping ironically the bright zest of sit-com-like patter. Any character is apt at any time to deliver a bathetic bon mot or give a terse existential tweak to someone else’s pleasantry. Directed with perhaps a bit too much respect for the material by Pamela Hill (which means the show runs longer and more slowly than it should), Durang’s play is best when it feels like a modern drama class adopting a modern classic for TV viewers. The laughs come from the incongruity and from the fact that each character is a self-involved cartoon. And in that, it is an apt mirror for our era where “the selfie” replaced the Self.

Carissa Massaro (Nina), Christopher DeRosa (Spike)

Carissa Massaro (Nina), Christopher DeRosa (Spike)

Cartoonish and gently satirical, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike won the Tony for Best Play in 2013, recent enough to feel startlingly contemporary, with its sense of the social landscape as influenced by online life, while playing with knowing familiarity on the kind of family dramas that have long been mainstays of theater, from Chekhov to O’Neill and on. Sonia, who Hannah plays as a basically agreeable and sympathetic matron who may be reaching the end of her tether, has a tendency to call the family’s stand of 10 or so cherry trees “a cherry orchard.”

Cynthia Hannah (Sonia), Jodi Stevens (Masha), Jim Schilling (Vanya)

Cynthia Hannah (Sonia), Jodi Stevens (Masha), Jim Schilling (Vanya)

She also tends to watch for a heron by the pond and to claim her kinship with wild turkeys. As the adopted, unnecessary sister, she’s an amusing collection of misgivings, hurt feelings, and resentment, a perfect foil for Vanya, a nebbishy n’er-do-well, who, like his namesake, believes that life has passed him by, even while hoping to achieve something worthwhile before it’s all over. Schilling’s second act harangue has the jocular and despairing delivery of a man giving up on a world that already gave up on him, and feels decidedly apropos for the Norwalk-Westport area as comfortably removed from the action in the City.

Jim Schilling (Vanya)

Jim Schilling (Vanya)

Durang has written more biting and loopier plays, but this one has the likable oddity of neighbors we try to get on with even while finding them resistant to our sympathies. It’s as if the Chekhovian veneer that sustains much naturalistic drama has been allowed to molder until our irreverent American under-paint shows through. MTC’s production, with its comfortable set and intimate thrust space keeps actors and audience on the same level and makes this living-room comedy feel appreciably lived-in and immediate.

 

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
By Christopher Durang
Directed by Pamela Hill

Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Scenic Design: Carl Tallent; Lighting Design: Joshua Scherr; Sound Design: Sarah Pero; Stage Manager: Cameron Nadler

Cast: Christopher DeRosa; Cynthia Hannah; Carissa Massaro; Jim Schilling; Katie Sparer; Jodi Stevens

Music Theatre of Connecticut Mainstage
February 26-March 13, 2016