Playhouse on Park

Get In The Act: The Fall Theater Scene in Connecticut

Preview: Fall Theater Season, 2019

Labor Day has come and gone, and “back to school” weather in Connecticut actually felt like early autumn, for a change. And my email inbox’s increase of press releases indicates that the theater season of fall 2019 is tuning up. The “twenty-teens” are coming swiftly to a close, while the next presidential election is barely more than a year away as we start to wonder who is at “20/20” for 2020.

Here is a glance at the upcoming shows on the Connecticut theater scene (touring Broadway shows exempted) for the next four months between now and the beginning of that oddly doubled year—the last one was 1919!


Yale Cabaret, the black box in a basement on Yale campus where theater leaders of tomorrow make extracurricular theater as students at the Yale School of Drama, begins its 52nd season this week (see Lucy Gellman’s coverage at Arts Paper ); the incoming team are Artistic Directors Zachry J. Bailey, a third-year in Stage Management, Brandon Burton, a third-year in Acting, and  Alex Vermilion, a third-year in Dramaturgy & Dramatic Criticism, together with Managing Director Jaime Totti, a fourth-year joint candidate for an MFA in Theater Management at the School of Drama and an MBA at the School of Business. The 2019-20 season kicks off, September 12-14, with We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, from the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jackie Sibblies Drury, a lecturer in playwriting at YSD, directed by Christopher Betts (Directing, ’21); the play dramatizes the difficulties of authentic representation in a tale of genocide by staging the play’s rehearsal; next, September 19-21, is Waste \\ Land: Climate Change Theatre Action 2019, an anthology mixing short plays by international playwrights and pieces written by students, the show is curated and directed by members of Beyond Borders, a new affinity group for international students at YSD; then, October 3-5, the Cabaret returns with benjisun presents bodyssey, a movement-and-puppetry piece created by Benjamin Benne (Playwriting ’21) and Jisun Kim (Dramaturgy & Dramatic Criticism ’21); first seen in the TBD festival of rough drafts last season, the expanded version further explores themes of the human body and the world it inhabits.


Goodspeed, the venerable musical theater on the Connecticut River in East Haddam, has had a very successful 2019 season so far: its revival of the classic The Music Man won the CT Critics Circle Award for Best Musical; its new musical Because of Winn Dixie enjoyed an extended run, and now it brings the season to a close with Billy Elliott, Book & Lyrics by Lee Hall, Music by Elton John; an audience choice, the original Broadway show won 10 Tonys, adapting a popular film about a young boy in a tough North England mining town who dreams of becoming a dancer. September 13-November 24.

Originally the first self-supporting summer theater in the country, Ivoryton Playhouse has been running versatile full seasons since 2006 under Executive Director Jacqueline Hubbard; the last two shows of the 2019 season, which began in March, are Sheer Madness by Paul Portner, a lively—and long-running—comedy-mystery in which audience members spot clues, question suspects, and solve the case, complete with improvised topical humor from the cast, September 18-October 6, and Woody Sez – The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie, an involving celebration of the songs of Woody Guthrie, the anti-fascist folk-bard of Depression-era America, devised by David M. Luken, who plays Woody, with Nick Corley, Darcie Deauville, Helen J. Russell, and Andy Tierstein, October 23-November 10.

Like my own reviews of New Haven theater, Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, founded in 2009 by Co-Artistic Directors Sean Harris and Darlene Zoller and Executive Director Tracy Flater, is entering its second decade; the spacious stage in the Playhouse thrust space, which has housed some memorable productions such as The Diary of Anne Frank (2017) and The Scottsboro Boys (2019), will present the “inspired madness” of Dan Goggin’s Nunsense, a spirited musical in which singing nuns raise fun and funds to bury their sisters, September 18-October 13, followed by Barbara Lebow’s A Shayna Maidel; Dawn Loveland Navarro directs the tale of a patriarch and his two daughters—as children, one escaped the Holocaust with him, the other had to survive it—meeting again after many years, an exploration of “family, faith and forgiveness,” October 30-November 17.


Following the departure of its celebrated Artistic Director, Darko Tresnjak, Hartford Stage opens its 56th season, the exciting first season for new Artistic Director Melia Benussen and new Managing Director Cynthia Rider; first up is Quixote Nuevo by Octavio Solis, a contemporary reimagining of Cervantes’ immortal Don Quixote, now set in a Texas border town, directed by KJ Sanchez; the production is in association with Huntington Theatre Company and Alley Theatre, September 19-October 13; the next two shows will be directed by Rachel Alderman, Artistic Associate (and longtime member of New Haven’s innovative Broken Umbrella Theatre): Molly Smith Metzler’s Cry It Out, a recent comedy about four parents negotiating “the power of female friendship, the dilemma of going back to work after being home with a newborn, and the effect social class has on parenthood in America,” October 24-November 17, and the fun, elegant, and ghostly A Christmas Carol, the traditional holiday favorite of spiritual redemption from Charles Dickens by way of Michael Wilson’s inventive adaptation, November 29-December 28.

Originally a dance hall built in the 1920s, later—in the 1970s—a skating rink, and, since the 1990s, a theater, Waterbury’s Seven Angels Theatre in Hamilton Park, boasts a good sound system, great for concert-style shows such as Million Dollar Quartet (2017) and The Who’s Tommy (2018); the 2019-20 Mainstage season opens with Honky Tonk Laundry, by Roger Bean Take, a tuneful tale of two gals running a laundromat, featuring the music of a slew of female Country Music legends, such as Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Carrie Underwood, Trisha Yearwood, and Reba McEntire, September 26-October 20; then, November 7-December 1, it’s Matthew Lopez’s hilarious, crowd-pleasing tale of how a straight married guy—a struggling Elvis impersonator—must learn to walk the walk of a stylish drag queen in The Legend of Georgia McBride.


Founded in 1987 as a small, black box equity theater together with a school of the performing arts, Music Theater of Connecticut in Norwalk, just past the Westport border, follows the gripping productions—Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Cabaret—of its strong 2018-19 season with the ambitious musical adapted from E. L. Doctorow’s historical pastiche, Ragtime, with Book by Terence McNally, Lyrics by Lynn Ahern, and Music by Stephen Flaherty, a story of multicultural America, involving African Americans in Harlem, white upper-class suburbanites in New Rochelle, and East European Jewish immigrants, September 27-October 13; then, November 8-24, it’s Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias, the story of small-town life in Louisiana as lived and learned by a group of women for whom the local beauty salon is a kind of clubhouse beyond the purview of the fellas.


At Westport Country Playhouse, Mark Lamos is in his second decade as Artistic Director, continuing to produce an able mix of sumptuously mounted classics, such as Romeo and Juliet (2017) and Camelot (2016), notable new work like Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand (2016) and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate (2017), and rousing crowd-pleasers like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, which began the 2019 season in April; the season has two more shows: Lamos directs Mlima’s Tale by two-time Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, a fable about a Kenyan elephant, Mlima, a species facing extinction in a world of capitalist greed and economic desperation, October 1-19; and Brendan Pelsue’s new translation and adaptation of Molière’s dark comedy Don Juan about the legendary libertine facing the consequences of his faithless lifestyle, directed by David Kennedy, November 5-23.

ACT (A Contemporary Theatre) of Connecticut opened the doors of its own theater in Ridgefield in June 2018; the stylish, open stage, with amphitheater seating, has so far only five theatrical productions to its credit as founders Katie Diamond, Executive Director, Daniel C. Levine, Artistic Director, and Bryan Perri, Resident Music Supervisor, continue their mission to bring Equity, Broadway-caliber productions to CT’s northwest. The second season opens with Alan Menken and Harold Ashman’s ever-popular and entertaining The Little Shop of Horrors, a macabre musical comedy about a lovable schlemiel, his demanding man-eating pet plant, Audrey II, and the girl he loves, October 3-November 3.

In the northeast part of the state, The Connecticut Repertory Theater is the production component of the Department of Dramatic Arts at the University of Connecticut in Storrs; CRT productions are directed, designed by, and cast with visiting professional artists, mixing Equity actors, faculty members, and UConn’s most advanced theater students. The 2019-20 season of six shows leads off, in the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theater, with Chekhov’s masterpiece The Cherry Orchard, a more apt choice for our times than the playwright’s more oft-produced The Seagull; the production, adapted by Jean-Claude van Itallie and directed by John Miller-Stephany, features Mark Light-Orr as Gayev and Caralyn Kozlowski as Ranevskaya, October 3-13; later in the month, in the Studio Theatre, is Sarah DeLappe’s spirited The Wolves, directed by Julie Foh, in which a girls’ high school soccer team copes with the tensions of coming of age, October 24-November 3; Shakespeare in Love, a stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning romantic comedy film by Tom Stoppard, Lee Hall and Marc Norman, about the young Shakespeare’s writer’s block and inspiring tryst with Viola, a titled woman with an overweening love of theater, plays the Harriet S. Jorgensen theater November 21-December 8, directed by Vincent Tycer, its Equity cast still to be determined.

In New Haven, James Bundy has been the Artistic Director of Yale Repertory Theatre, the theater in residence for the Yale School of Drama, and the Dean of Yale School of Drama since 2002, fostering theatrical talent and showcasing top professionals; the first show of the 2019-20 season is the World Premiere of Girls, the always challenging Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ modern adaptation of Euripides’ The Bacchae, a popular go-to classic of our moment, this time with “a killer DJ, bumping dance music, and live-streaming video,” October 4-26, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, an inspiring Directing alum of YSD (2012) who teamed with Jacobs-Jenkins for War at Yale Rep in 2014; The Plot, by the always rewarding Will Eno, has its World Premiere November 9-December 21, directed by Oliver Butler, who won the OBIE for directing Eno’s Open House at the Signature Theatre; Eno’s previous play at Yale Rep was The Realistic Joneses (2012).

The first two thesis productions at the Yale School of Drama, in which third-year Directing students work with a cast and technical team comprised of—generally—current YSD students, will run in the closing months of 2019 as well: Kat Yen directs Anne Washburn’s post-apocalyptic Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, in which collective memories of shows on The Simpsons become the basis of an epic myth, October 26-November 1; and, December 14-20, Danilo Gambini, the Co-Artistic Director of the 2019 Yale Summer Cabaret season, directs Fun Home; Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic-novel memoir of her early life, her coming out, and her fraught relationship with her closeted gay father won the Tony Award for Best Musical of 2015.


At New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre, last season was still transitioning after the ousting of longtime Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein in 2018; now the implementation of the vision of new Artistic Director Jacob G. Padrón is underway, “Grounded in the past, leaping into the future,” though the season that will be entirely his own won’t arrive until 2021-22 (read Frank Rizzo’s talk with Padrón at Newhavenbiz). The 2019-20 season opens with the World Premiere of Ricardo Pérez González’s On the Grounds of Belonging, October 9-November 3; directed by David Mendizábal, the story tells of a forbidden love between a white man and a black man in 1950s’ Jim Crow Texas; oft-produced actor-playwright Kate Hamill has become a veritable industry of quirky, third-wave feminist adaptations of the kinds of nineteenth-century classics formerly the stuff of Masterpiece Theater productions; her third effort, and second Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice fills Long Wharf’s second slot, November 27-December 22.

In downtown Hartford at the historic City Arts building on Pearl Street, TheaterWorks has been producing theater since 1985; the 2019-20 season will open in the newly renovated but still very intimate theater space, after staging several of last season’s shows at the Wadsworth Atheneum’s auditorium; the opener is American Son, Christopher Demos-Brown’s topical drama, on Broadway last season, about a mixed race couple’s grim night of truth when their son gets stopped by police, October 18-November 23; the last show of 2019 will be “Hartford’s twisted holiday tradition,” Rob Ruggerio’s Christmas on the Rocks in which a battery of playwrights devise futures for the figures many of us spent far too many Christmases with; so here’s to all those for whom “the holidays” were as much—or more—about repeat-viewing of “holiday classics” as about spending time with loved ones, December 1-29.

I’ll be reviewing many of these shows, so stop back and follow links to the reviews as they come in, and make the most of the rest of 2019 . . .

History Via Minstrelsy

Review of The Scottsboro Boys, Playhouse on Park

As composers of musicals, John Kander and Fred Ebb have a knack for subject matter potentially unsettling. Their Cabaret is having a resurgence in Connecticut, with three productions in 2019, and for obvious reasons. The rise of Nazism in Berlin in the uneasy 1930s finds a ready parallel in the swerve to the Right in many countries in the dwindling twenty-teens of this century.  

At Playhouse on Park through August 4 is a musical by Kander and his late partner Ebb, with book by David Thompson, that is just as timely. The Scottsboro Boys returns to a staggering miscarriage of justice in 1930s’ Alabama that makes us revisit the long, hard fight for civil rights for African Americans in the twentieth century. And it also comments tellingly on the staggering miscarriages of justice that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013—three years after the show opened and closed on Broadway.

The cast of Playhouse on Park’s production of The Scottsboro Boys, directed by Sean Harris (Photographs by Meredith Longo)

The cast of Playhouse on Park’s production of The Scottsboro Boys, directed by Sean Harris (Photographs by Meredith Longo)

At the time there were raised eyebrows—and outright protests—that a modern musical would adapt the manner of the minstrel show, a racist form of entertainment in which white performers, in blackface, imitated and caricatured blacks. Yet the minstrel show format brings to the Scottsboro Boys’ story both a vitality and an irony that would not be easily attainable otherwise. To have these engaging and entertaining actors dancing and singing about such a prickly topic would be unthinkable without the frame: we’re watching a cast who, under the imprimatur of their “master,” the Interlocutor and only white cast member (Dennis Holland, condescendingly grand), are forced to put on a jovial version of an injustice. The vitality comes from the fact that the minstrel show, as a form, influenced so much musical comedy, and the irony comes from the performers as knowing commentators on caricatures.

The story: the “boys” were nine African American youths from age 13 to 20 who were riding a train they had hopped—mostly separately—from Chattanooga to Memphis. A fight broke out when white rail-riders tried to force the blacks off the train. The whites reported to the sheriff in Alabama that they had been attacked, and the nine were detained. Two white women who had also hopped the train (and were possibly soliciting) accused the youths of raping them. With a lynch mob forming, the nine were tried without adequate counsel and were convicted and sentenced to death, despite the medical examiner’s evidence that the women had not been raped. Protests and support from the north—including the NAACP and the U.S. Communist Party—eventually brought about a retrial with Samuel Leibowitz of New York representing the accused. They were found guilty again, though one of the accusers recanted her earlier charge. Retrials continued and eventually, through certain plea deals, the four youngest of the nine were allowed to go free. Another was shot, nonfatally, for attacking a guard, two others escaped. Eventually—but not until 2013!—the three unpardoned were granted posthumous pardons. All had been burdened by their conviction, imprisonment, and the lengthy and publicized trials that continued to uphold the earliest verdict without sufficient evidence (the nine, in their individual defenses, gave contrary evidence as well, at times accusing one or some of the others).

Bones (Ivory Mckay), Tambo (Torrey Linder)

Bones (Ivory Mckay), Tambo (Torrey Linder)

Key to the spin The Scottsboro Boys gives to this material are the traditional minstrel-show roles of Bones (Ivory Mckay) and Tambo (Torrey Linder), two showmen, both excellent, who abound in bad puns, overt silliness, and who project a double-edged awareness that satirizes the conventions of the show as well as the outrageousness of the story the musical tells. They enact a racist white sheriff and his deputy, white lawyers (including a drunk-as-a-skunk defense attorney), and guards. Their obvious fun with these caricatures of caricatures gives even the obvious and corny aspects of the humor its bite. And their showdown in the retrial, as the anti-Semitic Attorney General (Mckay) vs. Leibowitz (Linder), shows how playing upon prejudices will often carry the day.. 

Granted, the Scottsboro story doesn’t have the trajectory of a well-made plot and the collective villainy of the authorities confers a questionable heroism on the nine accused, simply by virtue of being innocent. That means that most of the show’s strength comes from how well it arouses sympathy for the hapless predicament of the accused nine. As Haywood Patterson, who is presented as the strongest willed among them, Troy Valjean Rucker draws attention early in the show with “Nothin’”—a song that sums up a world-weary ethos—and later with “You Can’t Do Me,” a song that registers his unwillingness to admit guilt even if it means getting a pardon. Another standout number is “Never Too Late,” with Jaylan Evans as Ruby Bates making her courtroom retraction an over-the-top, high-stepping vaudeville number.

Center, seated: Heywood Patterson (Troy Valjean Rucker) and Eugene Williams (Trishawn Paul) with the cast of The Scottsboro Boys

Center, seated: Heywood Patterson (Troy Valjean Rucker) and Eugene Williams (Trishawn Paul) with the cast of The Scottsboro Boys

The songs are full of zest, and a few early on—like the anxious “Electric Chair” and the stirring “Go Back Home”—benefit from Trishawn Paul’s lovely tenor. Choreographer Darlene Zoller and director Sean Harris, two of the three founders of Playhouse on Park, maintain the high standard in ending their tenth season that they brought to last season’s closer, In the Heights. While not as exuberant and contemporary as the latter, The Scottsboro Boys earns admiration for its nimble handling of shameful truths—the farce of injustice and overt racism—and for its stripped-down design—which makes the show feel almost improvised—and for keeping its audience in the palm of its hand from the glad-to-meet-you opening to the point at which the troupe departs the frame.

Throughout the show its only female cast member, Renee J. Sutherland, is onstage as “the lady,” an African American woman holding a book and looking on as a witness aghast at what she sees, and possibly as a researcher encountering this almost forgotten story. At the close of the show, her identity is revealed to show a continuity with what Thompson and company most likely saw as the dawn of a more enlightened age. In any case, reminders are necessary.


The Scottsboro Boys
Music and Lyrics by John Kander & Fred Ebb
Book by David Thompson
Directed by Sean Harris

Orchestrations: Larry Hochman; Musical Arrangements: Glen Kelly; Vocal Arrangements: David Loud; Choreographer: Darlene Zoller; Music Director: Melanie Guerin; Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Lighting Designer: Johann Fitzpatrick; Costume Designer: Vilinda McGregor; Props Artisan/Set Dresser: Eileen O’Connor; Sound Designer: Rider Q. Stanton; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook

Cast: Cedrick Ekra, Jaylan Evans, Cedric Greene, Jerry Hamilton, Dennis Holland, Torrey Linder, Ivory McKay, Trishawn Paul, Grant Reynolds, Alex Robertson, Troy Valjean Rucker, Justin Sturgis, Renee J. Sutherland

Playhouse on Park
June 26-August 4, 2019

Struggles of a Son and Artist

Review of My Name is Asher Lev, Playhouse on Park

The clash of cultures is central to the drama of My Name is Asher Lev, adapted by Aaron Posner from the novel by Chaim Potok. Now playing at Playhouse on Park, directed by Joseph Discher, the story shows how a driven painter, Asher Lev, raised by orthodox Jewish parents, struggles to be understood by his people while becoming an artist in “the goyische style.” He paints nudes and crucifixions, subjects which are seen as a betrayal if not outright blasphemy.

Told by Asher himself in direct address to the audience, the story is fraught with disappointments and hopes, success and failure. Much of the early going has Asher recreating his viewpoint as a child, not really understanding why what he’s doing should be a cause for conflict. The play opens with the elder Lev appalled by his son’s drawings of “naked women” and blaming his wife for taking the boy to the art museum. We see how his mother and father are confused by Asher’s talent, recognizing his gift as a child but seeing little purpose for it. As Asher grows older, his father becomes even more dismissive, seeing drawing as a distraction from the important matters of life. The elder Lev serves the Jewish community’s leader, or Rebbe, and in the orthodox view only what the Rebbe approves can be meaningful.

Rivkeh Lev (Stefanie Londino), Asher Lev (Jordan Sobel), Aryeh Lev (Dan Shor) in the Playhouse on Park production of My Name is Asher Lev, directed by Jospeh Discher (photos by Meredith Longo)

Rivkeh Lev (Stefanie Londino), Asher Lev (Jordan Sobel), Aryeh Lev (Dan Shor) in the Playhouse on Park production of My Name is Asher Lev, directed by Jospeh Discher (photos by Meredith Longo)

At last, in preparation for his Bar Mitzvah, Asher has a meeting with the Rebbe himself who is more benign than might be expected (especially since Asher, as a child, drew a rather unflattering caricature of him). The Rebbe assigns the teenaged Asher to Jacob Kahn, a successful Jewish painter who becomes Asher’s mentor. The most lively aspects of the story are found in Asher’s apprenticeship to Kahn, whom he gradually comes to surpass as an artist. As Kahn says, he doesn’t take on a pupil unless he can “make a David,” referencing Michelangelo’s famous masterpiece. Asher lives up to that challenge, it seems, but manages to create a serious affront to his parents’ sensibilities.

A difficulty in Playhouse on Park’s production is Jordan Sobel’s performance as Asher. He seems too likeable and guileless, so forthright and naïve, that one is hard-pressed to see him as the major artist he becomes. He seems to remain the wide-eyed child amazed by his own gift and barely able to consider how he should regard the feelings of others or his larger obligations. We might see him as a willful child or as the possessor of a talent so large it can’t be suppressed, but all the darker elements of the story—having to do with Asher’s sense of his mother’s afflictions—are rarely given sufficient dramatic weight. The notion that Asher’s art is an invocation of Sitra Achra, or the evil side of human nature, is mentioned as if a school lesson outgrown.

Of the three actors—Sobel plays Asher, all other male roles are played by Dan Shor—Stefanie Londino fares best in making Asher’s mother, Rivkeh, take on dimensions that exist beyond Asher’s view. Otherwise, the characters all seem to be painted entirely in the colors he sees them in: the Rebbe is kindly and stern; Asher’s father is at times a caricature of bullying indifference or of mystified concern; Shor is best as Kahn if only because the artist is mercurial in his approach to his pupil, at times challenging and harsh, at other times fond and encouraging. We sense that Asher never quite grasps the full weight of Kahn’s relation to art.

The tone of the whole is of a sentimental recollection in which the parents seem touchingly or comically out of date; the difficulties between the parents, having to do in part with Rivkeh’s will to continue her deceased brother’s work, come across as a minor subplot. The gravitas that Potok employs as the tone proper to the weighty struggle of religion and art finds, in this adaptation, a much more genial portrayal.

Asher Lev (Jordan Sobel) and model (Stefanie Landino)

Asher Lev (Jordan Sobel) and model (Stefanie Landino)

Discher’s vision of the play is not aided by David Lewis’ scenic design in the Playhouse thrust space. Much of the action would benefit from more freedom of movement, but in the early going many scenes occur around a table toward the back of the stage. Some of the seats in the wings are forced to regard these scenes through easels set on either side of the stage. The later scenes gain from taking place outside the Lev home, though, for a play that moves around in time and place, dictated by Asher’s memories, the action has a static quality.

In the end, the story of Asher Lev is of an artist trying to see the truth about himself. Since we can’t see his work, we can only view him in terms of his interactions with others. Though he seems satisfied with the story he tells, his audience may find themselves less so.  


My Name is Asher Lev
By Aaron Posner
Adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok
Directed by Joseph Discher

Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Costume Designer: Lisa Steier; Sound Designer: Rider Q. Stanton; Lighting Designer: Joseph Beumer; Associate Lighting Designer: Justin Dudzik; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook; Props Master/Set Dresser: Pamela Lang

Cast: Stefanie Londino, Dan Shor, Jordan Sobel

Playhouse on Park
April 24-May 12, 2019

Equality! Sorority! Levity!

Review of The Revolutionists, Playhouse on Park

Google Lauren Gunderson and you’ll learn that she is the living playwright most often produced in our country. Whatever that translates into, in number of productions, the playwright’s work has been a strange rarity in Connecticut and that’s reason enough to head to Playhouse on Park, where Gunderson’s playful, satiric, and serious play The Revolutionists runs through March 10.

Gunderson’s play, from 2017, achieves a quality many plays aim for these days: a relevance to our times, even if that causes strained analogies and anachronistic misreading. Here, the anachronisms, the meta gestures, the tongue-in-cheek tone that renders historical figures in our terms are all deliberate and mostly fresh conceptions. Directed by Sarah Hartmann, it’s at times a fast-moving historical farce, and almost a cri de coeur about the challenge of making art in a time of political factions and intellectual chaos. Offering vivid feminist revisionism, The Revolutionists puts the exchanges of its four notable female characters at the heart of the action. Or rather at the heart of trying to decide what action to take in perilous times.

The play is set at the height of the Reign of Terror in the Paris of 1793 when leftist forces, having seized power in the Revolution, were putting to death anyone sympathetic to the ancien régime and, in many cases, anyone who contested Jacobin rule. It was a time for a particularly heinous mob-violence and for extremisms of all kinds, not least in the journaux of the day such as that of Jean-Paul Marat.

Charlotte Corday (Olivia Jampol), Olympe de Gouges (Rebecca Hart), Marianne Angelle (Erin Roché) (Photos: Meredith Longo)

Charlotte Corday (Olivia Jampol), Olympe de Gouges (Rebecca Hart), Marianne Angelle (Erin Roché) (Photos: Meredith Longo)

Four of the play’s three women fell to the guillotine in actual life: Olympe de Gouges (Rebecca Hart), a feminist playwright and political activist, Marie-Antoinette (Jennifer Holcombe), the deposed queen of France, and Charlotte Corday (Olivia Jampol), the assassin of Marat; the fourth, Marianne Angelle (Erin Roché) is a fictionalized composite figure who combines Marianne (the personification of the ideals of the French Republic) with abolitionists of color who hoped, in the new France, to end slavery in the French Caribbean. Marianne’s husband is a political prisoner in Haiti and Marianne comes to Olympe in hopes she will write pamphlets in protest.

She finds Olympe in the throes of a writer’s crisis, desperate to write a new play for the times, a play that might be amazingly like The Revolutionists, even as Olympe admits it’s never a good idea to write a play about writing a play. Ironies abound, and Gunderson’s play (with apologies to Marie-Antoinette) manages to have its cake and eat it too. It sends up the kind of play it is, or might be, and still makes the most of its central conceit: the creative crisis of the playwright, with her need to address inequality and tyranny, to uphold feminism and freedom, and to be profound, inspiring, entertaining, and playable in a couple hours or less. Does The Revolutionists succeed? Hell, yeah. It’s even under 90 minutes.

Olympe de Gouges (Rebecca Hart)

Olympe de Gouges (Rebecca Hart)

Gunderson peppers the play with jokes at the expense of our contemporary sensitivities, even as she manages to wink at the hip and amuse the cynical. The situation is dire enough, and characters really do die. There’s a heightened sense of danger that can intrude at any moment, as with the dramatic sound effects and lighting that signal the reach of the Terror. Meanwhile, through much of the play, there is no lack of feminine vanity nor of the kind of ditziness that has been a stock-in-trade of screwball comedies since forever. The ladies are all likeable types, as if college dormmates trying to decide what to major in now the revolution’s here.

As Olympe, Rebecca Hart is earnest with the kind of out-loud thoughts familiar from just about any teen drama (especially ones that have Winona Ryder). She’s at times a straight-man, at times a foil to the three interlocutors who burst rather peremptorily into her creative reveries. First, there’s Marianne, with the two getting on like sisters of the revolution who know they may only have each other, in the end. Marianne is more of a realist than Olympe, preferring pamphlets to plays, and Erin Roché keeps her attitude toward the other characters sharp throughout. That includes would-be assassin Charlotte Corday (Marianne wants to know right away if Charlotte has been jilted recently). Charlotte is counting on her looks to get past Marat’s defenses and do the bastard in for the part he played in the executions. The others tease her with alternatives, but nothing will stop her fixed purpose, played by Olivia Jampol with a bit of Valerie Solanis-like mania. Finally, there’s Jennifer Holcombe’s Marie-Antoinette, a giggling, preening, preppie with, as she notes, a surprisingly trenchant view at times.

Marie-Antoinette (Jennifer Holcombe)

Marie-Antoinette (Jennifer Holcombe)

David Lewis’s set has the advantage of being always a set, pointing out the play-within-the-mind elements over any effort to distinguish, say, a study from a prison. The four are trapped as soon as they walk onto the playing space and the only way out is through the door that leads to death—effectively enacted by blood-red ribbons. Kate Bunce’s costumes play-up the anachronistic cartoonishness of these caricatures while letting each look her part. Lampol’s Pre-Raphaelite tresses and Holcombe’s confectionary wig help with the visuals. As do the masks and outfits donned by Jampol and Roché as they play male mockers of the doomed, speaking for the mob. Such scenes up the tragic dimension of the show, while giving each a kind of “voted-off-the-island” send-off.

Marianne Angelle (Erin Roché), Charlotte Corday (Olivia Jampol)

Marianne Angelle (Erin Roché), Charlotte Corday (Olivia Jampol)

While there are some groaners that might put you mind of the “levity or death” desperation of less ambitious comedies, the speakers in The Revolutionists are too vivacious to let deflation be their fate. The play might feel at times like a work in progress, a rehearsal, a late-night panic session or even an SNL sketch—in a way it’s all that and more, because it’s also a pointed reminder of the fates that befell strong, inspirational women who, at least in their own lives, were on the wrong side of history. All the more reason to make them engaging emblems of herstory.

The Revolutionists
By Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Sarah Hartmann

Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Lighting Designer: Rider Q. Stanton; Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook; Sound Designer: Rider Q. Stanton; Props Master/Set Dresser: Eileen O’Connor

Cast: Rebecca Hart, Jennifer Holcombe, Olivia Jampol, Erin Roché

Playhouse on Park
February 20-March 10, 2019


Mirthful Birthday Murder

Review of Murder for Two, Playhouse on Park

In Murder for Two, playing through this weekend at Playhouse on Park, the laughs come from the improbable situation, exploited as much for its silliness as for its show-biz potential: his own murder as a birthday surprise for Arthur Whitney, a murder novelist, and a cop, with an unseen partner, Lou, who has to play detective among a roomful of suspects. One actor (Trevor Dorner) plays all the suspects, the other (John Grieco) plays the policeman, Marcus Moscowicz. Sent in to vamp by the local police department, Marcus wants to solve the crime before the real detective gets there, hoping to make detective himself.

Together and separately, Dorner and Grieco play the piano as both a prop and accompaniment, keeping up vaudevillian repartee and trading off gags. Both actors have experience playing the irrepressible Jerry Lee Lewis in The Million Dollar Quartet and their showmanship at the piano is a great asset of the show here.

John Grieco, Trevor Dorner in Playhouse on Park’s production of Murder for Two (photos by Meredith Longo)

John Grieco, Trevor Dorner in Playhouse on Park’s production of Murder for Two (photos by Meredith Longo)

The set by scenic designer David Lewis is a sprawling room crammed with books and the kind of genteel trappings common in detective novels. An alcove up a few steps from the stage floor will be an ideal spot for certain dramatic and musical moments—not least a somewhat gratuitous film noir death from the creepy backstory of our haunted flatfoot.

Anyone willing to show up for the novelist’s birthday has already been used by the voracious writer as material for one of his score-settling fictions. And that means anyone could be guilty of the murder, not least because one of the suspects present, the gruff psychiatrist Dr. Griff, has seen pretty much the entire town professionally—including Marcus—and so apprised the author to the sorts of things the others told in confidence. Why was he so close to Whitney? Well, let Griff enlighten us with a song about the importance of friendship . . .

One of the features of the show that lands best is the notion that everyone present is a kind of performer—whether in the past or in the making—each ready for a big number. It might be ditzy Southern belle Dahlia—who, she says, was forced to give up her successful stage career after marriage—waiting for her showstopper, or her niece, Steph, an eager criminologist in training, wanting to pant musically about being smitten with Marcus. The songs can be witty, are always jaunty, and help to make the most of the whirligig of Dorner’s performance as he launches into one improbable Broadway-style number after another. And there’s good fun with an audience member—as the victim of a second murder—that capitalizes on the close-to-the-action setup of Playhouse on Park.

Not all the characters are as keenly drawn as we might hope—a sparring couple are thinly characterized and their put-downs tend to fall flat—and making the aloof ballerina, Ms. Lewis, a love interest for Marcus feels very much a sitcom element. In fact, the Book by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair (also music and lyrics respectively)—a Drama Desk nominee in 2014—tends to mix together the tropes of detective fiction, musicals, sitcoms, cartoons, and vaudeville without worrying too much about the whys and wherefores. A good example of the verbal style on show here are the titles of Whitney’s books, which are so literal as to be clues in themselves, almost. The one he was working on at his death, All of Them Bananas, might point easily to the entire cast, including three members of a boys’ choir (whom Dorner enacts on his knees—and then proceeds to Charleston!).

John Grieco, Trevor Dorner in Murder for Two

John Grieco, Trevor Dorner in Murder for Two

Not quite as sharp as 39 Steps, where the Hitchcockian elements help with suspense, nor as inspired as A Gentleman’s Guide to Murder, which won the Drama Desk’s Award for Best Book in 2014, Murder for Two makes the most of its featured players’ talents. Grieco presents a very earnest and unassuming Marcus, his frequent references to detective protocol a good ongoing gag, and Dorner is as manic as necessary, though the introduction of each new character might work better if not off to the side on a thrust stage. Directed by Kyle Metzger, the play isn’t always as slapdash and swift as it needs to be. All in all, every bit of the show is food for whipped-up fun, a kind of murder meringue, without much flavor for thought, so it can’t afford to less us ruminate.


Murder for Two
Book by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair
Music by Joe Kinosian, Lyrics by Kellen Blair
Directed by Kyle Metzger

Music Director: Melanie Guerin; Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Lighting Designer: Chris Bell; Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook; Sound Designer: Rider Q. Stanton; Props Master: Judi Manfre

Cast: Trevor Dorner, John Grieco

Playhouse on Park
January 16-February 3, 2019

Leaving the Nest

Review of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Playhouse on Park

Randle Patrick McMurphy is a famed character—from Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) to the play Dale Wasserman made from the novel a year later, to the film by Miloš Forman, using Bo Goldman’s screenplay, the role for which Jack Nicholson won a Best Actor Oscar in 1975. Kesey and Wasserman were free spirits, anti-authoritarian, extra-institutional, and they fashioned McMurphy to be a protean Everyman type—boisterous, crude, full of the life principle. He’s a charmer and not nearly as clever as he’d like to be, naïve in ways that prove to be his Achilles’ heel.

It’s as if we’ve always known McMurphy and have never stopped wishing him well. But, these days, a certain tangled air encircles him. The life principle, as conceived in the book-play-film, is decidedly male, and it’s set against the ball-busting, castrating, emasculating power wielded by a society that—in the name of motherhood, religion, manners, and being nice—suppresses the raw “barbaric yawp” that American heroes so often sound. These days, politesse is all but dead, and many forms of misogyny, some subtle and some overt, have been hash-tagged if not debagged. Cuckoo’s Nest, now, could even seem a “backlash,” or at least a cautionary tale about how badly “real men” fare beneath the thumb of a culture determined to outlaw their badass antics.

Randle Patrick McMurphy (Wayne Willinger) and Nurse Ratched (Patricia Randell), foreground; Dale Harding (Adam Kee), Ruckley (Ben McLauglin), background; in Playhouse on Park’s production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (photos by Curt Henderson)

Randle Patrick McMurphy (Wayne Willinger) and Nurse Ratched (Patricia Randell), foreground; Dale Harding (Adam Kee), Ruckley (Ben McLauglin), background; in Playhouse on Park’s production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (photos by Curt Henderson)

If you don’t know the story: there is an asylum where a group of male inmates live out their days medicated and playing cards and watching TV and taking recreation according to a prescribed schedule. Many elements of life in the common space are by agreement, ostensibly, but all is overseen by Nurse Ratched, a figure of authority who treats the patients as children trying to get away with something. They can’t be trusted and they don’t trust themselves, since most suffer from extreme social anxieties. One or two “chronic” patients are too debilitated to take part in common functions, most notably “The Chief,” a very large Native American who appears to be catatonic, but in fact is a source of stream-of-consciousness commentary about the ward.

Into this world of settled routine comes McMurphy, a repeat-offender sent over from prison for an intervention into his violent and anti-social tendencies. To him, the asylum beats lock-up and he’s soon engaging the inmates in card games and wagers to leech their government checks away. He is an unregenerate hustler and the anathema of Nurse Ratched who resents how easily McMurphy’s charm sways her patients and even Dr. Spivey, the doctor assigned to the ward who previously agreed with her if only to avoid confrontation.

As revived at Playhouse on Park, directed by Ezra Barnes, whose The Diary of Anne Frank there was a notable success last season, Cuckoo’s Nest takes too long to click and never soars. The play picks up momentum as it goes, with the first half weighed down with the task of introducing characters and the elements of life in the asylum. The second half comes more fully into its own as the camaraderie among the inmates of the asylum catches fire and makes their interplay more interesting, while the battle of wills between Ratched and McMurphy becomes more pronounced.

The principle characters are particularly well cast. As McMurphy, Wayne Willinger has plenty of swagger and charm, and busy eyebrows reminiscent of Nicholson. Willinger never lets us forget—for all the heroizing of his fellow inmates—that McMurphy is just an average guy, mostly flying by the seat of his pants. His main delight is going against the rules simply because they are rules. The others, against whatever comfort they find in routine, eventually start to see his point, but it does take a while. The Act One closer is the first breath of fresh air: a collectively imagined baseball game on a shut-off TV.

As Big Nurse Ratched, Patricia Randell is perfect. Randell looks a motherly figure and acts like a school principal: no-nonsense, and convinced of the value of the particular brand of socialization she wields. Her “all right, boys,” at one point, risks a certain devilry. We might suspect that, in other circumstances, she might be a bit more indulgent toward McMurphy, but his cock-of-the-walk routine has to be squelched. Of course, there will be violence and a sacrificial victim.

Santos, in the role of Chief Bromden, plays up the outward debility of the character. The Chief, for all his size and latent power, sees himself as dwarfed by the system that has robbed his tribe of all status and respect. His voice carries a gravitas that does much for the allegory Kesey and Wasserman intended. This isn’t ever meant to be simply a therapeutic institution but rather a metaphor for how we self-medicate ourselves into complacency for the sake of a quiet life without complications. All the inmates are afraid of life “out there,” and all but a few, including the Chief and McMurphy, are free to leave if they wish. But they don’t.

Dale Harding (Adam Kee), Frank Scanlon (John Ramaine), Candy Starr (Athena Reddy), Billy Bibbitt (Alex Rafala), Randle Patrick McMurphy (Wayne Willinger)

Dale Harding (Adam Kee), Frank Scanlon (John Ramaine), Candy Starr (Athena Reddy), Billy Bibbitt (Alex Rafala), Randle Patrick McMurphy (Wayne Willinger)

Part of the problem here is with the patients. They risk becoming tics of behavioral oddity, and to make them characters would take more time than the play can afford. The neuroses from which they suffer fall away rather quickly and some—most notably Harding (Adam Kee)—seem perfectly fine from the start. The era when one sought out psychiatric—or medical—intervention for homosexuality is, thankfully, long gone, our current vice president notwithstanding. Wasserman, who died in 2008 at 94, unfortunately never updated the play for the twenty-first century.

Barnes uses the playing space well, with the action moving around the set convincingly, including circled discussions, card games, fights, a party, and an improvised basketball game. The use of see-through walls in David Lewis’ set works very well and suggests how porous this asylum is. Lighting, which the script can be very definite about, is used to good effect by Aaron Hochheiser.

Whatever the intentions of the revival, the play comes across as a period piece, a fight for the souls of males of the Vietnam era. However, the climax—with the Chief’s big moment—takes on more potency today as a gesture against the white man’s world and its clinical devaluation of persons of color. In that, the play is of its time but also ahead of its time.

Chief Bromden (Santos)

Chief Bromden (Santos)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
By Dale Wasserman
Based on the novel by Ken Kesey
Directed by Ezra Barnes

Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Costume Designer: Michele Sansone; Lighting Designer: Aaron Hochheiser; Original Music & Sound Designer: Lucas Clopton; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook; Properties & Set Dressing: Eileen OConnor; E. John McGarvey for Les Cheveux Salon

Cast: Katya Collazo; Andrew R. Cooksey, Jr.; Harrison Greene; Justin Henry; Adam Kee; Rick Malone; Ben McLaughlin; Alex Rafala; John Ramaine; Patricia Randell; Athena Reddy; Santos; David Sirois; Lance Williams; Wayne Willinger

Playhouse on Park
October 31-November 18, 2018

Peter Pan's Origin Story

Review of Peter and the Starcatcher, Playhouse on Park

Ever wonder how Peter Pan became Peter Pan? If yes, then Peter and the Starcatcher, the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Peason and the play adapted from it by Rick Elice, now playing at Playhouse on Park directed by Sean Harris, will be just the ticket. Its conceit is that we’re watching a telling of the story much as children might perform it, with whatever materials come to hand—toy ships, and crates, and bits of rope to outline a ship’s hull. This lends the story a very busy immediacy, charming if a bit belabored.

The telling is worth more than the tale, in many ways, because the twists and turns often seem motivated by nothing more than a desire to keep the episodic story going. That’s particularly true in the setup featuring twin crates on two different ships, the Wasp and the Neverland, that are simply elaborate MacGuffins more or less (one of the crates contains either treasure or stardust, the other sand). Eventually, everyone is off the ships and getting washed up on the shore of an island where magical things begin to happen.

Boy (Jared Starkey) and the cast of Peter and the Starcatcher, Playhouse on Park (photos: Curt Henderson)

Boy (Jared Starkey) and the cast of Peter and the Starcatcher, Playhouse on Park (photos: Curt Henderson)

In the Playhouse on Park production the lively tone, needed for all that exposition, gets bogged-down in the telling. It’s the sort of play that requires very good diction because most of the dialogue is silly, and if you don’t get that, you don’t get much. Silliness is the play’s strength, but here it seems to take a backseat to a certain earnestness that gets in the way.

One could imagine the play done with actual children so as to maintain the childishness the story thrives on—with farts and bad puns and wry slippages (“dyke” for “deck,” for instance). Here, only Natalie Sannes as an indomitable Molly (the girl who becomes a chum to Boy with No Name (Jared Starkey) who will become Peter Pan) fully maintains the requisite sense of make believe, like a child on a playground. If she were, it’s likely she’d be a bit nonplussed that her playmates haven’t her concentration. She’s a delight throughout, acting with an innocent single-mindedness that dissipates for most people around age ten. As Boy, Jared Starkey seems a bit wishywashy in the early going, but grows into the part well, as Peter should. He’s on a learning curve to become a hero, with Molly’s good will making that happen.

Elena V. Levenson (standing), Natalie Sannes (Molly), Prentiss (Brianna Bagley), Ted (Nick Palazzo), Jared Starkey (Boy/Peter)

Elena V. Levenson (standing), Natalie Sannes (Molly), Prentiss (Brianna Bagley), Ted (Nick Palazzo), Jared Starkey (Boy/Peter)

Able support in the large cast comes from Bill Daniels as Slank (one of the ship’s captains) who gets a very funny tragic moment in Act 1, and from Elena V. Levenson as Fighting Prawn, the outrageously Italian “native” king of a tropical island (all the actors play ensemble parts as well and Levenson is particularly busy). Colleen Welsh is better as a Scottish mermaid than she is as the Cockney Mrs. Brumbake, whose always alliterative pronouncements should be clearer and quicker.

As second-in-command to the dastardly villain (we’re getting there), Miss Sandra Mhlongo is a Smee who seems quite at home in the absurdity, and times well her corrections of the boss’s verbal errors. As her master Black Stache, Matthew Quinn gets to chew more scenery than does that fearsome crocodile made of planks. Quinn has assayed the part of Hook in more than one incarnation and he seems to the manner born in his fey and flighty bonhomie and casual malapropisms. One way to know it’s an adventure story is that the villain will be the best part, and that’s certainly true here.

Black Stache (Matthew Quinn, foreground), l. to r.: Smee (Miss Sandra Mhlongo), Slank (Thomas Daniels), Lord Aster (James Patrick Nelson), Mrs. Brumbake (Colleen Welsh), Capt. Robert Falcon Scott (Nicholas Dana Rylands), Alf (James Fairchild)

Black Stache (Matthew Quinn, foreground), l. to r.: Smee (Miss Sandra Mhlongo), Slank (Thomas Daniels), Lord Aster (James Patrick Nelson), Mrs. Brumbake (Colleen Welsh), Capt. Robert Falcon Scott (Nicholas Dana Rylands), Alf (James Fairchild)

The songs, by Wayne Barker, are mostly little ditties that crop up within the narrative, though “Swim On” has the rousing quality necessary for an Act 1 closer. “Mermaid Outta Me,” the Act 2 opener, is even better, abetted by Kate Bunce’s fanciful costumes, and a highpoint of the show, though not much related to the plot.

And that’s pretty much the way of the show—lots of exposition, random action (not all of it necessary, one feels), deliberately bad jokes that don’t always land in all the busyness, halfhearted songs with a few showstoppers, and here and there, something that’s bound to tickle your fancy (at the show I saw, one audience member had an extended laugh at the sight of Alf (James Fairchild) transformed into a mermaid). The staging is quite imaginative, in its own right, and that helps, but, for the sake of the plot, there’s a lot of eager loose-ends-tying at the close simply to make the legend of Peter Pan take shape as it must.

This Peter and the Starcatcher is catch-as-catch-can.


Peter and the Starcatcher
A play by Rick Elice
Based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
Music by Wayne Barker
Directed by Sean Harris

Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Music Director: Melanie Guerin; Lighting Designer: Joe Beumer; Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook; Properties & Set Dressing: Judi Manfre; Musical Arrangements: Melanie Guerin and Sean Rubin

Cast: Brianna Bagley, Thomas Daniels, James Fairchild, Elena V. Levenson, Miss Sandra Mhlongo, James Patrick Nelson, Nick Palazzo, Matthew Quinn, Nicholas Dana Rylands, Natalie Sannes, Jared Starkey, Colleen Welsh


Playhouse on Park
September 12-October 14, 2018

Salsa Opera

Review of In the Heights, Playhouse on Park

Playhouse on Park closes its 2017-18 season with a crowd-pleaser. In the Heights, the pre-Hamilton, Tony-winning musical by the much-celebrated Lin-Manuel Miranda goes over like a party where everyone has a good time, even if there are some weepy moments and some surface tension between friends, family, and lovers. The show doesn’t strive for any big statements or stretch itself looking for gritty drama. Call it salsa opera to differentiate it from the soapy kind, it plays out much the same. Likeable and energetic, the cast make the most of the first act where we’re getting to know our way around a neighborhood—based on where Miranda once lived—in Washington Heights. Act Two, where the plot-points—about beloveds and beloved businesses that may be moving on, and lottery tickets and disapproving elders and flunking out of Stanford—have to find their resolutions, has all the surprise of a story told to children. So much so, I found myself thinking how much In the Heights owes to Avenue Q—staged very successfully at Playhouse on Park back in the fall—which, of course, mimics Sesame Street, which is to say this is theater that owes an awful lot to television.

Sonny (Nick Palazzo), Vanessa (Sophia Introna), Usnavi (Niko Touros), foreground; Nina (Analise Rios), Benny (Leyland Patrick), background (photos by Curt Henderson)

Sonny (Nick Palazzo), Vanessa (Sophia Introna), Usnavi (Niko Touros), foreground; Nina (Analise Rios), Benny (Leyland Patrick), background (photos by Curt Henderson)

But such complaints have to do with Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Book. And who cares about books? What matters here is what happens on stage, and director Sean Harris, choreographer Darlene Zoller, the band led by Melanie Guerin, and the performers bring it. The opening, title song is a stirring blend of rapped lyrics, infectious beats, and a team of dancers managing to look both free and precise. We’re mostly in the palm of the show’s hand from then on, as character after character—there are twelve named roles—wins us over. The opening mood is of a charming bonhomie that cloys a bit, but soon finds its emotional tone when Nina Rosario (Analise Rios) returns to the ’hood, feeling out of place and also ashamed of her lack of candor about her academic standing (“Respire (Breathe)”). Her parents, Kevin (JL Rey) and Camila (Stephanie Pope) own and operate Rosario’s Car and Limousine Service and couldn’t be prouder of their daughter’s scholarship to Stanford. Little do they know.

The fact that some get away from their origins and some get trapped by them is much on Miranda and Hudes’ minds, and they try to have it both ways: making the barrio a familial place that supports and welcomes all even if—as with the authors themselves—many would rather ride some good fortune downtown or out west. Enter that elusive lottery ticket worth $96,000.

The winning nature of the full-cast songs is what sells the show—“When You’re Home,” “The Club,” “Blackout” (the action is set in July, 1999, when there was an 18-hour blackout in the area). We also get a spirited invocation—anachronistically—of carnaval in “Carnaval del Barrio” because, why not? Comic leavening is provided by Piragüero (Willie Marte) and his piragua cart, and by Benny (Leyland Patrick), the go-fer at the cabstand who is sweet on the boss’s daughter, and who gets to sound off entertainingly on the dispatcher mic early on.

Camila (Stephanie Pope) and Nick (JL Rey) Rosario

Camila (Stephanie Pope) and Nick (JL Rey) Rosario

Show-stopping vocal numbers are provided by Amy Jo Philips as Claudia, the honorary “Abuela” of the entire street—her enthralling song explores her own mother’s tagline “Paciencia Y Fe (Patience and Faith)”—and Camila’s “Enough,” a let ’em have it diatribe aimed at her sparring daughter and spouse that Stephanie Pope—seen recently to good effect at Long Wharf’s Crowns—delivers with amazing force. Another of the show’s vocal assets is Sandra Marante who plays Daniela, the no-nonsense owner of a hair salon, and who dresses sharp and moves like the boss of the show. Support is handled by a number of others, such as the sweetly innocent Carla (Paige Buade), the beset but spirited Vanessa (Sophia Introna), the cute and put-upon Sonny (Nick Palazzo), and the street-skills—including tagging and breakdancing—of Graffiti Pete (Paul Edme). As Kevin, Nina’s dad, JL Rey handles well his key song of bathos—“Inútil (Useless)”—and manages to be a paternalistic Papi who isn’t a prick (Miranda and Hudes make sure everyone has redeeming qualities).

Nina Rosario (Analise Rios), Benny (Leyland Patrick), Kevin (JL Rey) and Camila (Stephanie Pope) Rosario

Nina Rosario (Analise Rios), Benny (Leyland Patrick), Kevin (JL Rey) and Camila (Stephanie Pope) Rosario

As Nina, Analise Rios has a sweet and clear voice that mines the beauty in Miranda’s ballads, such as “Respire,”  and especially “Everything I Know,” in Act Two. And as Usnavi de la Vega, the part Miranda originally enacted, Niko Touros is the epitome of a well-meaning, hopeful, hard-working romantic, a street-poet whose raps are his way of capturing his observations, his obsessions, and his heartfelt appreciation of the world he lives in. Like any poet, he knows that any world is all the world, that the people around him are the stuff of song and romance and spirit and grit and that seeing them that way—no matter what they think of themselves—is a find even more sustaining than a winning lottery ticket.

Usnavi de la Vega (Nikos Touros), center, and the cast of In the Heights at Playhouse on Park

Usnavi de la Vega (Nikos Touros), center, and the cast of In the Heights at Playhouse on Park

There’s heart and spirit—and great costumes—aplenty on view In the Heights, where uplift is what you get from others because you give it to them, and vice versa. Dance Captain Olivia Ryan and the ensemble—Gabrielle Baker, Isiah Bostic, Jahlil Burke, Maya Cuevas, Jon Rodriguez—provide plenty of youthful moves whether in a block party or a club. Your toes will be tapping, your eyes drinking in the fun of the big dance numbers, and don’t let the flag-waving of Latin American countries fool you. This is America, amigo.


In the Heights
Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegría Hudes
Conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Directed by Sean Harris

Choreographer: Darlene Zoller; Music Director: Melanie Guerin; Scenic Designer: Emily Nichols; Lighting Designer: Aaron Hochheiser; Costume Designer: Emily Nichols; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Stage Manager: Corin Killins; Properties & Set Dressing: Eileen O’Connor

Cast: Gabrielle Baker, Isiah Bostic, Paige Buade, Jahlil M. Burke, Maya Cuevas, Paul Edme, Sophia Introna, Sandra Marante, Willie Marte, Nick Palazzo, Leyland Patrick, Amy Jo Phillips, Stephanie Pope, JL Rey, Analise Rios, Jon Rodriguez, Olivia Ryan, Niko Touros

Musicians: Melanie Guerin, keyboard 1 and musical direction; Mark Ceppetelli, keyboard 2; Billy Bivona, guitar; Adam Clark, Sean Rubin, bass; Elliot Wallace, drums; Daryl Belcher, drums; Harry Kliewe, reeds; Tucker Barney, Don Clough, trumpet; Andrew Jones, trombone

Playhouse on Park
June 13-July 29, 2018  

Maria's Choice

Review of The Revisionist, Playhouse on Park

By pairing David, a twenty-something author from New York, with Maria, a Holocaust survivor in contemporary Poland, Jesse Eisenberg’s The Revisionist guarantees itself a certain relevance. At a time when those who lived through the Holocaust are dying off and a younger generation is growing up largely ignorant of what actually happened, the play keeps alive what could be called a necessary historical sense. With its intergenerational dynamic, The Revisionist successfully dramatizes how difficult communicating can be between those born in the first half of the twentieth century and those, born in the second half, who have come of age in the twenty-first century.

Maria (Cecelia Riddett), David (Carl Howell) (photos by Curt Henderson)

Maria (Cecelia Riddett), David (Carl Howell) (photos by Curt Henderson)

For too much of its running time, that seems to be the play’s entire point, a comic mismatch of intentions that aren’t quite funny or disorienting enough to justify their belaboring. In the later scenes, the revelation we’ve been waiting for arrives to make a stronger point—about family and remembrance and debt—that gives the play an uneasy resolution. The play’s dramatic arc, while not always as well-developed as it might be, mostly works, and Sasha Bratt’s production at Playhouse on Park maintains a quizzical and bemused tone that keeps us interested.

Maria (Cecelia Riddett) is an elderly Polish woman living in an apartment she treats as a shrine to her family, many dead and gone, others—like David’s grandfather—relatives who escaped to America. David (Carl Powell), Maria’s second cousin, is the author of a reasonably successful Young Adult novel (a political allegory that got reviewed, though not favorably, in the New York Times), who is trying to revise his latest manuscript for publication. He has come to her apartment in Poland as a last ditch refuge from his distracting life in New York. He needs a writer’s retreat, and finds instead a lonely relative poised to smother him with attention and chatter.

As an actor, Eisenberg is best-known in movies for playing somewhat quirky young men, intense with intelligence and often misguided. In the initial production of The Revisionist, he played David himself, paired with Vanessa Redgrave in a performance that earned raves. The performances in the Playhouse on Park production are strong and well-matched. As neither character is entirely likeable, we expect some development that will firmly tip the scales one way or the other, or that will lead to a happy rapprochement. We may warm to either, both, or neither character, but we do come to understand them better, whether or not they ever really understand each other.

David (Carl Howell), Maria (Cecelia Riddett)

David (Carl Howell), Maria (Cecelia Riddett)

Cecelia Riddett’s Maria is the more readily likeable, but she isn’t someone easy to be with, if only because her expectations are so high. She lives a quiet life, mostly punctuated by watching CNN and answering the phone—it’s always a telemarketer. Her right-hand man is a taxi driver named Zenon, nicely played as both easy-going and scary by Sebastian Buczyk, who drives her, carries her groceries, and, in one scene, tends her in a more intimate manner. Maria lets David use her own bedroom, while assuming a connection that, she believes, family members should have even if they’ve barely met (she saw David when he was a child; he doesn’t remember it). Her effort to coddle him is the kind of thing that would drive away someone his age, even if they had more of a family backstory.

Zenon (Sebastian Buczyk), David (Carl Howell)

Zenon (Sebastian Buczyk), David (Carl Howell)

David, for his part, is the epitome of the guest who is only there to suit himself. Bratt and Powell wisely don’t make David an Eisenberg clone, but rather play him as a youthful and insecure success, in a tone that perfectly suits his demographic. He’s used to taking himself seriously and knowingly descends to Maria’s level when his curiosity gets the best of him. He’s a chronic pot-smoker but never shows the stoner’s typical bursts of hilarity and depth. David is more of a latter day Woody Allen character, apt to feel put-upon and unappreciated, expecting consideration simply for the difficulty of being himself. Scenes in which the play seems to call for broad situation comedy—as when David walks in on Zenon shaving Maria’s legs, or when David gets his jollies having Zenon misuse American expletives—tend to be low key, here, as if the production knows such moments fall flat without a laugh-track.

And that’s the weakest aspect of the play: it has only a scatter-shot idea of how to make the situation amusing, so that much of what we see is simply working its way toward the Big Reveal. That aspect, full of the backstory of Maria’s life under the Nazis and just after, makes sense of her assertive effort to claim kin, and, in its outcome, takes aim at the worst of David right about the time we’ve come to accept him. The way people often do with family.

A prickly comedy aiming at deeper themes, The Revisionist works best as a cautionary tale about the ways to abuse a host and mislead a guest, and how sharing confidences is not a heart-to-heart if the hearts concerned never quite align.

Maria (Cecelia Riddett), David (Carl Howell)

Maria (Cecelia Riddett), David (Carl Howell)


The Revisionist
By Jesse Eisenberg
Directed by Sasha Bratt

Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Scenic Designer: Emily Nichols; Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Lighting Designer: Marcus Abbott; Stage Manager: Corin Killins; Dialect and Language Coach: Sebastian Buczyk; Properties and Set Dressing: Pamela Lang & Eileen O’Connor

Cast: Sebastian Buczyk, Carl Howell, Cecelia Riddett

Playhouse on Park
April 11-29, 2018

If the Corset Fits

Review of Intimate Apparel, Playhouse on Park

Intimate Apparel, by two-time Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, is a well-meaning play that's a bit unsatisfyingly stodgy. It plays to soap opera expectations about the tricky course of love, even as it strives to make more of the familiar types that inhabit its world. Its humor is low-key and its evocation of behaviors that might be deemed taboo rather tame. Nottage restricts her tone to the borderline gentility of a working African-American woman just after the turn of the century in lower Manhattan. The drama plays close to plausible reality, even as Nottage’s situations gesture, here and there, to more contemporary views of romance and empowerment.

Esther (Darlene Hope) (photos: Curt Henderson)

Esther (Darlene Hope) (photos: Curt Henderson)

Esther, played by Darlene Hope with winning simplicity, is plain-spoken and plain-looking, with talented hands as a seamstress and designer of clothes, and a vision of herself as the future owner of a beauty parlor. Her tribulations stem from loneliness and the dream of a man to share her life. George Armstrong (Beethovan Oden) is a wild card from out of nowhere. A worker on the Panama Canal who hears of Esther through a fellow worker who had been a congregant at Esther’s church, George addresses himself to Esther through letters for the entire first Act. He seems a steady man looking for a church-going woman stateside, but is he sincere?

As directed by Dawn Loveland Navarro at Playhouse on Park, the play’s episodic structure—the two Acts are comprised of scenes each named after an article of clothing—becomes more problematic due to the production’s drawn-out pacing. There’s a lot of putting on and off of clothes and that tends to slow things down, as does the spread-out staging. We follow Esther through a series of interactions with a small-town’s worth of acquaintances, moving from one setting to another: the room in the boarding-house that she rents from Mrs. Dickson (Xenia Gray); the boudoir of the upper-class white woman, Mrs. Van Buren (Anna Laura Strider), who buys stylish corsets Esther custom-makes; the piano lounge of a prostitute, Mayme (Zuri Eshun), who also buys lingerie Esther designs; and the fabric shop of an Orthodox Jew, Mr. Marks (Ben MacLaughlin). Esther, played with a shy savvy that makes her an interesting and interested interlocutor, brings a certain level of pining to each space and meets with persons who are generally more experienced, or refined, or opinionated, or established.

As with a Chekhov play, there’s a lot of time spent establishing the tone and outlook of each character, if only so that there can be a plot development on each front in Act Two, after George in the flesh ceases to be a romantic fantasy and Esther must cope with a role that gives her more grief than status or satisfaction. The play is better in Act Two if only because Esther starts to have misgivings and regrets and even finds herself to be a romantic interest on more than one front and in a triangle on another.

Esther (Darlene Hope), Mr. Marks (Ben MacLaughlin)

Esther (Darlene Hope), Mr. Marks (Ben MacLaughlin)

Nottage plays with the plotting of sentimental fiction, where any character introduced is either a romantic interest or a rival to the heroine, and there’s a certain amount of wry awareness to make that work. Yet Esther’s reactions tend to be all-too predictable, even if we share her viewpoint enough to accept them as—to use a word with a certain relevance, both as dated expression and thematic pun—“fitting.” We might find ourselves wishing that Esther would expressly not don a corset in an effort to spark the lukewarm ardor of her husband, or that she might step across lines of class, race, and hetero-normativity to fire it up with Mrs. Van Buren, but such acts would be even more unlikely than some of the things that do happen here. The facet of the play that must maintain our engagement is the meandering arc of Esther’s sentimental education.

We might like to imagine what a high caliber cast would do with these roles—which all call for a kind of consummate character-acting that isn’t so easily achieved. At Playhouse, certain key elements seem lacking. As Mr. Marks, Ben MacLaughlin seems more like a fond shop assistant rather than a man who might be of interest to Esther. There’s little to make us feel the gravitas of an attraction to or from Esther. Her interest in him seems to stem from the fact that Marks, who has a prospective arranged bride he has never seen, is the only sympathetic man in Esther’s environs (Manhattan is a rather sparsely populated area, apparently). As the other lonely character who might find a soul-mate in Esther, Mrs. Van Buren is a typical desperate housewife, wineglass in hand, and it’s unlikely anyone will find her very sympathetic.

Esther (Darlene Hope), Mayme (Zuri Eshun)

Esther (Darlene Hope), Mayme (Zuri Eshun)

As Mrs. Dickson, Xenia Gray has a certain cheery, if nosy, wisdom, but her disbelief in the dream version of George falls, of course, on deaf ears. As the prostitute who could’ve been a pianist or at least a showgirl, Zuri Eshun plays well to type: she’s forthright, unromantic, genuinely fond of Esther and able to toss out lines about not being on speaking terms with God. Through no fault of her own—other than her beauty and availability—she comes between Esther and George.

Esther (Darlene Hope), George (Beethovan Oden)

Esther (Darlene Hope), George (Beethovan Oden)

In having to run a gamut from fantasy figure, to awkward reality, to surly heel, Beethovan Oden underplays the unpleasantness of George, which helps us accept one of the more subtle ambiguities of Nottage’s script. George might be a mean-spirited opportunist, but he might also simply be the kind of man of his time who sees a woman as a means to an end. It’s to the play’s credit that George’s failings, immense from Esther’s view, are not such a big deal in his view of his self-interest. And the tension between his world and our contemporary sensibility helps us find in Esther an inspiring resilience, even if the compromises and dreams and temptations she foregoes seem, as drama, a bit pro forma.

Intimate Apparel
By Lynn Nottage
Directed by Dawn Loveland Navarro

Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Scenic Designer: Marcus Abbott; Lighting Designer: Marcus Abbott; Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Stage Manager: Corin Killins; Properties & Set Dressing: Pamela Lang, Eileen O’Connor

Cast: Zuri Eshun, Xenia Gray, Darlene Hope, Ben MacLaughlin, Beethovan Oden, Anna Laura Strider

Playhouse on Park
February 14-March 4, 2018

Town Talk

Review of Steel Magnolias, Playhouse on Park

Bonds form between people, sometimes, because of where they’re from, who they know, what they do for a living. And, of course, where they hang out. In Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias, now playing at Playhouse on Park, directed by Susan Haefner, Truvy Jones’ beauty shop brings together several women who treat the place almost as a social club, a getaway space where their husbands and families and the town’s demands can be kept at a distance. Camaraderie in a public space able to keep the world at bay sustains the play’s light comedy, while the shock of unpleasant reality, when it intrudes, is met with the ties of friendship. Because it doesn’t change, the beauty shop acts effectively as the stage upon which the day-to-day ups and downs of these women get aired and discussed and dealt with.

The play consists of four discrete scenes that take place over a span of just over two and a half years. In that time, much stays the same, but major changes take place for several characters, and minor but telling changes for others. The play’s dramatic arc follows the fortunes of Shelby Eatenton-Latcherie (Susan Slotoroff), beginning on her wedding day, and introducing, early, the diabetic condition from which she suffers.

Clairee (Dorothy Stanley), Shelby (Susan Slotoroff) (photos: Meredith Atkinson)

Clairee (Dorothy Stanley), Shelby (Susan Slotoroff) (photos: Meredith Atkinson)

We meet all the characters in medias res, fully involved in their individual interests. A new-comer, Annelle (Lisa Couser), a recent hire to the shop, is an excuse for introductions as the women arrive one by one. First, there’s Trudy (Jill Taylor Anthony), a nurturing, down-to-earth figure who tends to wear updated—it’s the 1980s—hippie-threads; then there’s Annelle, a teenaged girl who, the older women are surprised to learn, already has a bit of “a past,” and who evolves in different directions as the play goes on, finding a home among these women while also remaining a little separate; Clairee Belcher (Dorothy Stanley) is the closest the town has to a grande dame—she was married to the late mayor—and she tends to enjoy getting up the bristles of her foil, Ousier Boudreaux (Peggy Cosgrave), the town’s prickly “character.” The mother-daughter duo, M’Lynn Eatenton (Jeannie Hines) and Shelby are distinctive if only because they represent two generations in the town.

Truvy (Jill Taylor Anthony), Ousier (Peggy Cosgrave), Shelby (Susan Slotoroff), Annelle (Liza Couser), Clairee (Dorothy Stanley)

Truvy (Jill Taylor Anthony), Ousier (Peggy Cosgrave), Shelby (Susan Slotoroff), Annelle (Liza Couser), Clairee (Dorothy Stanley)

The action of the play aims for a verisimilitude toward work-place friendships. Truvy and Annelle are often engaged in hair-styling, while the real action is what the women choose to talk about. There are offstage events that are comic—such as M’Lynn’s husband firing guns to scare away birds—and others that are more tense, such as relations with other townies or Annelle’s marital status. Jill Taylor Anthony handles Truvy with the requisite self-effacing, accommodating manner, though her charm is more southern folksy than southern genteel. All the other women have more issues, or more pride, or more definite intentions. Truvy just keeps things rolling along.

As the sparring elders, Peggy Cosgrave and Dorothy Stanley add a few sparks, but many of the one-liners are just smart-alecky without much behind them. The cast has a lot of space to work with and the best parts are when all are present and moving about almost independently, creating rhythms in which some comments are more overheard than directed. Not all the southern accents are as flawless as a good permanent, and even when inflections are right, the diction can sometimes suffer, making lines fall by the wayside. Steel Magnolias could be called dialogue-driven but it’s more like chat-friendly. We get the main issues even when some of the asides get lost.

The main dramatic issue—the fate of Shelby—doesn’t hit as hard as it might, but Act II, in which revelations come to light somewhat casually, plays much better than the at-times discursive Act I. Harling has a knack for how people who know each other well can intrude humor or drama into a conversation with very little fuss, and that helps to keep things buzzing.

M'Lynn (Jeannie Hines), Annelle (Liza Couser)

M'Lynn (Jeannie Hines), Annelle (Liza Couser)

As M’Lynn, Jeannie Hines is convincing as a worrying mother learning to back-off and, in her big outburst, she comes across as someone who can’t leave her feelings unsaid any longer. Watching her is often the most rewarding aspect of the show. As her daughter, Susan Slotoroff lets us see Shelby’s cheerful strength but we don’t ever seem to get at her heart, as niceness tends to be her only note.

As a play about inter-generational friendship, with enough nods to prayer and gay rights to make everyone feel welcome, Steel Magnolias is only as winning as its cast. At Playhouse on Park, the ladies are at their best after they’ve warmed to our presence a little.


Steel Magnolias
By Robert Harling
Directed by Susan Haefner

Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Lighting Designer: Christopher Bell; Sound Designer: Rider Q. Stanton; Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Properties & Set Dressing: Pamela Lang; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook

Cast: Jill Taylor Anthony, Peggy Cosgrave, Liza Couser, Jeannie Hines, Susan Slotoroff, Dorothy Stanley

Playhouse on Park
January 10-28, 2018

Prisoners of Hate and Hope

Review of The Diary of Anne Frank, Playhouse on Park

The Diary of Anne Frank possesses intrinsic drama: a Jewish family—father, mother, two daughters—together with the family of the father’s colleague, and, later, the dentist of an acquaintance, hiding for their lives during the Nazi occupation of Holland. They have no illusions about the direness of the situation, but at the same time they maintain a hope for eventual restitution that, even though we know the outcome, we can almost share in with them.

Seated: Otto Frank (Frank van Putten), Mr. Dussel (Jonathan D. Mesisca); standing, l to r: Edith Frank (Joni Weisfeld), Peter Van Daan (Alex Rafala), Mr. Van Daan (Allen Lewis Rickman), Mrs. Van Daan (Lisa Bostnar), Anne Frank (Isabelle Barbier), Margot Frank (Ruthy Froch) (photo credit: Curt Henderson)

Seated: Otto Frank (Frank van Putten), Mr. Dussel (Jonathan D. Mesisca); standing, l to r: Edith Frank (Joni Weisfeld), Peter Van Daan (Alex Rafala), Mr. Van Daan (Allen Lewis Rickman), Mrs. Van Daan (Lisa Bostnar), Anne Frank (Isabelle Barbier), Margot Frank (Ruthy Froch) (photo credit: Curt Henderson)

The production at Playhouse on Park uses the Wendy Kesselman adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning play Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett derived from Anne Frank’s world famous diary. Directed by Ezra Barnes with costumes by Kate Bunce and scenic design by David Lewis, the show has appealing intimacy and quiet power.

The context we know, but if we don’t, the boisterous song in German that opens the show, about hunting and killing Jews, tells us all we need to know. Occasionally we hear Hitler on the radio, or references to the sequence of events: Jews forced to wear the gold star of David, being banned from all public activities, being forced into labor camps and losing all status except as expendable slaves of a system that intends the annihilation of a subjected people. People who, until Hitler came to power, were citizens enjoying all the privileges of a free state.

For all the drama and horror of the historical circumstances, the story Anne (Isabelle Barbier) sets down in her journals is an emblematic domestic drama. How do people get along in straightened circumstances? How does a young girl become a young woman, with only one boy around as possible object of romantic longing? How do parents make the best of bad things for their children? How do ordinary people live daily with extraordinary hardship? The little collective on stage before us are in the unique position of refugees who have not fled the land of persecution. Unable to emigrate, they elect to live in the cracks, as it were, in hopes that the Nazis will be defeated and Holland liberated in a short time. They are prisoners of hate and prisoners of hope.

The show grabs and holds the attention as though we are voyeurs looking on at how survival works. It’s remarkable the degree to which movement and interaction in the cramped space feels completely natural and believable. During the intermission, the cast remains on stage, in character, going about their personal activities in the annex in which the Franks, the Van Daans, and Mr. Dussel hid successfully for over two years.

Key to what makes this uneasy unit unique is the presence of Anne. We get the impression that she’s long been a kind of heroine waiting for her story to begin. She’s precocious, imaginative, the kind of motor-mouth that often leaves her more reticent father, mother and sister looking on in stricken silence. Anne always has something to say. Forced to be more circumspect in the presence of outsiders, she takes to her diary as a mission to unburden herself and to record life as she sees it. At one point, she insists she can’t imagine anyone reading her words; later, after an announcement on the radio suggests how important personal accounts will be after the war—when so many silenced people will need to be voiced—she understands that she is documenting the drama of survival, a document that may outlast her and her family and friends.

Anne Frank (Isabelle Barbier)

Anne Frank (Isabelle Barbier)

Isabelle Babier plays Anne forthrightly and winningly, with many a direct appeal to the audience that melts any misgivings about her character. She’s a show-off and tends to feel superior but she’s also a girl with a lot on her mind. Barbier has an easy confessional manner, and an endearing way of twisting her fingers while she tries to find the wording that will seem best to her many imagined listeners.

And listening is an important factor. As a scribe, Anne is always listening to what the others say, watching what they do. Fights between the Van Daans take place on a stage within the stage, as it were. But even more tellingly, the ears and eyes of the enemy are to be feared and are always assumed. Sound and silence, and personal space, have special status in this play, creating a world of limitation that, while wearying, is never boring.

Everyone in the cast is so believable as to seem born to their parts. As Mr. Otto Frank, Frank Van Putten achieves and maintains the unflappable tone of a father as successful businessman and his family’s dependable rock. He’s not the kind to despair or go under due to weakness of character. The other male adults in hiding, Mr. Van Daan (Allen Lewis Rickman) and Mr. Dussel (Jonathan Messica) are shown to be weak in their own ways, apt to be querulous and selfish.

As the wives, Mrs. Edith Frank and Mrs. Van Daan, Joni Weisfeld and Lisa Bostnar help to establish the contrast between the families: Mrs. Frank has no sense of life or purpose apart from her family, though she is resented by Anne for favoring the “perfect” (and perfectly self-effacing) Margot (Ruthy Froch); Mrs. Van Daan never misses an opportunity to express bitterness toward her husband, who sometimes reacts in anger, but when he is put upon by Mrs. Frank for stealing bread, she supports him. Their son, Peter (Alex Rafala) is the only character besides Anne who can be said to grow and the romantic interest of the play comes from seeing how Anne plays a part in that. The courtship—as the adults see it—comes as a welcome little drama to divert them from their lack of prospects.

Objects have special status as well. A Hanukah celebrated with gifts from Anne to each of her fellow inmates says something about her attitude toward each; a fur coat becomes an emblem of personal worth and sentimental attachment but also a means to an end. The action is mostly through Anne’s eyes but the other characters—including Elizabeth Simmons as Miep Gies and Michael Enright as Mr. Kraler, the two essential helpers who provide the necessities for a life lived in hiding—have enough stature to provide the context of familiarity and resentment and sympathy and love that sustains Anne’s ultimately misplaced faith in humanity.

Producing the show at any time is an act of historical testimony, but these days it can be considered a public service announcement. Playhouse on Park has revived a touching reminder that is also a dire warning.


The Diary of Anne Frank
By Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett
Adapted by Wendy Kesselman
Directed by Ezra Barnes

Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Lighting Designer: Christopher Bell; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Properties & Set Dressing: Eileen O’Connor, Judi Manfre; Stage Manager: Corin Killins

Cast: Isabelle Barbier, Lisa Bostner, Michael Enright, Ruthy Froch, Jonathan D. Mesisca, Frank van Putten, Alex Rafala, Allen Lewis Rickman, Elizabeth Simmons, Joni Weisfeld

Playhouse on Park
October 25-November 19, 2017 

Aging Youth

Review of Avenue Q, Playhouse on Park

A certain irony creeps into the revival of the Tony-winning hit musical from 2003, Avenue Q, now playing at Playhouse on Park through October 8, directed by Kyle Brand. The brainchild of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, who co-wrote the music and lyrics with book by Jeff Whitty, this lively and imaginative musical uses tropes that recall the long-running children’s program Sesame Street to explore the problems of a post-college existence in a less trendy area of Queens. The show’s strong closing song makes the case that most things in life are only “For Now.” That sense of the obsolescence of events and tastes may include, for younger viewers, the show’s key reference points, more than a decade after the show’s initial run.

There are always twenty-somethings, but they aren’t always the same twenty-somethings. The generation that grew up with Sesame Street, and would instantly recognize the name Gary Coleman—represented onstage as the quintessential has-been celebrity by Abena Mensah-Bonsu—is likely to be in its forties, as are Lopez and Marx. The show’s progressive songs, like “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and “If You Were Gay,” effectively mimic the bright-eyed pedagogy of the award-winning PBS show, which aimed to educate and entertain simultaneously. But they must also seem a bit quaint to a twenty-something of today. Since it’s stressed that Avenue Q is not a show for children, its best audience may be those with nostalgic feelings for the turn-of-the-century era.

The cast of Avenue Q (left to right): Christmas Eve (EJ Zimmerman), Brian (James Fairchild), Princeton/Rod (Weston Chandler Long), Bad Idea Bears (Colleen Welsh), Trekkie/Nicky (Peej Mele), Kate/Lucy (Ashley Brooke), Gary Coleman (Abena Mensah-Bonsu) (photos courtesy of Curt Henderson, Imagine It Framed)

The cast of Avenue Q (left to right): Christmas Eve (EJ Zimmerman), Brian (James Fairchild), Princeton/Rod (Weston Chandler Long), Bad Idea Bears (Colleen Welsh), Trekkie/Nicky (Peej Mele), Kate/Lucy (Ashley Brooke), Gary Coleman (Abena Mensah-Bonsu) (photos courtesy of Curt Henderson, Imagine It Framed)

Still, it’s a great idea: using the tropes of children's TV to help render the growing pains of young adulthood. Princeton (Weston Chandler Long) must come to terms with the fact that his B.A. in English doesn’t open the doors of opportunity. He’s trying to find his way, helped by neighbors to learn important lessons about getting along, much as would any guest on Sesame Street. A key conceit of the show is that puppets are people, monsters—also played by puppets—live among us, and that some characters will be rendered by live actors.

A major aspect of Avenue Q—and one of the strengths of the Playhouse on Park production—is that the puppeteers are usually the actors and that all are fully visible on stage. This permits the audience to look both at the puppets—as for instance the porn-addict Trekkie (a ribald take-off on Cookie Monster)—and at the actors who manipulate them (for Trekkie, both Peej Mele and Colleen Welsh). Mele is a good example of an actor in service to a puppet: he manifests a variety of entertaining voices for different characters and generally maintains a self-effacing wide-eyed glare as though he were a puppet himself. Welsh, who helps with much of the ancillary puppet-handling, sometimes wielding the puppet another actor is voicing, is a key member of the cast.

The expressive aspects of the simultaneous presence of actor and puppet are particularly effective in Long’s body language for Princeton, and as the more uptight—and closeted—Rod, and in Ashley Brooke’s opposition between sweet Kate Monster and salacious Lucy T. Slut. These two fine actors do a lot, with their movements and their singing voices, to keep this revival fun, romantic, and endearing.

left to right: Peej Mele, Ashley Brooke, Colleen Welsh, Weston Chandler Long (Princeton)

left to right: Peej Mele, Ashley Brooke, Colleen Welsh, Weston Chandler Long (Princeton)

As the live actors—without puppets—Mensah-Bonsu, in a boyish outfit that would suit the diminutive Coleman—steals the show, and she’s abetted by the couple Brian (James Fairchild) and Christmas Eve (EJ Zimmerman). The fact of a mixed-race couple is meant to be progressive as well, but the insistence that Christmas Eve speak broken English makes her a caricature (“The More You Ruv Someone”), and Brian seems to have little purpose other than to be an example of an older slacker (“I’m Not Wearing Underwear Today”).

Nicky (Colleen Welsh), Brian (James Fairchild), Trekkie (Peej Mele), Princeton (Weston Chandler Long), Gary Coleman (Abena Mensah-Bonsu), Christmas Eve (EJ Zimmerman)

Nicky (Colleen Welsh), Brian (James Fairchild), Trekkie (Peej Mele), Princeton (Weston Chandler Long), Gary Coleman (Abena Mensah-Bonsu), Christmas Eve (EJ Zimmerman)

While not always progressive, the lessons of the songs follow an arc to make characters confront behavioral norms—whether about efforts to enact or avoid romance (“Fantasies Come True,” “My Girlfriend, Who Lives in Canada”), or about how to face life (“Purpose,” “There is Life Outside Your Apartment”), or how to get it on—puppets Princeton and Kate simulate every variation of heterosexual sex in “You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You’re Makin’ Love).” The rueful “There’s a Fine, Fine Line,” sung by Kate, is a high-point, late in Act Two.

The set by Emily Nichols is a perfect rendition of a grittier Sesame Street, with fun fold-down, dollhouse-like sets as backdrops to serve as interiors. The band, let by Robert James Tomasulo, is clear and unobtrusive, and Kyle Brand’s choreography uses the wide-open thrust space well, including a visit into the audience for handouts.

Not quite as dated as the reruns of yesteryear, Avenue Q may inadvertently underscore how timely an experience young adulthood is. The revival at Playhouse on Park is served well by its cast and design and Kyle Brand’s energetic direction.

Avenue Q
Music and Lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx
Book by Jeff Whitty
Directed by Kyle Brand

Puppets conceived by Rick Lyons

Choreographer: Kyle Brand; Music Director: Robert James Tomasulo; Lighting Designer: Christopher Bell; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Scenic Designer: Emily Nichols; Properties: Pamela Lang; Video Designers: Zach Rosing and Ben Phillippe

Cast: Ashley Brooke, James Fairchild, Weston Chandler Long, Peej Mele, Abena Mensah-Bonsu, Colleen Welsh

Musicians: Nick Cutroneo, guitar; Sean Rubin, bass guitar; Andrew Studenski, reeds; Robert James Tomasulo, keyboard; Elliot Wallace, drums

Playhouse on Park
September 13-October 8, 2017

Down on the Farm

Review of A Moon for the Misbegotten, Playhouse on Park

Eugene O’Neill’s late play, A Moon for the Misbegotten features comedy, poetry, strong characters able to speak their minds as well as dissemble, and O’Neill’s characteristic effort to plumb the psychology of the defeated and despairing, or “misbegotten.” The play presents a wonderfully complex use of plots and feints and bluffs, of long-standing grievance and hard grief, of friendship and filial affection, and, through it all, an unerring sense of its characters’ truths. And, of course, booze.

While not a comedy, the play ends on an upbeat, with a resonant sense of forgiveness. The path to that moment is tangled and, at times, dark, but the Playhouse on Park production, directed by Joseph Discher, keeps us in the light, whether of the full moon two would-be lovers—Josie Hogan (Elise Hudson) and James Tyrone, Jr. (Anthony Marble)—gaze into, or the rising dawn of a new day at the play’s close.

Set in Connecticut in 1923, the play offers Phil Hogan (Conan McCarty), a down-at-heels farmer, a mini-tyrant whose sons leave him and the unforgiving tenant farm he works. Mike (Michael Hinton), the youngest of the three, is stealing away as the play opens, abetted by his bossy sister Josie. Mike has hopes of the priesthood and tries to reform Josie from her wayward ways. Their exchange establishes Josie as the woman in possession, the only member of the family able to handle their demanding father and so she remains behind. It also establishes her as a woman with no patience for the Church nor for virtuous modesty.

Phil Hogan (Conan McCarty), Josie Hogan (Elise Hudson) (photo: Meredith Atkinson)

Phil Hogan (Conan McCarty), Josie Hogan (Elise Hudson) (photo: Meredith Atkinson)

Phil Hogen and his daughter Josie make a lively pair. As played by Conan McCarty, Phil is a likeable lover of blarney, always ready to bemoan his lot or badger an enemy—which includes his, in his view, no-account sons. He spars with Josie constantly, but there’s no mistaking his admiration for her strong will and no-nonsense grasp of situations. Elise Hudson’s Josie, while not nearly as roughly favored as the part calls for, is tall and imposing and thoroughly believable as a daughter who could give her aging father a thrashing as well as a tongue-lashing. Her well-sustained brogue makes music of her every utterance.

The rough spot in the show is Anthony Marble’s James Tyrone, Jr. Certainly possessed of the kind of looks that make us believe Tyrone works on the stage, Marble captures Tyrone's hammy self-importance, but doesn’t quite conjure the haunted regions of Tyrone’s heart. His best part is the lengthy confession to Josie, in a Pietà-like configuration in Act Three, that makes us take the measure of his disgust with himself and his need for love. Marble registers Tyrone’s charm and his alcoholism, but, in this short run, hasn't yet found the resources of bitterness the part calls for.

Josie Hogan (Elise Hudson), James Tyrone, Jr. (Anthony Marble) (photo: Joel Abbott)

Josie Hogan (Elise Hudson), James Tyrone, Jr. (Anthony Marble) (photo: Joel Abbott)

It should be said that these are Irish Catholics and a definite sense of sin and redemption is fully woven by O’Neill into his characters. Josie, in this context, has to go from Magdalen to Madonna, and Hudson manages to do so without ever losing sight of the simple country girl trying to stand by her man—which includes, finally, the failings of her father. Phil Hogan’s schemes, while meaning well, have the potential to go far awry and that’s the tension that hangs over this long day’s journey from a September noon to the following dawn.

Emily Nichols’ scenic design provides a realized space for the action, with a porch that commands a dirty yard, complete with serviceable large boulder, and a makeshift bedroom for Josie on the side of the house. Lighting by Christopher Bell makes for a very bright moon during the nighttime hours, but with nice soft undertones that eventually give way to tentative dawn. Joel Abbott’s sound design adds touches of birdsong to the morning after and, since the real star of an O’Neill play is the language, ensures that voices, even at their most conversational, are clear. Joseph Discher’s direction uses the space well with movement and physicality, such as Josie and Phil’s manhandling of T. Stedman Harder (Thomas Royce Daniels), a smug rival for the land.

A Moon for the Misbegotten is alive with a family dynamic that makes the Hogans seem heroic in their staunch appeal, in the end, to their own better natures. The play’s fatalism, in avoiding a happier ending, keeps within the dimension of reality, as opposed to romance. And yet O’Neill is a major figure in the view that the stage is where the heart unburdens itself for the sake of fellow feeling, even if that ultimately changes nothing.


A Moon for the Misbegotten
By Eugene O’Neill
Directed by Joseph Discher

Scenic Designer: Emily Nichols; Costume Designer: Collette Benoit; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Lighting Designer: Christopher Bell; Properties: Pamela Lang; Stage Manager: Corin Killins

Cast: Thomas Royce Daniels, Michael Hinton, Elise Hudson, Anthony Marble, Conan McCarty


Playhouse on Park
February 15-March 5, 2017

Gotta Dance!

Review of A Chorus Line, Playhouse on Park

A Pulitzer Prize winner in 1976, A Chorus Line, book by James Kirkwood, Jr., and Nicholas Dante, isn’t much of a play. More even than most musicals, it only works because of the songs—music by Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Edward Kleban—and the dance routines. That’s fitting, since the play is about the hopes and humiliations, the joys and defeats of trying to maintain a career as a chorus line dancer. I imagine its main claim to distinction, back in the Seventies, was in its humanizing of the usually faceless professionals whose precision forms the undeviating oneness of the quintessential Broadway chorus line. In pursuing that theme, rather relentlessly, the play puts real life on the stage while maintaining the romance with the stage that drives the show’s aspirants.

Zach (Eric S. Robertson, in white vest) with assistant Larry (Spencer Pond), and the cast of A Chorus Line (photo: Rich Wagner)

Zach (Eric S. Robertson, in white vest) with assistant Larry (Spencer Pond), and the cast of A Chorus Line (photo: Rich Wagner)

The play’s claim on our attention now, in a mostly non-professional production at Playhouse on Park, directed by co-artistic directors Sean Harris and Darlene Zoller, with choreography by Zoller, is the way it puts its dancers through paces that impress us with their facility in such an intimate space. We do feel like a fly on the wall of the rehearsal room as try-outs take place, governed by Zach (Eric S. Robertson), who is mostly humorless, detached, and unsympathetic. Even when confronted by a former lover, Cassie (Michelle Pruiett), who has had some star turns without becoming a star and wants to come back to the chorus line, though not back to him, Zach never becomes a character. Cassie fairs a bit better—she at least gets a great dance routine to express herself with—but the lack of real interest in their story is evident in the script itself. All the show’s interest lies in the tell-all autobiographies Zach manages to elicit from his auditioning group.

Cassie (Michelle Pruiett), solo dance routine (photo: Rich Wagner)

Cassie (Michelle Pruiett), solo dance routine (photo: Rich Wagner)

After first pruning a few from the opening routine, Zach has 17 to choose from for a cast of 8, four men and four women. That means a harsh principle of selection will apply, and his coercing of personal info from the dancers can seem awfully manipulative, given that most of them won’t be getting a job. The power play behind theater is always in evidence, and the degree to which the successful candidates here must both expose and efface themselves is what drives the drama.

As do the stories we hear: a few are amusing and upbeat, such as the stellar moves Mike (Alex Polzun) puts into “I Can Do That,” or Bobby (Peej Mele)’s dry take on growing up in Buffalo, or a charming tale of teen cluelessness from Mark (Jared Starkey); others are ironic, as in Val (Andree Buccheri)’s take on the part looks play in a successful stage career (“Dance: Ten, Looks: Three”), or Diana (Bobbi Barricella)’s tale of rejection by an early theater teacher (“Nothing”), or simply comic—Kristine (Mallory Cunninghams)’s song, abetted by her husband Al (Jeremy Seiner), in which she proves she can’t sing (“Sing”); then there’s Sheila (Tracey Mellon)’s tale of a rough home life juxtaposed with the enthrallment of performance (“At the Ballet”), or Paul (Tino Ardiente)’s tale of how his work in a drag review provoked his inadvertent coming-out to his parents. Because the stories keep close to what actual people might reveal of themselves, they manage to avoid outright cliché, though the influence of A Chorus Line is bound to make the stories feel familiar even if you haven’t seen the show before. But the reason to see it again is to see how a new battery of try-outs take to the parts.

Most are well-cast, and most acquit themselves well, though sometimes lyrics become a bit unintelligible, whether that’s due to the quality of the mics each performer wears or to the fact that it’s easy to get breathless when singing and dancing simultaneously. In the end, you may not agree with Zach’s selection of the final 8, but that will have to do with how you respond to the individual characters, and probably the individual actors, and that’s probably the point. Mellon’s Sheila, for instance, doesn’t make the cut, but she’s certainly an asset to this production, while other choices, such as Richie (Ronnie Bowman, Jr.), are no-brainers.

Greg (Max Weinstein), Sheila (Tracey Mellon), Richie (Ronnie Bowman, Jr.), Judy (Cara Rashkin), and the cast of A Chorus Line (photo: Rich Wagner)

Greg (Max Weinstein), Sheila (Tracey Mellon), Richie (Ronnie Bowman, Jr.), Judy (Cara Rashkin), and the cast of A Chorus Line (photo: Rich Wagner)

As a tribute to the trials of playing anonymous parts in big shows, the show draws in viewer sympathy and the rousing number “What We Do For Love,” led by Barricella’s lovely voice, moves beyond any sense of exploitation as we realize that the fictional cast’s participation is not about money or fame or even a secure career; it’s about love of the work and of performing. Without a show in which to show off their skills and talents, these performers have nothing but the mostly drab lives they narrate. The contrast between their humble origins and their talent is the point. The Playhouse production, in using students—several now or recently at the Hartt School—and non-professionals, underscores that the talent to perform is what drives theater. And the relative inexperience of the cast makes the characters’ roles as naive hopefuls all the more convincing, and their talented turns all the more impressive.


A Chorus Line
Conceived and originally directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett
Book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante
Music by Marvin Hamlisch
Lyrics by Edward Kleban
Directed by Sean Harris and Darlene Zoller
Music Directors: Emmett Drake and Michael Morris

Choreographer: Darlene Zoller; Costume Designer: Lisa Steier; Assistant Choreographer: Spencer Pond; Lighting Designer: Christopher Bell; Scenic Designer: Christopher Hoyt; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Properties Master: Pamela Lang

Playhouse on Park
June 15—July 31, 2016

A Scholar Undonne by Death

Review of Wit at Playhouse on Park

Mortality figures as a theme in many plays, but Margaret Edson’s Wit, now playing at Playhouse on Park directed by Stevie Zimmerman, dwells on the approach of death from first to last. Dr. Vivian Bearing (Elizabeth Lande), the main character, greets the audience brightly with the inevitable query of medical care-givers, “how are you feeling today?” She is in a hospital gown with a portable IV, bald head beneath a knit cap, when she asks. However we might be feeling, it has to be better than she is.

The story of the play is well-known: Vivian, a formidable English professor specializing in 17th century poetry, particularly the Metaphysical Poets and especially John Donne and, predominantly, the Holy Sonnets, is stricken with Stage IV metastatic ovarian cancer at the age of 50. She agrees to the most vigorous treatment available, which requires bombardment with chemo, so that, while improving in some ways—her huge tumor does get smaller—she is on a downward slope that will, at best, be arrested for a time. What she is, in fact, is a test subject to determine the side effects and progress of the treatment.

Elizabeth Lande as Dr. Vivian Bearing (photo: Rich Wagner)

Elizabeth Lande as Dr. Vivian Bearing (photo: Rich Wagner)

Key to the play, which is Edson’s only play and a Pulitzer-winning play at that, is the parallel between the rigor of the medical treatment Vivian receives from Drs. Kelekian (David Gautschy) and Posner (Tim Hackney) and the rigor of her training at the hands of the august eminence Professor E. M. Ashford (Waltrudis Buck), and the rigor of her own teaching for decades. For Bearing and her mentor, the English language has never been used to more complex and concentrated effect than in Donne’s Holy Sonnets, which explore faith in the face of mortality. An early flashback shows us Vivian, an undergraduate acolyte, taking in Professor Ashford’s lesson that punctuation matters in how one reads poetry as dense as Donne’s—specifically the “Death be not proud” Sonnet. Eventually, Professor Bearing gets around to expounding a bit of the poetry, the audience helped by overheads, but Lande is better at playing wry and puckish test subject than she is at donnish academic. Sonnet IX, with its theme of the mercy of forgetfulness, seems apropos to Bearing’s late misgivings about her solitary life and ended career, but the force of the conviction, if present, feels a bit scattered.

Professor Bearing (Elizabeth Lande) with a Donne sonnet (photo: Meredith Atkinson)

Professor Bearing (Elizabeth Lande) with a Donne sonnet (photo: Meredith Atkinson)

Better is a scene of Bearing in the classroom where her lack of empathy for her hapless students is paralleled by her research-based doctors’ lack of empathy with her suffering. The point comes off because Bearing’s students, like her doctors, don’t seem to believe that the mind has its own rewards. Certainly, the comparison being pushed is that Bearing has been an overbearing teacher much as her doctors are overbearing researchers—especially Posner, who, neatly enough, was Bearing’s student when an undergrad. Still, one wishes that the very notion of metaphysical thought would clash at some point with the extreme physicality of modern medicine’s point of view; for the students, Donne “hides” behind difficulty, and the obvious parallels are the cancer cells that hide within the seemingly healthy body, until too late; or the need for human contact that Vivian hides until almost too late. Getting it all out in the open is what, schooled by illness, Vivian eventually does.

the cast of Wit (photo: Meredith Atkinson)

the cast of Wit (photo: Meredith Atkinson)

The irony that her former student, played with detached concentration by Tim Hackney, should be putting his former prof through an ever stricter barrage of tests is not lost on Bearing, but neither is it dwelt upon, any more than she would be apt to point out that her love of paradox finds its echo in being treated by a pair o’ docs. But, for the audience, the possibility of life—and, more importantly death—imitating rhetoric is some of the fun. As with the play’s willingness to both define and enact the “soporific” (high-toned English poetry and medical terminology both can qualify), the quality of Prof. Bearing’s mind is the main entertainment here. Lande is a figure of compassion almost from the start, with her childlike appearance, but the role would benefit from some less likable disdain.

Eventually, the play, which seems to be keeping death at bay much as Bearing keeps fellow feeling at bay, succumbs to both. Vivian risks becoming “maudlin” in her own estimation for the sake of companionship with her nurse Susie Monahan, played with winning efficiency by Chuja Seo. And Susie is important because through her we arrive at the main plot point once death has been admitted. Susie cautions Vivian, in a touching scene with shared frozen popsicles, that she might want a “Do Not Resuscitate” order and that brings about a moment of medical drama. The scene struck me with a force that worked against its manifest meaning—a paradox of which, whatever death might be, both Donne and Vivian might be proud.

Staging, lighting, sound—the technical requirements of mounting this spare but shifting play—are all handled brilliantly, so much so that one barely pauses to think about how it’s done. And that takes some wit indeed.


By Margaret Edson
Directed by Stevie Zimmerman

Scenic Designer: Emily Nichols; Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Lighting Designer: Marcus Abbott; Properies Master: Pamela Lang

Playhouse on Park
April 20-May 8, 2016

The Ghost of a Chance

Review of I Hate Hamlet at Playhouse on Park

Paul Rudnick’s I Hate Hamlet, directed by Vince Tycer at Playhouse on Park, reads like an amiable sit-com where the hero, an actor, could easily be a Bob Denver or Michael J. Fox type who finds himself having to undergo “growth”—for the sake of laughs and, ultimately, some theatrical values.

Andrew (Dan Whelton) is a successful TV actor who has recently—all the furniture still has sheets on it—moved into a Tudor-looking apartment in New York, formerly owned by John Barrymore, one of the preeminent Shakespearean actors of his era. This isn’t a selling point for Andrew, but is for his girlfriend Deirdre, a budding actress who adores the Bard. So there you have the two strains of Rudnick’s universe: the Bardolators vs. those who are sick of having Shakespeare rammed down their throats. In fact, if the play were called “I’m Sick of Shakespeare” it might have more to offer: at least there would be the hope that the script would do take-offs on the robustious over-acting and posturing that oftentimes goes by the name of “Shakespearean acting.” But that’s not the target here. Rather, an impromptu séance led by Andrew’s real estate agent, Felicia (Julia Hochner) and including his theatrical agent Lillian (Ruth Neaveill) leads to an appearance—at first for Andrew’s eyes only—of the ghost of Barrymore himself (played with great ease of manner and an air of grand noblesse oblige by Ezra Barnes, in a becoming “suit of solemn black,” with tights, cape and codpiece, by Soule Golden).

Ezra Barnes (John Barrymore)

Ezra Barnes (John Barrymore)

Barrymore has returned from the dead, you see, tasked with the duty of making Andrew accept and, if possible, shine in the role of Hamlet in the park. But that doesn’t mean this is a primer in how to act Hamlet—Barrymore’s only real advice on that score is Hamlet’s advice to the players, pretty much stolen verbatim—or even on how to use Hamlet as a foil for the actor’s own agenda. Andrew doesn’t really have one of those, except to vacillate like a whiny Hamlet and wish his virginal fiancée would consent to making the beast with two backs. One of the more humorous moments on that score is when he finds out, to his surprise, that the surest way to fan her flame is to fume with “get thee to a nunnery.”

Dan Whelton (Andrew), Susan Slotoroff (Deirdre), David Lanson (Gary)

Dan Whelton (Andrew), Susan Slotoroff (Deirdre), David Lanson (Gary)

There’s also tame fun at the expense of an L.A. agent who can’t wait to get Andrew away from the footlights and back before the television cameras—David Lanson plays Gary as an earnest guy for whom the point of show biz is making the most money from the biggest show. There’s not much to be gained, except maybe some grudging respect from drama critics, by humbling oneself live each night as Hamlet outdoors. Maybe when Rudnick’s play opened, back in 1991, L.A. types were fresher as a concept, but as it stands now, the show-biz part of the show is a bit like watching a re-run to catch someone’s early work.

Ezra Barnes (John Barrymore), Ruth Neaveill (Lillian)

Ezra Barnes (John Barrymore), Ruth Neaveill (Lillian)

So, in lieu of big laughs at the expense of Shakespearean rhetoric or of show-biz neurotics, the high point of the show is a touching moment of middle-aged amour. Lillian, you see, once had a fling with the oft-flinging, iamb-slinging Barrymore and the scene in which their old times hover around them again as a possible present—Barrymore is a substantial ghost and can control who sees him and who doesn’t—is tinged with sweet sincerity. Much more so, on that score, than the amorous jousting of Andrew and Deirdre, even if she does melt once he does his duty—and takes his lumps—trying to talk the talk of the melancholy Dane. And the sword-fight between Barrymore and Andrew is pretty good too.

Ezra Barnes (John Barrymore), Dan Whelton (Andrew)

Ezra Barnes (John Barrymore), Dan Whelton (Andrew)

Then there’s the play’s other high point: Whelton’s growth moment. It’s not that Andrew becomes a Hamlet worthy of Barrymore, nor probably even a Hamlet worthy of Central Park, but that he comes to realize the value of live performance. His speech about seeing the Bard’s words connect with a kid, bored and uneasy a moment before, who suddenly cares whether or not the Prince will decide to be or not, ropes in all us easy marks, ready to be reassured about the meaning and prestige of live theater over the more commercial variety commandeered by clips and edits. Whatever Andrew’s merits as actor (or lover), we see that at least he’s learning what it means to have presence.

And if you should be present for I Hate Hamlet, you’ll find a game cast that earns its applause in this easy-going play.


I Hate Hamlet
By Paul Rudnick
Directed by Vince Tycer

Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Scenic Designer: Emily Nichols; Lighting Designer: Marcus Abbott; Costume Designer: Soule Golden; Properties Master: Pamela Lang; Photos: Rich Wagner

Cast: Ezra Barnes, Julia Hochner, David Lanson, Ruth Neaveill, Susan Slotoroff, Dan Whelton

Playhouse on Park
February 24-March 13, 2016



Finding the Real

Review of Passing Strange at Playhouse on Park

Playhouse on Park’s production of Passing Strange, by musical and performance artist Stew, directed by Sean Harris, makes full use of the theater’s intimate thrust stage, as the cast move all through the space, accompanied by a four-piece band led by a dynamic narrator/singer/master of ceremonies, Darryl Jovan Williams. With “Narrator” as our guide, we follow the story of  “the Youth” (Eric R. Williams), a young black man from a middle-class suburb of L.A., coming of age in the late Seventies, much like Stew himself. Everyone seems to be having a wonderful time telling this story and the ensemble’s joy—in the music, in movement, in singing, and in acting a variety of characters—will put a smile on your face.

Skyler Volpe, Eric R. Williams, Garrett Turner

Skyler Volpe, Eric R. Williams, Garrett Turner

One of the more refreshing aspects of the Youth’s story is his self-conscious realization that, in cultural terms, he’s “passing for black.” Sure, he’s black to the white folks he hangs out with—in his hometown, and then in Amsterdam and then in Berlin—but he knows that trying to be “ghetto” so as to gain street cred among the radical “nowhaus” group he hangs with in Germany is a bit absurd, and finally a woman (Karissa Harris) he’s trying to woo calls him on it. The Youth is not quite a playa—only because he was too well brought up by his well-meaning mother (Famecia Ward)—but he’s not above trading on stereotypical notions when it serves his purpose, and some of the best humor of the show comes from our awareness of his awareness of how jive he allows himself to be, at times. A real strength of this production is that Eric R. Williams plays Youth’s self-conscious cool so well; Williams gives the part a likable earnestness that should have wide appeal—to any current or former youths bent on self-discovery, or, as he puts it, “finding the real.”

the cast and drummer of Passing Strange

the cast and drummer of Passing Strange

Stew’s story gets right certain very real elements of Seventies life. First, there’s the widespread social acceptance of drugs: the Youth gets turned on to grass by the closeted gay leader of the church choir (Garrett Turner has fun with the more flamboyant roles in the show), then later has an anxiety-provoking acid trip. Then there’s the fact that many of the victories of the civil rights era seem like second nature. The Youth is already bored about having to genuflect to black cultural leaders—his first act of rebellion, after dropping out of the choir (which he joined because gospel music seemed to him like rock), is to form a punk band that sounds pretty authentic indeed. Elsewhere there’s fun with European art-house cinema, but one suspects that neither cast nor director has spent a lot of time with the genre since that segment feels more like Hollywood melodrama than Godard-inflected disaffect.

Watching the very busy and energetic ensemble transform before our eyes from L.A. kids to hip Dutch to molotov-cocktail-hurling German radicals is one of the delights of the show. There’s also a captivating lyrical moment when the lovely Marianna (Skyler Volpe), an Amsterdam squatter, makes a gift to our vagabond hero of the keys to her flat. Stew and his musical collaborator Heidi Rodewald know how to bring out the lyricism of fleeting romance and Williams and Volpe, et al., do the song full justice. Later, the irony that Berlin radicals, bent upon remaking society, go home for the holidays leaves Youth high and dry, since he’s trying hard to avoid returning to a mother who can’t understand his flight to freedom.

Though he leaves her behind and has to insist, to her importuning phone call before Christmas, that his home is Berlin, not L.A., the bond between mother and son accounts for the emotional uplift the show ends on, though it’s not quite enough. All along we’ve been enjoying the candid depiction of a self-centered, self-serving “talent” who manipulates situations to his ends. In realizing his younger self has been unfairly neglectful of his mother, the Narrator, as Youth grown-up, or Stew, offers Passing Strange as a kind of confession for the sake of atonement. How moving that effort is depends on how much we want our hero to learn a lesson about family ties.

Darryl Jovan Williams (Narrator)

Darryl Jovan Williams (Narrator)

As the story is not big on surprises—its main tensions are of the “I gotta be me” variety typical of stories of artists in popular genres—the change of gear near the close amounts to growth and moral improvement. Soulful enough in the more emotional tunes, like “Work the Wound,” the production really cooks when the cast and band are making the most of the full-throttle raves. While a heartfelt comeuppance to the callowness of Youth—and youth—is inspiring enough, the real passion of the show is in the celebration of music as a form of art that can make up for failures in life. It’s “passing strange”—in a phrase Stew borrows from Othello—how Youth passes through cultural identities and from youth to maturity, but the pay-off is in how well his work lives up to that journey. Passing Strange does—and so does Playhouse on Park’s production.

Passing Strange
Book and lyrics by Stew
Music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald
Created in collaboration with Annie Dorsen
Directed by Sean Harris
Choreography by Darlene Zoller

Cast: Karissa Harris; Garrett Turner; Skyler Volpe; J’Royce; Famecia Ward; Darryl Jovan Williams; Eric R. Williams

Playhouse on Park
December 2-20, 2015

Life Lessons

Review of Tuesdays with Morrie at Playhouse on Park

A play about friendship and dying is bound to be affecting, but for such a play to give viewers a renewed sense of vitality takes some doing. And that’s what Tuesdays with Morrie, directed by Sasha Brätt at West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park achieves, and that effect is mostly the result of excellent acting and the show’s well-paced presentation.

Based on a best-selling memoir by Mitch Ablom, the celebrated sportswriter, Tuesdays with Morrie could easily retread the simplistic “wisdom literature” the memoir aims for. But Brätt’s approach to the theater adaptation, by Ablom and Jeffrey Hatcher, makes some decisions that help bring the friendship between Mitch and his former sociology professor Morrie Schwartz to life. First of all, as portrayed by Chris Richards, Mitch isn’t particularly likeable. As a student, he’s just an average guy whom, in part because of his piano playing, his teacher has taken a shine to. That makes for a nice parting upon graduation but with no sense, on Mitch’s part, that anything deeper will be forthcoming between them. Secondly, there’s Gannon McHale as Morrie, played with a winning sense of how to finesse fatality that never becomes maudlin.

Gannon McHale (Morrie), Chris Richards (Mitch)

Gannon McHale (Morrie), Chris Richards (Mitch)

As a successful sports columnist in Detroit, Mitch is the kind of guy who knows his stuff, is consumed by his career, and quite content with himself. He stresses that he cut-off any memory of Brandeis, where he went to college, and ignored anything that would call that time back to his mind. That is until he happens to see an interview with Schwartz on Ted Koppel’s Nightline. Schwartz has been diagnosed with Amyotropic Lateral Sclerosis (aka, Lou Gehrig’s Disease), which is fatal, and reflects about his life on the air. Mitch travels east to Massachusetts to pay his respects. And there he finds himself once again under the spell of his old mentor.

Morrie Schwartz is a canny character, the type who knows how to ingratiate himself, and also how to be needy and giving at the same time. It’s a wonderful role and McHale does it full justice. His Morrie is clearly the kind of person who feels useless alone, who lives and shines for others. And to have Mitch back in his life—after the younger man suggests, almost in spite of himself, visiting Morrie weekly, as he did during the professor's office hours in college—is to have again a purpose for living, even as he’s dying. In promising to be there to the end, Mitch gives Morrie a weekly reason to rally.

Chris Richards (Mitch), Gannon McHale (Morrie)

Chris Richards (Mitch), Gannon McHale (Morrie)

Because the weekly encounters between the two, which Mitch tapes, sometimes take the form of question and answer, the nature of their relationship remains structured by their roles in each other’s lives: teacher and student. Mitch’s success in his chosen field says nothing about how well he thinks or how much he feels. And that’s what his old professor is testing him on.

The tensions between them have to do, first, with the unpleasant facts of Morrie’s condition and Mitch’s effort to treat them as less pressing than they are (along those lines is his weekly delivery of a bag of food to Morrie, as though bringing him care packages that should sustain him, regardless of how advanced the disease is). Then there’s the tension of Mitch’s defensiveness when Morrie’s reflections on life begin to make Mitch see how shallow his own successful life is. It’s not a question of thinking he should have done something else with his life so much as a question of how he should be. Like any good humanist philosopher, Morrie’s lesson is not about having more or doing something better (Mitch has plenty and does quite well), it’s about being more human, not flinching from the “touchy-feely” aspects of life that make Mitch cringe.

The interplay between the two, because of these tensions—to which is added Morrie’s manner of winning a visit from Mitch’s wife—makes for involving theater defined by dialogue and narration. We’re privy to what Mitch wants us to see and he wants us to see how valuable knowing Morrie has been for him. And to see its value for ourselves.

Gannon McHale (Morrie), Chris Richards (Mitch)

Gannon McHale (Morrie), Chris Richards (Mitch)

And in that, Tuesdays with Morrie is a lesson to us all. If we have interacted with the infirm and the dying, we can still be reminded of what that experience meant; and if we haven’t, the play makes the reality of such vigils very palpable. The play, in the end, almost inevitably evokes tears if only because we have come to know and love Morrie. McHale lets us view the full humanity of this man in a way that we may not find so easily matched in reality. And Richards, surprisingly, is not overshadowed. Much as we might favor the elder role, there’s a certain sensibleness wielded by a person in the midst of life that Mitch retains, and Richards is quite adept at confiding in his audience, knowing that we will share at least some of his squeamishness or embarrassment or selfishness.

Richly rewarding in its grasp of the fleeting connections in our busy lives and of the deep presence of persons, Tuesdays with Morrie at Playhouse on Park offers a great way to pass some time in good company.


Tuesdays with Morrie
By Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Ablom
Based on the book by Mitch Ablom
Directed by Sasha Brätt

Scenic Designer: Christopher Hoyt; Lighting Designer: Aaron Hochheiser; Costume Designer: Lisa Steier; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott

Playhouse on Park
September 30-October 18, 2015

Not So Trivial Pursuit

Review of The Importance of Being Earnest at Playhouse on Park

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of the Being Earnest is a play that, in a sense, can’t go wrong, so long as its lines are audible. The sparkle isn’t only in Wilde’s famed witty apothegms, but in his handling of dialogue—the come-back that seems a non-sequitur, and vice versa, the aside spoken to someone, the bandying with another’s words to arrive at a different meaning. All this is so consummate, its style established an ideal of comic dialogue that most can only approximate. Faithfulness to Wilde’s brand of comedy, it seems to me, is a matter of not letting anything upstage the spoken lines, even as each character must maintain a fidelity to type without seeming too familiar.

The current production at Playhouse on Park in Hartford, directed by Jerry Winters, acquits itself handsomely on all those points. The playing space is thrust-style and intimate, and the blocking very capably makes use of all corners and angles so that every viewpoint, at some point, is faced with the central action. And since the action consists almost wholly of dialogue, its quite a nice balletic feat to have the talk move about, collecting and coalescing in different spots with the refreshing flow of natural movement. Christopher Hoyt’s scenic design plays well with symmetries that can be shifted about when necessary to suggest, visually, what the plot is getting at through the logic of courtship: we change partners, we change our “identities” to some extent, we alter where we alteration find. Same for the assurance of Joel Abbott’s able sound design: if the shifts sag, if the bon mots fall unheard, we’ll nod off or escape. Crispness is all, and this production has that.

Lady Bracknell (Katrina Ferguson)

Lady Bracknell (Katrina Ferguson)

Centering the action, in the supporting role that ruins all if not up to the mark, is Katrina Ferguson’s Lady Bracknell. She is the character who sets the tone, and holds everyone else to account. Ferguson is never petty or petulant, a Bracknell always more than equal to whatever comes down the pike. She is wry and resourceful and very much an asset to this production. As are the friends turned “Ernest,” James Parenti as Algernon and Michael Raver as Jack. They look impeccable and sound and move equally well in Erin Payne’s becoming costumes.

Raver, as the hero of the piece, is well-meaning and good-looking and full of a kind of “everyman” charm, able to be relentlessly affable and to rise to a peak of emotion when his fate is being decided. Parenti has an appearance of settled deviousness about him that adds greatly to the charm of the “bunburying” that is the dominant mode of the play. Wilde's assumption—and it is shared by Algernon—is that all of us play at something so as to conceal what we are really about, creating distractions or excuses so as to divert our onlookers. Jack, early caught in a version of the same ruse, feels guilty about it and has moral scruples. Algernon teaches Jack that his friend's “bunburying”—e.g., Jack’s fictitious brother—can be turned to his own profit.

The “earnestness” of all this comes down to Jack, who truly wants to marry Gwendolen (played with warm graciousness by Jane Bradley), and truly wants to stay in good graces with her mother, Lady Bracknell, as well as doing right by his ward, Cecily (played with pert insistence by Laura Hankin), while also having a certain free space to do as he pleases. Algernon, who is all for the free space and nothing but, initially, becomes “earnest” in his own right when he encounters the sweetly certain simplicity of Cecily. While not exactly rivals, Jack and Algy are brilliantly put into rivalry over a name: the claim to being called Ernest.

Gwendolen (Jane Bradley), Jack (Michael Raver), Cecily (Laura Hankin), Lady Bracknell (Katrina Ferguson), Algernon (James Parenti)

Gwendolen (Jane Bradley), Jack (Michael Raver), Cecily (Laura Hankin), Lady Bracknell (Katrina Ferguson), Algernon (James Parenti)

Wilde subtitles the play “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People,” alluding to the notion that nothing of importance—other than “being earnest”—is decided in the play. It is, delightfully, much ado about nothing, and yet the play might equally be subtitled “a serious comedy for trivial people” since much of what we get so serious about—our betrotheds and beloveds and espouseds, for instance—can seem trivial indeed to someone else. Love is as serious as life and death to those afflicted by it, and airy and insubstantial as the most trivial social nicety to those blithely untouched by it. Lady Bracknell is on hand to make certain that the trivial aspects of choosing a spouse—what we call the personal—do not interfere with the serious aspects, which is to say the social and, indeed, economic. All’s well that ends well-off, and that’s as it should be, for comedy. And for reversal, there’s the deft touch of a baby in a hand-bag to wink at the humble origins of many a hero.

In support there are many fine turns: the face-off between Gwendolen and Cecily, particularly, where good will, rivalry, and nastiness get coated with faultless manners; the wishing-to-please obtuseness of Dr. Chasuble (David M. Farrington) and the earnest accounting by Miss Prism (Donna Schilke); and don’t forget the laughs added by the slacking lackey Merriman (Harrison Greene).

The Importance of Being Earnest might too easily be considered style over substance, and Playhouse on Park’s production has style substantial enough to make the play shine—and that’s not trivial.

The Importance of Being Earnest
By Oscar Wilde
Directed by Jerry Winters

Scenic Designer: Christopher Hoyt; Lighting Designer: Christopher Jones; Costume Designer: Erin Payne; Prop Master: Pamela Lang; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott

Playhouse on Park
West Hartford, April 15-May 3, 2015