Steve Routman

The Kid is Alright

Review of The Flamingo Kid, Hartford Stage

Darko Tresnjak, who steps down as Artistic Director with the conclusion of this season, ends his tenure at Hartford Stage on an upbeat note. The Flamingo Kid, a new musical based on the fondly regarded film by Garry and Neal Marshall from 1984, re-teams Tresnjak with Robert L. Freedman, Books and Lyrics, who wrote the Book and co-wrote the lyrics for the Tony-winning A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, one of the director’s prior big successes.

This time the comedy is not quite as wildly inspired, but the show is vastly entertaining, with the kind of witty lyrics—often adding a deliberate flavor of Jewish Brooklyn missing from the film—that musicals about coming of age should have. Scott Frankel, of War Paint and Grey Gardens, wrote the music and there’s a nice range of musical inspirations, all feeling at home in 1963, the year of the action. That’s the summer, of course, between the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963. A great time to be young and alive after the U.S. got the U.S.S.R. to backdown and before the country, in the view of many commentators, lost its innocence.

Steve (Ben Fankhauser), Hawk (Alex Wyse), Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer) in Hartford Stage production of The Flamingo Kid (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Steve (Ben Fankhauser), Hawk (Alex Wyse), Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer) in Hartford Stage production of The Flamingo Kid (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

The Flamingo Kid is rich with the kind of associations many of us have with the era, not least in pitting the bedrock values of the working lower middle-class, here instanced by the Winnicks in Brooklyn, with the leisure-time instincts of the upper middle-class out on Long Island. It’s still a time when such might occasionally rub shoulders, and when the so-called American Dream offered the notion that a kid who has to earn his way could still work his way up in pay and respect.

The story, which begins on the Fourth of July weekend and ends on Labor Day weekend, takes the side of the young, ethnic up-and-comer, Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer), over the self-important blowhard Phil Brody (Marc Kudisch), owner of some luxury car showrooms, whose spell the young man falls under, while also falling for Brody’s niece, Karla (Samantha Massell). Freedman’s script takes a few potshots at those who put salesmanship over sincerity and elevate winning by any means over winning fairly. There’s even a little wink in having Karla reading Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique on the beach, a bit of cultural unrest that finds its answer in the actions of Brody’s wife Phyllis (Lesli Margherita) late in the play.

Phyllis Brody (Lesli Margherita) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Phyllis Brody (Lesli Margherita) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Indeed, one way the musical stretches beyond the movie is in its interest in the older generation. The film is concerned almost wholly with Jeffrey’s effort to prove himself, moving from the plans of his gruff but loving father, a plumber, to the slick and glib mentorship offered by Brody, “the King” of the gin game at the El Flamingo Beach Club. Freedman gives standout numbers to Mr. Winnick (Adam Heller), “A Plumber Knows,” and his wife Ruth (Liz Larsen), “Not For All the Money in the World,” and to Mrs. Brody, whose “The Cookie Crumbles” is a word-to-the-wise aimed at Karla, full of the cynicism of the neglected wife. Meanwhile, Brody gets to make the most of “Sweet Ginger Brown,” his tagline, a song that comes back for a rousing reprise in Act II.

For excitement, there are big dance numbers like “Another Summer Day in Brooklyn,” “Rockaway Rumba,” and even a visit to the track with “In It to Win It.” Gregory Rodriguez adds much pizzazz to Act II as the lead singer of Marvin and The Sand Dunes, singing “Blowin’ Hot and Cold.” Comic highlights are provided by Brody’s card-playing pals who are apt to carp at “The World According to Phil,” and by the MILFs of the day who can’t get enough of Jeffrey as the cutest “Cabana Boy.” The romantic plot is handled by “Never Met a Boy Like You,” wherein Karla is smitten, and it plays out with the sweetness of the sweetest summer romance, featuring a see-saw and a lifeguard stand and a painted moon over a painted sea.

Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer), Karla Samuels (Samantha Massell) (photo by T, Charles Erickson)

Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer), Karla Samuels (Samantha Massell) (photo by T, Charles Erickson)

Is the show sentimental and nostalgic? You betcha, so much so it feels like a return to an earlier time not only in its setting—which is fetchingly colorful in the set by Alexander Dodge and the costumes by Linda Cho, two longtime exemplars of excellence at Hartford Stage—but in its grasp of how to combine family and fun and romance with the kicks of kids and the fretting of elders. The movie was an Eighties’ nod to the way Fifties Hollywood informed so many of the movers and shakers of the era. As a musical in our day, The Flamingo Kid treats perennials like first love and first major summer job the way the Golden Age of television might and lets us enjoy the ride for all it’s worth.

Phil Brody (Marc Kudisch) and Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Phil Brody (Marc Kudisch) and Jeffrey Winnick (Jimmy Brewer) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

The first Act may run a bit long and, in general, there’s a sense, in each Act, that the search for a close is a problem that derives from the arc of numbers in a musical more than from the story per se. Freedman wants to keep the emphasis on “Fathers and Sons,” a theme that shows up strong at the end with the show’s penultimate number. Which makes it an ideal show running up to Father’s Day on June 16—indeed, the show has been extended from June 9, its original ending date, to June 15. Bring the folks, or the kids, as the case may be.

Jeffrey (Jimmy Brewer) and Arthur (Adam Heller) Winnick (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Jeffrey (Jimmy Brewer) and Arthur (Adam Heller) Winnick (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

The show’s secondary theme—what makes for marital happiness in two couples of different socio-economic situations and how the difference affects a young, formative couple negotiating both worlds—plays out as a fond look at how much we owe to where we’re from—and how much we all love summer getaways. As a musical getaway, The Flamingo Kid is hot, and that’s cool.

 

The Flamingo Kid
Book & Lyrics by Robert L. Freedman
Music by Scott Frankel
Based on the motion picture The Flaming Kid, screenplay by Neal Marshall and Garry Marshall, story by Neal Marshall
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Choreography: Denis Jones; Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Linda Cho; Lighting Design: Philip Rosenberg; Sound Design: Peter Hylenski; Projection Design: Aaron Rhyne; Wig & Hair Design: Charles G. LaPointe; Makeup Design: Joya Giambrone; Dance & Vocal Arrangements: Scott Frankel; Music Director: Thomas Murray; Orchestrator: Bruce Coughlin; Fight Choreographer: Thomas Schall; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Stage Manager: Linda Marvel

Orchestra: Conductor: Thomas Murray, Keyboard: Paul Staroba; Percussion: Charles DeScarfino; Reed 1: John Mastroianni; Reed 2: Michael Schuster; Trumpet: Seth Bailey, Don Clough; Trombone: Jordan Jacobson; Horn: Jaime Thorne; Violin/Viola: Lu Sun; Guitar: Nick DiFabio; Bass: Roy Wiseman; Keyboard Programmer: Randy Cohen

Cast: Ben Bogen, Jimmy Brewer, Lindsey Brett Carothers, Ben Fankhauser, Michael Hartung, Adam Heller, Jean Kauffman, Ken Krugman, Marc Kudisch, Liz Larsen, Taylor Lloyd, Omar Lopez-Cepero, Lesli Margherita, Samantha Massell, Anna Noble, Erin Leigh Peck, Gregory Rodriguez, Steve Routman, William Squier, Kathy Voytko, Price Waldman, Jayke Workman, Alex Wyse, Kelli Youngman, Stuart Zagnit

Hartford Stage
May 9-June 15, 2019

Winner Take All

Review of Other People’s Money, Long Wharf Theatre

The sign of a good play is that viewers can read different things into it at different times, and directors can find new relevance in it. Jerry Sterner’s Other People’s Money, at Long Wharf, directed with sharp transitions by Marc Bruni, could easily seem a trip back to the late 1980s when business liquidators were an up-and-coming breed, “mergers and acquisition” became practically a household phrase, and old production standbys like automobile manufacture became ailing dinosaurs of the corporate world. While the period aspect of the play is still very much prevalent, it’s hard to watch the play in 2016 and not think of the recent election. Allegory may be in the eye of the beholder, but I think not.

We’ve got Wire and Cable, an all-American company that cares about its employees and their families, owned by Mr. Jorgenson (Edward James Hyland), a conscientious and somewhat loquacious elder who admires Harry Truman and treats the business like family. He’s got a very loyal assistant, Bea (Karen Ziemba), who sees no divide between work and her personal life. Both are dedicated to “the American Dream” as a solvent business that makes a good product and provides decent lives for all involved, debt-free. They don’t even have any outstanding fines with Environmental Protection. The manager, Coles (Steve Routman), is a canny heir apparent, serving his time until the old man steps down and he can take over and modernize a bit.

Garfinkle (Jordan Lage), Kate (Liv Rooth) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Garfinkle (Jordan Lage), Kate (Liv Rooth) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Into their cozy little world comes crass, big league player Garfinkle (Jordan Lage), a self-satisfied man of business who exists to make money, legally. He’s rapacious, avaricious, and even charming in a cold-blooded way. He’s buying up shares not because he wants Wire and Cable to make him money as a satisfied stockholder, but because he wants to gut the still breathing carcass and make his money off its dismemberment. The only person who might figure out a way to stop him is a blonde female lawyer, Kate (Liv Rooth), Bea’s daughter, who dresses sharply and is tough-as-nails, and who is more than equal to any “grab ‘em by the pussy” innuendo that might come her way. In an amusing sequence, she gets Garfinkle to grab his own crotch and give it a stern talking to.

What’s at stake? Well, if you’ve been wondering what it means to put the fox in the henhouse, by democratic consent, then this play might be the kind of entertainment to light your day. It shows us how vulnerable are core values—like loyalty and dedication—in the face of the almighty buck and the historical inevitability. A world where naked self-interest makes the wheels go round, and the devil take the hindmost. And, though Wire and Cable is in Rhode Island, we’re watching the predatory tactics that helped destroy jobs in the dissatisfied Rust Belt.

In Bruni’s taut direction, the play is even better than the script, and that’s because his crackerjack cast has a sense of the pace of TV drama, say, The Good Wife. There are still speeches that fall a little short of crisp, and the second act has too many scenes and way too much speechifying, but this cast does all it can to sell it. And the set by Lee Savage makes it all feel real.

Bea (Karen Ziemba), Jorgenson (Edward James Hyland), Garfinkle (Jordan Lage) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Bea (Karen Ziemba), Jorgenson (Edward James Hyland), Garfinkle (Jordan Lage) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

As Garfinkle, Lage is no doubt way better-looking than Sterner envisioned—the script seems to call for a bit of a donut-popping schlub, maybe even with a bad toupe—but he plays the part with a kind of greased ease that recalls, at times, Pacino as Roy Cohn. Garfinkle is never quite that foul, but he tries. And he gets to comment, in a winning, “get a load of this” way, on the other team’s efforts to undermine his intentions (it’s almost like he’s hacking their strategy). Lage plays large, but there are lots of nice touches, as when he first takes in and sums up in a glance the proud but unpretty site and Jorgenson’s sentimental grasp of business.

Hyland is quite good as Jorgenson, giving the head man a very lived-in feel. He seems sort of doddering but can lead when his back’s to the wall. It’s clear that Sterner wants us to feel something more is at stake than a “seen better days” business, and Hyland makes us feel the heat of the man who watches what little legacy he had go under.

Kate (Liv Rooth) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Kate (Liv Rooth) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Best of all may be Rooth, who acts the hell out of Kate. It’s a role that requires considerable presence of mind as Kate plays the pressured go-between, trying to outsmart Garfinkle, while shamelessly flirting with him, and trying to get Jorgenson to fight for his life with strategy, even if it means going low when the other side goes low.

The scene where Kate gives the other three the what’s-what on how to survive—with “shark repellent” and “poison”—is a masterful riff on how the system can be worked to advantage. Typically, the good guys think of themselves as too good to think of even playing at bad. And then there’s the possibility that, good or not, some will sink the ship to save themselves.

Garfinkle (Jordan Lage), Coles (Steve Routman) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Garfinkle (Jordan Lage), Coles (Steve Routman) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Coles gets the first and last word, and Routman plays it with the clear sense of a man who never takes his eye off the balance sheet, managing to humanize the pro who supports a thing not because it’s right or better than another thing, but because he’s paid to. Ziemba’s Bea is the other side of the coin; she supports Jorgenson, not because he’s right, nor because she’s paid to, but because she loves him, giving a venerable veneer to the office romance.

Sterner draws the lines of attack and retaliate very carefully for all the characters and it’s a treat to see them treated to such well-crafted performances. Sure, it’s fun to spend other people’s money, and it’s also fun to spend time with Other People’s Money.

So, what d’ya think of that payoff?

Bea (Karen Ziemba), Jorgenson (Edward James Hyland) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Bea (Karen Ziemba), Jorgenson (Edward James Hyland) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

 

Other People’s Money
By Jerry Sterner
Directed by Marc Bruni

Set Design: Lee Savage; Costume Design: Anita Yavich; Lighting Design: David Lander; Sound Design: Brian Ronan; Production Stage Manager: Peter Wolf; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Casting by Calleri Casting; Assistant Director/Drama League Directing Fellow: Jesca Prudencio

Cast: Edward James Hyland; Jordan Lage; Liv Rooth; Steve Routman; Karen Ziemba

Long Wharf Theatre
November 23-December 18, 2016

Business Ethics, an Oxymoron?

Preview of Other People’s Money, Long Wharf Theatre

When I spoke to Steve Routman, who plays Coles in the Long Wharf’s upcoming production of Jerry Sterner’s Other People’s Money, the election hadn’t happened yet, but was impending. That fact colored somewhat our chat about the play, which features the efforts of a corporate raider, Larry “The Liquidator” Garfinkle, played by Jordan Lage (last at Long Wharf in Ride the Tiger), to buy up New England Wire and Cable. Garfinkel’s scheme conflicts with two other interested parties: the factory owner Jorgenson (Edward James Hyland) and Coles, the owner of the company. As Routman puts it, the three characters, “each selfish in their own way,” are “trying to navigate different possibilities of capitalism,” and that gives the show its main theme.

As Routman sees it, Jorgenson represents the past and a focus on a business model that was passing away when the play first appeared in the late 1980s; Coles, somewhat “judicious” in Routman’s view, is “considering the long term” and what kinds of economic opportunities will be available for future generations. Between the two, Garfinkle is a fast-and-loose conniver who lives in “the now,” trying to make a score to plump up his portfolio. In taking us back to the days when the ostensible president-elect was a hot young wheeler-dealer in real estate investment, the play “still feels current,” though some of its references “are ripped from the headlines” of the time. Garfinkle is “not Trump”—either then or now—Routman stresses, but we may see some similarities: the charisma, the misogyny, the emphasis on making money that all seems to go with the territory.

Steve Routman is a familiar face at Long Wharf. In my years covering plays there, he has added richly realized supporting roles to three shows, all directed by Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein. Probably Routman's most memorable role was as Cohen in Steve Martin’s The Underpants where he got to display his comic, slapstick abilities. In the Long Wharf’s updating of Our Town, he played Professor Willard, and, in The Second Mrs. Wilson, Routman brought a bristling irony to the role of Thomas Marshall, Wilson’s Vice President who found himself out of the loop when the president became ill.

Steve Routman as Thomas Marshall in The Second Mrs. Wilson (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Steve Routman as Thomas Marshall in The Second Mrs. Wilson (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Routman, a Connecticut resident, is “extremely grateful” to Edelstein for regularly finding roles for him to play. With a 4-year old child, Routman is glad not to have to spend long months away. He feels like “a member of the [Long Wharf] family. For the bulk of my career I played in regional theater all around the country,” but his first equity job, back in 1985, happened to be at Hartford Stage. So Connecticut, which “has more regional theater than most states,” has been good for him with many “likeable” roles and venues.

Since I tend to think of Routman in comic turns, as in The Underpants and to some extent The Second Mrs. Wilson, I asked about his preference in roles. He loves comedy and “the challenge of the technical aspect of comedy,” but is glad to have played a variety of roles to show his range, including Chekhov, and film and TV roles. He referred to the great opportunity for The Underpants, in moving from Long Wharf to a later run at Hartford Stage, to perfect its timing and staging. “It grew tremendously,” he said, as finding what's funny can require trial and error in front of audiences.

Steve Routman as Cohen in The Underpants (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Steve Routman as Cohen in The Underpants (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

While there is humor in Other People’s Money, Routman said, the actors and director Marc Bruni “are still finding it.” The play is “not pure drama, nor comedy.” It’s “darker than the movie” version, starring Danny DeVito, that came out in the 1980s. Though Routman hasn’t seen a production of the play, he was aware of it having “a regional life” in the early ‘90s, with its single set and strong five character cast—another key role is that of a female lawyer, Kate (Liv Rooth), who must decide how to meet the challenge of Garfinkle.

Coles’ appeal as a character, Routman said, is in his “complexity. He seems to have a good heart and wants the best, even while looking out for himself.” Routman sees him as “the voice of reason to some extent.” For Routman, much of what is at stake in the play is a question of values: The difference between business as a way of life that makes products of value, or as simply a way to “make a killing” in some market, then move on. With such a clash, Routman said, “there’s no way to not see today in this play,” and he “looks forward to seeing what the audience finds in it.”

With the country experiencing the change that comes from moving to a Republican administration after eight years of a Democratic president, it’s timely enough to revisit an earlier Republican era. Sterner, who died in 2001, wrote the play after seeing what happened to a company, whose stock he sold to a corporate raider, and to the surrounding community after the company was sold off and closed down.

Other People’s Money runs from November 23 to December 18, with a press opening on November 30. Tickets start at $29. www.longwharf.org

Long Wharf Theatre
Other People’s Money
By Jerry Sterner
Directed by Marc Bruni

A League of Their Own

Review of The Second Mrs. Wilson at Long Wharf Theatre

A play about loyalty, love, and deception should strike a few nerves, and when the story unfolds in what are often called “the corridors of power,” we have not just a story about how a couple weathers a storm, but about the fraught relation between public and private worlds. Joe DiPietro’s involving The Second Mrs. Wilson, directed by Gordon Edelstein at the Long Wharf, with a sumptuous set by Alexander Dodge and a stellar cast, lets us contemplate both a powerful romance and a unique historical situation.

Margaret Colin (Mrs. Galt) and John Glover (Woodrow Wilson)

Margaret Colin (Mrs. Galt) and John Glover (Woodrow Wilson)

When President Woodrow Wilson (John Glover), a widower, becomes sweet on Mrs. Edith Galt (Margaret Colin), a widowed lady of his acquaintance, the tongues of his advisers begin to wag and their visages to frown. Kept onstage throughout the play as a kind of an Old Boys’ Club version of a Greek chorus, Colonel Edward House (Harry Groener), Secretary Joe Tumulty (Fred Applegate) and Dr. Cary Grayson (Stephen Baker Turner) look on and trade misgivings about the lively romance we see unfolding between Glover’s Wilson, lathe-thin and boyish, and Colin’s Mrs. Galt, an engaging matron sincerely flattered at this new flame. DiPietro’s script keeps the flirtation within the bounds of propriety while flaunting the charms of a second chance for the middle-aged.

Harry Groener (Colonel House), Stephen Baker Turner (Dr. Grayson), Fred Applegate (Secretary Tumulty)

Harry Groener (Colonel House), Stephen Baker Turner (Dr. Grayson), Fred Applegate (Secretary Tumulty)

Early on, one of the best scenes features Mrs. Galt and House facing off on how a new bride could affect the president’s bid for a second term. In The Second Mrs. Wilson, dialogue is at its best when, as here, a game is afoot: who will best whom in the give and take of looking after Wilson’s interests and maintaining an interest in Wilson?

Mrs. Wilson (Margaret Colin) and Colonel House (Harry Groener)

Mrs. Wilson (Margaret Colin) and Colonel House (Harry Groener)

That note, once sounded, becomes the key note of the second act when Wilson, struck down by a crippling stroke at the end of Act One while hawking his League of Nations legislation across the country, comes fully under his wife and his doctor’s care—much to the consternation of his advisers, his Vice President Thomas Marshall (Steve Routman) and his staunchest opponent, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (Nick Wyman). The deception by which press and public and political interests are kept at bay seems rather astounding to our heavily surveyed times. As the weeks stretch into months, the brave front of Mrs. Wilson comes to seem as cut-off from political reality as her husband’s adamant upholding of “God’s will,” i.e., his plan for the League.

Mrs. Wilson (Margaret Colin) and President Wilson (John Glover)

Mrs. Wilson (Margaret Colin) and President Wilson (John Glover)

And that’s where The Second Mrs. Wilson becomes a starker and braver play than might be expected from what seems at first a romantic-historical melodrama with comic overtones. The first act gives us a play about the importance of a wife for Wilson and makes us see that, despite what her detractors think, Mrs. Wilson is equal to the task of being First Lady, a strong historical point.

But, once the president is incapacitated, the romantic elements move from the couple’s love to a romance with Wilson’s ideals as Mrs. Wilson struggles to keep her husband in power. For those who are not of Wilson’s party or, like his VP, are simply disliked by the president and his wife, exclusion from the inner circle becomes a study in frustration. Eventually we find ourselves looking on at the playing out of a folie à deux, one that, depending what one makes of a missive from House never opened, had considerable historical consequences.

Margaret Colin as Mrs. Edith Wilson

Margaret Colin as Mrs. Edith Wilson

The staging of the play at Long Wharf is exemplary. The thrust stage has been decorated with handsome wings where the “chorus” take a seat in comfort. A pool table adds the feeling of male camaraderie among the background players, while the striking touch of an ornate convex mirror seems to show us history in a glass.

President and Mrs. Wilson (John Glover, Margaret Colin)

President and Mrs. Wilson (John Glover, Margaret Colin)

Center stage is Colin’s Mrs. Wilson, by turns girlish, steely, clever, and never anything but loving toward her fallen hero. Glover’s Wilson is a defining role as well, played with winning brio—a labored delivery of a satirical limerick while partially paralyzed pretty much sums up the man’s character under duress. The president’s bonhomie is fully registered here, countering any sense of him as severe and stiff, and his almost fanatical pursuit of his grand ideal of the League, spurred by the horror of the Great War, becomes increasingly plaintive the more doomed.

President Wilson (John Glover) and adversary Henry Cabot Lodge (Nick Wyman)

President Wilson (John Glover) and adversary Henry Cabot Lodge (Nick Wyman)

As Cabot Lodge, Wyman has a brooding tenacity and the measured cadences of an old school politician, making hay while the sun shines. Applegate is steadfast as the pragmatic Tumulty, and Turner, as Dr. Grayson, suitably torn between the recovery he hopes for and the deterioration he fears. Two other standout roles: Routman as the wary VP who wants what’s best so long as he doesn’t have to run things and who bristles like any man kept waiting too long for an audience, and Groener as House; seen as a Judas by “the saint” Wilson feels on his way to becoming, House is conflicted by his great admiration for Wilson and by his sense of the political situation they are caught in. His admonition about Mrs. Galt, that it is political novices who take personal affront at matters of policy, becomes something of a hoist on his own petard, as his personal affront to Wilson’s policy-making loses him both friend and position.

Secretary Tumulty (Fred Applegate) and Vice President Marshall (Steve Routman)

Secretary Tumulty (Fred Applegate) and Vice President Marshall (Steve Routman)

Full of fine performances that unroll with well-paced precision, The Second Mrs. Wilson shows that the person closest to the one in power may also be said to be in power. A fact about First Ladies that has not been often enough acknowledged, perhaps. DiPietro and Edelstein should also be commended for not dressing the situation up in a post-feminist view of woman’s obvious equality, but hewing to the era’s sense of the personal prestige “a lady” could manipulate as, simply, not a man. Mrs. Wilson, we see, knows how to make the most of forbearance and how to turn her opponent’s skepticism into respect. Her great fault, in the end, may be her protective effort to keep her ailing husband from playing politics with the boys.

The Second Mrs. Wilson
By Joe DiPietro

Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Cast: Edith Wilson: Margaret Colin; President Woodrow Wilson: John Glover; Colonel Edward House: Harry Groener; Dr. Cary Grayson: Stephen Barker Turner; Secretary Joe Tumulty: Fred Applegate; Senator Henry Cabot Lodge: Nick Wyman; Vice President Thomas Marshall: Steve Routman; Attendants: Harvey Martin & Mark Heinisch

Set Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Linda Cho; Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind; Sund Design & Original Music: John Gromada; Wig & Makeup Design: Leah Lucas; Production Stage Manager: Peter Van Dyke; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern

Long Wharf Theatre
May 6-31, 2015

On the Town

Review of Our Town at Long Wharf Theatre

A lasting impression made by the current production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, directed by Gordon Edelstein, at the Long Wharf is the sheer size of the cast. With 21 speaking roles fleshed-out with at least 13 local extras, Edelstein marshals crowd scenes that indeed look like a town. This Our Town is based on the ideal of community as people who share a location and a way of life, such as those who have sustained the Long Wharf Theatre for 50 years in the same location.

As the Stage Manager, Myra Lucretia Taylor has the cadence of natural speech, and comes across like a friendly tour guide and a familiar presence—like a neighbor, in short. She’s proud of her town but she’s not blinded to its lack of excitement, nor is she apologetic. The tone of her narration and asides comes into focus when she states that a time capsule is being put together to be imbedded in a foundation, and says she wants a copy of “this play” to be included. The play we’re watching has the ambition to be “representative”—to tell, to the ages, what it was like, then and there. Early twentieth-century in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. But is that really still an “Anytown, U.S.A.”?

Perhaps not, but Edelstein’s decision to cast the play “color blind,” means that the demographic of Grover’s Corners has shifted rather radically from the all-white enclave Wilder doubtless envisioned. We might be surprised that, in the listing of local places of worship, there’s no mention of a synagogue, but that just goes to show how segregated by geography much of the U.S. was. Not so much now, and that’s what makes Our Town risk seeming more of a “quaint” history lesson than it should be. Notice how only “the Polish” are given their own “town” within Our Town—an immediate indication of where the play occurs within the waves of immigration to the States and migration to the north. Of course, all this is deliberate by Wilder who wants to depict Yankee rectitude and its long-standing ties to a place where, as we’re told, the indigenous population—Cotahatchee tribes—has long since disappeared, but for genetic material carried by “maybe three families.”

Ethnic diversity—this production makes clear—is something that we can’t help notice, whether as presence or absence, and that may be the strongest message in the Long Wharf’s Our Town. If we still want Grover’s Corners to represent us, as a generalized, idealized image of the U.S. small town, for that time capsule, then we have to alter Wilder’s vision willfully and adapt the image, and that’s what Edelstein’s production does. A truly “post-racial” U.S. won’t think of the couples before us on stage as “mixed.” We’re not there yet, and that’s one of the strongest arguments for Edelstein’s approach: his Our Town says something about where we, as a nation, were in Wilder’s time and where we are now.

And that is very much Wilder’s intention: to look at the local fauna sub specie aeternitatis, to see how the customs of any given time look pretty paltry when looked at from eternity. That’s a big call and the play’s wherewithal to do so is what keeps us in the grip of Our Town to the end. And we note the little touches that keep prodding us toward realizations about what is generally called “the human condition”—which, the Stage Manager would probably say, is just a grand way of saying “how folks live.” Her mention of scenery—“for those who feel there should be scenery”—highlights the stripped down nature of this make believe, so that we’re free to imagine the town, especially in the early going when the rhythms of the town’s “day in the life” are the main concern.

Later, there’s a wedding that looks like the kind of non-denominational ceremonies we meet with more often these days, and finally, in the most affecting segment, Act 3, the rendition of a graveyard subtly mirrors us—the audience—to ourselves. We’re all people in chairs staring straight ahead, very much inside the moment out of time Wilder’s play strives for. Death looks like a Town Hall meeting, and there’s a certain human comedy to seeing Joe Stoddard (James Andreassi) and Mateo Gomez (Sam Craig) as undertaker and mourner stumbling about among “the graves.” Wilder wants to show us how simple and likeable people are when trying to grasp the ungraspable. And it’s only in Act 3 that the play really becomes the story of Emily (Jenny Leona) whose awed grasp of what it means to be alive and to no longer be alive moves the play’s tone—as it must—beyond the tragic to the cosmic.

Along the way, there are many nicely done moments to enjoy: the gentle fun at the expense of the pedantic Professor Willard (Steve Routman) and Taylor’s curt nod when the Prof describes the racial make-up of the majority; the McMillan twins as what comes to seem the Crowells’ monopoly on paper delivery in the town; Don Sparks giving Doc Gibbs some Jimmy Stewart inflections, adding a touch of the Capraesque; Leon Addison Brown, as Editor Webb, fielding questions from the audience with the folkiness of a fireside chat; Linda Powell delivering Mrs. Gibbs’ unsentimental view from beyond the grave; Christina Rouner’s harried Mrs. Webb, who tells us rather breathlessly that she didn’t know how to prepare her daughter for her wedding night—something elders in the audience may still recall—and lets us know that weddings are horrible; Rey Lucas as George Gibbs, flashing a winning smile back at the Stage Manager after he woos Emily, having admitted he’d rather stay in Grover’s Corners for her sake than go off to college, and the well-played silent comedy before his uneasy chat with his soon-to-be father-in-law; Jenny Leona is a fresh and blonde Emily, the town’s golden girl whose tragedy—if you like—is that she hasn’t a thought to do anything, barely out of high school, but marry a teenage boy and add to the town’s population. Indeed, the mothers in the play—Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb—keep before us the almost endless domestic activity that was simply the way of things back before anyone had even invented the term “household drudgery.” Leona gives us an Emily sharper than George, who Lucas plays with much more charm than smarts, but who is smart enough to know he can’t do any better. Ethnic diversity may have come to Grover’s Corners; feminism still seems a long way off.

Wilder’s important breakthrough in Our Town is setting naturalistic action in a context that foregrounds the playacting, a technique—which the Long Wharf production keeps firmly in view—that should reveal to us how much of our own lives are just that. We are players who strut and fret upon the stage of our town, wherever that happens to be, just like the players in Our Town. If the point of theater is, as Hamlet says, to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature, then the Long Wharf’s Our Town fully achieves that purpose. You may leave the play wondering what you’ve done with your life.

 

Our Town By Thornton Wilder Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Set Design: Eugene Lee; Costume Design: Emily Rebholz; Lighting Design: James F. Ingalls; Sound Design/Composer: John Gromada; Production Stage Manager: Hope Rose Kelly; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Assistant Stage Manager: Michelle Lauren Tuite; Casting: Calleri Casting; Photos: T. Charles Erickson

Long Wharf Theatre October 8-November 2, 2014

Panting for Something

Whether or not Louise Maske is hot to trot, her unpremeditated exposure of her underpants—sometimes called, rather anachronistically here, “panties”—while out to view the King on parade sets off the comic shenanigans in The Underpants, famed comic Steve Martin’s adaptation of a 1911 play by Carl Sternheim. Louise, a fetching young woman married to Theo, doesn’t even know she’s repressed, but, due to a loose tie, her knickers drop to her ankles in public, exposing her to a certain kind of male attention lacking in her life before. She stoops—to take off the underpants—and conquers, sparking the riveted attention of a pair of bachelors: one, Frank Versati, a proudly unpublished poet ready to rhapsodize her into bed; the other, Benjamin Cohen, a nebbishy barber who wants to worship her underthings.

With the well-timed intrusions of Gertrude Deuter, the nosy upstairs neighbor playing the part of eager duenna, we’re given a farce where cuckolding the self-possessed and rather clueless bourgeois husband is a comic given. Or, almost. In the end, the play is about the elasticity of marriage rather than the elation of adultery: the men who show up, beckoned by a glimpse of bloomers, are no better than the callous father-figure husband who, after all, has set Louise up as a perfectly respectable middle-class Hausfrau.

The play’s situation is primarily an excuse for arch innuendo, for comic turns by a sparkling cast, for jibes at Germans and their notorious attitude toward Jews, and for the kind of situations that, in a Frenchman’s hands, would’ve resulted in spicier bedroom schtick. Martin throws in the occasional racy bit—mostly coming from Gertrude, an eager onlooker panting to live vicariously through her very beddable neighbor—and we do get to see lacy underpants that are less revealing than a pair of boxers. To the extent that there’s an idea behind it all, it seems to be that our objects of desire—those random occasions for our libidinal spikes and fetishistic fervor, some even quite famous—can be remarkably short-lived, whereas baby-making, when all’s done, is what the fuss is inevitably about. Family values—“a man’s got to take care of someone”—and all that. Martin, as the playbill points out, realized in writing his adaptation that the bourgeoisie are us—regardless of politics.

As Louise, Jenny Leona is perfect. She’s cute, lively, demure but not dumb, not easily cozened, but willing to stray. It’s a performance so natural you have to stop to think about how badly it might be done. What director Gordon Edelstein gets across is that this blonde bombshell can be both the “angel in the house” that stands behind her man, as well as the object of those looking for a “geile Hausfrau.” The men are another matter. All clearly no match for her, or for Gertrude’s sense of possibility, we get to laugh at all of them, and each for a different reason.

Jeff McCarthy as Theo Maske is overbearing in that oblivious manner of the manly male. His wife is one of the things in his possession, not really a partner. As played here, he’s not really despicable, nor really hopeless. He’s the man of the house and the man Louise married, for better or worse, as the saying goes, and she (and we) might be forgiven for thinking he might get better. To Frank, played with pompous self-regard by Burke Moses, Louise is a source of inspiration—his best scene is when he lights her fire only to rush off to pen some lines, inspired by a conquest he never consummates. Much of the really funny stuff falls to Steve Routman as “Cohen with a K,” who gets to present us with the caricature that might be nearest Martin’s heart, or maybe it’s just a tribute to the kind of schlemiel and ambivalent Jew—humming Wagner and wondering aloud how anyone who cites Herder or Schiller could ever be less than humane—that Woody Allen established himself playing early in his career.

Routman’s rubber-legged departure after swallowing a sleeping draught is great fun, as is his slide across stage on a pillow while clutching a mirror to see up his hostess’s dress. The other comic standout is Didi Conn’s Gertrude, playing up moments like fanning her pelvis with the refrigerator door—after Theo turns her on—or miming a husband “doing his job.” It’s a role that requires charm to avoid crudity, and Conn certainly charms the audience.

Indeed, charm is a large part of what makes the Long Wharf production work. Start with Lee Savage’s set, with the Old World charm of its kitchenette, its double-door perfect for well-timed entrances and exits, its stairs and settees begging for the kind of physical comedy Edelstein’s production showcases. Jess Goldstein’s costuming—including Louise’s stripped-for-fun period underclothing, a pair of German flag underpants, and Kaiser regalia—is bright and eye-catching, and the play’s timing mostly on point.

A bit understated, perhaps, The Underpants is a brisk and benign evening of fun. “That’s where the danger lies. Under,” opines Theo early in the play, certainly a worthy thought in the play’s Freudian era, but, despite gestures to Nietzsche and Einstein, The Underpants, though willing to catch its characters with their pants down, and even off, doesn’t give any character the wherewithal to get down to it.

 

The Underpants By Steve Martin Adapted from Carl Sternheim Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Set Design: Lee Savage; Costume Design: Jess Goldstein; Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel; Wig and Hair Design: Charles LaPointe; Fight Consultant: Tim Acito; Production Stage Manager: Melissa M. Spengler; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Hardy; Casting: Calleri Casting; Photographs: T. Charles Erickson

The Long Wharf Theatre October 16-November 10, 2013