Steve Scarpa

No Request Is Too Extreme

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

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

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

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

Walt Disney (J. Kevin Smith)

Walt Disney (J. Kevin Smith)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Regular Townies

Preview of Middletown, New Haven Theater Company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

April 27-29; May 4-6

The Proof is in the Play

Preview of Proof, New Haven Theater Company

Though the New Haven Theater Company has stretched themselves in a variety of directions over the years—including the musical Urinetown, the fantasy Shipwrecked!, and large cast American classics like Our Town and, this past winter, Bus Stop—their bread-and-butter shows are small cast, dialogue-driven plays by playwrights like David Mamet, Conor McPherson, or the company’s own resident playwright Drew Gray. Getting back to where they once belonged after the stretch of Bus Stop, NHTC opens David Auburn’s popular, Tony Award and Pulitzer-winning play Proof next week at their performance space at the English Building Markets.

Directed by Steve Scarpa, who last directed Our Town for the Company, Proof was first considered years ago as an apt NHTC vehicle but they weren’t able to secure the rights. Fittingly, with Scarpa as director and the cast comprised of Megan Keith Chenot, George Kulp, Christian Shaboo, and Deena Nicol-Blifford, the play could be called “classic NHTC”—all four were in Our Town and have been in numerous productions. This time around, Kulp—who directed Bus Stop and typically pulls down “the father figure” parts—will play Robert, a deceased math genius who had mental problems, with Chenot, last seen as the put-upon chanteuse in Bus Stop, playing his daughter Catherine, who inherited his math smarts and, possibly, his mental problems as well. Shaboo, who often gets the romantic leads and was last seen as the harried husband in Smudge last fall, plays Hal, Robert’s former student who is trying to sort out the great man’s papers, among which is a proof that could be game-changing. Nicol-Blifford, who directed Smudge and appeared in The Cult last spring, is the older daughter, Claire, distanced from both her father and sister.

The cast of Proof: Megan Keith Chenot, Christian Shaboo, Deena Nicol-Blifford, George Kulp

The cast of Proof: Megan Keith Chenot, Christian Shaboo, Deena Nicol-Blifford, George Kulp

Chenot feels the play is particularly suited to NHTC because “it’s about family and we’re family.” Scarpa agrees: “It feeds into what we do best—shows with good parts and high stakes. Auburn said he could’ve used anything as the father’s special area; he wanted it to be a solitary undertaking in which one could be brilliant but that also has its burdens, so math here can also be, to some degree, what it takes to be an artist.” Kulp agrees, the play is “about having a certain gift and what it means, a legacy that can be passed on so that children, perhaps, do better than their parents.” Chenot has done some research into the math to sound like she knows what she’s talking about as Catherine, a brilliant woman, but she also takes seriously Catherine’s fears that genius and madness are related, “as they sometimes are for creative artists.”

It’s also helpful, in regard to NHTC’s resources, that the play has one setting: the backyard of a run-down home, where upkeep isn’t the strong point. In Bus Stop, which sold out its run, the setting was a public space where many personal interactions were taking place; this time, it’s a private space, so that the show, Scarpa says, is “even more intimate.” The whole cast is enamored of Auburn’s writing and that, they point out, is what the company looks for first and foremost: “great scripts with a lot of range.”

“We’re about the truth of the story,” Scarpa says, and Kulp adds out that the art of storytelling is ultimately what keeps the Company, who all have other jobs and pursuits, coming back to the back room at the English Building. Kulp, who is an Equity actor, gave up some professional jobs to be involved in Proof, but that’s the attraction of working with familiar friends on pet projects in their own space.

Scarpa, who sees himself as “the enabler of the process” as director, aims to be as supportive as possible of his cast. He knew from the start that Chenot was “perfect for the role” of Catherine, though it couldn’t be more different from the not-too-brainy singer she put across in Bus Stop. This time, Chenot, who has taught theater in high school, will be relying on some of that teacherly poise. As with Bus Stop, though, the drama and the humor comes from people being themselves, in the kinds of interactions that can be intense one moment and more lighthearted the next.

A play about family, genius, madness, fear, rivalry, and with a love story too. To the entire company, all of whom are involved in choosing the plays, it was “uniformly obvious” that Proof is a real New Haven Theater Company kind of play. Need proof? See the show.

New Haven Theater Company is Megan Keith Chenot, Peter Chenot, Drew Gray, Erich Greene, George Kulp, Margaret Mann, Deena Nicol-Blifford, Steve Scarpa, Christian Shaboo, J. Kevin Smith, John Watson, Trevor Williams.

The New Haven Theater Company
Proof
By David Auburn
Directed by Steve Scarpa

The English Building Markets
839 Chapel Street, New Haven
May 5, 6, 7 & 12, 13, 14

Casting Doubt

Review of Doubt, New Haven Theater Company

John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, staged by the New Haven Theater Company, directed by George Kulp, is a play about suspicion, rather than “doubt,” and from that a lot follows. The famous play, set at a Catholic school in the Bronx, concerns a priest, Father Flynn (Steve Scarpa), a school principal, Sister Aloysius (Margaret Mann), and a school teacher, Sister James (Mallory Pellegrino), and the title might invite the idea that the play is about doubting one’s vocation within the clergy, or perhaps about faith in general. But Shanley wants to probe touchier topics than that. So he concocts a play in which a priest is suspected by a tough nun of molesting a young student, a black boy we never see. My doubts aren't about the characters but rather about the play.

Since the play was written and first staged after proof of priests’ sexual misconduct and molestation of their students became a scandal and an outrage, the “automatic” assumption for its audience is that Father Flynn, with his longer-than-usual fingernails and tendency to sugar his tea (he must be decadent!), has tried to seduce Donald Muller, a boy who Sister James observed acting “strange” after a private conference with Flynn. She also smelled wine on the boy’s breath.

“Doubt,” as a theme, comes in right there. Do we agree with the unflinching, unbending, humorless and ever-vigilant Sister Aloysius who is certain Flynn is—to use the term of the time of the play’s setting (1964), though the word is never used—a deviant? Or do we doubt it? That is the situation, and, as such, would seem to be a question of evidence rather than conscience. How do we make up our minds about behavior we have not observed? How do we read a person’s character? What do we use as evidence? Can we ever overcome “reasonable doubt”?

I have to confess that much of my doubt, with regard to Shanley’s play, comes from my sense that, in 1964, a nun of Sister Aloysius’s age would not be so likely to jump to such conclusions with such a flimsy pretext. What Shanley banks on is that his audience, in a very different time, won’t find a problem with the way she puts the scant evidence together, and he goes so far as to stack the deck further by providing the boy with a mother (Aleta Staton) all-too-willing to tell a principal and nun that her boy is “that way.” He's twelve years old!

But enough about my problems with what Shanley hath wrought in his Pulitzer and Tony winning play. What about the NHTC production? Since the play is dialogue-driven, with clearly marked situations, Kulp and his actors make the most of the straight-forward nature of the characters, with no attempt to slant us one way or another. Key to that neutral approach is Father Flynn. If he looks a bit guilty, if he acts a bit “questionable,” then we can decide accordingly.

Steve Scarpa as Father Flynn

Steve Scarpa as Father Flynn

Scarpa’s Flynn seems more outraged at insubordination and a nun’s meddling with his attempt to help a minority child, than he is at the allegations. Scarpa, in other words, plays Flynn “straight,” in all meanings of the term. He comes across as what his words suggest: a man who wants priests to be friends to their flocks rather than stern wardens. Would he give a boy wine to calm him? Possibly. Would he touch a boy in a manner that might be deemed (particularly by Sister Aloysius) too intimate—if only to wipe away the pain of the beatings given the boy by his dad? Possibly. Such possibilities float before us, and Shanley wants to use the politics of a later time when same-sex acts were no longer illegal as they were in 1964 to color our perception of the past. But Flynn's best line, that certainty is just an emotion, sounds a bit sophistic when offered in self-defense.

As Sister Aloysius, Mann is particularly well cast. She has a steely gaze able to scan the distance, looking upon the crash of civilization and all that is holy if students write with ballpoints rather than fountain pens or sing “Frosty the Snowman” at Christmas pageants. We have no doubt that, regardless of Shanley’s use of a topical theme, the good Sister would be doing her utmost to bring down her lax and condescending superior, if only because he represents a disturbing trend. She knows what’s best, and that’s that.

At the heart of Doubt—and that’s what makes it good theater—is the clash of wills. Mann’s Aloysius is the kind of quite correct Catholic that gives the others a bad name—and is happy to do so. But for her “evil” assumptions, Sister Aloysius is fully of her time, and not entirely unsympathetic. In her we hear the voice of every elder we’ve ever encountered who believes standards are declining. What's more, given that she truly believes what she assumes about Father Flynn, she must act.

Sister James is also well-conceived by Shanley. She’s the sweet, pretty nun, the kind whose very existence was being revolutionized by the Broadway smash (1959) and subsequent film, The Sound of Music (1965), so that being full of feeling and enthusiasm was deemed the best way to reach children raised with television. Aloysius is against all that, of course, and Pellegrino does a good job of getting across how Sister James’ meekness wars with her ambition. She wants to be a beloved teacher, but she doesn’t want to flaunt the edicts of her superior. Pellegrino’s very busy eyes say a lot when they’re avoiding all eye contact.

Margaret Mann (Sister Aloysius), Mallory Pellegrino (Sister James)

Margaret Mann (Sister Aloysius), Mallory Pellegrino (Sister James)

Doubt gets right the tensions within the hierarchy of power that make this battle one in which viewers might be tempted to break along gender lines, as priests and nuns follow different orders and the power of the priest is considerable. A telling moment is when Flynn, asked to come to Sister Aloysius' office, sits at her desk to preside over the meeting.

The role of Mrs. Muller, in her private conference with Sister Aloysius, is given a wise “I’ve heard it all before” reading by Aleta Staton, though I find the role as written a bit hard to grasp. What mother volunteers to someone like Sister Aloysius (and can anyone have doubts about her?) that her twelve-year-old son might “want to be caught” by a man like Father Flynn? None would, if she wants to keep the boy in the school. Maybe a mother a bit more dim or desperate might help sell Shanley’s improbable scene.

In the end, as “a parable,” Doubt wants to prod viewers to make up their own minds about the situation and its resolution. It could be said that neither Father Flynn nor Sister Aloysius gets the result desired. You may be pleased with the outcome, but I doubt it.

Doubt (a parable)
By John Patrick Shanley

Directed by George Kulp

Cast: Margaret Mann; Mallory Pellegrino; Steve Scarpa; Aleta Staton; Stage Manager: Erich Greene; Board Operator: Ally Kaechele

The New Haven Theater Company, March 5-7 & 12-14, 2015

The Seafarer is Coming

As Virginia Woolf knew, a room of one’s own is necessary for a writer, or indeed for any creative endeavor to flourish—say, a studio of one’s own for artists, performers, musicians. The New Haven Theater Company have learned that lesson too. Having a performance space they can count on and call their own—the open area at the back of the English Building Markets on Chapel—has made planning successive shows as a full season much easier and more secure. The troupe of thespians have already used the space for productions of Our Town, Shipwrecked!, Almost, Maine, and The Magician, an original play by NHTC member Drew Gray, and have recently announced three upcoming shows: The Seafarer, by Conor McPherson, Doubt: A Parable, by James Patrick Shanley, and a new Drew Gray play, The Cult. All three shows, interestingly enough, have to do with situations that test beliefs and all three take a metaphysical reality as a given. Tickets for The Seafarer are on sale, and the show will be staged two consecutive weekends in November. A popular play from 2006, The Seafarer is an actor’s show, as are the plays of David Mamet, which NHTC has done well by in the past. Five men play cards in a working-class northern suburb of Dublin, an ordinary occurrence, but what is at stake is extraordinary. NHTC had plans to stage the show earlier, back in their peripatetic days, and have waited for the right time to come back to it. As the show is set on Christmas eve and has occult features, the perfect time of year would seem to be the weeks between Halloween and Christmas.

A five-man play, the production will include most of the male actors who have directed for NHTC in the past. Deena Nicol-Bifford, who played in Almost, Maine, was approached by the guys to direct this time and says she found in the play themes, about fate and destiny, that drew her in. “The more we delved into the stuff, the more we found to work with—like religious iconography, Irish myth and lore.” Working with her fellow NHTC players is always a pleasure, and she quickly saw how the long-term friendships among the troupe aid a play like Seafarer, about kin and friends and drinking buddies who have known each other forever. A serious play with serious themes about the trials of friendship and the need to protect others—even from themselves—the dialogue can be very funny, as all these Irishmen like to put one another on a bit.

Relative newcomer to NHTC Jim Lones (who played in Our Town) plays the eldest among the foursome, Richard Harkin, who has recently gone blind due to a freak accident. His erring brother James “Sharky” (J. Kevin Smith, who played in NHTC productions of Our Town and Speed-the-Plow, and played Tony Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross) returns home to help his brother and finds that Richard likes taking out his frustrations on his younger brother. Also on hand is longtime friend Ivan Curry (Steve Scarpa, recently seen on the Long Wharf stage as a townsperson in Gordon Edelstein's production of Our Town, and who directed NHTC’s Our Town and also played in Almost, Maine and Speed-the-Plow), a kind of generally benign ne’er-do-well who recently lost his glasses and is suffering from myopia, and, arriving in the second act, their friend, the gadabout Nicky Giblin (Peter Chenot, who directed Shipwrecked! and had the main roles in Urinetown and Talk Radio and played Picasso in Picasso at the Lapin Agile), who just happens to have taken up with Sharky’s ex. But that’s not the main plot-point, rather it’s the fellow Nicky has brought along and invited to their card game: a stranger Nicky befriended while on the most recent leg of his drinking binge, a distinguished-looking gent called Mr. Lockhart (George Kulp, who has acted at Long Wharf in Macbeth 1969, directed Speed-the-Plow, and acted in Our Town and Urinetown).

Lockhart and Sharky have a history. Baggage in the form of a wager that took place 25 years ago in Bridewell Prison where Sharky’s winning a card game led to his release and a promise to play Lockhart again. Lockhart is back to make sure Sharky fulfills that promise. So while the others think it’s just a friendly game of cards, we know different.

The whole cast cites the “wonderful writing” as a main attraction of the play, but also feel that it is an “uplifting play, that makes you want to cheer in the end,” as Scarpa says. The cast is well-selected and when Chenot and Kulp enter drunk together in the second act, you may recall seeing them as steady drinkers together in last season’s The Magician. Indeed, Kulp seems to get the “distinguished gent” roles rather regularly, while Chenot can always be counted on to be somewhat brash and outgoing. To Smith often goes the thornier and weightier roles and Scarpa generally provides key support roles. That situation will change next time when Scarpa will play the conflicted and possibly guilty priest in Doubt, with Margaret Mann, who directed Almost, Maine and played Mrs. Soames in Our Town, and Mallory Pellegrino, who played Emily in Our Town, as his accusers. Kulp directs.

The Seafarer takes its title from an Old English poem in which the hazards that threaten our faith are figured as the trials of seafaring in winter and in which we are exhorted to oppose the devil. The play was nominated for a Tony as Best Play of 2006 in its premiere New York run and has been called by the New York Times, “a long night’s journey into day.” The NHTC says it’s “an uproariously funny, charming, and chilling play” and shows “that redemption can come from the most unlikely of places.”

For tickets and more information: NHTC

The New Haven Theater Company present The Seafarer By Conor McPherson Directed by Deena Nicol-Bifford

The NHTC Stage at The English Building Markets 839 Chapel Street

8 p.m., November 13-15 and 20-22

The New Haven Theater Company is: Megan Keith Chenot, Peter Chenot, Drew Gray, Erich Greene, George Kulp, Margaret Mann, Deena Nicol-Bifford, Mallory Pellegrino, Steve Scarpa, Christian Shaboo, J. Kevin Smith, and John Watson

Split Knuckle Theatre's Connecticut Debut at Long Wharf

An acclaimed theatrical group is relocating to New Haven. Split Knuckle Theatre, founded in London in 2005, will be performing their new show Endurance at the Long Wharf Theatre, June 17-29. According to Greg Webster, one of the founding members and a professor of Movement Theater at UConn in Storrs, the group was formed mainly by American students abroad in England at the London International School of Performing Arts in 2005. Their intention from the start was “to combine activity with complex ideas,” with all members of the troupe “rooted in acting as physical bodywork.” Webster likens the group to the same tradition as Rude Mechs of Texas, where theatrical space is part of the show, with unlikely objects and props put into service, as opposed to the kind of “kitchen naturalism” that is still the basis of most regional theater.

Endurance came about, Webster says, when the group was trying to come up with a new project and he found himself channel-surfing one night and stumbled on what he describes as an excellent BBC documentary on the Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton’s expedition to Antarctica in 1914. Somehow—let’s call it creative ferment—Webster’s impressions of the documentary got mixed with a dream in which an office worker was being attacked by a Xerox machine. Add to the mix the fact that the Split Knuckle show was being developed during the nose-diving economy of 2007-08, with such memorable events as the federal bail-out of AIG and Fannie and Freddie Mac, and you’ve got the makings of a show that treats reality in a rather cavalier fashion as it works between two settings at once: an office where Walter Spivey must rally his troops to survive the blood-letting taking place in a Hartford insurance firm, and the exploratory voyage of Shackleton who, with his ship, appropriately named Endurance, floundering in ice, must keep his crew alive and optimistic—for two years. For Webster, that’s the takeaway: as Shackleton himself said, “we must always remember that optimism is true moral courage.” The play attempts to bring that insight to bear on the everyday workplace to show that it’s true of any endeavor; not only death-defying situations, but wherever the task is to “weather the crisis.”

Webster says that the play moves with the speed of something like The 39 Steps, and all the shifts in scene are done with a collection of objects used as props to suggest the different settings. Trained in the influential methods of Jacques Lecoq, a master of physical theater, Split Knuckle has played in 19 different countries and, though Webster lives now in New Haven and the troupe has become based here, this is its first time staging a show in CT. At a conference trade show, Long Wharf’s PR man Steve Scarpa took an interest in the Split Knuckle’s presentation and went to Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein and Associate Artistic Director Eric Ting, with the result that the show has been brought home, so to speak.

Webster says the name “split knuckle” came from a literal split knuckle he endured during a period when his frustration with theater—don’t get him started on open calls—caused him to punch a door and injure his hand. Out of that frustration came the desire to work with actors who would be in control of the entire venture, rather than lining up at 5 a.m. for “cattle calls” with a host of others all matching the same character description. Rehearsal for the group, Webster says, is “fooling around” to find what works, and likens the troupe’s dynamic to being in a jazz ensemble, albeit one in which every musician can play, potentially, every instrument. The intention is always “organic collaboration” with no “methodology of hierarchy” where one voice dominates or overrides others. Once the piece has evolved into its form, it’s fixed and “runs like a clock, precise and beautiful.” Though it may still appear somewhat improvisational to an audience seeing it for the first time, it has, by then, already shown itself sea-worthy.

Why Shackleton, an explorer often forgotten by history buffs who tend to remember the heroic stories of someone like Scott who lost his entire expedition? For Webster, Shackleton is important because he gave up on his goal of reaching the pole in 1909 when it became clear he couldn’t achieve it without the loss of life. Other explorers were willing to suffer casualties to achieve success; Shackleton’s “no man left behind” ethos might well be a kind of heroism more meaningful in a time when the wounds of employee attrition are still smarting.

Split Knuckle Theatre’s Endurance promises an evening of lively, physically inventive, and entertaining theater, bridging different times and situations—each dire in its own way—to explore the inspiring themes of survival and sacrifice.

 

Split Knuckle Theatre Endurance

Devised by Jason Bohon, Andrew Grusetskie, Michael Toomey, and Greg Webster, with Nick Ryan, collaborating writer; Ken Clark, musical composition; Dan Rousseau, lighting; Carmen Torres, stage manager

The Long Wharf Theatre Stage II June 17-29

New Haven Maine-stays

The New Haven Theater Company’s production of Almost, Maine makes a virtue of its minimalist set to create a kind of fantasy space where all the action takes place. That’s fitting because Almost, Maine almost takes place in a real place, but John Cariani’s script likes to interject little fabulistic touches that let characters be symptoms as much as people. Which is a way of saying that the point of each of the nine vignettes that comprise the play is that love makes everything different. We might think we’re normal people in normal situations, but when love gets involved, magical or bizarre or at least unusual things happen, and the way we talk about what we’re going through has to make use of metaphors and imagery. So if Glory (Jenny Schuck) is carrying a broken heart, or a man (Erich Greene) has been reduced by the loss of hope, well, Cariani’s play is going to treat such things literally. Which means you may be like Phil (Steve Scarpa) and Marci (Anna Klein), who have come to the end of their relationship—waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The NHTC has the knack of playing things with a straight-forward gusto that lets us in on the joke while also being as forthright as these characters need to be. It’s fun to watch pratfalls of emotion (fall in love, get it?) overtake two beer-drinking buddies, Randy (Peter Chenot) and Lendall (Christian Shaboo) because the guy-ness of these guys is so vivid. It’s fun to watch Steve, a guy who can’t feel pain (Scarpa) get hit with an ironing board by someone else’s wife (Deena Nicol) who has just the right air of annoyed woman doing laundry on a Friday night. Scarpa takes a page from Dustin Hoffman’s autistic fellow in Rain Man to make us feel both sympathy and amusement.

And that’s the key note of the evening. Every one of these characters is suffering in some way—I particularly liked Chenot as Jimmy, the sad sack behind a wall of downed Buds who cheerily confronts Sandrine (Anna Klein) who ditched him months ago and is now on the way back to her bachelorette party (ouch!)—and yet the comedy is always there too. So whether it’s a couple (Mallory Pellegrino and Christian Shaboo) whose bags full of love seem rather wildly disproportionate or two snow-sports friends (Jenny Schuck and Peter Chenot) who suddenly discover there are such things as indoors sports, there is usually an outcome that seems for the best.

Directors Megan Chenot and Margaret Mann should be happy with the pacing of their evening, and the Chenots’ incidental music adds very appropriate touches to backgrounds and transitions—I particularly liked the banjo that adds a jauntiness to the proceedings. Nothing goes on too long, though some scenes are more developed than others—Scarpa and Klein’s scene felt the most real—and not all the scenes end with love triumphant: Greene’s Man gets the most biting lines in the play about how leaving someone with just a little hope can be like stealing their oxygen bit by bit, and Deena Nichol dragging a wheelie suitcase away while saying “yes, yes” stabs as well.

NHTC have found another dialogue-driven entertainment that showcases their grasp of regular folks in irregular circumstances—a strength of their Our Town as well. Added to the regulars of the company are newcomers who add a lot, replacing some who have left our town for other horizons.

Almost, Maine plays again tonight at 8 p.m. and next Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the English Building Markets on Chapel Street.

Almost, Maine Written by John Cariani Directed by Megan Chenot and Margaret Mann

Peter Chenot, Erich Greene, Anna Klein, Deena Nicol, Mallory Pellegrino, Steve Scarpa, Christian Shaboo, Jenny Schuck

Original music written and performed by Megan and Peter Chenot Technical production: George Kulp and Drew Gray

New Haven Theater Company at English Building Markets 839 Chapel Street

The Changing Same

Like more than a few of us, I suspect, I had never seen a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. It’s one of those classic texts that it’s easy to be pretty sure we know all about without bothering to see it. I do recall reading it aloud, round-robin style, in English class in 11th grade. A budding literary sophisticate, I scorned much of it, and I can still remember my main objections: its normative assumptions about what makes for “regular folks” in the good ol’ U.S. of A. seemed to me not only dated but insufferably corny. If you went to school any time after 1964, it was simply too hard to accept a town that’s all-white, and where the “other” is signified by Polish Catholics across the train tracks. Sure, the actual setting of the play is the end of the 19th century to the eve of World War I (and it was first produced in the era of fascist sympathies pre-WWII), and Wilder is quite aware that the world he is depicting was already history. Still, for any child of the Sixties, the play was simply too retrograde, its fond evocation of how parents repeat themselves in offspring just, y’know, Squaresville, man. And that’s one of the things about Our Town—it tends to, and is intended to, inspire thoughts about how time passes and about the changes and the sames of ye olde status quo. There’s a priceless moment where the elderly presider over the local soda fountain reminisces about how it was once possible for a dog to take a nap in the middle of Main Street in the middle of the afternoon, undisturbed. Ah, the good old days—now there’s horses and carriages everywhere and even those encroaching horseless carriages! While no one in a contemporary audience would remember anything like that, we all have similar recollections that date us. Who still remembers milk delivered to the door? Newspapers routes? Wilder wrote the play not to preserve the past, conservatively, but to show that whatever we know as “normal” is going to go the way of all flesh right into the graveyard, eventually.

Which is a way of saying: Don’t judge a play by its first Act. Sure, Our Town starts homey enough to fit squarely in some kind of Will Rogers-type recollection about what life was like when everyone in town knew everyone else’s ancestors, but by the end it has let in the space of the beyond. Back before outer space was the answer to our striving beyond the quotidian earth, it was possible to let “eternity” be the common Unknown looming over us all, and Wilder does a good job of bringing the time beyond time into the play—by making it just as homely and familiar, but with a key difference. The dead know what we don’t know, and what they know reveals at last what has been implicit all along: the perspective of the Stage Manager is “from beyond the grave”—like poets and saints, seeing the length of an individual human life as the speck in the span of the ages that it is.

The New Haven Theater Company’s production, directed by Steven Scarpa, in a spare playing space in a big, high-ceiling room at the English Building Market, its set consisting of two groups of three chairs and a quartet of black monoliths that look like pillars holding up the sky and like monuments to the dead, gives us a straight-forward rendering of Wilder’s script that lets us appreciate how much specificity there is in the play’s seemingly generic approach. Grover’s Mill is a town with an identity, and it's great the way the NHTC production lets us imagine the town the way the play wants us to.

Helping greatly with that task is our Stage Manager (Megan Chenot). Rather than the usual benign old codger who is supposed to keep us apprized of the whos and whats of the town, Chenot has the fresh forthrightness of those tour guides you might see leading a bunch of prospectives, their families, and random shutterbugs around Yale’s campus. She’s got the skinny on everything and delivers it all with the kind of amused forbearance we expect from grade school teachers. It’s like the whole town is her “class” (us too) and she wants to lead them along the path to greater knowledge, no matter how painful it may be. Chenot creates a very warming, reassuring effect, and that helps, particularly as there’s likely to be much sniffling and wiping of eyes by the time Act Three ends.

Other reflection on this well-cast show—special mention of the perfect match of Mallory Pellegrino for the role of Emily Webb. The heart of the play comes in Act Two when Emily and George Gibbs, the boy next-door, finally realize what their lives have been leading to. Pellegrino shows just the right mix of bashfulness and smart-girl knowingness not only to win over George—the town’s top athlete, bound for agricultural college—but everyone else as well. It’s a moment that seems so sincere and intimate it justifies everything the Stage Manager is trying to show us.

Other fine touches from this familiar ensemble: Margaret Mann’s comic turns as a professor eager to take us back to the Pleistocene in explaining the town’s interest, and as everyone’s maiden aunt in the wedding scene, gushing with the kind of fulsomeness that makes cliché both comical and real; Christian Shaboo, as George, seems young enough to be as unselfconscious as George is; George Kulp and Susan Kulp play the Webbs with a familiarity that seems as if we’re actually in their home, and the awkward, prenuptial visit of George to his future father-in-law is comic, and almost lets in lots of things best left unsaid; as Doc Gibbs and his wife, J. Kevin Smith and Deena Nicol have a more weary hominess than the Webbs—with the Doctor having to make housecalls (who remembers that ancient custom?), and his wife fantasizing about a trip to Paris as though it were on the other side of the earth; the families’ breakdown at the graveyard feels genuine rather than stagey, a big plus; Peter Chenot, as deliveryman-about-town Howie Newsome, is as real as the imaginary (to us) carthorse he leads around.

Perhaps the most forward-looking aspect of Wilder’s play is when George and Emily, in their respective bedrooms in their respective parents’ next-door houses, try to set up a means of surreptitious communication, if only to study together. Do we need look any further for an early version of the urge to text and share files? And when the Stage Manager comments on the fact that most people end their lives married, it’s a rather obvious reflection that—in these parts, anyway—more people than ever, even those who eschew heterosexual coupling, have that opportunity.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, I reckon.

 

Our Town By Thornton Wilder Directed by Steven Scarpa Produced by George Kulp Production Design by Drew Gray Stage Management by Mary Tedford

Cast (in order of appearance): Megan Chenot; J. Kevin Smith; Sam Taubl; Peter Chenot; Deena Nicol; Susan Kulp; Christian Shaboo; Josie Kulp; Spenser Long; Mallory Pellegrino: Margaret Mann; George Kulp; Donna E. Glen; Erich Greene; Jim Lones; Rick Beebe; Jesse Jo Toth

English Building Market 839 Chapel Street

2013, September 19, 20, 21; 26, 27, 28 8 p.m.

We're All Townies

As Steve Scarpa, of the New Haven Theater Company, sees it, Thornton Wilder is “our own.” And if that’s so, his town is our town. That play, one of the truly iconic American plays, is the latest project of the NHTC. Scarpa, who directed the play before in Shelton, finds himself now, five years later, reflecting on how the play’s big theme is the “idea of memory.” And, on that note, it’s worth remembering that Wilder is buried in his family plot in Mt. Carmel Cemetery, marked only by a little plaque, that he graduated from Yale in the class of 1920, that he lived for several decades in our environs (Hamden), and that he was a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and that his classic play, which treats American small-town life sub specie aeternitatis, is, this year, 75 years old.

That’s kind of hard to believe, since the play, in some ways, seems like it should date back much further—to the Twenties, at least, even to the previous century—but, in fact, Our Town represents ideas that Wilder was picking up from that era—the period of late Modernism—including the style of Gertrude Stein’s cubist masterpiece The Making of Americans, and the meditation on the changing same that is James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, then known as “Work in Progress.” Wilder was an early enthusiast of Joyce’s work and penned an essay about it. The idea of evoking a place—for Joyce, Dublin, for Wilder, Grover’s Corner, New Hampshire—through a historied sense of time is a common feature that shows the modernist influence in Wilder’s best-known work.

In staging the play, Scarpa finds himself more than ever aware of how New Haven, where he was born, has changed in his own lifetime, making Our Town’s sense of both a place’s permanence and impermanence very much a hometown concern. As Scarpa sees it, Wilder’s play is about a place that could be any place, but that doesn’t make the town a generic Anytown, U.S.A. Rather it’s a universal place, and reminds us that, no matter where we hail from, we remember a place through a particular sense of time.

For the New Haven Theater Company, that sense of time and place is also important. The close-knit group has lived and worked together for some time now—more than one married couple can be found in the cast, and, in the case of the Kulps, their daughter is also involved. That means the generational sense so important to the play is not only thematic, it’s also an element of the company. That feature of NHTC is important to Scarpa, for, though this production does include non-members who auditioned for parts, the company’s ensemble sensibility—that sense of short-hand between actors who know each other well—makes his job easier and more fun. Fun that extends to the audience—many the friends, families, and co-workers of the NHTC actors, in their regular lives—who can look forward to seeing who so-and-so is this time.

One interesting element of the casting: The Stage Manager—the part Wilder himself played and which is perhaps best known as a vehicle for Hal Holbrook—will be played by a woman: Megan Chenot. Scarpa finds that the change in gender gives the play a different tone—more engaging and personable—but that it also makes the Stage Manager’s managing of Emily’s marriage a more nuanced occasion. The play, Scarpa stresses, isn’t as sentimental as maybe our own memories—many of us read it or saw it produced in high school—make it out to be, and that means adapting the play to our time may well be in order.

Scarpa hit upon the idea of doing the play while researching Wilder’s papers in the Beinecke for an article about New Haven turning 150. That piece provoked another, in the Arts Paper, about Wilder, and the idea of re-staging the play came from there. The New Haven Theater Company tends to be a shape-shifting affair without a permanent performing space, and finding the right spot can be a chore. This time they’ve been able to use a big, empty room at the back of English Building Market, next to the Institute Library, on Chapel Street, a location that is not only a bit of New Haven history but which, by virtue of the antiques and heirlooms it sells, offers a serendipitous step into memories of other times.

Drew Gray, relative new-comer to NHTC, is responsible for transforming the room into a stage-set. Gray expected an easy task as the play famously asks for “no design” and is meant to be a theatrical space, such as would be found in any real theater. Not being in a theater, per se, means “something needs to be there,” Gray says, and he hit upon the idea of musical notes. Music is directly referenced in the play, such as the hymn “Blessed Be the Tie that Binds,” and Gray set out to create “abstract shapes to sculpt the space” so as to recall music.

Gray has also incorporated ideas he first encountered in Super Studio, a conceptual design studio in the 1970s. Their idea of “life without objects” is one that Gray finds serviceable in his design concept where most of the setting takes place in the mind, not in actual furniture and props. He has introduced two ten-foot columns or pillars to break up the space and, with changes in lighting, create shadows for effect. It’s a case of making “the scenery disappear into the scenery” Gray says, and that sounds high concept enough to serve both the modernism of Wilder’s vision as well as its timeless sense of classical civilization.

Both Scarpa and Gray stress that Wilder was about more than just making a feel-good paean to Americana. The play, Scarpa says, is “both funnier and sadder” than many viewers might expect, and that the NHTC’s effort is to “make something beautiful” that will live up to Wilder’s intention to add America’s “moral, decent” values to what Wilder saw as the long march through history to civilized behavior.

Given that Wilder first staged the play 75 years ago—in 1938—with the world on the bring of World War II, it’s worthwhile to reflect on how far along we are on that march, now.

Our Town by Thornton Wilder Directed by Steve Scarpa

English Building Market, 839 Chapel Street September 19, 20, 21, 26, 27, 28 8 p.m.

Theater News: Keeping Company

The New Haven Theater Company has built up a local reputation for their staging of economic and effective productions of well-known plays—Urinetown, in 2012, is still a high-point, as well as some grab-ya-by-yer-lapels Mamet plays like Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow, not to mention slices of vintage Americana like Waiting for Lefty. Rarely, it seems, do they show off brand new plays. But tonight, thanks to newish member Drew Gray, a product of Bard College, key players in the NHTC family—George Kulp, Peter Chenot, Megan Chenot, Steve Scarpa, Hallie Martenson—will give staged readings of two brand-new plays written by Gray and being work-shopped by NHTC for eventual production. The reading is free, open to all, and takes place at The Luck & Levity Brewshop at 118 Court Street at 8 p.m., preceded by a reception at 7:30.

The new full-length play is “The Magician,” about a less-than-stellar magician on the less-than-five-star Vegas circuit. It’s after another lackluster performance and Mark Wonderton is shooting the shit with his manager Ronnie when he receives news that, as they say, "changes everything," leading to a new performance ethic that might just knock ’em dead. Billed as being akin to “two Mamet characters stuck in a Beckett play,” “The Magician” sounds like the kind of pithy little confrontational drama NHTC can really rock.

The play is paired with a short called “A Tall Hill… …A Warm Day,” in which a somewhat sad-sack character mourns a lost love, a sort of poetic coming to terms with the one that got away.

Both plays will have brief talk-backs with the playwright.

And, in case you’re worried that NHTC will shun their task of giving us grassroots theatrical evenings of American classics, how’s Our Town in the fall strike you? Thornton Wilder’s text has bedeviled many a high school English class to say nothing of all the high school stages it has graced with its winsome, wholesome charm. And yet. Wilder was something of a modernist who did things like read Finnegans Wake in his free time (or “Work in Progress,” as it was known then), so maybe NHTC will bring out the avant-gardey hi-jinx rather than the cuddly Grandpop Walton aura. Wilder attended Yale and ended his days in Hamden, and the play is 75 years young this year. All good reasons—coupled with NHTC’s way of doing this kind of thing, as directed by Steve Scarpa, who directed Clifford Odets’ Lefty in the midst of the OWS winter—to roast this chestnut yet again.

What Vegetable Are You? or, I Have No Idea Who Killed Sister George.

Last night I had a hot date. My friend M, who I don't get to hang out with very often, asked me if I'd like to accompany her to see The Killing of Sister George, now opened at the newly-renovated Long Wharf Theatre. I am not a theater person, but, on the other hand, I am not one to turn down the offer of a night away from my four year old, so I said, "Sure!"

I wasn't fully aware of it at the time I accepted her offer, but this show is a big deal for Long Wharf for many reasons, the most glitzy being, the play is directed by, and stars, world-famous hot tomato Kathleen Turner.

M and I got to Long Wharf and it turned out that the comp tickets we thought would be awaiting us were not awaiting us. It's a long story, and not that interesting. But we were not alone: many others in the same boat also didn't get in. So, the theatre staff, clearly feeling like schmucks, and feeling bad for everyone, offered us all tickets for another performance. The staff was actually really nice, and very apologetic to us. We got our consolation prize tickets and then, of course ,the question was: Well, if we're not seeing the play, what the hell do we do now?

This question was settled by our running into Steve Scarpa. I know Steve a little: we've wasted quite a few hours chatting about nothing in particular, either standing on the street, or at the Institute Library. I think he was rather surprised to see me at the theatre: he knows I'm not that kind of girl, generally speaking. I explained that I was really M's date, just along for the ride. He said he was really sorry we hadn't been able to see the show, and urged us to have a drink and stay for the after-party. M and I considered our options (many and varied, of course -- there is no shortage of places where we could have gone to have a drink; or, we could have just called it a night and gone home, but that'd be dull). The consensus was: What the hell, we'll stick around. So, she (with her complimentary wine) and I (with my complimentary bourbon) sat down in the lobby and had a good old-fashioned chinwag, of the type we only get to have two or three times a year. It was, really, so nice to sit and talk. And in a pretty glitzy setting, without loud music blaring: not bad at all.

At the after-party, where there were tables of food awaiting us, M and I wound up in conversation with my fellow New Haven Review contributor Donald Brown (who is, of course, a real theater buff; his presence at the play was not at all surprising). Among the topics we discussed was vegetables, because we were trying to assure someone near us that the thing she was about to eat was, yes, a piece of fried eggplant -- she seemed concerned that it might be... something else. (No idea what.) The practical aspects  of vegetables taken care of, we moved on to more important questions -- specifically, one, which was: If you were a vegetable, what vegetable would you be? This is an awesome parlor game, by the way. M swears that years ago, she and my husband and I played this game together and that he said I was, no question, an artichoke. I don't remember this at all but I accept it easily. We decided that being an eggplant probably would be a mixed bag, since they absorb so much grease (a bad thing), but that, on the upside, they adapt to so many flavors so well.

We were wondering whether or not Donald was an ear of corn -- concluding, in the end, that he might well be  -- when Kathleen Turner arrived in the room.

It bears repeating that Ms. Turner is a hot tomato, but in light of our conversation of the moment, M reconsidered and said that she was maybe more of a red pepper. I concede that this is possible. A red pepper is one thing raw, but another thing entirely -- smokier, sexier -- when roasted. We watched Ms. Turner charm her fried-mushroom-eating and spinach-stuffed-bread-eating audience, and finally worked up our nerve to go over to her and shake her hand. We considered asking her What vegetable are you? but decided not to: Too Barbara Walters, we agreed. In the end we simply said it was nice to meet her. She was gracious and spoke to us briefly in her strange raspy voice.

But then: what else was left for us to do? Not much. What do you do once you've shaken hands with Kathleen Turner?

We said goodnight to Donald and headed out. As luck would have it, Ms. Turner did the same thing, and so we had the pleasure of watching her make her way to her car. We didn't follow them closely enough that I could tell you "and we tailed them all the way to Turner's hotel, and then we went upstairs and killed a bottle of whiskey with her -- good times. We picked up a Veggie Bomb pizza from Modern, too, because, you know, when in New Haven..." No, we're not that interesting. M drove me home, and then she drove herself home, and that was that.

A night at the theater when you don't get to see the play should be a frustrating night. Anyone would guess that. But M and I, we had a hell of a good time.

Manic Mamet

The Yale Cabaret is unexpectedly dark this weekend, so what’s a fan of New Haven theater to do? Answer: go see The New Haven Theater Company’s production of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, delivered in quick and dirty fashion by director George Kulp at UpCrown Creative Studios on Crown Street. The play builds upon triads to create a dilemma: three characters, three scenes, and a choice: which of two films to “green light.” For recently promoted movie producer Bobby Gould (J. Kevin Smith, anxiously expansive), it’s not simply a choice about which film would do better or make more money, it’s also a choice about loyalties, about love and lust, about—yes, even in Hollywood—responsibility. The situation also carries implications of sexual politics and office politics. With the Petraeus scandal currently running amok in the press, the NHTC has yet again pulled out of its hat a play that speaks to its moment.

Of the two films, one is a sure-fire blockbuster—a buddy prison picture that would be a vehicle for Doug Brown, a big-name star—while the other is a do-gooder: a film about “the end of the world” through a nuclear disaster (think: The Morning After). The first film is pitched by Charlie Fox (Steve Scarpa, aggressive and fast-talking).  Sweaty and dying for a coffee, Charlie is a friend and colleague of Bobby’s from way back, who now is poised to deliver the coup that will make them both rich men and set them on to bigger and better things. The Brown film is the proverbial pot of gold the rainbow’s end always promised.

When Charlie enters, Bobby is giving a “courtesy read” to the nuclear disaster novel and scorning it. The idea of making it into a film is poised to be a joke until. . . . Male sexual one-upmanship rears it head when the two men bet on Bobby’s ability to seduce his pretty, temporary secretary, Karen (Megan Keith Chenot, lithe and blithe), who seems to know nothing about the film business and not much about being a secretary. Seemingly guileless, in other words. And, in Charlie’s view, not slutty enough to sleep with Bobby “just because,” and also not ambitious enough to sleep with him just to get ahead. So, the wager: if Bobby can get her into bed, it will have to be on the basis of his own charms.

The play’s middle scene, then, is the seduction scene at Bobby’s place, and the final scene is the fall-out, so to speak, on the morning after (10 a.m., time for the do-or-die meeting with Ross, the man upstairs whose OK is needed for the Doug Brown project). Bobby is only going to pitch one film and his new “change of heart” (if we can call it that) is leaning toward the disaster picture. What about friendship?

The strength of this production is that it moves at a fast and furious pace—Scarp and Smith are gangbusters at delivering the rapid-fire speech Mamet is famous for, talking over each other, responding to cues before the other has finished speaking. The technique creates a believable social friction between two colleagues, also friends, who know each other’s moves and are happy to be on the same page. Things slow down a bit with Karen, who at first, seen through the men’s eyes, seems like the kind of prize that goes with being newly made kings. Chenot plays Karen with detached intelligence: she doesn’t fawn over the men nor try to entice, but in the scene at Bobby’s place, all comfy on the couch, we see that her matter-of-factness about the quid pro quo seduction surprises Bobby, who still thinks you have to use subterfuge in these matters.

It’s the sort of thing you don’t expect to find in Mamet: the scene is almost sweet and is gently comical. It also shows how easily the manipulator becomes the manipulated. Karen, you see, believes passionately in the nuclear disaster picture, called The Bridge. And that passion, now shared suddenly by Bobby, becomes the bridge between them.  This part of the play would benefit from Smith switching gears a little more to convince us Bobby is convinced.

The play’s outcome can be read various ways, and one of the demands of Speed-the-Plow is that the production has to decide which way it’s going to go. Are we meant to side with Charlie or with Karen? Which film is in the “best interests” of Bobby, and what exactly are those interests and when should personal interest in a project be set aside for some other criteria, more neutral or more noble, as the case may be?

Is The Bridge part of a temptation best set aside, or is it the path to salvation?

Kulp's direction goes for the pragmatism of the play, which makes sense since it's hard to see a moral high-ground in Mamet's vision. The final scene climaxes with gripping precision: Scarpa explodes without making a mess and Smith manages to salvage Bobby’s dignity even as we see that he has ceased being his own man.

This is entertaining Mamet, and the NHTC keeps its eye on the ball throughout, delivering a speedy Speed-the-Plow.  It goes by fast, and you might have to lean forward a little to catch it all.

The play shows for two more nights, three performances: Friday, 7 p.m.; Saturday, 4 & 7 p.m.

Speed-the-Plow By David Mamet Directed by George Kulp Produced by Drew Gray

Stage Manager: Erich Greene; Lighting Technician: Tom DeChello

New Haven Theater Company at UpCrown Creative Studios 216 Crown Street, New Haven

November 14, 16, 17, 2012

Mamet Revisited

STP Postcard

Next Wednesday, November 14, The New Haven Theater Company kicks off its four show run of David Mamet’s edgy and entertaining play, Speed-the-Plow.  The director, George Kulp, and two of the three cast members were involved in the troupe’s production of the playwright’s Glengarry Glen Ross in 2010.  It’s good to see a return to Mamet as his dialogue-driven dramas bring out the strengths of the Company, letting them show off their ability with close ensemble work.  The key to good Mamet is pacing, and Kulp feels that his actors—J. Kevin Smith as Bobby Gould, a recently risen movie studio bigwig, Steve Scarpa as Charlie Fox, a lower-level associate but friend of long-standing, certain that he has a property that will be his big break, and Megan Keith Chenot as Karen, a temporary secretary new to the world of movie-making who might represent other values, or who might be a hustling go-getter—are finding new and interesting aspects of the play.

The NHTC’s recent productions have offered a certain degree of timeliness in this uncertain era of economic downturn.  I remember seeing their Glengarry Glen Ross on a night when the stock market hit a new low and the desperation of real estate salesmen in the play could easily extend to Wall Street traders.  Smith played the loquacious Ricky Roma, Scarpa was Williamson the less-than-savvy office manager, and Kulp played Shelly “Machine” Levine, the hinge for much of the pathos in the play.  All three actors were also involved in Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty, which Scarpa directed with a relevant sense of solidarity and struggle at a time when there were OWS tents on the New Haven Green.  Then came their big production of Urinetown, the musical by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, a show with a theme of straitened circumstances and the tensions between haves and have-nots.  Kulp played Caldwell B. Cladwell, the resident big-wig, and Chenot played his daughter, Hope, who falls in love with Bobby Strong, a rabble rouser.  Scarpa played Officer Barrell, a bullying cop who had more than a buddy’s affection for his partner Officer Lockstock.

Scarpa, a big fan of Mamet, initially proposed that the group tackle another of the playwright’s works, known for their bristling dialogue, earthy vocabulary, fast, overlapping exchanges and arresting non sequiturs.  Kulp offered to direct when he saw that Scarpa and Smith and Chenot were perfect for the roles.  “It’s great when we can find a play that matches us and what we do,” Kulp said, “I think people who have seen Kevin, Steve, and Megan in other plays will be impressed to see them stretch themselves as actors, as they do in this play.  I’m very honored to be working with them.”

The play will be staged at Upcrown on Crown Street, a new space for NHTC, but one with, Kulp says, an upscale classiness that makes it suitable for the slick office of a Hollywood movie producer.  Because NHTC doesn’t have a permanent theatrical space and makes do with what’s available, or what best suits (as in their staging of Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio at Ultra Radio station on College Street), plays like Mamet’s, which don’t demand elaborate sets and can be produced almost anywhere, are ideal.

What might the play—which Kulp describes as a drama about one’s priorities and the decisions that make one question one’s loyalties—have to say to us following so closely on the heels of a major election?  The idea that someone might have second thoughts about a sure way to make money, in favor of a goal more worthwhile, could have some relevance.  Though Kulp and company are doing the play in the present day, Speed-the-Plow initially appeared in the Eighties, at a time when Hollywood was in search of bigger and bigger blockbusters.  One of the plot points is that Gould asks Karen to read a novel about the end of the world and then report on it—at his place. It’s a seduction ploy on his part, but he ends up swayed by her enthusiasm for the project.  Certainly, today, apocalyptic film scenarios are a dime-a-dozen and we might have reasons to question Karen’s sincerity; then again, the real concern isn’t the topics of the films pitched by Charlie and Karen, but rather the stakes of the “old boy” camaraderie between Bobby and Charlie and the more intangible and probably less enduring sex appeal between Bobby and Karen.  Still, at a time when more women are directors and producers and in politics than was the case in the Eighties, it will be interesting to see how Mamet’s power struggle plays out. What carries the day, in the end?  What, if anything, is Gould committed to?

The New Haven Theater Company is back, and they’re doing Mamet.  God speed the play.

David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow Directed by George Kulp

Upcrown Creative Studios 216 Crown Street, 2nd Floor November 14 & 16 at 7 p.m. November 17 at 4 p.m. &  7 p.m.

For tickets and info visit: New Haven Theater Company

Power To The Peeple

Prognosticators sometimes write about the future threat of world-wide drought.  But how often does anyone speculate about the fate of private toilet facilities in such a world?  Urinetown, Book and Lyrics by Greg Kotis, Music and Lyrics by Mark Hollmann, dramatizes, in comic, cartoonish fashion, that very situation.  In the world it depicts, human waste elimination is permitted only in public facilities, run by a ruthless corporation, UGC, and everyone must pay for the privilege to pee.  Then along comes trouble, trouble with a capital T and that rhymes with P and that stands for . . . pee. As staged by the New Haven Theater Company in their performance space on Court Street, the Tony-Award-winning Urinetown is lively grassroots theater, a showcase that allows the entire company—expanded with some new recruits to achieve a cast of 17—to show off singing voices and dance moves and comic timing we didn’t even know they had.  The company has always shown a strong propensity for ensemble work, but what they’ve achieved this time may surprise—and should certainly delight—their audience.

The musical itself, which has been popular since its Off-Broadway debut in 2001, around the time of 9/11, isn’t just romantic silliness, as so many musicals are, but has points to score, in rather broad fashion, against unsustainable lifestyles, corporate malfeasance, political chicanery, greed, totalitarian laws, and even the limits of heroism.  In other words, it’s a play that, like NHTC’s Waiting for Lefty last winter, has the kind of timeliness that should only add to its popularity.

Another strength of the play itself is its ability to provide songs that have immediate access as “show tunes.”  Hollmann and Kotis have created a great pastiche, recalling any number of other musicals and commenting upon the very business of musical theater, and of self-conscious, avant-garde touches, through the use of one of those stock narrators (Jeremy Funke) familiar from such small-time theater chestnuts as Our Town.  (Indeed, the title “Urinetown” could be taken as a play on the latter title: from our town, to your town, to “your in town”—a play on the identity of Urinetown as a place).  Funke, as Officer Lockstock (of course his partner, played by producer Steve Scarpa, is named Officer Barrel), keeps us apprised of the storyline, often interacting with Little Sally (Hilary Brown), a forthright young thing dutifully collecting coins to pay for a pee, and often questioning the underlying logic of the production.

Some stand-out bits: the performance of “It’s a Privilege to Pee” by Off-Broadway veteran Sabrina Kershaw, as Penelope Pennywise, the no-nonsense enforcer of regulations about urination; the songs introducing us to the Bad Guy Big Wig, Mr. Caldwell B. Cladwell (George Kulp, exuding the greasy charm one expects from small-town potentates, and not above a little hoofing), and “Cop Song,” giving us the viewpoint of the Law with fast-paced choreography;

the song in which our hero, Bobby Strong (Peter Chenot), a civic servant at Public Amenity #9, develops a conscience, finding himself smitten with Cladwell’s winsome daughter Hope (Megan Keith Chenot, also musical director) who tells him “Follow Your Heart,” and the song in which Bobby gives hope to the poor (before literally giving Hope to the poor): “Look at the Sky,” a rousing paean to peeing freely; and my favorite number, “Don’t Be the Bunny,” in which Cladwell and his staff (including very watchable comic turns by Ralph Buonocore, as Mr. McQueen—the name says it all—and Josie Kulp as Miss Millennium) spell out how to crush the rabble.

In Act II, the rebellion that closes out the first Act risks violent confrontation; Bobby rallies the rabble with “Run, Freedom, Run!”,

a jaunty gospel-tinged song that sounded to me like it would’ve been right at home in one of those old Elvis movies, and there’s also a touching number (“Tell Her I Love Her”) due to some bad news.  Without spoiling the ending, I’ll just say that another strength of Urinetown is that it has the courage of its convictions, avoiding the kind of neat happy ending that is the trademark of most musicals in favor of something much darker.  Suffice to say, just because you’re pissed off, doesn’t mean you have a plan. 

The guys do fine—Chenot, Kulp, Funke, Erich Greene, all manage to belt their songs with enough force to overcome the fact that acoustics are not the space’s strong suit—but the real treat is listening to the ladies—Kershaw, Chenot, Brown, all able to give great uplift to their musical numbers.

Special mention as well to the indispensable musicians who make the spare arrangements work—the whole score is played on drums and keyboard by David Keith (drums) of Mission O and The Chrissy Gardner Band and Jeremy Hutchins (keyboard) of the Eastern Connecticut Symphony and St. John’s Church.

Urinetown tells the tale—with songs, clowning, and speeches—of a world reduced to dire restrictions.  NHTC, under director Hallie Martenson, has created a stripped-down, bare bones production that matches the show’s singing and dancing on the edge of the apocalypse feel.  Like a latter day Moses, Bobby Strong says, “let my people go,” but the right to relieve oneself at will comes with a price.  For all its silliness, Urinetown has a lot on its mind, and NHTC’s production does the show proud.

The folks of NHTC choose shows well to show off their strengths, but with Urinetown they show that their strengths are greater than imagined.  Go, while you still can: four more shows: May 16-19, 8 p.m.

www.newhaventheatercompany.com

New Haven Theater Company presents

Urinetown: The Musical Book and Lyrics by Greg Kotis; Music and Lyrics by Mark Hollmann Directed by Hallie Martenson

May 11-19, 2012

Sticking to the Union

Ever since the scope of our “great economic downturn” became clear, comparisons of the late-aughts and the Thirties’ Great Depression have been common.  And, with all those tents decorating the New Haven Green since the fall, it’s also clear that things aren’t improving in any hurry.  What better time—before we meet on the barricades—to stage a classic of the American stage that makes heroes of the underemployed, the unemployed, the working poor, and “the little guy” of all varieties?  Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty (1935) was a hit in its day because its simple message struck a nerve—it dramatized the situation effectively: on the Right, the owners; on the Left, the Unions, supposedly for the working-class, but often corrupt, existing simply to support an intermediate level of bosses between the workers and the owners.  And, beyond the impasse of those “two parties,” the radical solution: in Odets’ day, the Communists, or the radical Left; in our day, the radical Right. It wouldn’t be hard to rewrite some of Lefty to make it even more pertinent to our times, but the production staged by The New Haven Theater Company, directed by Steve Scarpa, is faithful to the text.  As Scarpa points out, his production even adds a scene that was cut by Odets in later versions of the play.  It involves on out-of-work actor trying to talk his way into a stage role; he’s rejected by the fractious producer, but is given a saving grace by the bigwig’s benign secretary: The Communist Manifesto, comrade.

Viewers today may wish there were some easily issued solution that would solve all our problems, and find themselves nostalgic for a time when the formula seemed graspable: read a book, change the world.  In any case, it’s hard not to hear the characters who advocate a strike—the play’s vignettes are framed by a workers’ meeting—as voicing some version of today’s “occupy” movement, and it’s hard not to hear the excuses of the bosses as the same kind of lame rhetoric that always begs best intentions while scraping off the underclass.  The dramatic vignettes of the downtrodden (aka, the 99%) (which includes a surgeon for the poor fired because she’s Jewish—we can reflect that at least the medical profession has learned to look out for itself since Odets’ day!)—are mostly soap opera-ish, but that’s where Odets’ gift lay: he was able to translate the problems of the day into brief emotive exchanges anyone not well-off can relate to, and which almost anyone can act: the couple arguing over rent and food; the technician being asked to do some corporate spying to get ahead; the minority professional getting the axe; the applicant desperate for work facing a brush-off; the young couple who can’t get started in life because they simply don’t have the skills or job prospects needed.  Meanwhile, back at the union meeting, things get ugly, with strike-breakers in their midst, then turn violent.

In the vignettes, the scenes between a man and woman have the most skill: Joe (Brian Willetts) and his wife Edna (Hallie Martenson) establish early the emotional center of the play: these are desperate times and these are ordinary people, grasping at straws: Lefty will help change things; Florrie (Hilary Brown) and Sid (Peter Chenot) are the young couple having to part due to economic constraints, but not before they share a well-played scene involving romantic comedy elements and a sense of thwarted hopes.

The real fire of the play takes place in the meeting with Fatt the Union Leader (George Kulp—he also has fun as Mr. Grady, the theater producer worrying about his dog) attempting to silence the speakers trying to incite action: Joe (Willetts), Keller (Scarpa), and Phillips (Christian Shaboo), who denounces his own brother (Erich Greene) when the latter tries to break the strike.

Special mention also goes to Ben Michalak who covers the scene changes with songs of the times, played on guitar and banjo, giving us the voice of dissent in sing-along form.

Odets’ message: “Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.”  Have times really changed?

Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty Directed by Steve Scarpa The New Haven Theater Company March 1-3, 2012

118 Court Street New Haven, CT nhtcboxoffice@gmail.com