TheaterWorks

Get In The Act: The Fall Theater Scene in Connecticut

Preview: Fall Theater Season, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short and Sweet

Review of Girlfriend, TheaterWorks

At 80some minutes, Girlfriend, the newish musical at TheaterWorks, directed by Rob Ruggiero, is short, and, with the music from Nebraska-born musical artist Matthew Sweet featured, it is certainly Sweet. The play, by Todd Almond, is indeed sweet as its boy meets boy story set in Alliance, Nebraska, 1993—while it has drama—is mostly easygoing. The two characters are Will (David Merino), a gay senior in high school, and Mike (CJ Pawlilowski), a still closeted senior. Mike’s opening overture to Will is the gesture of giving him a tape of Matthew Sweet’s LP, Girlfriend (released 1991). The duo’s story is set to Sweet songs mostly from that album.

If this sounds to you like a rather thin Book—take a bunch of songs and construct a story to accompany them—then you and I agree. Unlike some instances of rock we might imagine, Sweet’s songs have the strength of being unprovocative. They can be somewhat propulsive, like the title song, and somewhat lyrical, like “Your Sweet Voice,” and one or two—“Winona,” “Evangeline”—have interesting lyrics. The live band playing them at the back of the stage—Evan Zavada, conductor, keys, vocals; Billy Bivona, guitar 1; Julia Packer, guitar 2, vocals; Adam Clark, bass, vocals; Elliot Wallace, drums—can be as fun to watch as the play’s action.

Will (David Merino), Mike (CJ Pawlikowski) and the band in Girlfriends, directed by Rob Ruggiero, at TheaterWorks, photos courtesy of TheaterWorks

Will (David Merino), Mike (CJ Pawlikowski) and the band in Girlfriends, directed by Rob Ruggiero, at TheaterWorks, photos courtesy of TheaterWorks

The story is comprised of very static scenes: Will in his bedroom with his boombox; Mike in his with his more imposing all-in-one stereo; the friends sitting in Mike’s car at a drive-in, watching the same film—about a superhero alien whose alter-ego is a nun named Evangeline—night after night. Eventually (spoiler alert!) they do get to Mike’s bedroom while his somewhat domineering father is away (we never meet him, but he seems to be pressuring Mike into maintaining relations with his girlfriend, whom we also never see).

The play insists on being a two-hander so any schoolmates who might sneer at this budding romance never show up. Any threat to the status quo that this same-sex couple poses must be imagined (mostly rude stares from the other guys on the baseball team Mike plays on). All of which is deliberate. This romance isn’t about overcoming parental disapproval (which certainly factors in for all sorts of couples for all sorts of reasons) or about overcoming peer pressure (ditto), but about whether or not Mike really loves Will.

Will (David Merino)

Will (David Merino)

Will, who is played with disarming, outgoing cheer and charm by Merino, is clearly the girl in this relationship. He sits at home waiting to be asked out; when he is, he always goes. His passivity might be seen as comic, or pathetic. Here, it just is. The implication is that, as a gay boy in a predominantly hetero culture, he has to take what he can get. What he gets is Mike’s vacillations. Is giving music to someone a sexual overture? Depends. Is going to the drive-in together an invitation to make-out? Depends. What the play mostly explores is the gray area of that “depends.” Will lets us know he’s up for it but not enough to make a first move. As Mike, Pawlikowski plays obtuse well. The guy acts like leading Will on is the last thing on his mind, though of course it’s the first thing on Will’s. Whether or not Mike can admit that or not is really the only question here.

It’s all coy and almost-not-quite closeted. We’re waiting for a big breakup or big breakthrough. Things don’t get nasty, but they do get a little more complicated: Mike is off to college; Will, apparently, can’t think of anything better to do than stay in this Nebraskan town some 300 miles from the university in Lincoln. Was this all just an experiment for Mike before moving on?

Mike (CJ Pawlikowski)

Mike (CJ Pawlikowski)

Almond’s approach to dialogue is to stick with the demotic. These guys need those songs because they have nothing much to say. The best dialogue is Will trying gently to suggest that the movie isn’t all that good. Indeed, we might easily believe Mike is actually straight since he has so little of interest to say. Will, whatever he may feel for Mike, is clearly slumming.

The opening weekend matinee I saw featured an audience comprised mostly of people who might well have grandchildren the ages of these characters. They seemed warmly touched by the romance. The play might strike with a bit more force played for an audience closer to the boys’ ages. In fact, that would be the perfect audience for this play—and, I suppose, fans of Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend. The band do the songs justice, Merino and Pawlikowski have suitable singing voices, and the sound design, by Joshua D. Reid, is perfectly adapted to the Wadsworth’s auditorium.

Will (David Merino), MIke (CJ Pawlikowski) and the band

Will (David Merino), MIke (CJ Pawlikowski) and the band

 

Girlfriend
Book by Todd Almond
Music & Lyrics by Matthew Sweet
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Music Direction by Evan Zavada

Set Design: Brian Prather; Costume Design: Blair Gulledge; Lighting Design: Rob Denton; Sound Design: Joshua D. Reid; Hair: John McGarvey; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

Cast: David Merino; CJ Pawlikowski

Band: Evan Zavada, conductor, keys, vocals; Billy Bivona, guitar 1; Julia Packer, guitar 2, vocals; Adam Clark, bass, vocals; Elliot Wallace, drums

 

TheaterWorks
At the Wadsworth
March 22 to April 28, 2019

Look Who's Back

Review of A Doll’s House, Part 2, TheaterWorks

Lucas Hnath’s popular revisiting of one of Henrik Ibsen’s best-known plays—A Doll’s House—receives two productions in Connecticut this season. First up, it’s at TheaterWorks, directed by Jenn Thompson, through February 24, and as the season closer at Long Wharf in May (the two productions are not related).

Alexander Hodge’s set for A Doll’s House, Part 2, at TheaterWorks (photos courtesy of TheaterWorks)

Alexander Hodge’s set for A Doll’s House, Part 2, at TheaterWorks (photos courtesy of TheaterWorks)

On the intimate stage at TheaterWorks, on a set by Alexander Hodge that combines Ibsen-era furnishings with a modernist design of neon frames, a series of encounters that mark the return of the former Mrs. Nora Helmer (Tasha Lawrence) to the home she walked out of—so defiantly, memorably, and, one thought, irrevocably—are front and center. The force of the knock upon the door that opens the play relies on our grasp of how final that very door’s slam, back in the 1870s, had been. What follows brings to light all that was never said between the Helmers before, and much that serves to fill in the blanks of what has happened since Nora’s last appearance in the house.

The knock is answered by the housemaid Anne Marie (Amelia White), shocked and surprised to see her old mistress, and the way the two navigate the great gaps in what they know of each other gets us off to a vivid start. Nora, who is dressed expensively in Alejo Vietti’s period costume, has much to pride herself on. She is a success—an author of novels for a dedicated female readership. When she treats Anne Marie to a quick précis of how her books attempt to blow the lid off the inequities of marriage, we’re glad of the housemaid’s subtly caustic responses. Nora has become rather pedantic, and it’s up to Anne Marie to express our lack of amazement in her views. White turns in a finely modulated performance: as the first character to use the profanity so automatic in our day, she deftly takes up a contemporary view that feels earned—and armed against Nora’s rhetoric.

Nora (Tasha Lawrence), Anne Marie (Ameila White)

Nora (Tasha Lawrence), Anne Marie (Ameila White)

The question that would nag at an audience of Ibsen’s day (and ours)—what of the children?—shows up almost automatically as we listen to Nora justify her moves and her total remove from the lives of her two sons and a daughter, an infant when Nora left. Nora doesn’t want to make their acquaintance and wouldn’t be paying this visit at all but for a major complication. Though freed of the tasks of motherhood and the duties of a wife, Nora has recently found out to her dismay that she is still legally married to Torvald. This makes her guilty of fraud, to say nothing of being liable to charges of moral turpitude, for having conducted herself as a single woman all these years. When Anne Marie rebukes Nora for the fact that it fell to her to be the caregiver to her absent mistress’s children, we glimpse the class element in Nora’s privilege, a factor that doesn’t always surface in more celebratory receptions of Nora’s act of abandonment.

The tension between the satisfactions of Nora’s rebellious act, in the original, and her status as a matter-of-fact business woman trying to get on with her career, in the sequel, lands as a look askance at how far she still has not gotten. That aspect of Hnath’s script plays believably as sequel, as Torvald (Sam Gregory), when we meet him, is as completely self-absorbed as ever. Gregory gets in a few nicely deadpan non-reactions to the new Nora, and, by the end, there is a grudging kind of rapport. That’s the note that resonates longest after the play ends; like a fulfillment of how children might wish their separated parents would find closure.

Emmy (Kira Player), Nora (Tasha Lawrence)

Emmy (Kira Player), Nora (Tasha Lawrence)

Which brings us to the Helmer’s child, Emmy, featured in the play, in Kira Player’s strong performance, as a very self-possessed and decisive young woman, much more so, we should see, than Nora was at her age. And yet what Emmy is determined to do is marry, as if in contempt of all her mother has learned and achieved. While not quite a battle of wills, there is a sense that the two women are facing off over a vision of what fulfillment means and how to attain it. The subterfuges proposed on how Emmy might aid her mother in getting around her father (Torvald has no interest in giving Nora a divorce) give us more a sense of strategy than of character.

There’s an odd tension between Hnath’s script and the naturalistic style of Thompson’s direction. The script’s rhythms, one senses, could be delivered without so deliberate a sense of a plausible social space somewhere between Ibsen’s time and ours. Any awkwardness in that overlay should be intentional but in the TheaterWorks production significantly abrasive tones rarely surface. Not even Torvald entering with a gushing head wound upsets the even-handed mise en scène.

Nora (Tasha Lawrence), Torvald (Sam Gregory)

Nora (Tasha Lawrence), Torvald (Sam Gregory)

Tasha Lawrence plays Nora as a strong-willed woman with scant sympathy for what others might expect of her. She has struggled to attain her self-possession, so that relinquishing it for a more emotionally needy version of herself is not in the cards. Lawrence sheds tears only once, late in the play, and the brief loss of composure is telling. Nora has realized she’s freer than she had imagined, that—in the manner of a modern woman of the 21st century—she must make her way without the sentimental attachments that still cling to her in the Helmer household. The fact that Torvald, after all this time, is finally able to accept her departure doesn’t arrive as quite the heavy-handed moral it might have. Gregory does fine work as a man who, almost too old to care, can still be amazed by the way a woman—and that his wife—can shake him. Their closing dialogue is the best part of the play, which at times can feel like a scene trying to stretch itself into a full-length play.

An interesting revisiting of familiar territory, Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 is never as striking or illuminating as one might like. It seems at times to run a checklist of possible complications while making sure its heroine’s heroism is never compromised by anything like regret.

 

A Doll’s House, Part 2
By Lucas Hnath
Directed by Jenn Thompson

Set Design: Alexander Hodge; Costume Design: Alejo Vietti; Lighting Design: Philip Rosenberg; Sound Design: Broken Chord; Wig Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Assistant Director: Eric Ort; Associate Set Design: Ann Beyersdorfer; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

Cast: Sam Gregory, Tasha Lawrence, Kira Player, Amelia White

TheaterWorks
January 17-February 24, 2019

Beat Those Christmas Blues

Review of Christmas on the Rocks, TheaterWorks

What are some of your favorite memories of the Christmas holidays? If the list includes such things as the black boot of Santa waving in the face of a young boy before he plummets down a slide at a department store North Pole, or a cartoon boy with a blanket intoning words about the true meaning of Christmas, or the beleaguered manager of a Saving and Loan fixing to jump off a bridge into icy waters, or a sickly boy enlivened by “the pudding singing in the copper,” or a young girl accosted by giant mice, or a cartoon snowman cavorting as the “baddest belly-whopper in the business,” or a distraught young reindeer facing cruel taunts due to his beaming nose, then TheaterWorks has the show for you.

With Christmas on the Rocks, director Rob Ruggiero has brought together different playwrights to create dialogues for characters from Christmas classics. This year, the list entails A Christmas Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, A Christmas Carol, and A Charlie Brown Christmas. For many of us, Christmas has taken its tone from such entertainments for as long as we can remember. So, we might ask ourselves, how would those familiar characters experience Christmas now, in 2018?

The show’s title “on the rocks” is apropos. Not only have the holidays become rocky terrain—which they pretty much were even in the original stories—but the entire action of the play takes place in a cozy little corner bar, presided over by Tom Bloom as the bartender. If the setting and the pace of featured character actor skits doesn’t bring to your mind Art Carney as the barkeep on the Jackie Gleason Show, then you’re probably younger than I am. The shtick is familiar, the exchanges between each guest and the barkeep anything but.

The jokes tend to assume familiarity with the shows from which these characters originate, which is fair enough. Playing off to the side on big screens, before the play starts, is a loop of clips from the requisite features to help jog your memory, should that be necessary. Each respective playwright takes the material and runs with it, adding absurdist humor, many a knowing chuckle, and some outright hilarity. There’s also a touch of the Christmas blues throughout so that the show caters to those of us who find Christmas—in its commercial insistence—a bit too incessant.

The Bartender (Tom Bloom), Ralph (Randy Harrrison) in TheaterWorks’ Christmas on the Rocks

The Bartender (Tom Bloom), Ralph (Randy Harrrison) in TheaterWorks’ Christmas on the Rocks

This year, the effervescent Randy Harrison—of the TV show Queer as Folk—plays all the male guests, while Jenn Harris—a talented comedienne who puts me in mind of the irrepressible Ruth Buzzi—plays the females. John Cariani’s “All Grown Up” starts things off with the Ralphie facing the fact that he’s a fictional character everyone knows thanks to “the movie.” Because the story of Ralph is so richly told in the original, there’s plenty to work with. Harrison is a believable grown-up Ralphie, getting laughs from his true feelings about that bunny suit.

Zuzu (Jenn Harris)

Zuzu (Jenn Harris)

The part of Zuzu in It’s a Wonderful Life has less to offer, but Jacques Lamarre rises to the occasion with “A Miserable Life” which lets us see the grown Zuzu, forever haunted by those damn bells that signal an angel getting wings. Her paranoia, in Harris’ hands, is quite funny in a quirky way. Harris really comes into her own with “My Name is KAREN!” which she co-wrote with Matthew Wilkes. Karen, you might not remember, is the little girl who accompanies Frosty through his life and death adventures in the Rankin/Bass cartoon. Here, she has become an online celebrity of sorts, taking the followers of her video postings on a retributive journey that includes tying up the hapless bartender with Christmas lights. She’s a memorably psychotic rendering of the Christmas spirit, complete with screen projections from her cell phone, which she speaks to as an audience and trusted confidante. Then, as the girl from the Nutcracker ballet, Harris turns in a frenetic performance in Edwin Sánchez’s “Still Nuts About Him,” complete with comic Russian accent, some not so chaste moves, and a great deadpan.

The Bartender (Tom Bloom), and Clara (Jenn Harris)

The Bartender (Tom Bloom), and Clara (Jenn Harris)

Harris’ best role is as the put-upon dentist Hermie from Rankin/Bass’s stop-motion puppet production of the Rudolph story, adapted from the famous song. In Jeffrey Hatcher’s “Say It Glows,” the character of Hermie, a bit awkward and whiny in the original show, hasn’t changed much. But he is much more “out” than he was as a kid, understandably, and that’s the main takeaway: that wanting to be a dentist wasn’t the only reason Hermie was a “misfit,” and Harris does this queerer version of Hermie proud, complete with a “Tooth Fairy” T-shirt. Here, growing up and coming of age seems an improvement rather than a downer. It does get better.

The Bartender (Tom Bloom), Hermie (Randy Harrison)

The Bartender (Tom Bloom), Hermie (Randy Harrison)

Something maybe not so true for the grown-up Tiny Tim, who Harris plays like a Cockney who might once have joined a punk band. In Theresa Rebeck’s “God Bless Us Every One,” Tim is down on the whole Christmas bit, seeing Ebenezer as an old gent who cracked and went about handing out money recklessly. Here, the dialogue with the bartender proves the most meaningful. Often, he’s merely a genial looker-on at someone who briefly takes over the place, but with Tiny Tim he gets to debate the merits of the Scrooge story, which shows, yet again, that Dickens is a hard man to beat when it comes to Christmas.

The Bartender (Tom Bloom), Tiny Tim (Randy Harrison)

The Bartender (Tom Bloom), Tiny Tim (Randy Harrison)

The Charlie Brown segment—“Merry Christmas, Blockhead,” by Jacques Lamarre—is something of an anticlimax, if only because a soured Charlie Brown seems less suitable than the other transformations, and being married to Lucy a bit of a stretch. His unexpected encounter with a special someone gives us a romantic close, a nice way to end, but with less of the edginess that sustained the more offbeat laughs.

A fun shot of cheer—with some of the bite of holiday hangovers from yesteryear—Christmas on the Rocks, like the shows it recalls, is the stuff of a collective fantasy that’s been dancing in our heads like sugarplums at least since “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Love Christmas or dread it, this show has a place in your holiday traditions.

 

Christmas on the Rocks
An Offbeat Collection of Twisted Holiday Tales by
John Cariani
Jenn Harris & Matthew Wilkas
Jeffrey Hatcher
Jacques Lamarre
Theresa Rebeck
Edwin Sánchez
Conceived and Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Set Design: Michael Schweikardt; Costume Design: Alejo Vietti; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Sound Design: Michael Miceli; Wig Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

Cast: Tom Bloom, Jenn Harris, Randy Harrison

TheaterWorks
November 27-December 23, 2018

To the Fishing Cabin

Review of The River, TheaterWorks

Sigmund Freud called it “repetition compulsion,” the psychological condition of having to repeat a traumatic event. It may involve revisiting the place where the event occurred, or trying to recreate a situation through specific actions. A popular depiction of the condition can be seen in Alfred Hitchcock’s highly praised film Vertigo. That film might come to mind when watching Jez Butterworth’s fascinating and mysterious play The River, now playing at TheaterWorks, directed by Rob Ruggiero.

The setting—a fishing cabin “on the cliffs, above the river” in some out-of-the-way English dell—finds a suitable rustic charm in Brian Prather’s handsome set. It’s a homey place for The Man (Billy Carter) because he’s been coming there to fish for sea trout since he was a boy when his uncle was “the man” on the place. As the play opens we get one of those nice jolts that maintaining the fourth wall can still deliver. The Woman (Andrea Goss) is looking right out over the audience in TheaterWorks’ intimate space. She’s gazing raptly at a gorgeous sunset, and tries to entice The Man to share in the moment. “I’ve seen it,” he says, fussing with his gear for the big fishing trip, then proceeds to describe the sky with fulsome words, without looking, and creates a verbal painting.

The Woman (Andrea Goss), The Man (Billy Carter) in TheaterWorks’ production of The River

The Woman (Andrea Goss), The Man (Billy Carter) in TheaterWorks’ production of The River

He’s got a knack for poeticizing, and at one point, trying to convince The Woman she needs to be a part of his fishing expedition, he asks her to read a Ted Hughes poem from a book. She, on the other hand, would rather stay in the cabin and read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. At that point we might be afraid, indeed. “They’re going to the lighthouse, will they get there?,” she asks, half-facetiously. And then the pair go fishing, but what happens?

Butterworth, for all that he might be writing this play tongue-in-cheek, has taken on an interesting assignment: how to convey obsession, loss, hope, love, and the playfulness of seduction while maintaining the mystery of such experiences? All the while keeping the glory of fishing—and the nature of sea trout has its metaphoric application—before us as, well, what it’s like to try to catch something wild and fleeting.

The Man (Billy Carter), The Woman (Andrea Goss)

The Man (Billy Carter), The Woman (Andrea Goss)

We might begin to think—after we meet The Other Woman—we’re in a Gothic story, a kind of Bluebeard-as-fishing-story that will reveal some awful truth about a serial killer. That would be a blunter version of what Butterworth offers. Instead, we’re contemplating something almost as off-putting: serial seduction, the strange-to-relate way that a search for true love—or an effort to recapture a previous moment—involves a set script. All we need to do is find the right actor for the part we’ve written in our heads.

That might sound like a very dark play, and in some ways it is. The brooding tone is leavened by the characters of the women. As The Woman, Andrea Goss is slyly mocking at times, apt to fear that The Man has plans more romantic than she’s prepared to accept. The Other Woman is played by Jasmine Batchelor as even more engaging, enough to make us think she may be “the One” after all. She brings a winning outlook to her match with The Man, even if she does catch a fish by a method forbidden in his code.

The Other Woman (Jasmine Batchelor), The Man (Billy Carter)

The Other Woman (Jasmine Batchelor), The Man (Billy Carter)

The Man could be a crashing bore, so set in his ways, but Billy Carter—in a role that Hugh Jackman played on Broadway—keeps us guessing about his motivations and where his heart really lies. He can be taciturn as well as rhapsodic. And he has to gut a fish on stage if only so we can watch him interact with his favorite species. He’s deliberate, almost devout. Later, he draws The Other Woman’s portrait with a similar concentration. The play asks us to see him as the women do: as someone who attracts interest but who also seems to hold others at bay, which only adds to his allure. His manliness may be the theme most at issue here, a studied self-sufficiency that requires a certain elusiveness in his prey, and his bride.

The Man (Billy Carter), and the fish

The Man (Billy Carter), and the fish

Every date between strangers is a kind of try out, we might suppose, but The River keeps an archly archetypal quality in play. A few oddities—like a scene about a bird getting into the cabin that plays the same for both women, each told “it’s happened before”—keep us guessing, waiting for a reveal that makes all the pieces fit. And fitting oneself to someone else is what successful romance is all about. 

Director Rob Ruggiero keeps the tension palpable, and the sound effects in Frederick Kennedy’s sound design, including a subtly hypnotic song, add an eeriness. The River makes the most of the scenic quality of theater, so that each new scene, playing with our sense of how narrative unfolds, establishes a static moment without a clear relation to before and after. It’s “the still point of the turning world,” while it lasts.

  

The River
By Jez Butterworth
Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Set Design: Brian Prather; Costume Design: Tricia Barsamian; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Sound Design: Frederick Kennedy; Associate Director: Taneisha Duggan; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth; Dialect Coach: Johanna Morrison

Cast: Jasmine Batchelor, Billy Carter, Andrea Goss

 TheaterWorks
October 4-November 11, 2018

A Satanic Sock-Puppet

Review of Hand to God, TheaterWorks

A hand-puppet goes rogue with hilariously scary results in Robert Askins’ Hand to God, now playing at TheaterWorks, directed by Tracy Brigden. Brigden directed the show at City Theatre in Pittsburgh and several veterans of that cast are in the production at TheaterWorks, which features a gripping intimacy that fully exploits the play’s foul-mouthed charm.

Key to the production’s success is Nick LaMedica’s simply stupendous turn as Jason, the bashful and depressed son of a Sunday school teacher, Margery, who is trying to put together a hand-puppet performance among her charges, and as Tyrone, the hand-puppet with a mind and voice of its own that takes over the play like a male monster of the Id. At first, Tyrone, like a ventriloquist’s dummy with the dirt on its master, is simply a bit too forthright in expressing what Jason would rather not say, then, after Jason fails to destroy him, he sprouts fangs and turns Jason into his aghast appendage.

Tyrone/Jason (Nick LaMedica) (Photos courtesy of TheaterWorks)

Tyrone/Jason (Nick LaMedica) (Photos courtesy of TheaterWorks)

As Margery, Lisa Velten Smith is also perfectly cast, with a surprising mix of religious fervor, impatient mothering, and volcanic passions. Her husband, Jason’s father, has died recently and the loosely-structured plot uses that event as a way of explaining the wild mood swings of his surviving family. Both mother and son are seemingly schizophrenic in veering between their normal, mealy-mouthed personae and the extremes of their out-of-control acting up. It may be a bit too-too to have mother and son both fly off into surprising behavior—on paper—but on stage it works because the manic version of Margery, and Tyrone, as the vicious version of Jason, are so much fun.

Jessica (Maggie Carr), Tyrone/Jason (Nick LaMedica)

Jessica (Maggie Carr), Tyrone/Jason (Nick LaMedica)

And the rest of the cast is not just a bunch of straight-persons to these hyperbolic hi-jinx. As Jessica, Maggie Carr is a great comic asset, playing a mostly imperturbable teen whose lending a hand-puppet in an explicit seduction scene with Tyrone is one of Act Two’s high-points. Miles G. Jackson plays Timmy as a tough kid with feet of clay, or maybe just a confused teen with the mercurial nature that implies. He’s got a crush on Margery, resents Jason, and sneers at everything, that is until Tyrone shows his bite is as good as his bark. And as Pastor Greg, Peter Benson’s musing tone keeps the unctuous platitudes of the local religious leader from being a mere cliché. He’s got his eye on Margery too and his effort at seduction, for all that it tries to pose as anodyne and uplifting, is blandly creepy in the era of #MeToo.

Pastor Greg (Peter Benson), Margery (Lisa Velten Smith)

Pastor Greg (Peter Benson), Margery (Lisa Velten Smith)

There is much bad behavior flying past quickly onstage, and Tyrone, who speaks with the kind of expletive-ridden, verbal crassness that seems de rigueur in the era of our uncouth president, comes across as a mad-as-hell rebel. As with puppets used in therapy to help patients act out aggression and mimic traumatic events, Tyrone, in the scheme of the play, can be seen as a kind of desperate therapy, not only for the mourning, anger, and suppressed urges of Jason and Margery, but for a culture in which politeness masks all kinds of unpleasant truths. The play is set in Texas, and its author, a Texan, knows whereof he speaks in showing how the typical locutions of the milquetoast version of Jesus’s love can drive almost anyone to distraction.

Luke Cantarella’s scenic design is nimble in presenting the different spaces of the show—the classroom, Jason’s bedroom, Pastor Greg’s office—and Matthew Richards’ lighting design, as ever, is a godsend. Fight Choreography by Robert Westley deserves plaudits as well as this is a very physical show in a fairly small space, and the puppet design by Stephanie Shaw provides props able to seem as real as their handlers.

Timmy (Miles G. Jackson), Tyrone/Jason (Nick LaMedica)

Timmy (Miles G. Jackson), Tyrone/Jason (Nick LaMedica)

Askins’ target here is “the devil” as an explanatory concept for whatever is deemed heinous, inappropriate, or foul-minded in human nature. The opening and closing homilies by Tyrone, in his good and bad incarnations respectively, are simple-minded gestures toward what could be called social context. It’s not that we expect a puppet to be profound, but might wonder why the author deems it necessary to make the puppets his mouthpiece. Within the story, Tyrone’s malevolent force and Margery’s erotic urges are made to seem coping mechanisms and needn’t be considered the result of demonic possession. And yet, Askins is asking why we need both an ultimate good—Jesus—and an ultimate evil—Satan—to convince us we’re not so bad.

While some might be shocked by the behavior and/or the language of the play, there’s a rather contemporary sense in which the play—first produced Off Broadway in 2011—lets “locker-room talk” become part of classroom talk, and treats the pornographic imagination as matter-of-fact. The play may aim to exorcise our demons, in a sense, though it plays more like a Feast of Fools pageant where free license actually supports social cohesion. Hence the show’s popularity.

 

Hand to God
By Robert Askins
Directed by Tracy Brigden

Scenic Design/Projections: Luke Cantarella; Costume Design: Tracy Christensen; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Elizabeth Atkinson; Puppet Design: Stephanie Shaw; Fight Choreographer: Robert Westley; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

Peter Benson, Maggie Carr, Miles G. Jackson, Nick LaMedica, Lisa Velten Smith

TheaterWorks
July 20-August 26, 2018

Who Wears the Heels

Review of The Legend of Georgia McBride, TheaterWorks

Boy meets his inner girl—more or less—and performs happily ever after. That’s the essential gist of Matthew Lopez’s cheerily entertaining The Legend of Georgia McBride, a funny and breezy look at the showpersonship of drag performance now playing at TheaterWorks, directed by Rob Ruggiero.

Casey (Austin Thomas) is a would-be Elvis Impersonator whose act is dying, though he refuses to see that. His put-upon wife, Jo (Samaria Nixon-Fleming), has to give him a wake-up call when his buying a Papa John’s pizza puts them in the red and they might face eviction. The chemistry between the two is earnest in a sit-com manner where we don’t really believe the direness of the situation or see any reason not to assume that Casey will come up with something.

Eddie (J. Tucker Smith), Rexy (Nik Alexander), Casey (Austin Thomas), Miss Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern) (photos provided by TheaterWorks)

Eddie (J. Tucker Smith), Rexy (Nik Alexander), Casey (Austin Thomas), Miss Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern) (photos provided by TheaterWorks)

“Something” arrives in the form of Miss Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern) and his sidekick Rexy (Nik Alexander), two drag queens from out of town who have come to the bar run by Tracy’s cousin Eddie (J. Tucker Smith) to bring in the customers with their stylish show. One imagines we have RuPaul to thank for the fact that folks in a nondescript Florida beach town will flock to see drag queens flaunt their stuff. In any case, flock they do and then, one night, Rexy is too tanked to go on for her big Edith Piaf number. Tracy, with Eddie’s backing, threatens and cajoles Casey, long since demoted to bartender, into taking over, which he does with a charmingly inept lip-synch to a song that, in time, he almost manages to make his own.

All well and good, except Casey hasn’t leveled with Jo about where the money’s coming from. That, such as it is, is the main plot complication, along with the possible return to form of Rexy, which would be a shame once Casey has re-upped his sequin-studded Elvis-jumpsuit into feisty “Redneck Woman” duds. Casey likes his new persona—Georgia McBride—and much of the middle section of the show has Casey and Tracy strutting their stuff in lively fashion.

Matthew Lopez’s script is very funny, with many sharp asides, mostly in the mouth of Tracy, the drag queen as backstage den mother, who Jamison Stern plays with wit, warmth and a tight grip on making the most of the seedy dregs of Eddie’s bar. Most of the show’s sparks come from Tracy’s deft humor while dispensing tough love to her acolyte, Casey, and her flighty collaborator, Rexy, and from Stern’s drag numbers, performed in classic diva couture. One number, in which he lip-synchs memorable movie quotations, convinces us that Tracy’s show would keep 'em coming back for more.

Miss Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern)

Miss Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern)

With Casey/Georgia’s show, I’m less certain. Speaking personally, the prospect of Country-diva drag doesn’t push the same show-biz buttons, and Thomas’ Georgia, while convincing as a Country-diva, infuses his stage persona with none of the bristly charm or femme fatale naturalism that can make drag so fascinating. Casey was more beguiling as Piaf.

Much of the visual comedy comes from stuffing a straight man into woman’s clothing, with drag presented as, for some, a more authentic way of life, and, for such as Casey, a way to make a buck in a costume. It’s all about performance, sort of Tootsie meets La Cage aux Folles. The play never ventures into the murky waters of gender identity or sexual ambivalence. Casey loves his wife. End of story. The Legend of Georgia McBride isn’t about gay performativity but rather a valentine to hetero men who like to dress as women.

Miss Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern), Casey (Austin Thomas)

Miss Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern), Casey (Austin Thomas)

The problem of a wife who might not warm to a hubby as a bubbly babe gets its moment but mostly any real contentions disappear like last night’s sequins. A key argument between Jo and Casey is ably diffused by landlord/friend Jason (Nik Alexander as well) who leavens the “heavy” moment with apt comments. Alexander’s Rexy is also an asset, and the actor adds a welcome dose of cattiness to Rexy’s effort to enlighten Casey—who never seems to lose his naivete, no matter how seasoned he becomes as Georgia—about the true nature of drag. The speech may feel a bit of an editorial but it helps to let audiences register why Rexy and Casey will never be on the same page even if they’re on the same stage. Another welcome scene, with a bit more depth, lets Stern show us Tracy when she’s a he, and Stern makes the implications of the distance between Tracy’s drag persona and his offstage persona register subtly.

Rexy (Nik Alexander)

Rexy (Nik Alexander)

Leon Dobkowski’s costumes are numerous and eye-catching. I was having a great time noting the range of Hawaiian shirts Eddie wore over his concert T-shirt, even before he started dressing up for national holidays. Rexy and Tracy and Georgia are always a sight to behold, and Paul Tate dePoo III’s set design provides a tell-tale backstage that switches gracefully into the couple’s modest living room. John Lasiter’s lighting moves between public-space and private-space with élan, while Ed Chapman’s sound design and Ralph Perkins’ choreography make the musical numbers cook.

The Legend of Georgia McBride aims to be a crowd-pleaser and succeeds by giving everyone a good time and letting its hero have his wife and his high-heels too.

Jo (Samaria Nixon-Fleming), Casey (Austin Thomas)

Jo (Samaria Nixon-Fleming), Casey (Austin Thomas)

 

 

The Legend of Georgia McBride
By Matthew Lopez
Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Choreography: Ralph Perkins; Set Design: Paul Tate dePoo III; Costume Design: Leon Dobkowski; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Sound Design: Ed Chapman; Wig Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Casting: McCorkle Casting; Assistant Director: Eric Ort; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

Cast: Nik Alexander, Samaria Nixon-Fleming, J. Tucker Smith, Jamison Stern, Austin Thomas

TheaterWorks
March 16-April 22, 2018

Time-Tossed Lovers

Review of Constellations, TheaterWorks

What can be less remarkable than a love story as a two-hander play? The premise that, after a meeting in some context or other, two people will create a satisfying narrative arc as we follow the fortunes of their romance is on pretty solid ground. Mostly, the comedy and/or drama comes from the context, which might provide obstacles, or other incentives. “The course of true love never did run smooth” and therein lies the two-hours or less traffic of our stage. The trick, of course, is in making us care about the two, both separately and as a couple. And that can be easier said than done, sometimes.

Roland (M. Scott McLean), Marianne (Allison Pistorius) (photos: TheaterWorks)

Roland (M. Scott McLean), Marianne (Allison Pistorius) (photos: TheaterWorks)

In Constellations, Nick Payne does something very clever with the context, yet not so clever as to be a mere gimmick. His lovers, Marianne (Allison Pistorius) and Roland (M. Scott McLean), live not only in the world, governed by linear temporality, of all biological beings, they also live (as do we all, somehow) in the world of subatomic particles where time is not linear and where the unity we find in the notion of “universe” becomes the multiplicity of the “multiverse.” “The game is the same it’s just up on a different level,” as our nation’s most recent Nobel laureate puts it.

But what a difference that makes! As depicted in Constellations, Marianne and Roland’s lives are patterned with non sequitur, where that necessary first meeting—guests at a rainy barbecue—could go any number of ways, and does. Each time, we jump back to the “medias res” of the same conversation. The start, stop, start again rhythm is something we’re all familiar with from instant replay. Here, the fun is seeing how easy it is to bollocks the badinage. One wrong word or a fake laugh or a dropped detail and either person might be on to the next appealing stranger. There is one path at least that will lead to a satisfying night together, but how soon, and on what terms? And, once that happens, there are various paths that fork from that event, including a cute re-meet at a ballroom dance class.

Marianne (Allison Pistorius), Roland (M. Scott McLean)

Marianne (Allison Pistorius), Roland (M. Scott McLean)

How momentous intimacy can be in certain lives, and how casual are most interactions is certainly the main social context here. Both Marianne and Roland are kind of “nerdy”—a word which has gone from a complete put-down (like “dork”) to denoting, in the age of technology über alles, a kind of sexy regard for things once thought abstruse. Here, it’s Roland’s status as a bee-keeper, and Marianne’s as a researcher in theoretical cosmology. It’s a cute meet, alright: biology and quantum physics. The man—biology—is the more romantic and takes his bearings from—and even proposes in the terms of—creatures that serve a “queen.” The woman—physics—is more elusive because too brainy for the tedium of linearity. Grand irony (and spoiler) alert: she will come to suffer from biology, soon enough.

Stated like that, it may seem a bit pat, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And Pistorius and McLean, directed—with a sure hand that trusts the audience and doesn’t overplay anything—by Rob Ruggiero, are a treat indeed. They play as Brits and that gives a breeziness to their interactions that helps greatly, particularly as their backgrounds don’t quite jell. It’s a romance that works—in the versions of it that do—because Roland likes being a bit out of his depth and because Marianne is always pleasantly surprised by his efforts. We see how easily either or both might go astray—each gets a jealous scene—and how hard it is to remain together for the long haul.

Roland (M. Scott McLean), Marianne (Allison Pistorius)

Roland (M. Scott McLean), Marianne (Allison Pistorius)

The popularity of the play, one suspects, derives from its swiftly delineated scenes and for letting us enjoy the sensation of “let’s try that again” or “Take 2.” And the TheaterWorks production, held over to the 22nd, is handsomely mounted by Jean Kim in a surrounded stage that looks more than a little like a planetarium. In its circle, these two orbit while, in an alcove nearby, Billy Bivona plays live the music of the spheres, so to speak, and the lights overhead work within the rhythms the duo provide. It’s subtle and very satisfying, even when the play has to go for big emotion over romantic comedy.

Roland (M. Scott McLean), Marianne (Allison Pistorius)

Roland (M. Scott McLean), Marianne (Allison Pistorius)

One of the things quantum physics tells us, of course, is that time is an illusion and, therefore, there is no real beginning or end. Nice to know, and yet the parts of us that become used to certain relatively stable, long-term molecular arrangements aren’t apt to be so nimble as equations would have us be. Marianne, played with glowing charm and a very deft grasp of several realities by Allison Pistorius, eventually must come to grips with a difficult condition, while Roland is always confronted with having to convince Marianne with his low-key but heartfelt attraction to her. M. Scott McClean makes the most of an average guy-ness that is anything but average. They are well-met as characters and support each other quite well as actors.

In the end, Constellations is a great “date play.” To see it, there’s no time like the present, illusory or not.

 

Constellations
By Nick Payne
Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Set Design: Jean Kim; Lighting Design: Philip S. Rosenberg; Sound Design: Michael Miceli; Casting: McCorkle Casting: Assistant Director: Taneisha Duggan; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth; Sign Language Coach: Laurel Whitsett

Composer/Musician: Billy Bivona

Cast: M. Scott McLean, Allison Pistorius

 

TheaterWorks
January 18-February 18, 2018, extended to February 22

No I in Team

Review of The Wolves, TheaterWorks

The great strength of The Wolves, the debut play by Sarah DeLappe now playing in an extended run at TheaterWorks, directed by Eric Ort, is the freshness and believable spontaneity of its cast, playing a group  of young women in their mid-teens. As an indoor-soccer team during a winter “somewhere in suburban America,” the nine actors, with great immediacy, present a loose collective that at times jells into a team and at times becomes a group at war within itself.

front row: Caitlin Zoz, Carolyn Cutillo, Claire Saunders, Dea Julien; back row: Karla Gallegos, Shannon Keegan, Emily Murphy, Rachel Caplan, Olivia Hoffman

front row: Caitlin Zoz, Carolyn Cutillo, Claire Saunders, Dea Julien; back row: Karla Gallegos, Shannon Keegan, Emily Murphy, Rachel Caplan, Olivia Hoffman

The dialogue, often overlapping and sometimes overheard among themselves, is almost defiantly immature, as though speech is a condition of existence that must be exercised, no matter what is said. The girls joust with words and console with words and flatter and belittle with words, and their nervous energy—we see them most often during warm-ups before a game—is infectious. We lean in to catch the emphases, to find out who is up and who is down and who is admired and who is not accepted.

The idea that our social interactions take place on a “playing-field” is not new, but DeLappe’s play makes that metaphor feel more earned than it might be. As players of soccer, the team has its wins and losses, but as young women playing together, and growing up together, the team faces challenges that have nothing to do with sports and everything to do with personality. The old adage, “there is no ‘I’ in team” asserts that the individual should be subsumed by the collective purpose of the team. DeLappe’s play looks at how the tensions of individual identity shape any common experience.

One person is very smart, another is not so bright; one person comes from a traditional family but has little sense of the world beyond her town, another doesn’t know her father but as traveled all over the world and lives in a yurt; one is Armenian-American, another thought the latter girl was Mexican; one is dating a male college student, another is probably gay; one may have an eating disorder, another makes jokes about such things. The fact that the team is called the Wolves is indicative. They are a more-or-less loyal pack but there’s some ambiguity about what it takes to be alpha.

center: #7 (Olivia Hoffman), center rear: #25 (Emily Murphy); flanking, R to L: #14 (Rachel Kaplan), #13 (Dea Julien), #00 (Karla Gallegos), #11 (Shannon Keegan), #8 (Claire Saunders), #2 (Carolyn Cutillo)

center: #7 (Olivia Hoffman), center rear: #25 (Emily Murphy); flanking, R to L: #14 (Rachel Kaplan), #13 (Dea Julien), #00 (Karla Gallegos), #11 (Shannon Keegan), #8 (Claire Saunders), #2 (Carolyn Cutillo)

Most of the action—the games, an injury, a seduction gone awry that might well be date-rape, a death—takes place offstage. Onstage, all we have to go on is what is said and not said, and how. The girls are usually forthright so it’s not too hard to follow what they’re thinking, but, even so, there are many causes of anxiety that surface now and then without ever being quite addressed. A dominant tension, for instance, is between #7 (Olivia Hoffman), the self-possessed “striker,” and #25 (Emily Murphy), the team captain. The tension is not resolved, merely tabled by events that occur. Other plot points, such as #2 (Carolyn Cutillo)’s tendency to concussions, may simply be a “red herring” for those who assume tragedy must befall in one way or another.

The fact that tragedy does befall will be deemed by some viewers a necessary element of these girls’ lives, by others an event imposed by the playwright for the sake of gravitas. The way in which the event is handled puts the viewer in the position of trying to piece together what happened. All becomes clear, yet the device seems an excessively motivated way to extract more importance from the conversations that occur late in the play. It’s as if, rather than let the disparities among the teammates create drama in some fashion that would be more organic to the nature of their activity—at one point, for instance, we see how talent scouts show interest in only a few—a kind of negative deus ex machina determines that one of the players must be sacrificed for the sake of greater cohesion. Don’t all differences seem less glaring in the light of loss?

Megan Byrne as “a soccer mom” is the only adult in the play and she appears very late, in a scene that she handles quite well but that seems more than a little de trop. The effect is to underline, again and again, that the world outside the bubble of the team is fraught with peril—a callous boy, a bad driver, a hungover coach, a hard-to-please talent scout, and a mother all alone in her trauma. Against such things the team is no sure buffer, but it’s better than nothing. Seeing these young women learn that is the main game in The Wolves.

 

The Wolves
By Sarah DeLappe
Directed by Eric Ort

Set Design: Mariana Sanchez; Costume Design: Blair Gulledge; Lighting Design: Rob Denton; Sound Design: Karin Graybash; Wig Design: Leah Loukas; Casting: Erica Jensen (CSA)/Calleri Casting; Assistant Director: Taneisha Duggan; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

Megan Byrne, Rachel Caplan, Carolyn Cutillo, Karla Gallegos, Olivia Hoffman, Déa Julien, Shannon Keegan, Emily Murphy, Claire Saunders, Caitlin Zoz

TheaterWorks
October 5-November 5, 2017; extended to November 10

The Singing Cure

Review of Next to Normal, TheaterWorks

A family—mother, father, son, daughter—going through the motions of their suburban, middle-class existence and singing about it. At first, the low-key comedy of this family, all centered on the stay-at-home mom, might seem a gentle send-up of patriarchy. Then we notice something’s not quite right with mom—about the time she starts making sandwiches assembly-style on the floor—and realize this isn’t an installment of “desperate housewives.” There’s a shadow lurking from the past, and it has managed to eclipse real, day-to-day life for Diana (Christiane Noll), so much so that she lives her life heavily medicated.

Dan (David Harris), Diana (Christiane Noll)

Dan (David Harris), Diana (Christiane Noll)

The toll this takes on her family—husband Dan (David Harris), daughter Natalie (Maya Keleher)—is the story here, as Diana has to live with the loss of the son (John Cardoza) she never knew, though in her mind he’s a teen capable of being more real than her long-suffering husband and sulky daughter. Sure, it’s the kind of situation that a Freudian might have a field-day with, but the book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey have different fish to fry. We’re in the era of medications, and even ECT (electroconvulsive therapy, which someone thinks sounds better then “electroshock,” apparently) is prescribed for suicidal housewives who go off their meds. It all would be grimmer than it is but for the fact that Diana, for all her unresolved issues, is an entertaining sufferer of bipolar disorder. As played by Christiane Noll, she’s a strong woman who just can’t deal with certain facts, such as how her own mind and spirit can betray her despite her best efforts. Her saving grace is the forthright self she pours out in song, and Noll's performance is indeed electrifying. The other great saving grace, for the show, is that her daughter, who has more than enough of her own to kvetch about, is played with tons of charm by newcomer Maya Keleher.

I shouldn’t neglect mentioning the males, even if they seem rather ancillary to the wild mood swings of their female counterparts. As Dan, David Harris does a lot with a role that mainly comes down to being patient and understanding, until, perhaps, his façade of repression also begins to crack. As the son who won’t say die, John Cardoza is a dreamboat with a big voice, though it wouldn’t hurt for him to unstiffen a little while insisting “I’m Alive”—though his dance with mom on the verge of a major breakdown is as fluid and magical as is called for. Henry, a sort of hipster kid who woos Natalie, is fine, if overly self-effacing. While the Drs. Fine—the drug pusher—and Madden, the hot-shot ECT salesman—are both assayed by J. D. Daw with the kind of professional obtuseness that, if not part of the problem, doesn’t do much to get at the problem’s root.

Dr. Madden (J. D. Daw), Gabe (John Cardoza), Diana (Christiane Noll)

Dr. Madden (J. D. Daw), Gabe (John Cardoza), Diana (Christiane Noll)

Director Rob Ruggerio has done a wonderful job making this domestic and medical musical, with its requisite and recurring blasts of bathos, work at TheaterWorks where the intimacy of the staging makes the action feel all the more personal. We’re looking on at a family trying to cope and the fact that they can make a first-rate show of their suffering is all to the good. The set, complete with a turntable for moving things about in place swiftly, upper-level wings, and a backdrop that looks like a store-display of lamps and knickknacks, is never obtrusive and, with a range of color and lighting effects, a part of the quick-switching moods of the music by Tom Kitt. And a very tight band, invisible and just loud enough but not too loud—particularly effective are the drums—make the most of the score, under Adam Souza’s able direction, and Ed Chapman’s Sound Design is incredibly precise. Everyone sounds great and the casting has arrived at six voices that harmonize well and make the vocals—almost everything is sung—the show’s best feature.

Dan (David Harris), Diana (Christiane Noll), Natalie (Maya Keleher)

Dan (David Harris), Diana (Christiane Noll), Natalie (Maya Keleher)

In the end, I find myself, for all the talent and skill on display here, somewhat unmoved by this Pulitzer-winning musical. Time was, I suppose, it showed the way in clueing us in, not only about the lives of quiet desperation in many a dream-home, but about the resources of the musical for making music from the everyday. There are many effective numbers that lay out the levels of trauma here—“He’s Not Here,” “Superboy and the Invisible Girl,” “I Dreamed a Dance,” “Didn’t I See This Movie?”, “Song of Forgetting,” “Why Stay?”, “A Promise”—but much of it serves to remind that we have seen this movie, or some version of it. Melodrama in the service of mourning and melancholia seems to be a big staple of tear-jerk show-biz.

What puts Next to Normal a cut above what the screens might provide is that its Tony-winning score sets us in a pop-rock universe and won’t let us stray into the weepy strings that many a soundtrack would bathe us in. The musical numbers stay sharp and focused, for the most part, and that’s to be appreciated. Still, who knew that what all the characters most deeply desire is a non-traumatized version of the perfect little family paradise that, it seemed for a minute, the show was seeking to send up. Living “next to normal”—for theater—can also be next-door to boring.

 

Next to Normal
Music by Tom Kitt
Book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Music direction by Adam Souza

Set Design: Wilson Chin; Costume Design: Tricia Barsamian; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Sound Design: Ed Chapman; Casting: McCorkle Casting, Ltd., Associate Director: Eric Ort; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

Cast: John Cardoza, J.D. Daw, David Harris, Maya Keleher, Christiane Noll, Nick Sacks

TheaterWorks
March 24-April 30, extended to May 14

A Play with Class

Review of Good People at TheaterWorks, Hartford

David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People, superbly directed by Rob Ruggiero at TheaterWorks, opens with Margie (Erika Rolfsrud), a Dollar Store employee, losing her job. She has been late one too many times over the past eight years. As she tries, first humorously and then with rising rage and desperation, to negotiate with her boss, the young Stevie (Buddy Haardt), we come to understand quite a bit about Margie and about Lindsay-Abaire’s aims in writing this play.

Set before gentrification comes to the Irish-American working class neighborhood of South Boston (“Southie”), the playwright’s hometown, Good People explores the complicated role that luck plays in a person’s ability to escape impoverished circumstances. America’s increasingly shaky belief in a classless society is based on the notion that hard work and determination are all one needs for success. Margie is here to tell us otherwise.

Audrie Neenan, Erika Rolfsrud, Megan Byrne
Audrie Neenan, Erika Rolfsrud, Megan Byrne

In the following scene, set in Margie’s kitchen, we meet her brassy friend Jean (Megan Byrne) and her landlady, aptly named Dottie (Audrie Neenan). The talk centers on jobs: who has one, who hasn’t got a chance of finding one, how Margie can get herself another one, fast. Here we learn why Margie has lost numerous minimum-wage positions: her adult daughter, severely disabled due to a premature birth, requires constant supervision. When Jean remembers that at a catering gig she met one of their high school friends, Mikey Dillon (R. Ward Duffy), who got out of Southie and became a doctor, she’s certain that he’s Margie’s ticket to solvency: after all, Margie and Mike were an item for awhile in high school, and surely he’ll help someone from the neighborhood.

Erika Rolfsrud, R. Ward Duffy, Chandra Thomas
Erika Rolfsrud, R. Ward Duffy, Chandra Thomas

What unfolds between Margie and Mike—when she visits his office to test the limits of his loyalty to old friends; when Jean and Dottie react to this meeting during one of two funny and telling scenes set in a bingo hall; and during a searing scene in Act Two—dramatizes the play’s themes and provides an evening of thought-provoking, high-tension, nearly brilliant theater. I say “nearly” only because some of Lindsay-Abaire’s scenes go on a bit too long. While one could listen all night to these uniformly terrific actors speak his sharp, gritty, and at times hilarious dialogue, the plot, to its credit, creates a momentum that can’t afford to sag.

Erika Rolfsrud (Margie)
Erika Rolfsrud (Margie)

Lindsay-Abaire couldn’t hope for a better rendering of Good People than Rob Ruggiero’s terrific production. As Margie, Erika Rolfsrud gives a stunningly strong and nuanced performance. Margie is tough, but she must also convey anxiety without coming across as a victim (an epithet she would despise). She is brilliant and at the same time unapologetically uneducated. She has a mean streak and knows how to use it: watch her deploy the phrase “lace-curtain Irish” when talking about Mike’s rise in the world, and see her satisfaction when her words hit their target. Yet if the actress doesn’t also display warmth and humor, she loses the audience and the production falls apart. Rolfsrud nails every note.

The rest of the cast is no less remarkable. As Mike, R. Ward Duffy is coiled as tightly as a camouflaged snake. Mike knows how Margie can needle, shame, and possibly destroy him. He’s plenty arrogant, but he is also persuasive in his belief that hard work leads to success and, conversely, that the lack of success proves inadequacy. Mike is Margie’s natural enemy, yet Duffy and Rolfsrud’s arguments have a sexual spark that makes us believe in their intense youthful affair, and in Mike’s uneasy kinship with his background.

Megan Byrne (Jean), Audrie Neenan (Dottie)
Megan Byrne (Jean), Audrie Neenan (Dottie)

As Dottie, Audrie Neenan provides more than comic relief: her character’s comments on the surrounding events bring to mind one of Shakespeare’s fools. Her foolishness is real enough, and a riot, but her wacky utterances unwittingly convey the resignation of a life defined by Southie. Megan Byrne, as Jean, carries some of Lindsay-Abaire’s sharpest and most humorous dialogue, and her timing is perfection: she can deliver a zinger with one raise of an eyebrow or dart of an eye.

Buddy Haardt, as Stevie, who quietly endures Jean’s scornful certainty that he is gay because he plays bingo, gives us an understated, gentle performance that adds moments of rest amidst the women’s sharp repartee. And Chandra Thomas, as Mike’s wife—the least well-written role in the script—finds moments of subtle humor and genuine pain without overplaying.

Of special note in this production is the use of film-like, photographed projections (by Scenic Designer Luke Hegel-Cantarella) to create distinctively different neighborhoods, and to simulate, also, the movement between them: our movement along with Margie’s. We watch the Dollar Store and run-down strip malls roll by, and later the appearance of trees and large houses tell us we are in another world.

Buddy Haardt, Erika Rolfsrud, Megan Byrne, Audrie Neenan
Buddy Haardt, Erika Rolfsrud, Megan Byrne, Audrie Neenan

Beautifully rendered, too, is the sound design by Mike Miceli, especially in the bingo scenes. Of course, much of the credit goes to Lindsay-Abaire for writing these scenes as he has, but Ruggiero and Miceli—along with these terrific actors—have brought out the script’s sharp music. As the characters talk about Margie’s mounting difficulties, the marking of cards echoes the characters’ larger hopes, and the bingo caller’s voice drives the tension.

Ruggiero’s Good People is one of the most gripping, layered, and provocative productions seen at TheaterWorks in the past eight years, which is a high compliment indeed. The performances invigorate and inspire, and the play’s complex ideas resonate long after the evening ends.

Good People
By David Lindsay-Abaire

Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Scenic Design: Luke Hegel-Cantarella; Costume Design: Harry Nadal; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Sound Design: Mike Miceli; Casting: McCorkle Casting LTD.; Production Manager: C. Nikki Mills; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth; Dialect Consultant: Gillian Lane-Plescia

TheaterWorks
May 22-June 28, 2015

A Hard Hit

Review of Playing the Assassin at Hartford’s TheaterWorks

Not often do the words “profound” and “football” find their way into the same sentence. Yet TheaterWorks’ current production of David Robson’s Playing the Assassin, directed by Joe Brancato, brings to light profoundly searching questions about football and the other contact sports so central to much of American entertainment and big business. In the context of a gripping conflict between two men, the play asks, in the words of one of its characters, why “seeing grown men hurt each other” makes people “happy,” and what that means for NFL professionals, trained and encouraged to hit as hard as they can, but excoriated and ostracized if they cause serious injury.

As Robson tells us in the program notes, the play was inspired by an obituary headline: “Jack Tatum, Whose Tackle Paralyzed Player, Dies at 61.” In 1978, Tatum, playing for the Oakland Raiders, hit wide receiver Darryl Stingley, of the New England Patriots, so hard that Stingley was paralyzed from the neck down. In Playing the Assassin, Robson creates a similar situation and asks us to decide whose life was most damaged. The answer, we learn, is as complex as the human heart.

Lewis (Garrett Lee Hendricks) and Frank Baker (Ezra Knight)

Lewis (Garrett Lee Hendricks) and Frank Baker (Ezra Knight)

Frank Baker (the extraordinary Ezra Knight), a former NFL safety once known as the most dangerous defensive player in the league, meets in a hotel room with a CBS executive named Lewis (the sharp and shape-shifting Garrett Lee Hendricks) to prepare for a publicity stunt. Lewis has brokered a reunion, to be aired before the Super Bowl, between Baker and Lyle Turner, the player paralyzed by Baker’s tackle twenty years before. Their first encounter since the accident promises an up-tick in Super Bowl viewing numbers. “It’s a great human interest story,” says the smooth-talking Lewis.

Baker, however, has well-founded doubts. Years of interviews have taught him that after the initial gush over his NFL fame, the real question is always “So how do you feel about that guy you paralyzed?” Baker knows his legacy will be that he stepped over the invisible line (as he calls it) between doing what one is trained to do and perpetrating an act of violence. “Show me the line,” Baker insists, “Show me the line!” —his defiance barely masking twenty years of torment about the incident.

Lewis remains business-like for as long as he can, but soon (under the pressure, we assume, of Baker’s good-natured bullying and angry obstinance) his nerves begin to fray. In a series of surprises that have audiences audibly gasping, the stakes rise, masks drop, and the supposed pre-interview chat, with its multiple revelations, nearly veers into Greek drama.

If perhaps the number of revelations asks of us just a bit too much suspension of disbelief, Joe Brancato’s expert direction and the remarkable performances of Knight and Hendricks enable the production to glide over our doubts. Brancato controls the pacing (at a taut 82 minutes) so that, as the characters alternate trust and distrust, their lies and truths are sharply delineated. The tension relaxes only in brief humorous moments before tightening again. A director’s hand should be invisible, and Brancato’s is; only afterwards, when we sit back in our chairs for the first time, do we realize his powerful skill.

Knight and Hendricks execute this pacing to perfection. Knight, in the showier role of Baker, creates a bull of a man who uses his bulk to entertain, manipulate, intimidate, and threaten. At the same time, Knight has the difficult task of embodying someone at once strong and broken. For all his energy, Baker describes himself as “a walking Walgreens.” Knight, playing every emotional key from jocular to murderous, is astounding in making us feel both the danger and the damage.

Hendricks matches Knight in physical and emotional virtuosity, providing the perfect counterpart. Slim where Baker is bulky, graceful where Baker is rambunctious, Lewis knows exactly what moves to make in order to close the deal—until he doesn’t. Hendricks’ Lewis has to contain many layers, and to keep the audience unaware of most of them until late in the action. A few of the script’s most startling moments verge on melodrama, but Hendricks keeps the character of Lewis believable and quietly charismatic.

Set designer Brian Prather deserves special praise for creating a hotel room that is at once realistically tony, increasingly cage-like, and ultimately red-hot when long-held rage is finally released. In many respects, this two-hander is perfect for TheaterWorks and the intimate space enables the audience to see every small object along with every muscle twitch and eye movement. Playing the Assassin delivers expert and compelling theater that deserves to be experienced more than once.

With its strong performances, timely themes, and taut, physical production, Playing the Assassin is a winner!

Playing the Assassin
By David Robson
Directed by Joe Brancato

Set Design: Brian Prather; Costume Design: Charlotte Palmer-Lane; Lighting Design: Ed McCarthy; Sound Design: Emily Auciello; Fight Choreographer: Ron Piretti; Production Manager: C. Nikki Mills; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

TheaterWorks, March 21-April 26, 2015