Trevor Williams

New Haven Theater Company Goes Cuckoo

Preview, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, New Haven Theater Company

If you’re a regular at New Haven Theater Company shows, you might remember the time the company built what looked to be a functional luncheonette in their theater space in the back of English Building Markets. That was George Kulp’s set for William Inge’s Bus Stop, which he directed. Last year, there was the set for Neil Simon’s Rumors that turned the space into a two-story living room with numerous doors to slam. That was Kulp’s too.

Beginning this Thursday and running for the next three weekends, the space will be the dayroom at a mental hospital where a host of inmates live placid lives under the purview of a controlling nurse as Kulp directs NHTC’s next offering, Dale Wasserman’s stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Kulp, who says this is “the most ambitious and challenging” play he’s directed yet, seems to like plays with a lot of characters and a very focused set.

If you were around in the 1970s, you no doubt remember the film version of the novel, directed by Milos Forman, which won Oscars for picture, director, actress (Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched), and actor (Jack Nicholson as Randle Patrick McMurphy), and adapted screenplay. Indeed, the role of McMurphy was easily the most famous of Nicholson’s impressive career—until he took an ax to a bathroom door in The Shining.

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McMurphy is a boisterous ne’er-do-well who considers a stint in a mental hospital preferable to prison. His fellow inmates are an odd assortments of “lifers” who prefer the hospital to trying to get along in the outside world. And Nurse Ratched is there to make sure everything runs the way she likes. The confrontations between McMurphy and the nurse become a battleground over the quality of life. In the film, you just have to root for McMurphy as Fletcher’s version of the nurse is so inhumanly impersonal.

Kulp is wary of expectations derived from the film. First of all, the film was adapted from the novel, not from Wasserman’s play. And, while the drama’s trajectory runs much the same, the filmed versions of certain characters sometimes aimed for comic caricature. Kulp stresses that his cast is “very careful” to avoid that pitfall, and that means creating useful backstories for the characters to give them fuller dimension. Which might be a way of saying that Kulp is urging them to put some method in the madness.

McMurphy will be played by Trevor Williams who directed NHTC’s previous offering, Marjorie Prime. Williams acted under Kulp’s direction as the naive cowboy, Bo Decker, in Bus Stop and was one of the two hitman in Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter last season, directed by John Watson. McMurphy’s nemesis, the maternal Nurse Ratched, will be played by Suzanne Powers, who worked with Kulp in Rumors.

Other NHTC members on hand include John Watson as Dr. Spivey, who tends to back the authoritarian nurse; Erich Greene, the other hitman in Dumb Waiter, as Cheswick, an anxious patient; and J. Kevin Smith, the obstreperous neighbor in Rumors and the boozing professor in Bus Stop, as Harding, the patient with the most self-control.

That leaves many parts featuring actors who will be appearing in a NHTC production for the first time, though, in most cases, Kulp has worked with each before. They include: Al Bhatt, Tristan Bird, Ralph Buonocore (who appeared in NHTC’s Urinetown), Robert Halliwell, Ash Lago, Empress Makeda, Joseph Mallon, Jodi Rabinowitz, John Strano, and Aaron Volain.

For Kulp, much of the challenge, with so many characters “and so much going on”—including a basketball game—is to keep the play “moving at the right pace.” His approach, he said, is to tell his actors “to go for the moon and then pull back.” The casting is key and his previous experiences with the cast make for a lot of trust.

The play was chosen in part because of its name recognition, its diverse cast, and because, Kulp said, it’s “an entertaining and timely story to tell.” He suggested that the issue of how our society treats mental illness and the play’s convincing sense of “the misuse of authority” are meaningful in our time, as they were when the novel was published in 1963 and when the film version was released in 1975, both key works of the Vietnam era of American culture.

Is it “cuckoo” to place such a largescale play in the New Haven Theater Company’s intimate space? Get your tickets and find out (the play is running for three weekends rather than two because seating is limited).

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
By Dale Wasserman, from the novel by Ken Kesey
Directed by George Kulp
New Haven Theater Company
April 25-27, May 2-4, May 9-11

For tickets and info, go here

See my review here

Prime Time

Review of Marjorie Prime, New Haven Theater Company

“We have all the time in the world” is a phrase used by “primes,” synthetic humanoid entities that act as companions and consolations to humans in the, perhaps, not so distant future of Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime, playing through Saturday at New Haven Theater Company. In the play, the first prime we meet is a replica of Marjorie’s husband, Walter (Ryan Hendrickson). Marjorie (Margaret Mann) is in her ‘80s and her husband died some time ago, but his replica has a thirtyish appearance that makes him look younger than Tess (Susan Kulp), Marjorie’s only living child, a middle-aged woman married to Jon (Marty Tucker).

The disparate ages might make for the stuff of futuristic comedy, but that’s not what Harrison is going for. Though there is amusement here, it tends to come from a certain deadpan humor in the face of unpleasant truths. Marjorie is losing her memory and most of her interest in life, and she may be sliding toward dementia. Walter is an aid in trying to keep her focused on events in her life, to maintain the fragile sense of identity that memory gives us. In the care facility where Marjorie resides, conversation with Walter is encouraged. Primes store what they are told and can converse about a past they never lived, based solely on memories imported or inputted from others.

Tess finds it all off-putting. Not only that she’s faced with a father-replica younger than herself, but, worse, that Marjorie may be trusting and confiding in Walter Prime more than her own flesh-and-blood family. Much of the play has to do with the effort to find common ground in lived experience; the way, for instance, that Marjorie, when younger and more herself, disapproved of Jon as a husband for Tess, though now she has warmed to him; or the way the family dog and its replacement—Tony and Tony 2—are remembered; or the way that Tess still feels embattled by her view of her mother, even if that woman is no longer fully present.

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As the play goes on, there will be additional primes, each a bit more surprising than the last. And there’s a traumatic story about Damien, the son Marjorie and Walter lost, that comes up early and returns late in the play. The way little bits of information circulate is key to the effect here, letting us reflect on how we store up facts about others in our lives, and how we trot out stories of favors and slights we received as though they add up to a life. They don’t, and Tess is finding herself up against it: wondering if any of it matters, and what purpose sociability and chatter serve other than as distractions.

Watching her mother’s decline unmoors Tess more and more, and Susan Kulp plays her with grim and pinched features and an irritation that moves toward despair. Her transformation to a selfless serenity, late in the play, without benefit of makeup or costume change, is striking. Margaret Mann gives Marjorie a feisty charm that sets the tone we come to expect from the play, which is why the second act is so unsettling. We see how far a cry a prime is from the being it tries to replicate. In the third act, we might almost begin to believe in primes as substitutes for the troublesome humans we have lost. A factor that comments on the way we tend to sanitize our memories of the deceased.

Jon, played by Marty Tucker with a staunch affability that crumbles effectively in a story of a fateful visit to Madagascar, at one point says that, if he died before her, he would want Tess to find someone new. The possibility of new people never quite intrudes into this somewhat claustrophobic play where characters seem to want only what they’ve already known. Through interaction with humans, the primes strive to become more imbued with their assigned identity. Humans, on the other hand, can only look forward to loss of identity and death. Meant to be consolations and company, primes in Marjorie Prime come to seem an affable memento mori.

As Walter, Ryan Hendrickson has perhaps the toughest role. As the only character we see only as a prime, Hendrickson’s Ryan comes to seem the most “natural,” a way of being unfinished and full of potential that, while true of humans as well, makes the primes seem eternally hopeful beings. In the last scene, aided by significant lighting effects, we might feel that all we are, or were, is fated to end up in an animatronic display case for all time. Is that better or worse than a portrait gallery? Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime lets you make up your own mind about that, and Trevor Williams’ tight production at New Haven Theater Company doesn’t tip its hand, one way or another.

The primes have all the time in the world, to learn facts and to deepen their responses. Our time to determine who we are and achieve it is much more limited, and there’s no way to be sure what will survive, nor even what constitutes who we were in the minds of others. One thing’s for sure: living on as a memory in a mortal being is no way to achieve immortality. The primes may be just what we need as eternal witnesses of trivial existence, as if all our photos of pets and meals and travels and events could exist forever in a searchable database tagged with our individual DNA. Well, why not?

 

Marjorie Prime
By Jordan Harrison
Directed by Trevor Williams

Cast: Ryan Hendrickson, Susan Kulp, Margaret Mann, Marty Tucker

Stage Manager/Board Op: Stacy Lupo

New Haven Theater Company
February 28-March 2 & March 7-9, 2019

Prime Mover: New Haven Theater Company opens Marjorie Prime

Preview of Marjorie Prime, New Haven Theater Company

New Haven Theater Company returns this week with Jordan Harrison’s thought-provoking play Marjorie Prime. Set in an indeterminate point in the future, the play engages with the ways, in the 21st century, technology has become an increasingly intimate part of our lives. The play premiered in Los Angeles in 2014, won the Horton Foote Prize for Outstanding New American Play in 2016 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

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Marjorie, played by NHTC member Margaret Mann, is a widow in her 80s, plagued with failing health and lapses of memory. Her daughter Tess, played by NHTC member Susan Kulp, and son-in-law Jon, played by guest actor Marty Tucker, have enlisted a “prime,” a synthetic humanoid entity, to be Marjorie’s companion. The prime (played by guest actor Ryan Hendrickson) wears the appearance of Marjorie’s deceased husband Walter as he was in his thirties. He serves to focus Marjorie’s memory and help with her grief, though Tess fears an over-reliance on a relationship that isn’t real.

Marjorie Prime runs at the NHTC stage in the English Markets Building, February 28-March 2, and March 7-9, at 8 p.m.

For director Trevor Williams, the play is “very human and sometimes chillingly inhuman.” Williams confesses to be “drawn to nonhuman roles” and that may be the reason directing the play for NHTC fell to him. He was the brains behind “the baby console” in the company’s production of Smudge, and he played the showboating chimp Oscar in NHTC’s production of Trevor. The possibilities of putting onstage characters who aren’t quite people intrigues him. As does Marjorie Prime and the previous NHTC offering, fall 2018’s Love Song, both of those plays featured a sense of a domestic normality made darker and somewhat alarming by the ways the people in the plays cope with what Williams called “some kind of lack: a child, a spouse, memory, sanity.” In each case some potentially workable but also potentially dysfunctional solution is found and made dramatically interesting.

The primes in the play, Williams says, serve “as companionship and as consolations: they interact with their employers and store up memories.” Tell a prime a story from your childhood or from—as in Marjorie’s case—about some events from your marriage and the prime will accept the story as gospel, recalling forever those exact details.

Much of the play revolves around how humans interact with this new class of beings. The misgivings about having one’s life stored in synthetic memory banks—as with our online lives—certainly plays into Harrison’s concerns. That’s the chillingly inhuman aspect that Williams spoke of. But there’s also much attention to how the tales we tell form our identities for ourselves and others. What survives us in the minds of others? What happens when we forget our loved ones, or when contrary recollections are in conflict? At one point Tess, exasperated with Jon, says she might need a “reprogrammable spouse.” That’s the very human side of the story, where the frustrations of mortality and the shelf-life of our memories undermine even our most enduring relationships. There’s also the question of manufactured memories—versions of an event that we pretend to have to avoid recalling the truth.

For Williams, the play “shows us what happens when we choose what facts to record, in our digital lives or in the stories we tell each other. Now, when truth and what it means to be human are all becoming so mutable, for better or worse, this story compels us to reflect on the choices we’ve made and, perhaps, those we’ve yet to make.”

The play, in three acts with an epilogue, runs for approximately 80 minutes and has been given a thrust space unusual for NHTC productions, increasing the sense of intimacy in the company’s black box, which has recently been expanded to include a backstage area.

Marjorie Prime is bound to affect viewers differently depending where they are in their own lifetimes. For some of the cast, the story is almost dystopian, showing us a less-human future that undermines ideas of each individual’s irreplaceable uniqueness. Others stuck up for the optimism of the play, its sense that maintaining human memory through art, through recordings, through artificial intelligence is a positive aspect of the human instinct for survival, making the future more human, whatever we take that to mean.

Tickets can be purchased at the New Haven Theater Company site, here.

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New Haven Theater Company includes Erich Greene, George Kulp, Susan Kulp, Margaret Mann, Deena Nicol-Blifford, Suzanne Powers, Steve Scarpa, Christian Shaboo, J. Kevin Smith, John Watson, and Trevor Williams

 

Marjorie Prime
By Jordan Harrison
Directed by Trevor Williams
February 28-March 2, March 7-9, 2019

 

Glum Waiters

Review of The Dumb Waiter, New Haven Theater Company

Meet Gus (Erich Greene) and Ben (Trevor Williams), two guys hanging out in a basement room, bare but for two cots, that looks like a holding tank. There is a door to a kitchen, and sometimes Gus meanders down the hall to confront the not-quite-adequate range and the task of making tea. Meanwhile, Ben, rather truculent, reads the newspaper, his eye caught by any gory story he can share as an outrage to all good sense. They are waiting for their orders sort of the way that Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for Godot. Eventually we catch on: they are flunky hit-men and their next target should be arriving any time now.

Harold Pinter’s early career abounded in testy confrontations that are funny, in a deadpan, absurdist, almost realist way. Remember the chitchat of the hit-men (played by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson) in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and the kinds of critical praise it earned? That kind of thing is a page out of Pinter’s playbook. Except that, in The Dumb Waiter, directed by New Haven Theater Company’s John Watson, we’re not in a work of “pulp,” per se. Nor Pop. We’re in a theatrical tradition that goes back to vaudeville and the English music hall, pitting feckless Anymen, somewhat down but not out, against the affronts to dignity that every clown who ever trod the boards has had to endure (think: Laurel and Hardy). But Ben and Gus also inhabit a recent tradition—Godot was only two years old, in English, when The Dumb Waiter appeared—of dark absurdism and the sense that any system—even one that is violent and pointless and tedious and dumb—is better than nothing. Gus and Ben aren’t exactly “stiff upper lip” material, though they do take pride in their efficiency, and that’s something.

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With a playing time of under an hour, Pinter’s script lets its cast take its time. The pacing by Watson and company has a respect for the calculated pauses, drops, and musing boredom that comprises most of this duo’s time on the job. The junior partner though he appears older, Gus is played by Erich Greene as a kind of annoying little brother. Having him on hand means putting up with a ponderous case of the fidgets, emblematized by his first actions: putting on his shoes, laboriously, only to find, repeatedly, that something has gotten into one or the other and must be removed. The sequence sets the tone. These two aren’t too swift, but, after their fashion, they are thorough.

This becomes more and more oddly the case as we see them wrack their brains to deal with a series of messages—orders for food—that get delivered by the play’s titular device. The dumb waiter’s presence makes Ben—who likes to speak with authority whether or not he knows what he’s talking about—assert that this locale was once some sort of café and someone upstairs still thinks it is active. The range of foods requested—Greek dishes, noodles and water chestnuts, Scampi—could almost be seen as cryptic messages, but the pair simply offer what Gus has got in his sack. Their servile aim to please is endearing, and yet there’s a keen menace behind it all—at least, we’re not sure there’s not, and so tension mixes with the silliness.

And that’s the key note of the show. Laughs are always a little uneasy when there are guns on hand. Both Gus and Ben, we see early on, have revolvers and stand ready to use them. Meanwhile there’s the question of how to kill time and what to do with the food orders and, in a mysterious segment, how to react to an envelope of matches that gets slid under the door. The obvious meaning in the packet’s arrival is that it has been supplied by their unseen boss, Wilson, and that the matches are for lighting the range to make tea, but the fact that the gas isn’t working makes the gesture pointless if not a deliberate joke on the hapless duo.

The jokes we’re sure of here are like that, basking in a rich sense of how “things in general” play tricks on us, sometimes quite awful ones, like the newspaper story of a gent who took shelter under a lorry only to have it run over him. We might suspect that there’s a lurking lorry here somewhere, ready to take our heroes unawares—whether in the form of the target, or the boss, or the gas range, or, maybe, Ben’s temper as he berates Gus about the aptness of the expressions “light the gas” and “light the kettle.” It’s enough to make a cat laugh, as Gus says at one point.

In any case, here is a nice kettle of fish to be pickled in. In Gus, Greene has a character that lets him exploit a sad-sack resilience; ill-kempt and beleaguered, his Gus might be more sympathetic if he weren’t so dim. Meanwhile, Williams’ Ben maintains a slow-burn testiness that always threatens to explode, like Abbott at Costello. It's good to see NHTC tackle something dialogue-driven but without the manic tempo of Mamet. The best thing about Pinter’s dialogue is how artfully artless it is, and Greene and Williams deliver it in an invented accent that fluctuates but keeps up the necessary estrangement. These two mates seem mated, for better or worse, and till death do they part.

 

The Dumb Waiter
By Harold Pinter
Directed by John Watson

Stage Manager/Assistant Director: Margaret Mann; Lights: Peter Chenot; Sound: Drew Gray; Board Op: Ian Dunn

Cast: Erich Greene, Trevor Williams

New Haven Theater Company
839 Chapel Street
February 1-3 & 8-10, 2018

 

 

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

Right at Home

Review of Middletown, New Haven Theater Company

Will Eno opens Middletown with a speech of welcome delivered by a “Public Speaker.” As played by Megan Chenot, the speaker presents an earnest hope that we will all feel we belong, but her litany of who “we” might be, as audience members or townies, in seeking to be all-inclusive, begins to feel vaguely unreal, a kind of labelling without a sense of precise meanings. Eventually, it starts to sound like double-talk. And that’s how language works in Middletown: it’s ho-hum average, and yet. There’s something a little unsettling about how easily what gets said doesn’t quite equate with what’s intended.

Mechanic (Trevor Williams), Doctor (Megan Chenot)

Mechanic (Trevor Williams), Doctor (Megan Chenot)

Everyone here is a job or role rather than a character. Everyone, that is, except Mary Swanson (Chrissy Gardner), a pregnant woman new to the town, whose absentee husband seems never to arrive, and John Dodge (Steve Scarpa), a local jack-of-all-trades, who reads up on gravity—“the silent killer”—and fixes things, and contemplates ending it all; whether from boredom or frustration or some more insidious malaise is hard to say. Together, these two almost put the town on the map, as it were, seeming to create a possible connection outside of assigned roles.

A key visual device is John and Mary each behind a separate window in separate houses, spied upon by the Cop (George Kulp) on his beat as if making sure they never inhabit the same place. They do, briefly, when John comes to fix the sink and their exchange is the stuff of a suburban Woody Allen where mixed signals are missed signals, and vice versa. It’s one of Scarpa’s best performances, and the promise of romance keeps us hoping, as it may for these two lonely people who would never admit their attraction.

Other characters align in ways that suggest parallel purposes. A librarian (Margaret Mann) is also a kind of welcomer, as is a tour guide (Alynne Miller), characters who have a sense of belonging and an elusive sense of what makes the place itself. A tourist couple (Chaz Carmon and Erich Greene) are played for laughs as the kind of people who are content so long as there’s something to take a picture of, but they're also a version of the unhappy couple, John and Mary. More problematic is Mechanic (Trevor Williams), a ne’er-do-well who loiters on park benches—to the Cop’s irritation—and sulks in the library where his non sequitur are amusing asides, and vice versa. He’s also, sort of, our bridge to the one “famous” person from Middletown, Greg “Something,” who, as an astronaut in space, muses about his hometown and the time he had to tell some kid—the Mechanic, as a child—that his coveted rock was not a meteorite. The dashed hopes of Mechanic are, as it were, the thorn in the side of this complacent town, an indication that beneath the tepid bonhomie there might lurk harsher realities. Or at least nagging disappointment.

Just before the break, we get shown a row of folks watching the play, musing about what things mean and where they may be heading, while also making small talk. A child, Sweetheart (Alynne Miller), repeats words she’s heard, verbatim, which suggests that little insight will be gained by, as more than one character puts it, “moving your mouth and making different sounds.”

In the second half, Middletown becomes less fanciful and the effects of the encounters seem more scattershot. The parallel between John and Mary continues, in a different register, and trees and rocks still remind us that nature is more than us; the Mechanic can be surprisingly soulful, while birth and death are shown to be just stuff that happens. The general tone becomes more quizzical than whimsical, but still holds back from big emotions.

Throughout, director Peter Chenot lets the laughs fall where they may, and the cast does great with the show’s off-beat humor. There are fewer laughs in the second half, and my sense is that Middletown’s first act runs like a dream, but the second act requires more effort. Punching one event or another might help overcome the show’s even, musing tone.

The best thing here is the way the regulars of New Haven Theater Company fit so easily into their roles in Middletown. Maybe too easily.

 

Middletown
Written by Will Eno
Directed by Peter Chenot

Cast: Chaz Carmon, Megan Chenot, Chrissy Gardner, Erich Greene, George Kulp, Margaret Mann, Alynne Miller, Steven Scarpa, J. Kevin Smith, John Watson, Trevor Williams

Sound Design and Original Score: Megan Chenot; Choreography: Jenny Schuck; Props Master: Trevor Williams; Light Board Operator: David Stagg

New Haven Theater Company
April 27-29; May 4-6, 2017

Me & the Chimp

Review of Trevor, New Haven Theater Company

Nick Jones’ Trevor, playing tonight for one more show at New Haven Theater Company, directed by Drew Gray, is a rollicking comedy that gets progressively darker. It’s not a bait and switch so much as it’s an absurdist situation that gets real, with potentially unpleasant consequences.

Sandy (Sandra Rodriguez) lives in an apartment that looks as if she shares it with a hyperactive child, filled with toys and activities and stuff not picked up. But her “child” is actually a chimpanzee named Trevor (Peter Chenot) who is getting perilously close to full grown. Like any protective and attached mother, Sandy wants to minimize any problems with her growing “boy.” But as the play opens he has just driven her car to a Dunkin Donuts and back, depositing the auto on the lawn of neighbor Ashley (Melissa Smith). All of which is handled comically as Jones—by giving us access to Trevor’s inner thoughts—keeps us entertained with the monkey business of how a reasonably intelligent chimp might interpret the intentions of humans upset with him. Trevor’s a walking comic aside on everything going on around him, so that the stress we see in Sandy and Melissa, also a mom, becomes a kind of satire of clashing versions of parenting. Water off the duck’s back of Trevor’s self-obsessed charm.

Trevor (Peter Chenot)

Trevor (Peter Chenot)

The comedy is further given a sizeable shot in the arm by the fact that Trevor isn’t just any chimp. In his glory days he was on TV with no less a star than Morgan Fairchild (played in Trevor’s memories and daydreams by Susan Kulp) and he’s convinced that Hollywood will come calling any minute. He also experiences fantasy interactions with Oliver (Trevor Williams), a success story of a chimp who gets to wear a white tux and claims to have a human wife and half-human kids. The interactions between Oliver and Trevor about the monkeyshines of show biz let Trevor take aim at more than domestic dysfunction. The heartache of out-growing home-life is set beside the heartbreak of any minor talent trying to become “somebody.” All this is handled with a light touch by director Gray and company, and in a wonderful manic-slacker manner by Chenot.

How real living with Trevor will become is a question that starts to rear its head when a visit by a police officer (Erich Greene) to Sandy’s home, provoked by Melissa among others, opens up the question of whether Trevor has become a public safety issue (clearly he has, but Trevor is a kind of “local color” celebrity who has been given plenty of leeway, until now). This intervention leads to a visit by Jerry (Chaz Carmon), from an animal protection agency, to evaluate the situation. Carmon gets a lot of mileage out of looking both agreeable and frightened out of his wits at the same time, while Rodriguez begins to let us see the desperation at the heart of Sandy’s plea to be left in peace with her child-pet. The end result is not likely to be what anyone really wants, and that’s real life alright.

Along the way there’s lots of fun with Trevor’s delusions of grandeur, including a glimpse of Morgan Fairchild aping a chimp and, later, surrendering to Trevor’s charms, and with Trevor’s bag of tricks, such as rollerblading and playing toy guitar. Pathos comes from the well-meaning monkey’s efforts to control a situation he doesn’t understand. The scenes without Trevor tend to be a bit flat, lacking the comic intrusion of his point of view, as if Jones couldn’t be bothered to make them either believable or funny, though a breezier overall comic tone might help to sell them. When Trevor is present, the comedy of human behavior, from a chimp’s perspective, keeps the ball bouncing.

In the end, the play, while a fun time in its portrayal of a chimp a lot like us, provokes with the question of whether being humane—and what that means—defines being human. Otherwise, we’re all just a bunch of dumb animals.

 

Trevor
By Nick Jones
Directed by Drew Gray

Cast: Chaz Carmon, Peter Chenot, Erich Greene, Susan Kulp, Sandra Rodriguez, Melissa Smith, Trevor Williams

Board Ops: George Kulp, J. Kevin Smith

New Haven Theater Company
February 23-25; March 2-4, 2017

Mature Attraction

Review of The Last Romance, New Haven Theater Company

Joe DiPietro’s The Last Romance is a quiet little drama about taking a chance, late in life. Its best feature is attention to the kind of small distinctions that can make a big difference in how people learn to accept and trust one another.

NHTC member John Watson plays Ralph Bellini, an Italian-American widower who suddenly, in his 80s, becomes sweet on a woman he sees with her pet dog in a park he ventures into by chance. Soon he’s trying his best to chat her up, using all his resources of gentle joshing and kidding, turning on the charm. The object of his interest, Carol Reynolds, played by NHTC member Margaret Mann, is not so warm or inclined to be charmed. She’s a bit prickly, a bit distracted. But she’s not indifferent to the attention.

As played by Watson, Ralph is indeed a likeable guy, the kind we would expect to have many casual friends. In fact, the only other major person in his life at this point is his sister Rose Tagliatelle, played by Janie Tamarkin, a bossy but also needy woman who never married. Ralph and Rose are the only siblings left of a large family. They’re settled in their ways and Rose can’t help wondering what’s up with her brother in taking a shine to a complete stranger.

And it’s not just doubts about the value of romance so late in life that Rose shows. There’s a subtle sense of this odd couple coming from different walks of life that she is well aware of. Mann’s Carol is WASPY and more than a bit uptight—her repeated phrase “for shame!” should give you an idea. She speaks of having cared for a husband struck down by a stroke. The main connection between her and Ralph seems to be that they are survivors. They paid their dues in marriages, and they’re still here, and that means, maybe, that something good may yet come their way.

For Ralph, dreams of romance seem to always come back to opera. He auditioned once at the Met, and director Trevor Williams handles effectively the operatic moments in the play, so that we get a strong impression of the youth and gifts that Ralph looks back on (with thanks to a cameo from Christian Shaboo). Mann’s Carol is a harder sell. It’s not clear exactly what she sees in Ralph, since she’s so slow to open up. But she does make it clear—and here changes in her wardrobe help to make the case—that she greatly appreciates being romanced again, after having pretty much given up on it.

As such there’s a nice contrast between Carol and Rose, both still hopeful—in Rose’s case, it’s hoping that the husband who left her will return—and both trying to live without illusions. Which generally means they’re quick to spot others’ unreal hopes. The question hovering in the air, as with any romance, is whether this is going to end happily ever after or whether some kind of deal-breaker will surface.

New Haven Theater Company finds in this simple and direct story a good vehicle for its actors, with Janie Tamarkin’s support adding a touch of authentic Brooklyn. In the end, DiPietro’s play seems to suggest we’re creatures of habit, but if so, it shows how some habits come from stronger ties than others. The Last Romance is a realistic romance that shows that getting what you hope for might not be for the best.

Three more shows: tonight, tomorrow and Saturday.

The Last Romance
By Joe DiPietro
Directed by Trevor Williams

Cast: Margaret Mann, Janie Tamarkin, John Watson

Additional voices and video by Christian Shaboo & Peter Chenot
Lighting Design: Peter Chenot

New Haven Theater Company
November 10-19, 2016

A Chance for Late Romance

Preview of The Last Romance, New Haven Theater Company

The New Haven Theater Company returns this week with their fall offering. The play chosen by the democratic company, Joe DiPietro’s The Last Romance, was proposed by NHTC member Margaret Mann, last seen in the NHTC production of Doubt. Like Doubt, The Last Romance is a play for a small ensemble, in this case three actors: Mann, as Carol Reynolds; NHTC member John Watson—last seen in the staged reading of Incident at Vichy a few weeks ago, and in last season’s celebrated run of Bus Stop before that—as Ralph Bellini; and Equity actor Janie Tamarkin as Rose Tagliatelle.

As Mann well knows, it’s not easy finding good parts for actors over 60. And to find a play in which all the characters are well above middle-age is even more unique. Most theater-goers in the New Haven area seem to fit that demographic, so why not a play that, as Mann says, treats the possibility of romance between elders as “the same as between much younger people.” She describes the play as “a small play about the one thing that can change everything.” Finding someone is never easy, and DiPietro’s play shows both the luck and chance involved, as well as the obstacles.

Ralph is an opera-lover who once even got a call-back to sing at the Met—the kind of thing one is liable to look back on in later life as a big, lost chance. Now a widower who takes a walk every day, Ralph happens to take his walk at a different time, in a different direction, and that small change causes him to meet Carol, a widow who likes to take her beloved chihuahua to a particular dog park. Mann sees the play as taking a serious—though at times funny—look at “the intersection of lives, later in life,” with “a little bit” of class considerations as well. The play’s setting is not really specified, Mann says, but the NHTC team are thinking of it “as happening in Wooster Square.”

Directing the show is NHTC member Trevor Williams, also seen in Vichy and Bus Stop, who hasn’t directed for NHTC before, but who, still in his thirties, is bringing a more youthful view to the play, according to Mann. Mann directed Almost, Maine for the company in November 2013 and, like that play, Last Romance takes place in “an imagined space” that represents different settings—in this case three, though mostly the dog park.

Margaret Mann, John Watson, Janie Tamarkin, The Last Romance

Margaret Mann, John Watson, Janie Tamarkin, The Last Romance

For Mann, acting is “a chance to step out of my own skin” while enjoying the pleasure of working with other actors. She admits she had “to sell” the play a bit to her colleagues in NHTC, but Watson was also intrigued with the play, and the chance to “play our age” as characters with distinct, “well-written speech patterns.” There’s “a lot of talking over” in the dialogue, and much of the play’s effect should be in its naturalness.

“The characters feel like people you’ve met,” Mann says, and, while the play touches on “aging, illness and loss,” it’s decidedly “not morbid but realistic and touching.” The humor, she says, is “not silly or nasty, but sweet.”

“It’s about trying something new, when you’re stuck,” Mann says of the interactions between the characters, and the risks and rewards of getting to know new people after a lifetime amidst familiar ways.

Any show with “last” in the title is apt to make us think about how much time we have left, but that question is even more relevant to those who have already lived most of their lives. Don’t miss out on last chances, and don’t miss out on New Haven Theater Company’s The Last Romance, showing for the next two weekends at the English Building Markets, November 10-12 and 17-19, at 8 p.m.

 

The Last Romance
by Joe DiPietro
Directed by Trevor Williams
New Haven Theater Company

For Cult's Sake

Review of The Cult by New Haven Theater Company

Drew Gray’s The Cult, the latest offering by the New Haven Theater Company at their home in The English Building Markets, is a play about making connections and the effects such connections can have. Anyone might want a wider circle of friends or maybe different friends, but few of us form or join a cult for the sake of company. Perhaps the most lasting effect of the play is that it makes doing so seem not so bizarre or absurd as one might have thought.

When the play starts, many of the characters in The Cult have already found belonging in a group—the members don’t call it “a cult” themselves—formed by Tyler (Christian Shaboo), an earnest young man who seems to believe he hears the words of an entity called “Albean.” As with any religious ritual, the reasons for what the members believe and the purposes of the acts they perform can be a bit vague—or even silly—to outsiders. While at times Gray, who also directs and designed the show, wants to explore the comic possibilities of the cult situation, most of the attempts at humor seem like pandering to a dumbed-down sit-com. The story, as it develops in Act Two, is stronger than that.

The uneven mix of comedy and drama keeps the tone of the initial going a bit undecided. We don’t laugh at sad or pathetic people, and that’s what the cult members seem to be. Jared (Rick Beebe) is an introvert, Sally (Lauren Young) is an airhead, Alan (Erich Greene) is after sex, and so forth. The new business is that Tyler’s co-worker, Roger (a fidgety J. Kevin Smith), whose get-ahead wife (a fun cameo from Mallory Pellegrino) just dumped him, is curious about what Tyler’s into. Rather than laugh it off as too weird, Roger is intrigued, and wants to wear a robe and join “the cult.” The other development for potential drama is that Tyler manages to score a date with Rachel (Katelyn Marie Marshall), a shy co-worker who stays at home with her cats while he’s home changing the lives of his followers. Then there’s the issue of the farm.

A cult must have a goal, one supposes, and the goal here is not to await the Rapture or a Second Coming of Albean, but to live together in peace and harmony on the farm Tyler lived on as a boy. It was there he first heard the voice of Albean and, he believes, a return there will be like a return to Mecca. But first they must raise the money to buy what isn’t for sale. The various plot points get furthered when Tyler takes Rachel on a drive to the farm, and we meet Will (Trevor Williams), the man in possession of the place who, it turns out, is Tyler’s brother. Meanwhile, Jared has some distressing news.

Once Jared’s medical condition comes to light, the play, for the most part, drops its half-hearted attempts to be funny. The other thing that happens is that the longer we’re in their company, the more we begin to believe in these people who believe in Albean. And that shift in perspective is worth sticking around for.

In addition to our growing acceptance of the cult members, the play’s pay-off comes in how the other people in Tyler’s life—Will and Rachel—react to his followers. The stress that memberships can cause one’s relationship with non-members plays out in well-acted scenes. What’s more, the fact that neither Will nor Rachel can stomach the implications of Tyler as a “prophet of Albean,” preferring to see him as emotionally disturbed (Will) or some kind of snake-oil salesman (Rachel), ratchets up the tensions of belonging and believing in the face of naysayers.

The Cult is at its best in one-on-one moments where characters can be revealed, such as the awkward dating between Tyler and Rachel, Tyler’s patient appraisal of Jared’s anxious revelations, or—a scene that suggests interesting back-story—the sibling rivalry of Tyler and his fed-up brother. The cult members themselves are at their best when reacting to Tyler—played by Shaboo without an ounce of guile or irony—though a surer hand with comic pacing and timing could have us laughing at them before we start taking them seriously.

 

New Haven Theater Company
The Cult
Written, directed, and designed by Drew Gray

Produced by Peter Chenot; Original Music by Drew Gray; Stage Managed by Drew Gray; Audio Supervision by Ray Stephens; Props by Drew Gray, Margaret Mann, Trevor Williams

Cast: Rick Beebe (Jared); Erich Greene (Alan); Katelyn Marie Marshall (Rachel); Deena Nicol-Blifford (Jane); Mallory Pellegrino (Veronica/Samantha/Ellen); Sandra Rodriguez (Charlie); Christian Shaboo (Tyler), J. Kevin Smith (Roger); Tim Smith (Tommy); Trevor Williams (Will); Lauren Young (Sally)

New Haven Theater Company
The English Building Markets
839 Chapel Street, New Haven

May 28, 29, 30 and June 3, 4, 5, 6, 2015

Keeping It Real

With their latest offering, Donald Margulies’ Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventure of Louis de Rougemont (As Told By Himself), New Haven Theater Company have expanded their range yet again. While they are generally best with shows driven by dialogue and even—as with their entertaining take on Urinetown a few years ago—songs, one doesn’t usually associate them with special effects, and that’s what Shipwrecked! thrives on. The adventures of Rougemont (Christian Shaboo), directed by Peter Chenot, smack of the improbable world of coincidence of the 18th century novel, and, as a narrative, follow an arc of rise and fall very neatly. The story requires quite a number of small parts, lots of movement in different settings, and threats from storms, a giant octopus, Aborigines, and Australian prospectors, to say nothing of the frigid streets of London where immense condescension and adulation comes in waves. Driving all this is Rougemont, played by Shaboo with the earnest good humor of a narrator of fiction—indeed Rougemont speaks almost incessantly, interpreting for the viewer the elements of every scene as well as sharing his emotions and intentions as the story winds on. It’s an exhausting part—both verbally and physically (handstands, cartwheels and somersaults are featured)—and Shaboo keeps it all likeably interesting. We pull for Rougemont even as we suspect he’s pulling our leg.

The show is a theatrical production that never forgets it’s a theatrical production, and that suits NHTC where the means to bring off a piece are conditioned by a certain do-it-yourself ethic. In other words, Margulies’ play seems tailored for just such a company as NHTC. While a big budget production would no doubt be more effective in stimulating the suspension of disbelief that Rougemont’s story begs, it would also, I imagine, lose some of the feel of the “let’s pretend” aspect of the staging. Rougemont’s adventures feel more authentically presented when we see the puppet strings, as it were. And that’s because Rougemont never pretends that the staging is real, only that what he tells us actually happened.

Rougemont was a real person (Henri Louis Grin), his story cobbled together from the adventure stories he loved as a boy and facts about Australasia he found in libraries, but there is a certain mystery to it all as well. For while he was unable, in real life, to convince The Royal Geographic Society, his tale entertained and enthralled many. From those who want their epic adventures based in fact, there was an inevitable backlash. Indeed, Rougemont's fall from grace actually adds a certain believability to his story, so that its inclusion, while less “amazing” brings us back to reality.

Using a small proscenium as a backdrop—primarily as a space to project Drew Grey’s charming transparencies using the old magic lantern technique that would’ve been available to Rougemont—NHTC’s production gives us Rougemont’s story with the finesse of someone who can believe anything he wants his audience to believe. Doubtless seeing stagehands running about with banners to enact an octopus, he in fact sees an octopus. That, we might say, is the whole point of the story.

Shaboo is ably helped by NHTC members and some new recruits to round out the cast. Particularly welcome among the latter are the comic skills of Jesse Gabbard, as Captain Jensen, among other things, and welcome among the former is Mallory Pellegrino who plays an Aborigine maiden—who learns English surprisingly quickly—as charmingly as she played Emily in NHTC’s Our Town. Other highlights are Margaret Mann as Queen Victoria, quite intrigued by the fact that Rougemont rode a turtle, Erich Greene as Rougemont’s faithful hound—I can only imagine how tired his tongue must be after two shows in one day—Trevor Williams as an English prig, and Katelyn Marshall, as an Australian prospector. Everyone mentioned plays many other parts as well in the full meaning of ensemble.

Margulies’ play is an oddity. We could call it a celebration of theater and of make-believe, but it also seems to want Rougemont to be a hero, whether for adventures he didn’t have or for having the temerity of telling them as if he did—or perhaps for simply embodying the very principle of fiction: just because it didn’t happen that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

The New Haven Theater Company’s production of Shipwrecked! is a fun family outing, and good time spent away from screens and computer-generated entertainment—for the sake of entertainment generated by shared imagination. Truly.

 

New Haven Theater Company presents Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis De Rougemont (As Told By Himself) By Donald Margulies Directed by Peter Chenot

Featuring: Christian Shaboo as Louis de Rougemont Cast: Jesse Gabbard, Drew Gray, Erich Greene, Katelyn Marshall, Margaret Mann, Mallory Pellegrino Trevor Williams; Projection Design: Drew Gray; Stage Manager: Allyson Kaechele; Light Board Op: Mary Tedford

Thurs, May 1 and Thurs, May 8: 8 pm Fri, May 2 and Fri, May 9: 8 pm Sat, May 3 and Sat, May 10: 5 pm and 8 pm New Haven Theater Company at The English Building Markets 839 Chapel Street, New Haven $20, adults; $12, students, children

Note: The 8pm show on Saturday 5/10 will be a Pay What You Can performance. Secure your admission with a $5 online reservation, and then pay what you can at the door.

For tickets and information:new haven theater company

Shipwrecked! with New Haven Theater Company

Ensconced in their home at the back of the English Markets, the New Haven Theater Company now have the rights—and the right space—for their production of New Haven resident Donald Margulies’ Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told By Himself). Margulies, a Pulitzer-winning playwright and a professor at Yale, first debuted the play in 2008, and there was a Long Wharf production that same year. Among the audience of the latter was Peter Chenot, who will be directing the NHTC production, which opens two weeks from today. For Chenot, the show accentuates the idea of the power of the imagination. With all the mechanics of the theater occurring onstage—including the sound effects of Foley art—the audience is not asked to suspend their disbelief in the usual fashion. Everything that Rougemont (Christian Shaboo) tells us, in his fantastic adventures involving, among other things, an attack by a giant octopus, is portrayed for the audience not as if it’s real but as if it’s an elaborate act of storytelling, happening before our very eyes.

Chenot was drawn to the play—which NHTC was initially slated to produce last spring at the Whitney Arts Center before the rights became unavailable—by the kinds of challenges and rewards it presents. It forces the troupe “to be more creative onstage” as well as “adding improv techniques” to their rehearsals—techniques that are part of the background of Chenot’s involvement with the group, as he’s a veteran of The Funny Stages, the improv comedy group that included Shaboo and Erich Greene, also a featured player in Shipwrecked! Also in the show is Margaret Mann, who directed Almost, Maine in the winter and was in the cast of NHTC’s production of Our Town, as was Mallory Pellegrino, also in Shipwrecked! and Almost, Maine. The NHTC regulars are joined by three debuts with the company: Jesse Gabbard, Katelyn Marshall, and Trevor Williams.

NHTC’s work on Our Town is an appropriate reference point, as Margulies himself references Thornton Wilder’s great play in his intro to Shipwrecked! The concept of theater freed of the effort to replicate realism in favor of imaginative flight unites both. As Chenot says, the stagehands are part of the play and seeing Drew Gray’s projections from an old-time magic lantern, or puppets made from found objects in two big steamer trunks onstage lets us know that the show is partly a matter of a willful redirection of reality. That element is significant for the story of Rougemont, a real person of Victorian England whose memoir chronicling his adventures was celebrated in his day, only to find the public turn against him when doubts about the veracity of his tale began to circulate.

Chenot likens Rougemont’s tale to the Odyssey where, famously, Odysseus tells his own “sea story” of strange lands and fantastic creatures. Uniting both is a love of storytelling for its own sake and the ability of a sailor to spin a yarn for the sake of his own skill. “For the players,” Chenot says, “it doesn’t matter if it’s true.” The troupe becomes “a family of believers in Rougemont” who are interested in the value of a good story and not in duping a gullible public.

NHTC is aiming the show for ages 8 and up, and indeed Shipwrecked! is the kind of show that might be said to be aimed at the child in us all, the one who is willing to be awed by reality’s potential to be more than we expect it to be. Is Rougemont a charlatan? Only if he doesn’t deliver the kind of entertainment we expect of the fabulous and incredible.

As Chenot comments, Shaboo, onstage the entire time as Rougemont, has to keep us enthralled and willing to follow his lead. A bit perhaps like the main character in NHTC’s most recent production, The Magician, Rougemont is trying to convince us that magic is what happens in our own minds, and this time all the sleight-of-hand will be right before our eyes.

 

Shipwrecked! An Entertainment: The Amazing Adventures of Louis De Rougemont (As Told By Himself) By Donald Margulies Directed by Peter Chenot

Showtimes: Thurs, May 1 and Thurs, May 8: 8 pm Fri, May 2 and Fri, May 9: 8 pm Sat, May 3 and Sat, May 10: 5 pm and 8 pm

New Haven Theater Company At The English Building Markets 839 Chapel Street, New Haven

$20, adults; $12, students, children

For tickets and information:new haven theater company