Westport Country Playhouse

A Beautiful Day in the Barrio

Review of In the Heights, Westport Country Playhouse

Westport Country Playhouse opens its 2019 season with a crowd-pleaser. In the Heights by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, directed and choreographed by Marcos Santana, is a lively look back at a certain time and place, full of the kind of evocative nostalgia that becomes the stuff of myth—or of musicals.

We may be forgiven for looking back at the 1990s as a more innocent time. Set in July 1999, when an eighteen-hour blackout hit Washington Heights, where the action takes place, the musical evokes the summer heat and the way a neighborhood meets its daily challenges. There are many subplots—some are romantic, some economic, but most have to do with proving oneself and with learning to meet new challenges.

Nina (Didi Romero), Benny (Gerald Caesar), Graffitti Pete (Edward Cuellar), Usnavi (Rodolfo Soto), Piragua Guy (Paul Aguirre), Sonny (Ezequiel Pujols), Ensemble (Randy Castillo), Vanessa (Nina Victoria Negron), and Ensemble (Sarita Colon) in Westport Country Playhouse’s production of In the Heights (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Nina (Didi Romero), Benny (Gerald Caesar), Graffitti Pete (Edward Cuellar), Usnavi (Rodolfo Soto), Piragua Guy (Paul Aguirre), Sonny (Ezequiel Pujols), Ensemble (Randy Castillo), Vanessa (Nina Victoria Negron), and Ensemble (Sarita Colon) in Westport Country Playhouse’s production of In the Heights (photo by Carol Rosegg)

At the center of it all is Usnavi, an outgoing bodega owner, played with eager energy by Rodolfo Soto. His rapping intro to the barrio in the show’s title song is matched by many moving bodies, becomingly clad in Fabian Fidel Aguilar’s eye-catching costumes, and parading in Santana’s dance moves across the atmospheric set by Adam Koch. We’re off to a vivid start.

Carla (Amanda Robles), Daniela (Sandra Marante), Nina (Didi Romero), and Vanessa (Nina Victoria Negron) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Carla (Amanda Robles), Daniela (Sandra Marante), Nina (Didi Romero), and Vanessa (Nina Victoria Negron) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

At the heart of the story is Nina, played with delicate grace by Didi Romero; she’s the girl who made good by earning a scholarship to Stanford, now she’s back with a secret and finds a budding romance with Benny (Gerald Caesar), a worker at her father’s cabstand. Romero brings a lyrical sweetness to her numbers, “Breathe” and “Everything I Know,” and to her duets with Benny that book-end Act 2, “Sunrise” and “When the Sun Goes Down.” Nina’s parents, Kevin (Tony Chiroldes) and Camila (Doreen Montalvo), each get a standout number in Act 1 and Act 2, respectively. For Chiroldes, it’s Kevin’s melancholy “Inútil (Useless),” a theme song for fathers everywhere, and for Montalvo it’s “Enough,” Camila’s theme song for mothers tired of family bickering.

Miranda has a knack for putting the stuff of everyday life into pithy song, and he makes sure there’s a place in the show for all aspects of the neighborhood he’s at pains to depict. “Pacienca y Fe (Patience and Faith),” sung by the neighborhood’s “abuela” Claudia (Blanca Camacho, perfectly cast) is in many ways the theme song for the neighborhood’s mix of immigrants and their descendants from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba and elsewhere. One of the most touching moments comes early in Act 2 when Usnavi and Claudia join in acknowledging the “Hundreds of Stories” in the barrio.

Usnavi (Rodolfo Soto), Abuela Claudia (Blanca Camacho) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Usnavi (Rodolfo Soto), Abuela Claudia (Blanca Camacho) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

There’s also a big club number, which lets the kids dress up, to close out Act 1, followed by some violence and chaos during the blackout, and even a willful celebration of Carnaval, led by Daniela (Sandra Marante), who also encapsulates gossip as a lingua franca at her hair salon, with “No Me Diga.” The dances are led by Alison Solomon and make the most of Westport’s wide, deep stage. Domonic Sack’s soundstage, however, seems not quite up to the challenge of Westport’s barnlike space as some of the voices don’t come across with the requisite precision in the mix.

Santana, who choreographed Westport’s Man of La Mancha last season, here gets to take on a more upbeat musical. In the Heights lacks any darker dramatic tension, comprised of the kind of everyday challenges that only glance at issues of racism and the need for political action. Miranda and Alegría Hudes prefer to make the show a love letter to the barrio with the kind of united front common to sit-coms and Disney musicals. Usnavi, as the role Miranda originated, keeps a positive focus and Soto imbues him with a wide-eyed hope that makes him decide that his ticket out can just as easily be a reason to stay.

In the Heights is nothing if not celebratory, giving to an area previously depicted primarily in terms of gangs, crime and drugs a feel for its joy and strong ties—encapsulated by the moving “Everything I Know,” where moving on and taking the past along is key to the immigrants’ experience, handed down as legacy for the young and beautiful inhabitants in the heights.

Nina (Didi Romero), Benny (Gerald Caesar) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Nina (Didi Romero), Benny (Gerald Caesar) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

 

In the Heights
Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegría Hudes
Directed and choreographed by Marcos Santana

Scenic Design: Adam Koch; Costume Design: Fabian Fidel Aguilar; Lighting Design: María-Cristina Fusté; Sound Design: Domonic Sack; Music Director: Daniel Green; Associate Choreographer: Alison Solomon; Props Master: Alison Mantilla; Production Stage Manager: Jason Brouillard

Musicians: Aron Caceres, bass; Ernie Fortunato, guitar; Alex Giosa, drums; Daniel Green, keyboard; Christopher Gurr, keyboard II; Simon Hutchings, reeds; Chris Rinaman, trombone; Les Rogers, trumpet; Arei Sekiguchi, percussion

Cast: Paul Aguirre, Gerald Caesar, Blanca Camacho, Randy Castillo, Tony Chiroldes, Sarita Colon, Edward Cuellar, Jonté Jaurel Culpeppr, Melissa Denise Lopez, Sandra Marante, Doreen Montalvo, Nina Victoria Negron, Ezequiel Pujols, Amanda Robles, Didi Romero, Marco Antonio Santiago, Alison Solomon, Rodolfo Soto

 

Westport Country Playhouse
April 23-May 19, 2019

Aftermath

Review of Thousand Pines, Westport Country Playhouse

In the news this week is the story of a shooting of numerous people in a bar in a town called Thousand Oaks. The play I’m reviewing deals with the aftermath of a shooting at a school called Thousand Pines. The echo is merely coincidence, but it’s also baleful. Thousand Pines, by Matthew Greene, directed by Austin Pendleton, takes its impetus from the fact that mass shootings occur with distressing regularity in our country. Such murders are a chronically recurring topic in our news feeds, and, for the dead and wounded, often chosen at random, an utterly sad and senseless end, while for those close to the victims, and those who knew the attacker, life becomes a traumatic and almost unbearable “before” and “after.”

The great strength of Greene’s play is that it doesn’t treat these matters as filtered through the media but rather as events that occur in the lives of people who aren’t defined by their roles in the horror story. These are people who have their individual ways of coping, amid others, also effected, who they may not trust, understand, or even like. The messiness of these lives is made even more self-aware and confused by the fact that murder has intruded, and the death of loved ones, never an easy situation, becomes traumatic, nagged by the question of how things could have gone differently.

At the Forsters; Andrew Veentra, (Actor 6), Kelly McAndrew (Actor 1), Katie Ailion (Actor 5) in Thousand Pines at Westport Country Playhouse (photographs by Carol Rosegg)

At the Forsters; Andrew Veentra, (Actor 6), Kelly McAndrew (Actor 1), Katie Ailion (Actor 5) in Thousand Pines at Westport Country Playhouse (photographs by Carol Rosegg)

The play’s success, as theater, depends on how one reacts to a dramatic gimmick. A cast of five play all the characters in the play, which takes place in three different households, all represented by the same set, a dining room that stands for the identical layouts of tract housing. The three families—the Fosters, the Kanes, and the Garrisons—all send their children to the same middle school and all are trying to cope with their first Thanksgiving since the tragedy, several months ago. At the heart of each scene is the mother of each family, and part of the fascination of the play is watching Kelly McAndrew (Actor 1) enact three very different matriarchs. Among the Fosters, she’s a peppy Martha Stewart type, in deep denial; among the Kanes, she’s a take-charge stepmother of the slain boy and she’s seeking retribution via a civil lawsuit against the school; among the Garrisons, she’s a devastated mother, who may be self-medicating and who recognizes more than ever how dysfunctional her way of life is.

The cast of Thousand Pines: William Ragsdale (Actor 2), Katie Ailion (Actor 5), Joby Earle (Actor 4), Andrew Veenstra (Actor 6), Kelly McAndrew (Actor 1), Anne Bates (Actor 3)

The cast of Thousand Pines: William Ragsdale (Actor 2), Katie Ailion (Actor 5), Joby Earle (Actor 4), Andrew Veenstra (Actor 6), Kelly McAndrew (Actor 1), Anne Bates (Actor 3)

By the time we reach the third house, the characters we’ve met in the other households can easily begin to blur. Greene’s script can be a bit schematic in setting out the details by which we will differentiate characters who are only circumstantially different. Good as Katie Ailion (Actor 5) is as a former girlfriend pretending her relationship with the remaining Foster boy hasn’t ended, if only to promote a false status quo, that character pales beside the bitter, recriminatory daughter she plays among the Kanes. Of the other trio of characters played by a single actor, Joby Earle (Actor 4) fares best: he’s a bit of comic relief in the first scene, as someone who got mauled by a violent Thanksgiving’s Day shopper; while, in the second household, he’s a tense dad in mourning who seems little more than a piece of furniture in his own house until provoked to explosion; in scene three, he’s the uncle of the deceased, a ne’er-do-well who deeply resents the decision by the shooter’s family to turn up at each funeral.

At the Garrisons: Joby Earle (Actor 4), Kelly McAndrew (Actor 1), foreground; Andrew Veenstra (Actor 6), background

At the Garrisons: Joby Earle (Actor 4), Kelly McAndrew (Actor 1), foreground; Andrew Veenstra (Actor 6), background

The way the stark situation plays out in each household differs significantly, colored by reactions to the maternal figure in each scene. The Foster son (Andrew Veenstra) is aghast at his mother’s attempt at blithe holiday activity; the daughter in scene two disputes the advisability of a lawsuit and the means necessary to attain a deposition from a witness; the mother in the Garrison household doesn’t seem to tolerate anyone who’s present, which is why the appearance of a stranger sparks what may be the play’s most compelling sense of compassion and affinity in shared loss. Veenstra (Actor 6) plays the most conflicted character well, underscoring what may be the play’s own sense of uncertainty about how to make amends for its own presumptions.

The cast brings these situations to life in a fascinating world premiere of a play that, in providing a glimpse of the murder scene via that witness (Anne Bates, Actor 3), opens questions it doesn’t answer, leaving us in some doubt about how events merely referred to by others actually unfolded—to William Ragdale (Actor 2) falls most of the exposition. The plot, as such, isn’t the point however, and Greene’s characters, under Pendleton’s direction, make us inhabit that difficult space of questioning and judging the actions, and even the emotions, of other people.

At the Kanes: Kelly McAndrew (Actor 1), Anne Bates (Actor 3)

At the Kanes: Kelly McAndrew (Actor 1), Anne Bates (Actor 3)

The play, which was developed in the WCP’s New Works Circle Initiative, runs several risks, and all are worth the effort. First, there’s the fact that the subject matter risks trying to make art out of tragic loss. Then there’s the risk that our investment with this or that character will be frustrated by the shifts in the play. Finally, there’s the risk that, however one tries to structure such a story, the logic of events will feel imposed and artificial. In essence, Thousand Pines is a kind of open question about how we should tell stories that are hard to countenance, and how we make sense of mass murder as a very real part of “who we are,” as people of the United States in the early twenty-first century.

 

Thousand Pines
By Matthew Greene
Directed by Austin Pendleton

Scenic Design: Walt Spangler; Costume Design: Barbara A. Bell; Lighting Design: Xavier Pierce; Sound Design and Composer: Ryan Rumery; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Production Stage Manager; Roxana Khan

Cast: Katie Allion, Anne Bates, Joby Earle, Kelly McAndrew, William Ragsdale, Andrew Veenstra

Westport Country Playhouse
October 30-November 17, 2018

A Hero of Our Time

Review of Man of La Mancha, Westport Country Playhouse

A revival of a popular crowd-pleaser has to make you wonder: is it to have on the schedule something everyone knows and loves, or is it to make a difference with a well-known war horse? The Westport Country Playhouse’s Man of La Mancha, directed by Mark Lamos, is having it both ways. It’s packing them in, as the saying goes, but it’s also spinning the show with an eye to our times.

Take that opening. Sure, the show always begins with Miguel de Cervantes (Philip Hernandez), the author of Don Quixote de la Mancha, arriving at a prison that houses those who have run afoul of the agents of the Inquisition. That historical fact of Christianity, once persecuted and oppressed, become persecutor and oppressor is key to the setting, the background to Cervantes’ flights of fancy and the madness of his knight-errant. Here, Cervantes is escorted by officers who look like they work for ICE. And those bars at the edge of the stage remain in place until the dramatic shift into Cervantes’ tale. When the bars return, if they don’t make you think of a concentration camp and those cages for the children of immigrants, then you must be as great a fantasist as Don Alonso Quixano, the man whose imagination creates the world of Don Quixote.

Don Quixote (Philip Hernandez) and the cast of Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Man of La Mancha (photos by Carol Rosegg)

Don Quixote (Philip Hernandez) and the cast of Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Man of La Mancha (photos by Carol Rosegg)

The story, following Quixote’s adventures, tends to be tongue-in-cheek, as those he encounters know he’s mad, but find a certain amusement in humoring him. None sets that tone better than Michael Mendez, who plays the Innkeeper who is willing to dub Quixote a knight. Others, such as Aldonza (Gisela Adisa), a prostitute and serving girl, find playing along too strange, at least at first. Meanwhile, Quixano’s sister Antonia (Paola Hernandez) and his housekeeper (Lulu Picart) want him to come to his senses before something bad happens to his fortune—as they make clear in the witty number “We’re Only Thinking of Him.”

Housekeeper (Lulu Picart), Padre (Carlos Encinas), Antonia (Paola Hernandez)

Housekeeper (Lulu Picart), Padre (Carlos Encinas), Antonia (Paola Hernandez)

Gauging the point at which cynicism enters into the indulgence of Quixano/Quixote has always been part of the paradoxical story: we know Quixote’s vision is foolish but we indulge it because it’s more interesting than reality. But, here, when Quixote thunders that “facts get in the way of the truth” and nods at the audience’s reaction, we can begin to wonder why we are so willing to indulge a fantasist who believes that a gold-colored shaving dish is a helmet of real gold or that a prostitute is an elegant lady. In other words, this version of Man of La Mancha gets closer to Cervantes’ novel than, I expect, many a production of the musical ever has. And that aligns it well with our time in which—call it what you like—a sow’s ear remains a sow’s ear.

Don Quixote (Philip Hernandez)

Don Quixote (Philip Hernandez)

Granted, when the show won all those Tonys back in 1965, “The Impossible Dream,”—the show-stopping song that became ubiquitous in that period—might give backbone to a “glorious quest” to “march into hell” for the “heavenly cause” of stopping the spread of communism in southeast Asia. Once one entertains that notion, it’s easy to see how vainglorious are Don Quixote’s noble dreams.

And if that point needs more punch, there’s the rape of Aldonza by a pack of muleteers that Quixote and his friends—Aldonza and the ever-loyal Sancho Panza (Tony Manna)—had earlier dispatched in quite a busy fight scene (Michael Rossmy, fight director and intimacy coach). Quixote, foolishly, lets Aldonza “minister” to his fallen enemies. The rape, which Lamos handles as tastefully as one can, becomes uncomfortable sooner in the #MeToo era, particularly after the unsavory accusations that have been leveled at the most recent Republican Supreme Court nominee. To watch the scene was always to think about what it says about the nature of the reality Aldonza lives (despite Quixote’s romantic fantasy), but now it must make one think about the reality that even well-born and educated and successful women face, in all walks of life.

Certainly, when this show was decided on to fill this slot in Westport’s season, no one could know that Brett Kavanagh would be in the hotseat as the show opened, but it’s where we are now. Made all the more telling by that huge mirrored shield enacting Hamlet’s idea of the purpose of playing.

Aldonza (Gisela Adisa) and the cast of Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Man of La Mancha

Aldonza (Gisela Adisa) and the cast of Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Man of La Mancha

As far as crowd-pleasing aspects of the show: start with the evocative stage design by Wilson Chin, which broods enough for a prison but has elements of sanctity as well, with that cathedral-like clerestory. Fabian Fidel Aguilar’s costumes are sumptuous when needed—such as the cape and armor of Quixote’s get-up or the threads that drape Antonia—and feature a range of homespun ensembles, and on Lulu Picart exciting color combos. As Aldonza, Gisela Adisa is perfectly outfitted, and she’s a tour de force of reactions and glances aside. Her movement and singing put much of the fire into the show, with “What Does He Want of Me” a high point in Act 1.

As our hero—a chastened Cervantes, a doddering Quixano, and, especially, a fully assertive Quixote—Philip Hernandez is perfect. He looks the part, tall and a little craggy, and he gives “The Impossible Dream” all the gusto it requires, letting the audience exult in its inspiring uplift. He’s abetted by Tony Manna’s Sancho, who shines best when we can see the wily peasant only too eager to serve whatever pays. He’s a little flat at times, not quite the colorful bon vivant one expects.

Sancho Panza (Tony Manna), Don Quixote (Philip Hernandez), Aldonza (Gisela Adisa)

Sancho Panza (Tony Manna), Don Quixote (Philip Hernandez), Aldonza (Gisela Adisa)

The rest of the cast play a number of roles, as prisoners and as the persons in Quixote’s story. Particular mention goes to Esteban Suero’s great turn as the Barber (I wanted more of him!), Mendez’s canny Innkeeper, and Ceasar F. Barajas (Pedro) and Ian Paget (Anselmo), the prisoners/muleteers who lead “Little Bird,” and much of the action, which is eye-catching and well-choreographed throughout.

In the end, the “impossible dream” is likely what it always was: a glimmer of hope for those who are trying to make a sad reality better and more bearable. And while Mark Lamos’ Man of La Mancha perhaps needs a little more stirring to become the wonderful dish it could be, all the ingredients are there. And that’s no fantasy.

  

Man of La Mancha
Written by Dale Wasserman
Music by Mitch Leigh, Lyrics by Joe Darion
Directed by Mark Lamos

Scenic Design: Wilson Chin; Costume Design: Fabian Fidel Aguilar; Lighting Design: Alan C. Edwards; Sound Design: Domonic Sack; Musical Staging: Marcos Santana & Mark Lamos; Choreographer: Marcos Santana; Music Director: Andrew David Sotomayor; Music Supervisor: Wayne Baker; Fight Director/Intimacy Coach: Michael Rossmy; Props Master: Samantha Shoffner; Production Stage Manager: Ryan Gohsman

Cast: Gisela Adisa, Ceasar F. Barajas, Carlos Encinias, Michael Scott Gomez, Philip Hernandez, Paola Hernandez, Tony Manna, Michael Mendez, Ian Paget, Lulu Picart, Jermaine Rowe, David Sattler, Clay Singer, Esteban Suero

Musicians: Ben Clymer, trombone; Nicholas DiFabbio, guitar; Daniel Louis Duncan, trumpet; Simon Hutchings, reeds; Joseph Russo, string bass; Marshall Sealy, French horn; Arei Sekiguchi, percussion

Westport Country Playhouse
September 25-October 13, 2018

Action Kafka

Review of The Understudy, Westport Country Playhouse

Once again, Westport’s co-artistic director David Kennedy has found a notable play to direct. Theresa Rebeck’s multivalent comedy The Understudy has entertaining fun with theater, show-biz, romantic comedy, and Kafka. Kennedy’s direction weaves together the various levels of the play’s action in a very engaging way, keeping before us the play’s main contention: theater is the existential art par excellence.

The play opens with a bang, literally, as Harry (Eric Bryant), the titular character, storms into the theater shooting off a prop gun, threatening the audience to turn off their damn cell phones (with good reason: let’s compare most egregious cell phone disruption at a play). Harry, as he proceeds to tell us, is a respectable actor who has taken on the role of understudy in a theatrical version of Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel The Castle, which—in the play’s fiction—is playing on Broadway. The Kafka play stars a Hollywood action hero known only as “Bruce” whose “quote” for a film is upwards of $22 million. We never see him.

Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski), Harry (Eric Bryant), Jake (Brett Dalton) (photos: Carol Rosegg)

Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski), Harry (Eric Bryant), Jake (Brett Dalton) (photos: Carol Rosegg)

The other actor in the show, who will have to go on for Bruce if he should be absent for some reason, is Jake (Brett Dalton), an up-and-coming (he hopes) film actor, far below Bruce in pecking order, but far above Harry. As it’s explained at one point, in Shakespearean terms, Bruce is Richard III, Jake is Henry V, and Harry is seventh spear carrier. Harry, in fact, missed getting a small part in the disaster film that Jake is currently starring in. Its breakaway line—“Get in the truck!”—gets a lot of comic mileage.

Harry will understudy Jake, so that if Jake has to take Bruce’s part—which is a multi-character role, basically every character but the protagonist—Harry will take Jake’s. Helping along this percolating male rivalry, and at times aghast at it, is Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski), the beleaguered Stage Manager. She’s very good at her job, but her emotions get involved because—the romantic comedy aspect—she and Harry have history. He jilted her.

Jake (Brett Dalton), Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski), Harry (Eric Bryant)

Jake (Brett Dalton), Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski), Harry (Eric Bryant)

That romantic subplot gives considerable status to Roxanne and lets Syglowski run away with a number of scenes. She’s very good at playing sarcasm, emotional explosion, and self-conscious irritation, all in the same speech. The romantic comedy elements work into the actors’ one-upmanship quite well, particularly with the staging of kiss before or after slap.

Roxanne’s distress is what makes real-life messiness impinge on the make-believe of the theater and the “can you believe it” of show biz. The earning ability of pointless, barely entertaining movies, and the money and power of those who star in them, is the source of Harry’s bitterness, and Bryant is generally entertaining in putting across Harry’s realization that, in terms of the star system, he’s wasting his life and his talent and is a nothing. His failure with Roxanne shows that he’s not even very good at starring in his own life. Cue Kafka.

Kafka is a dead writer with considerable hipster cred—virtually unknown and mostly unpublished in his lifetime, he’s now a household word (well, in literate households), his name synonymous with a state of modern anomie in which the experience of living is a kind of purgatory of dread and uncertainty, marked by the creeping suspicion that all decisions and actions—and the success or failure they entail—are arbitrary in an arbitrary world. For some must understudy whilst some must star, and so runs the world away.

One of the play’s easy jokes is that a three-hour play derived from Kafka would be a hit on Broadway if only an actor with Bruce’s instant recognizability would take part. We may be reminded of unlikely hits in which a similar casting coup carried the day, and that’s the point. Very capable actors find themselves earning “real money” as minor characters in Law and Order, while big name actors can make or break plays beyond their skill set.

Which puts the focus on Jake. Assumed to be an unintelligent, talentless success by Harry, Dalton’s Jake is an acting enthusiast as only a fan boy can be. He speaks of Kafka with the kind of relentless admiration generally reserved for Dr. Who or Star Trek. He makes the telling point that the $2 million he received for the disaster epic “doesn’t go very far,” when you consider how much money has to be shelled out to keep his circus running. Theater is always precarious, but perhaps more precarious is remaining “A-list”—even more precarious is trying to break into that world, as Jake hopes to do.

Jake (Brett Dalton), Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski), Harry (Eric Bryant)

Jake (Brett Dalton), Roxanne (Andrea Syglowski), Harry (Eric Bryant)

At Westport, a key comic element works well. Up in the booth is Laura, Roxanne's assistant, seemingly a stoner who misses cues, won’t take direction, and switches scenery unasked. She’s a kind of demented god in the machine, cueing the Kafka play’s sets and making The Castle—our play is supposedly a run-through rehearsal—pursue its arc, from bar-room to trial room to prison cell, letting each change contribute to the exchanges among the trio. The changes let us know not only where we are in the shambles of a rehearsal but also where we are in terms of The Understudy’s own arc. One of the underlying perks of The Understudy is that any given production gets to determine how a “Broadway play of The Castle” might look and sound. Andrew Boyce’s scenic designs, complete with Disneyesque castle backdrop, Matthew Richards’ lighting design, and Fitz Patton’s sound design, with Kennedy’s direction, almost make us wish the play were real. The delightful “old soft shoe” in the conclusion is a suitably existentialist gesture, as in Kafka meets Chaplin.

Not everything in the script is as sharp as it could be. The use of fortuitous exits and of the oft-stated and just as oft forgotten fact that everything said on the stage can be heard throughout the building at times forces action or revelation in highly scripted ways. But even that is not without charm, since Rebeck’s working conceit is that life has its “cues” and its “reveals” in ways that seem to be part of a play. The Kafkaesque sense that our lives may be rehearsals for a part we never get to play (see “Before the Law”) underscores The Understudy with understated irony. Life is so unfunny all we can do is laugh at it. Amusing theater helps.

 

The Understudy
By Theresa Rebeck
Directed by David Kennedy

Scenic Design: Andrew Boyce; Costume Design: Maiko Matsushima; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Fitz Patton; Choreographer: Noah Racey; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy

Cast: Eric Bryant, Brett Dalton, Andrea Syglowski

Westport Country Playhouse
August 14-September 1, 2018

 

Frisky Farce

Review of A Flea in Her Ear, Westport Country Playhouse

Farce, such as those created by Georges Feydeau in the Parisian Belle Epoque, may be said to be the quintessence of stage comedy. The humor derives from ridiculous situations played as though sensible, from lightning fast costume/character changes, and from mistaken motives, mistaken identity, and changeable sets. The production of Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear at Westport Country Playhouse uses David Ives’ new version of the play, and was developed with Resident Ensemble Players at the University of Delaware by director Mark Lamos. The cast are spirited and define ensemble acting, where everyone gets played for laughs and some are stand-out targets of hilarity.

Theater such as this, with its improbable plot elements and clearly demarcated lines between the fussy upper class, the earnest servant class, and the jaded demimonde, requires—besides energy to spare—great costuming and set direction, and this has that. Kristen Robinson’s scenic design gives us the placid confection of the Chandebise home and, in the raucous middle act, the cleverly designed corridor and chambre des assignations of the Frisky Puss Hotel, where extramarital alliances are the order of the day. Bedroom farce needs a memorable bed, and the room here certainly has one, as it moves between two separate rooms to considerable comic effect. And Sara Jean Tosetti’s costumes give us the becoming high style of Mme Chandebise, the absurd getup of Frisky Puss proprietor Ferraillon, and outfits that expose various levels of undress and distress.

Rugby (Robert Adelman Hancock), Victor Chandebise (Lee E. Ernst) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Rugby (Robert Adelman Hancock), Victor Chandebise (Lee E. Ernst) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

The physical comedy never becomes a free-for-all, as it’s the overlaps in the action—the entrances and exits at just the split-second right moment—that make the show spin. The slapstick, when it occurs, is delightful—as for instance Victor Chandebise, mistaken as the ubiquitous Poche, Ferraillon’s lackey, holding a doorjamb and being lifted horizontally by the obstreperous Rugby, an Englishman played as an insufferable twit. The caricatures are broad indeed—a favorite is the flouncing Don Carlos (Michael Gotch), a jealous husband with a deadly accent. Other verbal treats are furnished by Mic Matarrese’s comic insouciance in his rendering of the speech impediment of Camille Chandebise, nephew of the put-upon master of the house.

The Chandebises—Victor (Lee E. Ernst) and Raymonde (Elizabeth Heflin)—live in bourgeois comfort, but the marriage has become too tepid for the Madame, who, seeing as how her husband no longer performs his nuptial task, suspects a sideline sexual conquest. She’s disturbed by the idea enough to put-off an interested suitor, Romain Tournel (Stephen Pelinski), her husband’s friend. Conferring with her good friend Lucienne Homenides de Histangua (Antoinette Robinson), the wife of Don Carlos, Raymonde hits upon the stratagem of sending Victor an anonymous, impassioned letter, setting up a rendezvous at the Frisky Puss. Lucienne obligingly pens the billet doux and therein lies more suspicion when Don Carlos happens to read it.

Lucienne Homenides De Histangua (Antoinette Robinson), Don Carlos (Michael Gotch) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Lucienne Homenides De Histangua (Antoinette Robinson), Don Carlos (Michael Gotch) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Hilarity ensues, in part because nearly everyone in the cast has a reason to be at the hotel when they shouldn’t be, and because the actual inmates of the hotel—Ferraillon (John Rensenhouse), Olympia (Deena Burke), Baptiste (Wynn Harmon), Eugenie (Laura Frye) and Rugby (Robert Adelman Hancock)—are such diverting company. The crowning element is that the lackadaisical Poche is a spitting image of Victor Chandebise (Lee E. Ernst in a double role played like Jack Benny and Buddy Hackett in the same body alternately). The fact that everyone mistakes each as the other—whether an abashed Mme Chandebise addressing Poche as her husband or an enraged Ferraillon delivering kicks to M. Chandebise as an uppity Poche—strains credulity, of course, and that’s the central joke: elitism and doltishness in one physiognomy.

Etienne (David Beach), Ferraillon (John Rensenhouse), Victor Chandebise (Lee E. Ernst) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Etienne (David Beach), Ferraillon (John Rensenhouse), Victor Chandebise (Lee E. Ernst) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Further support in this vast cast is provided by David Beach, as the dutiful, oft-confused butler Etienne, Carine Montbertrand as his wife Antoinette, and Hassan El Amin as the much amused Dr. Finache. The behavioral send-ups don’t bite so much as belittle, as a distrustful wife is hoist on their own petard, and all would-be dalliances fizzle in the midst of absurdity. One suspects that it could all be a bit racier with more made of—for instance—the liberties Raymonde and Romain take with Poche. The Westport production, for all its flirtation with unseemly and seedy behavior, maintains a certain primness.

Romain Tournel (Stephen Pelinski), Raymonde Chandebise (Elizabeth Heflin)

Romain Tournel (Stephen Pelinski), Raymonde Chandebise (Elizabeth Heflin)

In terms of structure—the first two acts are each followed by intermissions and a change of set—the play’s third act doesn’t quite recover from the first two. The set-up keeps new characters coming at us with fast-paced fun; the second act, at the Frisky Puss, takes us into an irrepressible comic world and opens the possibility of any number of unexpected encounters; Act 3, back at the Chandebise home, plays out the mistaken identity plot, strung out for as long as it can go, but without much in the way of genuine surprise.

In short, a good time can be had by all, particularly as the foolishness never flags and all’s well that ends well.

 

A Flea in Her Ear
A new version of George Feydeau’s farce by David Ives
Directed by Mark Lamos

Scenic Design: Kristen Robinson; Costume Design: Sara Jean Tosetti; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Fitz Patton; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Production Stage Manager: Matthew G. Marholin

Cast: David Beach, Deena Burke, Hassan El Amin, Lee E. Ernst, Laura Frye, Michael Gotch, Robert Adelman Hancock, Wynn Harmon, Elizabeth Heflin, Mic Matarrese, Carine Montbertrand, Stephen Pelinski, John Rensenhouse, Antoinette Robinson

Westport Country Playhouse
July 10-28, 2018

Once Upon a Time in the West

Review of Flyin’ West, Westport Country Playhouse

A Western set in the town of Nicodemus, Kansas, a settlement established by African Americans after the Civil War, finds its way toward a non-white version of Americana, or the tales we like to tell ourselves about the pluck and determination of our settler forebears. Here, the cast is entirely “colored” (as they would have been identified at the time) with at least one able to “pass,” or live as if a white person. All of which means that Pearl Cleage’s engaging Flyin’ West, at Westport County Playhouse, directed by Seret Scott, dramatizes a saga often overlooked in the many stories of immigrant populations finding their little slice of the American dream: how the first free generation descending from slave ancestors heard and heeded the call to “go west.” And how that story is as much a part of the sustaining myth of the Great Plains as any, or should be. Flyin’ West helps to make that case.

Seret Scott, who directed the much more intense and disturbing Native Son at Yale Repertory Theatre last fall, shows her grasp of the comedy, the heartache, the trials and tribulations of a sort of “three sisters” of the Prairie. Cleage’s script exults in the kind of melodramatic turns that make stories of family and community bonding so near and dear to the hearts of so many. Here, the story isn’t about pining after glory days in a grand place, but rather the value of holding onto what one has and seeing its worth.

Miss Leah (Brenda Pressley) (photographs by Carol Rosegg)

Miss Leah (Brenda Pressley) (photographs by Carol Rosegg)

A great asset of the production is Brenda Pressley as Miss Leah, a local matriarch who enters Majorie Bradley Kellogg’s handsomely rustic set fully in possession, not only of the setting but of her sense of her own dignity. The latter may need to be asserted against the bossy determination of Sophia Washington (Nikiya Mathis), the eldest of the three young women who grew up in the house, and the one most familiar with Miss Leah’s attitudes. The play’s opening features a wry but loving joust between these two strong-willed women, set in their ways.

Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), Wil Parish (Edward O'Blenis)

Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), Wil Parish (Edward O'Blenis)

The other two sisters are the fresh-faced and docile Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), whom local handyman Wil Parish (Edward O’Blenis) is sweet on, and married Minnie Dove Charles (Keona Welch) who returns to the homestead shortly before her twenty-first birthday with her husband Frank Charles (Michael Chenevert), a poet with a high opinion of himself and a low opinion of the Midwest in general and Nicodemus in particular. It all might devolve into a case of country mouse vs. city mouse but for the fact that there’s a bit more at stake. The town of Nicodemus is comprised entirely of African Americans and Sophie, more than the rest, sees how important it is that the folks of the town stick together and not sell off its land in parcels to land speculators and white folks with money. Times are changing in Nicodemus, as it moves from a town all but forgotten to one that might be of value to land-grabbers looking to expand.

Minnie Dove Charles (Keona Welch), Frank Charles (Michael Chenevert), Miss Leah (Brenda Pressley), Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), Sophie Washington (Nikiya Mathis)

Minnie Dove Charles (Keona Welch), Frank Charles (Michael Chenevert), Miss Leah (Brenda Pressley), Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), Sophie Washington (Nikiya Mathis)

The story of how the West was won, and bought and sold, is familiar terrain, perhaps, but rarely is it given a racial dimension. Here, the abolitionist tradition of Kansas helps to create a world, in the play, where these characters can shape their own destinies, even under patriarchy. For that’s the other threat here, which is even more immediate than white folks nosing around for a sweet piece of land on the cheap. The villain of the piece is that high-and-mighty Mr. Charles, able to pass for white and able to treat his own wife as his menial. What’s more, he has a violent temper, and is looking to make it big any way he can.

The main tension centers on how Frank Charles’ intentions will be dealt with or met by the women of the place. Wil Parish is quick to assert his own courteous attitudes toward the womenfolk and that’s all to the good, but not even his willingness to deal with Frank, man-to-man, can carry the day. This is a situation for the women to handle for themselves, and gun-toting Sophie isn’t shy about what it might take to scare Frank off or change his tune. Miss Leah has another plan, and it leads to the play’s high-point, a monologue of action and speech, perfectly timed and vastly entertaining, inciting what might be called a somewhat macabre belly-laugh. Brenda Pressley commands the stage and what befalls follows from Miss Leah’s command of certain secrets she learned back on the plantation. Another rousing speech delivered by Pressley tells of how she lost all her sons to slavery and how she herself made it to freedom. The history behind the story is more dramatic than much of what is on stage, but there are many sharp stabs in the dialogue, and, in the action, a telling recognition of how often justice, on the American frontier, was a case of who had the upper-hand. Thank God things are so much better now!

Minnie Dove Charles (Keona Welch), Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), Sophie Washington (Nikiya Mathis)

Minnie Dove Charles (Keona Welch), Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), Sophie Washington (Nikiya Mathis)

The set, with its indoors and outdoors fully viewable, perfectly suited to the action, and the lighting by Stephen Strawbridge and sound design by Fred Kennedy, add greatly to the show’s realism, as do costumes by Heidi Leigh Hanson that show off the different self-conceptions of the sisters and Frank’s near-dandified air, which includes credit to J. Jared Janas’ work on hair. Some impromptu songs let us share in the familiarity of these women with one another, though the song choices might be the same if meant as a parody of homespun cliché.

A familiar sort of story with a familiar sort of family dynamic, with an added treatment of a threat reminiscent of The Beguiled, adds up to a story with prickly sort of uplift.

 

Flyin’ West
By Pearl Cleage
Directed by Seret Scott

Scenic Design: Marjorie Bradley Kellogg; Costume Design: Heidi Leigh Hanson; Lighting Design: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Design: Frederick Kennedy; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Wig, Hair and Makeup Designer: J. Jared Janas; Production Stage Manager: Alice M. Pollitt

Cast: Brittany Bradford, Michael Chenevert, Nikiya Mathis, Edward O’Blenis, Brenda Pressley, Keona Welch

Westport Country Playhouse
May 29-June 16, 2018

Grace and Rude Will

Review of Romeo and Juliet, Westport Country Playhouse

So often are the plays of Shakespeare given contemporary trappings or the style of a specific period, it seems an innovation to maintain an Elizabethan manner of presentation. This Mark Lamos aspires to—more or less—in the current Westport Country Playhouse production of Romeo and Juliet. Seeing the play given more stately cadences than is often the case helps us see the play anew. In my view, Shakespeare’s best-known play more than ever unfolds as a test of wills, and the tragedy comes from a younger generation sacrificed to enmity through a failed subterfuge.

Romeo (James Cusati-Moyer), Juliet (Nicole Rodenburg); photo credits: Carol Rosegg

Romeo (James Cusati-Moyer), Juliet (Nicole Rodenburg); photo credits: Carol Rosegg

The stage, with a wonderful tapestry-like backdrop, is bare as can be imagined. The space, whether a home or a street or the friar’s cell, accommodates few furnishings or props. Such openness makes us see the characters as speech and movement, and the Westport production has much to feast the eye on, with Fabian Fidel Aguilar’s sumptuous costumes, the dramatic arrangements of bodies, and Lamos’ eye for tableau.

There’s a courtliness to the whole that does away with the naturalism that most productions use as a default mode. And that means the language of Shakespeare is allowed to be arcane when it must be and full of the surprise of utterance that is key to how his characters interact. We may feel that we are hearing some of these speeches for the first time. Certainly each character speaks as though compelled to give voice to strong feelings.

And yet it is not the protestations of love by Romeo (James Cusati-Moyer) and Juliet (Nicole Rodenburg) that remains most fully in the ear. The adults in the play almost swamp the young lovers with their advice and exhortations and ultimatums. Which is as it should be as the lovers here seem to be closer to their intended ages than is often the case. Cusati-Moyer, in particular, plays immature well. Though neither actor is teen-aged, they come across as impetuous and, more importantly, as governed by what pleases them. And what would please each most is being in love.

Romeo (James Cusati-Moyer), Juliet (Nicole Rodenburg)

Romeo (James Cusati-Moyer), Juliet (Nicole Rodenburg)

For Romeo that wish is a generalized hunger; we first meet him pining for Rosalind who is indifferent, only to come across Juliet who immediately feels as he does. And for Juliet, passionate attachment must be swift and sure as her father Capulet is only too eager to marry her off to any likely suitor. Lamos’ pacing of the pair’s tragic love lets us see how sudden it is for them, how undetected by all but their trusted confidantes—more on those in a moment—and how it lives for them the way any new sensation does for the young: as something that has never been known before, ever. What’s striking is that we seem to overhear these lovers rather than watch them play out a passion for our benefit.

As Capulet, Triney Sandoval displays the moods of patriarchy to telling effect. He shrugs off Romeo’s presence at the Capulet party, if only to browbeat his nephew, Tybalt (Dave Register). Then is even more eager to browbeat his daughter, married unbeknownst to him, when she’s not eager to wed Countee Paris (Cole Francum). Capulet is a bully, plainly, and the play is, among other things, a way to give him a comeuppance, much as it does his wife, played without irony by Alison Cimmet: her fault is to depend too much upon Juliet’s nurse.

Capulet's Wife (Alison Cimmet), Nurse (Felicity Jones Latta), Juliet (Nicole Rodenburg)

Capulet's Wife (Alison Cimmet), Nurse (Felicity Jones Latta), Juliet (Nicole Rodenburg)

As Nurse, Juliet’s only confidante, Felicity Jones Latta is a major asset of the production, likeable but also garrulous and apt to please rather than help. Due to his education, Nurse looks to Friar Laurence (Peter Francis James), Romeo’s only confidante, but that is also a fault. Here, the Friar is not overweening—hoping to teach a lesson to the warring houses of Capulet and Montague—so much as he is overwhelmed by the passion his young friends display. James gives to the Friar’s scenes with both Romeo and Juliet an anxiousness that lets us see how trying their conviction can seem to older and more retiring heads. He has passions of his own, though, and we see them all too well when his fanciful plan goes so horribly awry.

Foreground: Juliet (Nicole Rodenburg), Romeo (James Cusati-Moyer); Friar Laurence (Peter Francis James)

Foreground: Juliet (Nicole Rodenburg), Romeo (James Cusati-Moyer); Friar Laurence (Peter Francis James)

For ultimately, as this careful and deliberate production shows, the tragedy comes from misplaced faith. Rather than simply fly away together and take the consequences, the lovers allow themselves to be steered by their elders. And yet—so cunning is fate—the decisive blow (much as Romeo’s well-meaning interference cost Mercutio his life) comes from Romeo’s friend Balthasar, trying to do well.

As Mercutio, Patrick Andrews is a lusty showboat rather than a poetic fop besieged by his own imaginings, as is often the case. I begin to despair of ever finding an actor and director equal to trusting Mercutio’s language to do its work without broad gestures and hamming. Dave Register looks and acts “king of the cats” enough as Tybalt, and Tyler Fauntleroy’s Benvolio is quite able. As Montague’s wife, Barbara Hentschel wails well—we can believe she could die of grief, as indeed she does, before the worst arrives.

the Cast of Romeo & Juliet; center: Benvolio (Tyler Fauntleroy), Tybalt (Dave Register)

the Cast of Romeo & Juliet; center: Benvolio (Tyler Fauntleroy), Tybalt (Dave Register)

Viewers who want to fall in love with the lovers may find that the principals in Lamos’ Romeo and Juliet don’t court favor to that degree. Rodenburg registers uplift well, and her Juliet is quite her father’s daughter in her emphatic will. Cusati-Moyer made me consider Romeo for the first time as a tragic hero, his fault the vain belief that being good will do him good. The couple’s attachment seems to be for themselves alone and not a spectacle, which, to my mind, gives them a dignity beyond their years. And that is what makes them, ultimately, a hard lesson against long-standing feuds, and so uniquely matched, in love and in death.

Rather than treat Romeo and Juliet as something to be made anew, Mark Lamos’ production made me rethink what I thought I knew.

Romeo and Juliet
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Mark Lamos

Scenic Design: Michael Yeargan; Costume Design: Fabian Fidel Aguilar; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: David Budries; Voice and Speech Consultant: Shane Ann Younts; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Props and Set Dressing: Faye Armon-Troncoso; Dramaturg: Milla Riggio; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith

Cast: Patrick Andrews, Chris Bolan, J. Kenneth Campbell, Alison Cimmet, Adam Coy, James Cusati-Moyer, Tyler Fauntleroy, Cole Francum, Barbara Hentschel, Peter Francis James, Felicity Jones Latta, Jim Ludlum, Peter Molesworth, Dave Register, Nicole Rodenburg, Triney Sandoval, Becca Schneider, Clay Singer, Emily Vrissis, Jamil Zraikat

Westport Country Playhouse
October 31-November 19, 2017

To the Meeting of True Egos

Review of Sex with Strangers, Westport Country Playhouse

Two writers meet at a writer’s retreat in Michigan during a blizzard. She—Olivia (Jessica Love)—is a fortyish novelist whose first novel was mismanaged and sank without a trace. He—Ethan (Chris Ghaffari)—is an internet sensation who has parlayed his blog documenting his record-setting sexual exploits into a New York Times best-seller. We expect some version of the tried and true mixing of oil and water to reach romance. What we get is a talky and unintriguing series of exchanges between two characters who are stuck with each other in Laura Eason’s vapid take on passion and publishing in the internet age in Westport Country Playhouse's revival of her provocatively titled Sex with Strangers, directed by Katherine M. Carter.

Olivia (Jessica Love), Ethan (Chris Ghaffari) (photos: Carol Rosegg)

Olivia (Jessica Love), Ethan (Chris Ghaffari) (photos: Carol Rosegg)

At first Olivia is wary and distant. Ethan barges in on her after she’s become certain no other guest will be joining her. Turns out he has read her only novel, given to him by a mutual friend, and he adores it. The broken ice melts swiftly and the two repeat often the show’s only gag—they begin pawing each other, removing their clothes, and we go to blackout.

It may be amusing that Olivia is so eager for a little loving that she’ll bed a guy who admits he’s an asshole and has told her he writes, in self-serving detail, about every one of the sex-mates he’s had. Ghaffari plays Ethan as a charmer, with a bod to be proud of, and, though he doesn’t know who Marguerite Duras—Olivia’s favorite writer—is, he’s able to sling advertising copy at her book and other works that got through to him. Olivia, though, is old enough to know better, so if she accepts him as sincere when he promises he won’t write about her, well, we suppose she knows what she’s doing.

The main question is: do we care? After the characters were introduced, during which time Olivia’s spikey crust turned soft dough, I had a sinking sensation realizing that, no matter how long this play goes on, no one else is going to come through the door. We get only Olivia and Ethan, and they’re pretty tedious company, and, strangely, not sexy. Director Carter’s approach to the material can be best described as workmanlike. The blocking uses the sets well.

The selling point that this play addresses the difficulty of remaining private in the public world of online self-advertisement seems wishful thinking. Ethan tells Olivia all about who he is, she doesn’t even have to google him. And he knows who she is before he meets her because she’s actually a published author he has read as prep to sweep her off her feet. The play dates from 2011 and the more a work tries to stay on top of the “now” of the internet it risks looking foolish. Ethan, back then, was immediately recognizable as an analogue to that “hope they serve beer in hell” dude. Remember him?

Ethan (Chris Ghaffari), Olivia (Jessica Love)

Ethan (Chris Ghaffari), Olivia (Jessica Love)

What it all comes down to is that Ethan wants to be Olivia’s internet-savvy hero, able to resuscitate the heat in her stalled career through his new book-hawking app, while Olivia is more excited about the prospect of using his agent to get a shot at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, aka FSG. You may wonder if Ethan can be trusted. You may want to see who is using whom more or better. Almost any plot you think you see coming at the close of Act I is bound to be better than what actually does ensue.

Could this play work better with snappier delivery, more chemistry between the two actors, and a surer grasp of pacing? Doubtless, but I’m not convinced any of those factors would offset what is mostly pretentious and interminable dialogue sparked by an occasional laugh. The characters are made to discuss books we likely haven’t read—because only the ones by Duras and Tolstoy exist. Much is made of the celebrity that surrounds Ethan’s “Sex with Strangers” blog and book—which is being made into a movie—but Olivia, like the most naïve of ingenues, wants to believe that such callous events as Ethan narrates are all in the past or were only invented for sensationalism. Love plays Olivia as the sensitive type, ready to swoon if a cute guy takes an interest or if an anonymous Amazon reviewer gives her a thumbs up. All the while, Eason seems to want us to believe that Ethan isn’t really the cad he’s cracked up to be, but is in fact a prospective “brilliant” novelist trying to overcome the problem that he’s become rich and infamous instead of serious and respected. It could happen to anyone.

Ethan (Chris Ghaffari), Olivia (Jessica Love)

Ethan (Chris Ghaffari), Olivia (Jessica Love)

Edward T. Morris’ set for the bed and breakfast looks like a combination of a lodge and college common room, a look entirely appropriate for the collegiate ideas about hooking-up and producing copy that engage these two. In Act Two, the set is converted into a swanky-ish apartment—that circular staircase and the wall of shelves are no doubt desired features—where Olivia, now on her way to the big time, has traded in her dumpy Dell for a sleek Mac, and faces the wounded pride of her paramour. Stay through intermission to see the set change, it’s one of the more interesting features of the show.

There may be some effort on the part of Eason and Carter to saddle these romantic antagonists with emotions beyond lust, pride, and thirst for fame, but not much else has a chance to register. Serious writers, I expect, know that proper names and adjectives don’t help much in expressing ideas. That’s left to blurb writers. For the likes of Olivia and Ethan, online gossip, name-dropping, blog-crit, and jacket copy are the tools of the trade and the best that can be hoped for. That may well be true to life, these days, but Eason hasn’t any idea how to satirize or complicate that state of affairs for the sake of her characters, or of her viewers.

Thanks, but no thanks, in times like these, the griefs of shallow egos aren’t enough. For diversion, I’d rather fire up a Tracy-Hepburn flick.

 

Sex with Strangers
By Laura Eason
Directed by Katherine M. Carter

Scenic Design: Edward T. Morris; Costume Design: Caitlin Cisek; Lighting Design: Alan Edwards; Sound Design: Beth Lake; Props Master: Karin White; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting; Production Stage Manager: Garrett Rollins; Assistant Stage Manager: Alice M. Pollitt

Cast: Chris Ghaffari, Jessica Love

Westport Country Playhouse
September 26-October 14, 2017

Inappropriate Behavior

Review of Appropriate, Westport Country Playhouse

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Obie-winning play Appropriate lets viewers choose where to place the stress in the title, and it also leaves to viewers how many big dysfunctional family dramas are “appropriate” to name as “appropriated” material. The playbill trots out everything from the most obvious, Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County and Sam Shepherd’s Buried Child, to some a bit of a stretch—Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, and even Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. That kind of “spot the antecedent” game seems to me a bit counter-productive. The play not mentioned that at least would serve some purpose as a thematic comparison is Ibsen’s Ghosts where the true nature of a patriarch and what that means to his offspring is very much to the point.

The patriarch in this case is a once well-heeled Washington lawyer recently deceased after twenty years of decrepitude. His children are gathered to dispose of his plantation in Arkansas, spookily moldering with a hoarder’s trash inside and, outside, separate graveyards for family members and slaves. We watch as estranged son Frank, now Franz (Shawn Fagan)—missing from the family for ten years—climbs in through a window with his free-spirit vegan girlfriend River (Anna Crivelli). Their presence sets off the eldest sibling, Toni (Betsy Aidem), who, as executrix and chief caregiver during their father’s long decline, is quite vocal in her sense of propriety and grievance. The middle sibling is Bo (David Aaron Baker), a typical New York pater with a fussy Jewish wife, Rachael (Diane Davis), and two kids—Cassie (Allison Winn), a thirteen-year-old who claims stridently that she’s “almost an adult,” and a boy, Ainsley (Christian Michael Camporin), who seems content to be a child. Toni’s son, Rhys (Nick Selting), a twenty-something, is also on hand to feel generally put upon by all the middle-aged Sturm und Drang on display among his elders.

Franz (Shawn Fagan), Rachael (Diane Davis), Rhys (Nick Selting), Toni (Betsy Aidem), Bo (David Aaron Baker) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Franz (Shawn Fagan), Rachael (Diane Davis), Rhys (Nick Selting), Toni (Betsy Aidem), Bo (David Aaron Baker) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Andrew Boyce’s scenic design is stunning, letting us experience the space with these visitors and giving director David Kennedy a fully realized world for Jacobs-Jenkins’ characters, who are by terms abrasive, pathetic, amusing, and sympathetic, but never endearing.

River (Anna Crivelli), Franz (Shawn Fagan)

River (Anna Crivelli), Franz (Shawn Fagan)

Franz claims to be seeking reconciliation; Toni clings to Rhys and generally undermines everyone else; Bo plays middle-man as if it’s his natural calling. Every role is filled superlatively, with special mention for Aidem’s bull-at-a-garage sale of a domineering but vulnerable sister, and for Baker’s harried decency as Bo. Crivelli plays River as comic but not a caricature, which helps a lot, and Davis does well finding the heart of Rachael, a character who seems determined to be superficial. Fagan’s Franz is almost likeable, though we suspect, as the play goes on, that Toni is not simply spiteful in her view of her little brother’s failings; his character is rewardingly mercurial. And director Kennedy gets perfectly modulated performances of youthful disaffect and awkwardness from Selting's Rhys and Winn's Cassie.

Toni (Betsy Aidem), Rhys (Nick Selting) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Toni (Betsy Aidem), Rhys (Nick Selting) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The clarity of exposition is much to the point here and makes staying in place with this family a drama of well-timed revelations. Family dramas owe some of their popularity, no doubt, to the fact that all families have skeletons in the closet and harbor family members who often bring out the worst in each other. We look on with a level of complicity that is determinate for how much we get out of the cast’s exchanges, which can be almost sweet at times, and, at other times, full-bore hostile.

Jacobs-Jenkins, however, has more on his mind than who said what to whom and who neglected whom and who has gone off the rails—there’s drug abuse, alcoholism, seduction of a minor, drug dealing, antisemitism, and divorce, in the past, and job loss and marriage and new parenthood in the prospective future. But that’s all, as it were, window dressing to the big question nagging everyone, perhaps more than would actually be the case: what’s with the photo albums of African-American lynching victims preserved on a book case, and what’s with the jars that contain what seem to be body parts?

Appropriate makes us ask what reaction is appropriate to such discoveries. Much as we might wonder how we ourselves might handle evidence of such virulent racism in a loved one, we also realize that this family is being made to shoulder a legacy it can ill sustain. The script cunningly lets us see each character navigate, badly, the minefield of these artifacts’ existence. And Kennedy, whose direction of The Invisible Hand last season at Westport showed a similar skill with ethical gray areas, keeps things tense and probing. Neither director nor author shy away from showing us how the family dynamic—any family dynamic—is a means to shelter and exclude. Here, the excoriation the characters level at each other serves to highlight a more general social dysfunction that festers where they can’t quite get at it.

Rachael (Diane Davis), Bo (David Aaron Baker) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Rachael (Diane Davis), Bo (David Aaron Baker) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Engaging enough thanks to its wonderful cast, set, and direction, Appropriate’s structure can feel a little flabby at times, particularly in a second act that gives the younger cast members stage time and lets the elders take a bit of a rest, but is a bit too relaxed and sit-com-like to maintain the play’s edge. But that weakness is more than made up for by Act Three. With its teasing black-outs—punctuated by deafening cicadas—striking special effects, explosive fight, sustained speeches from all the principle characters, scene-stopping intrusion by Ainsley, and quirky sense of roiling crisis, Appropriate’s finale delivers appropriate theatrical thrills.

 

Appropriate
By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Directed by David Kennedy

Scenic Design: Andrew Boyce; Costume Design: Emily Rebholz; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Fitz Patton; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Props Master: Alixon Mantilla; Production Dramaturg: Dana Tanner-Kennedy; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Geoff Boronda

Cast: Betsy Aidem, David Aaron Baker, Christian Michael Camporin, Anna Crivelli, Diane Davis, Shawn Fagan, Nick Selting, Allison Winn

Westport Country Playhouse
August 15-September 2, 2017

Eye in the Sky

Review of Grounded, Westport Country Playhouse

Technology determines the quality of our lives. That truism may seem rather obvious, but the question is: what are its implications? We may not want to imagine, or remember, a life before cellphones, or before television, or before telephones, or cars, or refrigeration. We may believe the world is better with those things in it. How about drones?

Grounded, by George Brant, directed as a slow-burn tour de force by Liz Diamond at Westport Country Playhouse, makes us not only imagine, but also confront, the increasing prevalence in our world of drones—or unmanned, remote-controlled aircraft—and what their presence entails. In sum: we’re all sitting ducks.

The pilot (Elizabeth Stahlmann) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The pilot (Elizabeth Stahlmann) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The pilot (Elizabeth Stahlmann, in a smashing Connecticut debut as a professional after a fine run as a student actor at the Yale School of Drama) is our confidante. She tells us intimate details about her life, her loves, her hopes. She makes us exult with her as she professes her undying love of “the blue”—the endless stretches of sky she regards as her natural habitat when seated at the commands of her “Tiger,” or beloved fighter-plane. She has run missions in combat, gleefully bombing those minarets sticking up from the sand back into sand.

She also makes us feel how a smug “lone wolf” sensibility can be cracked by the right guy. A guy turned on by her manliness, and by the flight suit she wears as a badge of honor and which becomes at times a rhetorical device and an aphrodisiac. The guy seems to weep often, but that might just be how it seems to her (or it’s Brant’s way of making sure we don’t miss his efforts to circumvent gender “norms”).

Grounded is told entirely from the pilot’s point of view. We neither see nor hear any other characters, and, unlike some one-person narrative shows, the pilot doesn’t try to imitate or take on the manner of others. It’s the kind of one-sided world that one might conjure in a confession. Others are always somehow external to the speaker’s plight.

Not that the couple, soon joined by a baby girl called Sam, don’t have a real shared affection. But when, after giving birth, the pilot tries to resume her former chariot in the blue, she finds that, in the interim, technology has intervened. Manned flights to destroy what she likes to call “the guilty” (as opposed to “the enemy”) are passé. Warfare is now safer for our side and more lethal for the other side. The drones only risk their $11 million price-tag, not U.S. casualties.

The pilot wonders, rightfully, if assignment to the “chair-force” is her punishment for being so unmanly as to give birth to a child. Not so, she’s assured. This is the assignment that will show her to be upper echelon. And she tries to take it in that spirit, though not for a moment believing it to be true.

The vicissitudes of her, at first, useful acclimation to the reality of conducting armed combat in a safe trailer a short drive from her home, near Las Vegas, and then the alarming disconnect between those two spheres of her life, is the drama of the story. A drama that the pilot lives for us in a forthright, can-do, oh my god not this, manner.

The pilot (Elizabeth Stahlmann) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The pilot (Elizabeth Stahlmann) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

To work, the play needs a sympathetic and earnest teller for the tale. Director Liz Diamond is working with a godsend. Elizabeth Stahlmann, trim, angular, pretty but also what used to be called “boyish,” is the perfect type for the role. And her command of Brant’s language is mostly flawless. What’s more, she’s able to communicate with great presence the non-verbal “ah ha” moments, those moments when—whether posing for a photo with pregnant belly in an open flightsuit, or reacting to something she can see but we can’t, or turning on a dime from mom-face to air force major-face—the pilot becomes personality, not simply function.

And her performance makes manifest the real drama here: The human cost of our technological advances. Brant wants us to consider how the drone technology of surveillance impacts our collective lives (can anyone watch—projected as screens behind Stahlmann—the maneuvers of the car containing her target, the Prophet, and not think of all that footage of the white Bronco on the LA freeways, from way back in the 1990s?), and, in the strong if somewhat stagey climax, to see that “the enemy is us,” but what really comes across is how service to the machine makes us “drones” in the old sense: the expendable worker bee that has no life other than its task in the hive.

Against that unprepossessing life, and her nagging sense that this isn’t what she signed on for, the pilot has only a child and husband whose lives seem remote from her if only because not summed-up by military protocol. At least she has, maybe, the glory of a confirmed kill, until even that becomes personal to a fraught degree. There’s a deep reversal here of the once radical call to “bring the war back home” that Brant didn’t invent and doesn’t belabor. It’s simply there in the material and asks us to think about modern warfare as closer to our day-to-day lives than ever. It must make us uneasy.

The human story here will no doubt disappear in time: robots will drive drones. The other theme—that death from above is available at any moment—reminds me of an epitaph Thomas Pynchon engraves on a nineteenth-century tombstone in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973): "Mark, reader, my cry / Keep thy thoughts on the sky / And in the midst of prosperity / Know’st thou may die."

We need no drone come from afar to tell us this.

 

Grounded
By George Brant
Directed by Liz Diamond

Scenic Design: Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Design: Jennifer Moeller; Lighting Design: Solomon Weisbard; Sound Design: Kate Marvin; Projection Design: Yana Birÿkova; Props Master: Karin White; Voice Coach: Ron Carlos; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA

Westport Country Playhouse
July 11-29, 2017

Living in the Past

Review of Lettice and Lovage, Westport Country Playhouse

Very British and very verbal, Peter Shaffer’s amusing Lettice and Lovage, directed by Mark Lamos at Westport Country Playhouse, takes aim at ugly architecture and the vicissitudes of history, and finds its warmer tones in the unexpected bonds that can lead to friendship. It’s a benign farce, irrepressibly genteel—and if that sounds a bit like a fun oxymoron, then this play might be just the thing for you.

Kandis Chappell undertakes the role of Lettice Douffet, a role written for Maggie Smith, and gives a likeable and sympathetic performance, though without the withering dryness that Dame Smith could affect so tellingly. A fanciful tour guide at a stately but not particularly significant historical site, Lettice dreams up all kinds of vivid hi-jinx for her charges to witness in their imaginations. The opening scenes between Lettice and her various tours—played by local, non-Equity actors—are charming and well-timed. We see her go from the plodding “stick to the script” tour through increasingly fabricated accounts. Eventually, her wanderings from the path of historical veracity are shut-down by Charlotte Schoen (Mia Dillon), a formidable functionary who is having none of it.

Charlotte Schoen (Mia Dillon), Lettice Douffet (Kandis Chappell) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Charlotte Schoen (Mia Dillon), Lettice Douffet (Kandis Chappell) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The scene between the two of them, in the latter’s office, is crisp and engaging, as we learn of Lettice’s theatrical background—an actress mother who had her own way with enacting Shakespeare in France—and begin to think that Shaffer has found an interesting occasion for the intersection of theater and history: the guided tour! Lettice, we see, is a misplaced thespian, someone who has to take such “roles” only to make ends meet. A historicist who tends to prefer earlier times to the present, her calling is clearly something higher than could be assigned by Ms. Schoen’s office.

The second act brings this idea closer to fruition when Charlotte, in hopes of helping Lettice, pays a visit to her rather medieval-looking but still modest flat. John Arnone’s scenic design makes much of the space, including an intricate backdrop to contrast the flamboyance of Lettice’s decorating with the drabness of her surroundings. Her purpose in life, we realize, is to battle “the meres”—those who are satisfied with mediocre tastes, middling intellects, and who find uplift in the incoherence of modern architecture. What’s surprising—and it ends Act II on a high note—is that she may have found, after a few “quaffs” of the ancient beverage called lovage, an accomplice in Ms. Schoen.

Mr. Bardolph (Paxton Whitehead), Charlotte Schoen (Mia Dillon), Lettice Douffet (Kandis Chappell) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Mr. Bardolph (Paxton Whitehead), Charlotte Schoen (Mia Dillon), Lettice Douffet (Kandis Chappell) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Act III, after intermission, purports to be a bit of a who-done-what as there is now a solicitor on the premises, played with mystified patience by the unflappable Paxton Whitehead, and acts of violence to be accounted for. Lettice, who flirts with the idea of being a terrorist against appalling buildings, may have done who knows what. There’s fun in watching her incessantly grand manner come up against the prosaic—and unflattering—sensibility with which the law and the press handle those who aspire to a more imaginative realm for judgment.

Mostly, Shaffer’s play is what Sterne’s Tristram Shandy would call riding a hobby-horse, and the script is such as to make that hobby-horse pirouette and prance and canter. It’s not a race horse and takes its time getting where it’s going. The play’s strength is the appeal of its roles for middle-aged female actors, able to command the stage through the grace of their speech, the layers of their characterization, and, for Lettice particularly, eye-pleasing costumes by Jane Greenwood. The play is never quite as bizarre or as satiric as it might be, but, like much successful British humor, it makes the most of its idiosyncrasy.

Lettice Douffet (Kandis Chappell)

Lettice Douffet (Kandis Chappell)

Revived in a post-Brexit era, Lettice and Lovage smacks of a certain kind of Tory-style “Britain above all” that, it’s well to be reminded, had, even in the late-Eighties when the play debuted, a certain priggish daftness. The best that can be said about would-be architecture terrorists in the current climate is that they could be called anything but quaint.

 

Lettice & Lovage
By Peter Shaffer
Directed by Mark Lamos

Scenic Design: John Arnone; Costume Design: Jane Greenwood; Lighting Design: Philip Rosenberg; Sound Design: John Gromada; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Props Master: Karin White; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith

Cast: Kandis Chappell, Mia Dillon, Sarah Manton, Paxton Whitehead

Tourists: Travis James, Kara Hankard, Richard Mancini (Surly Man), Michele S. Mueller, Robert Peterpaul, Hermon Telyan, Danielle Anna White

Westport Country Playhouse
May 30-June 17, 2017

A Fleeting Wisp of Glory

Review of Camelot, Westport Country Playhouse

I don’t think of myself as a sentimental type, but something about the story of King Arthur gets to me. That may be because it’s a story that almost defines “romance.” Set in the legendary kingdom that supposedly created chivalry, Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot shows us Arthur as the epitome of a principled leader. A boy who becomes king—in the version of the story made popular in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, the novel that serves as the basis for the musical—because of his virtues and valor, as decided by the test of the sword in the stone.

Guenevere (Britney Coleman), Arthur (Robert Sean Leonard) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Guenevere (Britney Coleman), Arthur (Robert Sean Leonard) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The story also contains the love affair between Arthur’s best knight, Lancelot du Lac, first introduced into the Arthurian tales by Chrétien de Troyes in the 12th century, and Lady Guinevere, Arthur’s queen. That element of the story is what makes Camelot—if not a tragedy—a touching tale of rise and fall. Nostalgia for a Golden Age is perennial, and of old. Camelot, as conceived by modern treatments of Arthurian legend, seems a feudal utopia, a world led by a first among equals, of great hearts and good deeds. The point, of course, is that legendary Arthur is remembered because he was able, for a time, to curb the usual greed and viciousness of warriors, making their “might serve right” as dedicated knights of his Round Table. Lerner and Loewe brilliantly integrate this merry and melancholy tale into the modern musical, and Mark Lamos’ lyrical and rousing version at the Westport Country Playhouse does David Lee’s more spare adaptation of the work full justice.

Start with Robert Sean Leonard as Arthur. Some notable actors have assayed this role—Richard Burton, Richard Harris among them—so we can assume it has some attraction. Here, it’s easy to see why. Leonard shows us that acting can be, first and foremost, the task of finding a voice for a character. His rolls and dips, riding a tone that feels grand and humble at the same time. It’s a marvel. He portrays Arthur as affable and kind, a bit absent-minded like a retiring elder statesman, and cautious like a man of war unable to fathom what it’s like to win a queen—“I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight.” But Leonard’s boyish good looks, into his late 40s, make him an excellent choice for the role, and he handles “How to Handle a Woman” with requisite tenderness.

Arthur (Robert Sean Leonard), Guenevere (Britney Coleman) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Arthur (Robert Sean Leonard), Guenevere (Britney Coleman) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Arthur’s rapport with his Guenevere, Britney Coleman, seems one of mutual admiration, and his championing of the headstrong Lancelot (Stephen Mark Lukas), even after he has reasons to suspect the pair’s fidelity to him, adds a chastened air to Arthur that Leonard wears well. It’s an affecting grasp of a character who comes to us now as an even more legendary ideal in a time when pure and selfless leaders seem fewer than ever. Leonard’s rendering of the title song feels almost off-the-cuff, finding inspiration as he warms to the theme.

For all that, Arthur is not the prime singing role here. That falls to the lovely and graceful Guenevere, given a subtly modern rendering by Coleman, whose command of an array of moods scores throughout the show, with fun romps like “Then You May Take Me to the Fair” and “Lusty Month of May,” as well as romantic ballads like “Before I Gaze at You Again,” and more musingly in “Simple Joys of Maidenhood” and, with Leonard, “What Do the Simple Folk Do.” She’s a commanding First Lady indeed, and the affair with Lancelot, beginning with haughty taunting, grows by the end of Act I into mutual ardor. It all seems fated, and Coleman makes Guenevere not simply a prize between men but a full heart won by both.

Guenevere (Britney Coleman), Lancelot (Stephen Mark Lukas) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Guenevere (Britney Coleman), Lancelot (Stephen Mark Lukas) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Stephen Mark Lukas delivers the prime part of Lancelot; he begins as a conceited newcomer with “C’est Moi”—and Lukas plays the comic aspect of the overzealous knight well—but he’s also clearly heart-throb material and shows off a fluid baritone for Act II’s high-romantic opener “If Ever I Would Leave You.” Lest we think the show is going to be all about a romantic triangle, a villain—Mordred, played with scheming brio by Patrick Andrews—arrives in Act II to bring about the events that end the dream of Camelot. He wins over Arthur’s knights (Michael De Souza, Mike Evariste, Brian Owen, Jon-Michael Reese) with “Seven Deadly Virtues,” a clever song that plays to the open cunning of political battle. A word too for charming Sana Sarr as the boy playing with his knight figurines and as Tom of Warwick, who, knighted, receives his king’s hopes for a future.

Arthur (Robert Sean Leonard), Tom (Sana Sarr) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Arthur (Robert Sean Leonard), Tom (Sana Sarr) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The staging, with the oh-so-graceful scenic design by Michael Yeargan and sound design by Robert Wierzel, and Domonic Sack’s superb sound and Wade Laboissonniere’s sumptuous costumes (what can I say, I have a thing for capes), makes this Camelot a pleasure throughout. Granted, it’s very much a male-heavy cast and one could wish for a few more damsels to celebrate the lusty month of May, and a bit more skirmishing to give us a sense of the desperate rescue of Guenevere, but keeping the cast size and effects economical makes sense and makes for a swift and sure evening for celebrating tarnished ideals.

The cast of Camelot as Revelers (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The cast of Camelot as Revelers (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Throughout, the songs are the strength of this show, proving again that the team of Lerner and Loewe were for the ages, and Lee’s new book and Steve Orich’s new orchestrations make the show swift-moving and free of bombast.

See Westport’s Camelot if only to renew some of your faith in human ideals. God knows we need heroes now.

 

Camelot
Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner
Music by Frederick Loewe
Original production directed and staged by Moss Hart
Based on The Once and Future King by T. H. White
Book adapted by David Lee
New orchestrations by Steve Orich
Directed by MarkLamos
Choreographed by Connor Gallagher

Scenic Design: Michael Yeargan; Costume Design: Wade Laboissonniere; Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel; Sound Design: Domonic Sack; Dialect Coach: Shane Ann Younts; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Music Director: Wayne Barker; Props Master: Karin White; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting; Production Stage Manager: Frank Lombardi

Cast: Patrick Andrews, Britney Coleman, Michael De Souza, Mike Evariste, Robert Sean Leonard, Stephen Mark Lukas, Brian Owen, Jon-Michael Reese, Sana Sarr

Orchestra: Wayne Barker, piano; Angela Marroy Boerger, violin; Alan Brady, reeds; Simon Hutchings, reeds; Deane Prouty, percussion; Joseph Russo, string bass; Fred Rose, cello; Marshall Sealy, French horn

Westport Country Playhouse
October 4-30, 2016; extended to November 5

Psychiatric Shenanigans

Review of What the Butler Saw, Westport Country Playhouse

Revivals of ground-breaking work can be tricky business. Once the initial shock is gone, what does the work have to offer? Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw is a ribald, witty, absurd farce and though, for our times, it’s hardly as daring as in 1969, when it debuted, it still puts its cast through its paces. Directed by John Tillinger with a feel for the play’s strengths, the comedy treats marriage, psychiatry, health care professionals, hotel service people, the police force, gender roles, sexual tastes and Winston Churchill to fast-paced, irreverent fun.

The mention of Churchill should tip you off to one main characteristic of Orton’s comedy. It’s British, in the way that Monty Python is British, or the Carry On series is. And that means its form of verbal humor can be a stretch for American ears. It’s not just the accents, it’s the entire grasp of how the language of polite society works. Orton’s characters are articulate to a fault. But most of what they say is potty, loony, off-its-chum. It’s not just the idiom either. The humor, to work, requires an earnest and serious manner among the players. For the most part, the cast is equal to the challenge, but even so. One can only imagine how much better this would play in Britain.

Dr. Prentice (Robert Stanton), Geraldine Barclay (Sarah Manton), Dr. Rance (Paxton Whitehead) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Dr. Prentice (Robert Stanton), Geraldine Barclay (Sarah Manton), Dr. Rance (Paxton Whitehead) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Thankfully, the Westport production benefits from Paxton Whitehead, who specializes in playing the kind of fatuous ass who is not only a send-up of professionalism, psychiatric jargon, get-ahead ethics, and lack of imagination, but of a distinctly British sense of how the establishment works. Indeed, Orton’s zinginess comes from the fact that he’s trying to skewer established norms—particularly about sexuality—that keep the British unflappable, and Whitehead’s Dr. Rance is a walking textbook of self-satisfied credulity.

Mr. and Mrs. Prentice (Robert Stanton, Patricia Kalember) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Mr. and Mrs. Prentice (Robert Stanton, Patricia Kalember) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

His foil is Dr. Prentice (Robert Stanton), the ne’er-do-well who gets the shenanigans off and running by piling silly pretense upon ludicrous lie. He begins by attempting to seduce, in smarmy predatory professional manner (in the days before “sexual harassment” had a name), a dim, accommodating would-be Gal Friday Geraldine Barclay (Sarah Manton, wonderfully manic). Stanton’s Prentice is not a villain so much as an erring human who can’t admit mistakes, so he becomes a kind of Jerry Lewis of escalating miscalculations. He’s married to a philandering female (Patricia Kalember, who enacts the estranged, liberated wife with brittle cool) and is trying to maintain his professional and sexual status in a world that delights in how easily anyone can lose all dignity. Not least Sergeant Match, a forthright constable (Julian Gamble) who ends up in his underwear and later a dress and wig, and Nicholas Beckett (Chris Ghaffari), a game bell-hop who has to go about in drag and, eventually, the altogether.

Nicholas Beckett (Chris Ghaffari), Sergeant Match (Julian Gamble) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Nicholas Beckett (Chris Ghaffari), Sergeant Match (Julian Gamble) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

In a sense, the play is much ado about nothing, with a vengeance. The notion that “deviant” behavior can be analyzed and “helped” is one of Orton’s targets, but that ship has sailed, more or less. The play works because it does what farce is supposed to do: undermine the layers of pretense that people cling to as a means of denying what is happening in front of them. Orton has a knack for the tableau of someone catching someone else in a compromising moment. The point of such take-offs and put-ons is that we’re all of us compromised by our appetites, desires, and petty indulgences. Along the way there is sport with the kind of well-made play that has to tie up all loose ends, with a fond nod to Oscar Wilde’s Earnest.

The detailed set (James Noone) and suitable costumes (Laurie Churba) help create the kind of rational world that will become topsy-turvy as the play goes on, including the various fates of a demure flowered dress and a racier leopard print. There are four doorways and they will all be used with expert timing, as well as a host of apropos props. The challenge here is in keeping up with the verbal and the physical comedy and, while it never achieves complete hysterics, Tillinger’s production at Westport does keep it all bouncing merrily.

 

What the Butler Saw
By Joe Orton
Directed by John Tillinger

Scenic Design: James Noone; Costume Design: Laurie Churba; Lighting Design: John McKernon; Sound Design: Scott Killian; Dialect Consultant: Elizabeth Smith; Movement and Firearms Choreographer: Robert Westley; Props Master: Karin White; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel CSA; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith

Cast: Julian Gamble, Chris Ghaffari, Patricia Kalember, Sarah Manton, Robert Stanton, Paxton Whitehead

Westport Country Playhouse
August 23-September 10, 2016

Follow the Money

Review of The Invisible Hand, Westport Country Playhouse

An American banker held hostage by Muslim militants in Pakistan for $5 million in ransom becomes the fulcrum for Ayad Akhtar’s canny look at the clash of values in the modern world. On the one hand, the ubiquitous materialism of international finance capital; on the other hand, the political aspirations of insurgents and terrorists; and, “on the invisible hand,” so to speak, the uncertain value of what we think of as humanism, or perhaps “cultural capital”—the ability to claim kinship, even with our enemies, on the basis of common humanity. This tense and thoughtfully fraught play is a triumph of careful staging and interesting plot twists.

For economist Adam Smith, “the invisible hand” was the guiding force that, even in a conflict of interests, would maintain the world system against chaos. Everyone wants a piece of the pie and will have to take part in the system to achieve any material goals, thus acting toward the good of the system. Akhtar's The Invisible Hand demonstrates not only the human costs that the good of the system may entail, but also the tension between the individual and the collective and the problem of administering between the two, at the local level.

Imam Saleem (Rajesh Bose), Nick Bright (Eric Bryant), Bashir (Fajer Kaisi) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Imam Saleem (Rajesh Bose), Nick Bright (Eric Bryant), Bashir (Fajer Kaisi) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Nick Bright (Eric Bryant) cleverly makes a virtue of necessity when he decides to help his captors raise money by playing on futures in the international marketplace to buy his freedom, once it’s clear that no one will pay his ransom (there won’t be any negotiation after his captors have been designated as terrorists). Nick’s naked self-interest supports his reasons for giving a lesson—to a terrorist cell—in how to work the market strategically. Whatever his aid might mean to him or his country or the global market, the conflict between Nick’s values and his captors’ becomes explicit when Imam Saleem (Rajesh Bose) questions Nick about his beliefs. The point the Imam insists on is that money isn’t everything; it’s merely a means to bargain and negotiate. For Nick, money is simply the basic fact of life. But the wrong reasoning could cost him his.

In any conflict between the West’s capitalist system and Islam, there is a question of values at stake. Akhtar’s play becomes a crucible—quite gripping in its deft intelligence—for how monetary worth can both achieve goals and undermine value. Refreshingly, the play is for the most part free of ideological cant. There are moments when Bashir (Fajer Kaisi), the England-born jailer assigned to oversee Nick’s efforts and aid him as best he can, denigrates the U.S. for its power and indifference, as the Imam does for its “fat people,” but there are also moments when Nick sticks up for the U.S. as the lesser of the other evils—Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Red China—that, rather than the U.S., might have played international banker and power-broker since World War II.

The positions of the characters are always clear and their give-and-take, under David Kennedy’s very capable direction, feels immediate and created by the situation. That’s important, because a fair amount of the dialogue, in the middle of Act One, entails Nick trying to get Bashir to understand his economic strategies. So we too get a crash course in how to make the most of market volatility.

Thankfully, results help ease Bashir’s doubts about Nick’s intentions, but further tension comes into play when the Imam sees no reason not to use some of the capital for things his people need—like vaccines—while to Nick the only purpose of the capital is to increase it until he makes the agreed-on sum. The humor in the play comes from the fact that, to a certain extent, money makes stooges us of all, and to laugh at the captors dickering with their prisoner on how to increase their portfolio is very much to the play’s point. The big goals—survival or freedom—become collateral prizes of the big prize: the stockpiling of capital, to let money make money.

Imam Saleem (Rajesh Bose), Bashir (Fajer Kaisi), Nick Bright (Eric Bryant), Dar (Jameal Ali) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Imam Saleem (Rajesh Bose), Bashir (Fajer Kaisi), Nick Bright (Eric Bryant), Dar (Jameal Ali) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Along the way, the captors are humanized as we would expect: Dar (Jameal Ali), the low-level guard, puts us at ease early when we see how simpatico he and Nick have become, later we see how, in this system, his only identity is as a tool of power; Bashir, who is louder, scarier and more changeable, becomes a figure for the power of money to sway, and even to soften—up to a point; Imam Saleem, a former journalist who has become an Islamic leader, seems, at first, wisely detached, but he may insist on a system of value that puts Bashir and Nick’s work in jeopardy. Later, when Nick’s advice begins to lay bare the different goals and viewpoints of Bashir and Saleem, the play achieves a new configuration that demonstrates, in Act Two, how the exercise of power—generally called politics—can be dirtier and more dehumanizing than simple greed.

The cast is uniformly effective in adhering to the rigors of Akhtar’s script. As with his Pulitzer-prize-winning four-person play Disgraced (recently in a wonderfully tight production at Long Wharf Theatre with Bose in the main role), Akhtar keeps the interplay of the four characters our main focus. Here, Nick, like the put-upon Muslim-American lawyer in Disgraced, is a central figure whose know-how becomes a catalyst to entanglements he’d rather avoid, and Bryant is wonderfully vivid as a civilian prisoner trying hard not to become a political sacrifice. In Act Two his increasing befuddlement and desperation are dramatically realized. Bose registers the Imam’s decency and his fatuousness with deft aplomb; Ali’s Dar is generally glum or distraught, after his initial ill-advised enthusiasm; and Kaisi’s sense of nuance makes Bashir increasingly the focal point: we may be watching the growth of a true terrorist leader out of a lackadaisical globalized Everyman.

Adam Rigg’s scenic design deserves mention for its important credibility; we need to feel the oppression of the prison cell, a feeling aided by Matthew Richards’ lighting design and Fitz Patton’s sound design with its rumble of U.S. drone flights and distant explosions. The War on Terrorism, which Pakistan abetted, is a costly venture, both in dollars and in damage, and The Invisible Hand reminds us that, when it comes to covert strategies, much remains “invisible.”

 

The Invisible Hand
By Ayad Akhtar
Directed by David Kennedy

Scenic Design: Adam Rigg; Costume Design: Emily Rebholz; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Fitz Patton; Dialect Coach: Lous Colaianni; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Props Master: Karin White; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith

Cast: Jameal Ali; Rajesh Bose; Eric Bryant; Fajer Kaisi

Westport Country Playhouse
July 19-August 6, 2016

People Who Need People

Review of Buyer & Cellar, Westport Country Playhouse

A one-man play about a fictional lone employee in the perhaps real basement beneath a faux New England mill housing the shopping-mall, or storage shops, in which Barbra Streisand stores her various collections. What could be the attraction? Sure, some people are fascinated by “Babs” and her extravagant life and lifestyle, but, even if so, isn’t the show likely to undermine such adoration? And if you aren’t in the least interested in what Streisand hath wrought, how could you possibly endure the show?

OK, so I’ve expressed my trepidation. Buyer & Cellar, though, dismisses all those cavils with an urgent wave of Michael Urie’s gesticulating hand. As the narrator, Alex, who becomes that lone employee, Urie oozes show biz skill and mostly keeps the audience in the palm of his hand, entertaining us with what feels like an extended heart-to-heart from your most gleefully gossip-sharing gay friend. Alex has “the goods” on all Baba’s goods, and what’s more . . . what’s more . . . he becomes, for a bright shining series of encounters, practically her BGF!

Exclamation point, indeed. Urie delivers the goods with both irony and breathless enthusiasm. Whatever we think—or don’t think—about Streisand, his fascination is contagious. And playwright Jonathan Tolins wisely sets this all up with enough relevant plausibility to hook us in. Suspend disbelief, check. Alex presents himself as a struggling theater actor in LA who lost a job at the Magic Kingdom due to being testy with a bratty tot. Forced to subsist on the crumbs of the industry, he takes the Streisand basement shopping complex job because, well, it combines acting and retail—and he has experience in both.

Alex More (Michael Urie)

Alex More (Michael Urie)

Simple projections keep us apprised of where we are in a story that manages to shift around a bit, particularly to the apartment Alex shares with his partner, Barry, who gets to voice all the catty thoughts about Streisand’s self-serving career and self-pitying bids for affection that some of us might be thinking. And Urie is not only great at shape-shifting into disbelieving Barry; he also does the woman who hires Alex with such amusing panache, I wanted more (what’s her story?). And, then, of course, he does Streisand herself in remarkable tête-à-têtes with himself. Much of the story centers on Alex learning to see Streisand’s vulnerable humanity, even as he knows she’s another order of being entirely.

Like royalty, celebrities can’t really be our friends. Though the show is very light in tone and pace, it does touch on themes significant enough for our times. Friendship, the relation of employer to employee, relation to fame and its exploitation, and, most tellingly, the cult of celebrity that feeds the fortunes of someone like Streisand but also makes her a victim of her own creation. It’s also a show about gay culture, Jews—especially but not only from Brooklyn—and fan subcultures. Tolins gives us many funny and touching glimpses into these areas without belaboring any because Alex as written, and as charmingly and engagingly enacted by Urie, is anything but a bore. The show is a joyful re-enactment of Urie’s multiple award-winning turn in the part, and with great hair this time.

Alex More doing Barbra (Michael Urie)

Alex More doing Barbra (Michael Urie)

The pace slows a bit when the interactions between Alex and his employer begin to seem too much a wish-fulfillment fantasy (with Alex coaching Barbra in the lead of Gypsy), but just about when our interest might flag a bit, Urie, like any capable raconteur, switches gears and begins to narrate—and his narrative voice provides some of the most entertaining aspects of the show. Or else he brings on Barry to do a deadly spot-on reading of The Mirror Has Two Faces.

There are fun set-pieces throughout, with the best being the first encounter with Streisand as she “shops” for a bubble-blowing doll for which Alex, a consummate salesman, concocts a backstory of heart-warming hardship. The two dicker in studied bartering fashion over a price that must be agreed upon. It’s a canny glimpse into a very canny customer.

My other favorite part was Urie enacting James Brolin—“Jim”—who was Streisand’s beau at the time. His visit below stairs for frozen yogurt (where else would you keep your machine but in your mall?) has a very tongue-in-cheek man-to-man quality that glimpses the therapeutic value of Alex’s role. I mean, who wouldn’t benefit from having a personal store presided over by one’s own personal waitstaff?

Finally, a warning. The show might have side-effects. After seeing it I rented and watched not one but two Streisand movies. I’ve . . . never done this before.

 

Michael Urie in
Buyer & Cellar
By Jonathan Tolins
Directed by Stephen Brackett

Scenic Design: Andrew Boyce; Costume Design: Jessica Pabst; Lighting Design: Eric Southern; Sound Design: Stowe Nelson; Projection Design: Alex Basco Koch; Musical Staging: Sam Pinkleton; Production Stage Manager: Hannah Woodward

Westport Country Playhouse
June 14-July 3, 2016

For Art's Sake

Review of Red and ‘Art’ at Westport Country Playhouse

“…all of art is a portrait of an idea”—Mark Rothko

Two Tony-winning plays are playing in repertory at Westport Country Playhouse, both directed by Mark Lamos. Red, by John Logan, which opened Saturday night, and ‘Art’ by Yasmina Reza, which opened on Sunday, both treat fraught relations with fine art. The first, from the point of view of the maker, specifically the great mid-twentieth-century painter Mark Rothko (Stephen Rowe) and a fictional assistant, Ken (Patrick Andrews); the second, from the point of view of the buyer, Serge (John Skelley), and his bemused buddies, Marc (Benton Greene) and Yvan (Sean Dugan).

Of the two, ‘Art’, well-known as a play performed all over the world and generally a hit with audiences, is easily the more entertaining and likable play. Red, boasting a great set and Rowe’s intense rendering of Rothko, has no sense of humor—like Rothko himself seemingly—and only a weakly realized “agon” between mentor and assistant to recommend it as drama.

It’s not that Red sells Rothko’s ideas short—though hearing someone in a position of authority behave in so surly and dismissive a manner certainly won’t win over non-admirers—but rather that it makes Rothko’s modus operandi seem inflated, vain, misguided, and ultimately on the wrong side of history. Or, if one wants to be kinder, it suggests—scarcely a new idea—that each new generation of significant artists “kills” the previous generation. So, as those considered Abstract Expressionists—like Rothko—killed off the Cubists, so the Pop artists killed off the Abstract Expressionists. That’s true enough if we treat art as fashion, but as an assessment of the art of the twentieth century it’s extremely facile. And yet when Ken, considerably beside himself after taking as much abuse from Rothko as he can stand, offers this as an insight, it’s meant to feel telling.

Ken (Patrick Andrews), Rothko (Stephen Rowe) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Ken (Patrick Andrews), Rothko (Stephen Rowe) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The best thing about Red is seeing Rowe make Rothko in his studio come alive for us, a studio so well-rendered in Allen Moyer’s set you almost believe New York city is right outside its papered-over windows. Rothko, by all accounts, could indeed be difficult and had an uncompromising approach to his work—elements of his personality that come out here but without much sense of what he is trying to achieve with his work (viewers who think that the slapdash “paintings” hung on the stage have anything to do with Rothko’s work will be sadly mislead). The disconnect between Rothko’s work and the play, however, seems to be the point, as its story (such as it is) is told from the point of view of Ken. If only Ken had a point of view.

We learn he is an artist, though we never see evidence of it, nor do we ever get a sense that he, like Rothko, is bent upon achieving something that goes beyond himself. He tells the painter, after taking a job as his assistant, that his favorite artists are Pollock and Picasso, and eventually he defends Pop art because it’s fun. It might be more interesting if Ken defended figurative work or advocated that Rothko dispense with shapes altogether, but as it is he’s a cipher not given enough depth to be a character. It’s not even correct to say that he is skeptical of Rothko’s work since his reactions are to the man, primarily.

As a man, Rowe makes Rothko memorable by attitude more than by statement. He babbles about Nietzsche and puts down other painters, critics, and the general public in a manner that comes from an essentially depressive view of the modern world. Rothko actually had an interesting personal history but none of that matters here. What we get is, thanks to Rowe’s portrayal, a believable Rothko in, thanks to Logan’s script, an unrewarding situation.

Marc (Benton Greene), Serge (John Skelley) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Marc (Benton Greene), Serge (John Skelley) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Perhaps the most obvious point of transition between Red and ‘Art’ is when Rothko, bemused, speaks of how buyers want “a Rothko” or to collect “Rothkos,” so that he has become an object, synonymous with the objects he creates. In ‘Art’, a dermatologist named Serge buys “an Antrios,” for 200,000 euros. The assumption is that, like many dilettantes who bought Rothkos when his name became synonymous with modern art, Serge is buying the reputation more than the object. His friend Marc is aghast. The painting, which looks to be solid white, though allegedly possessing some white stripes on a white ground, or perhaps even some other muted colors, is deemed by Marc to be “shit.” The two eventually bring into their disagreement a mutual friend Yvan, who is in the midst of preparing to get married and who tries to be fair to each man’s point of view, a strategy that only fuels the fire when it fails.

What makes the play rewarding is the command of dialogue. Reza, as translated from French by Christopher Hampton, writes a stylized form of speech that can range from direct appeals to the audience, to rapid-fire ripostes and undercutting between characters, to a somewhat middlebrow version of highbrow discourse, to a hilarious monologue to his friends in which Yvan vents on the difficulty of getting all the women implicated in the wedding—his fiancée and her stepmother, and his own mother and stepmother—to agree. In fact, it is that monologue, which lets Dugan begin to run away with the play, that happily shifts us from the somewhat antiseptic discussion of the painting.

Which is fine, as the idea that this play is about art does it a disservice. All along we suspect that the difference in tastes about art is simply an easy notational device to characterize the three men. Serge, the others well know, is a would-be modernist; Marc likes landscapes; Yvan has a sentimental attachment to a canvas his father painted. What makes for the drama here is that Serge’s willingness to pay so much for such a work puts him into a different category. He’s attempting to rise above Marc’s conception of him by aligning himself with intellectuals (who use novel words like “deconstruction”—the play dates from the late 1990s, after all). And the sense of how our friends don’t remain fixed in the niches to which we assign them is what galls Marc and makes the play come alive as each airs his griefs with the others.

Serge (John Skelley), Marc (Benton Greene), Yvan (Sean Dugan) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Serge (John Skelley), Marc (Benton Greene), Yvan (Sean Dugan) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The comic pay-off of the play helps to undercut its own pretensions, though it also risks aligning itself with the tactics of the easy word-of-mouth consensus that is more relevant to theater than to the art world. Riza is never in danger of deconstructing the comedy of manners—and tastes—that is ‘Art’’s biggest selling point, but one can’t help feeling that, in French, she might get closer to something more pointed. The play, to me, seems underwritten by the sociological treatment of bourgeois “cultural capital” in the work of Pierre Bourdieu (hence, the specifics of each man’s occupation), and so is a way of showing how each man’s taste fulfills a certain function. The best moment, as theater, is when the three men share a small plate of almonds, for then their similarity is inescapable.

Mark Lamos’ productions of the two plays is best when it lets us dwell on such non-verbal moments—such as the covering of a canvas with a red undercoat that Rothko and Ken undertake simultaneously. In bringing the two plays together in repertory, Lamos underscores a telling moment in each: Ken’s defense of Pop art against Abstract Expressionism is replayed in ‘Art’ when Marc draws a cartoon figure upon Serge’s minimalist “masterpiece.” In both cases, the notion that art should amuse or please is for a moment lifted above its ability to confound or be profound. And yet, even then, both plays keep alive the sense of art as an irritant and a confrontation, and each play is deepened by its relation to the other.

And that, we may say, is the idea.

Ken (Patrick Andrews), Rothko (Stephen Rowe) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Ken (Patrick Andrews), Rothko (Stephen Rowe) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

 

Red
By John Logan
Directed by Mark Lamos

Cast: Patrick Andrews; Stephen Rowe

‘Art’
By Yasmina Reza
Directed by Mark Lamos

Cast: Sean Dugan; Benton Greene; John Skelley

Scenic Design: Allen Moyer; Costume Design: Candice Donnelly; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: David Budries; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Props Master: Rachel Kenner; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel CSA; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith

Westport Country Playhouse
May 3-29, 2016

Do We Not Bleed?

Review of Broken Glass at Westport Country Playhouse

To celebrate the centennial of the birth of famed playwright Arthur Miller, Westport Country Playhouse has staged a late Miller play. Broken Glass, which was nominated for a Tony for 1994, debuted at the Long Wharf Theatre. The revival at Westport, directed by Artistic Director Mark Lamos, does the play proud, with some of the finest acting to have graced Connecticut stages this year. The entire cast is excellent and match their roles perfectly, while two actors familiar to Connecticut audiences—Steven Skybell and Felicity Jones—do some of their best work to date.

The play, like most of Miller’s best-known plays, is very intense and doesn’t offer much in the way of lighter moments. Set in the U.S. in 1938, the period of the play is historically significant as the time of “Kristallnacht,” or the night of broken glass, as Nazis came to power in Germany and took Austria, destroying Jewish shops, burning synagogues, beating-up Jews, and perpetrating other acts of thuggishness in their fascistic zeal. At this time, a Jewish couple in America, Phillip and Sylvia Gellberg, played by Skybell and Jones, are experiencing a mysterious kind of trauma. Sylvia suddenly finds herself unable to walk. As the play opens, Phillip is receiving word from cautious and thoughtful Dr. Hyman (Stephen Schnetzer) that the doctors can find nothing physically wrong with Sylvia. He believes the problem is psychosomatic, and that means delving below the surface in the Gellbergs’ marriage.

Steven Skybell (Phillip Gellburg), Stephen Schnetzer (Dr. Harry Hyman)

Steven Skybell (Phillip Gellburg), Stephen Schnetzer (Dr. Harry Hyman)

In that first scene, Skybell lets us learn much about Phillip: his reticence, his deep concern for his wife, his difficulties with her and with the marriage that has shaped him, his pride in his role as the only Jew employed by a Brooklyn trust company (he works in foreclosures) and in his son as a Jew rising in the armed forces, and his deep ambivalence toward other Jews and to “what is happening in Germany.” He’s mainly concerned that outright antisemitism there may inspire more aggressive forms of antisemitism here. Phillip is not really a sympathetic character and yet Skybell makes us care about him even though there’s a real threat here. He may crack up, he may become violent. Before the evening ends, we will see him weep, plead, suffer, accuse and attack, and drop to the floor with a heart attack. And through it all Skybell makes us consider what happens to a man when he is out of his depth, when the delicate détente of his marriage begins to fray in such a way that professional help becomes imperative.

It’s hard to believe the play was written in the Nineties, so steadfastly does it feel like a vision from an earlier time: the Thirties as seen by the Fifties, perhaps. Which is a way of saying that the writing feels like it must precede the Sixties and the Seventies with their greater laxity of locution. Dialogue in this play may feel prosy, on the page, but as delivered by this stellar cast, directed by Lamos, who has worked directly with Miller in the latter’s long career, the dialogue’s precision and nuance of character is exemplary. Even relatively minor roles, such as Phillip’s ultra-WASPy boss Stanton Case (John Hillner) and Harriet (Merrritt Janson), Sylvia’s sister, come across as actual people with actual lives.

Harriet, in particular, speaks with authority about her sister’s life in a way that seems informed by decades of observation and gossip. And Dr. Hyman’s wife, Margaret (Angela Reed), provides useful shading to the good doctor; her sense of how easily he becomes infatuated with his female patients makes us wary of his interest in the psychology of Sylvia’s case. Miller lets his minor characters play their parts and get out of the way; their contributions help us grasp the levels of the situation and add a deeper sense of the play’s “no man is an island” context. The Skybells, the Hymans, are in many ways unremarkable, and yet, once we begin to remark them, we will see subterfuge and shame and other issues, some long-buried, some still close to the surface, that must be confronted.

Stephen Schnetzer (Dr. Harry Hyman), Felicity Jones (Sylvia Gellburg)

Stephen Schnetzer (Dr. Harry Hyman), Felicity Jones (Sylvia Gellburg)

The use of paralysis and impotence as figures for U.S. Jewry’s inability to do anything for their German counterparts is a bit too obvious as metaphor, we might say. But to treat ironically Miller’s figures for an international incapacity to help the persecuted (quite relevant to the moment with the question of Syrian refugees) would be to spoil the play horribly. Sylvia Gellburg’s reaction to such suffering is physical, and, in her marriage long ago, the failure of the physical, bodily aspect of love became the occasion for violence. Miller’s text seems true to the Thirties where Freud’s “Jewish cure” of talking about the past to find psychological truth comes up against the “Jewish question”—both are aspects of life not often talked about in polite society then. And so the drama of sadly unhappy people coming to grips with both resonates as catharsis-seeking theater.

Felicity Jones (Sylvia Gellburg)

Felicity Jones (Sylvia Gellburg)

Much of that level of feeling comes from Felicity Jones’ subtle enactment of Sylvia Gellburg. There are so many ways one might react to her predicament: aging woman’s last hope of attracting sensitive male attention; unhappy wife finding a way to pay back her husband, who doesn’t dominate so much as demand acceptance, for his treatment of her; sensitive woman driven to distraction and illness by the methodical brutality of the times; confused and lonely soul needing compassion, and finding, in Kristallnacht, a figure for mankind’s lack of compassion. Jones makes us see all this in Sylvia’s strength and weakness, her passion and her pathos. Even her tears come to us through a veil of attribution: is it self-pity, a play for sympathy, or a dawning grasp of a tragic sense of life? Key to Miller’s play is the notion that, if people can only find a way to speak of what ails them, much that is dark and disturbing to ourselves about ourselves might become less grievous and appalling. We might have to accept how much we need the views of others to see ourselves aright.

Michael Yeargan’s scenic design—including artfully manipulated bed and chairs and a reflective backdrop that, before the play begins, shows the audience to itself and later lets us see bedridden Sylvia from above—and the lighting by the impeccable Stephen Strawbridge, together with Candice Donelly’s costumes and David Budries’ sound design, add to the impressiveness of this fully realized production of a challenging and rewarding play.  

 

Arthur Miller’s
Broken Glass
Directed by Mark Lamos

Scenic Design: Michael Yeargan; Costume Design: Candice Donnelly; Lighting Design: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Design: David Budries; Props Master: Karin White; Movement Consultant: Michael Rossmy; Dialect Coach: Louis Colaianni; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting; Production Stage Manager: Matthew Melchiorre; Photographs: T. Charles Erikson

Cast: John Hillner; Merritt Janson; Felicity Jones; Angela Reed; Stephen Schnetzer; Steven Skybell

Westport Country Playhouse
October 6-24, 2015

 

 

To Each According to Their Needs

Review of Love & Money at The Pershing Square Signature Center, New York

A. R. Gurney’s new play Love & Money, now playing at The Pershing Square Signature Center in New York after previews at Westport Playhouse, seems the kind of light comedy of manners that Gurney, now in his eighties, can probably write in his sleep. The usual Gurney elements are present: upper-class WASPs, Cole Porter songs, Buffalo, Irish housekeepers, a breezy grasp of the current idiom—with “whatever” and “google” wielded by an elderly woman—and, here, a moral center that seems earnest though not earned.

At best we might say the play, directed by Westport Artistic Director Mark Lamos, tries to imagine, without taxing its audience too much, how to redistribute all that wealth stored by storied families on the upper East side. It also pays homage to other literary inspirations, dropping references to Hamlet, “Richard Corey,” The Dining Room (perhaps Gurney’s best-known play), and a tip of the hat to John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, which it recalls via a very affable African-American character who may be a con-man.

Maureen Anderman as Cornelia Cunningham; photo by Joan Marcus

Maureen Anderman as Cornelia Cunningham; photo by Joan Marcus

We enter upon Michael Yeargan’s sumptuous set representing the sumptuous in-home office of Cornelia Cunningham (Maureen Anderman), "a woman of a certain age." It might take us a moment to realize that everything in the room—the leather-bound books, the art, the Empire desk and chairs and tables—bears a tag as for a White Elephant sale. Mrs. Cunningham, at long last, in the wake of the death of her stern, money-making, Big Game-hunting husband, is selling off everything to benefit charities and any project that aids underprivileged people or endangered species. As played by Anderman, Cornelia is a perky presence, firing ripostes at her skeptical new lawyer, Harvey Abel (Joe Paulik) who tries to intervene with judicious caution. He’s playing a weak hand because Cunningham’s progeny—a son and a daughter—have both been outlived by their indomitable mom, and her unloved grand-kids have been bought off comfortably enough, so who is there to resist the liquidation?

Enter our plot complication: a letter from a man named Walker Williams (Gabriel Brown) who presents himself as the unknown, illegitimate offspring of Cornelia’s daughter. Raised in Buffalo by his black father and mother, he carries as introduction a letter ostensibly written by his biological, well-to-do mother exhorting him to seek his fortune from his grandmother when “he’s ready.” What he wants is to be set up on Wall Street with the family funds. Harvey, of course, doesn’t buy any of it (he blames Williams’ scheme on a recent newspaper story about Cornelia’s intentions), but Cornelia, after the charming young man makes his way into her study, is willing to entertain the possibility of kin if only for a certain emotional frisson lacking in her life. That, one supposes, is where “love” comes into it. Cornelia has no reason to love Walker—who goes by “Scott” as in Fitzgerald and speaks accordingly—but he is certainly willing to be loved. And stranger things have happened.

Joe Paulik (Harvey Abel), Gabriel Brown (Walker Williams), Maureen Anderman (Cornelia Cunningham); photo by Joan Marcus

Joe Paulik (Harvey Abel), Gabriel Brown (Walker Williams), Maureen Anderman (Cornelia Cunningham); photo by Joan Marcus

Walker’s ingratiating willingness to be appreciated comes up in a more unflattering light when he comes on to Jessica Worth (Kahyun Kim), a self-possessed Julliard student on hand to audition a player-piano Cornelia is donating to the school. That piano becomes the key prop in the play, helping to pan out its running time, inspiring graceful dance moves as “Scott” tries to sweep Cornelia off her feet, as well as conjuring a brisk rendition of Porter’s “Make It Another Old Fashioned, Please,” by Kim, and a funny blast of Porter scorn from Harvey. But, despite class and racial differences, despite shadowy pasts and allusions to painful back story, not much gets sorted out here. Cornelia and her faithful maid Agnes (Pamela Dunlap) give us and Williams the condensed tale of the Cunningham children—a drunken son, a gad-about daughter—whose respective demises their mother blames on the riches that kept them above the fray.

Gurney lets everyone keep it light, and the patter—Cornelia calls it “badinage”—aims to entertain. Lamos, if there might be awkwardness or awareness to bring to light, doesn’t delve. We end with the sense that everything unpleasant in life can be handled by a check in the right amount in the right hands (such as at a certain local drama school). Certainly no one in the play doubts this, though Cornelia, with easy conscience, inveighs against money as “a curse” that caused suffering in her family. No doubt it did, and her expiation via eradication feels justified; it’s just that her solution seems to play into a fairy-tale sense of how things might be if only the privileged would divest their privileges, smugly loving all those needy people out there. The rich need the needy, you see, in order to feel richly rewarded by gratitude.

Breezy, friendly, and short, Love & Money feels like a TV installment and makes us wonder what would be happening if we "tuned in next week."

Signature Theatre and Westport Country Playhouse present
Love & Money
By A.R. Gurney
Directed by Mark Lamos

Cast: Maureen Anderman, Gabriel Brown, Pamela Dunlap, Kahyun Kim, Joe Paulik

Scenic Design: Michael Yeargan; Costume Design: Jess Goldstein; Lighting Design: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Design: John Gromada; Production Stage Manager: Matthew Melchiorre; Associate Artistic Director: Beth Whitaker

The Pershing Square Signature Center, New York

 

 

 

An Old Sweet Song

Review of And a Nightingale Sang at Westport Country Playhouse

C.P. Taylor’s memory play And a Nightingale Sang, running through June 27 at Westport Country Playhouse, gives us Helen Stott (an incandescent Brenda Meaney), looking back at life in Newcastle, England, during WWII and at her family’s experience of day-to-day existence under the Blitz. From her first words, Meaney establishes a presence of such frankness, poignancy, and strength that we are willing to follow her wherever she might lead. Meaney's acting belongs in the highest ranks. For her performance alone, And a Nightingale Sang is worth seeing.

Brenda Meaney (Helen), Matthew Greer (Norman)
Brenda Meaney (Helen), Matthew Greer (Norman)

The device of Helen’s direct address adds a pleasingly modern dimension to Taylor’s well-made drama. As the narrator, one moment Helen is introducing characters, the next she is explaining the subtext, and then for a time she melts into the action. Leisurely-paced and short on surprises, Nightingale is most powerful when Helen—whose limp has kept her (in her view) a spinster—tells her own coming-of-age story, which took place in her early middle years. David Kennedy’s direction, however, falls short of conveying the terrors of war, and thus this production slants a bit too far towards the comfortable and the bittersweet.

The opening scene serves mainly to establish characters and introduce the working-class Stott family. Pretty younger daughter Joyce (Jenny Leona) is trying to decide whether to accept the marriage proposal of Eric (John Skelley), a soldier who is about to ship off to France; Joyce’s mother, Peggy (Deirdre Madigan), is desperately trying to get out of the house to visit one of the priests who, she fears, is having a war-related crisis of faith. Meanwhile Peggy’s father, Andie (Richard Kline), has just lost his beloved dog (whose dead body he has brought into the house in a cloth sack) and is trying to round up funeral goers. In the background, George (Sean Cullen), the father of the family, plays merrily on the piano and provides a humorous commentary on the cacophonous events. We immediately see that everyone in the family depends upon Helen for her good sense, kindness, and alacrity with a cup of tea. The war first intervenes at this point, in the form of sirens signaling a possible attack.

Deirdre Madigan, Sean Cullen, John Skelley, Brenda Meaney, Matthew Greer, Richard Kline
Deirdre Madigan, Sean Cullen, John Skelley, Brenda Meaney, Matthew Greer, Richard Kline

Because Helen’s memory drives the plot, the strongest storyline revolves around her love affair with Eric’s soldier friend Norman (Matthew Greer), the only man who has ever looked at her, much less declared his attraction and affection. Some of the sweetest moments occur here, as well as some of the play’s few genuine revelations. Greer is appealing, touching, and appropriately mysterious, while Helen’s emotional and sexual awakening brings to mind a more emotionally stable Laura, of The Glass Menagerie, if the Gentleman Caller had fallen for her and in doing so, changed her life.

Deirdre Madigan (Peggy), Richard Kline (Andie), Sean Cullen (George)
Deirdre Madigan (Peggy), Richard Kline (Andie), Sean Cullen (George)

In the Stott household, humor, whether intentional or not, often pierces the darkness of the war, and Kennedy and his cast play up this element with crisp expertise. Indeed, these remarkable actors lift the script beyond its own limitations. Every performance shines. Sean Cullen brings a boyish twinkle to George Stott and sings and plays the piano as if he were born at the keyboard. As Peggy, Deirdre Madigan captures the conventionality of a staunch Catholic of her time and then layers this with unexpected nuance. Jenny Leona brings both fragility and fire to the role of Joyce. And Richard Kline, as Andie, delivers his fatalistic pronouncements, honed on the battle fields of WWI, with dry wit, while also conveying the vulnerability of a man who has come to love his pets as much as his family: Tibby the cat reminds him that he is still needed.

As the soldier, Eric, John Skelley keeps us on his side even when his behavior is at its most churlish. Eric—one minute a fun-loving guy, the next minute a lout— is a tricky role, but Skelley, under Kennedy’s guidance, helps us to see a youth made by war to act the adult before he is ready.

Jenny Leona (Joyce), John Skelley (Eric)
Jenny Leona (Joyce), John Skelley (Eric)

The scenic design, by Kristen Robinson, and the lighting design, by Matthew Richards, are to be commended too. The set is a large brick open space that serves most often as the Stott’s home, but that also remains abstract—like memory—so that two chairs brought downstage can become a park bench or a front parlor, and the characters can move through the central open space and enter a dance hall or a hotel or a homely flat. Richards’ lighting serves to create the effect of memory: when the spotlight isolates and illuminates Helen, we know we are in her mind, and when the light broadens, we know we are back in the scenes of the past.

With such a strong design team—including sound design by Fitz Patton—one only wishes that Kennedy had chosen to make the moments when war breaks into the Stotts’ domestic concerns more jolting, terrifying, and real. Sirens should be louder, bombs should shake the theater walls, and flashing lights should blind. However, the terrific cast nearly makes up for this missing dramatic element: they bring to the stage their own brilliance, in all senses of the word.

And a Nightingale Sang
By C.P Taylor

Directed by David Kennedy

Cast: George: Sean Cullen; Norman: Matthew Greer; Andie: Richard Kline; Joyce: Jenny Leona; Peggy: Deirdre Madigan; Helen: Brenda Meaney; Eric: John Skelley

Scenic Design: Kristen Robinson; Costume Design: Michael Krass; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Fitz Patton; Dialect Consultant: Elizabeth Smith; Props Master: Karin White; Choreographers: Lisa Gajda and Mary Ann Lamb; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting; Production Stage Manager: Marcie A. Friedman; Assistant Stage Manager: Samantha Flint

Westport Country Playhouse
June 9-27, 2015

The Art of Lying

Review of The Liar at Westport Country Playhouse

The name David Ives conjures memories of his first huge hit, All in the Timing, which was, but for Shakespeare’s plays, the most produced play in the country in 1995-96. Likewise, in the 2013-14 season, productions of Ives’ Venus in Fur also came second only to productions of Shakespeare. And speaking of Shakespeare, Ives has created much of his remarkably successful career by translating, adapting, rescuing, re-tooling, or—and he says this himself—respectfully ripping off the tales and ideas of other authors (duly cited, of course).

So it should come as no surprise that Ives’ play The Liar is an adaptation of a classic comedy from 1643 by Pierre Corneille (itself based on a Spanish play of apparently deserved obscurity). For the most part, we come to Ives seeking hilarity. The Liar, a French farce beautifully directed by Penny Metropulos and performed by a stellar cast, does not disappoint. Ives retains Corneille’s verse form and provides laughter in every line. Far from becoming tedious, the verse only augments the fun—especially when Ives twists syllables to rhyme, or adds in enough anachronisms to keep the language zany and surprising. The cast, for its part, enables one to forget about the verse within minutes, except when the playwright wants us to notice it.

Rusty Ross (Cliton), Aaron Krohn (Dorante)

Rusty Ross (Cliton), Aaron Krohn (Dorante)

Of course, The Liar concerns, well, a liar. Its main character, Dorante (the skilled and unexpectedly sweet Aaron Krohn) spins lie after lie as his very mode of being. Whenever he’s in a tight spot, or when simply making conversation, the most elaborate, overblown fictions spring from his imagination. For instance, when wishing to impress a friend, Alcippe (the very funny Philippe Bowgen), with his amorous triumphs, Dorante describes his night with a certain lady with outrageous and delightful double entendres. Amidst the verbal riches we all—except Alcippe—may forget that the latter is engaged to the lady.

Indeed one beauty of The Liar is that Dorante’s extravagant stories keep us from growing weary with the plot of unmasking a truth we already know. Another beauty is that the women, far from being ornamental objects of the men’s desire, are, if anything, wittier, cleverer, and more determined in their goals than are the men.

Kate MacCluggage (Clarice), Monique Barbee (Lucrece)

Kate MacCluggage (Clarice), Monique Barbee (Lucrece)

As Lucrece, the initially quiet friend of the more garrulous and showy beauty Clarice, Monique Barbee has arguably the more difficult role and plays Lucrece with sensitivity and grace. As Clarice, Kate MacCluggage’s charisma derives from her palpable joy in acting and her expert fun with the language (MacCluggage was marvelous as a witch in the Long Wharf/Hartford Stage production of Bell, Book, and Candle in 2012).

Also expert is Rebekah Brockman, who gave us such a poignant Thomasina in the Yale Repertory Theatre's Arcadia this past fall. Brockman plays identical twin ladies’ maids: Isabelle, sensual, and Sabine, sanctimonious (and especially quick with a hard slap). The object of Isabelle’s desire and Sabine’s scorn is Cliton, Dorante’s hapless servant (Rusty Ross), as compulsively honest as Dorante is compulsively mendacious. Completing the cast is Brian Reddy, very funny as Dorante’s father, and Jay Russell as Philiste, friend and advisor to the hotheaded Alcippe.

Jay Russell (Philiste), Philippe Bowgen (Alcippe)

Jay Russell (Philiste), Philippe Bowgen (Alcippe)

Matching the wit of the script and the sparkle of the cast is a set design by Kristen Robinson that is at once very French, very modern, and delicious to look at: the light green trees put one in mind of pistachio sorbet. The furnishings—black and white, spare and elegant—make for precisely choreographed set changes performed by the cast to French music (designed by David Budries) that sounds like a mix of hip-hop and 1980’s electronic dance tunes. The lighting design (Matthew Richards) heightens our sense of a disco-inflected present. And Jessica Ford’s costumes—as crazily beautiful for the men as they are for the women—complete our transportation to a colorfully unreal world.

On several occasions, characters break the fourth wall to address the audience, making us complicit in their acts of lying. In one of these memorable addresses, Dorante even dips into the subject of existential despair, dodging out of it with a comforting lightness of touch. Certainly, The Liar can be enjoyed as simple, silly farce, but the philosophical questions the play elicits make it a comedic and ironic meditation on the truth, and so very French.

Dorante (read Ives via Corneille) deeply understands not only the necessity of lies as we construct the facets of our social selves, but also the more profound ways in which lies make life not only pleasurable, but bearable.

The Liar
By David Ives

Adapted from Le menteur by Pierre Corneille
Directed by Penny Metropulos

Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Voice & Text Consultant: Elizabeth Smith; Set Design: Kristen Robinson; Sound Design: David Budries; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Costume Design: Jessica Ford; Props Master: Karin White; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith

Westport Country Playhouse
Westport, May 5-23, 2015