Sunday, December 8, 2013

In Praise of Our Oh-So Liberal Selves

Accidental Death of an Anarchist -- Yale Repertory Theatre -- Thru Dec. 21

                         Steven Epp as the Maniac in "Accidental Death of an Anarchist"
                         All photos by Joan Marcus

Read the program.

In 1969, a bank in Milan, Italy, was bombed. The police blamed anarchists. An anarchist was duly arrested and, after three days of interrogation at a police station, the suspect jumped, or was pushed, out of a fourth-story window. Convoluted cover-ups ensued, Italy became enflamed, and in response, Nobel prize-winner Dario Fo wrote the farcical “Accidental Death of an Anarchist,” intentionally pouring oil on the fire that was Italy in the 70s.

So, why read the Yale Repertory Theatre’s program for its current production of Fo’s effort? Well, the problem with this production was apparently sensed by those involved, for we have this comment: “Although we are not generally steeped in the Italian politics of the early 1970s, it is not a stretch for us to appreciate Fo’s barbed and pointed jokes.” Well, I beg to differ. It is a stretch, and even with Gavin Richards somewhat heavy-handed adaptation and update of Gillian Hanna’s translation, this is theater that cries out for its lost context.

I’m as liberal as the next reader of “In These Times,” but that doesn’t mean I will immediately give knee-jerk applause to a play that seeks to bash the conservative opposition with mace and war hammer. This is, if you will, an exercise in what might be called self-satisfied theater, and director Christopher Bayes seems to think that his audience will, by and large, be composed of those of a marked liberal bent predisposed to nod (and sometimes applaud) at what, at times, seems little more than left-wing rant.

                                              Liam Craig and Molly Bernard

The setting of the play is the aforementioned Milan police headquarters circa 1970, where several officers have gathered to interrogate the Maniac (Steven Epp). It’s an interesting collection of officers: Bertozzo (Jesse J. Perez), a Hispanic, Constable (Eugene Ma), an Oriental, and Pissani (Allen Gilmore), a Black man, soon to be joined by the Superintendent (Liam Craig), a blustering Caucasian, and a crusading journalist, Felletti (Molly Bernard) – the casting allows that fanaticism and neo-Facist tendencies know no ethnic boundaries. It also sets the stage for the characters to comment on just about every liberal whipping boy imaginable, from sexism and political corruption to police brutality, the more edacious aspects of capitalism and the Bush-Cheney non-existent WMDs, all in a wink-wink, nudge-nudge manner that takes on the aspect of preaching to the choir, no more so than in the Maniac’s final, bromidic soliloquy which ends with the challenge: “What are you going to do?” An appropriate response might be: “Yawn?” The whole effort comes off as a SNL skit with absurdist overtones.

                            Eugene Ma, Steven Epp, Allen Gilmore, and Liam Craig

Bayes, who directed the Rep’s outstanding production of “The Servant of Two Masters,” (what an opening scene!), as well as “A Doctor in Spite of Himself,” once again brings aspects of Commedia Del Arte to his staging of “Anarchist,” but this time it rings just a bit hollow. The characters’ antics and occasional breaking out into song and dance feel forced, and although there are moments when the silliness, taken at face value, is entertaining, it somehow seems disconnected from the true spirit of a play meant to be bitingly sarcastic.

Fo rewrote his play several times so that it would be au courant, but there was always the need to shine a light on the reality of what was going on in Italy at the time. Bereft of that context, Richards’ adaptation seems to be mere grist for conversational talking points at a soigné cocktail party, a drop-a-phrase event that allows all to nod their heads in acknowledgement of how horrid the times have become and how crude and boorish is the opposition as another canapé is consumed.    

“Accidental Death of an Anarchist” runs through Dec. 21. For tickets, call Yale Rep, 1120 Chapel Street, New Haven at 203-432-1234 or go to

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Dastardly Deeds at Baskerville Hall

The Hound of the Baskervilles -- Playhouse on Park -- Thru Dec. 22

                                 Sean Harris, Brennan Caldwell and Rich Holman. 
                                 Photo by Rich Wagner

The game’s afoot up at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, and so is the delightful silliness as Sherlock Holmes and the redoubtable (and somewhat confused) Dr. Watson puzzle out the mystery of “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” adapted from the Conan Doyle story by Steven Canny and John Nicholson with an eye towards a poke in the ribs and a pie in the face.

As directed by Tom Ridgely, this humorous romp announces its intentions from the play’s opening moments – a thunderclap, lightening (courtesy of lighting director Adam Frank) and a man dressed in dark clothes and top hat opens a gate as fog swirls about his feet. He walks, hears strange sounds, gasps, is attacked by unseen forces and falls dead. Oh, the horror! But wait…the lights come up as Sean Harris (the Playhouse’s artistic director, who will play Watson and various other characters) strides onto the stage. You see, the pre-curtain warnings and caveats about cell phones and exits have not been announced. Anyone in the audience who was getting ready to suspend his or her disbelief is given a rude awakening as the actors are introduced (along with their credits)  and a warning is given that dastardly deeds will be depicted in what follows, so those faint of heart (or suffering from low self-esteem) are urged to depart before the evening continues. In other words, we’re going to play fast and loose with dramatic conventions. By and large, it all works.

Those familiar with “The Mystery of Irma Vep” or the more recent “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” will realize one of the draws of the “Hound” is to watch a limited number of actors take on multiple roles, often requiring rapid costume changes, but the “Hound” not only pokes fun at the Conan Doyle clichés, it also takes a swipe at its own theatrical sub-genre. Wishing to avoid ‘spoiler’ territory, let’s just say that quick costume changes require that the costumes are readily available rather than stored in a closet that also has the costumes and props for a children’s theatrical. Confused? It will all make sense as you watch the delightful confusion that opens the second act.

The play’s basic plot sticks fairly close to that of Conan Doyle’s story: there appears to be a curse on the male members of the Baskerville family – when wandering the moors (why they do so is a mystery in and of itself) they apparently fall prey to a huge hound from hell. The latest demise of one of the clan brings the last of the Baskervilles, Sir Henry (Brennan Caldwell), to 221 B Baker Street to obtain the services of the renowned detective, Sherlock Holmes (Rich Hollman). Soon Holmes and Watson find themselves in Dartmoor at Baskerville Hall, where they finally unravel the mystery but, of course, the whodunit aspect of “Hound” plays second-fiddle to the fun of watching the actors take on various roles, fall in and out of character, confuse each other with spoonerism and malaprops and, in general, appear to have one hell of a time…as does the audience.

                              Sir Hnery Baskerville (Brennan Caldwell) senses danger.
                              Photo by Rich Wagner

If there’s one drawback to  the evening it’s that the second act, fleshed out with the aforementioned costume quick-change romp, seems overly long – the play (with one intermission) runs well over two hours, a goodly amount of time to maintain the necessary farcical level. Some judicious editing might be called for here.

That being said, most of the evening flies by as the actors rush about creating a series of characters who never fail to tickle the funny bone. Along the way there are puns, jibes, witty asides, jests and some deft visual humor involving, among other things, a series of portraits, a window, Watson going on a shooting spree (listen closely to sounds made by his targets: everything from the Road Runner to Sarah Palin, no less)  and even some aggressive shrubbery.

If you’re looking to brighten up the winter drear, “The Hound of the Baskervilles” should do the trick. There’s nothing like a little bit of zany to warm the heart (several pre-show libations should get you into just the right mood).

“The Hound of the Baskervilles” runs through Dec. 22. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Fine Production of "Fences"

"Fences" -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru Dec. 22

                         Phil McGlaston, Esau Pritchett, Portia, G. Alvarez Reid, and 
                         Jared McNeill. All photos by T. Charles Erickson

Some men’s spirits are simply too large to be encompassed by the lives they are forced to live. They may seem on the surface to have accepted their diminished realities but inside their souls writhe, yearn to break free, to, in the parlance of August Wilson’s “Fences,” stop standing on first base and, for once in their lives, steal second. Troy Maxson is such a man, and in Long Wharf’s fine production of Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony award-winning play, he comes fully to life, as do his family and friends under Phylicia Rashad’s strong and nuanced direction, creating a gripping, heart-wrenching theatrical experience.
            It’s Pittsburgh, 1957…the Hill District…and Troy Maxson (Esau Pritchett) and Jim Bono (Phil McGleason) are coming home from hauling garbage, back to Maxson’s house, a ramshackle affair with a roof threatening to leak and a partially built wooden fence. They are two black men who met in prison and have found a way to survive in a world that will not see them for the men they are because of the color of their skin. Bono seems content with his lot but Maxson, a once superb baseball player, possesses large appetites and a well-defined if somewhat inflated sense of who he is and what he is capable of…and what he deserves from life. He is also a hyperbolic storyteller, at least when it comes to retailing his own exploits, both real and imagined (or mythical).

                                         Esau Pritchett and Phil McGlaston

            In marrying Rose (Portia) 17 years ago and siring a son, Cory (Chris Meyers), Maxson believes he has settled, and it rankles so that he has found solace and comfort in the arms of another woman A man beset by more than one demon, Maxson’s pride and need drive him to threaten the only stability he has known in his troubled life.
            There are no fabricated heroes or villains in “Fences,” just real people dealing with the questions that whisper in their souls, questions about loyalty, responsibility, dreams, desires, betrayals and failures, and this strong cast, which includes Jared McNeil as Lyons (Maxson’s son from a previous liason), G. Alvarez Reid as Gabriel (Maxson’s brother, wounded in the Second World War), and the adorable Taylor Dior as Raynell (Maxson’s illegitimate daughter), creates a dynamic that is difficult to turn away from yet, at times, painful to watch, painful primarily because of Maxson’s penchant for self-destruction.
            Pritchett gives a strong, highly nuanced performance as the conflicted father, easily and fluidly capturing the character’s pride, need and inner doubts. Whether he is once again telling the tale of his battle with the devil (read alter-ego), confronting his son about what he does or doesn’t owe the boy, or attempting to confess his philandering to his wife, Pritchett’s Maxson is mesmerizing. Yes, “larger then life’ is a cliché, but in this case it is apt.

                           Chris Meyers, Esau Pritchett, Portia and G. Alvarez Reid

            Confronted by such a dominating character, Portia more than holds her own, creating a Rose that is Maxon’s equal, a strong and resolute woman who, in the second act, confronts Maxson’s solipsistic view of their lives together and reveals the price Rose has paid to hold their marriage together while allowing Maxson to embrace his inflated sense of self. It’s a penetrating performance that pits Rose’s loyalty and firm convictions against Maxson’s bravado and bluster, a confrontation that eventually forces Maxson to confront his self-indulgent actions and, to a certain extent, feel shamed.
            If there is a weakness in the play it is in its final moments, a coda of sorts, a denouement that seems to last just a bit too long as Rose delivers what is, in essence, a soliloquy on her husband that borders on hagiography. After the emotional fireworks of the second act it seems just a bit anti-climactic.
            The play’s final moments aside, “Fences” delivers just about everything a playgoer might desire: a well-told tale dealing with complex characters created by actors well-honed in their craft. The show runs slightly over two hours but you won’t be aware of the passage of time, you’ll be totally diverted by what is happening on the stage. As the lady who accompanied me commented: “This is theater as it should be.” Absolutely.

            “Fences” runs through Dec. 22. For tickets or more information call 787-4282 or go to

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Let's (Snicker) Talk About (Giggle) Sex

"Whacked" -- Hole in the Wall Theater -- Thru Dec. 14

How many euphemisms can you come up with for “masturbation”? If hard pressed, I could probably offer five or six, but playwright Scott Stephen Kegler has apparently done his research and, well, it’s all on display in the somewhat sophomoric “Whacked,” which recently saw its world premiere at New Britain’s Hole in the Wall Theater. This one-trick-pony sex comedy could easily have been written while lounging in a boy’s locker room at a local high school – it’s all snicker and nudge-nudge about the fact that the human animal indulges in sex and, shockingly, both the male and female of the species often auto-stimulate.

It’s coming on Thanksgiving, and Marta (Jenn Rykowski) returns home from grocery shopping to discover her husband, Jack (please!) whacking his weenie while staring at a picture he has downloaded off the Internet. It’s never exactly clear what this is a picture of, but it apparently involves a woman, some barbed wire and an animal (sounds stimulating). Marta screams, Jack (Devin Horner) trundles out into the living room with his pants down, and we’re off to the races as Marta expresses her disgust. Poor Jack is, for the moment, definitely persona non grata.

Ah, but the holiday is hard upon us, and Jack’s and Marta’s parents have been invited to partake of the turkey feast, so the couple must set aside (if they can) their problems to entertain. First to arrive are Marta’s parents, Alice (Kathleen-Marie Clark) and Hank (Bill Arnold), bearing holiday cheer and a bag full of clichés for, you see, Hank is a bit of a bore and an omnivore (he loves, among other things, the juice he guzzles from an open can of black olives), and dear Alice is a rather tiresome religious fundamentalist who just happens to be Catholic (and, of course, has a proclivity for the sauce – ah, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak).

As Hank noshes and Alice drinks, dithers, proclaims and pronounces, Jack’s parents arrive. Beth (Pan Riley) and David (Warren Dutkiewicz) seem normal at first, but there’s some sexual hanky-panky hiding in the couple’s closet that, once revealed, will drive Alice to a monomaniacal (and unbelievable) frenzy throughout most of the rest of the play.

That this is all a tempest in a tea pot goes without saying. As the Thanksgiving dinner progresses, each character gets to ride his or her hobby horse for all it’s worth, and most get to run off a string of the aforementioned euphemisms for Onan’s sin. Playwright Kegler, who also directs, throws in a conflicted priest (can there be any other?), Father Lawrence (Ryan Wantroba) and Jesus Christ – well, someone playing the Lord called “Jesus” Bill (Roy Donnelly), complete with a crown of thorns and a cell phone.

And what is all of this leading up to? What is the grand revelation? Well, at the end of the play we’re right back where we started – with the simple fact that human beings enjoy orgasms, no matter how they are arrived at or generated. Gee whiz.

The play has possibilities if Kegler had used sexual urges as a jumping off point for a more mature investigation of need, desire and relationships between couples, but it seems stuck in first gear – we never get beyond the titillating fact that humans enjoy sex (not much of a revelation), and that those of a certain religious bent have always had a problem with that reality. The dialogue is at times witty, but Kegler, in his role as director, seems to have forgotten that the essence of comedy is timing – there’s often just too much air between the lines as delivered by the actors – it’s as if Kegler was anticipating laughs and wanted to give some time for the uproar to die down before allowing his actors to proceed.

If you’re 14, male, and attempting to deal with pubescent urges you might find “Whacked” engaging. If you’ve successfully passed that stage you’ll simply wonder what all the fuss is about.

“Whacked” runs through Dec. 14. For tickets or more information call 860-229-3049 or go to


Received an interesting response to this review. In the interest of fairness, I offer my critic's comments unedited:

I read your review of Whacked and I get the impression that you must be fun at 
parties.  The wine they bought cost $20 a bottle?  What garbage!  Doritos?  
Gross!  Someone tells you a dick joke? How droll!  If it's not the best it must 
be garbage!
You managed to build up an unrealistic expectation of what this show was about 
so of course you were disappointed.  If you're expecting to see the Mona Lisa 
and someone hands you a comic book, you'll judge it pretty harshly.
You seemed to have missed the entire point of the play.  Masturbation is a 
really taboo topic.  Overly so.  People rarely talk about it, and some people 
are really ashamed of it, yet we almost all do it.  It's rediculous.  This play 
was a jab at that concept (sorry you were too preoccupied to get it).  Do I 
think it deserves a Tony?  No.  Was it as bad as you made it out to be?  Not 
even close.  The characters were cute, the dialogue was fun, and it was 
entertaining.  But you seemed to have missed all of that.
Does writing this kind of review make you feel superior?  (Because you obviously 
are.) It didn't blow your mind so it must be trash?  (Why bother)  Would it have 
been impossible to say something nice thing about it?  (For someone like you, 
probably.)  I feel bad for you (I really do).  You feel the need to make your 
snarky comments (yawn) and put down anything that doesn't give you a hard-on (if 
you can find it). It must be difficult finding it impossible to enjoy things.
I'm sorry to see that you wasted precious minutes of your pointless existence 
witnessing the fruits of labor from many fun, interesting, nice people.  These 
were good people doing what they love and taking a chance, and somehow you and 
your vile opinion are better than all of that?
Enjoy your joyless life.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Price We Pay

"The Price" -- Seven Angels Theatre -- Thru Dec. 1

                        Jon Krupp, Denise Walker, R. Bruce Connelly, Charlie Kevin.
                       All photos by Tim Price

Someone much wiser than I once told me that it’s not a choice if there is nothing to lose, for a choice, by its very nature, must involve both gain and loss. That is the essence of Arthur Miller’s “The Price,” which recently opened at Seven Angels up in Waterbury in a strong, solid production. The 1968 play by one of America’s most esteemed playwrights deals with the choices two brothers make – and by extension choices made by the wife of one of the brothers and the brothers’ father, now deceased. Miller, hailed as one of the dramatists who shifted drama’s (and tragedy’s) focus onto the ‘common’ man, here brings together two men haunted by the after-effects of the Depression and the paths they took to achieve or deny their dreams.

The play, directed with a steady, knowing hand by Semina De Laurentis, Seven Angels’ artistic director, opens slowly as Victor Franz (Charlie Kevin), a New York City policemen now facing retirement, returns to an attic room where he and his father once lived, where they, in his own words, were forced “to eat garbage” when times were tough. The room is filled with furniture, now antiquated, and the detritus of a life lived neither wisely nor too well, that Victor is eager to sell.

                                              Denise Walker and Charlie Kevin

In a lengthy piece of exposition between the cop and his wife, Esther (Denise Walker), we learn, ever so slowly, that Victor, who dreamed of becoming a scientist, opted to stay with his father, a man monetarily and psychologically destroyed by the Great Crash of 1929, rather than pursuing a degree. Needing a job, Victor joined the cops and has been on the beat ever since. He balances his loss against the sure knowledge that he did what was right, what was expected of a son, unlike his brother, Walter (Jon Krupp), who apparently turned his back on the family to pursue his dream, eventually becoming a renowned surgeon. Choices were made, and they haunt and stain the lives of these two men.

Exposition (setting the scene; letting the audience know who the characters are and their relationships) is a necessary evil in theater. It’s seldom exciting and often engenders a certain amount of frustrated toe-tapping among the more anxious of theater-goers. In “The Price,” just when said toe-tapping might turn into a full-fledged tango, who should appear on the scene but Gregory Solomon (R. Bruce Connelly), a world-wise furniture appraiser, first-class deal maker, pocket philosopher, and just a bit of a nudnik. With Solomon’s appearance, the pace of the drama picks up (as do its comedic elements) and rushes towards a climactic confrontation between the two brothers that reveals  the motives behind the choices made and the lies and misunderstandings that fed into those motives. It is fitting that what starts in silence ends in manufactured, forced laughter, for the drama deals with the human comedy, which is a razor-cut away from the human tragedy.

                     R. Bruce Connelly, Jon Krupp, Charlie Kevin and Denise Walker

The bulwark, or bulwarks, of this production are Kevin’s Victor and Connelly’s Solomon. Kevin gives a nuanced, multi-layered performance, slowly creating a man who must confront the reality of the choices he has made. On stage from curtain to curtain, Kevin uses voice tonality and body language to create an all-too-real human being (watch his hands clench and unclench as his character attempts to deal with revelations that threaten to destroy the “story” he has told himself to justify his choices; note his fingers flutter as he strives to find words that will counter his brother’s “truth”). As Kevin’s character is forced to look into the mirror it is a minor epiphany for the audience members, for we all have had to face the reality of the major and minor fictions by which we have framed the past to put the best spin on it and, by extension, on ourselves. 

And then there is Connelly, who has often graced the Seven Angels’ stage (I heard several audience members refer fondly to his turn as George Burns in “Say Goodnight, Gracie”). If Kevin uses body language to good effect, Connelly gives a master-class in how important movement is to the acting craft. He shirks, he shrugs, his fingers worry his lips as his character tries to work a deal – and deal out some home-spun philosophy in the process. It’s a great effort by a multi-talented actor.

If Kevin and Connelly give us character depth from the moment they walk on the stage, Walker and Krupp seem, initially, to skate across the surface of their characters – Walker aware that she is playing the part of the much put-upon, aggrieved wife; Krupp cognizant he is the ill-understood brother. However, each seems, over the course of the evening, to sink into her or his character, with Walker giving a heartfelt defense of Esther’s husband (a la Willy Loman’s wife in the penultimate scenes of “Death of a Salesman”), and Krupp rising to the occasion when his character is called upon to bring more than a touch of reality into his brother’s life…and memories.

Get through the first 15 or so minutes of “The Price” and you’re in for a gripping piece of theater, one that offers no easy answers and provides no ultimate truths (is there anything in life that does?) save forced laughter, but in the process it makes us think, for it speaks to who we all are, flawed creatures desperately clinging to self-definitions and self-justifications…and self-delusions.

The past is like an accident -- we all saw the accident happen, we just have different takes on why it happened, what were its consequences and, of course, who was responsible.

“The Price” runs through Dec. 1. For tickets or more information call 203-757-4676 or go to 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A Serious, Gripping "Session"

"Freud's Last Session" -- Square One, Stratford -- Weekends Thru Nov. 17

                       Al Kulcsar and Gabriel Morrow. Photo by Richard Pheneger

There’s much that goes into a theater’s decision as to what plays to present during a season, especially for a community theater such as Stratford’s Square One: Do we have the budget -- and the talent available – to board this play? Will the audience be interested? Will the audience even understand it? Often, decisions err on the side of pabulum, the “Let’s play it safe” route. To give credit where credit is due, Square One’s artistic director Tom Holehan often eschews the safe route, as he has done with this year’s first offering, Mark St. Germain’s “Freud’s Last Session.” He’s taking a chance here – after all, the play is basically a 72-minute conversation between British novelist C. S. Lewis (he of “Narnia” fame) and an aging, ill Sigmund Freud. Can you imagine pitching this concept to some Hollywood mogul? You’d get thrown out on your ear. But, it works, and works handsomely, much to the credit of all involved.

The setting is England, 1939. Hitler has just invaded Poland and the war clouds that have been darkening the European sky for several years are now swirling to form a thunderstorm. The lights are starting to go off…and may not come back on, if they ever do, for many years. On the eve of World War II, C. S. Lewis has been invited by Sigmund Freud, who has fled the Nazi threat for the relative safety of England, to drop by for a conversation. They meet in Freud’s office, lovingly recreated by Freud’s daughter, Anna, herself now a psychiatrist, to reflect Freud’s old digs.  The two men tentatively greet each other and begin to talk. The conversation is polite at first, but these two men hold passionate, contradictory beliefs, and their interaction soon becomes heated as each man challenges the other about what they hold to be true.

Holehan, who also directs this piece, seems to understand that the play is, in its own way, a tone poem – think Richard Strauss’s “Ein Heldenleben” or, perhaps more appropriately, “Death and Transfiguration.”  It starts slowly, themes are established, the emotional level rises, then falls, then rises again until there is a climax – which is both physical and intellectual – followed by a falling off and a fitting, poignant denouement.

And why does this project have an element of risk? Well, these two characters, Lewis (Gabriel Morrow) and Freud (Al Kulcsar) do not dally about with small talk; there are no slamming doors and pratfalls, no singing Hitlers, no bountiful bimbos to distract the audience. Instead, we have a give-and-take between two men of intellect and probity about the existence of God, the nature of good and evil, the possibility of an afterlife, the essence of religion and the almost impossible challenge to justify a loving God in a world of suffering, pain and death, a world that is about to plunge itself into an orgy of unbridled cruelty.

The early moments of the play seem to have a drag-anchor on them, for Kulcsar is a bit  emotionless in the delivery of his lines, as if he is aware that he is playing Freud rather than that he is Freud. Morrow, on the other hand, is, from the moment he walks onto the stage the epitome of the religious convert, eager to speak his piece yet aware that he is in the presence of, well, a legend. Fortunately, Kulcsar’s stiffness disappears and he soon becomes a man who must defend his beliefs against everything he finds irrational and inane, defend them verbally, even though he finds it difficult, at times, to speak, for he reveals, ever so slowly, first with hand gestures and then with body language, that his character is suffering from mouth cancer. There have been multiple operations and a prosthetic device now bedevils and tortures him. His character, in the end, rises to noble heights as he fights against pain yet still must “talk,” must argue, must question…and, ultimately, must consider, and ponder, the possibilities.

Morrow is dead-on throughout, giving us a man who is the product of the British public school system who passed through the alembic of WWI and came away seeking answers, or, if not answers, at least emotional and spiritual solace, solace that he has found in Christianity – he now, ecstatically, believes that God is manifest in everything; we just have to have the “eyes’ to see said manifestations. Morrow gives us an edgy and bouncy Lewis, a man who seems he must constantly control the energy, or agony, that surges beneath. One wonders, was there some discussion during rehearsals that Lewis, having undergone the horror of WWI, could not remain still, that what we are seeing in Morrow’s constant movement, his bouncing up and down, hands in and out of trouser pockets, is the after-effects of having endured trench warfare? Don’t want to slip into Intentional-Fallacy-land here, but however this physical manifestation of being on the edge got there in Morrow’s portrayal of Lewis, it works and works well, providing a lot of the play’s edginess and energy.

In an age when entertainment is often measured by the size and volume of the explosions or the level of visceral cruelty splashed across the screen, it’s nice (and good for the soul) to settle in and watch two characters struggle with topics that we all, in the dark, attempt to deal with: the nature of life, the dread of death, and the need for belief in something or someone who possibly has all of the answers, has a plan...or simply cares for us. We all seek to justify our own existence, and “Freud’s Last Session” is an artistic attempt to, if not resolve our conflicts and doubts, at least get them out there on the table, and that is one of the things theater is all about.

“Freud’s Last Session” runs weekends through Nov. 16. For tickets or more information call 203.375.8778 (24/7) or go to  

A Dated "Itch"

"The Seven Year Itch" -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru Nov 17

Some plays, like fine wine or great cheeses, age very well, but others, well, they are like soda pop left uncapped over the weekend – they just lose their fizz. Such is the case with “The Seven Year Itch,” which recently opened at the Ivoryton Playhouse. This 1950's comedy about infidelity (real and imagined) and the male animal in frustrated heat is probably familiar to most theater-goers via the 1955 movie starring Tom Ewell and the skirt-fluttering Marilyn Monroe, but the play actually opened on Broadway in 1952 and ran for well over a thousand performances. Whatever allure and titillation…and comedy…the Broadway audiences saw back then that kept the play running for three years was, unfortunately, of the moment. What was funny…and risqué – back when Ike was president simply doesn’t get very far off the ground any more.
            Did you know that many American males become sexually aroused at the sight of female breasts? Yes, it’s true. Are you aware that men fantasize more about sex than being the first-string quarterback of a pro football team? Can you believe that, after several years of marriage, many men’s amorous thoughts often stray away from the marriage bed? I know. Shocking!
            Well, back in 1952 this was all heady stuff – remember the first Kinsey Report was published in 1948, the second in 1953 – and playwright George Axelrod was smart enough to capture the breaking news about male sexual behavior in his script. Unfortunately, 60 years later it’s very much old news.
            There’s not much this very capable and game cast under the direction of Lawrence Thelen can do to breathe life into this chestnut that deals with one Richard Sherman (a very excitable and emotive David Conaway), an ad executive who works in the low-end of the publishing world. His wife, Helen (Emma O’Donnell) and son Ricky (Carson Waldron) have escaped the summer heat of Manhattan, leaving him behind to fend for himself. He’s on his best behavior – no smoking, no drinking – until a weighted tomato plant falls from the apartment above onto his patio. Ooops! It seems a 22-year-old model cum actress identified only as “The Girl” (Holly Holcombe) has moved in upstairs. She’s clumsy and a knock-out, so what would any red-blooded American male do in this situation? He invites her down for a drink – and immediately starts fantasizing about a possible conquest while, at the same time, agonizing over the guilt that would immediately engender and then, to assuage said guilt, fantasizes that his wife is having an affair with an author which, of course, justifies his wandering. Things are not helped by the fact that Roger is working on a book written by a psychiatrist, Dr. Brubaker (John Little), a tome that deals with rape and male aggression. And so it goes. Oh the blissful agony of it all.
            Along the way, in semi-dream sequences, or flashbacks, or…well, call them what you will…we get Roger interacting with various other females in a Walter Mitty-like fashion: Miss Morris (Carolyn Cumming), Marie (Caitlin McInerney) and Elaine (Elizabeth Talbot). The women, again in a dream sequence, meet over tea to discuss Richard’s lecherous nature.
Richard’s passion, paranoia and guilt all proceed apace as he becomes more frantic and sexually frustrated, until…well…remember, this is 1952, when orgasm and guilt were often considered synonymous.
            The ins and outs, highways and byways, ups and downs of male-female interaction that Ivoryton presented so delightfully in its previous production, “I Love You You’re Perfect…Now Change,” is here captured in fossilized form. As a sociological exercise – this is what the 50's generation got all excited about – it is interesting, but as comedy, well, it’s like listening to your Uncle Ralph tell the same joke he’s told for the last twenty years. You smile, but only out of politeness.
            “The Seven Year Itch” runs through Nov. 17. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to

Saturday, November 2, 2013

A Masterful "Master Class

"Master Class" -- MTC Mainstage -- Weekends Thru Nov. 17

                         Irene Glezos as Maria Callas. All photos by Joe Landry

Do you want to be mesmerized for two-plus hours? Do you wish to forget who you are for a while and actually believe you are an aspiring opera singer eager to learn about the profession from one of the great divas? Would you like to see what might arguably be the best performance by an actress in this Connecticut theater season?
Well, if you answered “Yes” to any of these questions, get yourself down to MTC Mainstage, that intimate theater in Westport that is currently presenting Terrence McNally’s “Master Class.” You won’t be disappointed. It’s riveting, engaging, delightful theater, and if you have any tweens or teens in the house considering a career on the stage bring them along. If they are attentive they will learn more about the craft in these two hours than in a semester at the Actors Studio.
What’s “Master Class” about? It’s about Maria Callas, born Maria Kalogeropoulos in New York City on Dec. 3, 1923, a weight-challenged, awkward child who, with guts and determinations…and a whole lot of suffering…became one of the greatest opera divas of the 20th century…but at a cost, always at a cost. Her career was meteoric, and as with all meteors, faded in a blaze of glory, smoke and fire. Her voice having given out, Callas agreed to teach a series of master classes at Julliard in 1971-72, 23 two-hour sessions in which she worked with 25 students. The sessions were recorded, and it is these recordings that playwright McNally used as the basis for writing his deep-sea dive into the soul of a complex, conflicted, supremely talented woman whose death in 1977 remains shrouded in mystery.
Bringing this larger-then-life woman to life is a challenge, but MTC has been fortunate enough to cast Irene Glezos in the role, and she is…well, spectacular. From the moment she walks onto the stage clutching her handbag she owns the audience, and she never lets go. Given the size of MTC – there may be 40 seats at most – the actress has free rein to work the audience, which she does. Hence, you are quickly drawn into the world of the operatic master class, you simply can’t help yourself – Glezos/Callas won’t allow you to. She doesn’t simply demand attention, she commands it.
For the aforementioned tweens and teens with thespian dreams, they would do well to watch how Glezos, under the insightful, sensitive direction of MTC’s executive artistic director Kevin Connors, uses body language – in all of its nuances – to create Callas. Watch her hands and fingers, watch her shoulders, watch how she turns her head – it’s a study in how humans communicated before humans spoke words.
 This master class has obviously drawn students, and there are three of them who, over the evening, will be placed stage center to squirm under Callas’s acerbic scrutiny, all accompanied by Manny (Kevin B. Winebold), a sympathetic pianist who is, himself, in awe of Callas. MTC has cast three excellent actors to play off of and feed into Callas’s need to always hear the applause as, at the same time, she strenuously demands that there be no acclamations. After all, the class is not about her when, of course, it’s all about her.

                 Charlotte Munson and Irene Glezos

First to appear and undergo the Callas scalpel is Sophie (Charlotte Munson), an eager soprano inappropriately dressed who is immediately overwhelmed by Callas’s presence. She soon becomes nonplussed as Callas challenges her commitment to her art. She begins to sing but is only allowed one syllable before Callas is offering what, in the diva’s mind, is constructive criticism.

                     Irene Glezos and Emma Rosenthal.

Sophie is followed by a second soprano, a steely-eyed Sharon (Emma Rosenthal) who appears, initially, to be up to the task of withstanding the Callas treatment. However, she soon cracks, failing to make an entrance. Rather, we learn later, she has rushed to the bathroom where she proceeds to vomit. She will return, however, and will create, with Callas, one of the most moving scenes in the show as the diva elicits from her a performance she did not think she was capable of giving.

                      Kevin B. Winebold and Andrew Ragone

The final student is Tony (Andrew Ragone), a tall, handsome tenor who refuses to cave in to the diva’s demands. She suggests he leave but he stands his ground and, under the diva’s guidance, also learns what he is truly capable of.
The evening consists of Callas’s interaction with these three students, her off-hand comments to the audience (addressing the audience members as if they too are students) about her life and her art, and two extended flashbacks that come near the end of both acts. If I have any problems with this production, or with the play itself, it is with these flashbacks, for though Glezos handles them with skill and aplomb (shifting easily from the Callas character to a crude, garrulous, larger-than-life Aristotle Onassis, to her needful first husband, a man much older than she) they seem to go on for just a bit too long, their length diminishing their power and impact.
That quibble aside, “Master Class” is strong, compelling theater made more so by the fact that, given the size of the venue, Glezos is often mere inches away from the audience members sitting in the first row. The effect is palpable, for as she mesmerizes them she also makes them squirm just as bit, as if they are recalcitrant schoolchildren being taken to task by a stern teacher. It is, all in all, a bravura performance that should not be missed.

“Master Class” runs on weekends through Nov. 17. For tickets or more information call 203-454-3883 or go to 

Friday, October 25, 2013

"Underpants" an Undeniable Delight

"The Underpants" -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru Nov. 10

          Steve Routman, Jeff McCarthy, Jenny Leona and Burke Moses. 
          All photos by T. Charles Erickson

There is farce, and then there is farce! The Westport Country Playhouse is currently offering a farce in the form of “Room Service,” while Long Wharf is boarding “The Underpants,” a farce under the very capable direction of the theaters’ artistic director Gordon Edelstein. Whereas the Westport effort often fails to engage, for numerous reasons, Long Wharf’s offering both delights and intrigues.

Adapted from a 1911 Carl Sternheim play by Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin), the play’s premise is a simple one: what would happen to a middle-class couple living in Dusseldorf, Germany, circa 1910, if the wife, Frau Louise Maske (Jenny Leona) just happened to unintentionally drop her drawers (caused by the break of a single string) while watching a parade in honor of, and featuring, the king? Well, Frau Maske’s husband, Theo (the delightfully excitable Jeff McCarthy), a mid-level bureaucrat, is beside himself: his wife’s underpants dropped for all the world, including the Kaiser, to see! What will happen to his career? What will happen to his good name? Oh, the shame of it all. (“In broad daylight, on a city street, you are standing out in public and your underpants fall down. I can’t believe this happened to me!”)

                                                           Jeff McCarthy

Well, the incident does draw attention, but not of the type Herr Maske (yes, read “mask,” as in we weave a mask so as to present our ‘best’ selves to society) is fearful of. You see, the Maske’s have a room to rent, and soon a turn-of-the-century lounge-lizard named Frank Versati (a wonderfully louche Burke Moses) knocks on the Maske’s door seeking shelter and, as soon as Theo absents himself, proceeds to protest his somewhat oleaginous love for Frau Maske. She is shocked, but also intrigued, and her interest is egged on by the Maske’s upstairs, eavesdropping neighbor Gertrude (a droll Didi Conn), an earthy sort who is eager for Louise to experience the pleasures of illicit sex.

                                                Didi Conn and Jenny Leona

Frau Maske’s wardrobe malfunction has also drawn the attention of Benjamin Cohen (Steve Routman), a man equally interested in the room to let who, when Herr Maske questions his name, swears that it is spelt with a “K” (thus introducing a darker side to the proceedings, for it will be a scant three decades before the issue of Cohen’s religion will take on horrific meaning). Cohen immediately sizes up the situation vis-à-vis Louise and Versati and decides he must stay to defend her honor (and also, in his own mouse-like way, nibble at it).

                                                               Burke Moses

Thus the stage is set for some classic farce, with the husband all but oblivious to the intentions of Versati and Cohen – Herr Maske is so wrapped up in ‘self’ and so sure of his dominant position in the husband-wife relationship that the dual sieges on his wife’s ‘honor’ go all but unnoticed by him.

Louise flutters under Versati’s attention and, in a truly comic scene, finally falls, only to have the poet-manqué, at his moment of triumph, rush off to compose an ode. This follows an equally hilarious scene in which Louise administers a sleeping potion to Herr Cohen to clear the way for her tryst with Versati. Herr Cohen’s wobbly-legged exit up some stairs and through a door (yes there are a sufficient number of doors to allow for the usual farcical door-slamming) is priceless – sheer physical comedy in the classic tradition of all the great silent film comics – Chaplin could not have done it better.

                                             Jeff McCarthy and Steve Routman

Adding to the controlled chaos is another man in search of a room, one Herr Klinglehoff (George Bartenieff), a straight-laced, elderly gentleman unaware of the ‘underwear’ incident, who merely wishes sedate shelter but will be shocked by the eventual goings-on under the Maske’s roof (including the presentation by Gertrude to Louise of underwear sewn in the colors of the German flag).

What seemed missing in the Playhouse’s production of “Room Service” – the actors truly becoming their characters rather than just representing them – is in “The Underpants” fully realized. There really isn’t a single false moment in the evening. McCarthy is wonderful as the blustering, self-important Theo, a husband who abhors change and is proud of the fact that he is, in fact, nothing more than a clerk, yet, when at home, the Kaiser of his castle.

                                                         George Bartenieff

Leona is lovely, lithe and lively as Louise, the hausfrau who begins to sense that there might be more to life than her drab, pompous husband has to offer, and as Versati, the arch-womanizer, Moses simply oozes false charm from every pore at his first entrance…his evocative body language drew a laugh from the audience on opening night before his character spoke a word.

Conn, as Gertrude, gives an arch, highly humorous performance as a lady of the world who aches for the male attention being lavished on Louise, Routman is at once both timid and bold as Louise’s frustrated second suitor, and Bartenieff’s Klinglehoff is sufficiently bemused and confused, adding a nice accent to the rather riotous goings-on.

                                                            Jenny Leona

Edelstein directs with a light, deft hand that maintains the play’s playfulness throughout (albeit with the aforementioned dark undercurrent), right up to the curtain call when (similar to the close of “Room Service”) the cast reappears and does a conga-line dance, albeit all in their underwear.

Performed without an intermission, “The Underpants,” which is being presented in association with Hartford Stage, is frothy frivolity at its best, and a great way for Long Wharf to kick off its 49th season.

“The Underpants” runs through Nov. 10. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Pleasant…if Somewhat Bumpy…Ride

"Mrs. Mannerly" -- Hartford TheaterWorks -- Thru Nov. 17

                      Dale Hodges and Raymond McAnally. All photos by Larry Nagler.

Watching “Mrs. Mannerly,” Hartford TheaterWorks latest offering, is like riding in a very nice car that needs a tune-up. The one-act, two-actor (though there are multiple characters) play by Jeffrey Hatcher, directed by Ed Stern, rolls along smoothly enough until the engine (read “dialogue”) gives a cough, the vehicle shudders and the occupants (read “audience’) wonder whether or not they are going to get home safely. Well, they do, but the ride, in the end, though pleasant, is less than satisfactory, and a good slamming of the car door might be in order, for Hatcher lets us all off a couple of blocks away from where we want to be.

So, what’s this all about? Well, it’s Steubenville, Ohio, in the 60s, and 10-year-old Jeffrey (Raymond McAnally), a young lad socially and physically (but not intellectually) challenged, is enrolled in Mrs. Mannerly’s school of, well, manners, an almost mythical alembic that has, for over three decades, seen Steubenville’s awkward and ill-mannered youths pass through to reappear as polished, semi-precious gems. And what, or rather who, brings about this miraculous change? Well, Mrs. Mannerly (Dale Hodges), of course, with her 100-point graduation exam, an annual poise-and-charm presentation performed before the prim prima donnas of the local chapter of the DAR (killer audience!). Jeffrey, a failure at just about everything, is determined to be the first of Mrs. Mannerly’s students to score a perfect 100.

                                                         Raymond McAnally

Ah, but Mrs. Mannerly’s school has fallen on hard times, for she now has only five students (all played delightfully by McAnally), none of whom are blessed with inherent charm. Besides Jeffrey, there’s Kim, a somewhat non-descript female (and the least realized of all the characters), Jamie, an aloof, oh-so-been-there-done-that young lady with a very “open” family, (McAnally shines as Jamie finally vents), Ralph, whose perpetually leaky nose he handles with an upward swipe of his hand (thus accumulating over the day a vast amount of, well, snot, which he leaves behind him as a snail trails slime), and Chucky, the class suck-up.

McAnally also gives us Patsy, a “Mannerly” grad, and daughter of a local Mafioso who, (somewhat incongruously, since Jeff is but 10 years old) comes on a bit strong with the socially-challenged lad in a hilarious scene in which McAnally, with just two pairs of glasses and a lot of writhing, gives us a sexual-awakening tryst that is a wonder to behold.

                                                             Dale Hodges

For various reasons, all of the students save Jeffrey depart Mrs. Mannerly’s class, leaving the boy screw-up as the only candidate for the final exam, but there’s a side-story, and it’s here that the somewhat autobiographical play falters (actually, it falters elsewhere, but of that later). You see, Mrs. Mannerly, aka Helen Anderson Kirk, has a “past”, a la Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” that involves Chicago and a play she was supposedly cast in. The mere mention of “Chicago” makes Mrs. Mannerly double over in pain and, compliments of Mr. Krasky (a drama teacher also played by McAnally who attends sad, annual conventions at which ways of staging “Our Town” more economically are discussed), ‘the goods” on Mrs. Mannerly, in the form of documents enclosed in a manila envelope, are delivered into Jeffrey’s hands.

Reverting for a moment to another medium, the great suspense director Alfred Hitchcock once commented that if you a show a ticking bomb, and then show it again, somewhere along the way it damn well better go off. In “Mrs. Mannerly,” the bomb never detonates, leaving the audience (at least one of its members) a bit frustrated. Turns out the envelope was, to use another Hitchcock term, a MacGuffin. What the hell happened in Chicago?

There are larger problems, however, and they go back to that car in need of a tune-up, for the play moves along smartly, with a lot of black-outs, flashbacks, wit and humorous allusions (at least if you grew up in the 50s and 60s) until it stutters and stalls with some dialogue that simply doesn’t work, falls flat. To mix a metaphor, you can feel the air going out of the balloon and it takes a while for the pressure to build again, only to have more dialogue fall flat. Thus, what should have been a steadily increasing arc of entertainment, if plotted on the X-Y coordinate plane, would actually look more like an EKG of someone with a severe heart problem.

The stutters and stalls notwithstanding, there’s still a lot to enjoy in this production, which has its heart in the right place. The evening, which is enhanced by John Lasiter’s lighting design – a lot of blackouts, follow spots and specials, as well as some nifty special effects (blood red suffuses the stage when Mrs. Mannerly is shot – yes, shot!) -- is a light-hearted take on a world now only a memory, a world where manners still mattered. Several scenes stand out: the aforementioned tryst between Jeffrey and “Patsy,” and the scene where Jeffrey walks Mrs. Mannerly home only to end up in a bar (her apartment is on the second floor). Hodges’ take on the prim and proper lady getting progressively soused is a delight, although one would have wished Hatcher had used this moment for a little more “in vino veritas” in the dialogue. Maybe then we would have known, if only by innuendo, what was in that manila envelope.

Ah, well, sometimes there’s catharsis and sometimes there’s not.

“Mrs. Mannerly” runs through Nov. 17. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to

Monday, October 14, 2013

A Glorious "Happy Fella"

"The Most Happy Fella" -- Goodpseed Opear House -- Thru Dec. 1

                                         “My Heart is So Full of You” 
                                         Mamie Parris and Bill Nolte in The Most Happy Fella.
                                         Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Goodspeed Opera House, that venerable institution currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, has chosen to end its season with a production of Frank Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella,” the 1956 musical with operatic overtones about an Italian grape grower plying his trade in Napa Valley circa 1927 who falls in love with a waitress. Perhaps ranked in the second tier of great American musicals, “Happy Fella” may well be headed for another Broadway revival if the powers that be wander out to East Haddam and take in this lush, vibrant, heartfelt production directed by the sure-handed Rob Ruggiero (who seems to have become the House’s go-to guy of late) that pleases on just about every level.

Perhaps we should just cut to the chase and say that as Tony Esposito, the owner of the vineyard, Bill Nolte (a Broadway vet) dominates the stage. With features that are a cross between those of Ernest Borgnine and Deputy Dawg, Nolte would seem to be the last candidate to be the leading man in a romantic musical, but he is also blessed with a beautiful voice and acting skills that allow him to express a vast range of emotions, everything from self-doubt (perhaps even self-abasement – his lips visibly quiver and flutter as he exhales in exasperation at his failings) and vengeful rage to benign paternalism and joyous love. As good as this cast is (and Goodspeed can never [well, hardly ever] be faulted for casting), Nolte soars above them all, giving us a Tony who is a lovely blend of curmudgeonly tenderness, a yearning yet doubtful romantic you relate to so much that, near the end of the second act when his heart is (almost) broken you want to take him into your arms and whisper, “Hush, now, it’ll be all right.”

The object of Tony’s affection is a waitress at the Golden Gate diner in San Francisco, a lady he dubs “Rosabella” (Mamie Parris). Dining there one night, Tony leaves her a note and an amethyst stick-pin as a tip. Rosabella, along with her co-worker Cleo (Natalie Hill), are tired of slinging hash and fending off the gropings of the diner’s owner (James Zannelli), and Rosabella is moved by the heartfelt if ungrammatical note. Soon a correspondence develops between Tony and Rosabella which leads to an exchange of pictures. She sends him hers but, in one of those self-abnegating moments, Tony realizes that his looks would not entice a porcupine, so he has a picture taken of Joe (an impressive Doug Carpenter), his foreman, who is, if nothing else, a lot more photogenic, and sends this along with a marriage proposal, much to the consternation of his sister, Marie (Ann Arvia), who mothers him. Rosabella agrees to the proposal and takes a train to Napa. Tony is to pick her up, but on the drive to the station he is so nervous he has an accident. Thus, Rosabella is delivered to the vineyard by a postman (John Payonk) and Joe is the first person she meets. Obviously, complications ensue, including a passionate one-night stand between Rosabella and Joe that will drive the musical’s climax.

As already noted, there is an operatic tinge to the musical. What in most musicals of the era would have been delivered as dialogue is often handled as recitative (extremely innovative in ’56 but now an accepted Broadway form given “Les Miserables,” “Evita” and “Matilda”). There are, admittedly, moments that drag a bit, but you quickly forget them as Cleo bumps into Herman (Kevin Vortmann) and discovers that they are both from “Big D” (i.e., Dallas), and the focal love duet, “My Heart is so Full of You,” sung by Tony and Rosabella, cannot help but make the heart beat a little faster and the eyes to tear up a bit. It is right up there with the preeminent love duets and perhaps gets the edge because of the age difference between those singing it…in other words, it goes to the essence of love, which is, of course blind (and often deaf, dumb and oblivious to society’s norms and strictures).

When I saw Goodspeed’s press release dealing with its 2013 season I wondered why the opera house would want to close out with Loesser’s musical. I wonder no more. What we have here is a joyful celebration of love conquering all (age, looks and human foibles and failures). It’s a nice message to end the season with. Is there now a fan of this musical? Yes, “That’sa me!”

“The Most Happy Fella” runs through Dec. 1. For tickets or more information call 860-873-8668 or go0 to

Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Farce That Falls Flat

"Room Service" -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Thru Oct. 27
      David Beach and Michael McCormick in “Room Service.” 
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Watching a play is like going on a first date – you don’t know what to expect, you’re hoping for the best and dreading the worst and, of course, the evening is influenced by first impressions, those first minutes when you make judgments, perhaps wrong, but…they flavor the rest of the evening. If the guy has some spinach nested between his teeth, well, even if the spinach disappears (or dissolves), your mind’s eye keeps going back to the offensive piece of greenery, and there’s nothing he can do to erase the initial unease. Such is the case with “Room Service,” which recently opened at the Westport Country Playhouse, a 1930’s farce by John Murray and Allen Boretz that starts ever so slowly, eventually takes flight, yet is burdened by that spinach.

The set-up is we have a producer, Gordon Miller (Ben Steinfeld) who is dead broke. He’s been rehearsing a play for weeks yet is unable to pay his actors. Since it’s the 30’s, the actors are willing to hang in there for room and board, which means they are all living  in a second-rate hotel in Manhattan and charging everything to Miller’s account. The bill comes due, Miller can’t pay, so he has to find ways to forestall the inevitable until the lights finally go up and the play is a success, which means he has to find a backer.

Jim Bracchitta in “Room Service” Photo by Carol Rosegg

Well, it takes most of the first act of this three-act play to set up the premise, and things drag as exposition is dealt with. By the time it comes for door slamming (it is a farce, after all) and controlled insanity, including a farcical faked suicide, it all seems somehow beside the point. Some in the audience began to laugh, others just yawned.

Farce, if it is to work well, relies on timing and chemistry, and neither is evident in this production. Director Mark Lamos, the Playhouse’s artistic director, has his head in the right place, for there are moments of controlled chaos and delightful delirium, but the heart just doesn’t seem to be there, but perhaps it isn’t entirely his fault, for the set he has been given to work with, designed by John Arnone, is extremely restrictive. The full stage is not taken advantage of, and the set, which consists of a cheesy hotel room, is dominated by a sofa, two beds and a bulky chair, all positioned so that the blocking (how and where the actors move) is restricted, forcing much of the action down-stage. Thus, many scenes are played with the actors basically in a row, something not conducive to interaction, and line-of-sight has been given little consideration. If you are not sitting in the center orchestra section then you see a skewed version of the play.

                               Seated, Ben Steinfeld, Eric Bryant, Jim Bracchitta; 
                               Standing Richard Ruiz and Zoë Winters  
                              Photo by Carol Rosegg

And then there is the rhythm of the lines delivered by many of the actors. It entails basically searching for a laugh, which means you get: beat – beat – beat – BEAT!! Emphasis on the punch word. And if that is not enough to make the point, Lamos has his actors pause and give a knowing look out at the audience when delivering a line pregnant with double-entendre (“He can’t keep it up for two hours.”) Racy, perhaps, in the 1930’s, but now a bit banal...and, yes, we get it.

The play’s curtain call has a lot of frivolity to it…characters start to dance, are playful…would that that sense of joyful mania had been infused from the beginning. As it is., “Room Service” is a farce wannabe. You’re waiting for the moment when the play lifts off and flies but, alas, it never does, and a lot of good work in the second and third acts is discounted because of the first act, and the spinach in the teeth.

“Room Service” runs through Oct 27. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Not Wisely, but Too Well

"Othello" -- Playhouse on Park -- Through Oct. 20

                          Tom Coiner and J. J. Foster. Photo by Rich Wagner

Of Shakespeare’s tragedies, perhaps the two that speak most closely to the modern heart, mind and soul are “Romeo and Juliet” and “Othello,” for we can all remember a time when the world seemed fresh and new, we were immortal and in love, a first love, generating a feeling so intense that food and drink seemed mere inconveniences, the time spent away from the beloved appeared to stretch out to eternity and we swore to any and all who would listen that life itself would hold no meaning if we could not be with the one we adored (time, of course, proved most of us wrong on that score).

Then there is “Othello,” Playhouse on Park’s first production of this its fifth season. Which one of us has not, at one time or another, if only for a moment, loved not wisely, but too well, and can any of us say that we have never, at least once, felt the fangs of jealousy plunge into our hearts, releasing a poison that clouded our minds and enflamed our emotions?

Shakespeare’s plays are, if nothing else, malleable, especially his comedies and tragedies, for they deal with verities that can don the garb of different cultures and centuries and still shine forth. Hence, we can have a “Macbeth” set in Scotland or Germany or on Wall Street; we can see Romeo dressed as a 1950s gang member, Julius Caesar wearing the uniform of an American general circa 1945, and Othello? Well, how about battle dress appropriate for Desert Storm or Operation Iraqi Freedom?

Although in the program notes director Sasha Bratt denies that his production is set in either Iraq or Afghanistan, what we see on stage belies the denial, for from the opening scene the production evokes the last 10 torturous years: we have Iago (Tom Coiner) standing on a box, face and upper body bruised and bloodied, arms painfully stretched above his head, hands manacled to chains that are attached to a metal ring. Four black-garbed interrogators appear on the spare set, Iago is released only to be water-boarded. What’s the audience to think? Although references to Cyprus have been kept in the dialogue, the desert dominates: the wind, the sand, the heat…the sadism.

Does this work? Well, yes and no. The men, save for Roderigo (Austin Seay) and several of the Venetian lords, are all soldiers, so the Iraq/Afghanistan trope seems reasonable, but the ladies? Out there in the field, in a combat zone, with Desdemona (Celine Held) in a cocktail dress and heels? Bianca (Emily Kron) looking like she was plucked from the Studio 54 dance floor? Emilia, in what looks like ward-sister garb? That’s asking the audience for a hell of a lot of suspension of disbelief.

                    Celine Held, R. J. Foster and Tom Coiner. Photo by Rich Wagner

Okay, so suspend the disbelief and what we have is a very strong, dark production of the play, central to which, obviously, are Iago and the Moor, Othello (R.J. Foster), two men who, each in his own way, are doomed by the tragic flaw of jealousy. Going back to Bratt’s program notes, the director writes that he wanted to emphasize two things: Iago’s youth (28) and thus what happens to young men caught up in the horrors of an on-going war, and the assumption that, up until the fangs plunged deep into his heart, Iago was, in fact, honest and true. Well, Coiner gives us a very interesting and compelling Iago, but the play as written simply doesn’t dwell on the man’s youth and, though there are numerous references to his honesty and faith in the play (every single one of them ironic), his role is written as that of a villain – there’s just no way to get around it. Iago’s been passed over for promotion, believes that Othello has slept with his wife, and therefore plots the general’s downfall from the opening scene (if you overlook the torture overture).

Coiner, an accomplished actor, is blessed with eyes that could have their own Actors Equity card, for as Iago plots and connives, the actor’s eyes convey the emotions that are driving the scheming and, as well, the perverse delight he takes in manipulating not only Roderigo and Othello, but Othello’s lieutenant, Cassio (Aidan Eastwood-Paticchio). It’s the eyes that draw the audience into this character and, in an odd way, generate a certain amount of sympathy for him.

Iago’s primary target is, of course, Othello, and Foster is the essence of the battle-hardened man who has finally found a woman who might just ease the pain of the carnage he has seen. As is appropriate, the actor has a commanding presence on stage, and in quieter moments he delivers his lines with aplomb. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said when the action speeds up and Othello becomes excited, for Foster seems to stitch the words together so that they sound like a stream of iambs. There are moments when you simply can’t understand what he is saying, and it has nothing to do with the iambic pentameter.

The lamb led to the slaughter in this tragedy is Desdemona, and Held gives a delicate, multi-layered performance as this much put-upon lady. Given the costumes she is asked to wear, she has much to visually overcome to get the audience to believe in her, but this she accomplishes, especially in the strangulation scene (about which I have always wondered, since modern productions feel no compunction about cutting and pasting Shakespeare’s plays, why Desdemona’s miraculous coming back to life to deliver her final words is not excised – she’s been strangled! It’s not like she’s been knifed or shot and thus gets those final farewell moments before collapsing. People who have been strangled normally don’t get the opportunity to give perorations).

All in all, this production of “Othello” is both interesting and, at times, compelling theater. Set designer Christopher Hoyt’s essentially minimalist set places the actors…and the action…front and center – with the lighting, by Aaron Hochheiser, emphasizing the various emotional levels of the play. There’s no credit in the program for fight coordinator, but given the numerous set-tos in the play, whoever schooled the actors and choreographed the violence deserves a great deal of credit.

“Othello” runs through Oct. 20. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to