Wednesday, April 24, 2013

There Are Sharks in the Water

Other People's Money -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru May 5

                         Edward Kassar and Denise Walker. Photo by Jim Harris

Sex, money, power, doughnuts. Who knows what drives a man?

In Lawrence Garfinkle’s case -- the man known as Larry the Liquidator -- it’s all four, not necessarily in that order. You see, Larry is currently out at the Ivoryton Playhouse, doing deals, looking for companies he can take over, break up, and walk away from with a nifty profit. He’s larger than life, a raving egoist, sexist, overweight, amoral and…totally intriguing, as are most of the other four characters in “Other People’s Money,” an engaging dramedy directed with a deft eye by Maggie McGlone Jennings.

Garfinkle (Edward Kassar) has a computer named Carmen, and most of the time when he cranks up Carmen in his New York office and asks her who is the fairest of them all, the answer is “Larry,” but one day the answer is a 78-year-old company in Rhode Island, New England Wire and Cable, with a great balance sheet and undervalued stock. Suddenly, there’s blood in the water and Larry the shark twitches.

Meanwhile, in Rhode Island, Andrew “Jorgy” Jorgensen (Gary Allan Poe), the company’s aging owner, is preparing to retire, and is disdainful when his company’s president, William Coles (Dennis Fox), suggests that the company’s recent stock movement might indicate that there are sharks in the water.

Soon, however, it becomes apparent that the company is in danger and, against his better judgment, Jorgy considers hiring his step-daughter, Kate, (Elizabeth Donnelly), a shark in her own right, to help the company fend off Garfinkle’s attack. But there are twisted family histories connecting Jorgy and Kate, and she rejects his less than elegant offer, only to be persuaded to reconsider working to save the company by her mother, Bea Sullivan (Denise Walker), Jorgy’s executive assistant who…well…there are stories within stories in this two-act play.

Slow to get off the ground, the play eventually takes flight mid-way through the first act as the characters come into focus, multiple conflicts are revealed, and the audience can’t help but be drawn into the lives portrayed on stage.

Playwright Jerry Sterner has a good ear for the parlance of big business and the money-macho lingo of the Wall Street movers and groovers who like to think of themselves as gunslingers, elegantly suited studs who use money like Colt-45 pistols. Thus, it’s the Garfinkle character who gets most of the best lines, and Kassar doesn’t let a single one of these lines escape his trenchant, sharp delivery as he creates a Jewish pistolero who, you sense, has a little bit of self-loathing hiding behind that flashy, foul-mouthed façade. He is gross, up-front, disdainful and totally honest about his wants and desires. It’s a bravura performance, all the more so since he makes it seem so natural.

Playing against Kassar, Poe, as “Jorgy,” is upright, rigidly moral, and conflicted, a man whose values can’t allow him to use the various ploys Kate suggests as ways to thwart Garfinkle’s attacks on his company. Think Gregory Peck, who played the role in the 1991 film version of the play, which also starred Danny DeVito as Garfinkle. Kate can’t believe Jorgy’s naiveté when he is faced with the down and dirty of what happens when a company is “in play,” yet, as a shark herself, she is strangely drawn to Garfinkle’s persona – she likes the rub, the rush, the fact that it’s all egos at dawn with drawn pistols.

Then there’s the corporate president, Bill Coles, who, as he realizes a “golden parachute” may not be in the offing – that he and his family may be left high and dry if things don’t work out – sells out to Garfinkle, who is also confronted by a worried Bea, who is willing to give him her million-dollar annuity if he will only leave the company alone, i.e., leave alone the man she loves.

You can’t help but be caught up in these lives. Yes, it’s soap opera, but soap opera of a witty, high order, delivered by adept actors who make their characters come to vivid life. The only performance that may not totally ring true is Walker’s Bea Sullivan – just a bit too earnest and eager, yet her scenes with her daughter as she justifies her life and her love for Jorgy are quite powerful. If, over the run of the play, she tones down her early goggle-eyed eagerness, her character will come to the fore.

There’s an electric, visceral nature to this production, enhanced by scenic designer William Russell Stark’s set, which has Garfinkle’s office stage right, Jorgy’s office stage left, and, in the middle, a meeting room center upstage, and Marcus Abbot’s lighting design, both of which allow for scenes that enable characters in Rhode Island and New York to interact and comment on each other’s actions.

You may not totally buy the play’s final moments, a wrap-up of sorts that seems to beg the questions the play suggests, but that doesn’t take away from the production’s power and intensity, driven by Kassar’s performance. Yes, there are echoes of Oliver Stone’s 1987 “Wall Street” film, but those echoes enhance the play’s penultimate moments, a charged stockholders’ meeting that allows Jorgy and Garfinkle to present their diametrically opposed views of what a capitalistic society must prize.

So, take a drive out to Ivoryton and be drawn into the morally suspect dealings of a Wall Street carnivore as he puts into play a series of actions that demand people weigh what is really important in their lives, all of it grist for some good conversation over a post-theater dinner.

“Other People’s Money” runs through May 5. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to

Saturday, April 20, 2013

"Cole" -- A Stylish Revue

"Cole" -- MTC MainStage -- Thru May 12

                Philip Chaffin, David Wolfson, Blair Alexis Brown, Kathy Calahan and
                Eric Scott Kincaid in the MTC MainStage production of "Cole."
                Photo by Joe Landry

The intimate confines of MTC MainStage in Westport is currently presenting “Cole: An Entertainment Based on the Works and Music of Cole Porter,” a rather lumbering title for a light, frothy revue featuring some of Cole Porter’s best songs (and some seldom heard), presented by a talented cast of four who seem to be really enjoying what they are doing.

The structure of “Cole” is formulaic, for most shows showcasing the work of single composers or artists offer songs interspersed with bits of biography – it can become a tad monotonous if the cast really isn’t into it. Such is not the case here. As directed by Kevin Connors, MTC’s executive artistic director, the evening, which lasts a bit more than an hour, moves along nicely, with the cast, which includes Blair Alexis Brown (the show's Ethel Merman), Kathy Calahan, Phillip Chaffin and Eric Scott Kincaid (last seen at MTC in “Cabaret’” in a riveting performance as the Emcee), interacting in a believable manner (such interaction often seems forced in productions like this).

The songs are presented chronologically, starting with Porter’s first efforts at writing a fight song for the Yale football team – “Bingo, That’s the Lingo” -- and then, after he gave up studying law at Harvard, his first Broadway effort, a dismal flop called “See America First.” Chagrined by the negative critical response, Porter fled to Paris, where he indulged in a somewhat sybaritic lifestyle. He returned to Broadway in 1928 with his first hit show, “Paris.” His star rose, then fell, then soared with “Kiss Me Kate,” which won the Tony Award in 1949

                                 Kathy Calahan and Eric Scott Kincaid in the MTC          
                                 MainStage production of "Cole." Photo by Joe Landry

“Cole” offers snippets of biographical information, with a somewhat coy handling of Porter’s sexuality, while allowing the cast to highlight many of the composer’s enduring and endearing songs: “Love for Sale,” “I Love Paris,” “Anything Goes,” “So in Love,” “Another Op’nin’” and, of course, “It's De-Lovely.” There’s just the right mix of the well-known and the somewhat arcane songs penned by one of America’s most sophisticated song writers, a man who contributed many memorable songs to what has become known as the American Songbook.

For those who like witty lyrics and a sprightly tune, “Cole” is an easy night out, easy on the ears and the eyes, and it is also a reminder of a time in America when what happened on Broadway – the songs that were sung on its stages – were the songs that would fill the airwaves and be sung in parlors across the nation. It was a vibrant time for American musical theater, and Cole Porter was at the heart of it.

“Cole” runs through May 12. For tickets or more information call 203-454-3883 or go to

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Angst in the Old West

"Abundance" -- Hartford Stage -- Thru April 28

                  Brenda Withers and Monique Vukovic. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Talk about schizophrenic. Hartford Stage’s last offering was the engaging “Man in a Case,” a somewhat enigmatic, surreal re-working of two of Anton Chekhov’s short stories, light on plot and heavy on atmosphere and multi-media. Now, we have Beth Henley’s “Abundance,” (deftly directed by Jenn Thompson), an equally engaging yet old-fashioned tale of two women who go west as mail order brides and experience heartache, trauma, triumph and defeat, all told in a linear fashion, albeit surrounded by the briefest of presentational yet creative sets created by Wilson Chin. You just never know.

It’s the 1860s in the Wyoming Territory when two young women, Bess (Monique Vukovic) and Macon (Brenda Withers), meet at a train station. Bess is shy and eager to meet her potential husband; Macon is bold, brash, demonstrative and ready to engage life on whatever level it presents itself. She proclaims that she and Bess are alike, although they are polar opposites. This initial opposition will become a major plot point.

Soon, Jack (James Knight), a violent, misanthropic man, appears to claim Bess…for his dead brother, the man who had actually corresponded with her. On his heels comes William (Kevin Kelly), sporting an eye patch (he lost an eye in a mining accident) to gather in the free-spirited Macon. Obviously, whatever pipe dreams these two women maintained as they wended their way West are about to be crushed. The women go off with their respective husbands-to-be to begin hardscrabble lives on the prairie.

Initially, Macon and William thrive, while Jack and Bess struggle, so much so that they are eventually taken in by Macon and William. Neither marriage is happy, each dysfunctional in its own way, but the two women fight to maintain a bond as they struggle to create lives for themselves in a harsh environment.

                  James Knight and Monique Vukovic. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Henley ends the first act with multiple shocks that play themselves out in the second act as tables are turned, tragedy turns into triumph, triumph into tragedy, and characters are forever changed. Engaging? Absolutely. There are flaws, but they really don’t take away from the power of the story Henley tells, and it is a story, an old-fashioned, “Lonesome Dove” kind of story that keeps you comfortably in your seat for the two-plus hours it takes to unfold.
Central to all of this “working” is the work of the two actors who portray the young brides who will face the rigors of a quasi-tamed West. Both Vukovic and Withers turn in fine performances as they establish their characters and then, over time, essentially trade places. However, they can only work with what Henley has given them, and it is obvious that although the playwright has written Bess with perception and feeling, she has written Macon from the heart. You just sense whom the playwright’s favorite “child” is, for while Vukovic’s character enters meek and mild (as she must), Withers’ character enters like a force of nature, eager to sit at a table and devour the feast she believes life is about to offer her.
And thus, it is Withers’ character who dominates, and Withers’ presence on stage (she is tall, angular, and beautiful in a way that seems unique to her) cannot help but draw the eye. In one scene, she stands silently, arms folded across her chest, as other actors deliver their lines, but you inexorably seek her out, watch her, weigh what is happening by her reactions.
The more diminutive Vukovic also has her moments, especially in the second act when she is, at first, chained and almost inarticulate, then transforms from victim to victor with the help of Elmore (John Leonard Thompson), an academic eager to capture her experiences among the “savages.” Henley adheres to the Aristotelian demand for unity by having the two women (although radically changed) meet in the denouement as they did in the play’s opening scene, thus emphasizing the arcs of both women’s lives.
Knight and Kelly have more difficult tasks, for as subtly as Henley sculpts her female characters, her males tend to teeter on the edge of stereotypes. The ocularly-challenged William is man-as-wimp, and Jack is written as man-as-beast, a bargain-basement Stanley Kowalski. Hence, although Kelly and Knight do what they can to bring life to their characters, they must speak the dialogue Henley has written for them and perform the deeds she demands. Kelly gets the better of it, for while he is given some subtly Knight is asked to be an out-and-out blaggard with no redeeming qualities, a tough role that Knight does his best with.

                          Brenda Withers as Macon. Photo by T. Charles Erickson
There’s no doubt that this is, primarily, Macon’s story, and Withers delivers, giving a performance worth the price of admission. There are moments when pace drags a bit, but whenever Withers’ Macon is on stage the play shimmers, shines and pulsates.
“Abundance” runs through April 28. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Man and the Myth

"The Mountaintop" -- Hartford TheaterWords -- Thru May 5

                                  Jamil A. C. Mangan and Courtney Thomas. 
                                               Photo by Lanny Nagler

It looks like it’s American History Month at Connecticut theaters. First, “Ride the Tiger” opened at Long Wharf, a docu-drama of sorts dealing with JFK’s run for the presidency (and the tragic flaw that would bring about his fall), and now we have “The Mountaintop” at Hartford’s TheaterWorks, the stylized story of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last day on earth. While “Tiger” attempts at least a skein of verisimilitude, “Mountaintop” introduces supernatural forces to reveal the inner workings of one of the central figures in America’s struggle with racism. For a while it works, and works well, but unfortunately the play devolves into mere panegyric, undercutting its efforts to present a portrait of an all too human man who rose above his fears and faults to move a nation.

Written by Katori Hall and directed by TheaterWorks producing artistic director Rob Ruggiero, “The Mountaintop” takes place in Room 306 of The Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 3, 1968, the night before King will be assassinated. Fresh from delivering his “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speech at the Mason Temple, a weary, ill and somewhat dejected King (Jamil A. C. Mangan) returns to his motel room during a thunderstorm. He calls for room service, is told that it is no longer available, but succeeds in ordering a cup of coffee. Soon, with the rain continuing to pour down, there’s a knock at the door and Camae (Courtney Thomas), a maid working her first night on the job, enters, a newspaper shielding her head from the elements, to deliver the coffee. Lonely and in need of a cigarette, King convinces Camae to linger, and off we go.

What follows is a gradual revelation of the man behind the legend. As the feisty Camae teases, cajoles, shocks and challenges Rev. King, the man’s fears, frustrations, faults and dreams come into focus. Mangan deftly creates a portrait of a man who has had greatness thrust upon him, who had started out merely wishing to be a minister – that would have been enough – only to be drawn into a titanic struggle for the soul of a nation. Avoiding histrionics, he conveys King’s passion for justice for his race, his shunning of violence and his fear that all of his efforts will be for naught.
Acting as a sort of analytical psychologist, Thomas’s Camae is a whirlwind of energy, quickly shifting from consoling Muse to confrontational devil’s advocate, drawing King out, commiserating when necessary and challenging when called for. As Mangan must allow his character to evolve over the course of the evening, so too must Thomas, for there’s more to Camae than first meets the eye. Slowly, King starts to realize that this chamber maid seems to know quite a bit more about his life than would be expected. How, for instance, does she know that his real first name is Michael?

The dramatic device Hall relies on to shift gears has been used in various forms and fashions by everyone from Dickens in “A Christmas Carol” to David Ives in “Venus in Fur.” Suffice it to say that Camae brings more to the motel room than a cup of coffee. Her transformation forces King to confront his own mortality and provides some of the most moving scenes in the play, right up until its final moments when Camae begins to deliver an encomium that all but sanctifies King, a eulogy reinforced by some visual time-traveling that is meant to inspire but seems a bit overwrought. The man is once again subsumed by the legend, the very thing that Hall was apparently attempting to reverse. In essence, the play’s final moments betray its original intent.

Much is made in the program about the representational set created by Evan Adamson, who visited the Lorraine Motel, which is now The National Civil Rights Museum, and was allowed access to Room 306. While there, “every square inch of the room was catalogued, nothing was left undocumented.” Thus, the set is, as much as possible, a replica, but one wonders if this was the right way to go, for there is a certain feeling of stasis that surrounds the actors, initially not off-putting but more so as their characters begin to transform. Perhaps a presentational approach would have lent greater credence to the surreal aspects of the play.

Set aside, “The Mountaintop” offers many humorous and gripping moments of theater. That the denouement does not deliver does not take away from the play’s power. The opening night audience gave a well-deserved standing-O to the two actors, who were visibly moved, perhaps by the applause but more likely by what they had accomplished in bringing back to life a man who, like Lincoln, now belongs to the ages.

“The Mountaintop” runs through May 5. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to

Saturday, April 6, 2013

History Lesson for Gen-Xers

"Ride the Tiger" -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru April 21

                             Douglas Sills, Jordan Lage, Christina Bennett Lind. 
                            Photo: T. Charles Erickson

How much do you know about John F. Kennedy, our 35th president? If little or nothing, then don’t read on, just go to Long Wharf Theatre and see “Ride the Tiger,” a dramatized history lesson (of sorts) with a little nudity thrown in for good measure.
            If, however, you were born, say, in the 50s or before, then what’s played out in just under two and a half hours at the renovated Long Wharf will be, well, old news, neither shocking nor, for that matter, dramatically gripping.
Under the direction of Gordon Edelstein, the theater’s artistic director, this coy roman-a-clef-style drama brings us back to 1960, when a young senator named Jack (Douglas Sills) from Massachusetts is running for president. However, the candidate has a problem: he can’t keep it in his pants. He’s gotta have ‘it’ every day or, well, the poor lad gets headaches. His best pal, Frank, (Paul Anthony Stewart) a singer with mob connections, knows just the cure, a little cutie named Judy (Christina Bennett Lind), whom he’s just dumped.
Soon, Judy, now on the campaign trail with Jack (for medicinal purposes), catches the eye of Sam (Jordan Lage), who claims he owns Chicago. It doesn’t take long for Judy to begin shuttling back and forth between beds, bearing Sam’s baubles and bangles (and, eventually, his teeth marks on her derriere). When Jack is elected, with a little help from some wise guys, and IOUs are presented, problems arise that will be resolved in an historic manner.
Oddly enough, William Mastrosimone’s play, which chronicles events that shook the nation to its roots, generates little empathy for its characters and scant dramatic tension. Since most of the audience (which was definitely of a certain age) knows where all of this is going, for the evening to work the audience must be captivated by the heat generated by the actors as they bring their well-known characters to life. There are moments when the waters are simmering, trembling on the brink of coming to a boil, but it never happens.
Mastrsimone does have an excellent ear for dialogue, especially nifty one-liners (many given to the Capo di tutti capi), and there are extended moments when the deft dialogue entertains by its sheer cleverness. There is, for example, an extended scene when Sam and Judy first meet and Sam, with the wit and wiles of a poor man’s Metaphysical poet, uses just about every approach in the book (save a flea bite) to entice Judy. Though Lage often seems to be channeling Robert DeNiro as Al Capone in “The Untouchables,” he manages to bring his character to intriguing life, showing a lurking menace beneath the glib exterior. It is in his final scene with Judy that he gets to deliver the line that brought the house down: Judy, worried about the government investigating her, tells him that its tentacles are everywhere; Sam responds with: “So we make some f….n’ calamari.”
Good work is also done by John Cunningham as Jack’s father, Joe. Beneath his character’s Brahmin façade, he is manipulative, devious and amoral. The architect of Jack’s rise to power and, as the play would have it, ultimate cause for his dramatic fall, Cunningham’s Joe is a villain worthy of the Bard’s pen. In essence, he is the one who creates the tiger that both Sam and Jack are fated to ride, and because of male hubris, can’t get off.
One of the problems with the play is the relationship between Jack and Judy, for Sills’ Jack lacks the charisma that the real Jack was famous for. Hence, there’s little fire between the two, a lack that also must be placed at Lind’s doorstep, for her Judy seems more a teenager testing her nascent sexuality than a woman of the world capable of attracting and bedding luminaries. There’s also an off-note in Stewart’s Frank, for there’s little of the brash, I-do-it-my way crooner and a lot of a little boy desperate for attention and given to sulking when things don’t seem to go his way.
The production, though kept moving by Edelstein’s often creative direction, often seems longer than it actually is, primarily because of Mastrosimone’s need to touch all bases, which leads to extended expository scenes that occur throughout the play rather than just in its opening minutes – there’s everything from Joe’s power ploys that lead to the death of Jack’s older brother to Nixon and Khruschev, the Cuban Missile Crisis, senate hearings, Marilyn Monroe and Jack’s sibling rivalry with his younger brother. A history book covering this period would be hundreds of pages long – Mastrosimone’s script comes in at 104 pages – so at times you get the feel that you are in a seminar in which the professor realizes he is running out of time and hence has to cram whatever he can into the time allowed.
Edelstein, as mentioned, keeps all of this moving as best he can, with some of his best work on view near the end of the evening as Judy, now little more than a messenger for the president and the gangster as the play out their deadly pas de deux, moves back and forth between the two men, a pawn in the hands of the powerful.
As for the nudity, the first occurrence is in a bedroom scene and although Sills wear’s boxer shorts, Lind is naked, (what’s good for the goose is apparently not good for the gander), but there is justification here for the nakedness. Not so with the second occurrence, which is not called for in the script and thus, we must assume, arises from a directorial decision. It is, quite simply, gratuitous, an emphasis of a line of dialogue that needs no such visual italics.
Although the play offers many intriguing and humorous moments, especially when Lage is center-stage, its parts do not add up to a satisfying whole. For all of the historic moments it seeks to dramatize, there is a curious hollowness at its center.
“Ride the Tiger” runs through April 21. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to