Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Can You Say "Cute"?

"Good News" -- Goodspeed Opera House -- Through June 22

                         Tessa Faye as Babe tells the football team "I Want To Be Bad."
                         Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Some people like to go deep-sea diving and others are content to splash around in a wading pool. Both groups have fun, but it’s a different order of fun. If you are of the wading pool group, then “Good News,” currently playing at Goodspeed Opera House, is just your ticket. The water’s not too deep and all that’s demanded of you is that you simply sit back and occasionally wiggle your toes.

The musical, which has been adapted by Jeremy Desmon from a book by Laurence Schwab, B. G. DeSylva and Frank Mandel, debuted on Broadway in 1927, the same year that Jerome Kern’s “Showboat” opened. The two shows couldn’t have been more different, for whereas “Showboat” dealt with topics that bedeviled America (prejudice, racism), “Good News” focused on the of lot of college students caught up in the blithe inanity of the Roaring Twenties, a sub-culture that embraced booze, sex, suggestive dancing…and football…as the primary goals of life. “Showboat” became iconic; “Good News”…well, there was a 1947 film starring Peter Lawford and June Allyson. It was cute.

                             The cast of "Good News." Photo by Diane Sobolewski

And “cute” is the operative word for Goodspeed’s production of this light-as-a-feather musical under the direction of Vince Pesce, who is also responsible for the energetic choreography. The story line is about as basic as it can get: Tom Marlowe (Ross Lekites), a football star at Taft College, is dating perky, blond Pat Bingham (Lindsay O’Neil), a co-ed focused not only on the BIG game but the dance to follow, an event that, she is sure, will provide the venue for Tom’s proposal. Alas, Tom has been a bit laggard in his studies and has failed astronomy, a class taught by Professor Kenyon (Beth Glover). Shockingly, he’s ineligible to play football (where are this college’s priorities?). Coach Bill Johnson (Mark Zimmnerman), informed of the problem by his assistant, Pooch (Max Perlman), asks the good professor (who was an old college flame) to give Tom another chance. She agrees to let Tom take a make-up exam and Coach solicits the help of the professor’s star pupil, the studious Connie (Chelsea Morgan Stock) to tutor astronomy-challenged Tom. You can guess what follows.

There’s also a sub-plot of sorts, and it captures the essence of what’s right (and possibly wrong) about this production…or the musical itself, written for an era that is almost a century in the past. Sexually liberated (or just perpetually in heat) Babe O’Day (Tessa Faye) has broken up with the intellectually-challenged Beef Saunders (Myles J. McHale) and is now on the prowl for a new man. She sets her sights on Bobby Randall (Barry Shafrin) with a vengeance. Essentially, she stalks him, flaunting and flirting, much to the confusion of Bobby, who fears Beef’s wrath will descend at any moment.

Yes, it’s all light-hearted fun, but it is so alien to America circa 2013 that its aged attempts at being risqué seem, if nothing else, slightly off-putting. However, Goodspeed is renowned for boarding shows that, if nothing else, are energy personified, and “Good News” certainly is that, with a cast that burns calories by the minute, but there’s a vacuum lurking beneath the surface shimmer of this show, an emotional emptiness that can’t be hidden by the patina of perkiness evinced by the entire cast. In essence, “Good News” is just too cute for words.

Under Pesce’s direction, most of this talented cast seems bent on asking the audience, “Do you see what I’m doing right now? Do you get the joke? Do you understand I’m happy…mad...sad?” Gestures are broad, reactions are exaggerated, and emotions are parsed down to the lowest common denominator. Yes, the book is simple, but that doesn’t mean it has to be played as if all the characters are simple.

So, if you’re a wading-pool sort of person, “Good News” should certainly satisfy your toe-wiggling needs. The song-and-dance numbers will make you smile and, of course, there’s a happy ending. However, if you ask something more of a musical than toe-wiggling, you might want to search out where “Next to Normal” is currently playing in Connecticut.

“Good News” runs through June 22. For tickets or more information 860-873-8668 or go to

Monday, May 20, 2013

To Be or Not to Be...A WASP

Black Tie -- Square One Theatre -- Thru June 1

                                              John Bachelder and David Victor

It’s a difficult task to walk in your father’s shoes or, for that matter, wear his tuxedo, (excuse me, dinner jacket), or so playwright A. R. Gurney would have it in his 2011 “Black Tie,” currently on the boards at Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. Since it’s Gurney you know we’re going to be in WASP-land and we’re going to see what makes this specific sub-species flit, fidget and (only occasionally) sting, and though there will be a bit of dissection, there will also be a moment or two of…well…on the other hand, perhaps they aren’t as bad as all that. No surprises here in this workmanlike production that is slow to start fluttering its wings and is held back from soaring by, in many cases, actors delivering lines in an overly studied manner. Thus, Square One offers a pleasant enough evening of theater, under the direction of its artistic director Tom Holehan, that holds the audience’s interest but never seems to totally engage both mind and heart.

What’s the premise? Well, Curtis (David Victor) and Mimi (Janet Rathert) have a son, Teddy, (Jim Buffone), who is about to get married to a young lady named Maya, and the couple is hosting the pre-ceremony rehearsal dinner in the Ticonderoga Room of a somewhat seedy hotel (it’s the only hotel that has enough rooms to accommodate the guests). The only problem, at least initially, is Victor is Dad-haunted, for not only has he chosen to wear his father’s tux…dinner jacket…to the event, he is holding an ongoing conversation with his deceased Father (John Bachelder) as he prepares for the event. Dad, also dressed in a tux, is there in the room with him, commenting on everything from the proper name for their formal eveningwear to how to keep the younger guests from getting pie-eyed, all the while quoting Byron, Chaucer and Conrad in a Polonius-like manner. Dad is, in essence, an insufferable prig, and middle-aged Victor is still the dutiful son, applauding (or at least not contradicting) whenever Dad issues forth with another bromide.

There’s not much spark or juice here, especially since the actors seem to be playing the “You say your line then I’ll say mine” game. This delivery of lines rather than creation of conversations continues when Mimi comes upon the scene and is not broken until late in this one-act play when Teddy, clothed in a bathrobe, knocks on the door of his parent’s hotel room to tell of troubles brewing between the lovebirds. It is in this extended scene that we actually hear and see people rather than actors interacting. Elise (Alisson Wood), the couple’s daughter, does a bit to enliven some moments, but the actress has a habit of delivering every other line with here hands raised, palms turned inward, fingers splayed, that becomes distracting only because it seems to serve all emotional purposes…it’s a visual “Like…I mean…”

Oddly enough, the play’s most vivid character, Maya, the bride-to-be, is never seen, but her shenanigans as a mini-bridezilla and her take on the quirks, idiosyncrasies and prejudices of her intended’s milieu are reported on by Elsie and Teddy and, after a while, you ache to have her appear, if only to stir up the Brahmin-folk a bit more.

What the play is really about, or attempts to be about, is shifting standards and the ability (or inability) to change, as well as acceptance or rejection of the rules-to-live by inculcated in the young at such an early age that it takes decades to even challenge them, but it all seems surface flutter. In the end, there’s really nothing more up for grabs than the success or failure of a rehearsal dinner.

Curtis’s final rejection of his father’s black tie and dinner jacket holds no greater import than that of a dieter’s rejection of a Twinkie…because he does it without the Dad-ghost present to comment on or react to the rejection, something that the play has been building towards but, alas, does not deliver. In the end, father-son voices are never raised, there is no confrontation, hence no catharsis for either the characters or the audience.

“Black Tie” runs through June 1. For tickets or more information call 203-375-8778 or go to

Thursday, May 16, 2013

What Happened Next

Clybourne Park -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru June 2

                                Alice Ripley, LeRoy McClain and Melle Powers
                                All photos by T. Charles Erickson

Near the end of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 breakthrough play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” Karl Lindner, a representative from the homeowner’s association of a white neighborhood, visits a black family, the Youngers, who have just bought a house in his exclusively white enclave. He has come to essentially bribe them not to move in. Mama Younger rejects his offer, and as the frustrated Linder leaves he says to her, “I sure hope you people know what you are doing.” They do, and they don’t, but they are determined to move into a house located in Chicago’s Clybourne Park.

As the lights go down on “A Raisin in the Sun,” questions arise. What happened to the Younger family after they moved? Why was the owner of the house willing to sell to a black family? What was the impact on Clybourne Park when the Youngers moved in? Well, years after the play opened, a young man saw the film version of Hansberry’s play while in the seventh grade, and the experience stayed with him. That young man, Bruce Norris, grew up to become a playwright, and in 2010 his play, “Clybourne Park,” premiered at Playwrights Horizons in New York. Subsequently, it went on to win the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play, and it is now playing at Long Wharf Theatre. If you have any interest in live theater, then I suggest you wend your way down to New Haven, because if you don’t you may miss one of the finest productions of the season.

What is “Clybourne Park” about? Well, to play off the title of a famous Raymond Carver short story, it deals with, among other things, what we talk about when we talk about race, and, as with Carver’s story (which was about “love”), when we talk about race the conversation is often elliptical. In other words, we dance around the issue, speaking in euphemisms, fully aware that what we really want to say might be deemed offensive, so we pull our punches and, in the process, tie ourselves up into a conversational knot even Alexander the Great would have difficulty cutting through. Such is the thrust of both acts of this dynamic, biting, funny play that never ceases to entertain as it also challenges and disturbs.

Under the sharp, insightful direction of Long Wharf’s associate artistic director Eric Ting, who is not afraid to have his actors bite into each other’s lines, the stellar ensemble cast creates moments of tension tinged with hilarity…or…hilarity tinged with tension. It’s difficult, sometimes, to parse what you are actually feeling as each of the two acts rapidly unfolds, for Norris deftly plays on the audience’s emotions, using humor, pathos and confrontation to create a roller-coaster ride that evokes laughter one moment, shock the next.

The two acts are mirrors of each other, and intentionally so. In the first, which takes place in 1959, Norris focuses on the white family that, unwittingly, has sold their house to a black family. In the opening scene, the father, Russ (Daniel Jenkins), is listlessly leafing through a copy of “National Geographic” and eating spoonfuls of Neapolitan ice cream. His wife, Bev (Alice Ripley), concerned by his lethargy three days before they are going to move, engages him in a conversation about why his ice cream is called what it is. What follows is an extended and, at the time, apparently somewhat aimless chat about the names of cities and the collective names of the people who live in these cities. The conversation seems initially beside the point, as in, let’s get the play going, but what Norris is doing here is establishing one of the play’s basic themes: the names we give to things are important; what we call people is important.

                                                           Daniel Jenkins

As the conversation unfolds it slowly becomes apparent that there is a dark cloud hovering over this couple involving the death of their son. Bev wants to move on but Russ can’t. He is mired in guilt and remorse. Into this tense atmosphere, Norris inserts a black maid, Francine (Melle Powers), her husband Albert (Leroy McClain), Jim (Jimmy Davis), a minister and friend of the family, and Karl (Alex Moggridge), the same Karl who in Hansberry’s play tried to bribe the Younger family, and Karl’s deaf wife, Betsy (Lucy Owen). 

                                                         Alex Moggridge

What follows is a confluence of emotions dealing with race, guilt, war and, of course, the words we use as we try to speak to each other through the cheese cloth of social propriety. As the act unfolds, what were embers at the start burst into flames and the audience is swept up into a conflagration of emotions that threatens to become a wildfire. It’s heady, engaging stuff. I sensed the audience members edging forward in their seats as the human beings on stage attempted to control their fear, anger, frustration and urge to strike out. Yet, to playwright Norris’s credit, and Ting’s, there is laughter interspersed with the gasps. Attend to what is happening and it is emotionally draining.

                                                             Lucy Owen

The second act, as noted, is a mirror of the first, but we are on the other side of the mirror, for it is now 2009, and Claybourne Park has gone through many changes since the Younger family moved in. White families fled to the suburbs and as they did more black families moved in, and crime, drugs and violence followed. The neighborhood deteriorated and property values plummeted but in 2009 the gentry has grown tired of commuting back into the city so Claybourne Park is once again becoming prime real estate. The house that the Younger family moved into some 50 years ago is owned by a black couple who are in the process of selling it to a white couple…gentrification is on the rise.

The second act starts with idle conversation, as did the first, but once again there is underlying tension as the white couple, Steve (Moggridge) and Lindsay (Owen), accompanied by their lawyer Kathy (Ripley) and the real estate agent, Steve (Davis), review terms of the sale with property owners Kevin (McClain) and Lena (Powers), as handyman Dan (Jenkins) works outside to build a fish pool for the new owners. Again, phatic conversation soon becomes heated as the characters delve into motivations and rooted prejudices. Emotions escalate as the veneer of social correctness is shattered and age-old racial conflicts, parsed in new terminology, inflame, while Dan digs in the back garden, eventually uncovering a trunk that will lead to the play’s coda.

As with the first act, so with the second: a seemingly simple situation is revealed to be fraught with racial underpinnings that evoke sharp emotions, and once again the audience members are pulled forward as the jousting intensifies. The terms of the argument have changed, but the argument’s essence remains the same: how, in America, do whites and blacks find a common ground? How can members of each race shed the literal and figurative chains of the past and move forward?

Difficult as it is to single out any particular performance, the ensemble being as strong as it is, in the first act, the eye is drawn to Jenkins’ Russ, who is a smoldering volcano of emotions threatening to erupt at any moment, while Moggridge’s Karl is a wonder to behold as he walks a tightrope tethered at one end by racism and at the other by politesse. In the second act, Owen comes to the fore, giving us a pregnant (she has the body language down perfectly), oh-so politically correct urban sophisticate jousting with Powers’ Lena, equally sharp-tongued, who also volleys with Moggridge’s Steve, again charged with walking the tightrope.

After the white heat of the play’s closing moments, the coda comes as a reminder of the defining moment that drove Russ and Bev to put their house on the market, which allowed the Younger family to move into Clybourne Park, which was the catalyst for all that follows. It is a fitting denouement to an evening of intelligent, sharply written and superbly acted theater.

Clybourne Park” runs through June 2. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to

Friday, May 10, 2013

Ghosts in the Room

"The Dining Room" -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Thru May 18

                           Chris Henry Coffey, Jake Robards, Jennifer Van Dyck, Charles 
                           Socarides, Keira Naughton, and Heidi Armbruster in A. R. Gurney’s 
                           “The Dining Room.” Photo by Carol Rosegg

Sometimes it just all comes together, and when it does there’s magic on the stage. Such is the case with “The Dining Room,” A. R. Gurney’s nostalgic look back at a way of life, a way of thinking, a way of dining, currently on the boards at the Westport Country Playhouse. The production, under the sure directorial hand of Mark Lamos, the Playhouse’s artistic director, satisfies on many levels, and although it may initially generate a bit of confusion amongst the audience members as to who is who, the smart theatergoer should simply sit back, not worry about such trivialities, and just soak it all in.
            The amazing thing is that “The Dining Room,” first produced in 1982, succeeds without having a plot, or at least one that follows the schema of rising action/climax/falling action of traditional dramas. Instead, what Gurney gives us is a series of vignettes as various families interact in a single room, a formal dining room that is done up in a ghost-like, pale blue motif created by scenic designer Michael Yeargan. The set is apropos, for Gurney’s thrust is that what we are seeing has passed from view and become wisps of memory. It is only in the final moments of the play that the setting itself comes to vivid life and we are given a tableau vivant that is touching and heartfelt.
            Some may quibble that what we are watching is the slow demise of dinosaurs (aka WASPs), and good riddance, and yes, Gurney captures much of the pretentiousness and “soft” bigotry inherent in the tribe, but the playwright is not interested in pillorying; this is not a strident attack but rather a gentle nudging, for whatever their faults, the WASPs Gurney chronicles lived by a code and, in their own way, we’re as concerned about their own as were any of the untermenschen they frowned upon (and hired as servants).
            In a commentary by Gurney written for the Playhouse’s program he acknowledges that the lack of clear, linear presentation may present problems for the audience, for it is often difficult to determine exactly which family we are viewing and at which stage in the family’s life the scene is taking place, but, although this is initially troubling, the bother passes, and much of the credit for this must go to the stellar ensemble of actors Lamos has gathered, in number six – Heidi Armbruster, Chris Henley Coffey, Keira Naughton, Jake Robards, Charles Socarides and Jennifer Van Dyck – who, over the course of the evening, take on over 50 roles.
To accept and embrace what is going on you have to understand that added to the 50-plus characters there is one other, which is the room itself, and if the audience members take the position that they are, in fact, the room, then the comings and goings, the different familial and related designations – Mother? Daughter? Husband? Grandfather? Maid? Cook? – simply don’t matter. The people change, the room is eternal, accepts all that happens and does not judge; it simply provides the venue for life to unfold, to act out its little moments, be they birthday parties, assignations, fraught father-daughter conversations or torturous meals where the proprieties must be observed and finger bowls must be used.
A lot is asked of these six actors, and all deliver, though (given the nature of the script) it is the three women who seem to shine the most. It’s a delight to watch Van Dyck change from gawky adolescent to sophisticated, sexy matron to terse, arthritic servant, Armbruster to morph from frigid, rule-bound matron to saucy teen to Irish factotum, and, most delightful, to watch Naughton shift from obstreperous teen to troubled wife, to a grandmother suffering from Alzheimer’s, to a perplexed cook…and many of these transmogrifications are done in mere moments.
In the end, I come back to the play’s final moments, which Lamos has crafted with a deft hand, for what we are given is a scene of civility and congeniality, lit by candlelight -- people gathering together to share what, in fact, tribes have always shared, which is feasting by firelight, be it in caves, castles or dining rooms, creating an environment that, at least for the moment, tells us we are among friends and whatever demons may lurk in the shadows are being kept at bay by the warmth and light that shines around us, a warmth and light we ourselves create…because we are family, we are the tribe known as… (fill in the blank).
“The Dining Room” runs through May 18. For tickets or more information 203-227-4177 or go to

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Love is a Many Splintered Thing

In a Year With 13 Moons -- Yale Repertory Theatre -- Thru May 18

                                         Bill Camp in ‘In A Year with 13 Moons’. 
                                        Photo by Richard Termine

There are those who say that the Yale Repertory Theatre often dabbles in post-modernistic-theater-of-the-absurd-nihilistic-surrealism, that those in charge of the venerable establishment conceive of their audience as a blend of the Marquis de Sade and Krafft-Ebing, that what is sometimes offered fulfills only the needs of those who dwell in dark attics reading Henry Miller as they sit naked, sucking on lemons, and fantasizing about Lolita, but to these people I say nay! And I offer up as rebuttal to such calumny the Rep’s current production of “In a Year With 13 Moons,” an adaptation by Bill Camp (who also headlines) and Robert Woodruff of the 1978 film written and directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. I mean, ‘13 Moons’ is the essence of Hollywood cliché: boy wants to become girl; boy becomes girl; boy rues becoming girl and suffers the consequences. Can there be anything more mainline, Main Street, Mom and apple pie than that?

Look, you’ve got this simple guy who works in a slaughterhouse who just wants to be loved and, as we all know, love makes the world go ‘round, so he runs into another guy named Anton Saitz (Christopher Innvar) whom he falls in love with, and Anton (his last name is spelled with an A and an I – don’t forget that – it’s important! Why? Well oranges are important, aren’t they? What? What do oranges have to do with…? To that I say, sauerkraut!), and Anton says, well, it would be better if you were a girl, so the cow-killer rushes off to Casablanca and has a sex-change operation and emerges as Elvira, all because he loves Anton, who will eventually emerge as a man with a Jerry Lewis fetish (don’t ask).

The play has many hi-tech, multi-screen diversions and a two-piece pit orchestra that, I do believe, includes a cat being electrocuted, all of which are appreciably provided by director Robert Woodruff just in case you don’t want to watch what is actually going on up there, (two ladies to my right didn’t – they fell asleep – Philistines!).

As the play opens, Elvira has a slight problem – after being beaten up by some low-lifes she has tried to find comfort with, her lover of long standing, Christoph, (Babs Olyusanmokun) thinks she is fat and brainless, and so also beats her up a bit…think of it as a lover’s quarrel. He packs. She begs him to stay. He opts out. What’s a girl to do? Well, there’s always your prostitute friend, Red Zora (Monica Santana) to turn to, a young lady who knows how to display the merchandise and just happens to have a video camera that allows her to capture Elvira in her various moments of angst, self-reflection and self-hatred, all projected. You can see why Hollywood would love this.

But why is Elvira this way? Well, there’s the Catholic Church and the nuns…much convenient whipping girls, so there is an extended scene in which Red Zora brings Elvira back to the orphanage where he…before he became a she…was raised, for a meeting with Sister Gudrun (Joan MacIntosh) who attempts to explain Elvira’s childhood, but the good sister has a problem…she wanders, not verbally but physically. She disappears from the stage, walks dark, unseen corridors as her voice fades, then reappears through a door, only to disappear again, still babbling plot points. It’s gripping. This is what theater is all about.

Monitors flash – an interview with Fassbinder is projected – the play becomes a film then reverts back to a play – there’s trouble in Chile (Allende is elected but President Nixon doesn’t like that) – Jean D’Arc is about to become a martyr – and Elvira wanders into an arcade where males, whom she desires (Oh, love sweet love) are playing violent video games, their “guns” in their hands, shooting and killing.

It’s all an odyssey of sorts, a travel-through-demonic-times that leads the confused Elvira to the office building where Herr Saitz, with offices on the 16th floor, now reigns supreme, but before she can confront him (in an “I-did-this-all-for-you” scene), she finds herself on the 15th floor, where a man with a well-equipped briefcase is set on committing suicide. They have a trenchant conversation about being and nothingness and then he blows his brains out, but we’re used to the blood, because we’ve already been to an abattoir where blood has dripped from the ceiling and bloody pig-people have been carried hither and yon. Oh society, oh Bartleby!

We also get Elvira’s daughter (yes, he fathered a child before ‘he’ became a ‘she’) reading an extended passage from Kafka’s ‘The Castle.” Why? Well…it’s relevant, you see, because, well, all of life is relevantly irrelevant, so you might just as well pull a tie tightly around your throat as you masturbate because that’s the only pleasure life offers…the possibility of ecstatic death, the petite morte.

So if, of late, as you have been driving (well, crawling) home from work on I-95 or been standing in line at the local supermarket thinking you want to decapitate the check-out person, or have been struck by a sudden sense of ennui, if the BIG questions about life, love and the meaning of it all have been recently bedeviling you, I urge you to hasten down to the Yale Repertory Theatre where it will all be explained to you. All will become clear as the human condition is laid bare for you. Unfortunately, the theater doesn’t provide strychnine, so you’ll have to bring your own supply.

“In a Year With 13 Moons” runs through May 18. For tickets or more information, call 203.432.1234 or visit: