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

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Eternal Dance

"I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change" -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru Oct 13

              Sheila Coyle, Michael Brian Dunn, Christopher Sutton and Holly Holcomb

He loves me, he loves me not.
Can’t live with her, can’t live without her.
And so it goes in the eternal square dance called love. There has been confusion and misunderstandings ever since Eve proffered the apple to Adam, and though the dosey-doeing has often been the cause of a lot of angst and anxiety, it has also generated, if looked at in the proper light, a lot of laughter. Hence “I Love, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” a delightful take on the never-ending search for true love and happiness that recently opened at the Ivoryton Playhouse under the discerning direction of Christopher Sutton.
            “I Love You” is basically a series of musical sketches that begins with a first tentative date and ends with, well, a first tentative date. Along the way there’s a lot of Mars/Venus humor interspersed with some bittersweet moments that capture how easily we can be wounded if we are not careful. The characters listed in the program have no names, just “Man One,” “Woman One,” etc., emphasizing the universality of the occurrences depicted, but the flesh and blood men and women up on the stage who struggle with the dynamics of love are, in almost every scene, engaging and delightful, for Sutton and Ivoryton’s executive/artistic director Jacqueline Hubbard have gathered together four extremely talented actors -- Christopher Sutton, Michael Brian Dunn, Holly Holcomb and Sheila E. Coyle -- who are more than capable of creating multiple personas.
            There are nudge-nudge scenes aplenty in this pastiche of romantic pitfalls and pratfalls created by Joe DiPietro and Jimmy Roberts, covering everything from the oh-so-busy young urbanites who don’t have time to connect (“We Had it All”) and thus go through the ultimate speed-date, and the awkwardness of that first date between self-proclaimed “losers” (“A Stud and a Babe”), to the inevitable “cooling off” after marriage (“Marriage Tango”) and eternal urge to be with someone, to share a life together (“I Can Live With That”).
            Oddly enough, although almost every scene contains a song, it is the dramatic moments that stay with you long after you’ve left the theater, two of which seem to stand out. The first is “The Very First Dating Video of Rose Ritz,” which features Holcomb in what can only be described as a bravura performance as a divorcee who has decided to get back into the game via a dating service that allows participants to essentially showcase themselves on tape. A large monitor is rolled onto the stage and Holcombe sits on a stool facing a camera, her back to the audience. Her image appears on the screen and Rose begins to “sell” herself, but the pitch soon devolves into a bitter summary of the pain her divorce has caused. It’s strong stuff, so much so that you can’t take your eyes off that monitor as Holcombe’s character bares her soul.
            The second memorable moment is the penultimate scene – “Funerals are for Dating” – which contains the “I Can Live with That” song. The setting is a funeral parlor where an elderly woman, portrayed by Coyle, and man, Dunn, meet by chance. Neither knows the deceased – she is there simply to accompany a friend; he is there for another viewing which has yet to begin and has decided to take a load off his feet. It turns out that he has seen the lady before at other funerals and uses that as an overture. She responds tentatively, but soon they are in conversation as embers long thought extinguished begin to glow again. It is a touching, gentle conclusion to a very enjoyable evening and a reminder that age is no barrier to falling in love. We will seek companionship until we take our final breath – that’s simply how we are wired.

            “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” runs through Oct 13. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Spiders in the Mind

"Macbeth" -- The Hartford Stage -- Thru Nov. 10

                        Kaliswa Brewster, Kate MacCluggage and Mahira Kakkar.
                        Photo by Charles Erickson

Well, now.

If you are a frequent attendee at Hartford Stage you will have recently seen “La Dispute,” a frothy, light exercise in Age of Enlightenment folderol. The set for this show is basically a cotton-candy forest with nary a shadow in sight.

Return to the Stage several days later and you are plunged into darkness, deep into darkness…and eventual insanity…for Macbeth has listened to the weird sisters and taken the advice of his avaricious wife, and thus has slain the king. What follows is one of Shakespeare’s darkest plays, and director Darko Tresnjak (who also designed the protean set), along with lighting designer Matthew Richards and sound designer Jane Shaw, simply do not allow the audience to escape the physical, mental and psychological horror of Macbeth’s actions. You may have come away from “La Dispute” saying, “Well, so what?” but I challenge you to come away from this production of “Macbeth” without being moved…and troubled, for the cast and creative team have conjured up a nightmare that you will not soon forget.

From the moment Macbeth (Matthew Rauch) stumbles upon the weird sisters (Kalisa Brewster, Mahira Kakkar and Kate MacCluggage), the soldier triumphantly fresh from the battlefield, you know that he is doomed, for in the darkness, with mist rising, his future is foretold – that he will one day be king -- but the sisters do not mention the heavy price that many, including Macbeth himself and his wife, Lady Macbeth (Kate Forbes) will have to pay before all is over.

What follows on a stage but barely lit and sparsely furnished (save for a series of rectangular panes that first appear as glowing cathedral windows and then, late in the play, are central to Birnam Woods marching on Dunsinane -- hence fulfilling the sisters’ prophecy -- is, at best, grim, for there is murder most foul and insanity. For those who have seen both plays being performed in repertory, it is interesting to ponder the shift the cast must make when it moves from the cotton-candy world of “La Dispute” to the depths of dread and despair that Tresnjak and company have conjured for the Scottish Play.

Given that this is basically a single-set production, it is also interesting to see how Tresnjak stages certain scenes that would normally demand a change of set. Perhaps the most compelling alteration from standard productions is the banquet scene late in the first act (yes, normally there are five acts, but things have been compressed and condensed) in which the ghost of the recently murdered Banquo (Grant Goodman) appears to haunt Macbeth. Most productions will show you the banquet, with the ghost wandering the tables, but in this production the banquet occurs up-stage and unseen behind the dark panels that hold the aforementioned “panes.” Hence the ghost’s appearance and the effect on Macbeth are first heard before seen. In panic, Macbeth rushes from the banquet through a center-stage door to appear on stage, followed by the ghost, who is immediately lit in blood-red light. It’s a stunning and unexpected entrance and effect.

Tresnjak has not shied away from the reality of murder most foul and thus the production may not be fit fodder for the younger set – it’s one thing to see someone blown away on a video game and quite another (given the visceral power of live theater) to see murder most gruesome (both of adults and children) and suicide (Forbes is especially fine in the “damned spot” scene) enacted before your very eyes. Tresnjak has opted to emphasize the dark nature of this play (both literally and figuratively), and the result is, if nothing else, disturbing…and hence, good theater.

If you came away from “La Dispute” feeling a bit sticky – just too much froth weakly anchored on specious, beside-the-point intellectual bonbons -- then a sure way to cleanse the intellect and sear the soul is to settle in for the shriving experience of “Macbeth.” Trust me, you will leave the theater shaken, and isn’t that what theater is all about?

“Macbeth” runs through November 10. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to