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 www.hitw.org.


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 www.sevenangels.org 

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 www.squareonetheatre.com  

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 www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

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 www.musictheatreofct.com.