Saturday, March 29, 2014

Blimey! It's the Bloody Brits

Shout!-- The Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru April 5

                       Jennifer Lorae, Mikah Horn, Bethany Fitzgerald, Tamala Baldwin
                       and Monica Bradley. All photos by Anne Hudson 

Sad that spring hasn’t sprung? Got a bad case of the blue meanies? Well, you can either wash down your vitamin D pills with a dram of Jack Daniels or you can get yourself out to the Ivoryton Playhouse for a shot of “Shout! The Mod Musical.” The show may not make the crocuses bloom but it will certainly put a smile on your face and get your toes a-tapping, especially if you remember Dusty Springfield, Petula Clark, Lulu and Marianne Faithfull.

Created by Phillip George and David Lowenstein and directed by the Playhouse’s Jacqueline Hubbard, “Shout!” takes you back to the 60s and early 70s, a time when England swung “like a pendulum do.” Carnaby Street and Abbey Lane, mini-skirts and go-go boots, the Greasers and the Mods…and the music. It’s all delightfully captured in this revue that features five talented actresses covering 30 songs that, for many, will bring back fond (if sometimes foggy) memories.

                                                    Tamala Baldwin

There’s a double frame for the show: articles from the hip magazine “Shout” (read by Steve Phelan) that embrace the “philosophy” of the era as well as everything that was au courant, and an advice column written by Gwendolyn Holmes (Beverly Taylor) that offers advice that is the antithesis of the “let it all hang out” message “Shout” delivers.

The five young ladies alternately scan the pages of the magazine for advice about men, fashion and sex while, when confronted with one or more of life’s problems, write to Gwendolyn for advice, the variant messages capturing the ambiguity of the times as the drab post-war era, and its morals, styles (or lack of same) and inhibitions, slowly gave way to an era of color, light and, some might say, noise and anarchy.

                                                               Mikah Horn

The feverish, frisky, fraught girls are, as written, stereotypes, but the actresses taking on the roles quickly fill out their characters and make them come alive. There’s the Blue Girl (Jennifer Lorae) who knows what answer the mirror will give when she asks who’s the fairest of them all, and is on the make for a the perfect man (i.e., one with rich parents). Then there’s the Yellow Girl (Tamala Baldwin), an American ex-pat who longs for just a glimpse of Paul (Who’s Paul? Well, he was the cute one – it’s Ringo who takes out the garbage). The Orange Girl (Mikah Horn) yearns for blissful domesticity, or at least she thinks she does, while the Green Girl (Monica Bradley) yearns for a good shag. Finally there’s the Red Girl (Bethany Fitzgerald), the one with glasses, pimples and a sign pinned on her back that says “Socially Inept!”

                                                        Jennifer Lorae

With a tiered set by Daniel Nischan, a vibrant lighting design by Marcus Abbott, and dead-on costumes by Kari Crowther, the venerable Playhouse shimmers, shakes and shines as the quintet moves seamlessly from number to number, all choreographed with a good eye for period moves and dance steps by Caitlin Sailer and backed up by two keyboards (Kyle Norris and Melanie Guerin), a bass (Dominic DeMonico) and percussion (Marty Wirt).

Each of the actresses is given numerous moments to strut her stuff and develop her character – of special note is Bradley’s monologue about her character’s relationship with her boyfriend and Fitzgerald’s rendition of her character’s shot at stardom – singing Lulu’s “To Sir With Love” at an amateur night contest – all in an effort to get her boyfriend to fondle her.

                         Bethany Fitzgerald, Tamala Baldwin and Monica Bradley

However, it’s the ensemble work that drives the show, and it is excellent. Taking on such diverse numbers as “Downtown,” “Don’t Sleep in the Subway,” “Georgy Girl” and Windy,” which segues into “Who Am I,” “Round Every Corner,” and, of course, “Shout,” the music just keeps on coming at you, eventually warming the chilliest of hearts. The wittiest set-up starts with the girls testing out their new-found proto-feminism by actually saying words that polite society shunned, including “vagina,” the repetition of which leads to “Cold Finger,” a take-off on “Goldfinger” complete with choreography that evokes the opening sequences of the Bond movies. It’s deftly done and a delight.

The roses may still be hibernating and the gladioli unsure of their welcome, but if you grab a seat at the Ivoryton Playhouse you will, for at least two hours, forget that robins are still wearing parkas and bask in the sunshine of “Shout!” Yes, those were the days, and if you remember them, or want to experience them for the first time, there’s no better place to go than the Ivoryton Playhouse.

“Shout!” runs through April 6 (surely by then it will be spring). For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to   

Friday, March 28, 2014

All You Need is...Shakespeare

These Paper Bullets! -- Yale Repertory -- Thru April 5

                      Ceci Fernandez as Frida, Keira Naughton as Ulcie, Ariana Venturi 
                      as Higgy, Jeanine Serralles as Bea and Brad Heberlee as the priest. 
                     All photos by by Joan Marcus.

Zounds and Egad! The cheek of it all.
There certainly will be much ado in some hidebound quarters over the current goings-on at Yale Repertory’s University Theatre. Some might even be moved to say, “We are not amused.” However, they would be missing the point of “These Paper Bullets!” as well as denying the reality of how Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed, for the Bard knew well that he had to please the groundlings, of whom he wrote in “Hamlet”: “for the most part…[they are] capable of nothing but / inexplicable dumbshows and noise.” Well, the groundlings would be well pleased with what is billed as “A Modish Ripoff of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing,” for there’s enough noise and dumbshows to please the most base born…plus quite a lot to tickle the fancy of the carriage trade.
As adapted by Rolin Jones, “Bullets!” follows the basic plot line of Shakespeare’s play, thought to be written in 1599. The Bard gave us two couples, Benedick and Beatrice (the main couple), and Claudio and Hero (the secondary couple), each thwarted in finding true love – the former for prickly personality reasons, the latter due to the jealousy of Don John -- with all of the action taking place in Messina. Flash-forward some three-and-a-half centuries to London and we find a merry group of young men freshly returned from conquering the most important part of the known world. They are “The Quartos,” a mop-headed quartet of rockers who, under the tutelage of their manager, Anton (James Lloyd Reynolds), makes young girls faint and young men envious to the point of affecting the quartet’s style of dress, cheeky manner and monkish locks.
              The Quartos: Bryan Fenkart as Claude, Lucas Papaelias 
              as Balth, James Barry as Pedro (on drums), and David 
              Wilson Barnes as Ben 

            Britain’s younger generation is delighted, especially with the raised skirts and lowered morals that the 60s have ushered in; the old guard, in the form of a cadre of inspectors from Scotland Yard, suspect that the very fabric of the Empire, or what tattered parts remain, is about to be torn apart.
            Ah, but beneath the gleeful, glittery, circus-like atmosphere of the fab four’s lives there lurk problems, for Ben (David Wilson Barnes), though not bereft of birds, is beset and bedeviled by Bea (Jeanine Serrales), a top designer of mod clothing who has a waspish tongue and disdain both marriage and men.
More obviously smitten is another Quarto member, Claude (Bryan Fenkart), who has fallen for the daughter of Leo, a hotelier who has agreed to house the lads in his hotel. Said daughter, Higgy (Ariana Venturi), one of Bea’s models, is equally smitten with Claude and they quickly plight their troth and set a wedding date, sending the media into a feeding frenzy, with BBC correspondent Paulina Noble (Liz Wisan) leading the pack of piranhas, filming daily, if not hourly, pretentious reports on all of the doings.
But there is a snake in the grass in the form of Don Best (Adam O’Byrne), the group’s former drummer, who with the help of Boris (Andrew Musselman), a tabloid journalist, and Colin (Brian McManamon), a fey paparazzo, plots to destroy the romance by using doctored photographs of Higgy frolicking sans clothes on the eve of her wedding. Incensed at the pictorial revelation, Claude assails Higgy at the altar, sending his bride-to-be off to cry her eyes out in the loo.
Will true love be thwarted? Not if the good men and true of Scotland Yard have anything to say about it, for Mr. Berry (Greg Stuhr), Mr. Urges (Brad Heberlee) Mr. Coal (Anthony Manna) and Mr. Cake (Jabari Brisport) are on the case, sort of, and will see that justice triumphs and all will be well and truly wed as they wouldst be.
As directed by Jackson Gay, with Beatle-like songs by Billie Joe Armstrong, this romp through Shakespeare land is a delight from just about start to finish. The audience may need a few minutes to adjust to the accents and metrics, but once the ear is accustomed to all of the iambs, things move along swimmingly, with Serralles and Barnes setting the pace as their characters verbally joust and bicker.

                               Jeanine Serralles as Bea, Ariana Venturi as Higgy, 
                              and Keira Naughton as Ulcie.

Performances are, across the board, outstanding, with Serralles showing a deft knack for physical comedy. A scene in which she must hide as her entourage discusses Ben’s supposed enduring love for her is a comic gem worthy of Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin complete with a balky dress-form mannequin, a bear rug, a vomit-slick floor and, believe it or not, a used condom (the groundlings would have loved it). Taking part in this discussion is Higgie, Frida (Ceci Fernandez), and Ulcie (Kiera Naughton), and Ulcie, hooked on booze, drugs and sex with big men, gets all of the best lines, which Naughton delivers with delightful nastiness – at one point she suggests to Higgy that it would probably be best if she gave birth to a retarded child since you can put him or her in a corner with a spatula and the child will be amused for hours – that kind of nastiness.

                   Greg Stuhr as Mr. Berry, Anthony Manna as Mr. Coal, 
                   Brian McManamon as Colin Rawlins, Andrew Musselman
                               as Boris, 
and Jabari Brisport as Mr. Cake 

Then there are the intrepid men of Scotland Yard, led by the pompous and clueless Mr. Berry. Their extended scene in the second act as they interrogate Boris and Colin is filled with witty badinage that devolves into slapstick involving a syringe filled with a sleep-inducing serum. Listen closely during this free-for-all for some lines purloined from other of The Bard’s plays, namely “Romeo and Juliet” and “Richard III.”
With dead-on costumes by Jessica Ford, mood-enhancing lighting by Paul Whitaker and multiple, evocative sets by Michael Yeargan, “These Paper Bullets!” pleases the eye as much as the ear…and the funny bone, especially if you were around when the Fab Four were gaining their fame. If you were, then you’ll pick up on many of the allusions Jones has filled his script with…without needing much Help! And if you weren’t, you’ll still enjoy the madcap mayhem.

“These Paper Bullets!” runs through April 5. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to

Monday, March 24, 2014

A Journey Into The Unknown

The Other Place -- Hartford TheaterWorks -- Thru April 19

                                          Kate Levy. All photos by Lanny Nagler

How tenuous are the moorings that keep us safely in sanity’s harbor. How frightening are the moments when you must watch someone you love slip those moorings and slowly yet inevitably drift out into a cold, dark sea, to depart for that other place, a place where there be dragons of dementia. Yet, how fascinating…and riveting…it can be to watch stellar actors working with a well-written -- at times lyrical -- script, as they bring to life characters who are going through such agony. Such is the case with Sharr White’s “The Other Place,” which recently opened at Hartford TheaterWorks under the insightful direction of TheaterWorks’ producing artistic director Rob Ruggiero.
This production of “The Other Place” (the play was seen off-Broadway [2011], and then on Broadway, [2013]) was first boarded at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, where it ran for three weeks earlier this year. After a brief hiatus, Ruggiero brought the cast east and did some re-staging to accommodate the TheaterWorks stage and its intimate confines. The venue’s intimacy means, in this case, that there is simply no place to hide from the emotional roller-coaster ride that goes on over the play’s 80-plus minutes, and there is no reason to hide, for this is theater that approaches, in its own way, Greek tragedy, with more than a little humor thrown in for good measure.

                                                 Set by Luke Hegel-Cantarella
For most of the play the set, by TheaterWorks veteran Luke Hegel-Cantarella, consists of little more than two small tables and a chair, backed by a pale blue wall stage right and, running up-stage-center to stage left, what looks like weathered shakes that might be used to side a house, say, on Cape Cod – but the siding is more than weathered, for many of the shakes have fallen off and rest in haphazard piles on the ground, a striking visual metaphor for several of the play’s central themes.
All is well in place, however, as the play opens, for Dr. Julian Smithton (Kate Levy), an expert in the study of and research on various types of dementia, is making a presentation to doctors at a Big-Pharma sponsored conference, touting the wonders of a new drug she has created that will hopefully reverse the effects of a certain type of dementia. Confident and just a tad acerbic, the 52-year-old Smithton explains how the drug was developed and what she hopes will be its financial success. All too soon, however, her presentation falters, if for no other reason than she see’s a beautiful young woman clad only in a yellow bikini sitting amongst the doctors. She bridles and makes cutting remarks, yet is troubled at the same time. Why is she fixated on this young woman? Why this urge to verbally attack her?
What follows is the unfolding of Smithton’s story – her relationship with her oncologist husband, Ian (R. Ward Duffy), their daughter, Smithton’s doctor (both played by Amelia McClain), her daughter’s ‘husband’ (Clark Carmichael) – as she struggles to deal with the possibility that she has a brain tumor, with the possibility that her husband is divorcing her, with the possibility that her estranged daughter is making attempts to heal their rift, with the possibility that…well, there are many possibilities.
Central to this unfolding…or unraveling…is Smithton herself and, as portrayed by Levy, who is onstage for the entire play, she is a complex, intelligent, haunted woman who is struggling to understand what is happening around her, what is happening to her, and how the two might relate. In scene after scene, through multiple time and location shifts, Levy is absolutely mesmerizing, giving a pitch-perfect performance that speaks to the mind, the heart and the soul. Whether she is making a scientific presentation, arguing with her husband, bandying words with her doctor or searching her soul, and her mind, for some understanding of who she was, is and might be becoming, Levy’s character is agonizingly real and, for the audience, emotionally enveloping. So much so that when, in the play’s penultimate moments, Smithton finds herself in ‘the other place’ and must confront reality, you find that you have to unclench your hands and slowly exhale once the scene ends.
                                                         R. Ward Duffy
Duffy does an equally strong job as Juliana’s husband, for Ian bears a heavy burden, and Duffy gives this man a dignity, a conscience and a palpable sense of what it truly mean to say you love someone and then act on that emotion because it actually carries weight. As his wife begins her slow dissolution, Duffy’s character must balance contending emotions: rage, fear, deep concern and, above all else, frustration. He does all of this with grace and aplomb.
                                                      Amelia McClain
Perhaps the actor with the most difficult role, or roles, to cover is McClain, for she must play a daughter, a doctor and a housewife who comes in contact with Juliana in a rather intrusive manner. Although there are thematic and metaphorical reasons for casting the same person in all three roles, the decision may lead to some confusion and perhaps even a lessening of certain scenes’ emotional impact. This is especially true in the latter part of the play for reasons that can’t be revealed lest I be labeled a spoiler. Suffice it to say, as powerful as these moments are I couldn’t help but wonder if their emotional impact might have been enhanced if a different casting decision had been made.
On the production side, in addition to Hegel-Cantarella’s thoughtful set, which “blossoms” near the end of the play, given the somewhat stark nature of the background in front of which the play unfolds, and the necessity for multiple shifts of scene, much of the “setting” relies on the creative work of lighting designer John Lasiter and the video and projection designs of William Cusick who, among other effects, creates a visual coda that is, at the same time, moving and chilling, which is appropriate, since the play itself embodies these emotions, and yet does so without being grim. Playwright White knows when a joke works, and that humor, be it sarcastic or ironic, reveals as much about the human psyche as do the more touted and psychologically fraught characteristics we often use to define who we are…or talk to our shrinks about. In fact, one of the play’s most emotionally fraught scenes ends with a totally unexpected one-liner that is funny, insightful and, believe it or not, central to the play’s resolution and completion of character development. Smart writing.

If you are a thinking, empathetic human being, then from the moment Levy appears on the stage until she finally turns to stare at a haunting image from her past, you will be absorbed by “The Other Place.” Yes, I know it is a cliché to say so, but this is truly gripping theater.
“The Other Place” runs through April 19. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to  

Monday, March 10, 2014

Pygmalion Revisited -- With a Twist

Higgins in Harlem -- Playhouse on Park -- Thru March 23

                          Kevyn Morrow and Geri-Nikole Love. All photos by Rich Wagner

An after-theater crowd has gathered in the rain in hopes of catching a taxi. Mrs. Hill and her daughter Clara stand with newspapers over their heads as brother Freddie rushes off in search of transportation, inadvertently bumping into a flower-girl, Eliza, sending her flowers into the mud. As she protests in florid street argot, a man stands in the shadows writing down her words. She thinks he’s a policeman and protests that she’s a good girl, turning to a gentleman named Pickering for support.
            Sound familiar?
            Well, it should. Yes, it’s “Pygmalion” or, more familiarly, “My Fair Lady,” but…it’s not, for the rain-swept folks are not standing outside St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden, they are standing outside the Apollo Theater, and the setting is not London circa 1912 but Harlem, 1938. Welcome to “Higgins in Harlem,” an intriguing play written (or, rather, adapted) and directed by Lawrence Thelen enjoying its world premiere at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford.
            There have been many iterations of the story of the Greek mythological character, Pygmalion, who fell in love with one of his statues only to have it come alive as Galatea. Until the appearance of Lerner and Loewe’s musical, “My Fair Lady,” George Bernard Shaw’s play was perhaps the most successful and well known of these tellings. The story itself captivates, for it deals with need, desire, hope and, in the case of Galatea – or Eliza – the triumph of the human spirit when unleashed from the bonds of poverty and ignorance. In Shaw’s hands, it was also a strong indictment of Victorian society, with its caste system as rigid, if not as visible, as that of India’s.

                                         Janelle A. Robinson and Kevyn Morrow.

            Thelen has kept the basics: Henry Higgins (Kevyn Morrow) is still an expert in phonetics and Pickering (Bob Johnson) still a published author on dialects, although now it is African dialects, and Eliza Doolittle (Geri-Nikole Love) is still selling flowers, although with a sassiness absent in the original. Her father, Alfred (Jeffrey Cousar) still seeks to profit from whatever arrangement Higgins and Pickering have made with his daughter, caring little about the actual nature of that arrangement.
The plot, as well, remains the same – Higgins takes on Eliza as a pupil for six months, at the end of which he will present her as a princess – this time an African princess -- at a gala at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. If the ruse is not uncovered, Higgins wins a bet he has made with Pickering. In the process, as Eliza transforms from “gutter snipe” to polished young woman, the lady is dissed and dominated by Higgins, who is blunt, pompous and overbearing to a fault. In the end…well, a little about the end later.
The underlying premise in Thelen’s adaptation is that, as in Victorian England, there were various social castes in Harlem during and after what has been termed the Harlem Renaissance – well established, well-to-do families and, well, the “trash,” which consisted of the blacks who had migrated north but had yet to assimilate. In essence, Higgins, his mother, Mrs. Higgins (Janelle A. Robinson), Pickering, the Hill family, (Aurelia Clunie, Vanessa Butler and Joshua Ramos) and Higgins’ housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce (Xenia Gray) are just like white folks, only with darker skins. Or, rather, they mime the attitudes, mores, etiquette and speech patterns of the whites, but this idea, and the underlying prejudice inherent in one’s degree of “color” imparting status within the black community, Thelen opts not to deal with.

                                Kevyn Morrow and Geri-Nikole Love

In addition, in a play set in 1938 in Harlem one would expect some acknowledgement that there is racial tension prevalent, but that too is absent. The characters seem to live in a vacuum or beneath a protective dome – “Whitey” simply doesn’t enter into the picture. The premise of the adaptation is intriguing, but Thelen simply doesn’t take advantage of the myriad possibilities.
That being said, “Higgins in Harlem” still offers pleasures; chief among them is Love’s Eliza. As the unrefined flower girl she is all bristle and false bravado – she taunts to hide her tentativeness…and tenderness, her body language saying as much as her dialogue. Her transformation into a sophisticated young lady, in both speech and demeanor, is a delight to watch. Of special note is the verbal training breakthrough scene, the “Rain in Spain…” scene which, in Thelen’s adaptation, becomes the “Take the A Train” scene. As she struggles to pronounce the long A you inch forward in your seat, urging her on, falling back as she fails, and then sitting forward again as she succeeds.
Of equal pleasure is her coming-out scene in Mrs. Higgins’ parlor, where she converses with the Hill family, with topics limited initially to her health and the weather but, eventually, embracing her family’s gin-soaked history. It’s a delightful, comic moment that Love pulls off with aplomb.
Playing against her, Morrow gives the audience a perfect Higgins, blind to his failings and comfortable with his philosophy that he should treat all people, be they beggars or kings, as equally beneath him and worthy of his disdain. He is gruff, abusive and totally self-absorbed, and yet, Morrow is able to convey the need beneath the procrustean surface, especially in the scene when Eliza announces that she is leaving. He blusters, he commands, he cajoles, he demands and demeans – all to no effect -- and while his mouth is spewing threats and disdainful comments, his eyes and body language convey an entirely different set of emotions.
Of equal merit is Robinson’s portrayal of Henry’s mother. Her character is wise and forbearing, with just a touch of sauciness. Her extended monologue in Act Two regarding the needs of a young woman – specifically Eliza’s needs – was especially moving, as was Gray’s mothering of Eliza as Higgins’ housekeeper and her acerbic comments about her employer’s manner of dressing and use of profanities.

                     Kevyn Morrow, Geri-Nikole Love and Bob Johnson

One might have asked for a bit more bluster and animation in Johnson’s portrayal of Pickering, and a little less animation from Cousar as Eliza’s father, although the audience the night I saw the show responded favorably to his over-the-top portrayal of the pragmatic chimney sweep, especially when, in Act Two, he appears in a Zoot Suit complete with a fedora sporting a yellow feather and a watch chain hanging down nearly to his ankles. Yes, a bit over-animated, but his diatribe about the ills inherent in entering the middle-class went over extremely well.
And now…to the final moment of the play. Shaw was adamant that it should be played as written, but as soon as “Pygmalion” was boarded there was dissension amongst critics, the audience and the actors. Shaw wrote variations on the ending, though never yielding in his belief that Eliza, once having won her freedom and independence, can never return to, or place herself under the thumb of, the insufferable Higgins. Of course, Lerner and Loewe, (as others had done before them) succumbed to the “happy-ending” demand in their musical and the subsequent film.
Thelen sides with Shaw, but there is something anti-climactic in his play’s final moment. Eliza has left and Higgins, his face a screen upon which conflicting emotions are playing out, crosses upstage as chairs are repositioned. He stands beneath the light of a special, then sits, picks up a book and…
Well, I must assume that most people in the audience are more familiar with “My Fair Lady”…and its final moment…than with Shaw’s original. Thus, there are expectations that have to be dealt with…and aren’t. The final blackout left the audience silent – they were waiting for…more…and these expectations were enhanced by the fact that a door stage left is opened in the play’s final moment, which seems to presage Eliza’s return. In fact, it is done to facilitate Morrow’s exit in the dark (which could be accomplished equally well by a small piece of fluorescent tape placed on the floor), but it sends a different message. What seems to be called for here is a final, brief exclamation from Morrow as Higgins, perhaps of grief, perhaps suggesting a dawning awareness of what he has lost…maybe Higgins simply speaking Eliza’s name in a wistful, needful manner…and a bit of business with the book in his hands. Slamming it shut? Allowing it to fall from his hands? In essence, closure.
In any event, “Higgins in Harlem” is an entertaining hybrid. It could have been more than it is, but what it is satisfies.

“Higgins in Harlem” runs through March 23. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to

Monday, March 3, 2014

Capturing the Moment, However Horrific

"Time Stands Still" -- Stratford Square One Company -- Thru March 15

                                                 Janet Rathert and David Victor

Once again, Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company proves that you don’t have to drive very far or pay exorbitant ticket price to enjoy great theater. The well appointed theater on Main Street is boarding “Time Stands Still,” a play by Pulitzer Prize winner Donald Margulies that was nominated for two Tony Awards. Under the capable direction of the Theatre’s artistic director, Tom Holehan, and sporting a stellar cast of faces familiar to Square One theatergoers, “Time Stands Still” is trenchant, contemporary theater that succeeds on multiple levels, the most important of which are audience emotional and intellectual satisfaction.
The play opens with James (David Victor) and Sarah (Janet Rathert) entering their loft in Brooklyn. They have been a couple for eight years, most of which has been spent covering one war-torn arena after another, for they are both journalists – he a print journalist, she a photo-journalist. Sarah wears a leg brace and bears facial wounds, for she is recovering from a roadside bomb explosion in Iraq; James’s scars are not as evident but run as deep, for while covering the same war he saw the effects of a terrorist attack, coming away with the blood of indigenous men, women and children on his face, hands and body.
Thus the stage is set for an exercise in what it means to be a couple and, equally important, what it means to be a journalist, someone who must stand and watch…and report…as humanity suffers. James thirsts for normalcy, which includes marriage to Sarah; Sarah is not so sure but is willing to give it a go. As role models, of a sort, for the couple, they have Richard (Pat Leo), an editor and friend, and Mandy (Alisson Wood), his latest paramour, a party planner who is, among other things, several decades younger than him.

                             Janet Rathert, David Victor and Pat Leo

Over the course of the next 90 minutes or so, Margulies deftly delves into the moral issues inherent in James and Sarah’s profession as well as the nature of commitment between couples. In well conceived set pieces, the journalists move toward and then away from each other as the May-September relationship blossoms.
At intermission, the lady who accompanied me and I spoke about what we had seen so far. Of Rathert’s character my companion said: “You just can’t keep your eyes off her,” and that is so. Rathert’s Sarah is compelling, a mixture of fear, desire and determination. She gives the audience a woman who is conflicted yet holds to the belief that what she is doing has merit, that in a world of suffering and carnage someone must stand and be a witness.
Victor’s James is equally strong as he fights his own devils and seeks some sort of surcease and closure. The confrontation between the two late in the second act is both visceral and compelling as they attempt to find some common ground while holding fast to what they both want and need.
As a frame for the primary relationship in the play, Leo and Wood present a coupling that, at first glance, seems nothing more than that driven by an older man’s lust for a young woman, but Mandy is deeper than she seems, and Richard is more committed than it is first assumed, and the growth of this contrapuntal relationship stands in stark contrast to the trajectory of James and Sarah’s.

                            Janet Rathert, Alisson Wood and Pat Leo

The decisions made by the four, especially those made by Sarah, are the stuff of post-theater discussion over cocktails or, in my case, the classroom, for a number of my students at Norwalk Community College accompanied me to the show. The following day, in class, one of the students who had attended tried to explain his response to what he had seen as the play had unfolded, and heard from the actors, director and Kimberly Krol, the stage manager, who were all gracious enough to participate in a talk-back with my students after the performance.
“I just…I wanted them (referring to the characters) to be my friends,” he said. “I wanted to know them.” Then he thought for a moment and said, “When it was all over (meaning the talk-back), I went up and hugged them all.”
I don’t know if he did or not – didn’t see it – but I understand the emotion. This quartet of actors created moments that will live in my students’ minds forever, and that, perhaps, is what theater is most about, and if he did do what he claimed he did, well, for the actors, it must have been worth any number of standing ovations.

“Time Stands Still” runs through March 15. For tickets or more information call 203-713-6626 or go to 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Noel Coward's Swan "Song"

"A Song at Twilight" -- Hartford Stage -- Thru March 16

                     Mia Dillon and Brian Murray. All Photos by T. Charles Erickson

It may well have been “The love that dare not speak its name,” as Lord Alfred Douglas so aptly phrased it in his poem, “Two Loves,” but, over the years, numerous poets, novelists and playwrights found creative ways to evoke that “name” without actually speaking it. Some critics may have called that dissimulation, but since, in England at least, homosexuality was a criminal offense up until 1967, such subterfuge was a shield against both social and legal assault. However, the toll taken on spirit and soul by those who had to hide their proclivities was as great as the lengths to which they went to maintain a façade of “normalcy.”
            Such is the driving force behind “A Song at Twilight,” Noel Coward’s last play now on the boards at Hartford Stage, directed by Mark Lamos, artistic director at the Westport Country Playhouse. The effort is both amusing (Coward was, among other things, the master of witty dialogue) and moving, though it is not without its flaws, minor though they may be.
            As outlined in the program notes, Coward was inspired to pen “Twilight” after hearing an amusing anecdote told of Sir Max Beerbohm as well as the publication of W. Somerset Maugham’s memoir in which the author strove, through blame, innuendo and sheer hypocrisy, to maintain that façade of “normalcy,” in the process losing many friends who were well aware of Maugham’s true inclinations.
            The one-act play is set in a private suite in a luxury hotel in Switzerland (more about Alexander Dodge’s set later), where renowned author Hugo Latymer (Brian Murray) and his wife Hilde (Mia Dillon) await the arrival of Carlotta Gray (Gordana Rashovich), a second-tier film actress and old flame of Latymer’s who has, many years after their affair ended, inexplicably requested an audience with the now aged, ailing author.

                                              Mia Dillon and Gordana Rashovich

            Felix (Nicholas Carriere), a waiter, brings the couple libations and after Hilde pours, she departs for dinner and a movie with a lesbian friend, leaving Latymer to confront Carlotta on his own. Upon Carlotta’s arrival, the two play a cat-and-mouse game about Carlotta’s intentions until it is revealed that the actress is in possession of two sets of letters, one old love letters from Latymer that she would like to publish in her autobiography; the other set is of a more incriminating sort. It is the possession of these letters and the memories, passions and betrayals they evoke, that take up the rest of the play, with Hilde returning to help drive the drama to its climax.
            The play is a classic drawing room piece and as such the material draws attention to Dodge’s set (part representational, part presentational): a capacious open room with little art or decoration save for a reclining nude statue upstage that has been top-lit by lighting  designer Matthew Richards for emphasis. The ceiling is high and the walls seem to stretch out to infinity – it has more the feel of a catacomb or tomb than of a luxury hotel suite – the result being that the set’s furniture and the actors often seem dwarfed. This is especially true when the actors are standing extreme stage left and right – the distance between them seems immense.

                           Gordana Rashovich, Nicholas Carriere and Brian Murray

            Dodge has given Lamos a lot of room to work with, and although the director does some nice, well-balanced blocking, often it seems the actors, especially in Scene One, are locked in place as they stand and deliver their lines (more movement could have enhanced the verbal and intellectual pas de deux going on between Latymer and Gray). It is at these moments that the set seems the most daunting. Its size, as well as the size of the house, also affects audibleness: the set sometimes seems to devour the actors’ words so that a mere cough from the audience masks the dialogue. This is especially true for many of Murray’s lines.
            Dodge has also given Lamos a platform area high up and stage left where, at the close of each scene, two young male actors (Bryan Kopp and Paul Willis Jr.) stand nude behind a scrim (a theater drop that appears opaque when a scene is lighted in front and transparent or translucent when a scene is back-lit) miming intimacy. Although both scenes, staged very tastefully with haunting music by sound designer John Gromada, are meant to evoke Latymer’s memories, their necessity is debatable. Perhaps the actors on stage could just have easily (and more effectively) created the sense and import of those memories.
Set and some staging decisions aside, “Twilight” delivers many intriguing, entertaining moments. Murray, who is on-stage for almost the entire production, ably creates a man who, much like Maugham, has wrapped his life in lies and, in the process, driven away everyone but his wife of 20 years. He is, at different moments, irate, taunting, cajoling, irascible and disingenuous.
Although both Dillon and Rashovich seem a bit tentative at the start (at least at the Saturday matinee I attended – there may have been extenuating circumstances), both quickly warm to their parts, with Rashovich’s character giving as good as she gets from Latymer in their extended moments together, and Dillon lighting up the stage and engaging the audience in the second act, delightfully bringing her character to life, giving Hilde a depth not apparent in Scene One.
All in all, the well-constructed “Twilight” offers its audience an often amusing, thought-provoking 80-or-so minutes of theater. It is a classic example of why Coward achieved such fame, for it is, by and large, witty, elegant and sophisticated.

“A Song at Twilight” runs through March 16. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to