Friday, May 23, 2014

Laughing at "Love"

Love/Sick -- Hartford TheaterWorks -- Thru June 22

                                               Bruch Reed. Pascale Armand,
                                              Chris Thorn and Laura Woodward.
                                              All photos by Lanny Nagler

Falling in and out of love can be painful, but with just a slight tilt of one’s attitude, or a squint of the mind’s eye, it can also often be hilarious, and that’s what you’ll see on the stage at Hartford TheaterWorks if you go to “Love/Sick,” a delightful new comedy (complete with some heartstring pulling) by John Cariani, the author of the quirky “Almost, Maine.” Although just about anyone will be able to relate to the goings on, “Love/Sick” is great therapy for those of us who have loved, lost and had a drink afterwards (and offered a soul-searching monologue to a bored bartender), for they say laughter cures all ills.

Constructed much like “Almost, Maine,” Cariani’s “Love/Sick,” directed with a keen eye for pacing, transitions and the building of “moments” by Amy Saltz, is a series of 10-minute vignettes that deals with the various aspects of courtship, marriage and divorce, many driven by misunderstandings that, appropriately, have to do with what we say, don’t say or, in some cases, simply can’t say.

In the show program, casting credit goes to McCorkle Casting Inc. Well, kudos to McCorkle Casting Inc., because the four actors who play multiple roles – Pascale Armand, Bruch Reed, Chris Thorn and Laura Woodward -- are, well, simply superb, especially since they are all called upon to create characters in tight time frames and make them believable and distinct. This they do almost flawlessly.

                                           Laura Woodward and Bruch Reed

They are aided in this by Cariani, who knows how to set the premise early, often with a surprise – several times he has the audience thinking the scene is going in one direction only to turn the wheel and send it off in an entirely unexpected direction, much to the audience’s delight. For example, the answer to a simple question – “What did you have for lunch?” sends “Lunch and Dinner,” which opens the second act, spinning off into unexpected territory.

Almost all of the 10 scenes blend humor with a touch of pathos – and a lot of truth. As I sat and watched the performances unfold I couldn’t help but see heads in the audience nodding in agreement, shoulders leaning towards each other in acknowledgement of a moment that rings true – and there are many of these.

                                      Laura Woodward and Pascale Armand

The tone is set early. The first scene, “Obsessive Impulsive,” may be a bit hard to warm to, since it deals with a compulsion – just-can’t-stop-myself-from-doing-what-I-want-to-do – that may be alien to many in the audience, but Cariani – and Thorn and Pasquale – totally win over the audience with the second scene, “The Singing Telegram,” in which Cariani uses dramatic irony to make those in the audience twitch in their seats in anticipation of a revelation they know is coming. At the fade-out, the audience was sold, secure in the idea that the playwright…and the cast…knew what the hell they were doing. After that, the evening just flowed as scene after scene struck some chord in the audience’s collective emotional psyche.

So, the cast. They create so many memorable moments. What stands out hours after leaving the theater? Well, Thorn as the Singing Telegram Man, who has to convey the set-up and the aforementioned dramatic irony with body language as much as dialogue; Woodward as a bride with cold feet, who transitions from manic to…reflective; Reed as a man who is challenged by delight and finds himself tongue-tied at the prospect of being loved; and Armand as a woman who finds herself bored with her marriage and, to spice things up, creates an e-mag article that opens up new, possibly violent, avenues of expression.

                                            Laura Woodward and Chris Thorn

Pay particular attention to the final vignette – “Destiny” – for Cariani slyly weaves in every theme he has dealt with in the first nine vignettes in dialogue that is also appropriate to the scene itself. It’s a lovely coda to an evening that is fulfilling on so many levels. In sum, this is smart playwriting, smart acting, and smart directing. I defy you to sit down at TheaterWorks and watch “Love/Sick” and not have a good time…and…come away a little wistful, remembering your moments when an errant word sent a relationship spinning off into space, when a misunderstanding motivated you to do something you later regretted, and a chance encounter with a former lover made you think: “Gee, we could have done things better…I could have done better.”

Tragedy makes you squirm…but comedy, smart comedy…makes you think, because when you exit the theater and drive home you ask, “What was I laughing at?” The answer, inevitably, is “Yourself.”

“Love/Sick” runs through June 22. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838. 

Monday, May 19, 2014

A Bitter Olive

"Olive and the Bitter Herbs" -- Square One Theatre Company -- Thru May 31

                                                Alice McMahon and Al Kulcsar

Almost all families have one relative who just rubs everyone the wrong way, whose name has a question mark next to it when planning the guest lists for holiday gatherings or weddings. You break down and finally invite him or her…and then regret the decision and swear you will never do it again. Such is Olive, a bitter, cantankerous, argumentative actress known for her “sausage” commercials now in the “third stage” of her life who is currently striding the stage at Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company in Charles Busch’s “Olive and the Bitter Herbs,” directed by Tom Holehan. Your appreciation of Olive – and the play – may very well depend on your own personality…and tolerance for intolerance. It’s being promoted as a “hilarious comedy,” but I imagine the hilarity is in the eye of the specific beholder.

Olive (Alice McMahon) finds joy in not enjoying life. She’s a fault-finder par excellence, and as the play opens she is currently finding fault with her younger friend Wendy (Michelle Duncan), her next door neighbors Trey (Jim Buffone) and Robert (Barry Hatrick), and Sylvan (Al Kulcsar), the thrice-widowed father of the woman who is the president of the co-op board for the building where Olive lives. The only person she approves of is a phantom named Howard who haunts a mirror in her apartment. The needful, insecure Wendy wants to nudge Olive out of her self-induced funk, so she invites the next-door neighbors over to see if she can orchestrate a détente of sorts. Olive is snippy and, at times downright nasty to her guests, as she is to Sylvan, who seems to thrive on abuse from females. Trey, an out-of-work illustrator of children’s books is bitchy as his partner, Robert, attempts to put a positive spin on the visit. These are not folks you would want to go bowling with, and it remains to be seen if you would want to sit watching them for two hours. Again, it depends on your personality.

The play is driven by two factors: Olive has made a cameo appearance in a TV crime drama and the episode is about to air…and…the aforementioned blithe spirit, Howard, seems to have been acquainted with, or related to, everyone involved, and these connections are, over the course of the evening, to be revealed. The TV show and the ghost are the primary reasons why everyone continues to drop in on Olive (Lord knows, it’s not her personality or conviviality). Unfortunately, both plot lines lead nowhere. Most of Olive’s scenes end up on the cutting room floor and the various connections the characters have with Howard are…well, just that, connections of the seven degrees of separation sort.

Problems abound with the play, most having to do with the script, some with the performances. The biggest problem is with the disagreeable Olive, mainly because there’s no sub-text, no reason offered as to why she is the way she is – she’s just nasty. Yes, you get a glimmer of a possible change in her at the end of the play, but it’s a change unearned, and even if it was earned, would you care? There was an opportunity to develop this point and bring it to a dramatic conclusion, and to show the audience that Olive’s armor, hand-crafted using polished spite, can be cracked, when Wendy finally lets go and tells Olive what she thinks, but the opportunity is lost – Olive just makes a wisecrack and remains imperturbable.

Then there’s the relationship between Trey and Robert, the gay couple. Howard the ghost has told Olive that on the night the TV show is aired “all will be revealed.” Well, what is revealed re. Trey and Robert is that they have cheated on each other multiple times during their relationship, and cheated in a fashion that supports the misguided idea that gays cannot maintain monogamous relationships because they are uncontrollably promiscuous – they just can’t help themselves. Thought we’d come farther than that – maybe not – but the revelations of infidelity that come late in the second act are simply not humorous.

Finally, there’s Sylvan…and his fascination with Olive. The final scene is about as believable as watching Harry Potter drop by to console…and make overtures to…Medusa. Again, motivation is’s a wrap-up that’s supposed to make us believe that there’s something worth caring for about Olive. Perhaps I nodded off, but I missed that moment.

“Olive” is (supposedly) a comedy with some farcical elements…and comedy and farce rely on timing, which seemed to be off the evening I saw the production. It may have had to do with some dropped or fumbled lines. In my experience, you drop one line and the worst you can expect is some gentle ribbing back in the dressing room. You drop several, or seem to grope for a word or phrase, and it creates a tension amongst your fellow actors, for now they not only have to remember their own lines and feed each other but have to be constantly aware that they may have to cover. It plays hell on, if nothing else, timing. Things may tighten up as the production proceeds in its run. One can only hope.

Square One continues to surprise and delight, boarding plays that are often intriguing, sometimes gripping, and almost always enjoyable. Unfortunately, “Olive” seems to be a mis-step, but that’s to be allowed. If you’ve stayed alive for 24 years, you must be doing a lot of things right. “Olive” just isn’t one of them.

“Olive” runs through May 31. For tickets or more information call 203.375.8778 (24/7) or go to

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Scheduled Infidelity

"Run For Your Wife" -- Windsor Jesters -- Thru May 24

                                       Chris Bushey as a bedeviled John Smith.
                                       Photo by Kim Miller

Some might say that making sure one spouse is satisfied and happy is a daunting task, but what about two? That’s the premise of the Windsor Jesters’ production of “Run For Your Wife,” a British farce under the capable direction of Rosemarie Beskind that recently opened up in Windsor.

The 1983 play by Ray Cooney ran for nine years in London; a film of the farce was released in 2012 and ran for approximately nine minutes. The plot is a bit strained, but if you suspend your disbelief and just go with it you’ll have an enjoyable evening.

It seems that after acting as a Good Samaritan (no good deed goes unpunished), taxi driver John Smith (Chris Bushey) finds himself in a bit of a bind. You see, John has two wives – Mary (Helen Malinka) and Barbara (Tracy Weed) – ensconced in digs not far from each other. He keeps them happy, and ignorant of each other’s existence, by keeping a very tight schedule annotated in his notebook, a schedule that is disrupted when he finds himself in the emergency room of a hospital after intervening in the mugging of an old lady (who, thinking he’s one of the muggers, assaults him with her purse). The schedule goes out the window and, even worse, two police detectives, Det. Sgt. Troughton (Mark O’Donnell) and Det. Sgt. Porterhouse (Steve O’Brien), begin investigating the incident after Smith’s wives, independent of each other, call in a missing person’s report. All of the attention, and the disruption of his schedule, and the fact that he has two residences, puts Smith in a bit of a bind.

The farce is, of course, driven by Smith’s desperate need to keep his bigamy a secret, a task he is helped in accomplishing, up to a point, by Stanley (Bruce Larsen), an out-of-work upstairs neighbor who early on learns of Smith’s “problem” and assists in a somewhat confused, ham-fisted fashion. Since Smith is something of a hero (at least for 15 minutes), the media in the form of a newspaper reporter (Jeffrey Weber, who also plays a rather light-in-the-loafers neighbor, Bobby Franklin) gets involved, furthering Smith’s problems.

The cast seems comfortable with the “idea” of farce, which demands a good deal of split-second timing as doors open and close, allowing for the multiple entrances and exits that are one of farce’s staples (what would a farce be without at least four doors?) Good work is done by all, with special praise going to Larsen as the somewhat confused yet willing neighbor – his farmer-on-the-phone routine is a delight -- and Weed, as Smith’s second wife (who is on the other end of the “farmer” phone call). Both actors are blessed with a great sense of comic timing and deliver their lines with a great deal of brio. Of course, the whole shooting match relies on the bigamous Mr. Smith, and Bushey does a nice job with creating a man much beset by his amorous proclivities. However, for farce to work it requires what one might called frantic restraint, and Bushey sometimes – not often – allows the “frantic” to dominate the “restraint,” although a nod has to be given to his newspaper-eating scene (don’t ask – go see) which closes the first act.

If there’s a problem with the production it has nothing to do with the cast or the direction but rather with the venue itself, which is a school auditorium/theater. Perhaps its designer had in mind the need to deaden the sound of 200 or 300 raucous school children assembled en masse, for the theater seems to absorb sound as eagerly as the proverbial sponge soaks up water. Consequently, some lines just get eaten up by the walls and ceiling. It might behoove Beskind to sit in the theater’s back row during a run-through to get a feel for the sound-gobbling nature of the theater, and then urge her cast members to play a bit more to the balcony.

For those not familiar with the Windsor Jesters, it should be noted that it is the oldest, continuously operating community theater group in Connecticut, having produced its first show in 1951

“Run For Your Wife” runs (no pun intended) through May 24. For tickets or information call 860-688-1526 or go to   

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Five Years in 90 Minutes

"The Last Five Years" -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru June 1

                                        Adam Halpin and Katie Rose Clarke. 
                                       All photos by T. Charles Erickson

Meet – fall in love – have problems – separate – all in 90 minutes or so.

That’s “The Last Five Years,” an engaging musical that recently opened at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. Written by Jason Robert Brown and directed by Gordon Edelstein, the theater’s artistic director, the musical initially premiered in 2001 and then had an off-Broadway run in 2002.

“Five Years” is something of a hybrid in that the dialogue is minimal to non-existent; the story, which is circular in nature, is told via a series of songs sung by two characters, Jamie (Adam Halpin), an author who has recently hit the big time, and Cathy (Katie Rose Clarke), a struggling actress. In the opening scene, “Still Hurting,” the marriage between Jamie and Cathy is over, but there’s a quick segue back five years to when they met, as Jamie, who is Jewish, proclaims his delight in having found his “Shiksa Goddess.”

Since the songs have no dialogue as prologue you have to pay close attention to understand where exactly you are in the rise and fall of this relationship, a task that is not overly daunting. The songs themselves, though tuneful (a blend of pop, jazz, classical Latin, folk and even a bit of klezmer) are not the standard Broadway melodies that will have you leaving the theater humming. Rather, it’s the words that, even if you don’t remember them exactly, will have the greatest impact, and much of the enjoyment to be derived from “Five Years” is how skillfully Brown is able to create and define both character and situation (even with a time scheme that is not linear) through lyrics.

                                                         Adam Halpin

As noted, the evening consists of a series of musical set-pieces, and some of them are priceless. The aforementioned “Shiksa Goddess” is filled with the joy of a young Jewish man finally getting to date a girl whose last name doesn’t end in “---stein” or “---berg.” Halpin does a very nice job of creating a young author on the make who cannot hide his delight in his success and the “spin” of the New York book scene. He is especially effective in “Nobody Needs to Now,” which he sings to an invisible paramour reclining on a bed – with just a little effort you can “see” her because Halpin brings her to life, as he does Schmuel, (“The Schmuel Song”) a Jewish tailor he has written as story about.

                                                          Katie Rose Clarke

However, it is Clarke who steals the show. In number after number she is, quite simply, riveting. Whether she is trying to make herself believe she is a vital part of Jamie’s literary high-life (“I’m a Part of That”), describing a less than glamorous summer acting in regional theater in Ohio, (“A Summer in Ohio”), auditioning for roles in musicals (“When You Come Home to Me”) or telling Jamie the story of a high school friend (“I Can Do Better Than That”), Clarke commands the stage. Under the effective, creative lighting provided by Ben Stanton, working with a set by Eugene Lee that captures the tenuous nature of the couple’s relationship and backed by an adept complement of musicians perched above the stage, Clarke simply shines.

Anyone who doesn’t believe you can create believable, engaging, multi-dimensional characters simply through songs should get down to Long Wharf to see what Clarke and Halpin, under Edelstein’s sensitive direction, do with Brown’s material. You won’t be disappointed.

“The Last Five Years” run through June 1. For tickets or more information call 203-7u87-4282 or go to

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

A Different "Damn Yankees"

"Damn Yankees" -- Goodspeed Opera House -- Thru June 21

                                                      Angel Reda as Lola.
                                                     All photos by Diane Sobolewski 

There’s something a bit off about Goodspeed Opera House’s enjoyable yet tame production of “Damn Yankees,” which recently opened at the venue in East Haddam. The problem is, on first or second thought, almost indefinable, since the cast is professional and the energy is, as always, at a high level. On the drive home from watching the show, I thought about what I had seen and why, unlike with most Goodspeed productions, I was essentially unmoved. Yes, the musical is almost half a century old, but age is not the problem – people still curse the Yankees, and Joe DPietro has updated the script so that the rivalry is between the Red Sox (rather than the Washington Senators) and the Yankees. So, what is it?

Well, it could be the sum of many little things. First, Goodspeed is renowned for using its limited stage space to make it seem larger than it really is (the wings are cramped and there’s virtually no fly space). However, in the case of “Damn Yankees,” everything seems a bit too visually constricted by Adrian Jones set design, with almost all of the action occurring down-stage, giving the show a very linear feel. By and large, actors and sets enter from the same position stage left or right, placement and movement constricted by the need to have a dugout upstage. This constriction has forced director Daniel Goldstein and choreographer Kelli Barclay to essentially line up the actors and dancers left to right in scene after scene. After a while it becomes visually boring.

Then there’s the book and score itself – as listed in the program: “Words and Music by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (does “Words” mean lyrics?), and Book by George Abbott and Douglas Wallop – Hmmmm – where do “book” and “words” converge and diverge? By and large, the show lives off its anthem, “Heart,” as in, “You’ve Got to Have Heart,” which is sung, and then sung again, and then again…and again. The only other notable tune is “Whatever Lola Wants.” The rest of the numbers, be they ballads or chorus ensembles, you easily forget as soon as they are over.

                                                Angel Reda and David Beach

Or perhaps it’s that there are too many actors verging on the edge of caricature – it seems that just about every character is played “big,” from Coach Van Buren (Ron Wisniski) to Applegate (David Beach), Lola (Angel Reda) and the entire Red Sox team. Lines are delivered with little restraint and often at an octave higher than necessary, and if the lines are punch lines, well, they are telegraphed, with an appropriate pause after delivery for the expected laughter. The only two actors who keep their performances in check are James Judy as Joe Boyd and Ann Arvia, who plays his wife Meg – their scenes together are, by and large, both touching and real.

Odd to say this about a stage production, but the effort just seems, well, somewhat staged, thus never allowing you to truly enter into the lives of the characters (much unlike the experience watching the delightful “Most Happy Fella!” which ended Goodpseed’s last season). In other words, it’s difficult to forget that you are sitting in the house watching a show.

                                             Ron Wisniski and "The Team"

The musical does have its moments – “Goodbye, Old Girl,” sung, in turn, by Judy and Stephen Mark Lukas, who, compliments of a soul-selling deal Boyd has made with Applegate, play’s Boyd’s transmogrified younger self, Joe Hardy. The character switch is nicely directed by Goldstein, as is the reverse switch near the end of the second act. Equally charming is the “Two Lost Souls” number, sung by Lukas and Reda (in a moment when she is not trying to be the vamp of the century), and Beach does a satisfying vaudevillian turn with “Those Were the Good Old Days.” As pleasing as these numbers are, they just can’t pump life into a show that, with all of its whirling bats and be-toweled buff athletes, seems to lack…well…heart.

“Damn Yankees” runs through June 21.  For tickets or more information call 860.873.8668 or visit:   

A Sophisticated Song

"A Song at Twilight" -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Thru -- May 17

                                              Gordana Rashovich and Brian Murray.
                                              All photos by T. Charles Erickson


There the word stands, bereft of any adjectives or qualifiers, bare, naked. In our enlightened 21st century, does the word still evoke a response, a frisson of…what? I guess it all depends, but back in the 1960s, in both England and the United States, the word was fraught with emotion, especially for those who overtly proclaimed they were, in fact, homosexual. For the more timid, frightened or image-conscious souls who remained closeted, the conflict of “seeming” versus needful reality often led to subterfuge, acting out and downright deceit. Such is the stuff of “A Song at Twilight,” Noel Coward’s last play now on the boards at the Westport Country Playhouse.

Coward was inspired to pen “Twilight” after hearing an amusing anecdote told of Sir Max Beerbohm as well as by 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.

A co-production with Hartford Stage, where it was seen earlier this year, “Twilight” has the same cast, scenery by Alexander Dodge, and director – Mark Lamos, the Playhouse’s artistic director – as it did up in Hartford, but there is something subtly different about this iteration. It seems sharper, tighter, and a lot more enjoyable. Perhaps it’s because there were times up in Hartford when the actors became almost lost on the large stage. In Westport, the stage space is smaller, giving the production a more intimate feeling, and intimacy (in all of its variations) is what the play is about.

                                                 Brian Murray and Mia Dillon

The one-act play is set in a private suite in a luxury hotel in Switzerland, 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 and stage 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.
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 dramedy to its climax.

                            Gordana Rashovich, Nicholas Carriere and Brian Murray

Although the play is not top-tier Coward, there’s enough wit and cattiness in the dialogue to remind one of why Coward was such a popular playwright. Most of the biting remarks are given to Murray, who creates a Latymer that is irascible, overbearing, condescending and…haunted by his past. Acerbic as Latymer is, he meets his match when Carlotta appears. Rashovich does an excellent job in playing Carlotta as a woman who is well aware of her limitations and yet is more than what she initially appears to be. The two characters’ extended confrontation drives most of the play, and much of the interest here is in the inexorable shift of power between Latymer and Carlotta – initially he appears to dominate but ever so slowly she breaks him down and, in the end, leaves him pondering – and perhaps ruing – how he has chosen to live his life.

Given the vividness of these two characters, Dillon’s Hilde seems to hover in the background, that is until the latter part of the play when she returns and, emboldened by having consumed wine and several Stingers, reveals a depth of character – and an understanding of her marriage – that, along with Carlotta’s revelations, forces Latymer to confront his past.

Lamos has kept the two visual vignettes that close the two movements of the play: young male actors (Bryan Kopp and Joseph Merle) 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. As with the Hartford production, it is questionable if these two “memory” moments, though tastefully staged, add much to the production. This is especially true of the second “moment,” for it draws attention away from what Murray is doing as his character deals with the weight of memories.

Evoking an era when class, style and urbane verbal jousting were valuable social assets, “A Song at Twilight,” which runs through May 17, pleases on a number of levels. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to