Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Funny Side of Asperger's?

"Dancing Lessons" -- TheaterWorks -- Thru March 1

                        Paige Davis and Andrew Benator. All photos by Lanny Nagler

By Geary Danihy

“Dancing Lessons,” a play by Mark St. Germain that recently opened at TheaterWorks, is a romantic comedy with a message, or a message play with romance – take your pick. It has the feel of early Neil Simon, with just a touch of a Hallmark made for TV film (the scene flow is certainly filmic). In other words, it’s touching and at times cute, often funny, though the running joke that autism is, by its very nature, humorous, wears a bit thin. As directed by Julianne Boyd, “Dancing Lessons” is kind-hearted kitsch without the bight of St. Germain’s “Becoming Dr. Ruth” and “Freud’s Last Session,” which were also boarded by TheaterWorks.

The set-up is Hollywood “meet cute” with a spin. Ever Montgomery (Andrew Benator) and Senga Quinn (Paige Davis) live in the same Manhattan apartment building. Senga (her aunt, possibly suffering from dyslexia, meant to name her Agnes) is a dancer who may never dance again, having been struck by a taxi, the accident making mince meat of her left knee. As the play opens she is in her apartment, a somewhat nondescript set by Brian Prather, swilling scotch and noshing on potato chips, brooding and feeling sorry for herself. She is disturbed by Ever, who comes knocking with a proposition: he wants one dance lesson and is willing to pay Broadway scale (he’s researched the exact amount a dance captain makes in a Broadway show) for the opportunity. Senga is not thrilled, especially since Ever seems a bit odd, the quintessential geek: awkward, socially inept, with a penchant for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Ah, but there is a reason for Ever’s gawkiness – he has Asperger’s syndrome.

                                                      Andrew Benator

To understand Ever’s character one need only turn to a handy definition provided by webmd: “Asperger's syndrome, also called Asperger's disorder, is a type of pervasive developmental disorder (PDD). PDDs are a group of conditions that involve delays in the development of many basic skills, most notably the ability to socialize with others, to communicate, and to use imagination.” Often associated with autism, there are multiple variants of the disability, as Ever will lecture Senga about. In fact, Ever is a renowned professor – he just can’t bear being touched and needs to be warned when a joke is being told so he can give the appropriate response.

Much of the humor is derived from Ever’s problem, especially his inept conversational skills, his awkwardness, and inability to use his imagination – for him, what’s black is black and what’s white is white, but Senga will introduce him to shades of gray. There are moments in this one-act play, especially in the early going, when St. Germain’s research about Ever’s disability takes stage center and the dialogue has the feel of a lecture. Then there are other moments when the research is dramatized. As mentioned, those with Asperger’s have trouble with imagination, so there’s an entire scene devoted to Senga attempting to get Ever to imagine running into a white elephant who wants to have a conversation. The interaction between the two characters often seems forced, as if St. Germain was working off a checklist: dealt with this aspect of the disability, now on to the next.

                                                       Paige Davis

The “checklist” approach to creating scenes and writing dialogue presents some problems for the actors. Benator is impressive as the struggling Ever, but you often get the feeling that he realizes his character is as much a poster boy for Asperger’s as he is a flesh-and-blood person. He’s there on stage to bring Ever Montgomery to life, but he’s also there to deliver a message: “[L]ike everyone else, autistics are individuals, all unique” (to quote from the program). The character and the messenger often work against each other.

Since there are multiple messages to be delivered (mostly by Benator), sometimes there’s a timing problem with the dialogue. Often, Davis begins her reaction to one of Bentor’s lines before he’s completed the delivery, while at other times there’s one beat too many before she reacts or responds, as if wanting to make sure the audience has gotten the message. Thus, much of their interaction seems, well, staged, and it takes a great deal of suspension of disbelief to buy into the romance that all too quickly blossoms between the two. She’s a hard-headed Broadway pro – is she really going to take this man under her wing to the extent that she does?

“Dancing Lesson” is meant to be a feel-good play, and there’s no denying that the audience feels good about itself for learning more about people who must deal with Asperger’s -- thus, the dance dream sequence that comes near the end of the play. It is only after leaving the theater you might feel that you have been just a tad manipulated, and that the message that Asperger’s can be cured through the efforts of a kind and tender heart might be right up there with the idea that Santa Claus knows who’s been naughty and nice. You might also become a bit disquieted once you begin asking yourself what you were actually laughing at.

“Dancing Lessons” runs through March 1. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to  

Sunday, January 25, 2015

“Proof” Doesn’t Add Up…or Does It?

"Proof" -- Playhouse on Park -- Thru Feb 8

                    Marty Scanlon and Dana Brooke. All photos by Rich Wagner

By Geary Danihy

So how do you find fault with a play that in 2001 won both the Pulitzer and Tony awards for Best Play? Perhaps by saying that what we have in David Auburn’s engaging work now on the boards at Playhouse on Park is a series of character studies linked by multiple conflicts that are less resolved than allowed to drift away. Thus, although the current production is often vibrant and certainly entertaining, it suffers only in the fact that you come away saying, “And so?” Or, perhaps, that’s the point.

Made into a film in 2005 starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Anthony Hopkins, “Proof” centers on Catherine (Dana Brooke), a woman in her early 20s who left college to take care of her father, Robert (Damian Buzzerio), a brilliant mathematician now suffering from dementia. Catherine has inherited her father’s skill in and love of numbers, yet she has apparently opted not to pursue her talent, instead becoming a somewhat disgruntled caretaker. The play opens the week after Robert’s death, but Catherine envisions him, and they have a conversation, which suggests that Catherine may have inherited more from her father than just a love of math. As an aside, there’s a problem (or a clue) in this first scene that involves a bottle of ersatz champagne as a birthday gift – if it’s a figment of Catherine’s imagination then how does it later materialize in real time, and if it is not, then who has supplied the champagne? Robert’s ghost or Catherine? If Catherine, then…?

Catherine’s sister, Claire (Melissa Macleod Herion), arrives for the funeral. A take-charge woman, Claire suspects that Catherine may be showing early signs of the dementia their father suffered from, a suspicion Catherine bridles at, especially when Claire suggests that one of Robert’s former students, Hal (Marty Scanlon), who Catherine says has been at the house researching Robert’s work, is a fiction.

Themes abound: the responsibility of the young to care for their elders; the role (or lack of same) of women in the discipline of mathematics; the relationship of trust and proof (used in multiple senses – that of a mathematical proof and proof of the truth); the publish-or-perish climate of Academe; insanity as a concomitant of genius. All of these themes are interwoven into the play’s conflicts: Catherine and Claire as siblings with different views on responsibility towards a parent, Catherine and Hal dealing with the academic, mathematical and emotional meanings of proof, and Robert dealing with the agony of what happens when “the machinery” will no longer function, when a mind that once soared is now mired in confusion.

                                             Damian Buzzerio and Dana Brooke

Such interweaving allows for scenes, deftly directed by Dawn Loveland, that are, in and of themselves, quite riveting. To name just a few: Robert’s dawning awareness that he is slipping back into dementia as Catherine reads to him from his notebooks – Buzzerio grippingly creates the picture of a man trembling again on the brink of insanity who, in a clear moment, sees the abyss into which he is about to descend. It is harrowing, made more so by Brooke’s controlled reaction: a mere tremble in the voice and a flicker of the eyes conveys her inner agony. It’s great theater. So, to, is the confrontation that ends the first act, with an appropriate reveal that makes the audience want to rush back to see what happens.

There are several confrontations between the sisters that evoke more than the specifics of their arguments, and Herion and Brooke perform intriguing, sibling “dances” as they take on the various roles that have defined their characters’ relationships throughout their lives. As Hal, Scanlon has perhaps the most difficult (and pivotal) task, for he is perpetually the odd man out, distanced from the familial histories and conflicts that suffuse the play.  He is appropriately intense, yet there seems to be a lack of ardor in his performance such that his protestations of concern for Catherine ring hollow. Perhaps that’s the point, yet if it is, then the play’s final scene is darker than as written and presented. If so, then “Proof” becomes a familial tragedy on the order of Oneill’s “Long Day’s Journey into Night.” As Catherine begins to explain her “proof” to Hal, is she taking a tentative step towards freedom or stumbling onto a path that will lead to her ultimate destruction? A slight shift, either way, in how Scanlon plays, or has been directed to play, his role, might suggest an answer.

There is no denying the power of “Proof,” mainly because its multiple, well-written scenes are an actor’s dream, and this team of talented actors takes full advantage of what Auburn has given them. And yet, one comes away less than totally satisfied, though not through any fault of the actors. The dissatisfaction stems from lurking questions: what have we just seen and what does it mean? Perhaps there is a streak of philistinism in me, but am I asking too much to have a play decide what it is emotionally and intellectually trying to say? The “You decide” answer doesn’t sit well, but that’s what we’re left with. Then again, in the words of playwright David Mamet: “The theater exists to present a contest between good and evil. In both comedy and tragedy, good wins. In drama, it’s a tie.”

“Proof” runs through Feb. 8. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to

Sunday, January 18, 2015

"Private Lives" Best Kept Private

"Private Lives" -- Hartford Stage -- Thru Feb 8

                     Ken Barnett and Rachel Pickup. All photos by T. Charles Erickson

What do you do with a comedy of manners when manners have changed so drastically? It’s been over eight decades since Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” opened in London, with Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, Adrianne Allen and Laurence Olivier in the lead roles. Much has changed since then: morals and mores, relationship between the sexes, the very nature of what it means to be sophisticated and the fact that the closet door has been kicked open. The answer to the question? Well, in the case of the current production at Hartford Stage, you do the best you can and hope that the audience won’t see the seams of this elegant period piece have frayed and its colors faded.

As directed by Darko Tresnjak, the Stage’s artistic director, there’s still a certain life to the piece, but it’s a flicker not a flame. The premise is simple: Elyot Chase (Ken Barnett) was once married to Amanda (Rachel Pickup). They divorced, and now he has just married Sybil (Jenni Barber) and Amanda has just married Victor (Henry Clarke). The two new couples have, unbeknownst to each other, both chosen to celebrate their honeymoons at the same hotel in France. In fact, their two terraces abut. There are matching scenes early on filled with exposition and then the eventual meeting of Elyot and Amanda. After a bit of tentative jousting and some shared cocktails and cigarettes, the two realize that they are still madly in love and, well, elope to Amanda’s flat in Paris, where they pick up their old ways, which essentially means lovers’ quarrels leading to moments of passion leading to fisticuffs and a gun battle. Such is the way of true love. They are tracked down by Victor and Sybil, who have realized they are a matched pair – proof of which comes in the final scene of the play when they verbally go at each other tooth and claw only to tumble into passion.

                         Henry Clarke, Jenni Barber, Ken Barnett and Rachel Pickup

The audience the night I saw the play was willing to go along with the set-up, but as the evening wore on (the production runs for 90 minutes or so without an intermission) I sensed a withdrawal (perhaps it was only my own reaction), for the interaction on the stage, albeit with a period-perfect stage design by Alexander Dodge and elegant costumes by Joshua Pearson, became more and more distant. It simply became very difficult to buy into what was going on or to accept that this slightly misogynistic take on marriage was in any way funny.

Coward wrote the role of Elyot for himself, and Barnett gives us a nice take on the Coward style, which includes being more than just a tad bitchy. In this rendering, that Pickup as Amanda, so svelte and elegant, has ever found Elyot, a quintessential boy-man, attractive is difficult to swallow, as is the fact that Elyot has chosen to marry the simpering Sybil, or that Amanda has opted for Victor, played by Clarke as something of a Monty Python caricature of a British twit. Perhaps these characters, 80 years ago, seemed alive and engaging, but time has thinned them down to cardboard, save for Amanda, for Pickup shows us how Katherine Hepburn might have played the role (her cross from one terrace to another is elegance personified).

As for the dialogue, well, it relies more or less on the premise that anything said with a British accent (forced or otherwise) is, by definition, witty. Actually, some of the banter is semi-intelligible, as the actors bite off their words or, at times, substitute mumble and grumble for enunciation. And then there are the dramatic gestures that, often, seem to be a throw-back to the over-the-top visual evocations of emotions familiar to silent movie aficionados.

Hartford Stage’s production of “Private Lives” raises the question of the relevance of temporality as regards theater. Why do we still respond to Antigone’s confrontation with Creon or Romeo’s tragic love for Juliet? Perhaps because Sophocles and Shakespeare wrote not for the moment but for eternity, dealt with that which makes us human rather than that which makes us merely creatures of our times. Sybil, Elyot, Victor and Amanda, as created by Coward, are like models we might see in a decades-old Vogue, dressed in period garb, striking affected poses, offering up the ephemeral lifestyle of a world that no longer exists. We can still learn something from Antigone’s battle with Creon and Romeo’s love for Juliet – we can learn nothing from the two couples in “Private Lives.” Ah, you might be saying, but it’s just a comedy. We’re not supposed to learn anything from comedies. Really?

“Private Lives” runs through Feb. 8. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Getting it Right

"Forever" -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru Feb 1

                                    Dael Orlandersmith. Photo by Craig Schwartz

By Geary Danihy

As we make friends and perhaps become intimate with some of them, they eventually want to know “who we are.” That is, they want to hear our stories, what happened before they met us that made us who we are right now…and we tell them. We attempt to recreate those moments from our past we believe were defining, that molded us, perhaps, at times, twisted us, into the walking, talking breathing portraits that we present to them…but, do we ever get it right? Are the stories we tell the truth or mere simulacrums? As they listen to the verbal portraits we paint, do they sense the pentimenti that we perhaps cannot?

Pentimento, from “pentire” – to repent – from the Latin -- “penitere” – kissing cousin of “penance” and “penitence.” All of the words are appropriate when thinking about “Forever,” which is enjoying its world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre. This journey back in time, a one-woman show written and performed by the talented Dael Orlandersmith, is an exercise in how we deal with the past, how we run away from it only to find that we cannot escape, that it is within us, a part of us, yet that it is also protean, for the past we thought was true when we first broke free from the familial ties or, in some cases, chains we believed bound us is palpably different from the past we understand and eventually embrace as we mature.

On a platform stage bare save for two chairs and a kitchen table upon which rests a candle, a record player, some LPs and a small stack of books, Orlandersmith tells her story, which initially has the feel of a classic screed -- an adult looking back and complaining about how she was so misunderstood and mistreated as a child – but Orlandersmith is better and smarter than that, and she has more to say about the often skewed relationship between parents and children: the clash of needs, desires, dreams and fears.

There is occasional laughter from the audience, but for the most part those in attendance create a rapt silence that is tangible as Orlandersmith weaves a tapestry of a mother-daughter conflict that can only begin to be understood in retrospect. Orlandersmith draws the audience in as intimates as she remembers her mother, initially presented as a cigarette-smoking, Scotch-drinking harridan, and also remembers the authors, artists, and singers who spoke to her as she was growing up – the dark and the light of her childhood, initially offered as thesis and antithesis, but eventually there is synthesis, a mature understanding of who her mother was and how much that is vital and essential in her is her inheritance.

Once Orlandersmith has captured her audience, she uses the classic dramatic form of rising action, climax and denouement that leads to a catharsis of sorts. Central to the play’s movement is an extended description of a rape that occurred when Orlandersmith was a young girl and her mother’s slow descent into death, culminating in Orlandersmith viewing her mother’s body in a hospital morgue – both scenes emotionally riveting on multiple levels. And then we are brought back to where we began, the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, where so many luminaries are buried, and where Orlandersmith, standing at Jim Morrison’s grave, begins to understand that the past and the present commingle, and that who she is – her dreams, her delights, her passions – are part of her inheritance from a young girl with a 19-inch waist, a dancer who quoted poetry and sat on a porch in a humid South Carolina night and…dreamed.

Riveting and emotionally satisfying, often poetic, “Forever” asks us to consider what we think we know about the past and acknowledge that it takes time to “get it right,” if we ever can, for the more we learn about the past the more we sense we do not and can never know.

“Forever” runs through Feb. 1. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to