Saturday, October 31, 2015

We're Still Here

The Downtown Cabaret Theatre -- A Study in Survival

Good times and bum times, I’ve seen them all
And, my dear, I’m still here
Plush velvet sometimes
Sometimes just pretzels and beer, but I’m here

Those are the opening lines of “I’m Still Here” from Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. The show is about a group of actors reuniting in a Broadway theater that’s scheduled for demolition, but it could easily have been written about the Hallinan family and the Downtown Cabaret Theatre in Bridgeport. Through good times and bad, triumphs and trials, fanfares and flops, the DCT has managed to survive and is, hopefully, about to enjoy a renaissance under the leadership of Hugh Hallinan, the venue’s executive producer.

Located at 263 Golden Hill Street, just steps up from the Bridgeport police department, the theater has been “tempest tossed’ several times, and lesser folks might have allowed the vessel to capsize and sink beneath the waters, but the Hallinans are theater-folk, and as another song suggests, “There’s no people like show people.”

It all began in 1975, when shows first started being produced at the Sacred Heart University Cabaret. Initial success led to a search for a more permanent venue and a building in Bridgeport that once housed the YWCA was considered. It would prove to be both a blessing and a curse.

Hugh Hallinan
In a recent interview, Hugh Hallinan explained what might be called the love-hate relationship the theater has had with the city. “When Richard (Hugh’s father) got here in 1980,” Hallinan said, “we had no way to measure what state Bridgeport was in, having just come from another country (Ireland). At that point, Richard stepped into a dark theater – as my recollection goes – and the mayor encouraged him and said ‘We’re on the rebound and in five years Bridgeport will be thriving. Well, Nineteen eighty-five came and went, 1990 came and went, and in 1996, when the state awarded us a million dollars, we felt the momentum was growing, we felt that there was a reason we had put 16 years into this theater. That kept us going until about 2005. It was hope and optimism that got us that far, and I think that’s the ultimate answer to the question of ‘Why?’”

From the beginning, the Hallinan’s have had to deal with the ‘image’ that Bridgeport presented to the rest of the state. “Let’s go to Bridgeport for a meal and then take in a show” was not a statement heard in many Connecticut homes. Right or wrong, lurking in the minds of many was the idea that Bridgeport just wasn’t “safe.”

A reminder of the building's history
Richard Hallinan died in 2006, and in 2007 Hugh had to begin the process of renegotiating the property’s lease with the city. He remembers walking up the steps of city hall to make a pitch to the city council to renew the lease and said to the chairman of the DCT board who had accompanied him, “You know, I think the city is coming back. It’s starting to happen.” The chairman’s response: “Not in our lifetime.”

Running a theater is a tough task at best, and Hallinan often ponders how much of his time and talents have been used, or ‘underutilized,” as he put it, to deal with being in Bridgeport rather than focusing on making the Cabaret thrive, questioning if he’s “been using his time wisely.” He paused a moment to calculate the years he has given to the Cabaret and then said: “This year I’ll be 53, and you kind of wonder – you’ve got probably one good fight left in you to do something sizeable.” He went silent for a moment.

Should he leave Bridgeport, move on? Hallinan isn’t sure. “There’s a method to doing business in Bridgeport and it uses up about one-third of your mental resources. The flip-side of that is that if you were in a town where you don’t have to deal with an image perception, your resources could be put to better use.”

And yet, though he has the talent and the “creds” to earn a living in the theater world – he has, for example, done the lighting for many nationally touring shows – there are things that have held him in place and motivated him to keep DCT afloat.

A view of the theater from the stage
“Part of the equation that slowed me down, at a point when I might have made a change, was I had my son in 2000 and that took me out of the national lighting design field because I had to be home for him. Basically, being a single parent, I needed to be around for him. I had to step away from designing so many national tours, which was really my bread and butter at the time, and start focusing on the theater here.”

And yet…there’s something else, perhaps less tangible than the responsibility of raising a son but no less real, that holds Hallinan in place, and that is measured in the years he, his father and his mother, Susan, have devoted to the Cabaret. It is something that you don’t walk away from easily. “There’s a part of me,” Hallinan said, “that believes that Bridgeport can turn the corner.

And yet…Hallinan does not lay all of DCT’s past troubles at Bridgeport’s doorstep. He recognizes that he and his parents have sometimes loved the theater not wisely but too well. In the past, when DCT was producing its own shows, Hallinan suggested that in an effort to give the audience what it wanted the shows were over-produced, perhaps by as much as thirty-five or forty percent. He estimated that back then, each show cost around $300,000 to board. The telling point was in 2006, when DCT staged Sweet Charity.

“That was the last show we fully produced under our Equity contract,” Hallinan said. “Business wasn’t good. We actually cut the run short. We closed the production in the beginning of May and two weeks later Richard died. We had pulled every last favor, we had scraped together every last dime to mount that show and do it in such a way that no corners were cut. We wanted to make sure – it was always our philosophy: never cut corners.” It didn’t matter.

The children's dressing room
Quite simply, DCT ran out of money and the question obviously arose, why not reorganize? To add salt to the multiple wounds, DCT’s children’s theater was, in Hallinan’s words, “floundering.” So, he turned his attention to that aspect of the business while asking himself, “What can we bring in that wouldn’t be as expensive as an Equity show?” The answer was tribute shows – pre-packaged productions with a limited cast that would require DCT to essentially just provide the space and technical support. The first show was a tribute to the Beatles – She Loves You -- and it was a success. This was a followed by a Johnny Cash show – again, a success, and both were produced for about twenty-five percent of what a full Equity production might have cost. These two were followed by a tribute to the Rolling Stones. Hallinan said he hadn’t been sure about this one.

“Just bringing in a Rolling Stones tribute show that we had no control over, that we hadn’t been a part of the artistic process, made me nervous.” However, his focus was now on the children’s productions so, a bit hesitant, he booked the show.

“You know,” he said, smiling wryly, “I stood in the back of the theater and I looked at the audience and I said, ‘Well, there’s a lesson learned.’ The audience was enthusiastic. They were up on their feet.” So Hallinan actively went in search of other tribute acts. There was little or no work involved – all DCT had to do was provide the stage, the lights, “and, of course, the cabaret atmosphere,” an atmosphere that, Hallinan admitted, he had come to take for granted, perhaps not recognizing just how important that aspect of the theater-going evening it was to DCT’s survival.

So, DCT was still breathing, and the children’s theater was alive and again well. Hallinan believed that at least this aspect of DCT’s existence was stable, would go on forever but, of course, nothing goes on forever.

“A situation arose,” Hallinan said, “that made us aware that we had no choice. It was mid-season, it was mid-run of a show, and the people who were primarily responsible for the production, the acting, the writing and directing, the costume designs – well, we had to terminate our relationship.”

With that, the children’s company was, as Hallinan put it, “turned upside down.” As Hallinan remembered it, the company stumbled and staggered for several years, relying on book productions that were very uneven. Standards declined and the audience sensed it. Attempts were made to stabilize the situation by using some Disney Junior shows, but they were very expensive. And then…well, in the theater business you just never know. One day, a man named Phill Hill, who had been the stage manager for the children’s theater since 2007, dropped a script on Hallinan’s desk. It was for a show called Robin Hood that Hill had written. Being a bit dyslexic, Hallinan turned the script over to his mother for perusal with less than high expectations.

“About three hours later,” Hallinan said, “she calls me up and says, ‘It’s brilliant.’ Phill now is in his second full season of writing all of the shows. And the accolades are coming in, we’re hearing people say ‘You’re back to where you were.’ That was a long ride from 2007 to 2013.”

Serendipity. In theater as in life, if you stay the course, sooner or later something will happen, something will change. Hill had been there all along, watching, learning, and he had talent. The children’s theater was once again in good hands, but what about the main stage productions? Yes, DCT could continue to bring in tribute shows, but Hallinan was starting to get the urge to once again stage musicals.

Having recognized the over-production syndrome, Hallinan realized that if DCT was going to once again stage musicals it would have to do so with a closer eye on the bottom line, which meant that productions would have to be staged on a more limited budget but, as he suggested, “You can enjoy a great steak, but you can also enjoy a hamburger if it is well made.”

As Hallinan began thinking about once again staging musicals, across town the Bridgeport Theater Company was out on the street after Playhouse on the Green closed. Hallinan met with Eli Newsom, who asked if BTC could use DCT’s theater. Hallinan had concerns, primarily about what he called “branding” – in other words, would the audience know who was doing and responsible for what? So Hallinan said no, but that didn’t deter Newsom. Three weeks later Newsom was back and again asked if BTC could use the theater.

 “I’m a bit of a pushover,” Hallinan said. He agreed, but stipulated that it had to be clear that they would be BTC shows. He was also honest with Newsom: “I’m going to give you some pretty crappy time slots, you know, like when it snows a lot.” Eager for a venue, Newsom agreed.

The productions went forward, but Hallinan was still concerned about image – not that BTC was producing inferior work, but rather the confusion among patrons as to whose work they were actually seeing. However, Hallinan gave BTC a second season and, as these things happen, he was slowly drawn into what BTC was doing.

“I was starting to get involved,” Hallinan said. “My artistic eye was starting to contribute to the production standards, and towards the end of last summer – May of 2014 – well, it was a significant time.” It was significant because DCT had to shut down so the building’s owner could attend to asbestos abatement. In other words, the building had to essentially be torn apart. During this time, Hallinan once again attempted to say goodbye to BTC with the idea that DCT was, once the building was again up to code, about to start producing its own shows again. If so, there would be a conflict. Hallinan said that Newsom seemed to understand, but…there’s always a way. So…

Hallinan explained: “I said, Eli, if you agree to come in and run what we want to do, pretty much do what you’re doing now, but for us…well, that’s what turned out to be the case. He agreed. And so, we started planning. I would have had to go out and hire someone to help produce the shows, but I couldn’t think of anyone better to do that than Eli. He’s sharp. He’s artistic. He’s got youth and he’s got energy, and that’s what we need. So he has become the artistic director and I am the executive producer.”

And so it goes. At one point, DCT was bringing in 80,000 patrons a year. That fell to a low of 35,000 per year. The patronage is now back up to 60,000. Memphis was successfully staged in the fall. Coming up will be Fiddler on the Roof (December), The Great Gatsby (February), Evita (March), and American Idiot (spring of 2016).

The children’s theater is once again on target and there will be a series of Main Stage Concerts, single evenings that will continue to offer tribute shows. The building where DCT is housed is now asbestos-free, there are new offices, and a staff that had once been reduced to three is now back up to seven.

In Greek mythology, the phoenix was a bird that cyclically was regenerated or reborn, arising out of its ashes. The Downtown Cabaret Theatre is currently not considering changing its name, but if it ever does, it might consider that magical bird.

I’ve run the gamut, A to Z
Three cheers and dammit, C’est la vie
I got through all of last year, and I’m here
Lord knows, at least I was there, and I’m here

Look who’s here, I’m still here.    

A Play Devoured by its Staging

Rear Window -- Hartford Stage -- Thru Nov. 15

Kevin Bacon and McKinley Belcher III. Photo by Joan Marcus

Cornell Woolrich’s classic noir short story, “Rear Window,” from which Alfred Hitchcock crafted the 1954 film, has been adapted by Keith Reddin and is being staged by Hartford Stage – and boy, is it being staged, and noir will never be the same. Forget about low-key lighting, forget about dingy back streets, forget just about everything that qualifies as noir, for this Rear Window is a 300-pound dowager dressed up in gold tinsel and decked out in the crown jewels. This neo-noir exercise in over-kill directed by Darko Tresnjak sets out to shock and awe the audience, but after 80 minutes all it induces is a bit of head-scratching.

The draw here is the play’s star, Kevin Bacon as Hal Jeffries, but he is literally overwhelmed and overpowered by the set designed by Alexander Dodge and the lighting (York Kennedy), sound (Jane Shaw) and projections (Sean Nieuwenhuis). In fact, early on in the play, as Jeffries’ apartment disappears – yes, it’s a deft piece of staging – to reveal an apartment building, it looks like the star is about to be devoured by a many-eyed monster. It’s not noir, it’s Transformers!

The premise for the play is a simple one: Jeffries, a crime reporter, is recovering from a broken leg and is confined to his apartment, which overlooks an apartment building. With nothing much to do, he starts observing his neighbors and soon comes to believe that one of them, a Mr. Thorwald (Robert Stanton), has killed his wife. As he drinks and smokes, Jeffries becomes obsessed with proving that foul play has occurred, calling in favors from his cop friend, Detective Boyne (John Bedford Lloyd) to get the goods on Thorwald.

Then there is Sam (McKinley Belcher III), a black man who shows up on Jeffries’ doorstep after having met the reporter in a bar. Fresh up from South Carolina, he is…well, it’s never made clear exactly what he is. He has apparently come to assist the crippled Jeffries, but there is a possibility that he is somehow connected to a story Jeffries covered about the arrest and execution of a black 14-year-old boy in South Carolina, a series of stories -- or perhaps it’s a series on police corruption – that led to Jeffries being beaten (by whom?). Hence the broken leg.

But wait – there’s more. Jeffries was once married to Gloria (Melinda Page Hamilton, who also plays Mrs. Thorwald), a debutante, but the marriage went south. This we learn about in a flash-back scene complete with a setting sun suggesting some island paradise. Where are we? Who knows, or much less cares.

The shock and awe of Jeffries’ apartment sinking into the ground to reveal the apartment building (which also features a revolving apartment – yes, no stage trick has been left un-played) soon wears very thin. Add to this some projections that provide a touch of German Expressionism to the evening and film score music that punctuates moments meant to be dramatic and you have a mélange that delivers the message: look how much money we have spent staging this play.

Given the staging, it’s difficult to evaluate the actual acting that occurs on stage. Bacon gives an interesting portrayal of a man possessed and pursued by multiple devils, that is when the apartment building is not towering over him. Belcher, asked to portray an ill-defined character, does the best he can to bring Sam to life, even when he is called on to become more of a psychiatrist than a servant/friend. It is Lloyd who dominates as the world-weary, slightly corrupt, slightly prejudiced cop. He seems to be the only one capable of not being overwhelmed by the play’s staging.

Nine actors are used to populate the various apartments in the building Jeffries becomes fixated on. As the plot (such as it is) unfolds, or unravels, they act out, in mime, various scenarios – the cheating husband, the hussy, the housewife with babe in arms, construction workers renovating an apartment. Here, the reference is again filmic – specifically Forty-Second Street – without the songs and dancing.

Film is film and theater is theater, and though the twain often successfully draw upon each other, when there is an attempt to have the best of both worlds it only can lead to having the least. Such is the case with Hartford Stage’s Rear Window. You know you are in for a schizophrenic evening from the opening credits – yes, opening credits, and they’re very Hitchcockian (if such an adjective exists).

The run has been sold out, based, one must assume, on the draw of the play’s star. This is a good thing, for those who will pack the house every night will learn a lesson about what doesn’t work in theater. Hopefully, Hartford Stage will also learn from this mistake and not attempt ever again to be all things to all people.

Rear Window runs through Nov. 15. For more information go to    

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Many Facets of Disgrace

"Disgraced" -- Long Wharf Theatre -- Thru Nov. 8

Shirine Babb, Benim Foster, Nicole Lowrance and Rajesh Bose.
All photos by T. Charles Erickson

Some plays move at a leisurely pace, some double-back on themselves, and some never really go anywhere, but Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced is a juggernaut. The 2013 Pultitzer Prize winner, which recently opened at Long Wharf Theatre under the direction of Gordon Edelstein, establishes its themes early, ratchets up the tension, rushes towards a climax that, although anticipated, is still visceral in its impact, and ends with a satisfying denouement that leaves the audience with questions, but one of the drama’s points is that there are questions that truly cannot be answered by the head…only by the heart.

What we have here in this extremely well-written drama is the actualization of two cultures staring at each other, divided by an abyss that has existed for centuries, justifiably fearful and suspicious, incapable of speaking to each other on terms that have not been sullied by prejudice, violence and bloodshed.

One of these cultures is Islam, personified by Amir (Rajesh Bose), a New York City mergers and acquisitions lawyer and self-professed apostate who has changed his name so that he can “pass” as Indian rather than Pakistani, and his nephew, Abe (Mohit Gautam), who has changed his name from Hussein in order to assimilate. The other culture is that of the West, specifically America in the second decade of the twenty-first century, a multi-cultural mélange represented by Amir’s artist wife, Emily (Nicole Lowrance), her art dealer friend, Isaac (Benim Foster), who is Jewish, and his wife, Jory (Shrine Babb) who is black, a lawyer, and Amir’s colleague. Yes, it sounds contrived, but it works, and it works on many levels.

Juan de Pareja. Velasquez. Metropolitan Museum of Art

 The play’s controlling image is a painting by Velasquez of Juan de Pareja, a “Morisco” (a person of mixed heritage, often a Muslim convert to Catholicism) born into slavery, whom Velasquez “inherited” and, after becoming his assistant, freed. It is this painting that has inspired Emily, who is fascinated by the traditions and spirituality of Islamic art, to paint a portrait of her husband after a minor racist confrontation in a restaurant. Amir is uneasy about her motivation and the implications of Velasquez’s painting. He had, reluctantly, and at his wife’s request, visited an Imam who had been arrested for collecting funds that he just might be funneling to terrorist organizations, but Amir wants no part in the prelate’s defense. However, he has been quoted in a newspaper and his firm has been mentioned. It is this publicity that, he fears, may lead to his disgrace, defined in terms of the play as being labeled a Muslim, which, of course, opens up the possibility of being a terrorist.

Shirine Babb, Rajesh Bose, Nicole Lowrance and Benim Foster

Most of the play’s rising action, and its climax, can be found in the dinner that Amir and Emily host for their guests, Isaac and Jory. What begins with polite conversation soon escalates into heated discussions about racism, Orientalism, the nature of the Islamic faith and a person’s inability to escape or eschew his or her heritage and upbringing.

This is a play about the clash of faiths and ideas, but it is neither didactic nor moralistic, because it really is about people, about their needs, desires, fears and failings. Bose, as Amir, creates a compelling picture of a conflicted soul, a man who has turned away from his heritage yet cannot, in his heart, deny what he was brought up to believe. It’s a stellar performance.

The rest of the cast is equally strong. Lowrance, Gautman, Foster and Babb all have their moments in the dramatic sun as they respond to and interact with Amir’s character. Think of a poker game in which each player opts to stay in, tossing another chip or two into the pot until the stakes are high, perhaps higher than anyone had wished for, hands are called and everyone’s cards are laid on the table…and nobody wins.

Mohit Gautam

The set by Lee Savage artfully depicts an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, although the recessed kitchen upstage left and the entrance hallway stage right may present some problems for those sitting extreme house left or right – the actors can disappear. As for the lighting designed by Eric Southern, it’s interesting that (and this may have also been a directorial decision) there are no true blackouts for the scene changes -- interesting because, especially in the final scene change, the actions of the crew as the apartment is stripped visually leads into and increases the emotional level of the final scene. And kudos to fight director Rick Sordelet, for when the violence finally explodes you believe it and react to it. It doesn’t look like any punches are being pulled.

Staged in conjunction with the Huntington Theatre Company, Disgraced is engaging, thought-provoking theater that demands you pay attention from the opening scene. A stellar cast and perceptive direction make this an evening of theater you don’t want to miss and will not soon forget.

Disgraced runs through Nov. 8. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to

Saturday, October 17, 2015

An Intimate "Evita"

"Evita" -- MTC Mainstage -- Thru Nov 1

Katerina Papacostas. All photos by Joe Landry
When you think of “Evita,” the Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that opened on Broadway in 1979, you think of, among other things, big production numbers: crowds of mourners, a room full of generals, a nightclub filled with dancers. If the 1996 movie comes to mind, then “spectacle” is probably operative. However, an adjective that probably doesn’t come to mind is “intimate,” so when MTC Mainstage announced that it would open its 2015-2016 season with a production of the iconic musical, some might have scratched their heads a bit. Even with the enlarged space of MTC’s new digs, “spectacle” is not something that is possible. As he did with MTC’s marvelous production of “Cabaret” several seasons ago (in an even smaller venue), director Kevin Connors has managed to downsize the musical while still making it vital and often compelling.

Anyone familiar with musical theater doesn’t need to be told what “Evita” is about. Suffice it to say, for those who have been stranded on a desert island for the last 40 years or so, the musical chronicles the rise of Eva Duarte, who became Eva Peron, the first lady of Argentina, a woman who slept her way to the top only to die at the age of 33 of cancer.

The musical opens with the announcement of her passing, causing a wave of hysterical mourning that the narrator, Che (Daniel C. Levine) views with a marked degree of cynicism. This is immediately followed by a flashback to 1934, when a 15-year-old Evita (Katerina Papacostas) essentially seduces Magaldi (Christopher DeRosa), a second-class tango singer, and forces him to take her to Buenos Aeries so she can get a bite of the “Big Apple.”

Daniel C. Levine
Jumping from bed to bed as she first becomes a model, then a star on the radio and finally a film actress, she finally hooks up with Colonel Juan Peron (Donald E. Birely) at a benefit concert in 1944. They immediately connect – he brings her home and Evita promptly ousts Peron’s mistress (Carissa Massaro) to begin her final rise to ultimate fame, power and purloined fortune.

Whether on a large or small stage, the fortunes of “Evita” rise or fall with the two actors playing the main roles of Che and Evita, and Connors is fortunate in his casting, for Levine and Papacostas both do splendid jobs.

Donald E. Birely and Katerina Papacostas
The muscular Levine evinces the necessary degrees of cynicism and suppressed devotion that make the Che character so intriguing. His “Oh What a Circus” number at the start of the show let’s the audience know that it can sit back and relax, professionals are in charge, and this is confirmed as DeRosa does his “On This Night…” number, milking the “lounge lizard” effect for all it’s worth.

Christopher DeRosa
But what about Evita, who must travel from a 15-year-old on the make to become the regal “queen” of Argentina? Papacostas is more than up to the task. As the 15-year-old Eva Duarte she is feisty and sexually aggressive; as the budding starlet she is cynically seductive; as the first lady of Argentina she is cold and regal, until her body fails her and she pleads with Peron that “You Must Love Me.” And, yes, she nails the “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” number that opens the second act.

With Levine and Papacostas turning in fine performances, they more than carry the show, and the sexual tension between their two characters is ably captured in the “Waltz for Eva and Che” number. There’s limited room for the several dance numbers nicely choreographed by Becky Timms, and some line-of-sight limitations prevail, but the numbers are essentially effective, especially in the “Money Kept Rolling In” number, in which Levine comes close to stealing the show.

The only glaring problem with this production is with the lighting scheme created by Joshua Scherr. Often, major characters are in shadow and key scenes are under-lit or mis-lit. In fact, during many numbers actors seem to disappear into dark holes. One can only wonder what marks they are searching for to get themselves back into the rather haphazard lighting plot so they can be seen.

Lighting aside, this is a vigorous, well-acted and nicely staged production of what has become a classic of musical theater. Connors utilizes every inch of available stage space to tell the story, and is especially effective in his blocking of the difficult “Rainbow Tour” number, where Evita must travel from Spain to Italy to England. Yes, this is a down-sized “Evita,” but that doesn’t mean that the show’s inherent power is lost. In fact, Evita’s rise and fall seems all the more compelling and Che’s anger, frustration and desire all the more visceral when you are sitting mere feet away.

“Evita” runs through Nov. 1. For further information or ticket reservations call the box office at: 203.454.3883 or visit:

"Third" is First-Rate

"Third" -- TheaterWorks -- Thru Nov. 8

TheaterWorks has chosen to open its 30th season with a production of Wendy Wasserstein’s final play, Third, and it is a wise choice. As a matter of fact, theatrical wisdom is abundant in this production, from the acting to the directing, staging and lighting design. It’s smart, engaging theater and bodes well for the continued success of the venue.

Directed by Rob Ruggiero, TheaterWorks artistic director, Third is set in the hermetic environment of an elite New England liberal arts college, an institution that Professor Laurie Jameson (Kate Levy) has, over her two-plus decades of tenure, helped to transform from hide-bound and paternalistic to liberal and multi-culturally sensitive. Into this environment, and into Jameson’s class, comes Woodson Bull, III (Conor Hamill), the “Third” of the title. He is a graduate of Groton, but he is an athlete, a wrestler, and when he turns in a paper on King Lear that seems too good (read “too intelligent for a jock”) to be true, Jameson accuses him of plagiarism. The charge leads to the student’s academic suspension until he is found not guilty of the charges.

Kate Levy and Edmond Genest. Photo by Lanny Nagler

Jameson is a committed, determined woman – this is her strength and also her weakness, for although she has had a major impact on the institution where she teaches, she has become, over the years, as rigid and hide-bound in her own way as those she challenged, in the process alienating friends and family. She has allowed herself to be defined by the causes she has championed, but life, in the form of a colleague, Nancy (Andrea Gallo) battling cancer, her daughter, Emily (Olivia Hoffman), a Swarthmore student struggling to become her own person, and Jack (Edmond Genest), her father, who is slowly sliding into dementia, demands that she must eventually reevaluate who she is, what she believes and what she has allowed herself to become. The process provides the emotional arc of the play, and if it becomes somewhat forced, this doesn’t take away from the enjoyment of watching this fine cast bring to vivid life their characters.

Levy, the recipient of the Connecticut Critics Circle 2014 Outstanding Actress award, turns in another stellar performance. She gives us a woman made of brittle steel, confident in her beliefs yet blind to the emotional needs of others and her own frailty. The strength of her performance is best captured in a scene in which Jameson visits her psychiatrist (unseen). Reclining in “the chair,” she exhibits a broad range of emotions and reveals a woman in conflict with herself. It’s a riveting moment.

Conor Hamill. Photo by Lanny Nagler

Hamill, a recent Hartt School graduate who once interned at TheaterWorks, often seems somewhat stiff, as if he is standing at attention to deliver his lines. However, he also has his emotionally compelling moments, especially in a scene with Hoffman set in a bar where Third bartends. In a nice piece of dramatic irony, Third goes off on the “bitch professor who almost ruined his life, not knowing that he is speaking to the professor’s daughter. Hoffman, who is given many great one-liners to deliver, creates a believable portrait of a young woman in controlled rebellion who labors to emerge from her mother’s shadow. This effort is compellingly captured in a scene that immediately follows the bar scene, when Emily returns home to find her mother, wrapped in a blanket, watching a 60s musical retrospective. The generational clash is painfully realized by the two actors.

Rounding out the cast, Gallo, as Nancy, provides a necessary counterbalance to Jameson’s “take no prisoners” approach to life. Faced with the reality of her own mortality, she urges moderation in all things, including Jameson’s pursuit of Third. In a touching scene near the end of the play, Gallo offers us a woman who has been given a new lease on life and is determined to make the most of it. Her delight in finding that she has fallen in love (both with life and a man) is palpable.

Third and Emily are both emerging from the cocoons they have been swathed in and are eager to fly; Jameson and Nancy are, each in their own way, struggling with mid-life crises and are of unsure of which way to fly; Jack has fallen to the ground and flutters helplessly. Genest, in a truly touching performance, creates a man lost in his own mind. In the scenes he plays with Levy and Hoffman, Genest brings to life a man who is desperately clinging to shreds of reality, who is proud that he can count back from 100, even though he loses his way long before he can get to 80.

In scene after scene, you can see the cast members feeding off each other to create powerful vignettes that reveal their characters’ emotions and motivations. If there are any reservations about Third, it is in Jameson’s epiphany and “rebirth,” which comes rather too abruptly at the end of the play and seems, if not out of character, at least dramatically unearned. It almost feels as if a scene or two is missing, scenes that would justify Jameson’s visit to Third’s dorm room. In perhaps the play’s only false moment, Jameson “knights” Third before she departs – it’s simply not believable.

Closing scene aside, Third is good theater and can be appreciated on several levels, including the artful, turntable set designed by Michael Schweikhardt and the subtle lighting created by John Lasiter that evokes the changing seasons (although there is a moment early in the second act when you wonder if TheaterWorks is experiencing power problems as the lights dim and rise – it’s an attempt to suggest TV’s successive electronic moments, but it is visually disruptive and unnecessary).

Levy and company, under Ruggiero’s astute direction, deliver an enjoyable, often engrossing two hours of theater. If you are left with questions, they can be put aside. Third may ultimately devolve into mushy emotionalism, but until it does it is often taut, testy and dead-on.

Third runs through November 8. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Broken Lives

"Broken Glass" -- Westport Country Playhouse -- Thru Oct. 24

Stephen Schnetzer and Felicity Jones. Photo by Carol Rosegg
There’s a specter that haunts Broken Glass, one of Arthur Miller’s later plays (written in 1994) that recently opened at the Westport Country Playhouse under the direction of its artistic director Mark Lamos. Set in Brooklyn in 1938, the play focuses on a Jewish couple, but as the play’s title implies, there is more going on in the world of this play than the problems the couple faces, for half a world away humanity is slowly yet inexorably losing its grip on its sanity. In Germany and Austria, Jews are being pursued and persecuted and glass is being broken: the glass of shop windows and synagogues. The horrors are being reported daily in the newspapers and on the radio and, in this often stirring production, they reverberate in the couple’s broken marriage.

Yes, Kristallnacht is the operative metaphor in the play, but it is the echo of a distant nightmare, for what this play really deals with is the “burden” of being Jewish and the introspection, denial and self-hatred it can sometimes engender. It is also a study of a marriage that is as brittle and fragile as glass.

Phillip Gellburg (Steven Skybell) is the only Jew working at an old-money mortgage bank. He takes great pride in this, as he does that his son attended West Point and is now a captain in the Army. After all, a Jewish boy attending West Point. It’s…

Yet Phillip is a porcupine embarrassed by his quills, a man who looks in the mirror every morning and sees: Jew. He has tried to assimilate, and in so doing has taken on some of the characteristics and views of those who would persecute him, for as he explains to Dr. Harry Hyman (Stephen Schnetzer), the German Jews…well…they can be…Phillip waves his hand -- they can be pushy, difficult. It’s a chilling moment, for it reveals in a gesture, in just a few words, the price one must pay if one decides to “go along.”

He is meeting with the doctor because Phillip’s wife, Sylvia (Felicity Jones) has suddenly lost the use of her legs. Now bedridden, she obsesses over the news from Germany being reported in the newspapers, and the doctor, learning that there is nothing physically wrong with his patient, suggests that her problem might be psychological. The doctor’s wife, Margaret (Angela Reed), questions his deep concern for his patient, implying that the interest might be more than just medical, but he assures her that his concern is merely professional. Trying to understand the dynamics of Sylvia’s condition, he interviews her sister Harriet (Merritt Janson), who suggests that Sylvia’s problem just might be sexual.

The cause of Sylvia’s paralysis is never fully revealed, and its connection to events in Germany is, at best, tenuous. If you look closely at what unfolds during the 90 minutes of the play, what you thought might be made apparent is not and what you might have assumed the play was about turns out to be wrong. Because of this, once you are out of the theater and driving home questions might arise for which Miller has supplied no answers, but while you are sitting in the theater that doesn’t really matter.

Jones and Skybell, as the couple now skating on the frozen surface of their marriage, give riveting performances. The ache, the frustration and the thwarted needs in their characters’ marriage are palpable. Individually, Skybell gives us a man at war with himself, and his moments of misdirected rage are truly frightening and his need to dissemble when dealing with his boss, Stanton (John Hillner), is painful to watch, only because he captures something that goes beyond being Jewish and speaks to being human. We have all, at one time or another, kowtowed.

For her part, Jones creates a woman whose physical paralysis speaks volumes about the loss of love and the denial of desire. Confined for most of the play to a bed, Jones is able to convey an amazing range of emotions, many of which are captured and reflected in the mirrored set designed by Michael Yeargan.

In the long run, Broken Glass is less than the sum of its scenes, but many of the scenes are gripping and the entire cast never hits a false note. Lamos paces the scenes so that you never pause to question what is really going on, you don’t have time, for your attention is artfully focused and your emotions are manipulated. The manipulation (the word is not being used in its pejorative sense) continues until the final epiphanic scene, which seems so right, so fitting…until that drive home and those questions arise.

Broken Glass runs through Oct. 24. For tickets or more information call 203-227-4177 or go to

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

What is "Indecent"?

"Indecent" -- Yale Repertory Theatre -- Thru Oct. 24

Adina Verson and Katrina Lenk. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

There’s a play within a play about a play currently playing at Yale Repertory Theatre. It’s the world premiere of Paula Vogel’s Indecent, directed by Rebecca Taichman, and it is an often mesmerizing yet somewhat emotionally aloof effort to make a mountain out of a dramatic molehill.

Back in 1907, the Jewish author and playwright Sholem Asch wrote a play in Yiddish called The God of Vengeance (see Psalm 94 for the allusion). Given the era, it was a daring attempt to depict Jewish characters warts and all, for it is set in a brothel run by a Jewish father (the family lives on the second floor of the establishment) and features a lesbian relationship between his daughter and one of the prostitutes, a relationship that eventually has the father turn away from God and desecrate the Torah scrolls. Heady stuff.

The play migrated to New York in 1907, as did Asch, and was produced in the thriving Yiddish theater for many years and, eventually, in English translation, was staged by the Provincetown Playhouse and then, after it was “cleaned up,” on Broadway in 1923. It soon closed, with the cast, producers and theater owner arrested for obscenity, a charge brought by a local rabbi.

Context is all here. Even with the notes in the show’s program, one never really understands the importance of Asch’s play to the Jewish community or what is exactly up for grabs. Hence, watching as the troupe of fine actors depicts Vengeance’s many manifestations, including a production in a ghetto in Poland during World War II, one can’t help but feel a bit removed from what is happening up on the stage. It’s obvious that someone – or many people – think all of this is important. Would that Vogel could have figured out a way to convey that importance.

And yet, this is, by and large, an enjoyable evening of theater, thanks to the stellar cast and Taichman’s deft direction. For most of the evening, it’s actually a romp, with the actors dancing and skipping from scene to scene, moving to the music provided by Lisa Gutkin, Aaron Halva and Travis W. Hendrix, who form what might be thought of as a klezmer pick-up band. The actors, guided by Richard Topol, who plays Lemml, the stage manager, take on multiple roles as historical characters (Eugene O’Neill even makes an appearance in an Irish bar, a perhaps superfluous scene) and as characters in Asch’s play.

The opening scene has the actors arranged upstage – there’s no scenery -- the Rep’s innards are laid bare for all to see – and few props, just some suitcases and a desk for the final scene. The actors are set all in a row, as if they are sitting shiva. Projected text in English and Hebrew – integral to understanding what is going on – indicates that they are rising from the ashes. In perhaps the only false directorial move during the evening, as the actors rise and come forward ashes fall from their sleeves…and continue to fall…and fall…and fall. It’s a bit of overkill, so to speak.

However, once the dust clears, this talented group of thespians – Katrina Lenk, Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore, Tom Nelis, Steven Rattazzi and Adina Verson – do put on a show, or rather multiple shows. Oddly enough, it’s the actors you come to care about and admire -- their skill and talent – more so than the multiple characters they are asked to bring to life. This holds true save for the Vengeance characters portrayed by Lenk and Verson, the two women who form a romantic relationship, for Vogel has wisely used their relationship, and their pivotal scene in Vengeance – the “Rain” scene -- as the emotional center of her play.

As Vengenace moves from venue to venue, it is this scene that is referenced over and over again, building audience anticipation to actually see what has mesmerized everyone involved with Asch’s play. Vogel, Taichman and scenic designer Riccardo Hernandez, as well as Lenk and Verson, deliver on the build. There is, in fact, a rain scene, wonderfully staged.

The basic problem with the play is that the audience really doesn’t know what it is supposed to focus on, what it is supposed to care about. Is it Asch’s artistic struggle (the final scene would suggest so), or what he viewed happening to the Jews in Europe? Is it the life of Vengeance, its historical and dramatic importance? Surely it’s not the fact that the actors and producers were arrested and brought to trial – this happens late in the play and is almost an afterthought, and Asch’s reluctance to step forward and defend his work seems muted. The play seems to echo other plays – oddly enough, even Cabaret -- to draw on them for emotional bulk and essence. There’s a lot going on as this play within a play plays itself out, and you certainly can appreciate all the skill and talent up there on the stage and the creative thought that went into its staging, but…the mind can be intrigued and diverted while the heart, well, it seeks something it can embrace. Indecent is intriguing, but it is not embraceable.

Indecent runs through Oct. 24. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Tuesdays -- to Eternity

Tuesdays with Morrie -- Playhouse on Park -- Through Oct 18

Gannon McHale and Chris Richards. All photos by Meredith Atkinson

Sometimes, less is more. Such is the case with Playhouse on Park’s Tuesdays with Morrie, a gentle, touching play that inexorably works its way into your heart. Sensitively directed by Sasha Bratt, this adaptation of the memoir by Mitch Albom eschews flash and spectacle to focus on a relationship between two men, a teacher and a former student, that deals with the issues of death and, more importantly, the issues of a life well lived.

Written by Albom and Jeffrey Hatcher, the play chronicles meetings between Mitch (Chris Richards) and Morrie (Gannon McHale), as Morrie slowly succumbs to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). The two first met at Brandeis University when Mitch took a sociology course taught by Morrie (the name, in Hebrew, relates to “my teacher’). Entranced and excited, Mitch eventually signed up for every course Morrie taught and, upon graduation, swore that he would keep in touch with “coach.”. He didn’t.

Sixteen years later, Mitch, who once dreamed of being a jazz pianist, is now a driven sports journalist who just happens to catch Morrie being interviewed by Ted Coppel on Nightline. Memories and guilt motivate Mitch to fly up to Boston to visit Morrie. The first meeting is awkward, for Mitch has issues about dealing with those facing the ultimate journey, but Morrie, who understands, among other things, the healing power of touch (he dubs a kiss on the forehead “extra credit”), gets Mitch to commit to weekly visits on Tuesdays.

 What follows is an exploration of friendship and shared humanity that, over the course of the one-act play, has the power to make you embrace all of the possibilities life has to offer, even as life comes to a close.

The set, designed by Christopher Hoyt, is simplicity itself: strips of parquet flooring angle out stage right, creating a saw-tooth design that is mirrored by the images on the back wall. The only furniture on-stage: two chairs and a book-laden table, plus a piano set extreme stage left. In the final moments of the play, a back wall opens and a bed slides forward: Morrie’s last resting place. The scene ends and the bed recedes into darkness bearing Morrie; it is a striking yet subtle evocation of the passage into the unknown, a stirring image, enhanced by Aaron Hochheiser’s lighting, that, opening night, evoked a palpable silence from the audience – you could feel those watching bidding Morrie adieu, perhaps with some tears.

This is an intimate play tailor-made for the venue, and Bratt has blocked scenes so that the emotions generated by the two actors can be felt by all, house left, right and center. And emotions there are aplenty. Richards gives a fine performance as a man conflicted, drawn to Morrie yet committed to the demands of a twenty-four-seven job. He has turned away from his heart’s desires and, in the process, lost part of his soul. This is best captured in a touching scene in which Mitch’s wife, a former singer, visits Morrie and sings for him (the wife is imagined). Morrie asks her to sing for him…and she does. At this moment, Mitch realizes that he has never really “heard” his wife, has never paused long enough in his hectic career to listen to the song of her life.

As impressive as Richards’ performance is, it is overshadowed, and rightly so, by McHale’s portrayal of Morrie. My play-going partner expressed it well when she commented: “What moved me most were not only the tears that the last scene brought
to my eyes, but also the impulse I had to get up out of my seat and help Morrie as
his struggle with the disease increased. I was physically drawn to comfort him
more than once.” Such is the power of McHale’s performance as he changes from a man eager to dance through life to one whose every movement creates pain. It’s a full, rich performance, made even more powerful by the theater’s physical intimacy.

Playhouse on Park is in its seventh year, and it continues to board productions that both move and, at times, astound. This is an organization that can tackle the boisterous, energy-filled demands of Hair and then stage an intimate, soul-searching production such as Tuesdays with Morrie. It’s a little theater with a big heart and a willingness to accept challenges. One can only wonder what surprises await when, at the end of this season, it stages. A Chorus Line. I can only hope that it will be a singular sensation.

Tuesdays with Morrie runs through Oct. 18. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to

Thursday, October 1, 2015

"Little Shop" Flowers at Ivoryton

"Little Shop of Horrors" -- Ivoryton Playhouse -- Thru Oct. 11

Laura Woyasz and Audrey II. All photos by Roger U. Williams

There’s something deadly growing out in Ivoryton. It’s big and green and mean – imagine the venus fly trap cross-bred with kudzu and then pumped full of steroids and you get the picture. This voracious creature goes by the innocuous name of Audrey II, but don’t be fooled – it will eat you as soon as look at you, but you may wish to look at it, at least from the safety of a seat at the Ivoryton Playhouse, where Little Shop of Horrors, a delightful, black-comedy spoof of 1950s creature-feature movies is currently enjoying a run. Following on the heels of Ivoryton’s successful productions of South Pacific and Memphis, this exploration of botanical Grand Guignol, briskly directed by Lawrence Thelen, is, by and large, a treat for the eyes and ears.

Azarria White, Denielle Marie Gray, La’Nette Wallace

 Graced by a highly adaptable, turn-table set designed by Martin Scott Marchitto, this sci-fi spoof opens with a Greek chorus of sorts: Chiffon (Azarria White), Crystal (La’Nette Wallace) and Ronnette (Denielle Marie Gray), grade-school dropouts, set the scene for the horrors that will ensue. They are denizens of Skid Row, where Mushnik’s florist shop is dying on the vine. Mr. Mushnik (David Conaway) is close to despair because business is so bad. In fact, he’s ready to fire his two assistants, the meek, amateur botanist Seymour (Nicholas Park) and the much abused Audrey (Laura Woyasz), a young lady working on exceedingly low wattage who is dating Orin (Carson Higgins), a demented dentist who grooves on pain.

Salvation arrives in the form of a small plant that Seymour came across during a total eclipse of the sun, a plant he has lovingly cared for and named Audrey II (animated by Austin Costello and voiced by Steve Sabol). As soon as the plant is put on display business starts to pick up, but every silver lining has a cloud attached – the plant is a persnickety eater: it desires only blood. At first this is supplied by Seymour, but soon the plant craves more and Seymour is forced to become murderously creative. The plant grows, Seymour becomes a success, in the process winning the fair hand of the ditzy Audrey, but there is a price to be paid when you sell your soul to a devil-plant.

Based on the cult film classic of the same name directed by Roger Corman, with book and lyrics by Howard Ashman and music by Alan Menken, Little Shop is not only a skewed take on the paranoid “scare” films of the 50s, it is a modernized Greek tragedy complete with characters with out-sized fatal flaws. It is also tuneful and energetic, although the energy takes a while to be generated.

Nicholas Park and Carson Higgins

 Perhaps it’s the initially uneven sound, designed by Tate R. Burmeister, or the less than innovative and somewhat stilted opening choreography crafted by Apollo Smile, but the musical’s initial scenes seem somewhat muted. The “Downtown” number, which should feature the voices of the two leads – Audrey and Seymour – is more of a mushy mélange. In fact, Woyasz’s voice seems to get lost in the vocal crowd (she’s blocked extreme stage right for much of the number and dimly lit) and Seymour, stage center inside the florist shop, is oddly distant. Matters aren’t helped by Conaway delivering his opening lines so big that he really has nowhere to go dramatically for the rest of the show.

These problems aside, the production quickly brightens and sharpens as Audrey II begins to grow and Woyasz, Park and Higgins take control. Anyone familiar with Little Shop, either in its Broadway or Hollywood iterations, has Ellen Greene’s performance as Audrey etched in his mind. To Woyasz’s credit, she creates an Audrey that’s all her own, using a walk that reminds one of a strutting turkey, plus dips, cringes and other mannerisms, as well as subtle body-language reactions. Once her voice is allowed to be heard, she delivers a poignant “Somewhere That’s Green” and a moving duet with Park in “Suddenly, Seymour.”

Park is sufficiently meek and gawky as Seymour, and he’s able to generate real angst as he begins to deal with the moral ambiguity presented by the continued existence of Audrey II. Higgins, who shined in Ivoryton’s Memphis, does the sadistic-dentist turn to a fault, especially in the “Dentist!” number, pulls off a great death-by-nitrous-oxide scene with Park, and shows his ability as a quick-change artist when he is called upon to play three different characters (including a female editor) all seeking to get Seymour to sign contracts.

The finale finds most of the cast having been devoured by the insatiable plant, only to reappear as its tendrils singing a final warning about the danger of feeding plants. The only problem here is the use of a smoke machine, which belches out so much smoke as the finale begins that it’s difficult to see what is happening on stage. The smoke envelops the actors and wafts out into the audience – a bit of atmospheric overkill that is totally unnecessary.

Quibbles and smoke screens aside, Ivoryton’s Little Shop is a sprightly production that consistently entertains. Artfully staged (actually amazingly so, given the size of Ivoryton’s stage) and nicely paced, with excellent lighting effects by Marcus Abbott, the show, which runs just under two hours with a 15-minute intermission, is well worth the drive out to scenic Ivoryton.

Little Shop of Horrors runs through Oct. 11. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to