Saturday, January 30, 2016

A Choice Production

The Chosen -- Playhouse on Park -- Thru Feb. 14

Jordan Wolfe and Joshua Whitson. All photos by Rich Wagner
Some plays are like tsunamis – the power (and tension) builds and builds until there is a final assault on the emotions and, often, the stage is littered with bodies (think Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet). Then there are the plays that end up being nothing more than stagnant ponds. The Chosen, which recently opened at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, is neither tsunami nor algae-laden pond, it is a slow lapping of waves that ultimately mesmerizes and satisfies. As deftly directed by Dawn Loveland, this dramatization of Chain Potok’s 1967 novel, with its superb ensemble cast, is theater that, like an oft-told family story, evokes, upon reflection, ruminations on the choices we all make as we wend our way through life.

The very nature of choice demands that something is gained and something is lost. If not, then it is not a choice. The process is often painful, as it is for Danny Sanders (Joshua Whitson) and Reuven Malter (Jordan Wolfe), two young men living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, during and immediately after World War II. They are the sons, respectively, of Reb Saunders (Damian Buzze) and Reuven Malter (David Gautschy), two Jewish men, the former a Hasidic rabbi, the latter a scholar of a modern orthodox bent, who have different approaches to parenting.

The play is framed by a narrator, a mature Reuven (David Gautschy) who provides the initial exposition and comments on the tensions that arise between these two families, tensions that deal with how an older generation communicates with the younger and, on a larger scale, what it means to be Jewish, a question fraught with agonizing imponderables given the Holocaust, the rise of Zionism and the attendant drive to create the State of Israel.

Dan Shor, Jordan Wolfe, David Gautschy, Joshua Whitson and Damian Buzzerio
The two boys meet on a baseball field (an American melting pot metaphor) and there is an immediate antipathy. This antipathy morphs into a growing friendship that is challenged by their antithetical upbringings, for Reuven’s father is outgoing and delights in talking with his son, while Danny’s father has chosen silence as a means of teaching his son certain lessons about life (including silence as the only response that one can give to the horrific if one is still to believe in an all-loving God).

Reuven is to become a professor of mathematics; Danny is to become a rabbi and eventually the leader of the Hasidic sect that his father shepherded from the European maelstrom to the safer shores of America. Thus, the play deals with choices, choices fathers have made for their sons, and the choices that the sons make as they realize what consumes the heart cannot be denied.

Playhouse on Park is an intimate, thrust-stage theater that presents staging challenges, challenges that have been ably met by Loveland, scenic designer Christopher Hoyt, lighting designer Aaron Hochheiser and sound designer Joel Abbot (who deftly moves a scene from a home to Madison Square Garden through use of reverberation).

Loveland has her cast in constant movement, utilizing all available space from stage left to stage right. The blocking is often balletic, for the actors’ movements accentuate and reinforce the dialogue and the emotions being expressed. As the actors move, Hochheiser’s lighting design, never intrusive, subtly directs the audience’s attention and creates appropriate moods. This is all done against Hoyt’s minimalist set, which consists of an upstage wooden framework with an inscribed arch and several platforms, two of which, stage right and left, support desks that define the two familial worlds in which Reuven and Danny exist.  

Novels and plays unfold in different ways, and this adaptation by the author and Aaron Posner has some inherent developmental problems, for there is a need to provide a great deal of exposition. Thus, the play is somewhat slow to get out of the gate, but once it does it inexorably draws in the audience, and this drawing in is much to the credit of the cast, for each actor seems born to play the role he has been given. You believe that Buzzerio is a man haunted by the Holocaust, a devout man who comes to question the nature of a God who would allow depravities to occur, yet clings to his beliefs and has chosen to communicate with his son through silence. You believe that Shor is a man driven by the passion to never allow what has occurred to happen again, and who has chosen to communicate with his son through Socratic dialogue. You believe that Wolfe, as Reuven, and Whitson, as Danny, are two young men seeking to understand who they are and what they wish to become, and that their friendship might help them achieve that goal, and you believe that Gautschy is an older Reuven (amongst other characters that he ably portrays) who sees events in a different perspective, one that puts actions taken and motives (and needs – and failures) in perspective.

There is something deeply, quietly, satisfying about this production, perhaps because you get the sense, as the evening unfolds, that the actors and the production team all found a way to get on the same page, to agree about the “gestalt” of the play. At moments, you might find yourself leaning forward, a physical manifestation of the draw of the play. The story, ultimately, compels such movement, as does the acting.

The Chosen runs through Feb. 14. For tickets or more information call 860-523-5900, X10, or go to

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Feasting on the Famous

Buyer and Cellar -- TheaterWorks -- Thru Feb. 14

Tom Lenk as Alex More

Ever fantasize about someone? You project all of your needs, wants, desires and fears onto that person until they are no loner real, just a figment, or a fulmination, of your imagination. And then your fantasies take over, start drifting down the river of “What if?” Well that, apparently, is what playwright Jonathan Tolins experienced when he came to write “Buyer and Cellar,” directed by Rob Ruggiero, which recently opened at TheaterWorks up in Hartford.

The premise: Barbra Streisand has a subterranean mall of sorts in her home, a collection of “shops” that house a lot of what she has bought based on whim, design or desire. Okay, whatever floats her boat. If you’re rich and so inclined you can fill your swimming pool with champagne.

Now fixate on Barbra, and imagine that you are an out-of-work actor who gets a call from a former lover telling you there’s a job open in Malibu, the nature of which is unclear. You go for an interview and are questioned by, apparently, a somewhat masculine female named Sharon, the dragon at the gates. You get the job, only to find that you have been hired to be a sales person/curator in the “mall,” a mall with no customers save one, who may or may not appear. Oh, but she finally does, and you interact, you get to see the essence of the diva (and be abused by her). Ah, sheer bliss!

Okay, but what really happens in “Buyer and Cellar”? Well, that’s about it. Babs has a basement full of stuff, and actor Alex More (Tom Lenk – who was once involved in slaying vampires for fun and profit), gets to meet her and be abused by her. Trenchant stuff, right?

No. This one-man, one-trick pony show should have been a skit. At just under two hours, it is humorous at moments but ponderous at best and eventually becomes soporific.

Lenk gets to play multiple characters – some he pulls off with aplomb, others remain essential enigmas, chief among them the object of Tolins’ fascination – Barbra.

Let’s start with the good stuff. Alex is alerted about the job in Malibu by Vincent, with whom he has had a tryst or two while working at Disneyland. Vincent is all nervous energy, a poster boy for “Gays Are Us.” Okay, we’ll accept it, and “Vincent,” if nothing else, is certainly vivid, although the gay community may take exception to the characterization.

Then there’s Alex’s boyfriend, Barry. When Lenk channels Barry, which he does several times, the stage comes alive, for “Barry” is not only negatively obsessed with Barbra but worried, now that Alex has the job, that the diva might be attempting to steal his boyfriend. Thus, Barry delivers several soliloquies that can best be described as “Barbra-rants,” analyzing the woman’s career with an intensity that borders on the manic (and making some very fine points along the way).

Things get a little muddy when the playwright turns to Sharon and, of course, the focus of the show, Barbra. Sharon, as portrayed by Lenk, telegraphs her aggressiveness by opening and closing her legs and growling (woman as devourer!). It really isn’t a characterization, more a caricature, and it doesn’t work. And then there is Barbra, and here the evening falls apart, for Lenk gives us a person with a quasi-Brooklyn accent whose only mannerisms are to flick back her hair and stare disdainfully. It gets old very quickly.

And the interactions between the “sales clerk/docent” and the diva? Well, they border on the bizarre, for no apparent reason. One of the focal points is the diva wishing to buy a doll that she already owns. She haggles, she negotiates, she eventually shows up with an obviously bogus discount coupon. The implication is the diva is psychotic, floating on a sea only she can see. There are some laughs to be had here, initially, but the set-up soon becomes abstruse.

The basic problem with “Buyer and Cellar” is that it sets up the premise and then simply goes nowhere. There are no revelations, only snide comments, vague innuendoes and a lot of cheap shots, with some side trips to deal with some gay men’s fixations on soul-tormented female stars. Oh, the agony of it all! Oh, Judy and Maria – where are you when we need you? There are no true, rounded characters – even the actor Alex remains one-dimensional.

Yes, there are laughs along the way, but you come away feeling somehow cheap for having been a part of the evening. Why cheap? Well, the show is really a feeding frenzy, an exercise in “Let’s gobble up Barbra, let’s feast on her.” It’s fun, for the moment (perhaps), but as you drive home you feel diminished, somehow sullied, like back when you were one of the “in-girls” who ganged up on the “nerd” girl in high school, taunted her and teased her, and then, years later, suddenly realized what you had done, and that shouldn’t be what theater is all about.

“Buyer and Cellar” runs through February 14. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to  

Thursday, January 14, 2016

"The Lion" Sings at Night

"The Lion" -- Long Wharf Theater -- Through Feb. 7

Benjamin Scheuer
Fathers and sons – mothers and daughters. There seems to be a natural arc to the relationships. There is an initial bonding, a cleaving, followed, when the children are a certain age, by a pulling away, an antagonism that seems to be built into the species. Fathers stare at sons, mothers stare at daughters, and it is as if they are viewing each other from different planets. Finally, for most, there is a resolution, a re-acquaintance, as it were, on a different level, when sins are forgiven, foibles forgotten and resolution of the relationships occurs. But what if the father or mother passes away before this resolution can occur? Then it falls on the shoulders of the children to work it out for themselves. Such is the stuff of the enthralling “The Lion,” which recently opened at Long Wharf Theatre. It’s a one-man show that, primarily through music, deals with the three stages described above, a touching, heartfelt attempt to fit the pieces back together again, deal with life’s travails, and find peace with self.

Written and performed by a multi-talented Benjamin Scheuer, under the direction of Sean Daniels, the 70-minute show begins with Ben’s father, a mathematician and professor, giving his son a hand-made toy banjo, for Ben’s father is also a guitarist, and he and his young son bond by playing together. Yet all is not idyllic – there are shadows. His father finds fault with Ben for his lack of acumen in math, and when Ben asks his father to teach him to play the guitar “like him,” his father rejects the idea.

Ben’s story unfolds mostly through song, as Scheuer plays several different acoustic guitars and one electric guitar. The actor moves from chair to chair, picking up one guitar after another, and takes the audience through his life: his father’s death, the family’s move to Britain, Ben’s rejection of his family and return to the States, his first love and his battle with cancer.

All the while, it is the guitar – and songwriting – that keeps Ben attached to his father. Sometimes Scheuer sings, sometimes he just talks as he strums melodies, but the overall effect is mesmerizing, and the effect, or multiple effects, are enhanced wonderfully by Ben Stanton’s lighting design – as the mood shifts there are hues of blue, or red, and when Ben is facing his possible death from cancer he is lit by footlights that cast multiple shadows up onto the walls designed by Neil Patel that are reminiscent of those one might find in a cellar coffee house of the 60s.

And what of the show’s title, “The Lion”? Well, when Ben was a child his father would sing him a song about what it meant to be a lion, what was the source of the lion’s essence. Scheuer sings this song, as his father would have, early in the show, and he returns to it for his finale, creating one of the most moving moments in theater I have seen in quite a long time. It’s the same song, but it now carries greater weight, not only for Ben but also the audience, a weight that speaks to both the heart and the soul, and it’s sung with an energy and passion that vibrates throughout the theater. When Scheuer strums the final chord the audience couldn’t wait to leap up and deliver a standing ovation, one of the few that has been truly deserved in the past few seasons.

In an encore, Scheuer, a truly accomplished guitarist and a fine actor, repositions the capo halfway down on the fretboard of his guitar to recreate the sound of that hand-made banjo his father made for him so long ago and reprises the opening song about said banjo. It’s a wonderful moment. Scheuer, now without coat or tie, his shirt open, sleeves rolled up, shoes and socks off, has, over the 70 minutes, bared himself to the audience…and the audience responds. As for the resolution? Well, Ben finally comes to realize that his father didn’t want him to play the guitar “like him,” he wanted “me to play the guitar like me.”

“The Lion” is a wonderful reminder that theater, drama, and storytelling come in many forms. The benchmark is, and always have been, at the final curtain (in this case a blackout), has the audience been moved, has it experienced something that has spoken to its shared humanity? Scheuer’s story is not an uncommon one – perhaps we have all experienced a variation of it. That doesn’t mean it is banal. Scheuer has managed to merge his passion and his pain into a presentation that deals with the essence of being human and the challenges inherent in growing up.

As Scheuer stood to acknowledge the applause, going up on his bare toes, he motioned to the audience and said, “You’re wonderful.” From the audience, several voices cried out, “So are you.” That’s probably the best review of this show.

“The Lion” runs through February 7. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to