Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Devil in Scotland

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart -- Gryphon's Pub at Yale University -- Thru April 3

Jessica Hardwick
Not time for an extended review. Suffice it to say that this is a delightful, magical evening that tells the tale of one Prudencia Hart, a scholar of Scottish ballads and folklore who attends a conference only to find herself snowed-in and ending up in...well, it certainly ain't Kansas.

Performed at Gryphon's Pub at Yale University (204 York Street) by five very talented actors, this is theater as intimate as it can get (made more intimate by the free wee dram of single-malt Scotch available before the start of the show).

The show only runs through this Sunday, April 3, and is presented as part of the upcoming International Festival of Arts & Ideas. For more information or tickets (if they are still available) go to artidea.org/festival#prudencia-hart.

The show is just one hell of a lot of fun, and you will get see a young actress, Jessica Hardwick, who will absolutely mesmerize you. Seeing her performance is worth twice the price of admission.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Sex as Metaphor

Sex With Strangers -- TheaterWorks -- Thru April 17

Courtney Rackley and Patrick Ball. Photo by Lanny Nagler

There’s no doubt about it – sex sells. Yes, indeed. Stand outside TheaterWorks up in Hartford and stare up at the marquee. It’s surprising steam is rising off Emma Mead’s sensual photo of a woman embracing a man. And then there’s the play itself: Sex With Strangers. With a title like that, you just know you’re not going to see a re-staging of I Remember Mama.

 As you walk down the stairs to the theater proper you may feel yourself starting to pant, and not because the stairs are steep. You sense you’re in for one of those evenings that require you be accompanied by an adult. Yes? Well, yes and no. The play’s title and marketing are pitching sex, and there are some steamy scenes in Laura Eason’s play, but Oh! Calcutta! it ain’t. The sex is the wrapping paper Eason has used to deliver an updated version of A Star is Born with just a touch of Educating Rita in this engaging two-person, two-act dramedy that, once we get through the sex, is about the state of the publishing business, the incursion of electronic media into same, writers’ insecurity and the awkwardness inherent in a May-September romance.

Briskly directed by Rob Ruggiero, with some deft set designs by Brian Prather, Sex With Strangers opens with Olivia (Courtney Rackley) nested in an isolated bed and breakfast in Michigan during a blizzard. A teacher and unfulfilled writer, she has come to this sanctuary (she is the only guest) to work on her novel. The sound of an automobile interrupts her editing. Who could it be? Well, it’s Ethan (Patrick Ball), who bursts on the scene with an energy and brusqueness that immediately destroys Olivia’s insular tranquility.

What follows is a set-up that is a bit strained, for Ethan is a blogger turned author with two best-sellers under his belt, both detailing his sexual exploits that, in the process, demean women. Olivia bristles, but at the end of the first scene they are in each other’s arms for the first of several fade-outs that allow the audience to imagine explicit sexual activity. Here’s where you have to suspend your disbelief, for it’s difficult to accept that Olivia, an erudite and self-possessed woman, would succumb so easily to Ethan’s sexual magnetism, which basically consists of “Do you wanna do it?” lines and moves. Buy the foreplay, such as it is, buy the rest of the play.

Yes, most of the scenes in the first act end with the couple coupling on various pieces of furniture, but the sexual interaction quickly becomes secondary to the issues Eason really wants to deal with. The basic conflict is not between male and female, although there is certainly a lot of dialogue dealing with the two genders’ ids and egos, but rather between an insecure author who revels in the smell and feel of a book (Olivia) and a successful author (Ethan) who is comfortable in the world of E-books and apps.

Over the course of the first act, Ethan seduces Olivia in several ways – yes, she willingly succumbs to his sexual overtures but she is more hesitant about his suggestions that she enter and embrace the 21st-century’s somewhat fractionated publishing world. She finally agrees to have her first book, which received mixed reviews and enjoyed limited sales when first published, be rejuvenated in electronic form.

Oddly enough, much of the heat generated by Sex With Strangers (also the title of Ethan’s first book) has little to do with the two characters’ sexual passions but rather with their confrontations over ethics and the nature of a writer’s relationship to his or her work. In either case, Rackley and Ball handle the multiple mating dances with a great deal of style and flair. Both actors, under Ruggiero’s tutelage, know how to deliver a laugh line, and when their characters are in full-tilt confrontation they bite into each other’s lines like two predators vying to see who will dominate and devour the prey.

Sex With Strangers could easily have been titled Naked, a word that could be interpreted in several ways. Yes, sexual relations are primarily carried out when the participants involved are naked, but Eason is also dealing with the loss of privacy that comes as a concomitant to immersion in the world of texts, twitters and blogs, which often leads to a redefining of the word “rape.” Eason asks the audience to consider what someone must give up when he or she enters the somewhat anarchic world of the Internet. What is real? What is manufactured? As we cede more of who we are to whom we appear to be when we are “Googled,” does the person become the electronic persona? In essence, is fame and fortune, as determined and dictated by the Internet, a Mephistophelean bargain?

 Yes, Sex with Strangers is being promoted with SEX all in caps. That might be a wise or foolhardy decision. Those hoping simply to ogle naked bodies will be disappointed, but those who wish to be engaged by ideas that demand we assess what we have lost and what we have gained as the electronic media has become ascendant will be more than satisfied. In essence, the play is really not about SEX, it’s about SOUL.

Sex With Strangers runs through April 17. For tickets or more information call 860-527-7838 or go to www.theaterworkshartford.org

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Letting Go of the Ones We Love

The Outgoing Tide -- Square One Theatre Company -- Thru March 20

Damian Long, Al Kulcsar and Peggy Nelson

The last time tears rose while I was watching a play was several years ago during the final moments of Ivoryton’s superb production of The Miracle Worker. It doesn’t happen often – after all, I’m a gruff, cynical critic – but it happened again as I watched the closing scenes in Bruce Graham’s The Outgoing Tide¸ currently on the boards at Square One Theatre Company in Stratford. It has been said, though it may be apocryphal, that when President Lincoln finished delivering his Gettysburg Address there was utter silence, not because of disinterest but because what he had said was so moving. Such is the case with the audience response immediately after the final blackout of this lovely, touching, superbly acted production directed by Tom Holehan. Silence….that speaks volumes.

The setting is a home nestled on the Chesapeake Bay, the home of the Concannons: Gunner (Al Kulscar), his wife, Peg (Peggy Nelson), and their visiting son, Jack (Damian Long). The opening scene has the two men sitting on a dock as Gunner, plying a fishing rod, speaks about his son. Since the audience does not yet know the relationship between the two men, it seems as if Gunner is talking to a friend as he finds fault with the life his son has chosen. It is only with Peg’s entrance that we realize that Gunner, suffering from initial stages of dementia, has, unaware, been speaking to his own son. It is a chilling realization.

Damian Long and Al Kulcsar
On a minimal stage designed by Greg Fairbend, Frank Fartely and Robert Mastroni, what unfolds in this two-act drama is a peeling away of relationships to reveal what is at their core. There is the present, as Gunner battles the closing darkness, Peg tries to deal with the dementia, and Jack seeks to understand his relationship to his father and mother, and a series artfully staged flashbacks that reveal the seeds of what would become a tangled garden of emotions, all punctuated by several tropes that include pancakes and skipping stones across water.

There’s a certain Death of a Salesman feel to this play, for Gunner, in his sane moments, is obsessed with leaving a legacy and making amends for actual and perceived sins. As Gunner, Kulcsar is simply superb. He not only creates a Gunner as he was but creates a Gunner falling to pieces, and in those moments when he realizes what is happening to him he rages against the night that is about to descend. It’s a mesmerizing, complete performance. At times he rages, Lear-like, and at others he is haunted, and yet, especially in the flash-backs, we also see the man who fell in love with the woman he dubs his Grace Kelly. It is a poignant, perceptive, complete performance.

Not to be outdone, Nelson offers us a woman whose dreams were put on hold when she met Gunner, a woman who has dedicated herself to the nurturing of a family that is now disintegrating. Where Gunner is given to somewhat caustic jokes that seem funny but bear a sting, Peg is overly protective, raising Jack with a series of warning about boys who did this or that and had to suffer the consequences.

Peggy Noonan and Al Kulcsar
Long, as Jack, is a middle-aged man going through a divorce who has yet to resolve his relationship with his parents. He is a product of the mailed fist of his father and the over-protectiveness of his mother, and in this visit he simply, at first, doesn’t know how to respond to what is revealed about his parents’ relationship and his father’s dementia.

It would be a spoiler to reveal what is the driving force behind the rising action of the play and its climax, but it raises questions about the quality of life and the process of letting go. Since we easily come to care about these three people, the play’s final moments cannot help but move you on several levels. It is capped by a simple wave of goodbye. It is a gesture that speaks to the heart and the soul.

Watching and responding to The Outgoing Tide confirms why we go to the theater. We want to be swept away; we want to be moved; we want to come away understanding a bit more about the human comedy. This outstanding production, with its superb cast, satisfies on all levels. You don’t need million-dollar sets, you don’t need flashy costumes, you don’t need eye-boggling special effects. What you need are actors who create characters who draw you into their world and make you care. And, at least for one audience member, make you cry.


The Outgoing Tide runs through March 20. For tickets or more information call 203-375-8778 or online at www.squareonetheatre.com.   

A Spike in the Cherry Orchard

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike -- MTC Mainstage -- Thru March 13

Jodi Stevens and Christopher DeRosa. Photo by Joe Landry
Take a good helping of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters and Uncle Vanya and mix in some contemporary soap opera clich├ęs, a dash of TV sitcoms and Disney’s Snow White and what do you get? Well, you get Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the comedy by Christopher Durang that won both the Tony and the Outer Critics Circle awards for best play and is now playing at MTC Mainstage in Norwalk. So, should you rush out and buy the complete works of Chekhov so you can appreciate the play? Not necessary. You may miss some of the in-jokes, but there’s enough there that has nothing to do with the Chekhovian oeuvre to satisfy the most ardent Russophobe. Whether you will be entranced and intrigued remains to be seen, for the production, as directed by Pamela Hill, is somewhat uneven – there are many moments when it comes to life and entrances, and there are many moments when things just seem to drag.

The situation, drawn from several of Chekhov’s plays, finds Sonia (Cynthia Hannah) and her brother, Vanya (Jim Schilling), living a rather dull, secluded life in their Bucks County home (so far away from Moscow!). Their primary contact with the outside world consists of visits by Cassandra (Katie Sparer), a cleaning lady given to making oracular pronouncements (hence the name). Their quotidian existence is disrupted by the arrival of their sister, Masha (Jodie Stevens), a much-married star of stage and screen, and her latest boy-toy, Spike (Christopher DeRosa). It seems that Masha has been supporting her siblings for many years and, given her flagging career, is eager to sell the house, which includes a stand of cherry trees. Into the mix comes Nina (Carissa Massaro), an erstwhile actress who is visiting the next-door neighbors. Spike is young and attractive; Nina is young and vivacious. Masha immediately becomes jealous.

The obligatory exposition early in the first act is delivered by Vanya and Sonia, and it is delivered at a snail’s pace. Yes, the characters they are playing lead humdrum lives; the problem is they deliver their lines in a somewhat humdrum manner. There’s little or no life. Then Cassandra bursts on the scene as if she is one of the weird sisters in Macbeth on LSD. Over-the-top from her first entrance, Sparer really has no where to go with her character.

Enter Stevens as Masha, with Spike in tow, and the production suddenly comes into sharper focus. She is the quintessential bitch goddess, and Stevens pulls this off with a great deal of style, flare and, well, bitchiness. For the rest of the evening, she will singlehandedly, with two exceptions, drive the production.

The exceptions occur in the second act. The first is Hannah’s extended monologue when he character, Sonia, is on the phone with a man she met at a costume party the previous evening. He is asking her out on a date. She is flummoxed, she is unsure, she doesn’t know how to react, other than to admit that the Maggie Smith accent she used at the party is not really her’s. It’s a subtle, deft piece of acting, one that requires she convey what her gentleman caller is saying even though we never hear his voice.

The second exception occurs fairly late in the second act when Nina reads from a play Vanya has written. Massaro plays a molecule, and she is an absolute delight as she spins, leaps and conveys subtle and not-so-subtle molecular emotions.

Perhaps the role with the biggest challenge is that of Spike, for, as written, he is little more than a somewhat witless piece of well-muscled meat. DeRosa poses, preens, flexes and grins a lot. Playwright Durang hasn’t given Spike much to work with, but DeRosa does what he can to give dimension to what is essentially a cardboard character. 

And then we get to what might be considered the climax of the play, which consists of a monologue by Vanya after he sees Spike on his cell phone while Nina is performing Vanya’s play. It’s a “those were the days” set-piece, and it should convey all of the anger, fear and frustration that Vanya has repressed. Alas, it doesn’t. It’s delivered almost in a monotone, sans brio.

Though the rhythm of the production is uneven, Hill has done a fine job blocking the actors in a venue that is essentially a black box with thrust stage. Yes, it’s inevitable that some lines are delivered with the actors’ backs to part of the audience, but Hill shows a good sense of how to use this space, especially in the play-within-a-play sequence in the second act, for she positions her actors so that we are focused on the characters we are supposed to be focused on.

In all, Vanya is an enjoyable evening of theater that needs just a bit more juice.


Vanya runs through March 13. For tickets or more information call 203-454-3883 or go to www.musictheatreofct.com